Tuesday, December 22, 2009

What self-publishing is--and what it isn't...revisited

I received an email over the weekend, requesting that SPR get in touch with GLAWS (Greater Los Angeles Writers Society--http://www.glaws.org/). Apparently, the group had a meeting on self-publishing a while back, and they had people from iUniverse, AuthorHouse, and Xlibris there.

Here's a little bit of what the email said: "I almost fell down. I kindly mentioned that a lot of people don't consider authors going through those POD companies to be self-publishers. While keeping it simple, I mentioned a few of the reasons why, and the difference between them and digital printing and CreateSpace and offset printing and fulfillment companies vs. distribution companies and wholesalers. I'm not sure how much he understood. I told him that Xlibris, AuthorHouse, and iUniverse are rip-offs for authors, and that athours should not settle for not owning their ISBNs."

Unlike the writer of the email, I am not shocked at all. Based on what I see online daily, there is still a HUGE misunderstanding as to what constitutes "true" self-publishing. In yet another attempt to clarify the differences in publishing options--I am one of many who is trying to educated people--let me explain what means what.

Traditional Publishers
An author who signs a contract with a traditional publisher usually receives an advance of a few thousand dollars against future royalties. The publisher owns the ISBN, but the copyright is in the author’s name. The publisher pays for and makes decisions about editing, cover, size, price, and production. Sales channels generally include book wholesalers and retailers, as well as inclusion in the company’s catalog. Authors are expected to do a good deal of book promotion and publicity—although they are often not aware of this until it’s too late.

True self-publishing authors assume all responsibility for all aspects of their books—and they keep 100 percent of the profits. They also own their book’s ISBN and copyright; they pay for and make decisions about editing, cover, size, price, and printing, and they can use a wide variety of sales channels, including the Internet as well as all routes available to traditional publishers. Self-publishers know up front that they will be responsible for marketing, promotions, and publicity. Self-published books that sell extremely well may be noticed by traditional publishers, who might want to buy the rights from the author/publisher. (This has been the case with four of Marilyn Ross’s self-published titles. Marilyn is the founder of SPR and my co-author of The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing, 5th Edition--one of the titles that was picked up by a traditional publisher.)

POD “Self-Publishers”—Another Twist
Today there is a popular player on the field—a hybrid of the typical “subsidy” press and POD. These companies call themselves “self-publishing companies” or “POD self-publishers,” and they offer more choices to authors at better prices than the typical subsidy companies. They might advertise that customers can use their own cover designs or set their own price. And they are usually inexpensive. What that means, unfortunately, is that they frequently attract bottom-of-the-barrel literary talent. Plus, with such low up-front investment, the authors themselves dive in head first, often without professional editing, typesetting, and cover design. Although these hybrids sometimes offer these services, they may be less than satisfactory. The result of this low-cost approach is frequently a poor quality book that sells few copies.

Typically, these companies issue one of their own ISBNs for your book. With this approach to POD, you are not the publisher. (There goes that control we wanted.)

The reality is that many of these companies are vanity publishers calling themselves “self-publishing” or “self-publishing POD” companies. In reality, though, they are often trading on the good name of self-publishing to make their companies appear to be a legitimate option for authors.

If you decide to go the route of one of these POD outfits, do your research! And keep in mind that since the digital landscape changes so rapidly, you should consult current Web sites of any companies that interest you. Also read industry magazines and newsletters to find out about new firms that have hung out their virtual shingles.

It’s also worth noting here that there are many digital (POD) printing companies that offer excellent service, prices, and quality. They should start calling themselves what they truly are: book printers.

Is POD “self-publishing” ever a good idea? Absolutely! Suppose you have no time or inclination to go the self-publishing route, yet have a book of poems you want to distribute to friends or relatives at Christmas. Or perhaps a beloved family member just died, and you want to preserve her writing for posterity. Maybe you’ve just finished tracing your ancestry and choose to distribute these genealogical findings to a wide circle of relatives. These circumstances, and any others where profit is not your motive, might be justification for subsidy publishing.
Subsidy/Vanity Publishers
A subsidy publisher (which was more frequently called a “vanity” publisher in the past) takes payment from the author to print and bind a book. With subsidy publishers, it’s the writer’s cash, not the quality of his or her work, that counts. They publish anyone who can pay. Typically, they provide little or no book editing, marketing/promotion, or warehousing services. It has become more and more common in the past couple years for these subsidy presses to refer to themselves as a “self-publishing company.”

