Vanity/Hybrid Publishing…Why do people use them?

As you probably deduced from the subject of this post, I am not a fan of these two “publishing” methods. I can at least understand the appeal of a hybrid publisher, but as I learned more about vanity publishers, I become confused as to why anyone would give them the time of day. Yet, so many still do.

For the record, I have never attempted to go with either types of publishing, but I do know many people who have. So a lot of my information has been fed directly from those people. (and most of it is not good) and then of course I will have some thoughts of my own on the matter, as an outsider looking in.

If you’re an indie author, chances are you know what these two publishing choices are. Just in case, however, I’ve summarized them below:

Vanity Publisher: 

A non-traditional publishing house that requires the clients (ie the authors) to absorb all of the financial risk of publishing by having the author pay a sizable fee in order to have their books published. The publisher then retains the rights of the book, controls pricing, marketing plans, etc. In theory, they operate like a normal publishing house with two very significant exceptions. The publisher doesn’t pay the author money up front, it’s the other way around. And then (and equally as bad, IMO) once the book has been published, there’s almost no incentive to the publisher to push the book, as they’ve already gotten their slice of the pie.

 

Hybrid Publisher:

This is a slightly more reasonable/fair approach in which the publisher does not require any money from the author, but also does not offer advances or anything of the sort to the author, either. A good hybrid publisher (like the now defunct Booktrope) will have a team of editors, formatters, cover designers/artists, and marketing/project managers. All in all it sounds reasonable, but the two biggest problems here are: you will earn practically pennies on the dollar in royalties. And most of these hybrid publishers are just random folks working out of their basement with no real long-term game plan in mind. Many of them are too small to have all of their bases covered. For example, one publisher I saw would only format book covers, leaving the author responsible to either design/execute on their own cover, or hire someone else to do it. Doesn’t exactly give me a lot of confidence that that publisher is serious about my book climbing to the top. Most hybrid publishers also lack the professional/business connections to have books in their catalog reach audiences outside the standard indie market. Meaning, you’re not likely going to see your books in Barnes and Noble anytime soon.

 

Now it’s time for my rant: why would anyone do this? I’ll again address each method with a few comments based on things I’ve heard from those who have been through the process, as well as my own views.

So, why do people go with vanity publishing? There are only two reasons that I can think of: Vanity or ignorance.

Vanity seems like a cop out explanation, but it’s true. I know people who just like to say “I’ve signed with…” on their social media. I suppose it makes them feel successful, and I do get the excitement in sharing news like that. It would be an amazing day to tell all your friends and family that you’re now a real-deal published author (unlike those amateur indie folk). But the fact is, you are no more “published” than an indie author who just clicked publish on Amazon for the first time. Actually, since you’re starting probably anywhere from $8,000-$15,000 in the hole, that indie author will start accumulating royalties on day one, whereas you’ll be replenishing your savings account or paying off a credit card with yours. So who’s the real winner in this equation?

Ignorance isn’t intended to be used in a derogatory manner here. I mean it literally. Many people are just uninformed that vanity publishing is a scheme, through and through. Besides the aforementioned group, the success of a vanity publisher rides on people who have written a story, but have little to no knowledge on how to go about publishing it. I imagine many of these people get enticed by the sleek websites, promises of their their book being in stores, and being told that only the best of the best are accepted—making it all the more flattering when they get that congratulatory letter from the brilliant editing team at said publisher. “Now, if you would just send us fifteen grand, we’ll edit your manuscript, throw our logo on the spine, and get it out the door.”

While vanity publishers tend to have more connections in the book world than the hybrid publishers do, I suspect that there isn’t a whole lot that they do that a motivated indie author couldn’t accomplish.

So is vanity publishing something you should do? NO!

At the end of the day: if your publisher wants you to pay them money, then flee. If any money is forked over before release, it’s going to be on the publisher’s end, not the author’s. Vanity publishing is never a good idea, and I would never, under any circumstances, recommend doing it unless you really just have so much money that you’re just looking for an excuse to waste it. In which case, I have a plot of land for sale on the moon.

 

What about hybrid?

I would say that if you find the right hybrid publisher, it isn’t necessarily a terrible idea. But even the more successful ones have started to go belly up. And several authors I have talked to who have been with some of these better ones still voiced frustration over the difficulty they had getting things done to their quality standard, or getting the company to pay an appropriate amount of attention to their books. One author in particular, who also had good things to say about the experience, told me he felt like he had been granted a second chance when he found out the company was closing down. He told me while he learned a lot of valuable things from the experience, he would not fall into that trap again, and would stay indie from now on.

