Saturday, December 5, 2009

Vanity "Experience"

Here's a question that's been coming up pretty regularly lately. If you've had a book "released" through one of the vanity presses, how should you reference that in a query letter?

Let's start by distinguishing between vanity publishing and self-publishing. I'm sure some of you learned the difference as a result of a certain recent kerfuffle, but in case you didn't:

Vanity publishing: Sometimes also called subsidy publishing, though there are technical differences between the two. More or less, you pay for all aspects of the publication of the work. The vanity company offers a variety of options, which you select as from a menu. You get no services other than those you pay for. You get little or no meaningful distribution through the label, with little to no possibility of distributing it yourself through standard channels. The ISBN and bar codes are linked to the vanity label, not to you. You give up part or all of the rights, and you don't get the profits but are paid some form of royalty or split.

Self-publishing: You act as your own publisher. You hire a press, a designer, editors, artists, and so on, or you do the work yourself. You learn about things like bleeds and trims, and you spend many hours wondering just how necessary Adobe Distiller really is. You get an ISBN of your own, and maybe bar codes, too. (Though, if you're frugal, you might get these in other ways than by registering your company and paying the fees.) You keep all rights to the work (through your company, probably), and you keep all profits from sales. You figure out distribution options and, if you're lucky, sell to national accounts.

There are legitimate reasons for choosing either option. If you have little publishing experience and less time, and if you have a project of mostly personal value -- a family history, your dissertation, your child's drawings and notes -- vanity publishing might be a good option. If you have a nonfiction project and an established platform, and you're willing to learn and work, then self-publishing might be a good option.

Generally, neither is a good option for fiction. There are exceptions to that general principle, of course, and it may be that you had some legitimate reason for choosing one of these options, some of which I'll mention below.

Which brings us to your query letter.

If you have self-published a non-fiction book, it won't hurt you at all to mention that in your query. It might not be necessary as it might not fit your query, but that is rather case-specific. The point is, if you choose to include it, it probably won't hurt you. You can mention something about how you've built a platform for your nonfiction works, have experience with PR and marketing, that sort of thing. You might even mention how you could leverage your existing non-fiction platform and press contacts for your novel's publicity.

If you have self-published a novel or other fiction, you will probably want to keep that fact to yourself unless you can legitimately demonstrate a solid reason for self-publishing. Without such a reason, I will assume you self-published because you couldn't find someone else to publish it for you. And that won't score you any points.

Examples of legitimate reasons:
  • You wanted to learn the publishing business from every angle.
  • You ran your own press and published many authors, including yourself.
  • You were mid-series when your publisher folded and you wanted to complete the series yourself.
  • You have an extensive publication history and recognized that this was a pet, one-off project not worth troubling your publisher with.

What do these examples have in common? They don't undermine your credibility as a professional. In fact, they might even enhance it by demonstrating your understanding of the industry.

If you have vanity published a personal project, it probably won't hurt to mention it as long as it's clear that this was a highly personal project suitable for vanity publication. But is it relevant? Why would your decision to present your siblings with bound copies of grandpa's journal be relevant to our potential business relationship? I'm not saying it can never matter -- perhaps this was the project that whet your appetite for publishing and led you to try your hand at writing. But if there's no connection, there's probably no reason to mention it.

If you have vanity published a novel, you're probably better off keeping that information to yourself. Generally, we expect novels to be published through normal market channels *if* they're good enough. If they're not good enough, and they get rejected by everyone on the planet, that's not exactly a fact you would want to broadcast.

Now it may be that you have some legitimate reason for vanity publishing a project that isn't quite a personal project. I'm willing to believe it's possible, even though I'm not personally aware of any such reasons. In that case, tell me the reason in the query letter. Otherwise, I will assume the book just wasn't good enough and you vanity published as an act of desperation. Sorry if that sounds cold. Sometimes the truth, she is an icy bitch.

What's the bottom line? Have a good reason to justify it, or don't mention it at all.



Leona said...

That's the best way I've heard it explained. Thank you :)

Livia Blackburne said...

Hmmm.. so if someone said they self published a novel to learn every aspect of the publishing industry, what would it take to make that convincing? My first reaction to that is kind of "Uh-huh, SURE you did..."

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

I'm starting to think the line between the two is irreparably blurred.

Anyway, let me come out of the closet. I've self-pubbed (or whatever you call it when you use Lulu) two anthologies of short work now. I've been told it has no commercial value, as it's (a) short or flash fiction, (b) that previously appeared for free on my blog (c) is about a rock band and (d) features men and no one wants to read about men. (Something I'm sure JK Rowling and JR Ward wholeheartedly agree with.)

I've been doing it because my readers wanted me to. They came to me and said, "Where do I start? I love these guys. I want to start reading their story at the beginning."

I'm making money. I'm finding new readers, albeit slowly. I'm able to participate in things that are meaningful to me, like Operation e-Book Drop, where we give free digital copies of our books to deployed service men and women.

