20 November 2009

Why I love the SFWA

I love the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Not only do they have one of the best online collections of advice for writers anywhere on the Internet, and not only do they run the indispensable Writer Beware site, but they stick up for authors, even ones outside their genre.

Background: Harlequin, the 900lb gorilla of romance publishing, recently started up a new imprint called Harlequin Horizons. Unfortunately, the new imprint is a joint venture with Author Solutions, Inc., a vanity press
print-on-demand publisher which charges $599 to publish an author's books. Note that that's the bare minimum. If you want actual, you know, services like press releases or copies sent to reviewers, you're going to be looking at a four digit number.

Why is this a big deal? Because, if you didn't know, the way publishing works is that the publishing houses pay the writers. When a book is published, the publishing company pays an advance (short for "advance against royalties), usually in the high four-digits/low five-digits range for first-time authors at a big house. Then, if the book sells well, the writer will collect royalties (a small percentage of the cover price). In between, the publishing company gives it a professional edit, designs a layout and a cover, sends advance copies to reviewers, and about a thousand other things which are essential to making a book stand out in a crowd enough to get shelf space at brick-and-mortar bookstores and actually get purchased by someone besides the author's friends and family. At no point in this process does money flow from the author to the publishing company (or the author's agent, for that matter, if he has one). It all goes to the writer. Essentially, the publishing company is making a bet--"We'll pay thousands of dollars to the authors and hundreds of thousands more for a print run and marketing campaign, because we think we can sell enough copies of this book to make up those costs and earn enough profit to satisfy the shareholders on top of it." This is why it's so difficult to get published. If a publishing house makes a bad bet, they'll lose a lot of money. They'll lose even more than most companies with a failed product, in fact, because traditionally, booksellers have the right to return all unsold copies for a refund, meaning that if a book sells badly enough, the publisher could lose virtually every nickel they spent. And huge flops aren't unheard of; I've heard stories about novels which sold less than two hundred books out of a ten-thousand-copy print run. When that happens, the publisher has to eat the losses, not the author (the author is punished in different ways--good luck getting Barnes and Noble to stock anything with your name on it after one or two big flops).

What a vanity press does is the exact opposite--it charges an exorbitant sum of money to the author to publish a book and market it (for a given value of "marketing"; read on). Enough, in fact, to totally cover all costs and make a profit for the company. The implications should be obvious: it doesn't matter worth a damn to a vanity press if a book sells a single copy, because they make all their money up front. And they act like it: vanity presses have very little, if any, editorial controls. Nor do they offer the discounts booksellers expect, and nor do they have the return policy. Many, in fact, simply leave the entire process of marketing up to the author, or if they do offer marketing, it's half-assed, like a press release they know nobody will ever read. As a consequence to all of this, a vanity published book has a snowball's chance in hell of ever seeing shelf space at a bookstore. Which, okay, fine, some books are so niche that they'd never sell in a bookstore anyway (I have a copy of a self-published book called Our Kin, which is a genealogy of my dad's family and of absolutely no interest to anyone else), but vanity presses don't tell authors this. In fact, in my experience, they talk an awful lot about the joy and satisfaction and rewards of getting published, pooh-pooh traditional publishers (with a hint of "those snobs are just trying to freeze out new talent" and a splash of "Tolstoy was rejected hundreds of times before he finally sold a book; who says editors know anything about talent anyway?"), and never mention that you and your mom will probably be the only people who buy a copy of your book.

In the old days, vanity presses had, well, printing presses; huge machines that cost thousands of dollars to run and took lots of time to set up (in the old old days, the type had to be set by hand; now I think they do some kind of arcana to print off some kind of acetate transfer sheet, at least judging from my experience working for a janitorial service which cleaned a print shop once). In order to make any money, even vanity houses had to print hundreds or thousands of copies of a book, and they charged accordingly. Nowadays, there's what's called print-on-demand, where the book is stored electronically and printed one copy at a time as orders come in. For small runs, this is fantastic (it makes them economically possible, frankly), but you lose traditional printing's economies of scale (this is why the big houses don't use it for their major print runs, though I think they might be taking advantage of the technology to produce, say, copies of out-of-print books where there's still some demand but not enough to justify a new print run). Earlier in the decade, there were dozens of POD vanity presses--Barnes and Noble was part-owner of one, in fact--but it seems now that Author Solutions, Inc., has purchased most of them.

