Saturday, March 07, 2009

Victoria Strauss -- Small Press or Vanity Press?

Last week, a lengthy article in Publishers Weekly profiled a number of "fast-growing" small presses. Unfortunately, PW didn't mention the fact that two of those publishers charge hefty fees.

Greenleaf Book Group is both a distributor and a publisher. It's very selective in the projects it chooses to take on, provides a full range of services including design and editing, and puts real marketing behind the books it distributes (10 of the 85 titles it published in 2008, according to PW).

Greenleaf has had some successful books; according to PW, its net sales doubled between 2006 and 2008. It seems to be well-regarded both as a distributor and a publisher. However, authors must pay their way, and Greenleaf is pricey. Based on documented reports Writer Beware has received, costs for a full publishing package can top $20,000, depending on the number of books printed.

On its website, Morgan James Publishing describes itself as "The Entrepreneurial Publisher" (tm). PW notes that the company initially "required its authors to pay for book design, and did some custom publishing as well. 'But we've since moved from that,' says [founder David] Hancock."

They've moved on, all right--to different pay-to-publish models. Through mid-2008, Morgan James's contracts required authors to pay $4,995 to participate in an "Entrepreneurial Author University," supposedly in order to train them to market their books. This policy has been discontinued (the current Comparison page of Morgan James's website, where a table compares Morgan James's services to those of "traditional" publishers and self-publishers, indicates that one of the benefits of publishing with Morgan James is "Enrollment into The Entrepreneurial Author University at no cost to the authors")--but that doesn't mean that the author gets a free ride. Morgan James now requires authors to buy 2,500 copies of their books "at cost plus a percentage."

Buyback clauses are a particularly sneaky mode of vanity publishing, because they allow the publisher to claim that it is not charging for services, and thus is not a vanity publisher. Depending on the per-book cost fixed by the publisher, buyback clauses can also be very expensive. For instance, let's assume a paperback book priced at $13.99, and an author discount of 60%. That would work out to a cost of nearly $14,000--substantially more than the $5,000 MJ used to charge.

As was pointed out to me by several self-publishing advocates when I broke this news on Twitter, Morgan James has had some bestsellers. (Though it seems likely that this is largely the result of authors' own efforts. MJ founder David Hancock, quoted in PW, says that "advertising and marketing are generally the authors' responsibility." PW also notes that "if authors use a public relations firm that Morgan James approves of, the publisher will pay a percentage of the cost," but doesn't mention MJ's connection, through publisher Rick Frishman, with PR firm Planned Television Arts.) For many of the company's books, however, I suspect that the new 2,500 purchase requirement represents the bulk of sales (could that help to explain why, according to PW, MJ's sales "are up 52% over last year"?), providing the company with a comfortable per-book profit margin even for books that don't take off. As I've said many times here and elsewhere, a company that turns its authors into customers has little incentive to make an effort to get the books into the hands of readers.

PW also notes that MJ "operates under a model that's becoming increasingly common: no advances and high royalties." No advances is not in doubt, but high royalties...not so much. MJ pays 20% of net, which for books sold at discount averages out to around 10% of cover price--more or less what those bad old "traditional" publishers pay.

While I would rarely suggest that an author pay to publish, I understand that different authors have different priorities and make different choices. However, the pay-to-publish model is very different from the commercial model, and has very different consequences. Authors need to go into it with their eyes open. In my opinion, PW does its audience no favors by featuring Greenleaf and Morgan James while failing to reveal their fees.

24 comments:

Leslie said...

Wow. Seems very silly of PW not to do their homework. *sigh.* We need journalist journalists, not citizen ones. Good for you, Ms. Strauss.

Jenny said...

At some point all the big publishers may notice that there is so much more money to be made from vanity publishing their slush piles than from selling books the old fashioned way that they may all end up offering schemes like this to their authors.

This will be even more so, when brick and mortar stores close down leaving us only with web marketing.

What do you think of the UK Macmillan New Writing deal, also a no advance contract offering 20% royalty on net sales.

Litgirl01 said...

I agree, PW wasn't responsible in that respect. Thank you for the info. No way could most people afford something like that.

Leslie said...

Jenny -- great point about the big publishers. It's like the Kirkus Discoveries: $400 to $550 to get your book reviewed. I'm sure it's not illegal, but real review publications do not accept $ for reviews.

BuffySquirrel said...

This seems to be the way publishing is going, though--bringing vanity/self-publishing into the fold as a reliable income stream.

Anonymous said...

I wish they had featured some authors whose works have enabled these companies to grow so quickly. I'd like to see the authors talking about how good it is to receive fan mail and see their books on shelves in stores. Unfortunately, for most of these authors to receive fan mail they would have to send letters to themselves because they were forced to buy thousands of copies of their own books.

Anonymous said...

Small press... hmmm. It's like those 'agents' who market themselves as 'a small family run company that can help you get published'. Sadly, these families end up being a husband and wife who met through their parole officer.

Robert said...

Could it be that this article was a 'pay to feature' sort of thing? It's incredible that pw would run an article that is so one-sided. Could it be like the pay to review type of thing, a sort of advert that is presented as a genuine article?

Leslie said...

Robert: I read PW weekly (I'm a book review journal editor). It's a genuine PW article.

