Monthly Archives: November 2009

The difference between traditional press, vanity/subsidy press, and self-publishing

Recently I’ve had friends of friends approached by vanity presses trying to lure them into buying their overpriced mediocre services.  The story is always the same–a newbie writer has just written a first book, is not a member of any sort of national writer’s organization, and has absolutely no clue of how the business side of publishing works.

Then there was the whole uproar over the creation of vanity/subsidy press Harlequin Horizons (see the link about it at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books for the most info.  But be warned, the comment section now stands at over 830 comments!) I’ve read quite a number of comments on this controversy, and was troubled by the number of people who didn’t know the difference between traditional vs. vanity/subsidy vs. self-publishing.

I think Writer Beware at SFWA does a terrific job of explaining the differences.  Here’s a link to their publisher definitions page.  Once you read this, you’ll know how to tell which press is which.

The Novelists Inc. blog has a post which lists several websites to help understand the hazards of vanity publishing.

My rule of thumb is “keep control of the money.”

In self-publishing, a writer gets competing bids from the best freelancers she can find for every part of the process (editing, art, making the book, publicity, e-book versions, etc.), keeps copyright and controls ISBN, and gets to keep all money made from sales.   You don’t get to do those things with a vanity/subsidy press–and on top of that you shell out large sums of money while they shell out little, and then you have to deal with them taking a huge cut of the money from sales as well.  A vanity/subsidy press makes its money off of writers, not book sales.

A traditional publisher pays the writer.   They take care of all of the expenses, which is why they get a big chunk of the sales.   Some writers exchange being paid an advance by an e-publisher in order to get a higher royalty rate (usually about 35%).   But those writers don’t pay the e-publisher, ever.

Writing is an art, publishing is a business.  Publishing presses are like any other business–there are great ones, good ones, mediocre ones, and slimy ones.   Shop around.

The Reality of Advances and Royalties

In case you missed it, author Lynn Viehl had the guts to post online her royalty statement for a book of hers that made the New York Times Bestseller list.   Go read her post “The Reality of a Times Bestseller” and look over the statement for a dose of reality about book sales.

A few days ago she was kind enough to post the second royalty statement so that people can track sales over time.

Another helpful source, though it is skewed towards the romance genre, is author Brenda Hiatt’s “Show Me the Money!” web page.  She’s been collecting advance and royalty data to share with Romance Writers of America members for ten years.

Dealing with Submissions Block

As I’ve talked about before in previous posts, I’ve had trouble with writer’s block and submissions block, which is why I like to post about them in the hopes of helping some other writer down the road.

The writer’s block problem I was able to successfully deal with a couple of years ago.

My final steps in dismantling submissions block only happened about a month ago.  Until then, I could count the number of submissions I’d done to fiction editors over my entire life on my fingers (no toes needed).   This blockage continued for years despite getting requests to see more of my work from former editors at Asimov’s and Tor.   Instead I ran away as fast I could.

The truth of the matter is that I had a phobia about showing my work to other human beings, and until it was dealt with, I wasn’t going to go anywhere.

In the end, it took what psychologists call “desensitization.”  Like someone afraid of spiders, I had to to develop a detailed campaign to slowly dismantle the submissions block.

And so I did.   I started this blog as a way to deal with the problem, and as the block fades away, I suspect this blog will change.   I fell silent here for almost two months as I dealt with the severe stress of getting queries out in an organized determined manner for the first time ever.

I find that rejection itself is okay, and I can deal with it fine.  The mundane reality of rejections is much less frightening than the bizarre phobic fears I once had.


I think what I value most about Laura Resnick’s essays in REJECTION, ROMANCE, & ROYALTIES: THE WACKY WORLD OF A WORKING WRITER is her brutal honesty.   This is not an essay collection for the faint of heart.

Let me provide an example from her essay “Passion” in the book:

Editors have told me that my advance is more than I’m worth; my work isn’t that good; I should write more like so-and-so; my work is “shit;” I don’t know how to write; my work is an “insult” to them; and I don’t “appreciate” them enough.   Agents have told me that I’m “not worth” their time; my query is an insult to them; I’m “self-destructive” (based on my choosing to fire that agent); they “hate” my work; and I’m lazy (I wrote a mere 1,400 pages that year).

Resnick covers a variety of topics in her essays, such as writer’s block, editors & agents, contracts, readers, horror stories about publishing, horror stories about book tours, nerves, cash flow, rejections, etc..

Because this is a collection of essays, certain thoughts get repeated over and over.   This becomes a mild irritant if one sits down to read the book in one sitting.  I found it better to stop for the day after reading four to five essays.

Resnick makes her living as a fiction writer, and she does not spare the reader details about the ugly side of the business.  However, she also has a wicked sense of humor.  Here’s a sample from “It Can Happen Here–And Often Does:”

Trish Jensen, writing under the pseudonym Trish Graves, sold them a novel called Just This Once in which the hero, among other things, mentors a teenage boy, steering him away from street gangs and toward organized sports.  So you can imagine the author’s shock when, upon reading her galleys, she discovered that the editor had changed the boy into a raccoon.

(I think I speak for everyone here when I say, “What?”)

You’ll have to read the essay to find out if the novel was published with the raccoon character change.

Cory Doctorow’s Publishing Experiment

Cory Doctorow has offered himself up as a guinea pig to test two areas of hot debate: 1) does offering a work as a free e-book lose or gain the author money in the long run, and 2) would an author make more money on a book by self-publishing or by going with a traditional publisher.

Here’s what he says:

I’m a contrarian on both of these propositions: that I’m losing money by giving away e-books, and that I’m losing money by using a publisher. I have a nice little Goldilocks gig going—not too hot, not too cold, just the right amount of DIY, independent publishing and just the right amount of professional support and administration from my publisher to sell. But I’m as curious about both propositions as anyone. While it’s fun to argue about whose intuition is more correct, I think facts on the ground beat a priori assumptions every time. So I’ve come up with an idea to get some facts in evidence, while making some money and raising a little hell.

So Doctorow’s third collection of short stories With A Little Help will be done using a self-publishing model, and he’s going to keep track of the sales numbers and actually share the data.

Data he’ll be tracking:  Profit & Loss, E-book, Audiobook, Donations to him, Print-on-demand trade paperback, Premium hardcover edition, Commission a new story for the book for $10,000 (already sold), Advertisements, and Donation of books.

He’ll be posting monthly to Publisher’s Weekly.  His first post is here.

Keep an eye out on what happens with this experiment in the next year or two.