No one went broke selling snakeoil

Most of this is from my blog, but I wanted your opinion on the ethics of such a thing. Some things are my comments on the idea, obviously.

This past weekend, my mother and I stopped by Barnes & noble. Mom wanted another book by her favorite author. I was looking for Ann Rassios's Godquake, which they didn't have. At the checkout counter, Mom asked the checker how a new author goes about getting noticed: we had just spent over an hour looking through the sci-fi/fantasy section and I was less than chipper.

The clerk talked about book signings, advance copies, and such, and then handed Mom a slick flyer with the announcement "Get published now" blazoned across the front. She passed it onto me; I glanced at the iUniverse label at the bottom and resisted blurting out, "This is a vanity publisher or something. This isn't my idea of publishing." (At this point, I'm sure someone will come out the woodwork announcing that THEY published through a vanity publisher and everything is peachy, but hey.) I didn't want to cause a scene--I'm not good at real life scenes, only fictional ones.

On the inside of the brochure, a double spread says that , "Barnes and Noble is opening its doors to the very best iUniverse authors." Open it again and there are testimonials from Natasha Munson, Sharon Boorstin and Gary Marino along with the steps needed to publish your book now. (tempting so far, isn't it?)

Step one: Publish your book for an introductory rate of only $999 Now, I can't be certain, but I pretty sure that I haven't spent $1000 worth of paper, stamps or time on sending queries yet, so I'll stick to what I'm doing.

Step two: When you earn Publisher's Choice, iUniverse will present your book and marketing plan to the appropriate B&N buyer. So how is this better than getting an agent, getting an editor and having the publishing house market it to the best B&N buyer? I was watching publishers very carefully in the store, and I didn't see iUniverse on anything

Step three: You book will appear on the Trade Paperback New Release table in the high traffic area at the front of B&N for a minimum of 60 days. Appear, like magic,huh? Good thing I write fantasy.

The rest is up to you the brochure proclaims.

The only thing left is the small print on the back. Publishing packages range from $299 to $1099. Some include cover design, or even a cover design evaluation and a "tune-up" of the promotional text on the back cover. "A great choice for authors who want their book to be a serious contender in today's competitive publishing environment."

They also offer editorial services "at an affordable price" and claim to "offer the most comprehensive range of marketing and publicity products available from any publishing services provider."

I need to go lie down. I'm feeling faint. It could have been the nachos, but I doubt it.

This is not unethical. iUniverse paid BN to hand out those brochures. In fact, the staff person at BN might actually think s/he is doing the customers a favor by giving them this info. You surely have noticed a few other areas where ad copy might be a tad suspect (Are you reading this by the memoir section? or by the diet book section? or by the "Get Rich in 30 Days without Breaking a Nail section?")

Snake oil salespeople are the second oldest profession. iUniverse and Barnes and Noble only count dollars on their bottom line. They don't get points for helping people, or worse, giving most people the very very discouraging news that probably they are never good enough to be commercially published. Why would they? It doesn't increase their bottom line.

However, just because this isn't unethical doesn't make it a practice I would want to support. Depending on how far you want to go with this, you can give the community relations person at the local BN a call or write her a letter and say "yanno, this really is a scam cause paying someone to get published is called vanity publishing, not trade publishing and making people think that's all they have to do to get into BN is a corporate policy I'm not very comfy supporting with my dollars". Then have your other local writer friends do the same.

Then shop at the indie store.

If you don't have one, shop at Powells.com.

You'd be surprised what voting with your dollars can do to a corporation that only values the bottom line.


Anonymous said...

Well put, well done, well stated.

Bernita said...

Agree, afmichael!

MaryAn Batchellor said...

The real question for me is "what made your mom think the checker knew anything about marketing or publishing?" Or was it just polite chit chat --

Lisa Cohen said...

We have the most wonderful indie book store in my home town. They've seemed to beat the odds--in business for over 10 years and going strong. I love that when I go shopping there, the staff makes recommendations based on what I've recently read and liked or disliked. They also have the most wonderful section of poetry that I've seen in *any* bookstore. And if they don't have what you want in stock, they'll order it.

Frankly, when I shop in the big chain stores, (usually out of desparation or in an airport) I haven't noticed a big price difference.