Which brings us back to Harlequin. The only possible reason for Harlequin to partner with Author Solutions is to make money off authors who can't get published traditionally or won't try. Harleqin is claiming in their press releases that Horizons will help them identify new writers, but that's bullshit--Harlequin's slush pile could sink an ocean liner. There's a stadium's worth of shitty, desperate wannabe writers in there (and probably more good ones than they could ever make room for). Giving shitty, desperate writers yet another vanity option isn't going to help Harlequin find anyone. If they were serious about finding new talent, the first thing they'd do is put editorial controls on Horizons, to weed out all the crap. The fact that they haven't should tell you all you need to know.

From what I can tell, Author Solutions is doing all the work, and Harlequin is getting a cut in exchange for lending its name. And they're up to all the usual vanity press tricks--offering overpriced marketing solutions that they know full well will be useless, talking a lot of sweet talk about the joys of getting published (with Harlequin's name, no less!), and not mentioning that hell will freeze over before a bookstore will carry any book with the Harlequin Horizon's name on it. Author Solutions' website is full of testimonials from (the tiny handful of) successful independently published authors who went through AS and Harlequin is apparently directing or planning to direct rejected authors to AS (rather than suggest trying another company and politely wishing the author luck, like every other boilerplate form rejection letter).

Anyway, this caused a gigantic stink, with the Romance Writers of America and the Mystery Writers of America expressing alarm and dismay, and essentially blacklisting all of Harlequin's imprints. SFWA also got in the act, saying this:
Until such time as Harlequin changes course, and returns to a model of legitimately working with authors instead of charging authors for publishing services, SFWA has no choice but to be absolutely clear that NO titles from ANY Harlequin imprint will be counted as qualifying for membership in SFWA. Further, Harlequin should be on notice that while the rules of our annual Nebula Award do not expressly prohibit self-published titles from winning, it is highly unlikely that our membership would ever nominate or vote for a work that was published in this manner.
Blacklisted.  Awesome.  Harlequin has responded to the outcry by getting completely butthurt about the whole thing, because they're Harlequin, damn it.  In all honestly, they probably don't care about SFWA and MWA, but a romance publisher being called a vanity press by the Romance Writers of America is a Big Fucking Deal, and it apparently rocked them so far back on their heels that they're...changing the name of the imprint so it won't have Harlequin's name on it.  Needless to say, nobody's buying it.

John Scalzi, a sci-fi author I happen to enjoy, also talks about this on his blog.  Read his post; it's less TL;DR than mine and nicely acerbic.

Incidentally, if you're an aspiring author and you can't wait for traditional publishers, or you've given up, or what you have is so niche you know a traditional house won't buy it, Lulu.com provides POD services for no up-front charge.  Author Solutions is a ripoff.  Don't ever give them your business.


Brett said...

Fascinating post, Matt. I had no idea about the "vanity press" business - I always thought that if you weren't good or lucky enough to get picked up by a publisher, you pretty much had to fork over the money yourself to get your book published. I've never even heard of them mentioned in any "on writing" style books or articles - probably for a good reason.

Matt said...

There's basically four ways to get published:

1. Traditional publishing. You write a book, a publisher buys it, they try to sell it to readers.

2. Self publishing. Take the manuscript to a local printing press. Pay them a pile of cash. Come back a week later with a U-Haul and collect the books.

3. Vanity presses. Same as above, except it costs more, and the sleazier outfits play games with your rights, too, so if by some miracle you DO sell a bunch of copies, they can fuck you a second time.

4. Print-on-Demand self publishing. So far as I know, this is only Lulu.com. You submit a manuscript, they'll print a copy when you or someone else orders it and charge you the cost of printing plus their margin. If you sell it through their website or Amazon, you set your own markup and they collect 20% of the net (if you sell it at cost, they get nothing).

Thanks to new technologies, you CAN self-publish without paying money up front. But if you're trying to actually publish a book for a wide audience, that should be your last option.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.