Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Notes from the Publishing Revolution

Jerry Stratton, August 24, 2001

One of the most exciting things happening in the book world today is the use of the Internet to market publishing services directly to authors. I’ve already read six books that I would never have read if the authors hadn’t self-published them, and it is unlikely that these authors would have self-published if it had meant finding a printer, warehousing their book supply, setting up a business, and finding a distribution chain. These books range from experimental fiction (Idiots, Imbeciles, and Morons) to controversial memoirs (Hitler’s Last Courier) to unpopular politics (This Is Not An Assault).

If you are thinking about using a publishing services provider, make sure you answer the following questions, and understand the answers:

  1. What rights do they take? They should take none unless they give you something tangible back. You are not being accepted by a publisher. You are hiring someone to print your books. If they try to tell you otherwise, be careful.
  2. What is the retail price of your book going to be? What will consumers have to pay to buy your book? How many books have you purchased at that price in the past?
  3. What price do they charge bookstores to buy your book? This price should be at least 30% below the retail price. Preferably, it should be 40% to 55% below the retail price (depending on whether they have separate prices for bookstores and distributors, the latter of which should get a discount in the 45% to 55% range).
  4. What price do they charge you to buy your book?
  5. Whatever the answers, would you buy books like this at this price in this manner? If so, how many have you purchased already?

I see self-publishing as a natural progression of the difficulty that authors have in finding publishers. First, authors found it difficult to access publishers directly, so they began to search out agents; the notion of finding an agent before an author had ever been published was almost laughable when it first began to happen. Now it is not only accepted, but recommended. But today,even finding an agent is a difficult process. Agents are swamped with submissions, especially of novels. As authors begin to use publishing services to jump-start their books, however, it will go from being viewed as a loser’s choice to the first rung in “getting published”. Within ten years, an author whose novel hasn’t been successful as a self-published venture will find it difficult to get publishers to take their work seriously.

Looked at that way, the publishing services revolution doesn’t look very good for the individual author; it becomes just another hurdle that they must go through to “be published”. The wild card, however, is whether or not the Internet or other technological or social advancement will allow authors to successfully mass market their works without the assistance of publisher-level budgets. The crystal ball is still murky. It will require the availability of marketing services to augment publishing services. That is, after all, where traditional publishers with their greater marketing dollars excel. It may be that the Internet will allow self-published authors to compete with those dollars, or it may not. Even if it will, there will be many false prophets before marketing services providers become established and trustworthy. Just as, today, there are many false prophets in the publishing services world.

What are my credentials? Well, I haven’t successfully published a book via a hired publishing services company. On the other hand, I have talked personally with an XLibris VP (who appears to have way too much time, and may be doubling as the garage door opener), and have successfully avoided publishing with any number of poor providers.

What I write here, I write only from the experience of having canvassed the contracts and reputations of every publishing services company I could find.

The number one question you have to ask yourself before hiring a publishing services provider is, why do you want to hire out publishing services at all? You will be paying more for your books than you would if you hired a printer to print them yourself. You’ll have to pay an upfront fee and you won’t get any books (or perhaps, one or two) from that. You will be relying on a third party’s expertise to keep your book both in print and available.

It’s the last part that’s important to me. A publishing services provider does more than just print books. They deal with the printer (usually a print-on-demand printer), so I don’t have to. They make sure that my book is available for order from Ingram or Baker & Taylor, or both, so that bookstores can order it. They make sure that my book is available for order from Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.com. And when someone orders my book, the order goes to them, and the book is sent by them. I don’t have to warehouse hundreds or thousands of copies of my book in my three-room apartment. I don’t have to box up books for shipment to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Ingram. They will accept payments; I don’t have to set myself up as a business with credit card access. They will, in fact, do everything except write my book (which I want to do) and market my book (which I accept that I currently have to do).

Most publishing services providers use “print-on-demand” to print their books, which promises low inventory, easy fixing of errors, and near-infinite virtual shelf space. A good publishing services provider will handle printing, ISBN, Library of Congress Numbers, distribution, ordering, returns, bar codes, listing for distribution, e-book formats, and even copyright. (Although you may find that copyright is easy enough to do yourself and save a few bucks.)