More often than not, I think authors go this route because they are lazy. *Dodges half-full beer bottle and several tomatoes* The reason I say that is that hybrid publishers almost never have connections or inside tracks that indie authors don’t also have access to. They go through the same channels that you would if you published the title yourself. They use the same POD (Print on Demand) services that you would use, and they use most of the same marketing tactics that you would. And yet, you are getting royalty scraps from each purchase. Many of these publishers also feel that “wide” is the only way to go, preventing you from capitalizing off of Kindle Unlimited subscribers reading your book. You’re also locked into a contract for likely three, up to five, years. So if you aren’t happy with the results, TS.

I understand in some cases authors really just want to have a professional looking package (editing, quality cover art, etc) and can’t afford to front that kind of money. I get that. But I think it’s safe to say that you could get your book edited with a very decent looking cover for under $1,000. Many of us are willing to invest that kind of money in other hobbies/business ventures, but suddenly become Scrooges when it comes to our passion of writing. Yet, if you go down this road, when you release your book, every penny of royalty goes straight to you (well, you and Uncle Sam on April 15th, but that’s a whole different problem). It’s not fun to dish out money up front, but it will be much better in the long run.

At the end of the day: if all you want to do is write and not deal with anything else, then hybrid publishing might be an okay options for you. Just know that you’re going to get a fraction of the royalties you earned, will have little control over the process, and may end up causing your work to be less visible or appealing than if you had done it yourself. Because, who is going to be more excited to spread the word about a novel than the person who wrote it?

 

Some people would say that writing a book is the hard part. I vehemently disagree. At best, it’s a 50/50 split. Finishing your manuscript is a monumental milestone that you should celebrate, but the battle is far from over at that point. And if you want to have a chance at success without losing a lot of money (either up front with a vanity publisher or through lost royalties) then you better plan on working your butt off after typing ‘The End’

/End Rant

AJ

 

The long, exhausting journey of being an indie author

In 2011, I was walking out of the grocery store and had a phrase come to mind. As the automatic doors scooted out of my way I thought to myself, Man, that would be a really cool title for a book. Almost as soon as the title formed, I thought of the perfect ending. When I got home, I told my wife about my new-found desire to write. She was supportive, but I can’t even imagine what she was thinking when I told her that. As an artist in the video game industry, I enjoyed telling stories through my craft, but I had never shown much interest in writing before. But with this random idea of being an author consuming me, I got straight to work.

After about a month, Loose Ends—which, due to my incredible memory, was not the name I thought of in the grocery store—was a complete 20k novella. And so began my voyage into the world of writing. I had no idea on how to publish anything, but I knew everyday folks like me posted their work on Amazon.  They even seemed to be making some money while doing it.

The book itself did not fly on its own, and I ended up unpublishing it later on. While the book’s success did not turn out like I had hoped, the foundation was laid in several ways for me to continue on this journey as an author.

First Success: I started writing

It seems like such a trivial point, but in order to be an author, one must write. But believe it or not, this is the first obstacle a writer must overcome. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met (especially in a creative field like video game development) where someone heard about As the Ash Fell releasing and then said “That sounds like a lot of fun. I have so many ideas for books I’d like to write.” Usually, I respond with, “Why haven’t you written them?” They would often give me a bewildered look and say “I don’t know where I’d even start.” I return the look of bewilderment and reply with, “A blank Word document.” Don’t get me wrong, the blank white screen staring at me…judging me…Well, it’s one of the most daunting sights for a writer. But if you don’t start writing, you’ll never be an author. Period. So when I set out to write Loose Ends, I didn’t overthink it. I wasn’t worried about the success/wealth from writing (those thoughts crept in as I worked on launching the book). I just focused on writing because it was enjoyable.

Second Success: Networking

One of the greatest successes I had in launching my first (unsuccessful) book was the people I met online. I didn’t have the slightest clue how to go about publishing a book. I knew Amazon was the way, but there wasn’t quite the same amount of “How-Tos” and video tutorials on publishing as an independent author as there is today. This forced me to start talking to other people who had already been there and done that. I went on Twitter and started meeting folks left and right, and friendships quickly developed beyond a shared hoped for indie author success.  I still regularly talk to many of those fine people today. We help each other out, let each other vent in private (when public venting would not be appropriate or professional) and give advice on the things that were successful, and the things that were not. Indie authors can only benefit when they stick together. To quote my friend Michael Hicks from his book The Path to Self Publishing Success “It’s not about competition, it’s about coalition.” We work together to help each other. We cheer each other on as there is success, and encourage one another when there is failure. I am quite sure I wouldn’t have been able to continue my writing if it weren’t for the awesome folks I’ve met along this journey.

Third Success: Improvement

As I mentioned, Loose Ends did not turn out to be the big hit I thought it was in my head. I haven’t read it in years, and I may read it here shortly just for grins, but I know it had a lot of major flaws. My friends and family who read it were kind and said they enjoyed it—that it was a great first book…While there may have been sincerity in their words, they saw things with rose colored glasses. They weren’t going to be the ones to let me know my writing had failed in more ways than it succeeded. This made the sting of my first critical review (one that went into great detail about my flaws) hurt all the more. Though it negatively impacted me for a while (more on that in a minute), it did finally give me the necessary kick in the butt to improve my writing.