I love my local bookstore. In an era with corporate *everything*, it's a rare and precious place.

lady t said...

Most people ask bookstore staff about how to get published-it's like a doctor at a cocktail party having folks ask him/her about the funny wart on the back of their neck or Aunt Tillie's aches and pains.

The B/N clerk seemed to be just following the company line there but folks should be alert whenever you're asked to pay for something that normally you're the one who supposed to get paid.

Anonymous said...

After paying the thousand bucks, you qualify to be "eligible" for Publisher's Choice. They still have to choose your book: "Only titles published through the new iUniverse Premier Plus package that receive the Publisher's Choice designation are eligible for this unique opportunity."

I couldn't find anything about how many books they choose for this program.


Anonymous said...

Why is it that it is okay, even expected, for musicians, filmmakers, and artists to "self-publish" and go direct to their audiences when they are starting out, but if a writer does it they are stigmatized? Have to think that this too will change.

Anonymous said...

Another excellent, nationally known indie book store is The Tattered Cover in Denver, Colorado. www.tatteredcover.com

d said...

Our indie book stores have dropped liked flies (sniffle) ... I have one left (45 minutes away) but I LOVE Powells.
They have a great newsletter too!

Anonymous said...

I live in Denver, and it is great!

Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said...

Oh, yes, support your independent bookstores.

I love Barnes and Nobel. They're not my main competition. I sell general used and antiquarian. But, mostly I like them for their sit down and eat and sip Starbucks place. I almost never buy their books.

If I'm in a buying mood, there's an independent new bookstore in the same shopping area as my store. I've known the owner since I was a kid. She's sweet, even if she's kinda a nut case far left ultra-liberal conspiracy theory believing ... oh you get the idea. That's where I shop for new books. It doesn't cost more. You deal with someone who knows what they're doing.

I have a favorite used bookstore too (other than mine). It's half a block from my place and run by an ex-teacher guy. We spend a lot of time in each other's stores. Gossip is good for the soul. And independents are good for your buying experience.

Also, try these: Addall.com; Alibris.com; Bookfinder.com; abe.com.

WagerWitch said...

Question: Is it possible for a writer to even make it at a vanity press?

Marketing at Barnes & Noble, to me, 1000.00 to 2000.00 seems to be a very small price to pay to have your novel seen without having to go through all of the rigamarole of finding an agent, having the agent find an editor/publisher. Getting an offer. Getting turned down or even chomping at the bit waiting for someone to think your writing is alright.

Tell me about vanity presses and why they are bad. I'm a total newbie on this issue - and the idea sounds tempting...

I mean, 1000.00 to 2000.00 bucks gets your books published (how many?), you get marketed at B&N, which to be very honest, is a chain store - it sells. And you can call yourself a published writer.

While I don't have dreams of grandeur, I do have dreams of getting my writing seen by readers.

Could someone go over the pros and cons.

Like I said - speak in baby steps, because I'm totally new to the publishing industry - just not the writing side of it. *g*

Let me put this in the notes here: I'm not jumping at the chance to do it - I would just like more information and why it is a bad thing, so I can set my thoughts to rights.

Lady M

tess gerritsen said...

With a measly $1000, you can get 60 days on a B&N display table? My gosh, my own publisher (Ballantine/Random House) has trouble buying co-op display space for more than two weeks for my new books. Those display tables are in such high demand, B&N limits how much co-op time a publisher can buy.

(And in case people aren't aware of the fact, space on those display tables ARE paid for by publishers.)

What B&N is offering to iUniverse authors -- 60 days of display - is incredibly valuable. Assuming the display table isn't stuck way back in some dark corner. I'm really curious how this deal was struck, and how much B&N is getting out of this.

Mark said...

Tess, who has the most experience of any blog commenter I've seen hits a big point. That sort of display is tough to get and in fact some books published at trade houses don't even get into stores nationwide at all.

Print on demand will contine to fail. The whole concept is designed not to print books before a sale. it's tough to fill a shelf that way unless someone pays for them. Who? It's almost always the author since that's who vanity presses are set up top sell to.

Anonymous said...