Their use of the term “self-publisher,” which they and their authors are not, is misleading at best and dishonest at worst. They are even so bold as to imply that authors have only two choices: publish with a traditional house or “self-publish” with a subsidy publisher. Self-publishing your own book implies that you, yourself, are the publisher. If you use a subsidy press, they are the book publishing company, not you. They are a book publisher for hire, not a self-publishing company.

Authors who are “accepted” by subsidy publishers—and 99.9 percent of them are as long as they have the cash—pay to have these companies publish their books and get royalties on copies sold. The publisher owns the ISBN, although the author retains the copyright. The author pays for all steps in the publishing process, but the publisher makes most or all of the decisions on editing, cover, size, price, and production of the book. Sales channels are usually limited to the Web since these books are generally ignored by reviewers and others in the book trade. Authors must do their own promotion and publicity. Since they make money up front, subsidy publishers take no risks, and they have no incentive to design an outstanding book or fix typos or other problems. They likely print very few copies and stamp their company imprint on your book.

If you have visions of your book becoming the next bestseller—or if you’d simply be satisfied just turning a modest profit—a subsidy publisher may not be your best route. Books printed by subsidy presses rarely make it into bookstores. If your book does make it into a bookstore, you may find that it is not shelved in your intended genre, but rather, it has been placed in a catch-all category called “local authors.” Potential buyers often ignore this category because they perceive these books as being inferior in overall quality, which they sometimes are.

Review copies of books sent to columnists by subsidy publishers generally go directly into the trash can. Reviewers realize that very little editing has likely been done, and they also know that promotional efforts will be practically nonexistent and the book will not be available through the usual book distribution channels. A subsidy publisher’s name on a book is pretty much the kiss of death.

When you choose a subsidy publishing company, there is another issue to consider: Since they own the ISBN for your book, they usually set the price. They literally will tell you what to charge for your own book! This is more than a loss of control—it can even damage the sales of the book if they set the price too high or too low. Once an ISBN is set and printed on the back cover, and embedded in bar code, it’s almost impossible to change.

An ISBN is to a book what your Social Security number is to you. It’s your ID in the world. Consequently, all orders and inquiries will go to them. They are also listed as the publisher of record in Books In Print.

Why would this matter? Let’s take a few hypothetical situations: What if a book club discovers your book, loves it, and wants to adopt it for an alternate selection? The club will contact your Internet publisher who can’t handle the deep discounts needed and thus has no financial stake in such a transaction. What do you think will happen? Zip. Zero. Nada. Suppose a corporation is interested in purchasing 1,000 copies of your book, contacts the Internet publisher, but is turned off by the high cost of the books. You never hear about it. What if a distributor wants to take it on, but finds the economics aren’t feasible? Tough luck. Any of these scenarios can cost you thousands of dollars.

Authors choosing subsidy publishing really need to do their homework to make sure they understand exactly what they are signing. But if you intend to make money selling your book, and if you want value for your money as well as a credible product, true self-publishing is likely the best way to go. If you do self-publish, ensure your book’s quality by working with a reputable self-publishing company. Doing anything less can be a costly and career-threatening mistake.

(Excerpted from The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing, 5th Edition, by Marilyn Ross and Sue Collier. Coming in summer 2010 from Writer's Digest Books. For more information, contact sue@SelfPublishingResources.com; 720-344-4388.)

Monday, December 14, 2009

What is a book shepherd? And do you need one for self-publishing?

If you’re an author with a book ready for publication and you’ve looked into self-publishing, and it’s probably become pretty clear there is a lot more involved than just sending your manuscript to a printer and kicking back to wait for the money to start rolling in. In fact, the process is downright complicated—and somewhat frightening.

Fortunately for the novice self-publisher, there are publication consultants who can guide you through each phase of the complicated publishing process. There are advantages to using a “book shepherd” (so dubbed, I believe, by one of the original self-publishing gurus Dan Poynter)—one of which is that it can save you a lot of money in the long run. A book shepherd can keep you from making some of the typical rookie mistakes. Look at it this way: You can spend years learning the self-publishing business on your own, or you can hire an expert to help you navigate the process.

There are different types of book shepherds. Some offer advice on the many aspects of publishing, referring you to experts for the areas they don’t handle. Others provide turnkey service, taking care of filing the necessary forms, manuscript editing, interior and cover design, printer brokering , and overall project management. Others, like us at Self-Publishing Resources, offer either turnkey service or hourly consulting if you want to do-it-yourself.

Working with a good book shepherd can also greatly increase your chances for publishing success. Planning ahead is extremely important, and something that is not always considered. Often, authors jump in to self-publishing without a lot of forethought. A self-publishing venture is a business enterprise, and it should be treated as such. There are myriad decisions to be made, including book title, cover design, printing options, price, just to name a few. And all can have a huge impact on whether or not your self-publishing undertaking will be successful.

