Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Author Mills and a Request for Contact

Unlike commercial or trade publishers, whose business model is based on book volume (selling as many books as possible from a limited number of authors), author mills' business model is based on author volume (selling a limited number of books from as many authors as possible). The most famous example of an author mill is PublishAmerica, but there are others, such as VDM Verlag Dr. Mueller, an academic author mill.

Unlike vanity publishers or self-publishing services, author mills don't charge upfront fees--which is why they can convincingly present themselves as "real" publishers--but they often do their best to turn their authors into customers, heavily encouraging them to buy their own books, or incentivizing self-purchases with special offers and discounts. Because of the need for author volume, editorial gatekeeping is lax (though many author mills, knowing how much authors crave validation, claim to be selective). Author mills protect their profits by doing everything on the cheap, with minimal or nonexistent editing, interior and cover design that's straight-from-template, and no meaningful marketing or distribution, resulting in tiny sales for the average author mill book. They also often have exploitive, nonstandard contracts.

Because author mills are typically deceptive in the way they present themselves, many writers believe they are signing up with real publishers, and are bitterly disappointed by their publishing experience. Author mills may also be ineffectual, haphazard, or grudging about fulfilling their contractual obligations--so even writers who go into the relationship with their eyes open may not receive what they expect.

I'm currently writing an article on author mills, and as part of my research I'd like to hear from writers who have published with an author mill. I'm interested not just in writers who had problems, or whose expectations weren't fulfilled, but in writers who chose an author mill specifically for what it could do for them, and were satisfied with the result.

Please email me at beware@sfwa.org. In accordance with Writer Beware's policies, I'll keep all information completely confidential (it will NOT be shared) unless you specifically give me permission to quote you (which I can do without using your name, if you prefer). Don't worry if you get my autoresponder--I'm away from home at the moment, but will be back early next week and will reply then.

Thanks so much!

26 comments:

Mick Rooney said...

Victoria,

Your post on author mills got me thinking about things on the UK and Irish market. As much as I have looked, I have yet to see a company set themselves up using the Publish America model.

Yes we have had our share of atrocious vanity outfits like Minerva, Adelphi and Excalibur who charged ludicrous amounts of money for very little beyond an expensive book and 3000 units in your garage. Yes, we have had the worst of the vanity presses since the 1980's with Dorrance and Vantage operating and advertising over here but, ultimately, on the tried and tested vanity model--you'll never get published unless you pay us.

The Publish America model is something I have to say from my own perspective, I abhorred, and yet, I am fascinated with at the same time. The PA model is like being sold a business with several thousand pounds debt to you at a $1. You get the business, but the debt as well. The guys who own PA where obviously down on the Florida keys in the 1920's when the real estate was being sold at a million to people in boats who simply pulled out the cheque book and signed away without ever knowing they were being scammed.

Yes, you can argue that AuthorHouse or iUniverse are simply authormills, consumed only by driving perspective authors to their websites, but with all their promotional dream garbage, they remain a million miles away from the PA author mill.

My thoughts only.

with.

Sharon Mayhew said...

Great post. I can't remember the name of a company that I thought was a real publisher, but they sent me a great letter and brochure about themselves. Turns out I had to buy a certain number of books myself. I'm thinking it was Tate, but not positive. I threw the packet away.

Jill Edmondson said...

Good grief! I have long been aware of self-publishing and vanity presses, but author mills masquerading as real publishers takes the cake!

I can only hope that a lack of respones/lack of interest from would-be writers soon puts this kind of exploitative industry in the dustbin.

Or at least forces them to be honest about who and what they are - there's nothing wrong with self-publishing, but let writers know up front that that is what they are getting into.

Thanks for the eye opener, Jill
www.jilledmondson.blogspot.com

Entrepreneur Chick said...

Excellent post. I appreciate that I am learning so much from your blog.

My eyes have become more open regarding who has published who.

For example: I had a Chamber of Commerce luncheon (as my companies are in the Chamber) in the new Cowboy Stadium this week. Drew Pearson, who I have met before, and is an ex Cowboy player, addressed our group.

Guess what? He has another book he's selling, from guess who? A VANITY PUBLISHER!

Uh huh.

I'm not saying his first book, "Hail Mary", was bad- but now I get the whole game a little better.

zizban said...

Worst of the worst is PublishAmerica. They are deceptive to the extreme and use cult like tactics to keep their authors in line (Us versus them, Bashers, Jealousy, etc). I now avoid any board that is started by and populated mostly by PA authors (and there are several). They make my skin crawl.

Jayme Malvagio said...

Thankfully, I've not encountered any author mills, but I'm very interested in seeing the followup post. It seems the fringes of the publishing industry of full people looking to make a buck from other people's hopes and dreams... it really is quite sad.

Eirin said...

Jill Edmondson:

I can only hope that a lack of respones/lack of interest from would-be writers soon puts this kind of exploitative industry in the dustbin.