I have far too many things I want to write to waste my time running a full-time business. If I can hire someone else to handle as much of the business end as possible, I will have more time to write the books I want to write.

Guidelines:

These are the guidelines I’ve formulated in my search for a reliable and useful publishing services provider.

Check out every promise

Do they promise a Library of Congress Control Number? Go to the Library of Congress and do a “Guided Search” on the publisher name in “Keyword Anywhere”. See how many books show up; then, find some recent books and see if they show up. XLibris, for example, has books show up—but no recent ones. They claim that it takes a year to get listed. Other publishers, including other POD publishers, can get their books listed in a month (Janet Elain Smith’s Marylebone, published through FirstPublish, is already listed and it only became available this month). Do they claim availability on Amazon? Barnes & Noble? Go to those sites—Amazon even lets you do a search on Publisher and see all of a publisher’s books. IndyPublish, which otherwise looks good, claims that they are “swamped” with work… but only a handful of their books show up on Amazon as I write this.

Read the contract

How easy is it to find the contract on their web site? How easy is it for them to change the contract after you sign it? (XLibris has a wonderful contract, which can be found from almost every page on their site. But the contract allows them to change the retail price of your book at any time, and as I write this on August 24, the retail prices for XLibris books is scheduled to increase drastically on September 1… and there is no indication of this in the contract.)

You are not accepted

Remember that you are not “being accepted by” a publisher. You are hiring printing and distribution services. You are giving them money in exchange for certain services rendered. You are self-publishing the book yourself; for all practical purposes, you are the publisher, not them. They should not take rights from you without giving you something in return other than the services that you are paying for. For example, the iUniverse contract specifies that they are allowed to sell your book for a full year after you leave them. It might sound innocuous on the surface, but what if you are accepted by a publisher after self-publishing with iUniverse? The publisher is not likely to want to market your book when someone else—iUniverse—has the right to take advantage of that marketing. Look very carefully at subsidiary rights. Even if they only take “reasonable” subsidiary rights, make sure you know what happens if you leave the service after they’ve farmed those rights out to someone else.

Look on Google

Look up the service’s name on the newsgroups and discussion groups! You’ll often find useful information about a company that the company is not publicizing. For example, as I write this, XLibris is planning to drastically increase the retail price of your book on September 1, less than a week away. But you wouldn’t know this by visiting the XLibris web site. A search for “XLibris” on Google’s Usenet search will inform you of this, however. You will also find the Yahoo Print-On-Demand egroup useful. From these groups, you may also find special groups dedicated to a single service provider, where you will be able to find even more information about how satisfied that provider’s customers are, and how that provider treats their customers (the customer is you, the author).

You may also find out how the provider advertises their work. 1stBooks Library is known for its spam; and if you look up the parent of Write to Print, you’ll find that they might also—it appears that they spam in the guise of customer raves.

When doing your Google search, don’t just search on the publisher’s name. Try to narrow down to the good stuff and bad stuff: look for “trouble”, “problems”, “success”, and “help”. Do this in both the web search and the discussion search. Look up the CEO’s name, alone and in combination with the provider’s name.

Remember that there will be bad and good posts for just about any company that lots of people use. You’ll have to examine the tone of individual posts, the consistency, and how their experiences are likely to apply to you. And remember that just because it’s posted on a computer screen that doesn’t mean it is reliable. People can lie about being customers (they might be employees of the provider, or employees of the competition), and they can lie about their experiences (some people expect publishing services providers to treat them as a publisher treats an author, and get angry when this doesn’t happen).

It is especially important to remember that this field is relatively young. A company that was very good a year or two ago might be completely different today. Companies can change when the money starts to run out, or when new officers take over, or when private stock exchanges hands. (It is even possible, though rarer, for companies to change for the better. But usually, a company that decides to take advantage of customers through deception isn’t going to change into a company you’ll want to do business with.)

Where do they make their money?

You want to know that they are not going to try to scam you to make money, and that they are in fact profitable enough to stay in business. Unless they are a public company, you’ll probably have to ask them and then investigate their answers. A deal that looks too good to be true probably is.

How much information do they have on-line?