Lady M., most of the people who go the vanity press route haven't gone to any trouble to learn how to edit, revise, re-write, or hone their work. They take the quick and easy way out, and 99% of vanity press output--and I've seen quite a bit of it--is dreck and a waste of paper. Typos, really bad writing, little talent or concern for a quality product available.

And it's not 'publishing'...you don't "get published" if you pay to have your work printed. I suppose the biggest problem with it is quality control--there is none. Anybody with a keyboard can have anything printed. But that doesn't make them an author.

Think of it this way: somebody walks into the London Philharmonic Symphony. They've never played a violin before in their life--never had lessons--never rehearsed, yet they pick up a violin and demand to play with the symphony and be taken seriously as a violinist. They'd be laughed off the stage.

Writing is hard work, writing take talent and skill and drive and practice. Just because somebody can write a letter to their mother doesn't automatically mean they can ever hope to write a book that's going to have any sense of quality about it. You have to have the talent to begin with. And the fact is that not everyone has the talent to sing or to dance or act. And it's the same with writing--not everybody has that talent and while you can learn skill, you can't learn talent.

I am in publishing--a multi-published author with a NY house. It took me years to build up my skill to get that first contract, but I'm so glad I never caved and took the easy way out because I wouldn't be where I am today, and I like where I am (and I can assure those in the SP industry, NY is not afraid of losing business to self/vanity presses--the numbers say it all).

Another note: most SP/VP writers never make even a fraction of their money back--there are a few exceptions, but I personally know several people who've fallen for the scam, and one of them lost over $8000 on V-P. Most of these places are just out to feed off the dreams of people at a high price, which is--in my opinion--totally unethical.

Anonymous said...

Some comments--

B&N has a more than 50% stake in iUniverse, btw.

Not every author paying the fee gets a shot at the display, only selected authors.

B&N is very much in business as Miss Snark says, and has its own publishing imprints with Sterling, Lark and B&N books, which causes some consternation among other publishers.

WagerWitch said...

Thank you for all of that.

But what if an author is good - completely edits their stuff, the story line is decent... But just not the stuff that publishers are looking for this week?

Has anyone ever made it from vanity?

Has it ever put them in the spotlight?

Or is it just a pipe dream?

Charlie Martin said...

I don't think you or your correspondent are being quite fair to iUniverse. They're not pulling the usual vanity press thing of trying to convince you that they're a "real publisher" --- they're very upfront that they are a self-publishing service offering publish on demand and marketing services.

They also are offering fairly reasonable rates and some useful services. A friend of mine wrote a book that's a gay, occult, mystery story set in New Orleans. He published with iUniverse, and they did a good rigorous edit, gave him good advice and then published the book. As the link shows, it's actually available.

I don't have any opinion on whether this is, or should be, a "publishing credit", but lumping them in with the vanity press doesn't seem fair.

Charlie Martin said...

Oh, and yeah, another vote for Tattered Cover.

Anonymous said...

Lady M- take a look at Ann and Victoria's blog, and the Writer Beware website. Link to A&V is on the side of Miss Snark's, link to WB at A&V's.

Whatever you decide to do, make sure you have all the information. Self-publishing is, in general, not a viable option for those looking for a career. People will say, "Oh, so-and-so started in self-publishing...", but they fail to mention that so-and-so is one of millions. You'd have to be REALLY good. And if you're that good, why then not get a huge advance and royalities?

Anonymous said...

Yes, the Tattered Cover (either the downtown LoDo or the Cherry Creek location) is like an oasis. If you go to Denver, go there. Plan on spending a half-day.

Regarding vanity press marketing, has anyone else noticed that the New York Review of Books has been running a double spread ad, for the past few issues at least (pp 54-54 in the 3/9 issue), which is mostly vanity press stuff? They call it "Independent Press Listing." That seems more than a little disingenuous, since NYRB would never review any of those books in a million years. I suppose if they titled the section "Vanity Press Listing" no one would buy the ads.

Michael Fiedler said...

I am an employee of iUniverse, although I am in no way authorized to speak for them. I am an avid fan of Miss Snark, however, and happened to see this post. Being on the inside, I thought I might be able to clarify some issues.

Many people criticize POD publishing because authors' books cannot get into stores. iUniverse decided to do something about it. Barnes & Noble (they have invested in our company, although it is more like 20%) agreed to carry iUniverse books as long as they are well-written and have an attractive cover design.