PublishAmerica has been in operation for about a decade, and boasts at least 30.000 authors. It's absolutely shocking.

The way to spot an author mill is very often simply to look at its homepage: Who is it aimed at? Is it geared toward selling books, like, say, Penguin's website? Or is it designed to flatter and draw in new writers?

Take a look at PublishAmerica's homepage. I promise you it's instructive.

Susan Cross said...

I've been discussing my manuscript with a company that offers 3 plans:

1. I pay upfront costs and order minimum of 500 copies. Up front costs include ISBN #, copyright, registration with distributors, graphic artwork for cover and the books at cost. The 2nd printing I would pay cost for each book.

2. We split the costs and the price per book is higher for me to buy. In other words, we share the risk.

3. The publisher pays all costs, assumes all risk and gets most of the money (like traditional publishers).

I haven't encountered any author mills but I have a good author network that keeps me informed and recommends this company. He puts out a beautiful product and my hope would be option 1, if I can afford it when my book is complete.

I'm avoiding POD and he is not considered a vanity press. I'm not sure how the company would be listed but I know it's legit.

Victoria Strauss said...

Susan, if you must pay to publish, you're either self-publishing or vanity publishing. Reputable publishers do not charge fees or require authors to buy books.

Pay-to-publish companies that present the possibility of a no-pay contract are usually only doing so to attract paying customers. If an author believes that his or her publisher also does "traditional" publishing, the author may be more likely to sign the pay-to-play contract, believing that any company that does "traditional" publishing must be reputable.

From your description of the three plans, I'm 99% sure I know who this publisher is. If I'm right, I can assure you that it is a vanity publisher, and offers only pay-to-publish contracts. Please write to me--use the "Contact" link at the top of the blog sidebar.

Rissa Watkins said...

Not sure if you wanted poetry ones too, but I sent you an email just in case.

Can't wait to read the article.

Sharon Mayhew said...

Susan,
Keep trying for a traditional publisher. I think what you are talking about sounds like a vanity press (self publishing) that is trying to look like a main-stream publisher. Publishers are like agents, they shouldn't be charging you money so they can make money. If you're desperate to get published and want to go with them. Let them take ALL of the risk. You might earn less, but you will have a credit. It really depends on what you want; a book or a career...

thevoice said...

An agent directed me to Publish America after turning me away from Balantine books. If I only knew then what I know now.

A. Mouse said...

A quick trip to PA's site and... I have no idea what I was supposed to learn. They say they've got 40,000 writers, that there are almost 200,000 new books a year, they sell to the big 3 bookstores, and they take the workload off you.

So what are they not saying? What am I missing? How am I, a new writer, supposed to know this isn't real?

Victoria Strauss said...

That's exactly the problem, A. Mouse, and it's one reason why I'm writing this article. It will include information on how to identify an author mill.

Hodmandod said...

I wrote a piece about difference between vanity and self publishing, and was invited to upload a manuscript I had lying about to Authorhouse.co.uk to see how it worked. Looking at the galleys led me to rewrite and revise, and also having it as PDF on their website allowed a proper prospective publisher to read One Apple Tasted online in a tidy format. I am now properly published by E&T Books, but I realise this is unusual. Self publishing, particularly with something like Lulu, is brilliant for niche stuff with a guaranteed audience such as a rare breed of dog association for instance. But not for fiction! I ended up paying a bit for some corrections to my galley, and had fun designing a cover, and I am glad I did, but frankly would never have done this without the offer from their PR. I can see the temptation though! www.oneappletasted.co.uk

Anonymous said...

I'd offer the point that if there's no "reserve against returns" in your contract and they say they sell to bookstores, be afraid.

That means that while they may SAY that they sell to the public and their books are returnable, that means that they're not professional enough to understand the concept of returns. You may get royalties if you manage to get bookstores to carry your books, but then the company'll whine when they get returned - because they don't plan for such an event. Every publisher who does print knows this is a reality and plans for it - if your "publisher" doesn't and says they're aiming for the public, they're not. They're aiming at YOU, the author, to take the brunt of the sales so that they don't have to deal with returns in the first place, thus the lack of keeping back some money.
Dumb financial move, but it makes it obvious who they're pushing the books towards.

nauthor said...

A. Mouse,

Now check out a "traditional" publisher's website, such as www.randomhouse.com.

(Or any other major publisher.)

You see the difference? The Random House website is geared toward book buyers. It's designed to sell you books.

The PublishAmerica website is geared toward authors, and is trying to sell you "getting published". There are books for sale there, but "getting published" is the focus.

"Click here to submit your book" is above the fold. On the websites of major publishers, you have to dig for submission information.

What they're not saying is: For some reason they solicit authors openly, while major publishers don't.

The reason is that "traditional" publishers pay their authors, and make money off book buyers. Outfits like PA make money off their authors.

Anonymous said...

"I'm interested not just in writers who had problems, or whose expectations weren't fulfilled, but in writers who chose an author mill specifically for what it could do for them, and were satisfied with the result."

