Shining a bright light into the dark corners of the shadow-world of literary scams, schemes, and pitfalls. Also providing advice for writers, industry news, and commentary. Writer Beware® is sponsored by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Inc.

December 21, 2009

Drewlie & Julia: Or, The Case of the Alias'd Literary Agent

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Last August, I received several emails from writers who’d had a very strange experience.

They’d submitted to a literary agent in Boston called Sara Levine, only to be informed by Levine's assistant, a few weeks later, that Levine had died suddenly of a heart attack. The regretful assistant suggested they contact Levine’s colleague, Julia Levin of the Florida-based Julia Levin Literary Agency, who was taking over Levine's business. Other writers who'd submitted to Sara Levine were approached by Julia Levin herself, with much the same story.

No one had ever heard of Julia Levin before. Her profiles on MySpace, LinkedIn, and Facebook (the only info that could be found on her, online or off) indicated that she'd been in business since 2005, both on her own and as a co-agent with Sara Levine. In emails to prospective clients, as well as in a September Open House on Facebook, through which she hoped to add to her agency roster, she reported a number of recent book sales to major publishers.

However, there were some discrepancies. According to Sara Levine's LinkedIn profile, Sara had been an agent only since March 2009--which made Julia's claim that the two of them had been co-agents since 2005 a bit puzzling. On investigation, none of Julia’s listed clients turned out to be published. Her sales claims didn't check out either--not just because no trace of either book titles or authors could be found, but because she reported selling to imprints that didn't exist, or that didn't accept the kind of book she said she'd sold. And the physical address she gave for her agency turned out to be bogus.

Writers began to smell a rat, and to say so in public. Complaints appeared on LinkedIn. One fed-up writer posted on her blog about her experience with Sara and then with Julia. Questions erupted on Julia's Facebook forum. Why the inconsistencies in Julia's professional info? Why the fake address? The weirdness of Sara dropping dead and Julia emerging out of thin air began to look even weirder--could Sara and Julia, with only an “e” of difference between their last names, possibly be the same person?

Apparently it all got to be too much for poor Julia. By mid-September, she'd deleted all her profiles, and vanished from the Internet.

Then, toward the end of September, I started getting questions about another Florida-based agent called Drew Montgomery, of Drew Montgomery Literary Associates. I'd never heard of Drew before, but a bit of Googling turned up profiles on MySpace, LinkedIn, and Facebook. According to the info there, Drew had been in business since 2000, had trained at the Glen Cravits Agency, and had recently made a number of sales to major publishing houses.

Ah, but those pesky inconsistencies. Drew didn’t provide authors or titles, so her sales claims couldn't be verified--plus, some of the publishers' names were mis-spelled or not quite correct, something you'd think an experienced literary agent would not get wrong. There was no trace of publication for any of Drew's named clients. Attempting to research the Glen Cravits Agency produced no evidence that it had ever existed. Drew's West Palm Beach snail mail address turned out to be a Barnes & Noble store elsewhere in Florida. And, oh yes--Drew had just announced an Open House event on Facebook, in order to recruit new clients.

This all seemed eerily familiar, and within a few days, I found out why. The owner of an agent tracking website emailed me to say that he'd been recently contacted by the now-vanished Julia Levin about a listing, which he refused because she couldn't prove she'd made any sales. About a week later, Drew Montgomery approached him with the same request. Since she couldn't prove any sales either (in contradiction to her various profiles, she claimed to be a brand-new agent), he gave her the same response. He happened to notice something odd, however: Drew's IP address was identical to Julia's.

So it seemed that Julia was attempting to rise again, under an (another?) assumed name.

Through October, I got a trickle of email inquiries about Drew, to which I responded with the info above (in condensed form). Then in November, I posted a warning to an Absolute Write discussion thread about Drew and her agency. A few days later, someone claiming to be one of Drew's clients showed up to defend her wonderful, terrific, fabulous agent against AW's cowardly attacks.

Now, this isn't an uncommon occurrence on AW, where discussion of marginal agents and publishers often spurs the emergence of sockpuppets, who not infrequently turn out to be the agents or publishers themselves, posting under aliases. But this sockpuppet event was especially amusing, because not only was the sockpuppet posting from Drew’s IP address, she was using Drew’s previous name. That's right: To defend herself against criticism, fake agent Drew Montgomery chose to present herself as fake client Julia Levin--despite the fact that, six posts up, I'd provided a complete account of her exploits under that name.