All basic information, such as pricing or services offered, should be available on the provider’s web site or in the provider’s printed brochure. Companies that force you to call them for basic pricing and services information are doing so for a reason. Either they are very unprofessional and haven’t even set a standardized pricing structure yet, or, more likely, they want to gauge your pocketbook before they tell you their price; they might also want to avoid committing “in writing” to services or levels of service that they cannot meet. Be very wary of any company that prefers voice communication in lieu of written communication when describing services or prices. Verbal promises are much easier to deny than written ones, and it is much easier to add additional fees to verbal quotes.

Would you buy this book?

Look at the way readers will have to buy your book, and think about how you buy books. Would you, personally, buy a book at the same price and in the same manner as this services provider sells them? Have you, in the past? Some services providers expect readers to buy directly from the publisher. When was the last time you did this? Personally, I feel that any services provider that tries to downplay the importance of traditional booksellers, especially on-line booksellers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble, does not understand how readers buy. Don’t expect your readers to act differently than yourself, unless you have real, concrete reasons to believe that they will do so. If you are unwilling to purchase a $25 paperback directly from a publisher, don’t expect your readers to do so.

Price is perhaps the most important aspect of this. Would you buy your book at this price if someone else had written it? Be honest with yourself. If you say yes, than have you, in the past?

Would you as an individual go directly to a publisher’s web site to order a book? If you say yes, then have you, in the past? What is the delay time for this provider’s books at the standard on-line bookstores? Would you order a book with that delay time? Have you, in the past?

Would your bookstore order this book?

Look for their discount structure as well. If they have low discounts, distributors and bookstores are not going to want to carry your work. And the worse your discount is, the more actively they will fight their customers to avoid carrying or even special-ordering your books.

As near as I can tell, the ‘standard’ discount to distributors is 55%, possibly sometimes 50%. The ‘standard’ discount to booksellers is 40%. If you expect to sell through bookstores, you will want to get as close to these discounts as possible, and the important one is the distributor discount, because bookstores aren’t going to want to deal directly with your publishing services provider. It’s far too time-consuming for them to deal with every publisher in the world. Being able to buy from a distributor makes it a whole lot easier for them, and you want to make it easy for them to get your book if you plan on selling through on-line or brick & mortar bookstores.

Order a book

Order a book printed by the services provider before giving them money! In fact, order two. If they aren’t printing at least two books that you would want to buy, be careful. But don’t order it from the publisher. Order it in the manner you expect your readers to order your book. If you expect most of your sales to come from local bookstores, go to your local bookstore and give them the title and author of the book you’ve chosen. If you expect them to order from Amazon, go to the Amazon web site and order the book you’ve chosen. Look at all aspects of the ordering process. What does it cost? (Some POD books actually cost more than their suggested retail price—this usually indicates that the publisher is having problems with delivery, or is not giving the retailer a high enough discount.) How long does it take to arrive? (When I ordered an XLibris hardcover through Amazon, Amazon actually forced me to reply to them twice to “confirm” the order after it had been delayed. If I hadn’t sent the confirmation, they would have canceled the order. Most users are not going to go to the trouble of confirming their order of your book twice.) Once you receive the book, is it printed with sufficient quality for your work?

And look at the quality of the printing and binding. Is this the quality that you want for your book?

Some Providers

GreatUnpublished

What a name to go on your book, right? Jeff Schwaner is, without competition, the most energetic man in the publishing services business today. When “traditional” Print-On-Demand providers were too expensive, he built his own: digitz.net; when traditional book distributors started cracking down on small press, including publishing services providers, he’s tried to build his own direct-to-consumer distribution service. But Christ, did he have to take his personality directly from Professor Harold Hill? Go read his article decrying the evils of Ingram and the on-line stores, and tell me you can’t hear him singing “We’ve got trouble/right here in DigiCity/trouble with a capital T and that rhymes with B and that stands for Barnes & Noble.”