We developed our Premier Plus package so that it qualifies books that meet these standards. The first step is to go through our Editorial Evaluation. If the editor finds that the book is very well-written, it is designated Editor's Choice. That is the first qualification. The next step is a Design Evaluation. This ensures that the cover design meets the standards of Barnes & Noble. Based on the book, the target audience, and the competition, we will present a cover concept to the author. Upon their approval, we will then design the cover, get it approved by a third-party evaluator, and present it to the author for their approval. As long as the author follows our guidance on this one, they will pass this step.

So, in conclusion, all it takes is a great book and a willingness to be flexible with the cover design. The book is then designated Publisher's Choice and is placed on the new release paperback table for at least 60 days. If it does well, they will continue to stock it. If the book does extremely well, then it will be considered for placement other stores as well.

This is a very new program (officially launced Feb. 1st), so there are no Publisher's Choice books in stores yet. Several books are currently going through the Premier Plus program, and we expect to see our first Publisher's Choice books in stores soon.

Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said...

I don't see publish on demand or vanity presses as viable options, except for low demand academic reprints.

I want to be able to write in such a way that Editors in the "Big Houses" want to publish me. Yes, it's a hard road. Yes, it's frustrating. Yes, some agents say insulting things about newbies and publish their comments for us all to read. (It makes you wonder if they aren’t burned out. Or, perhaps they feel their temperamental screeching is educational. )

One agent who blogs says she deals with authors who feel they have a right to be published. I'm sure there are those like that. I don't feel that way. I never have, but I feel lumped into that category unfairly. I want to learn my craft. It is frustrating, and it is hard work.

But the real issue is writing well. Personally, the transition from academic writing style to fiction has been excruciating. I'm learning. My critiques have slowly shifted from comments on major faults, to nit picks, to frank fan mail. I’m learning.

There is a world of difference between someone who moans about the people with whom her trade puts her in contact and people like Miss Snark or the Editorial Assistant who sent my last rejection. Miss Snark and that editor are interested in cultivating new writers and in building the craft. They’re just plain nice. We need more like them. But, ultimately, it is we who must do the work required for excellence. No agent or publisher is responsible for our ability.

In my long-winded way, I'm telling you that if you only want to see a book in print, hire a vanity press. If you want to entertain and write well you must work, sweat, beat your head on the wall, scream, kick, and put your heart into improving your writing. The real short cuts in skill building have no relationship to self-publishing. Bad writing, though published, is still bad writing.

Mindy Tarquini said...

But what if an author is good - completely edits their stuff, the story line is decent... But just not the stuff that publishers are looking for this week?

Lady M, if that's the case, hie ye back to your keyboard and start a new project. Something very different from what you just wrote. You're a writer. You probably have ideas by the bucketful. Choose one and write another novel. Edit it and learn. While you query that, sit down and write a third novel. Practice makes perfect. The worst that will happen is that you'll get rejected. But maybe by then what you wrote in the first place is back in demand again.

Anonymous said...

Money flows toward the writer, not away.

Spending hundreds of dollars just to see your name in print or your cherised work in print is ridiculous. That's not being published.

Perfect your writing, read as much as you can on writing. Then go after the traditional/commercial publishers. You'll only pay for envelopes and stamps.

Reggie said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Reggie said...

"If the book does extremely well, then it will be considered for placement other stores as well. - mj"

So for 1000+ bucks a book or two gets space on a paperback table at one store. Hope it's a store near the victim's...er..I mean...the writer's home.

wannabe said...

Another good independent bookstore - The Poisoned Pen in Arizona. I order stuff from them all the time!

Michael Fiedler said...


Although that decision is up to the B&N buyer, the book is normally placed in a store that is close to the author.

I know that having a book carried nationwide is the ideal, but it is just unrealistic for the self-published author. However, B&N is giving them a real opportunity, and I respect them for it.

To be honest, I don't understand the criticism, which I do hear from time to time. Of course placement will start in one store. Does anyone really think that B&N could afford to stock each Publisher's Choice book nationwide? There is just no way they could do that. B&N believes in what we are doing, and they have been very generous in giving writers this opportunity.

By the way, they have carried many of our Star titles nationwide. These are books that have sold well and earned their way onto the shelves.