Called on this inept bit of attempted subterfuge, Drew/Julia did not back down (the caps are all hers).



You can imagine what happened next. Julia-Levin-the-client vanished in a puff of smoke, just like Julia-Levin-the-agent. Within a few days, Drew Montgomery was gone as well, all her social media profiles deleted.

Since then, I've been keeping my eye out for recurrences. There’ve been none so far...or have there? Doing research for this post today, I discovered something ominous: a LinkedIn listing for Drew Montgomery at The Montgomery Literary Agency. A sensible person might think it wise not to use that name again (even though she has changed the name of the agency)--but Drew, or whoever she is, has not proven herself to be very sensible. Or perhaps she’s just thrifty with her aliases.

What is it that cops say? It's a good thing so many criminals are so dumb.

UPDATE: Drew/Julia just can't quit it. She's now calling herself Julia Sarah Levin, and has established the Jane Dowary Agency. She still hasn't made any sales. See my blog post for more.

December 17, 2009

The UK's Society of Authors Issues Guidance on Ebooks

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Given Random House's recent claim on electronic rights in older contracts, Macmillan's recent announcement that it will be issuing "enhanced ebooks" simultaneously with some of its hardcover releases (and charging even more than for the hardcovers), and the thorny rights and payment issues raised by the rapid expansion of the ebook market, this seems an especially relevant piece of news: the UK's Society of Authors has issued guidelines on ebook licensing and royalties for authors and agents.

The full text of the statement (which I found via the excellent TeleRead blog) can be seen here. The guidelines are below, and seem to me to make a great deal of sense.

1. Consider granting publishers a licence for 10 or 20 years, rather than for the full duration of copyright;

2. Limit any grant of ebook rights to the verbatim text. Wider electronic rights (e.g. for enhanced ebooks) should be negotiated separately and only if there is a definite intention to exploit the rights.

3. Royalties on ebooks should be much higher than they are. Until the economics and scale of the market become clearer, we consider that publishers should share ebook income equally with their authors. In any event we particularly encourage authors to try to negotiate steep increases to their royalties at agreed sales thresholds (as publishers recoup their set up costs). When a book has become well-established, it may be reasonable for the author's share to rise to as much as 75%. On other forms of electronic access – e.g. rental and pay-per-view - authors should receive at least 50%, preferably nearer 85%, of the publisher's receipts.

In suggesting these royalties we have taken into account that:

(a) publishers need to cover their overheads and make a profit; but

(b) the direct costs of originating, producing and keeping an ebook ‘in print’ are low (e.g. no printing costs); and

(c) the cost of making an ebook available through a third party distributor such as Amazon is minimal. Publishers’ warehousing and distribution costs are eliminated, as are losses from dealing with returns and unsold stock.

4. Authors should have the right to initiate a review of ebook royalty rates every 2 years and have the right to insist that royalties be increased to match those then prevailing in the trade.

5. When enhanced ebooks are developed, authors should have the right to approve - and be involved in - adaptations, abridgements, and dramatizations, as well as decisions on musical, interactive or other embellishments.

6. Contracts must allow authors to regain rights, if they so choose, once sales have all but ceased. When the work is POD and / or ebook only authors should be able to terminate their publishing contract on one month’s notice if sales in the home market in traditional and/or electronic form fall below an agreed level (or if the author’s income falls below an agreed amount) over 12 months, once the advance has been earned or more than, say, three years have passed since publication, whichever is the sooner.

December 15, 2009

Authors Guild Statement on Random House's Rights Grab

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

I received the statement below this morning from the Authors Guild. I'm not happy with the Authors Guild these days, because of the debacle of the Google Book Search Settlement. But I agree with their position on Random House's recent attempt to claim electronic rights on backlist titles whose contracts do not include a grant of those rights.


On Friday, Random House CEO Markus Dohle sent a two-page letter to many literary agents regarding e-books. Much of the letter is devoted to Random House's efforts and investments to market traditional and electronic books.

On the second page, Mr. Dohle gets to the point. After noting that most of Random House's backlist titles grant the publisher electronic book rights (we agree, since most backlist titles are from the past ten years, a period in which authors have generally licensed electronic rights in tandem with their print rights), he writes that "there have been some misunderstandings concerning ebook rights in older backlist titles." He then proceeds to argue that older contracts granting rights to publish "in book form" or "in all editions" grant electronic rights to Random House.