More seriously, take a look at what they offer and what they imply. They’re cheap. Only a hundred dollars cannot cover setting up a quality book. They’re advertising a special service that gets you in the movies for free. All you have to do is sign away the theater, film, video, and television rights to your book for three years. Can they really market all of their books to the movie industry? I doubt it. But if your book takes off—then, after you’ve done the work making your book a success, they can go to Hollywood with your contract in hand for a sure sell. Take a look at that contract! You grant them an exclusive license for three years. And this exclusive license automatically renews in one year periods unless you specifically terminate it thirty days before the end of each term. If it is “optioned” as a screenplay, the license is extended indefinitely. You cannot revoke it. No matter what horrible things they do to your work, and not even if the work never makes it to a movie! (Most optioned works don’t, after all.)

What happens if your book becomes a success, you notify them that you don’t want your media rights contract renewed, and in between the time when you notify them and when the contract expires, they option your work? I am not a lawyer, but as near as I can tell from the contract, you are SOL. There is nothing that requires them to stop trying to option your work if you tell them you don’t want the contract renewed. They would have until your contract expires to try to sell your work to Hollywood, whereupon the contract is irrevocably extended forever, your request for termination notwithstanding.

GreatUnpublished disdains traditional book distribution channels. They expect your customer to come to them. Go to Amazon and search for GreatUnpublished and you’ll find only twenty books available. When was the last time you bought a book directly from the publisher?

XLibris

XLibris is currently the king of publishing services, but the king is dying. Go to Amazon.com and look up XLibris as publisher, and you’ll find far more books than any other publishing services provider: 3,523 as I write this. They have the best contract, by far, of any provider, and until recently had one of the best reputations. They’ve managed to trash that reputation pretty successfully, however. Since I started looking at publishing services, they’ve switched the way that they make payments, and claimed that the new payment service was FDIC insured (it wasn’t, and it said so right in its own FAQ), and they’ve raised the retail prices of the books they print to outrageous levels. The most outrageous part of that latest debacle, however, is not that they’ve raised their prices; they may have good reason to do so. It is that they aren’t telling any prospective customers—that’s you—that they have done so. They’ve told all of their current customers, and they have all of the specifics outlined on a web page on their web site. But that web page is not linked to from anywhere that I can find on their web site. Unless you received the letter, you wouldn’t know that the retail price listed in your contract is not the retail price that you will actually see. As I write this, there is less than a week to go before the retail price of XLibris books increase, and there is still no indication in the author agreement that this will happen. In fact, while the new system will have different prices depending on the size of the book, the FAQ still states, after describing the old prices, that “Using print-on-demand technology, all books cost the same regardless of page count”. Only because I already know it exists, can I use the site search facility to find the price increase page—and then, I have to click on a link labeled only “index.asp” among a collection of other, similarly labeled links.

But it takes over a month, currently, for an author to go from signing with XLibris to having their book available outside of XLibris. No author currently signing with XLibris will ever see the currently-displayed prices. XLibris doesn’t warn them of this until they sign up.

This is a clear example of why you must pay attention to the on-line discussion groups before hiring a publishing services provider. A search on Google would have found a discussion on this price increase. There are minor problems with XLibris, such as the high cost of fixing minor errors, but their recent debacles make those problems moot. I still maintain that, as I write this, the XLibris that is advertised on the XLibris web site is a wonderful service. Unfortunately, that XLibris no longer exists. It has been replaced with a service that uses deception to entice customers into publishing with them.

1stBooks Library

1stBooks Library is occasionally confused with FirstPublish, which is bad for FirstPublish and good for 1stBooks. The 1stBooks web site comes across like a standard vanity press. They promise to do marketing for you; they have a promotions department “whose only job is promoting your books. This is an important service to our authors, as well as the fastest-growing department in the company…. After all, any book on The New York Times Bestseller List didn't make its way there simply by being published; you can bet that it was aggressively promoted!”

And when it comes to signings, don’t worry, because “We have a department dedicated entirely to helping you schedule book signings. Many authors think that only authors like Stephen King or John Grisham can have book signings. You think to yourself, ‘I’m just a first-time author. No one will want to have a book signing for me.’ That simply isn’t true. Thanks to 1stBooks Library, you are a published author now, and that means you're a celebrity!”

