Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Beware Vanity in Independent's clothing

In July of 2011 I launched Kvaad Press. Kvaad started off offering editing and e-publishing with the promise of print on demand in the near future. I knew going in I'd want to pay things forward, having benefited from the generosity of more established writers throughout my career, so I let it be known Kvaad Press was eager to work with new and aspiring writers. After a half-dozen queries from aspiring authors who expected to have their 400-page masterpieces edited for $100 or less, I pulled down my "editing" shingle. I still edit, but only through professional or academic networking. I've occasionally done piecework for a book packager, frequently edit players' resources for various role-playing games, and am taking time away from editing my second doctoral dissertation to write this column.

Though I'd backed out of freelance editing pending development of a better marketing strategy, I continued to look into becoming a publisher. I read up on the rapidly evolving industry, attended webinars, even acquired a SCORE mentor who helped me develop a business plan worthy of wooing hypothetical investors. At the end of six months of intense exploration and education I determined that I didn't want to be a publisher. Or, to be more accurate, that I possessed none of the character traits and few of the work habits that enable successful publishers to be, well, successful. I could fake them, of course, but I'd be miserable doing so. And when I got tired enough to abandon the act, my business would spiral into the ground. Maybe take my house with it.

So I started looking into existing independent publishers—men and women who were doing it right. To be honest, in addition to looking for a potential partner in publishing my original fiction I was kinda hoping I'd unearth a few editing gigs in the process. It was while looking for editorial work that I discovered the cockroach in the soufflé.

Four and a half years ago I crossed columns with a fellow Novelnaut who was singing the praises of indy publishing. At that time I was a traditionalist who tended to conflate indy press with vanity press and saw nothing good about either. She set me straight—or rather got me interested enough to investigate on my own and discover how different the two forms of publishing are. Now, years later, as I started my investigation I was impressed with how indy had expanded—gone mainstream, as it were. It looked as though even the major houses, the big traditional publishers, were embracing the movement with special imprints devoted to helping the indy writer/publisher get on her feet. I shared my observations with a long-time writing and editing buddy of mine in Indiana who, having lost his position as an English instructor a few years ago, was now editing for a book packager. My cheery naiveté compelled him to let me in on the Awful Truth: He does not work for a book packager. He's an editor with Author Solutions. (For those who are wondering: This revelation did not end our friendship; didn't even come close. I understand doing what you must to feed your family.)

For those who may not have heard, Author Solutions Incorporated, ASI, is a highly predatory vanity press—that is to say a publisher whose income is dependent on fees charged writers, not sales of books. ASI's business is convincing new and inexperienced writers it can provide services beyond their reach; services that are in fact readily available if one knows where to look. The only benefit ASI offers is their own substantial markup. Anyone who's been in the business knows to avoid ASI—and a lot of initially unsuspecting writers who've been burned turn from ASI to one of the many new publishing avenues that had so pleasantly surprised me.
Way too many of those new roads to publication are the same treacherous street.
Author Solutions also does business as Author Hive, Author House, Author Learning Center, BookTango, FuseFrame, iUniverse, Palibrio (in Spanish), PitchFest, Trafford Publishing, and Xlibris. The link between those DBAs masquerading as stand-alone companies and ASI is pretty easy to see if you look. They all live at the same street address in Bloomington, Indiana, for one thing.
But ASI's other operations are more difficult to detect.
Take Writer's Digest, for example. Whatever you think of the quality of their advice, WD has always been about helping writers, right? Unless you decide to take advantage of their indy-support publishing service: anything submitted to their Abbott Press goes straight to Bloomington. Americana bedrock Reader's Digest offers LifeRich Publishing to hopeful new writers—another pipeline to ASI. Feel-good inspirational publisher Hay House feeds ASI through their Balboa Press. Guideposts does the same through Inspiring Voices. And Thomas Nelson, the nation's largest Christian publisher, calls their ASI chute WestBow Press.
The major houses play, too.
It may not be surprising that Penguin's Book Country press for new writers is actually ASI—Penguin owns ASI, after all. But Simon & Schuster's new-writer-friendly Archer Publishing and Harlequin's Harlequin Horizons imprint are both ASI as well.
Perhaps most disturbing to me was the discovery that companies that do support—or have in the past supported--indy writers have partnered with ASI. Bowker Identifier Services's editing and layout packages and a whole slew of editorial and promotional services offered by Lulu are really ASI.

So what's wrong with a vanity press? Sure, ASI charges authors for services they can get elsewhere, but they offer the convenience of packaging them together, they're entitled to make a little money doing that, right?
The Kirkus Review carries a lot of weight with libraries and bookstores. Anyone can buy a review in Kirkus for $425. The review will be honest—there's no way to buy praise the ms doesn't deserve—so Kirkus doesn't publish the review until you release it. The review will then appear on their website and be included in their e-mail newsletter at no charge. Some reviews are selected by the editors of their print magazine; there's no charge for that, either. However, if you want the review in the print magazine you can pay for its inclusion. You can also buy Kirkus ads and have your title and review distributed to the booksellers in their database. Want your book reviewed by Kirkus Reviews, maybe featured on their website and mentioned in their newsletter? Kirkus offers promotional packages for $1,500. So figure $425 + $1,500 = $1,925; pretty solid exposure from a respected source for less than $2,000. Of course you can get exactly the same service through any of ASI's services for (and this is from the Lulu site) $3,199. In other words, the convenience of not having to deal directly with Kirkus will set you back $1,200.

Am I saying don't trust any of the small publishers who say they want to work with new independent writers? Of course not. Even though—contrary to the victory cries of hundreds of indy publishers—the big traditional houses aren't going anywhere, these little, independent presses have a lot to offer both readers and writers. If you're not going to publish yourself, seek them out.
But don't sign a thing until you've done your homework and know who you're really dealing with.


M Pax said...

Great advice. I've heard some horror stories lately from those published through small presses and trad publishers. Always do your homework, and hire an attorney.

Charles Gramlich said...

In the early days I was approached by Iunverse and a couple of others. I think I must have sent for information on something that got me on the mailing list. Fortunately I was able to avoid any entanglements with them.

Liane Spicer said...

I've heard of the Author Solutions phenomenon but didn't realize it was that huge.

G. B. Miller said...

I learned the hard way about ASI and took me about three years to financially recover from it.

I still intend to self-publish, but this time around, I shall spend my money wisely, which will be on things like graphic design and editing.

The publishing will be through both Smashwords and CreateSpace.

Jewel Amethyst said...

A real eye-opener, KeVin. It seems people are always finding ways to screw the struggling out of the money they don't have.

In the early days I heeded "Preditors and Editors" warnings about the bad apples and the vanities. The advice still remains relevant today. Yet I still got screwed by an established traditional publishing house that eventually went defunct.

William Doonan said...

This is really eye-opening!