The misunderstandings reside entirely with Random House. Random House quite famously changed its standard contract to include e-book rights in 1994. (We remember it well -- Random House tried to secure these rights for royalties of 5% of net proceeds, a pittance. We called it a "Land Grab on the Electronic Frontier" in our press release headline.) Random House felt the need to change its contract, quite plainly, because its authors did not grant those rights to it under Random House's standard contracts prior to 1994.

A fundamental principle of book contracts is that the grant of rights is limited. Publishers acquire only the rights that they bargain for; authors retain rights they have not expressly granted to publishers. E-book rights, under older book contracts, were retained by the authors.

There's no need to take our word for this, however. A federal court in 2001 examined this precise matter in Random House v. Rosetta Books. Judge Stein of the Southern District of New York was unequivocal in his 10-page decision: authors did not grant publishers the e-book rights in the old book contracts at issue. Judge Stein specifically dismissed notions, raised by Mr. Dohle in his letter to agents, that the non-compete clauses of these old contracts in some manner acted to grant Random House electronic rights to the works, saying that this "reasoning turns the analysis on its head." The court pointed out that the license of rights comes solely from the contract's grant language, not from the non-compete clause, and that non-competition clauses, to be enforceable, have to be narrowly construed. Using the non-compete clause to secure future rights is unsustainable. An appellate court affirmed Judge Stein's decision.

We are sympathetic with the difficult position the publishing industry is in at the moment. The recession has been tough on book publishing, as it has been on many industries. And everyone with knowledge of the dynamics of the industry properly fears that Amazon's dominance of the online markets for traditional and especially e-books will give it a chokehold on industry profits. Difficult times, however, do not justify this attempt at a retroactive rights grab.

It's regrettable and unhelpful that Random House has chosen to try to intimidate authors and agents over these old book contracts. With such a weak legal hand, it would be well advised to stick to its strength -- the advantages that its marketing muscle can provide owners of e-book rights. It should also start offering a fair royalty for those rights. Authors and publishers have traditionally split the proceeds from book sales. Most sublicenses, for example, provide for a 50/50 split of proceeds, and the standard trade book royalty of 15% of the hardcover retail price, back in the days that industry standard was established, represented about 50% of the net proceeds of the sale of the book. We're confident that the current practice of paying 25% of net on e-books will not, in the long run, prevail. Savvy agents are well aware of this. The only reason e-book royalty rates are so low right now is that so little attention has been paid to them: sales were simply too low to scrap over. That's beginning to change.

If you have an old book contract in which you haven't granted e-book rights, patience is likely to pay off. The e-book industry is still young -- there's no need to jump in. And we strongly suspect e-royalty rates are at a low-water mark.

December 14, 2009

One Week, Two Big Pieces of Ebook News

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Last week, the publishing world was abuzz with news that Simon & Schuster, Hachette, and HarperCollins intend to delay the release of ebook versions of most of their hardcover titles by three or four months, rather than releasing the ebooks simultaneously with hardcovers (this delaying process is known as "windowing," and publishers have historically used it to separate hardcover and paperback editions, allowing the more expensive and therefore more profitable hardcover to build sales before issuing the cheaper paperback). According to Carolyn Reidy of S&S, "The right place for the e-book is after the hardcover but before the paperback."

Predictable outcry ensued from ebook enthusiasts, and just about anyone with a beef against large commercial publishers. S&S, Hachette, and Harper were accused of being dinosaurs, of shooting themselves in the foot by alienating readers, of trying to delay ebook adoption out of fear or greed, of clinging to processes and categories that the digital age, young as it is, has rendered obsolete.

There were also more nuanced responses. Jane Litte at Dear Author provided a fact-filled survey of windowing arguments. Ron Hogan at GalleyCat also looked at the arguments, observing that "if you want to create an enduring hardcover-digital-paperback cycle, you need to convince readers, especially digital-embracing readers, that this cycle offers them genuine value". Very interesting was Mike Shatzkin's speculation that, rather than wallowing in the dustbin of publishing history, the publishers are actually attempting to curb the might of Amazon, and take back control of ebook pricing. And I agree with this comment from Craig Morgan Teicher at eBook Newser:

Underlying these questions is the deeper question of what exactly an eBook is relative to a hardcover: is an eBook, like a paperback, a cheaper version of a hardcover? Or is it something entirely different, a new format for which there is no precident in previous publishing models?

