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.