And I'm going to follow suit with the novel that spawned all this short fiction. Because I've been told -- to my face by reputable agents -- that the problem isn't my writing or the story. It's that books about rock stars are notoriously hard sales. As I read more and more of the genre, I see why. As much as I hate to admit it, it's deserved.

Yet, again, I've got a following for Trevor and Mitchell. People are dying to read the novel.

If this was any business other than publishing, you find a way to fill the demand and you're a hero for doing so.

Yeah, it'd be nice to have bigger distribution and a wider audience for what I do. But in my viewpoint, I can either cut off my nose to spite my face and refuse to give my readers anything, or I can continue to work, one person at a time, to convert them. To me, two hundred fans is way better than none.

So if that makes me a leper, so be it. But there are a couple hundred people out there who don't care who publishes my stuff, so long as they get to read it.

There. I've come clean. Banish me to the leper's colony if you will.

Edittorrent said...

Susan, don't worry. You can stay on the mainland. :) This isn't about cleanliness, but practicality.

The point I think Theresa is making is not that you or any other writer should not make these choices. Rather, it is that no one should think of vanity or self-pubbing as conferring the sort of instant credibility in a query offered by publication with a major commercial press. That's just reality.

HOWEVER, success always confers credibility. So keep good records of sales of any self-pubbed (or vanity pubbed) book. If you can say in a query that you sold 2K copies of your book, well, that will probably get some interest. (This is how E Lynn Harris got started!) That means you have 2K readers already, readers on your mailing list, readers who might buy another book. That's worth mentioning in a query. What's the cutoff? Well, I think 2K would definitely impress. 1K might impress. I'd probably couple it with some line about marketing might, like "Because of my self-pubbed book (which has sold X to date), I have an email list of X number of readers and X unique monthly visitors to my website."

But the emphasis should be on how that book gathered you readers, because that's the credibility the publisher is probably looking for.

Riley Murphy said...

Leper colony? Susan, I don't think anyone around here would suggest such a thing. Now a spanking? Maybe. (insert me holding up my hands here and sheepishly grinning) I'm kidding.;) You go girl!

I think the line being blurred is finding the distinction between personal drive and business needs. I’ll give you an analogy - because what I just said was as clear as mud, right? Think of the concept of selling your home for sale by owner. It works great for some people and for others? It fails miserably.

For instance, one neighbor puts his house up for sale by himself - he holds an open house and someone makes an offer on that very day. Great. Yet, another neighbor decides to do this - he holds an open house six Sunday’s in a row and no bites - not even an offer. He gets disheartened and decides to call in a realtor. Now, the realtor knows the house - as does everyone in the surrounding vicinity. People are wondering why the place hasn’t sold. And any good realtor walking into that listing appointment would be honest enough to tell the guy that his home is going to be hard to sell now because he over exposed his product.

“ But that can’t be!” The owner says. “My house is bigger and better than my neighbor’s who sold his for more than what I’m asking for mine.”

And yes, that may be true but, even a professional who sells hundreds of homes a year - can’t change the public’s perception that this home didn’t sell for months - especially when a similar home in the neighborhood sold - in a day.

Will self publishing in any form help an aspiring author? There’s always the chance that it will - like the for sale by owner that sold in day.:) But there’s also the risk - like the second seller in my scenario - that it could do more harm than good - if you’re not paying attention.

I do think the key to this is to be professional about it and as Alicia says, don’t oversell the importance of being self-published unless you have some provable stats to back up the accolades.

Where was I going with all this? Oh yeah, translating this to the publishing world - I would imagine that most professionals (agents and editors) think about the concept of the self published author as a realtor thinks about that guy who tried to sell his home: for sale by owner. Bottom line? If he was so successful doing it his way - why is he now calling me?

Just my .02

Leona said...

I used to be a realtor and Murphy's right on target (as usual **sigh she usually is).

That being said, what do people in the middle do? I had an agent, who sent me to a publisher that I have since found out is on Writers beware (I was a newbie and hadn't found that site yet).

They said they couldn't guarantee 5k in sales but liked my book. for $700 dollars I got a cover and lots of marketing and other stuff right? WRONG LOL

They do offer a lot of stuff. I did get a wonderful cover and lots of "coaches" but the book wasn't sold through regular channels, it was still sold as POD which wasn't my understanding. I still don't know if that was my ignorance of the way things are done or because they were purposefully misleading.

I love my story, as do other people. Soon, I will pull it from this publisher and offer it on amazon in paperback because that is how most of my people want to see it. Now, it is a labor of love.

It doesn't seem to fall into any categories that I know of. I get royalties, yet I didn't get the traditional "release" with book stores, I got emails sent out (for free if I had over 200 which I do).

What it did do for me is give me a chance to go through the line item edits after formatting, learn more about the business and start getting people to read my story.