Which segues nicely into the second big piece of ebook news that broke last week. As reported by PW and the New York Times, Markus Dohle of Random House sent a letter on Friday to dozens of literary agents, claiming that the company’s older contracts give it the exclusive right to publish in ebook form, even where the contracts pre-date the existence of digital formats and/or their language does not mention electronic rights. From the letter:

Our older agreements often give the exclusive right to "publish in book form" or "in any and all editions"...Such grants are usually not limited to any specific format, and indeed the "form" of the book has evolved over the years to include variations of hardcover, paperback, and other written formats, all of which have been understood to be included in the grant of book publishing rights...Whether physical or digital, the product is used and experienced in the same manner, serves the same function, and satisfies the same fundamental urge...Accordingly, Random House considers contracts that grant exclusive rights to publish "in book form" or "in any and all editions" to include the exclusive right to publish in electronic book formats.

The claim appears to have been spurred by RH's efforts to digitize its backlist (and also, no doubt, by the accumulating evidence that electronic rights are on track to become extremely valuable--something that, pre-Kindle, was not at all apparent). The Times also speculates that RH is concerned about competition from startups like Open Road Integrated Media, which has signed agreements to produce ebook versions of the work of RH's William Styron, among others.

RH's use of the terms "in book form" and "in any and all editions" suggests that it considers e-rights to be part of the primary grant of rights (since that's typically where these terms occur). An argument can be made against this, since many publishing contracts treat them as a subsidiary right, possibly to be negotiated separately (for instance, my most recent contract with Harper required the publisher to come back to the negotiating table if it decided to license or exercise e-rights). Also of concern: there's no wording in pre-digital contracts to address the rights reversion problems posed by always-in-print electronic editions. Unless that's dealt with in whatever addendum or amendments RH plans to offer to authors with older contracts, those authors may find it extremely difficult ever to regain their rights.

This is actually the second time RH has attempted to lay claim to electronic rights in pre-digital contracts. In 2001, a number of authors (including Mr. Styron) signed ebook contracts with epublishing startup Rosetta Books, reasoning that, since their contracts pre-dated the existence of ebooks, they could dispose of e-rights as they chose. RH filed suit, with the same claim it's making now: that the right to publish "in book form" includes not just print, but digital, and Rosetta was therefore committing copyright infringement.

The courts did not agree. RH's request for a preliminary injunction was denied by a federal judge, who ruled, on the basis of RH's own contract language, that "the right 'to print, publish, and sell the work[s] in book form'...does not include the right to publish in the format that has come to be known as the 'ebook.'" (An analysis of that decision can be found here.) An appellate court, to which the decision was appealed, agreed. The parties eventually settled, with Rosetta agreeing to pay licensing fees to RH.

So what does it all mean? Are ebook delays, and RH's electronic rights grab, part of the painful but necessary experiments that accompany all paradigm shifts, or the death throes of dinosaurs? In the discussion of ebooks, ebook readers, and digital issues in general, there's much that's murky--but the one thing that is very clear, at least to me, is that no one knows exactly where any of it is going. Plenty of people think they do--especially those who daily declare the imminent death of publishing as we know it. But prognostication only serves itself, since in the end, most of it turns out to be bunk.

Personally, I think it's more interesting just to watch what happens.

December 10, 2009

Hudson Audio Publishing

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Lately I've been getting a lot of questions from writers who've been solicited by Hudson Audio Publishing (which appears to be engaging in a major spam campaign).

Per Hudson's website,

Hudson Audio Publishing is a boutique service company that specializes in assisting:
- Self published authors
- Unpublished authors
- Seminar speakers
- Owners of quality audio material
to get their works converted into audio books and sold through the three largest audio book distribution platforms in the world - Amazon, Audible and iTunes.

How does it work? You can record your book yourself, using free or low-cost software, in which case there's no upfront fee due to Hudson (verbiage on the website suggests that this fee-freeness is temporary). Or you can pay Hudson to do it for you, using (they say) professional voice talent, which on average (they say) will cost between $1,500 and $2,500. Royalties aren't overly generous (if you grant Hudson a 5-year exclusive license, you get 20% of net; for a non-exclusive license for a similar term, you get 12% of net) but Hudson takes only digital download audio rights, leaving other rights free.

(This is a limited claim on rights, but it's still a claim. Despite that, and despite the fact that it calls itself Hudson Audio Publishing, Hudson alleges that it is not, in fact, a publisher.)