There are well over 100,000 book published each year. You can’t wait until after your book is printed to think about marketing and promotions. And even the most well-written, beautifully designed book in the world isn’t going to sell if no one knows about it. Book shepherds can offer advice in this arena as well, often suggesting options for selling your book you had never considered.

The bottom line is that a good book shepherd can save you time, money, and stress, and will give you a much greater chance for self-publishing success.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Mini-tutorial on writing: part three

As an editor and writing coach, I run across the same grammatical issues over and over again. With the help of a colleague (thanks, Jack!), I’ve assembled this “writing tutorial,” which addresses some of these. This information, presented in alphabetical order, should assist you in writing professional, clear, succinct, and grammatically correct books, articles, and promotional materials. Although some grammatical information is given, other information is a matter of personal style and format suggestions based on a couple of decades of professional writing and editing experience. Naturally, the style and format suggestions are only recommendations. As with any of this, it can be viewed as an editor’s job anyway, but the fewer the problems, the less editing will cost you in the long run.I’ll be running this as a several-part series. I hope you’ll find it helpful!

Editing and Proofing
Developmental Editing. Understand that a developmental editor is not the same as a peer reviewer. I can tell you from my observations that they are not catching overall writing problems, and this is not the job of a copyeditor either. Whether you use me or someone else for developmental editing, it will be expensive but it will improve the overall read and feel of your writing. Even while your writing improves over time, you cannot expect it to be perfect--ever; that is just the nature of writing. I never depend on myself for my final edits but rather I send my work through one and often several professional editors at whatever cost to me.
Proofing. Always proof your work after completing it. It will save your editors and layout people time and will save you money.

Ellipses. Rules for ellipses are well defined. The Chicago Manual of Style defines the grammatical use as follows:
  • To indicate text missing from within a sentence, put a space before the first ellipsis, after the last ellipsis, and in between all ellipses. “The author...wanted all writing to be clear and concise.”
  • To indicate text missing from the end of a sentence, do not put a space before the first ellipsis, put a space in between all ellipses, and add an extra one at the end to indicate the final period. “The author demandingly wanted all writing to be clear....”
Gender-Specific Language. Avoid gender-specific language if possible. I prefer the “compromise” of alternating the use of “he” and “she” throughout a document rather than “he/she,” “he or she,” “(s)he,” or “s/he.”

Glossaries. Consider using them; glossaries are a great help for obscure terminology. They are as helpful, if not more so, than an acronym list.

In-text References. Always ensure that in-text references to book or article titles as well as Web site URLs are accurate. Incorrect references should never appear in a publication. Developmental editors and reference checkers catch these in the book and periodical publishing field, but when you are publishing your own materials you will either have to be extremely thorough and double check all material or pay someone else to do it.

Keep Verb Forms Together. Watch out for splitting verb forms. Opt for “also will be responsible for” over “will also be responsible for,” unless it is extremely awkward when the former is used. 

Knowledge Base. Be careful when writing about any topic in which your level of experience may be limited. Your knowledge base appears to have increased by about 300 percent since I have known you (not to mention the increased development in your writing style), but none of us are perfect. If I, as your editor, question some of your statements because my research shows different outcomes, others will question your authority as well. (In all fairness, though, understand that it simply could be a matter of sources that are referenced.) And this could not be good for your reputation or book sales. If you are unsure about a certain technology or industry, research as much as you can. It is labor-intensive and time-consuming, but you cannot expect to get complete and accurate information by asking a couple of people. Plus, other specialists and experts do not necessarily have the time nor the inclination to do your research for you anyway.
   Lists. If the listed items are in a hierarchy, use numbers or letters; otherwise, use some sort of bullet.

Microsoft Word Tools. Do not depend on spell check or grammar check. Know how to research spelling and grammar issues since Word tools often recommend incorrect changes.

Noun (Subject)/Pronoun Agreement. The old school was to always have these agree such as “Every writer must have his or her way.” Today, it is becoming more acceptable to write, “Every writer must have their way.” 

Numbers, Writing. For numbers, follow the under 10 rule, i.e., spell out numbers if they are under 10, except for time, measurement, and money. Also, if three numbers are used in the same sentence, use whichever style outnumbers the others. For instance, you would spell out for “the contestant won 6, 11, and 15 times in a row.” Note how “6” is under 10 and normally would be spelled out, but the number is used since the other two numbers are over 10. If you decide to follow the ninety-nine and below rule where numbers are spelled out, be consistent. (Keep in mind, though, that numerals are nearly always used with percentages and measures.)