First Failure: I stopped writing

As I mentioned above, the first critical review I received hit me hard. The false sense of skill I had based on friend/family reviews made me think I was this awesome writer when in fact I was probably pretty terrible. I’ll still make an argument that I am not that good, but I at least know that I am better than I was before. But as a result of this, I stopped writing while in the middle of a manuscript for my first novel. I was already feeling a bit unsure about what I had written, and then I got notified about that review; I was deflated. I lost hope in ever being a good enough author to be successful, so I pushed it aside. Admittedly, with my daughter being born in June of 2012 I did have a legitimate excuse to cut back on my writing, but it was still an excuse. Had I not quit, I would have more books completed and I would have grown exponentially in my skill.

Second Failure: The money didn’t pour in

The subtitle above isn’t really accurate. The lack of money does not equate to failure, but rather my expectations failed me. I went into this thinking that I was going to make megabucks within hours of my book going live. This was right in the thick of Amanda Hocking’s incredible success, and I thought, if she can do it, so can I! And while that is still very much true, she also has been writing much longer than me, had many more books out, and was working in a genre that was very popular at the time. She put in countless hours of hard work, exercised her creative muscles, and as a result, she had huge success. I wrote and released 17,000 mediocre words for 99 cents, and became discouraged that I wasn’t already driving around a Lamborghini. My naiveté had convinced me that after one book, if I wasn’t raking in the dough then I would never be able to do it. And that line of thinking was a big failure.

Third Failure: I stopped writing, again

In May of last year, I was able to finish and launch my first full length novel, As the Ash FellThe launch was a massive success (for me), and the book has received a lot of high marks. I’ve personally always enjoyed the post-apocalyptic world, but I also wanted to tell a story that wasn’t your typical zombie story either (note: the book has no zombies in it). The book is long; over 100k words longer than Loose Ends. It was a gigantic undertaking for me, for my wife (who was one of the editors), and all the other folks that helped me along the way. And so I was overwhelmed with the positives to come out from the release. I had prepared hard to market the book when it came out, and that I would shoulder that marketing blitz for a while after launch. I did, and it has been profitable. But, as a result of focusing a lot of time and energy on promoting the first book, I had stopped writing the sequel. Again, to be fair, I have had a lot of life changes happen that has caused legitimate distractions (self-employment, another child, time for my family, etc), but I still managed to find a lot of time in the day to tell other people about Ash. While this isn’t a bad thing, if I am only telling people about Ash, and not working on a new book, then my success will be very limited. The more books I get out there, the more marketing they will do for me. And that turns into a big time saver.

Conclusion:

I have learned a LOT over the past several years—both when I was actively writing as well as a mere observer as my friends continued to write, edit and release their books. I have grown wiser and have learned and understand that success almost never comes overnight. With rare exceptions will you be fortunate enough to write a single book that skyrockets you to the top of the charts and allows you to quit your day job. Not because your book doesn’t have the potential necessarily, but because in a sea of screaming, hungry authors, you’re fighting for the attention of every single reader that sails by. And even though there are tens of millions of e-readers out there, you are asking someone to spend their hard-earned money on your book. You’re asking them to trust an author they may know nothing about, to give you money in exchange for a story. It’s more challenging than I originally thought, and is only getting harder.

And now, as I am preparing to cross a pretty big sales milestone for me (nothing that will have me writing full time anytime soon, I assure you), I realize that this long, exhausting road will pay off down the line. It might not come as quickly as I would like (or maybe not even in the same way I expect) but I know that the more I write, the more I enjoy it. And if I can discipline myself to sit down and just do it more regularly, it’ll probably pay off sooner than my adjusted expectations.

Keep writing! Use negative/critical reviews as fuel to improve your craft. Read lots of books, and I also suggest finding some helpful books about writing itself, as well as the marketing/publishing side. And make sure you find yourself a nice support group of like-minded authors. Having honest, even downright brutal critiques is always the way to go.

AJ

Kindle Unlimited 2.0—Fair? Or Conniving Plan?

At the beginning of the month Amazon switched over to what many authors are referring to as Kindle Unlimited 2.0 or (KU 2.0). The change was simple, but significant: instead of a flat royalty rate when someone borrows your book, you now get royalties for every page of your book that is read. See? Simple. But also significant.