Victoria Strauss said...

I agree, Leslie. And while I'm not familiar with several of the publishers featured, others are interesting and innovative indies.

I have no idea why Greenleaf and MJ were featured without mention of their fees, and I don't think it's especially profitable to speculate. I'd just say that PW either should have delved deeper or provided more disclosure, and leave it at that.

Jenny asked,

"What do you think of the UK Macmillan New Writing deal, also a no advance contract offering 20% royalty on net sales."

I started to respond to this question, and it turned into a blog post. Stay tuned.

Leslie said...

PW let of editor Sarah Nelson and a few others.Perhaps there is no one in charge with a journalist's nose.

PS -- when I get self-published authors who want my journal to review their book, I am going to send them to your Web site, if that's OK.

Leslie said...

Let GO of Sarah Nelson. *sigh.* Yep, I are the editor.

Jane Smith said...

I'm with Jenny on the future of publishing: boundaries are blurring already, and I'm not sure it's a good thing.

I blogged recently about whether it was possible or not for mainstream publishers to run their own versions of a vanity press: I'm not sure what conclusion we came to in the end, but with the links which have now been created between reputable agencies like Objective Entertainment, which Victoria has blogged about here, and between reputable publishers like Osprey and AuthorHouse, which I've discussed over on the Bookseller blog, I suspect we're moving closer towards this business model all the time.

(And Leslie, I used to be an editor too, and once nearly let a blurb go out which stated that Mother Teresa had won the Nobel Peach Prize. I still tremble when I think of it.)

December/Stacia said...

Ahhh...I'd wondered who Rick Frishman was, after seeing one or two of his articles online and finding the advice/"facts" given to be rather...confusing.

sexywriter said...

The HarperStudio imprint, which was supposed to be a "revenue-sharing" imprint that published new authors under a different pay structure, turned out to be just another HarperCollins imprint publishing celebrity authored books (like Emeril Lagasse, who's already published a gazillion bestselling cookbooks).

So much for the big houses creating new lines aimed at developing unknown authors.

Eirin said...

So much for the big houses creating new lines aimed at developing unknown authors.

I'm not sure it's the responsibility of publishers to develop new authors, other than what comes naturally in the course of discovering new talent.
In fact, whenever I see publishers tout phrases that can in any way be interpreted as "helping new authors get published", I get warning twinges in the medulla sceptica.

Victoria Strauss said...

The HarperStudio imprint, which was supposed to be a "revenue-sharing" imprint that published new authors under a different pay structure, turned out to be just another HarperCollins imprint publishing celebrity authored books

HarperStudio is trying to do some things differently (such as reigning in advance bloat), but I don't believe it was ever their intent to focus on new authors. Based on descriptions of the imprint, such as this one, celebrity-driven books were part of the plan from the start.

Anonymous said...

"Vanity" is a charged word to use in the wake of all this opining. The old guard of publishing is collapsing under the weight of its own obsession with celebrity and irrelevance. The new approach, though requiring some up-front commitment, allows greater ROI -- a truly fair share that has eluded writers for years. Here's to change as opportunity for creative entrepreneurs. May the audience decide what's worthy, one reader at a time.

k.anderson3454 said...

I admire you Ms. Strauss. Thumbs up for you.

Anonymous said...

publishing became a very wierd subjuct in this last few years .
I can't really understand this whole industry and where it's heading..

Sam Carpenter said...

I am a greenleaf author. Did the article mention that with Greenleaf the author retains rights to the book? It's the reason I went straight to Greenleaf and skipped the traditional avenues of agent/trraditional publisher. I'm going in to my third edition/5th printing and the book is exactly the way I want it to be, much to the thanks of the great editors and staff at Greeneleaf who actually LISTEN to me because that's the deal. Yes Greenleaf is expensive but, in a different way, so is giving up a manuscript for someone else to twiddle into something far different than what the author expected. Thanks, but I don't want some 20 year old junior editor tearing up my work.

Victoria Strauss said...

Sam--in order to publish your book, Greenleaf MUST lay claim to at least some of your rights. I'm guessing this is limited and nonexclusive--but your rights are still encumbered.

I'm glad you've had a good experience with Greenleaf.

aamidor said...

This comment comes from Abe Aamidor, a former Indianapolis Star reporter and author, co-author or Editor of five non-fiction books in print, including "Chuck Taylor, All Star: The True Story of the Man Behind the Most Famous Athletic Shoe in History" (Indiana University Press, 2006) and "At the Crossroads: Middle America and the Battle to Save the Car Industry" (ECW Press of Toronto, 2010). I'm working on a book about retirement and simply searched amazon dot com for other titles about retirement and aging Baby Boomers and came across the Morgan James site. They're slick, and apparently treacherous. I'm a published author, but without an agent, and it's sad how people are simply being driven to these disguized vanity presses. I hold the mainstream publishers and consolidation largely reponsible for this, however - almost none will look at an unagented submission, not to mention a previously unpublished author. All the seminars and schools for would-be writers also share responsibility - they all make money off people who want to get published, but very rarely actually help anyone. It's real exploitation. The blog post on Writer Beware was well-written and conceived.

Micky said...

As always there seem to be two sides to this story but I guess authors will still have to tread carefully when approaching Green leaf for publication of their books.