You're seeking people who are happy with their result while simultaneously using the disparaging term "author mill" to describe it. I'll bet not a one has contacted you for the simple reason they don't consider their printers "author mills."

But so what? That there are so many, with so many customers, is proof that a need is being met and filled. Their customers' belief that they are conventionally published may be delusional, but it's also delusional to call the ones "bitterly disappointed" with their author mill experience "authors." They aren't authors, they're just people who spent some spare time writing bad, unpublishable stuff. An author mill is all that would take them.

This article will not be read by future disgruntled customers until after the fact, and probably not even then unless spoon-fed at an enabling message board.

Truth sucks, but oh well.

Marshall Ryan Maresca said...

In one of my writing groups, I just had someone ask for advice of putting together their proposal for PA. I told them in no uncertain terms to back away.

Victoria Strauss said...

Anonymous 8:25am, your point is....?

I'm interested in hearing from people who chose an author mill knowing it was an author mill. Yes, Virginia, there are such people--I've communicated with them before. Author mills basically do what self-publishing services do (though they generally don't admit that), except that there's no fee involved. So if you're content with self-publishing-style production, pricing, and distribution, and don't mind the restrictive, non-terminable contract, an author mill may make reasonable sense.

Once my article is published, Anonymous, you may feel free to judge who will read it.

Anonymous said...

<< I'm interested in hearing from people who chose an author mill knowing it was an author mill.>>

How many takers have you gotten?

My point is that few who use what you call an “author mill” perceive it such, hence don’t “knowingly” use it as such.

Furthermore, you’ve arbitrarily annointed some businesses the title of “author mill” while bestowing “self-publisher” on others. Yes, Virginia, Lulu and CreateSpace are author mills, too. Their customers have the delusion that if they use them, they’re “self-publishers.” Nah, they’ve just found an author mill who will set and copy their trash cheaper than PA will (and who doesn’t feed their fantasy as blatantly). This is as delusional in its own way as thinking PA is a commercial publisher.

But everyone gets to pick their own delusions, right? Hey, some people print with Lulu, call themselves “[Last Name] Press” and think that makes them a “micropublisher.”

Oh well, carry on. :)

Victoria Strauss said...

Geez, Anonymous, bitter much?

I guess we'll just have to stew in our respective delusions.

Anonymous said...

Is calling me "bitter" your way of saying you haven't gotten any takers? :)

Richard White said...

For some reason, my first thought was, "what vanity publisher is the poster representing?"

I could be wrong . . .

However, moving on to the actual subject of the post here. I think there's a huge difference between self-publishing and vanity/co-op/partnership/etc. publishing.

In the first, you do all the work and then go through a printer, whether it's someone like Lulu, Kinko's, the local print shop in town, etc. do produce the actual book. That means you supply all the money, but you also keep all the profits afterward.

The vanity printers can only stay in business with author churn. They need new authors to come in and a) pay to have their books printed (like a Tate) or b) buy the books from the publisher (like a Publish America).

Now whether it's the same author using the vanity press for multiple books or lots of authors moving individual books, these publishers must have churn to make a profit. One of the biggest signs of an author mill is they advertise for authors rather than promote books to readers.

(They have other less-than-author friendly practices also, but that's another blog entry.)

Now, that's not to say, all of these companies are useless. Some authors only need a few copies made for their family like a family history or else they're speakers who only need a few books at a time for engagements, especially if they need to make new editions based on a changing market. Personally, I would say self-publishing would be the way to go there, but for some, letting someone else do the work suits their needs. If they have the cash and walk in with their eyes open, then more power to them.

Still, the average vanity press is by its nature an author mill. Their market is their authors, whether it's collecting fees up front or making money after the fact is irrelevant. If they don't have authors coming in, they don't make money.

Anonymous said...

<< I could be wrong . . . >>

Yes, you are.

<< I think there's a huge difference between self-publishing and vanity/co-op/partnership/etc. publishing. >>

I'm sure you do. And you're wrong again. Everything you wrote about vanity presses applies to self-publishing. Tell me, what kind of presses are self-published books printed on, if not vanity?

You say Lulu and Kinko's authors are free to spend all their profits. What profits? What does the average Lulu or Kinko's customer make vs. the average Tate or PA customer?

And of course Tate and PA need authors (customers) to make money. Don't Lulu and Kinko's need them, too? Why does the former churn but the latter ...(what?)

And yes, PA and Tate solicit authors, not readers. Unlike Lulu and Kinko's, who have detailed marketing plans, right?

I'm sure you've got answers for all this, but thankfully I have the gift of critical thinking, which helps sort through the BS. Not that the BS isn't amusing, or I wouldn't play once in awhile. :) And like I said upstream, everyone is entitled to their own delusions. Enjoy yours!

Pat B said...

Anonymous's unfortunate comments notwithstanding, I found this post very helpful. Thanks for it.