Unknown said...

"However, just because this isn't ethical doesn't make it a practice I would want to support."

Did you mean unethical?

WagerWitch said...

Thank yous to everyone for your insightful remarks.

I am keeping a notebook full of reference notes - honest...

*scribble, scribble*

I can see how it (Self Publishing - Vanity Presses - POD) could be something that would interest writers.

I can also see how the publishing industry would not particularly care for it - as it skips all of the steps that have been tried and tested as being true.

I don't know if anyone has made it yet to the "lime-light" after using such a service. No one has mentioned that yet.

However, the concept seems the same, except the publisher is not taking the financial risk, the author is.

The concept being... The author writes a book and it gets published.

(Glossy cover, story inside in paperback format, boxes of books.)

I can see the point made, as probably being quite true, where authors who have not edited or practiced the craft might lead way to horrid books.

But, I will be honest, there really are a lot of horrid books out there right now. They've just been edited to fix typos, spelling errors and such.

So, with the information given:

I see it as basically something that is not as likely to get an author highlighted and sold as well as a big publishing house - that already has the resources and pays on advance... Plus has the marketing capabilities...

But more as something that the author has to go out and promote and make happen.

In other words, there are pros and cons to it:

Pros: Instant gratification of "being in print". Possibility that your works will be seen and sold. Dreams of someone "important" seeing your work - in your dreams - and being impressed enough to contact you and offer you the opportunity to sell the rights... No need to wait to find an agent or publisher. No need to sit and get all of the rejection notices.

Cons: Not considered professional standards by those in the industry. Most authors have not perfected their craft and produce 2nd or 3rd (or worse) products. No agent to help you with contracts. No Publisher's marketing. No advances. No booklisting with major Publishing Houses. It costs a significant amount of money to invest in. You have to market yourself or pay others to market you. No editors, unless you pay for them, so no editing of your book by professional editors. Product may or may not be of quality.

Now... this is what I have gotten out of the comments here and reading a few sites.

I'd still love to hear more comments. Miss Snark? Anyone?

Lady M

WagerWitch said...

Most authors have not perfected their craft and produce 2nd or 3rd (or worse) products.


I must have been an editor in my previous life. I seem to have forgotten how to proofread before hitting that 'send' button. :P

Should have read:

Most authors have not perfected their craft and produce 2nd or 3rd (or worse) rate products.

Michael Fiedler said...

lady m,

Here are a few iUniverse authors that have found some success:

Other authors that did not self-publish through iUniverse have also found success, including Will Clarke and Dewitt Gilmore (recently profiled in the New York Times).

One more interesting story:

Anonymous said...

>Here are a few iUniverse authors that have found some success:<

Be careful, Lady M. These are the EXCEPTION TO THE RULE. A teeny tiny percentage of self-published authors find success with a traditional publishing company.

Anonymous said...

Lady M,

Apart from the Barnes & Noble deal mentioned in this post, I have never heard of chain bookstores selling self-published or POD (print-on-demand) books. Most bookstores order their books only from "real" publishers. You might be able to get your book into your local indie bookstore, especially if the book has a special appeal for the local market (e.g., local history). But you won't sell a lot of books that way.

And, as others have said - you're the writer. You're supposed to get paid for writing, not pay for the privilege of seeing your words in print. If you're a good writer, "real" publishers (and agents) will want to take you on, and you'll get the advances and publicity and distribution that your writing deserves. Don't underestimate the importance of these factors. You couldn't do anywhere near as much marketing on your own as you could with the help of a publisher.

Self-publishing has its place: it serves niche markets. If you're on the lecture circuit, for example, and you want to sell books at the back of the hall, self-publishing may be the way to go. The author of What Color Is Your Parachute? published his book this way. (His book made it into the popular market, but it's the exception rather than the rule.) POD is good for books that will have very limited interest, like the small-town-history sort of books I mentioned above.

If you're writing fiction, though, it pays off to go the traditional route.

WagerWitch said...

Just to clarify, I'm not necessarily interested, but I love to know the facts.

It does sound tempting, and I can see why some people might be interested in doing it.

I really do appreciate any and all comments folks have made. Thank you for taking the time to do so.

Lady M

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