Why I chose vanity publishing

Chandler's Daughter was published by a conventional (albeit small) publisher; Winslow's Wife was published using the modern version of a vanity publisher--in other words, I published it myself, with a little help. 

There were three driving forces behind the decision to do it myself, the first having to do with technology; the second, the business model; and the third, my experiences with the conventional publishing process

In the end, I chose vanity publishing.


Until recently, books were printed on web presses using offset technology. Most of the cost of the process was devoted to creating the printing plates and setting up the presses, all of which took place before the first copy rolled off. The plates contained multiple pages--called a "signature"--that were printed on a single piece of paper (chopped off from a massive roll of paper), then folded and assembled with the other signatures that made up the book, and bound and trimmed in a process called "finishing." On large presses, a signature could be as many as 64 pages. (Have you ever noticed that some books have some blank pages at the back, or that some paperbacks have pages at the back that advertise other books by the same publisher? These pages fill out the signature--it's cheaper to leave them in the book, even blank, than it is to remove them.)

The more copies you printed in one "press run," the cheaper each individual copy was to produce, until you reached a point where the printing cost per copy was little more than that of the paper and ink. This technology rewarded the guy who had to print lots of copies--say, 100,000--and penalized the guy who only wanted a comparative few, such as 500. 

To a publisher then, not only do the blockbuster books sell a lot of copies, the profit margin on each copy sold is greater (thus allowing deeper discounts to preferred wholesalers).. 

Then along came digital printers; they've been around since the nineteen seventies, but it was to be several decades before they were ready to take on the specific demands of book production. Digital printers don't use plates with the image of the page already on it; they "re-image" each page at the point that they print it. It doesn't matter what was on the last page that was printed or what is going to be on the next page that is printed--each one is newly made, regardless. The content of the page or book is pulled out of a computer file when it is needed, or "demanded." And instead of printing a batch of signatures of pages 1-32, followed by a batch of signatures of pages 33-64, etc., a whole book can be printed at one time.

Hence, the term "print on demand"--which can be applied to an entire book as well as to an individual page. The production cost of an individual book is approximately the same, no matter how many copies of the book you produce at one time. This means you don't have to have an inventory of books already printed to satisfy demand, you need only push a button to get a new copy when you need one, for instance, to sell to a reader in Dubuque.

Web press printing remains the cost-effective production model for large print runs, but print on demand is the cost-effective production model for small ones. I don't know where the lines cross--it probably varies widely depending on a great many other factors, and would also be affected by such costs as warehousing and taxes. 

A couple of digressions: 

One of the reasons publishers scrap inventories of unsold books and declare the book out of print (read "dead") is that once a year they have to pay taxes on any inventory sitting in a warehouse.
Want to know how you can tell a print-on-demand book from a conventional web press book? It's really easy. Open up the book and gently run your fingers across the page. If you can't feel the type at all, it is a web press book, printed with ink that soaks into the paper. If you can feel the type, it is a print-on-demand book printed on a digital press using toner that is fused to the page rather than ink that soaks into it.

Business model

"Vanity publishing" is essentially do-it-yourself publishing, dispensing with the usual folderol of a publisher. In days of old, vanity publishing meant that the author sprang for all of the costs of production, printing, distribution, and marketing. The printer delivered all the copies to the author's front door, and they would be stored in the garage or the back bedroom until such time as the author croaked and the heirs had the books hauled to the dump. Some number might be sold through the author's individual efforts, but the books weren't available in any bookstore or library anywhere because the bookstore owners and the librarians didn't know how to get their hands on them.

Today, the digital technology we talked about earlier has revolutionized vanity publishing. A number of businesses have sprung up, which I will choose to call "publishing services." For a fee (which varies widely), these companies will put your book into the appropriate digital form, get it assigned an ISBN, get it listed with the major distributors (which means that bookstores, libraries, and online booksellers can find it), and print it on demand whenever someone orders one. For each one it sells, it pays the author a royalty. No garage full of unsaleable books! The burden of marketing stays with the author, however (not that the author doesn't carry the major burden of marketing with conventional publishers, but that we'll talk about later).

