A Rose By Any Other Name

By Kenny Brechner
(This essay originally appeared in "Maine in Print" )

The idea that self promotion is to authors what gasoline is to automobiles has become firmly entrenched in the contemporary mind. Neither author nor car can be expected to go anywhere without its respective fuel. This belief benefits a broad constituency. Writers who have no desire to succeed need only cultivate a distaste for self promotion in order to ennoble their predisposition to fail. Writers for whom self promotion is a guilty exercise may appease their conscience with the argument of necessity.

Marketability is a complex phenomenon, but we can safely say that a genuine genius for self promotion does constitute marketability in and of itself, even in literature. Yet the true self promotional genius, the demoniac egotism made chemically effectual by an uncannily shrewd reality disorder in which megalomania takes on the role of a survival mechanism, is, like all forms of genius, exceedingly rare. For those writers loaded with self promotional zeal of a more mundane variety, and whose work is not otherwise augmented into the realm of marketability, the vanity publishing marketplace has been the traditional recourse.

Print on Demand technology has altered the vanity publishing landscape in subtle and indeed cynical ways that the would be self publishing customer should be ware of. The new breed of vanity publishing, represented by "Royalty" publishers such as PublishAmerica, and Print on Demand "Publishing Services Providers" such as Xlibris, deny being vanity publishers. In PublishAmerica’s FAQ section we find the question "Is PublishAmerica a P.O.D. Printer? Answer: PublishAmerica is NOT in any way a POD, vanity press, or subsidy publisher, and has nothing in common with them. PublishAmerica is a traditional, royalty paying publisher." Note that PublishAmerica denies being a POD "printer", not a POD Publisher. As far as Xlibris is concerned, "Is this vanity publishing? No. Vanity publishers will charge you thousands of dollars to print box loads of books they will not help you sell. Xlibris does not require you to purchase any books."

It is transparently obvious that from every vantage point1 PublishAmerica’s and Xlibris’ operation is built around the vanity of their customers. Xlibris’ statement "You never have to buy a single copy of your book," begs for the rejoinder...but you will. PublishAmerica customers don’t have to buy any copies either, except that PublishAmerica won’t print the book until "we feel that all necessary elements are in place," which is to say until they are convinced the author’s vanity will burst a lung on its own behalf.

The economics involved are even more telling. Xlibris, whose slogan is "Where Writers Become Authors", is relatively straightforward about what their customers are buying. "Remember, if you publish with us before June 30 you will receive 25% off our picture book services, or free copy editing or a free custom cover upgrade with our trade book services!" PublishAmerica, however, is a far more cynical operation.

To show how things work we’ll take a side by side comparison of a $20.00 trade paperback. The $20.00 is average for both companies. Though PublishAmerica is a royalty publisher, the author receives no royalty on copies she buys directly herself. In a case of my acquaintance a PublishAmerica author’s friends and family were offered a special "pre-release" price of 16.95 on a 20.00 title, or 15% off. The contract stipulates 20-30% depending on volume, so one can see what a special price $16.95 is. 100 books will cost that author’s social circle $1,695.00. The author’s direct price would be $1,397.00. At Xlibris, the author has three publishing options: Basic Services - $500.00, Professional - $900.00, and Custom - 1600.00. Assuming the basic package and 100 copies at 40%, which is the Xlibris author discount as well as the industry standard, the amount is 1700.00, the same as PublishAmerica’s pre- release special. The author will do worse to buy more copies from PublishAmerica, 200 copies would be 2,794.00 as opposed to the Xlibris cost of $2,400.00, or to select a fancier package from Xlibris, though to be sure, having "even more templates to choose from than Basic Service" is a frightful temptation.

There are two reasons to presume that if these companies don’t require author’s to purchase their own books, they bank on it nonetheless. First, in the "royalty" model, the profitably of author sales is more than double that of industry sales. Second, if one were to question whether these companies were banking on the volume of industry sales making up for their lesser profit margin, the answer is decidedly no. POD titles are heavily marked in industry databases, they are non-returnable, and book buyers such as myself avoid them like the plague. The daily emails from POD authors with the identical subject headers and introductory lines provided by the companies are recognized and deleted in a split second.

This is not to say that POD publishers don’t seek to send their customers into a self promotional frenzy. PublishAmerica offers insights such as " it's the author who today is designated to spearhead local promotion," and "you must not only beat the drum, but be the drum major as well. All successful marketing begins at home." And "The author has really only one obligation: to provide us with the completed final-version manuscript. We’ll take it from there. Does this mean that the author must sit on his/her hands after signing the contract? Not exactly. We expect the author to actively promote the book whenever and wherever possible." The bottom line is that PublishAmerica authors will end up straining, for the most part unsuccessfully, to promote themselves publicly, and buying copies directly from PublishAmerica at an enormous price in order to assuage their frustrated vanity.

Shorn of any but a palpably delusional wardrobe the self promotional impulses of POD authors has created a veritable legion of naked emperors clamoring to parade down public venues. Yet the ease and increased scope of POD vanity publishing poses no threat to traditional publishing. POD titles such as Dreadfully Sorry and My Little White Geraniums, are no nearer genuine marketability than their traditional vanity publishing predecessors. In terms of sharing a manuscript with friends and loved ones the honest impulse is happily the most cost effective as well. One hundred copies of a two hundred page manuscript copied double sided and spiral bound with cardstock is 8.00 apiece at Kinkos.

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