But when it comes to actually finding their contract or pricing, they prefer that you call them. If you look hard enough, you’ll find a link to a file you can download that has their contract and prices. You’ll probably need to rename it as “firstbooks.pdf” (or anything ending in .pdf) to get it to work. There, you find that its prices are about the same as XLibris or FirstPublish. The contract itself is oddly designed, with a “rights” and a “responsibilities” section, but within each section items are haphazardly written; features of other contracts, such as how the contract is terminated, are the “responsibility” of 1stBooks, who “grants” the author the “right to terminate”. (One wonders what the author’s recourse is if 1stBooks decides to abrogate this “responsibility”.)

1stBooks Library is best known on Usenet for their methods of spamming and acquiring addresses to spam.

I have not yet found how to determine what the price of books will be through 1stBooks, other than by guessing via similar books at the 1stBooks bookstore. Their web site is poorly designed and hard to navigate.

FirstPublish

FirstPublish is an odd little company. The authors that use them seem very satisfied (note—this may no longer be true; pay attention to the discussion groups! Jerry, November 12, 2001). They have a screenplay service that isn’t even connected to their main site. They have the highest prices if you get their combined package, but their prices seem comparable if you can submit a PDF file of your work.

Their combined package is quite expensive, and seems to promise a lot on the marketing end of things, which makes me wary. They have a reasonable contract, however, though their FAQ doesn’t answer all of my questions. I’d like to see more examples of how the retail pricing of books works.

Perhaps their main claim to fame is that they appear to be going to great lengths to work like a normal publisher from the perspective of distributors and bookstores. They give a nearly-full 45% discount to distributors, and 40% to booksellers that order direct. They also take returns. I’m not sure how much this helps them (Barnes & Noble discounts a few of their books at 10%, others not at all).

Their print quality is not as good as that of the XLibris books I have. Most obvious is the paper color; on both FirstPublish books I have, the paper is the bright white of laser printer paper, not the soft yellowish-tan that normal books—including XLibris books—use.

Another good sign from them is that they do not speak in terms of “royalties”. They charge you a certain amount to print and distribute the books. You set your retail price, which distributors pay 55% of. Whatever is left over is your profit. This is semantics, but it is a refreshing change from other service providers that still work from the “royalties” model even though they are not paying you, you’re paying them.

PageFree Publishing

A relatively new company, they seem quite responsive. Main bonus— they let you choose not only your price, but your discount level. So if you want to give a full 55% discount to distributors, you can do so. Their printing prices seem relatively low as well, and their book quality is good; they use cream-colored paper.

PageFree has some proponents among the publishing groups, but my experience with them had its down points. You can see more about that at my follow-up article, “Lessons from the Publishing Revolution”.

November 16, 2005: XLibris sinks even lower

When I wrote about the then-big names in publishing services providers in Publishing Revolution, XLibris was only beginning to squander its then-great reputation. Today, they’ve become so desperate that they’re harvesting e-mail addresses from web sites and spamming those addresses.

Since I own my domain name, I can, and do, use different addresses for different purposes. I’ve just received three messages from XLibris, each to a different address, one of which is an address that is only used on my web site, and at least two of which I have never given to XLibris.

Dear Jerry,

My name is Tracey Rosengrave, Marketing Manager for Xlibris Corporation, a Print-On-Demand Self-Publishing company. We are sending you this email because we have either learned about your passion for writing or we have had the pleasure of coming across some of your work. If you are interested in self-publishing, I’ve included a brief description of who we are below.

I do send out follow up messages, so if you are not interested in our company or services please click here and I will send no further correspondence. I completely understand how annoying unwanted email messages can be; if this is the case here, my sincerest apologies.

I’ll just bet you understand.

A quick Google search shows that I’m not alone, although I did (unless it went straight to my Junk folder) have the good fortune not to get spammed by the fictional Mercedes Bournias.

Annoying isn’t quite the word I’d use. If I had gone with XLibris, say, a few months before they started their downhill slide, I’d be extremely embarrassed to be with them now.

In a related note, I’ve been very happy using Lulu.com both for printing my Gods & Monsters role-playing game and for printing up private copies of my latest novel for my copy-editors to read. And with no upfront fee, if they go bad (and there is no indication yet that they will do so) there is no investment keeping authors from leaving, either.

  1. <- Not an Assault
  2. The Blowtop ->