Like Susan, I have people who like my work. I'm trying to do a few more book signings (I have one today) again, for the experience and learning what to expect. Then, As I have retained all copyrights and printing rights, but not the cover, which is why I'm waiting.

When the time comes, I will simply put it on Amazon for the followers who want it and the rest of the series and can't afford the hardback cover price.

I don't use it when I send in queries as I liken it to telling them I have been blogging and reading other agents blogs for knowledge and practice. **shrug I got my 16 yr old who doesn't read to read it and he started reading it voluntarily because he wanted to know what happened next. Then, when he finished, he was like when are you finishing the next one?

For me, this makes all the heartache and trouble of going a different route worth it!

Edittorrent said...

Susan, I'm willing to recognize -- as I said over and over in my post, and even gave examples -- that these choices can be a smart move. My post was not an indictment of these methods, but an attempt to give some answers to the question of how to reference them in a query. In your case, you could very easily say that even though there is a low market demand for this type of story, your blog readers supported your self-publishing choices, and you've sold X copies in Y months.

Livia, I understand your skepticism, but it's not that uncommon. Funny thing about it -- I have friends who have done this exact thing, and none of them mention it in their queries.


em said...

This is good information for anyone who wants to write. I have a better understanding of the differences now.
Thank you, Theresa:)

Edittorrent said...

Leona and Susan, have either of you had experience with selling for Kindle?


Jami Gold said...

Thank you, Theresa,

This whole brouhaha with you-know-who has been driving me crazy with its attempt to call it self-publishing rather than vanity publishing. You've pointed out the very important differences between them.

My brother's friend has successfully self-published several non-fiction books. He sub-contracts out pieces and parts, but he maintains full and total control. It is his business.

Vanity publishing is completely different. If you have to pay up front and share the back-end profits, that's vanity publishing. Self-publishers keep 100% of the profits.

Sorry, done with rant now. :) I just hate that this whole thing has confused the two. There are legitimate reasons for choosing either option, but people can't make informed choices if they don't understand the differences.

Jami G.

Leona said...

I have my book available on kindle, but I haven't advertised it yet because I'm waiting until I pull it from the publisher.

I have to get a new book cover first (I'm an artist, so I'll do it myself when I'm ready) and I want a few more hardbacks sold as it is available through Ingram and other book sites that it won't be available through when I pull it.

I was told about kindle because of the high cost of the book. I may end up with a sale or two from today's signing, but I doubt it. I've kept it a secret because I don't want to undermine my sales now and feel that it will sale better with a cover later.

That's as far as I've gone with kindle to date. Although, I will say I have had to promise to put the series out on Amazon and kindle to those who have read my book.

Leona said...

Idk what it is but when I write posts here, I'm terrible! Don't mind the oops' in there please. I wrote one on the way to the signing and one when I got back :) I'm a little distracted.It went well, btw, lots of good PR with the book store for when I go the traditional route. :D

Unknown said...

I understand where Susan is coming from. Sometimes it's better to do something than nothing at all.:) That being said, I see Murphy's point about writers who aren't paying attention to their public image or who toot their own horns grandly when they submit traditionally with nothing to back it up. There is a line, isn't there?

Theresa, this is a very informative post and very timely indeed!

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

This has been a great discussion. Murphy, I get where you're coming from. Food for thought. Thanks.

A&T -- I know there's no indictment here, but you DID ask for examples where doing it yourself would make sense. I *believe* I'm one of those cases.

Yes, I have experience with Kindle. Let me just say that I'd love to earn out my current royalty rate and funnel the whole thing through Smashwords. Anyone who'd like the nuts and bolts here can drop me an e-mail.

One of the best people to talk to about Kindle, I think, is Zoe Winters. ( -- she did an experiment with Kindle sales. Interesting stuff.

I DO believe this is a brave new world of publishing. I do NOT believe that editors, agents, and the big publishers are obsoleting themselves. I guess I'm right in the middle of the most popular beliefs in this regard, which is unusual for a woman who's usually Left of Center. Errr... West of Mars. *grin*

MrsMusic said...

Doesn't Susan show a case where it can indeed make sense to mention a self-published book? I.e. if you are writing in a very special, very narrow niche, like blogs about male rockbands. There are fans out there, but numbers may be too small for "real" publishers, so in fact it doesn't make a big difference to publish with a niche publisher or just do it yourself.

Of course, it makes only sense to mention this publication, if you are trying to place another one in a market close to that niche. In this case, as Teresa pointed out, the experience and the readers collected can be invaluable for the publisher!

If in doubt, I'd always go the safe way and not mention it. As we say in Germany: the fish, not the angler, has to like the worm. And if self-published books are worms the fishes don't like - well... ;-)

Edittorrent said...

Okay, MrsM, not sure I like the fish/worm thing there. :)

But it's actually an illustrative proverb.