Author Expectations and Subsidy Presses

I get a lot of correspondence from subsidy published authors. If I ask enough questions, it usually turns out that they have no interest in the publishing business and have never given it a thought, except maybe in the lottery sense - What if I win! Most of these authors wrote a book and just wanted to see it in print as soon as possible. While most have gotten some proofreading from friends and some have even paid for a "NYC editor", they aren't interested in doing a major rework to match a market segment. Getting the book "published" is the pay-off for the hard work.

I use the term "subsidy press" rather than the more common "vanity press" because I don't think there's anything vain about an author who's put a tremendous amount of effort into writing a book wanting to see it published even if they have to subsidize the cost. I believe subsidy presses provide a valuable service for these authors, as long as they don't push rip-off promotions for advertising the book. There may be a difference between paying a subsidy publisher to promote a book and flushing the money down a toilet, but I don't know what it is. An author today can get their book into print and available through distribution and Amazon for just a few hundred dollars, but make sure you don't sign away your rights. I usually recommend Booklocker for authors who have the ability to market their own books but just aren't willing to jump into the business with both feet.

One of the biggest subsidy publishers, iUniverse, recently went public with their numbers in a Publisher's Weekly story. Lee Goldberg did a nice write-up on his blog. The bottom line number that potential iUniverse authors should be aware of is that less than one half of one percent of the titles they published in 2004 sold more than 500 copies. That's pretty long odds to contend with. The average title sold less than 50 copies, including those printed for sale to the author.

That's where it ends for most of subsidy published authors, and the ones who were dreaming of a bestseller often come away from the experience blaming the Print-on-Demand (POD) publishing model. A couple years ago, I used to preach the POD publishing model to every writer I met, and I just assumed that they'd be interested in the business aspects. Eventually, I got tired enough of doing a monologue to start listening, and I found out that while most writers harbor secret ambitions of fame and fortune, they really aren't willing to make a business of it. If you don't treat publishing as a business, not only won't you make a living at it, you probably won't even sell 50 books.

It's an unfortunate fact of life that the publishing industry is so competitive that publishers and authors who have a good thing going tend to be reticent about sharing too much about it in public for fear of immediate competition. I watch enough books and genres to know that the fear is well founded, and that small publishers who discover a good niche in terms of titles or marketing strategy have nothing to gain by publicizing it. I've made the transition from earning a decent living as a trade author to earning a decent living publishing print-on-demand books, and I'm much happier now that my successes are mine to enjoy and my failures are mine to learn from.

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