Basically, Hudson is self-publishing for audiobooks. I would imagine it carries about the same chances of success as print and electronic self-publishing (i.e., small sales and exposure for the average writer--depending, of course, on any individual writer's definition of "success"). Another consideration: people who buy audiobooks don't want to hear a bad reader droning on. They expect the books to be engagingly and expressively read. Can you do this yourself? Do you even want to? If you're pondering using Hudson's voice talent, however, there's a concern beyond the substantial expense: is the talent really professional? It would be a good idea to obtain a couple of Hudson's non-author-read audiobooks, just to make sure.

Something else to take into account: the audiobook market is small, a fact not noted by the hype-ish coverage on Hudson's website. According to the Audio Publishers Association, revenue reported by member companies in 2008 was $331 million, with total estimated revenue for the audiobook industry of close to $1 billion--around 4%, my calculator informs me, of $24.3 billion in total book sales for the same period. And just as audio books are a fraction of the book market, digital downloads are a fraction of audio sales: just 21%, according to the APA. Digital downloads increased their market share in 2008 (up from 17% in 2007), but APA members' total revenue slipped 6.7%.

If you are willing and able to read your book yourself, you probably don't have much to lose by using Hudson (though be aware that there are other free or low-cost options for turning your book into, for instance). If you're considering paying for voice talent, however, do shop around--there are a number of companies that offer audio self-publishing for a fee, such as Spoken Books Publishing (a division of self-publishing service, or, if you're enterprising, you may be able to create your script, hire the voice talent, and book the studio yourself.

Most important: be sure to evaluate whether it's really worthwhile to spend a lot of money to launch yourself into such a limited market.

December 7, 2009

Author Solutions CEO Responds to Harlequin/Nelson Flap

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Kevin Weiss, President and CEO of Author Solutions Inc., has issued a video statement addressing the responses by RWA, SFWA, MWA, and NINC to ASI's recent partnerships with commercial publishers in launching pay-to-publish divisions.

According to ASI's press release about the video statement,

Weiss takes exception to these guilds' position that only traditionally-published books can succeed. "There are plenty of books in traditional publishing today that just don't make it; it's a hits business," Weiss said. "It's why the publishing industry is going through a transformation today and the consumer has everything to say about what is good content and what isn't good content. To say that in order for a book to make it in the marketplace it has to blessed by a traditional publisher doesn't make any sense in 2009."

Which of course is not at all what the various "guilds'" statements said, but oh well. Weiss also scolds the "guilds" for being backward-looking, but does not address the conflict-of-interest and deceptive advertising concerns raised by several of the statements.

(Both Harlequin and Thomas Nelson are mentioned in the video, but the press release names only Harlequin--likely because Nelson has not, to date, been the target of the same level of criticism. This is unfair, in my view--I see no reason why, since Harlequin has been pilloried for DellArte Press, Nelson should be getting practically a free pass with West Bow Press.)

December 4, 2009

Mystery Writers of America Delists Harlequin

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Today, Mystery Writers of America announced its Board's unanimous decision to remove Harlequin and all its imprints from MWA's list of Approved Publishers, effective immediately, as a result of Harlequin's recent rollout of DellArte Press, a pay-to-publish division.

The official announcement is below.

MWA Board member Lee Goldberg's blog includes the announcement, as well as the text of MWA's official decision, and a letter from Donna Hayes, Harlequin's CEO, in response to MWA's expressions of concern.


The Board of Mystery Writers of America voted unanimously on Wednesday to remove Harlequin and all of its imprints from our list of Approved Publishers, effective immediately. We did not take this action lightly. We did it because Harlequin remains in violation of our rules regarding the relationship between a traditional publisher and its various for-pay services.

What does this mean for current and future MWA members?

Any author who signs with Harlequin or any of its imprints from this date onward may not use their Harlequin books as the basis for active status membership nor will such books be eligible for Edgar® Award consideration. However books published by Harlequin under contracts signed before December 2, 2009 may still be the basis for Active Status membership and will still be eligible for Edgar® Award consideration (you may find the full text of the decision at the end of this bulletin).

Although Harlequin no longer offers its eHarlequin Critique Service and has changed the name of its pay-to-publish service, Harlequin still remains in violation of MWA rules regarding the relationship between a traditional publisher and its various for-pay services.

