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Tuesday, November 28, 2006


More on vanity publishing

Someone who's had a bad run-in with the kind of scammers I was talking about yesterday was helpful enough to write in with an example of his own, which I've pasted here so you can see it, as it's a good example of what kind of bastards we're talking about:

Great post today. Do you think you could publicize this guy? His name is Johnathon Clifford and he gives away a ton of stuff about vanity publishers for free on his website. He certainly helped me last year when, after about 40+ agent rejections, I sent my manuscript in response to an ad (in Private Eye of all places). The company was called "Serendipity" (which it wasn't!); they offered to publish it for GBP 5,500 and claimed they would "market" it. I was just about to send them the cheque when I found his site, and was so glad I did! But you know, I'm sure there must be thousands of budding writers who know almost nothing about the publishing industry, and even less about vanity publishing. This guy really fixes that (well, I for one owe him five and a half grand!).


Do have a look at the site. Thanks for the tip, anon.

It's worth emphasising that the crooks who almost took in our posting friend advertised in Private Eye, which, for those of you overseas who haven't heard of it, is the foremost satirical magazine in the UK, and about equivalent to a national newspaper in terms of how reputable you'd expect it to be. The fact that a vanity press advertises in a respectable place doesn't mean it's a respectable company. Newspapers and magazines don't vet the credentials of everyone who advertises: if you've got the money, they'll print your ad, and vanity presses do have the money. They get it from hopeful writers. You should always look at what they're offering rather than where they're offering it if you're checking out their trustworthiness.

One point on which I'd differ with Johnathon Clifford, or at least put a caveat, is on the issue of self-publishing. There are vanity presses who will take you for all they can get, who are the real bastards, and there are self-publishing presses who don't pretend to offer more than they do: they'll print your book and after that it's up to you. Now, those guys are at least telling you the truth. If your book is, say, a collection of tutoring tips that you can sell out of your tutorial agency to clients, then that may be useful, but self-published novels are another business.

I wouldn't recommend self-publishing a novel. The bestselling novelist Tess Gerritsen has recently written a couple of articles on her blog about why, which I'd recommend people to have a look at:


Her points, which I agree with, are basically as follows:

There's a business reason why a self-published novel is unlikely to have commercial success. Bookshops buy novels on sale or return; if they can't shift the copies they've bought, they can give them back to the publishers. This ensures that the shop won't go under if an anticipated bestseller falls flat. Nowadays, when the bookselling market is dominated by huge chains, publishers are extremely dependent on those chains: if Waterstone's or Barnes and Noble won't stock your books, then your books are going to fail. And the chains won't stock your books except on sale or return. The shops can set the terms, and sale or return is one of them. Smaller bookshops aren't going to make an exception: they're playing against the big boys in a fragile market, and they can't afford to take any risks. I worked at a publisher that sold books mostly to libraries and as a result wouldn't do sale or return; as a result, no bookshop would buy them, even if they were by a bestselling author. Under such conditions, it's highly unlikely that you can get a self-published book off the ground: the shops simply won't pick it up.

The other point is that if you get a lot of rejections - and boy, do those suck - you basically have two options. You can try to self-publish it, or you can write another one. It's depressing to start another one when the first one didn't sell, but the fact is, there's probably a reason why it didn't. You might have been unlucky and your book really was good - in which case, if you write another, it'll also be good and maybe it'll be luckier. Statistically, it's much likelier that your book wasn't up to the standard it needed to be. If you self-publish it, you're removing the incentive to write another, better book.

Everyone shelves stuff. My first novel to get published was not the first novel I wrote - I had about forty thousand words of another novel I eventually binned, because it wasn't good enough. It was a learning experience, but learning experiences don't get published. I'm saying this not to make people feel bad about their rejections, because rejections feel bad enough as it is, but in the end, you'll be a better writer if you take the knocks, absorb any useful criticism and get back on the horse.

When it comes to novels, I have the feeling that what everyone really wants is publication, by an established publishing company. Self-publishing is a bit of a consolation prize. But you're better off consoling yourself that you're acting like a professional by motoring on.