Superficially, it works just like a conventional book. However, there are some differences. The typical cost to a bookseller of a conventional book is 40% off the list price. Moreover, a bookseller can pack up and return the books at any time and get their money back. In the case of mass market paperbacks, they only have to return the torn-off cover, and can throw the rest of the book away. (That's why a lot of mass market paperbacks have that "If you bought this book without a cover. . . ." notice.) 

Print-on-demand books have no warehouse to send them back to, and so they are not returnable; the retailer assumes the total risk (which is what retailers of other kinds of products have to do, but there are other outlets for overstocks). Furthermore, the publishing services generally offer the retailer only a 25% discount. (One of the ones that offers a 40% discount offsets the discount by jacking up the selling price of the book so high that you couldn't sell it to your own mother.) For a bookseller who has to offer a 10% discount to frequent buyers to keep them loyal, that leaves only a tiny margin to pay for the lights, the heat, the rent, and the staff. It's not enough.

For this reason, while booksellers will usually order a print-on-demand book for you, you'll never find it sitting on the shelf except in rare cases where the author has established a relationship with the bookseller. 

The other side of this coin, however, is that the royalties the publishing services pay are typically higher than those paid by a conventional publisher. We'll touch on royalties again later.

A digression:

A lot of people have confused print on demand (also known as "POD") with vanity publishing, largely because today, vanity publishing is done using print-on-demand technology. Therefore, they dismiss all print-on-demand books as being beneath contempt because they have failed to win a "real" publisher. But there's nothing that prevents a publisher from using print-on-demand technology, and in many cases it would be the cost-effective choice; indeed, there is nothing that prevents a publisher from choosing to use both technologies on the same book, depending on business conditions.

Conventional publishing and I

In 1996, I decided to stick my toe in the treacherous waters of fiction publishing. I had just finished my book on publishing technology and I had discovered while writing it that people found the writing of books to be a worthy enterprise and thus one did not have to explain why one didn't have a Real Job. Since I wasn't all that favorably disposed to going out and trying to find a  Real Job and since I had pretty much exhausted my technical knowledge in the book just then headed for production, the alternatives seemed to be fiction and self-help. There are some things for which I am absolutely unqualified, so that narrowed the field to fiction, and mystery fiction at that.

I wrote Chandler's Daughter. My friends all loved it, of course, but that's why we have friends. The opinion that motivated me to try to market the manuscript came from a friend of a friend, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, professor of literature, and  a regular reviewer for the more intellectual of the books reviewed in the New York Times Book Review, who said that the book was "publishable." Hot damn! 

I'd heard all the legends of rejection and furthermore knew that if you wanted a major publisher to consider your book, you had to have an agent. 

In years past, publishers had their own "readers" who would do the initial review of manuscripts. Once the personal computer came along and writers could generate many copies at little cost, the publishers became flooded, so they pushed the "reader" responsibility out the door, demanding that agents be their first line of defense. Not surprising when you consider that a small publisher publishing maybe twelve titles a year can receive as many as five thousand queries. What's surprising is that the agents haven't started to use agents themselves.

I didn't think that my book was going to make an agent salivate to represent it, so I decided to focus on the small publishers who would consider unagented "queries." (The "query" is a letter describing your book and including a portion of the text, intended to solicit interest in seeing the full manuscript. Any book where the full manuscript arrives unasked for is slated for the "slush pile.")

I sat down at my computer with the Writer's Guide to Mystery Publishers and cranked out a bunch of query letters addressed to those publishers who were indicated as accepting unagented queries for manuscripts of the mystery subgenre called "cozies." Of the twenty-nine I sent, I got twenty-seven outright rejections and two requests to see the full manuscript. 


Ninety-five percent of all books published earn less that $5,000 for their authors. In my case, the deck was stacked so that earning more than that was not just improbable, it was impossible.

Vanity publishing and I



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