MWA does not object to Harlequin operating a pay-to-publish program or other for-pay services. The problem is HOW those pay-to-publish programs and other for-pay services are integrated into Harlequin's traditional publishing business. MWA’s rules for publishers state:

"The publisher, within the past five years, may not have charged a fee to consider, read, submit, or comment on manuscripts; nor may the publisher, or any of the executives or editors under its employ, have offered authors self-publishing services, literary representation, paid editorial services, or paid promotional services.

If the publisher is affiliated with an entity that provides self-publishing, for-pay editorial services, or for-pay promotional services, the entities must be wholly separate and isolated from the publishing entity. They must not share employees, manuscripts, or authors or interact in any way. For example, the publishing entity must not refer authors to any of the for-pay entities nor give preferential treatment to manuscripts submitted that were edited, published, or promoted by the for-pay entity.

To avoid misleading authors, mentions and/or advertisements for the for-pay entities shall not be included with information on manuscript submission to the publishing company. Advertising by the publisher's for-pay editorial, self-publishing or promotional services, whether affiliated with the publisher or not, must include a disclaimer that it is advertising and that use of those services offered by an affiliate of the publisher will not affect consideration of manuscripts submitted for publication."

Harlequin's Publisher and CEO Donna Hayes responded to our November 9 letter, and a follow up that we sent on November 30. In her response, which we have posted on the MWA website, Ms. Hayes states that Harlequin intends as standard practice to steer the authors that it rejects from its traditional publishing imprints to DellArte and its other affiliated, for-pay services. In addition, Harlequin mentions on the DellArte site that editors from its traditional publishing imprints will be monitoring DellArte titles for possible acquisition. It is this sort of integration that violates MWA rules.

MWA has a long-standing regard for the Harlequin publishing house and hopes that our continuing conversations will result in a change in their policies and the reinstatement of the Harlequin imprints to our approved list of publishers.

Frankie Y. Bailey,
Executive Vice President, MWA

December 2, 2009

Blurred Distinctions: Vanity Publishing vs. Self-Publishing

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Of the many issues highlighted by the recent launch of pay-to-publish divisions by two major commercial publishers (Harlequin Enterprises' DellArte Press--nee Harlequin Horizons--and Thomas Nelson's West Bow Press), one of the most interesting, to me, is how blurred the distinction between self-publishing and vanity publishing has become.

Like many other changes in and around the publishing world, we owe it all digital technology. Pre-digital, self-publishing meant that you became your own publisher, undertaking or contracting out every aspect of the job yourself--from editing to design to printing/binding to warehousing to sales (famous example: What Color Is Your Parachute?). Vanity publishing meant that you paid a company to do it all for you (examples: Vantage Press, Dorrance Publishing). Although the end result was similar (since either way, you paid the full cost of production and had to store and sell the books yourself), self-publishing provided greater control over quality and cost.

In the late 1990's, a different kind of vanity publisher began appearing: one that took advantage of the then-new print-on-demand technology. Because the books were produced on demand on glorified photocopiers, rather than in quantity on offset presses, these new digitally-based vanity publishers could charge much lower prices, as well as eliminate the problems of storage and unsold stock. There was even some degree of distribution, via Internet booksellers such as Amazon. Writers paid an initial setup fee, and the company recouped production costs at the point of sale, keeping the lion's share of profits and paying the author a "royalty." (Among the first digital vanities: AuthorHouse and iUniverse, both now owned by Author Solutions).

Looking for a way to set themselves apart from the expensive offset vanities of old, and also for a stigma-free term they could use in advertising, these new companies dubbed themselves "self-publishing services." This has been the accepted term for fee-based digital publishing ever since--even as the costs have skyrocketed to old-fashioned offset vanity press levels, even as the old offset vanities have gone digital, even as major commercial publishers have begun experimenting with fee-based publishing, even as ambitious publishing service conglomerates like Author Solutions attempt to confuse the issue even further by re-christening themselves "independent publishers."

This is the answer to one of the questions I've seen asked over the past couple of weeks: how Harlequin could have failed to understand that DellArte Press was not self-publishing, but vanity publishing. The kind of service offered by DellArte has been called "self-publishing" since the late 1990's, with little criticism or protest. For many if not most people, AuthorHouse, iUniverse, and their kin have become the standard definition of self-publishing. (Example: when Lisa Genova's iUniverse-published book, Still Alice, got picked up by a commercial publisher, the extensive news coverage described her as a "self-published author," and no one disputed that designation.) For a sizeable group of writers, this method of publishing has even become an ideological position, with iUniverse, Lulu and others supposedly leveling the field by allowing writers to bypass slow, exclusionary, and behemothic "traditional" publishers, while avoiding the DIY hassle of true self-publishing.