In the end, it's a personal decision. And it's a big one. But the thing is, most publishers look askance at self-published authors, because self-publication implies that they weren't prepared to work on improving their fiction to bring it up to standard. It may injure your chances in future. Not fatally, if your next book is brilliant, but it will have disadvantages. I'll talk more about this later if people are interested because I've got to go and catch a train now, but I'd think twice before deciding to self-publish. It's not what it seems.

Unfortunately it seems that people who get into the vanity/self-publishing realm become all the more defensive once they have invested said time and (especially) money into the venture. Any sort of criticism of their publishing path or the company they are involved in immediately sets off scathing rebukes of the rest of the publishing industry. It becomes a cycle of trying to rationalize their decision and protect or build up the reputation of the company they have paid to make their writing seem more legitimate. A hard cycle to beat.
Well, nobody's tried it here so far, fortunately, although I may wake up and find fifty flames tomorrow ... Anybody out there seriously annoyed? If so, I'm happy to answer any posts as long as they're reasonably polite.

I can understand why you wouldn't want to feel like you'd wasted five grand, especially as it bought you the feeling of being a writer, which we all want. It's a shame, though. It puts you more at risk from other scammers.

The publishing world gets a lot of attacks from frustrated writers. Publishers themselves shrug it off, but it's more of a problem if somebody inexperienced listens to somebody frustrated telling them that it's absolutely impossible to get published unless they take matters into their own hands. That can lead them in a bad direction.

I remember a conversation where someone I knew slightly, hearing that I was a published writer, mentioned a friend who had failed to get their novel published, gone self-pub, and good for them. I had to bite my tongue, as I thought the friend had made a mistake but no one was asking for my advice - but the thing was, the person telling the story seemed to feel that their friend had somehow stood up for themselves, as if the publishing world was the baddie.

This was an intelligent, reasonable person, who had no experience of the publishers' side of the story and had only the word of a frustrated writer to go on. As a result, they seemed to see self-publication as the triumph of the little guy. Scammers can trade on ideas like that. And, as you say, once someone is feeling like they've asserted themselves by self-publication, then they're less likely to listen to anyone telling them it was a mistake, because they're already in a defiant mood.
Exactly. I think a lot of the self-publishers go that route because of basic misunderstandings of how the publishing industry actually works, or the real reasons why editors and agents aren't jumping all over their offered work. The problem can't possibly be their writing, it must be the nasty, not-nice, very-bad industry that isn't recognizing their amazing talent and so has lost a valuable bestseller. There are a lot of misconceptions out there, and some of them are brought about by people who are downright scammers and ne'er-do-wells who just want to suck the money from those writers who don't know any better. Thank God for Writer Beware, Preditors and Editors, etc.
Hi Kit,

I currently represent Mark Levine and I read your blog posts on self-publishing and thought you might be interested in a book he's just released. It's called The Fine Print of Self Publishing and it basically lays out the nine essential qualities to look for when considering a self-publishing company. Through his extensive research and personal expertise gained from his experience as a corporate, entertainment and intellectual property attorney, he also analyzes and critiques the contracts and services of the top 48 self-publishing companies. He wrote it to help authors decipher the legalese and fine print of self-publishing contracts.

Levine also wrote The Fine Print of Self-Publishing to help simplify the confusing and potentially treacherous worlds of self-publishing. The idea for the book arose from his legal experience representing several writers who were led astray by dishonest self-publishing companies.

If you are interested in The Fine Print of Self-Publishing, please let me know and I'll send you a press kit and a copy of the book.


Dominic Garcia
Phenix & Phenix Literary Publicists
I don't want to buy one, but thank you.

Anyone reading this - from what I've heard, it's a good volume on the subject, so if you're looking for one, it might be worth trying. I still wouldn't advise a novelist to self-publish, though. If you have a non-fiction book with a known niche market, or a collection of family letters you'd like to have printed in a nice volume, go right ahead, but it's very seldom the path to success with fiction.
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