Friday, December 12, 2008

The No-Hope Publishing Plan

Recently I read an article in the local paper profiling a woman who started a small press publishing company. She characterizes the venture as a “pay-to-publish” service. She doesn’t attempt to hide the fact that any author whose book she accepts will pay out of their own pocket for editorial and production services and costs. Distribution and promotion is the responsibility of the author, or those services are available for an additional fee.

I don’t have any problem with this. She’s straight-forward about what she’s doing. A writer goes in knowing it will cost them money. It’s a choice the writer must make. I don’t think it’s a good choice, and my husband, writer J. Steven York, has written about why on his blog

What bothered me was the rationalizations she gave for why her service was a good alternative to traditional publishing. They are the same ones I see every time the subject of vanity presses comes up.

I call them the No-Hope Publishing Plan.

Why? Because they all hinge on the assertion that the writer has no hope of being published by a traditional publisher. You know, the kind that send you checks instead of the other way around.

And just what are these No-Hope “facts”?

“Nobody buys a book from a first-time writer.” Oooookay. This is impossible. If “nobody” buys a first book, there cannot be any books sold. Logically, every writer ever published sold a first book. Maybe not the first one they wrote, but that isn’t what the no-hope brigade claims. Stephen King sold CARRIE, Tony Hillerman sold THE BLESSING WAY, Stephanie Meyer sold TWILIGHT, and Nora Roberts sold IRISH THOROUGHBRED. Even J.K. Rowling sold HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE. They were all first books.

“You can’t sell a book without an agent.” Really, No-Hope Brigade? I just sold three myself, and I know a lot of other writers who have managed similar things. You want an agent for a lot of other reasons, but it simply isn’t true that you can’t sell without an agent.

“You can’t get an agent if you haven’t sold a book.” Look around. There are agent blogs all over the ‘Net, and every one of them trumpets when they sign a new writer who has bowled them over with a fantastic book.

“Publishers only want books from best-sellers.” Walk into any bookstore in this country, even the tiny ones. There are a lot of shelves in there. Even a writer as prolific as Nora Roberts or Stephen King or James Patterson can’t fill all those shelves. Somebody else has to write some of those books.

“Writers can’t make any money. The publisher gets it all.” Traditional publishing contracts call for an advance against royalties. Royalties means the writer gets a percentage of every sale made. When that total exceeds the pre-payment (“advance”), the writer start getting checks. Checks that will continue to come as long as the book continues to sell. If you write a really good book, those checks keep coming for a long time – even after you die. The publisher absorbs all the up-front costs, including your advance, and doesn’t start making money until all those costs are recovered.

“The publisher can change your title.”
“The publisher can edit your book without your permission.”
“The publisher can put whatever cover they want on your book and you have no say, even if it’s awful.” These are all things that can happen. If you let them. Each of these, and many more, are subject to negotiation when you and the publisher work out the contract. This is where your agent really earns their commission, helping you negotiate the best possible contract terms. The No-Hope Brigade will tell you that you don’t have any control. Not true. The publisher can’t do any of these things without your permission in the form on a legal contract.

Every one of these arguments boils down to a single argument: You have no hope as a writer, and the only way you will ever see your book in print is to give me a pile of money.

Don’t believe them. Don’t let the No-Hope Brigade take your dreams – and your money.

You deserve better.


Anonymous said...

Very nice blog rant Chris and oh sooo true. Thanks for posting this. ;)

Jenna Black said...

The line that got me was something like "your publisher owns the copyright." Oh, really? Then why do all my books say Copyright by Jenna Black?

Ciara Gold said...

It's rather sad that writers resort to vanity presses when their desire to be published exceeds their good sense. This was a well written commentary against No hope publishers. Thanks for posting it.

I'm published through a small press and no, I'm not getting rich, but I am getting a royalty check each cycle and will continue to get one for as long as I allow them to have my book. I like that aspect of smaller presses. My only cost was that I did purchase my copyright. I also like that about the smaller presses.

I guess my point is that there are alternatives and with enough perserverence and hard work, a writer can become published without going the No-Hope route. But I also think a large factor in these writers being reeled in is the fact they don't do their homework. They don't look at blogs of folks who are unhappily published by these vanity presses,and they don't join writing organizations.

Chris said...

Ciara - I assume when you say you did "purchase" your copyright, that you meant you paid to register it, correct?

Because (of course) you already owned the copyright the minute you put the words on paper (or in a computer file). Registration is a different matter, and I believe there is a fee involved. Some publishers do that for their writers and others don't.


Chris said...

Ah, Jenna! You found the original article? Yes, that comment was what finally sent me into a tailspin!

Colleen Thompson said...

Fabulous article! Thanks for this public service wakeup call to writers!

Kim Antieau said...

I agree with you about vanity presses, but I'm wondering if you think the same thing about all non-traditional publishing. I do think a revolution needs to happen in publishing. I think New York publishing is dead and has been for some time—not that it's going away or that books are dying. I just don't think it's a sustainable model for writers or for publishers, actually. Mario and I have published things ourselves with our small press (on and For years we wouldn't do that because we thought "oh no! Self-published stuff. How awful." And then we got over that. I think there are all kinds of ways people can take charge of their own lives and careers (writing-wise), and I actually think it's pretty cool. I've grown so tired of the dysfunctional gatekeepers. The man is dead; long live da revolution! (I was too young to actually enjoy the sixties at the time so I keep trying to bring them back.)

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Brad R. Torgersen said...

As long as there are new authors making good money off the traditional mode of publishing, I am fine with it. Gatekeepers and all.

I recently made my first pro-level fiction sale, after 17 years trying. Yep, it took me 17 years to make my first pro-level fiction sale.

I am sure I could have self-published the hell out of myself in that same timeframe. But looking back on it all, most of that work would NOT have been to professional standard -- it was mostly practice. And it would not have felt nearly as satisfying, either.

I've now got a copy of my first check hanging under glass at my writing desk. If ever I feel the urge to rebel against The Man, as it were, I look at that check. Took me awhile to get it, but The Man pays well, when he pays.

The Man is also going to put me on shelves nation-wide, with no effort whatsoever on my part. This time next year I will be able to walk into any Barnes & Noble in my area, and see the book with my story in it.

Only thing I had to do was keep writing and keep practicing and bang the hell out of those keys, until I'd upped my quality enough that The Man said yes, whereas he'd previously been saying no.

The Man is good. Long live The Man.

Anonymous said...

I think some of you guys are just afraid of the competition. This Brad guy waited 17 years to get his book published. I think he's now rationalizing that it's ok. No mate, it's not exactly so.

Truth is, anyone worth their salt in writing can now publish a book and sell through Amazon. Let's say Stephen King writes a book under a nickname and self publishes on Amazon. First sets the price at 0$, then 1$ and so on as the reviews pile up. Think he'll make it big? Of course!

It's about the writer, not the channel. What you're saying is something along the lines of "TV is better than internet". Who cares about the channel?

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