There's been a lot of effort, in the discussion over DellArte (and, to a much lesser extent, West Bow), to establish an unambiguous dividing line between "self-publishing" and "vanity publishing." Is self-publishing keeping 100% of the profit from sales? Is it owning your ISBN number? If the company that produces your book takes a cut, or if you use its ISBN, are you by definition vanity published, even if you didn't pay an upfront fee? Is any print-on-demand publishing service vanity publishing, or are there meaningful differences between them? There's also been discussion of how the pejorative connotations of "vanity" distort the discourse. Some feel that the term should be retired--but coming up with a new term is difficult.

These are all relevant questions. But I think that the lines between self-publishing and vanity publishing have become so hopelessly blurred, both by custom and ideology, that crafting an authoritative set of definitions is impossible (not to mention, no matter what one comes up with, someone is always bound to disagree). I think it makes more sense to see fee-based publishing as a continuum, with true self-publishing and full-on vanity publishing as the extremes, and many variations in between.

Moreover, beyond matters of terminology, or the ethical concerns that arise when commercial publishers attempt to monetize their slush piles by setting up their own pay-to-play publishing divisions, there's a much more fundamental question: no matter who offers it or what it's called, is paying to publish a good choice for authors? In some cases, the answer will be yes (in which case the writer must then decide which kind of fee-based publishing best suits his or her needs). In many others, it will be no.

In the end, what's important is that writers know their goals, do their research, understand the challenges, ignore the hype, and do their best to make an informed decision. Wishful thinking, I know. Still, I live in hope.


Having said all of the above, I'm going to add to the confusion by offering my own set of definitions.

When the DellArte discussion began, I felt it was fair to make a distinction between vanity publishers (fee-based publishers that presented themselves as publishers, rather than as publishing services) and digital publishing services like AuthorHouse, which were perhaps not entirely forthright in their presentation of the issues surrounding fee-based publishing, but at least didn't try to pretend to be something they weren't. On reflection, however, I feel that in terms of hype, expense, and value, there's not a hair's worth of difference in most cases. There is, however, a subset of digital publishing services that do provide something different (IMO, anyway), as you'll see below.

So here goes: My attempt to define the major points on the continuum of fee-based publishing.

Self-publishing. I described this above: you handle or contract out all aspects of production and marketing yourself, from editing, to design, to printing/binding, to warehousing, to selling. In true self-publishing, you own your ISBN number (it has also been pointed out to me that some self-publishers don't use ISBNs), and keep all sales proceeds. You do not grant or encumber your publishing rights in any way.

Assisted self-publishing. Assisted self-publishing companies charge no setup or other fees (although most sell a variety of add-ons, some quite expensive), recoup production costs at the point of sale, and make their money by keeping a cut of profits (you can usually determine what the profit is by setting your own price). They'll provide their own ISBN, or let you use or buy yours. To enable the company to produce your book, you may be required to grant nonexclusive publishing rights (terminable at will), and to indemnify it against legal action. Examples: Lulu, Cafe Press, Blurb, CreateSpace (although with CreateSpace and BookSurge merging, that may change).

Vanity publishing. Any kind of publishing or publishing service that requires you to pay an upfront or setup fee. This would include print-on-demand publishing services like the Author Solutions brands, former offset vanities like Dorrance Publishing that now use a digital model, and book manufacturers like Brown Books that offer a more elaborate (and more expensive) service, but also the option of short-run printing. Such companies handle the entire publishing process for you, and may or may not exercise some degree of selectivity. In return, you grant publishing rights (usually nonexclusive and terminable at will), accept the company's ISBN and pricing structure, and are paid a pre-set "royalty." While not attempting to conceal the fact that they charge fees, or pretending to match your resources with their own, these companies can be quite misleading in their presentation of the benefits of fee-based publishing.

Deceptive vanity publishing. Fee-based publishers that pretend to be something else--whether by failing to reveal their fees on their websites or in their promotional materials (SterlingHouse Publisher, Strategic Book Publishing), charging fees for something other than printing and binding (such as requiring or pressuring authors to buy their own books--American Book Publishing, Anomalous Press, VMI Publishers), claiming to match authors' fees with their own money or resources (Commonwealth Publications, Northwest Publishing), or denying that they are vanity or subsidy publishers despite charging a fee (Tate Publishing).
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