I admit, when I received the e-mail alerting me to this new plan I was very skeptical at first. Even though I was only making about half the amount on a borrow as I would on a sale, it was still nice that this was a guaranteed royalty rate(so long as the reader made it past the sample 10% of the book). So when I saw they were changing it to be pages read, I got nervous. With the old plan, if someone borrows my book, but doesn’t like it, I still made the money on it. But now, if someone borrows my book and reads only a few pages before tossing it, I might get a couple pennies. This would drastically change my royalties earned being enrolled in KDP Select, which made me decide that I was not going to re-enroll in the program for another 90 days. But then the strangest thing happened—I stepped back, looked at this change after my knee-jerk response had settled, and realized it’s actually not only fair, but if my books are good then it has the potential to pay far better than the old plan.

Though I was skeptical of KU 2.0 after reading the email, I think I really got jaded after I saw the reaction from many in the indie author community. A reaction that seemed to be filled with nothing but moans and groans about how Amazon was screwing them over again. It was then I realized how we were complaining about the very company that made it possible for authors of all types of skill sets and stories to actually get their work in front of readers. When I started looking at it that way, I was shocked (and still am) at how much some folks complain about Amazon. How Amazon doesn’t care about indie authors, how they are greedy, conniving, yadda yadda yadda. These people have already seem to have forgotten that Amazon has not only given us all publishing deals (deals far more favorable than most traditional publishing deals), but that they are the pioneers for this indie author boom we live in. Without Amazon, many of us would have a lot of words written in a file that is collecting digital dust for no one to enjoy. So to those people, I say show a little appreciation for what Amazon has done, and stop expecting them to just give you more. Which leads me to this stunning realization…

Amazon is giving indie authors more! But there’s a caveat—you have to give more. The people pitching the biggest fits (at least from what I observed) were those who have quite a few short stories published, many of which were listed at 99 cents, and taking advantage of the blanketed borrow royalty. Weren’t we just talking about conniving? Time to do some math (don’t worry, it’s not too hard).

When you list a book at 99 cents on Amazon, you earn about 35 cents per sale. However, under the old KU plan, all borrowed books, regardless of sale price or length, earned the same amount or royalty. Amazon KDP select has a pot of money each month (KDP Select Global Fund), and the amount of borrowed books was divided up against that pot. The average was around $1.35 per borrow. That meant a book that would normally yield the author 35 cents per sale (if listed at 99 cents) would make them a dollar more if it was borrowed. And since the only requirement to earn a borrow royalty was for the reader to get past the sample 10%, this method was quite effective for books that were 40-50 pages long (meaning the reader just needed to get through 4-5 pages in order to earn the author the $1.35). Do you see where this starts to become a little lopsided for novelists? So someone who writes a 40 page short story or novella in a month or less would earn the same amount my nearly 700 page book, As the Ash Fell, would earn on a borrow. But all of that has changed. Now, if the estimates are accurate, and Amazon will pay $.005 per page read (that’s a half a penny), then my book would earn $3.5 for a borrow that someone reads cover to cover, while that 50 page book would earn a quarter. So, as I said, a simple, but significant change in how things work.

My biggest worry about this, in terms of negative impact, is: what if my book stinks, and every time it gets borrowed only a few pages are being read? Well, if that’s the case then I have bigger problems to worry about. If people are buying/borrowing my book, but not reading it, then fixing that issue is my biggest priority as a writer. Thus far, I have been pleased with the results from the KU page count on As the Ash Fell—in fact, it’s trending to exceed my expectations by nearly double this month. The only thing I wish Amazon would add (and perhaps it’s in there somewhere and I haven’t found it yet) is to let me know how many people make up my total pages read, so I can know how many people finished the book versus how many people stopped halfway through, etc.

Another benefit to KDP select, which hasn’t changed recently, is the Kindle Countdown deal or free giveaway. I recently ran a countdown in the US that ran for a week. And in that week alone I had more sales than my first month total, and darn near cracked the top 100 in Post-Apocalyptic genre (which is no easy task).

So, for the people fussing about Amazon not caring about the indie authors, I would fully disagree. In fact, to me it sounds like they are looking out for the indie authors, keeping things balanced with the people who were capitalizing off of the flat borrow rate from before. They’ve honestly created a platform that has the potential to get out as much as you put in. That’s about as fair as it gets.

So to summarize: write good (ugh, my wife/editor is going to kill me for that one), write long (whether you take a year and write one longer novel, or crank out 10 short stories), do your best to let the world know about your book, and KU 2.0 will benefit you. On the flip side, if you write the literary equivalent of click bait that is only a few dozen pages, it may not pan out so well.

So if you decided not to enroll in KDP select so that your book will be available to other folks like Nook, iBooks, etc, then I salute you—may your book do extremely well on those other platforms. To those who do it just to “get back” at Amazon for making things “so terribly unfair”, I say “Thanks for making the KDP global fund a little bit bigger for the rest of us.”

I will now go hide and wait out the inevitable assault from those I have angered with this post.