Online Publishers Grapple With the Vanity Press Conundrum

With ebooks emerging as the new medium for literature, when should authors consider using ebook self-publishing platforms rather than trying for traditional deals with dead-tree merchants?

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
, 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 &
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


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.


About the author

Rob Salkowitz is author of Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture (McGraw-Hill, 2012), Young World Rising (2010), and two other books on youth and digital media as agents of change. He is Director of Strategy at MediaPlant, LLC, a Seattle-based communications firm he co-founded in 1999