I recently received an email from an author who wrote to me wanting to know why he wasn’t seeing a bump in sales from the novel that he’d recently published for the Kindle. So, I figured I’d take a look and see if I could come up with any pithy words of wisdom, but discovered that he’d fallen into the trap of the good ol’ “vanity press”.
Pulling up the book on Amazon, three things immediately caught my eye. The first was the image of the cover. As I’ve harped on a number of times, and readers can likely attest, if the cover doesn’t catch the reader’s eye, the chances of them going further down the path to buying the book dry up rapidly. The cover on this book, which dealt with a pretty intense sci-fi topic, looked – literally – like a grade schooler had drawn it with pencil and overlaid the title and by-line in text with Microsoft Paint. If the title text hadn’t been there, I would have thought the book was some sort of kid’s comic art thing.
Note that I am not dissing the author. I am simply pointing out a brutal fact: good cover art will help sell books. Crappy cover art will do the opposite. Like it or not, a good cover is the first step to getting a reader’s attention, which is essential if you’re going to sell books (readers, back me up here!). So if you can’t do it yourself, pay a starving artist to do it for you. There are tons of talented folks out there in places like DeviantART. Seek and ye shall find.
The second thing was the price. The digital list price (which is essentially the base retail price) was $9.99, which Amazon was discounting to $7.69. In this day and age, almost no one is going to pay this much for a book by an unknown author, especially one that has a cover like this one does. Why should any reader pay that much, when there are tons of great books out there for prices ranging from free to $4.99? Heck, I’ve given up on some of my favorite authors from the Big 6 publishers because I refuse to pay the ridiculous prices they’re demanding, which are sometimes more than the paperback price. And an unknown indie trying to charge this much and make any significant moolah? Good luck, my friend.
Now, authors debate all day and night about what the “right” price is for a book: $0.99, $1.99, $2.99, $4.99 – whatever, take your pick. But I can tell you what is NOT the right price, and that’s seven, eight, nine or more bucks for an author who has yet to develop a significant (by that, I mean somewhere in the thousands) readership.
The third thing was that the catalog entry for this book had no blurb, no description of the story it contained. All it had was a brief author bio listed under editorial reviews. This is an absolute killer. Who’s going to buy a book that doesn’t even have a description on the catalog page, especially with the first two strikes against it?
This is when I happened to look at who was listed as the publisher: AuthorHouse. The flashing red alarm beacon went off.
AuthorHouse is what many of us snobby author types call a vanity press. Why? Because you, the author, pay someone else to publish your book. There are a number of these companies around, although many of them have consolidated in recent years. They offer a variety of “packages” to help you publish your book.
In the case of AuthorHouse, that ranges from $349 for a basic ebook package to – as best I could tell – a whopping $8,499 for their “Showcase” package. There was also another one, just an email marketing campaign to reach “10 million opted-in e-mail recipients” for a paltry $9,996 (one-time send, and you apparently don’t actually get the list, it seems like they just send the email out to their own list).
But one of the things they apparently don’t do (at least from what I could tell) is actually provide editing services as part of these packages, which is the most important thing your book needs.
Holy crap. Listen, here’s the deal. If you’ve got that kind of money to blow, send it to my PayPal account and then go watch Spongebob Squarepants. Your book sales will be about the same as spending it on one of these publishing deals, except I’ll gladly make you some chocolate chip pancakes that you can enjoy while watching Spongebob. Seriously, if you’ve got that amount of money, stick it in a CD or something and let it work for you. You’ve got some work of your own to do, and it’s something none of these vanity press places can or will do for you.
You can do by yourself just about everything any of these companies can do and reap three vital benefits: control of critical things like pricing, getting a bigger cut of the royalties, and saving your freakin’ money. If you publish direct via Amazon’s Kindle publishing platform, Barnes & Noble’s Pubit service, and Smashwords, you’ll have 95% of ebook market covered; for print use CreateSpace or Lightning Source to get your books to the big online retailers (note: forget bookstores, you can’t offer print books at a sufficient margin for them to make the sort of profit they want).
For those things you may not feel like you can do yourself, like cover art or formatting, or even the whole process of taking your manuscript and getting it published, there are whole cottage industries out there with people who can help you do those things a la carte, and most will cost you a lot less (sometimes even free) than even the $300-400 base package cost offered by a lot of these services, and you’ll still have full control and a full cut of the royalties.
“But hey, these vanity press companies do press releases and other stuff!” If you want to do press releases, you can do those yourself, free. Personally, though, I’ve tried them and I don’t think they’ll do a thing unless, like any other part of your marketing strategy, you do them consistently over a long period of time. That’s what I do on Twitter and Facebook (and should be doing on Google+), and with work and time it’s paid off very handsomely. But that’s the thing: marketing and promotion is something you, the author, have to work on every single day. None of the stuff that these places offer will ever take the place of that, no matter how much money you shovel in their direction.
Listen, I know several authors personally who’ve locked themselves into deals with these companies where their books are priced way out of the market, and they’re stuck until the terms of the agreement run out. On top of that, they’ll have to sell thousands of books to have any hope of even recouping the cost of what they spent on their publishing package. It’s really outrageous.
To me, that’s really the bottom line, and why these things are called “vanity press” – if you want your book published, you pay somebody to do it and it’s done. You spent a bunch of money to “become an author”. Congratulations.
But if you want to do this for a business, to make real money at it, what you don’t want is to a) have to pay a bucket of money up front after you’ve done most of the hard work writing the book to begin with, and b) to have someone else skimming a big chunk of whatever royalty you might get from what are almost always grossly overpriced books (which, by the way, won’t sell worth a dang because nobody is willing to pay that much past your immediate family and friends).
So, when it comes to going with one of these places like AuthorHouse, my recommendation is, as Arnold Schwarzenegger might say, “Don’t do dat.” Do your homework on the web about true self-publishing, figure out those things like cover art that you need someone else to do, and spend your precious cash on those things while reaping the greatest long-term financial rewards for yourself.