Online Publishers Grapple With the Vanity Press Conundrum

Earlier this year, ebook sales officially overtook the dead-tree books and aren't looking back. To online ebook sellers, that spells the beginning of an even bigger shift. If authors no longer need the bulky apparatus of publishing houses, why should they offer up the lion's share of their sales gross? Why not cut out the middle-man and go directly to the audience through self-publishing?

Last week, I was a one-man focus group for a friend who is spearheading the self-publishing initiative for a prominent online retailer. He was very curious to know why I, as an author with books in print, was still dead-set on handing so much control and money over to a legacy industry whose core value proposition was on the brink of being automated and disintermediated out of existence.

It's a good question. I know of few authors who are delighted with the treatment they receive from their traditional publishers. In today's tough economic environment, publishers rarely offer the kind of intensive developmental editing or extensive marketing support that many projects require. Their basic role is to shepherd a manuscript through the production process at minimal time and cost, get the book bound and printed, and ship it through their distribution channels. If you are lucky, the marketing department might generate a press release and ship out a few review copies. And then there's the royalty schedule, which can leave you wondering whether the years you spent writing the book might have been more profitably employed working at a Dairy Queen.

For me, the reason was simple. I'm a relatively unknown author trying to build a brand for my thought-leadership. Being on an established imprint--the venerable John Wiley & Sons in my case--confers credibility and visibility that I could not achieve if I were self-published, regardless of the quality of my work.

The fact is, the publishing world still revolves around intangibles like prestige and reputation. The market is crowded with titles screaming for attention. Publishing imprints remain an important shortcut for reviewers, purchasing agents and readers as they try to determine what's worth their limited time and attention.

That said, I were in a different situation, the value of e-book self-publishing would be compelling. Here are some scenarios where it makes a lot of sense.

1. You are an established author with a following. Superstars like Stephen King are freestanding brands and have already demonstrated the viability of digital self-publishing. But your audience doesn't have to be mass-market. If you know there are reviewers who know your name and thousands of readers waiting to buy your book, then the economics of digital publishing make perfect sense.

2. You are a completely unknown author with nothing to lose. The entry costs are low, so why not? Nothing interests a traditional publisher or agent more than saying "my self-published book got 50,000 downloads."

3. You are writing in a genre with a ready-made audience. Fan-communities for genres like science fiction, mysteries, romance novels, military adventure, etc. are meritocracies that recognize good content, whether it's got the publisher's seal of approval or not.

4. You have alternative distribution channels. The biggest advantage that a publisher provides is getting your book in stores. But what if you don't need stores? If you sell most of your titles at trade events and through your website, an e-book with a print-on-demand option provides the same service and lets you keep more of the revenue.

Services like Amazon's CreateSpace continue to lower the entry costs for self-publishing. They are moving to replace the few value-adds that publishers still offer, such as editorial and marketing support. They are wearing away the traditional stigma of the "vanity press" and provide a broader, more profitable platform for authors who don't need the superstructure and processes of a publisher.

The remaining challenge is to provide a comparable "aura" around worthwhile titles and authors and at the same time find a way to protect that brand value against the inevitable wave of crap and drivel that will flood the market if the old barriers completely collapse.

If Amazon--or anyone--can square that circle, they will utterly dominate the world of 21st century publishing. And they will deserve to.

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