Vanity Publishing Is Booming, and the Big Houses Want In (at a Price)

It's a long-held truth of trade publishing: Only the most desperate authors would pay to get their books published. Vanity presses, the wisdom goes, handle books by the rank amateurs, the wannabes, the lowest of the low. Then last month, romance publisher Harlequin announced it was getting into the pay-to-publish game with a new imprint, then called Harlequin Horizons and now DellArte Press.

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The response was controversy: writers' groups demoted the publisher from approved status, and those who self-publish or use subsidy publishers complained of being the industry's bastard stepchildren. But the real raw nerve that Harlequin unwittingly exposed is that in publishing, money always talks first -- and that money is increasingly flowing toward the pay-to-publish model.

Authors, Authors Everywhere

Publishing, after all, is in turmoil. Advances and print runs are slimming down, and the tiny e-books segment blazes hotter with each passing month. And publishers are desperately seeking talent in all the untraditional corners: blogs, Facebook status updates -- even books whose authors paid to get them published.

That ethos drives the largest pay-to-publish firm in the country, Author Solutions (ASI), Harlequin's partner in DellArte Press. Unlike trade publishers, whose current resigned mantra is "flat is the new up," on-demand and short-run services are making a lot of money, with an approximately 132% sales jump in 2008. But those profits aren't coming from book sales: A writer is lucky to sell more than a handful of copies. Kevin Weiss, CEO of Author Solutions, estimated an average of 150 copies sold for each title, and the vast majority of the more than 80,000 titles printed on demand annually don't sell a single copy at all.

In this model, the customers are the authors, not the readers. And ASI's range of similar-but-different imprints requires authors to ante up considerable cash to make their literary dreams reality. ASI's bread-and-butter is AuthorHouse (formerly 1stBooks). Devised by an aspiring writer who'd been rejected by more than a hundred publishers, AuthorHouse now produces 1 in 17 titles in print in the U.S.

Paying to Play

When Gazelle TechVentures sold AuthorHouse to Bertram Capital in 2007, the Bloomington, Indiana–based company went on a shopping spree, buying pay-to-publish giant iUniverse, followed this year by XLibris (49%-owned by Random House parent Bertelsmann) and a third pay-to-publish house, Vancouver-based Trafford Publishing.

All of these ASI-owned companies -- plus ASI's budget imprint, WordClay -- maintain autonomous identities and pricing strategies. Want a more D.I.Y. experience? Use WordClay. Got bigger ambitions for your book? AuthorHouse, iUniverse, and XLibris offer a range of print-on-demand experiences for the aspiring author's wish list: writers can pay up into the thousands for cover design, ISBN numbers, outsourced editing, even minimal marketing efforts.

While ASI's authors may not benefit from much marketing of their labors of love, ASI has been doggedly marketing itself to bigger publishers. It announced in October that it would provide pay-to-publish services to Christian publisher Thomas Nelson Inc. under the banner of WestBow Press, a separate division staffed largely provided by ASI personnel. Michael Hyatt, CEO of Thomas Nelson, says the partnership is intended to capture the Christian segment of the growing pay-to-publish market, with the goal of using Westbow to find authors for Thomas Nelson to publish.

Romance and Dischord

The Thomas Nelson deal raised eyebrows but nowhere near the controversy of the DellArte Press affair. The announcement by DellArte -- then called Harlequin Horizons -- came days after Harlequin launched Carina Press, a digital-only imprint that won't pay advances to its authors but offers siginificantly higher royalty rates than the established category lines.

The Mystery Writers of America and the Romance Writers of America blanched at Harlequin's plans to shepherd authors rejected by advance-offering imprints to DellArte, where the price for pay-to-publish services starts at $599. The two associations dropped Harlequin as an approved publisher -- a move that some member writers applauded, but which self-published writers criticized. (Neither ASI nor Harlequin returned requests for comment.)

ASI's Weiss responded to criticism in a YouTube video stressing that ASI is "part of an indie book revolution." The dispute illuminates an emerging culture war between traditional publishing and alternate revenue streams like pay-to-publish and e-reader exclusives. If DellArte and Westbow generate strong sales and profits for their parent companies, other major publishers may follow suit.

Author Solutions v. Amazon

If that happens, ASI may become a far more formidable player in publishing. (On Thursday, the company announced a partnership with On Demand Books, the makers of the Espresso Book Machine.) But to stay strong, ASI will have to fend off the efforts of Amazon (AMZN), which recently merged its pay-to-publish arms BookSurge and CreateSpace under one umbrella, and rival Lulu.com.

But ASI and DellArte face tough questions that no one wants to answer: What would happen in a market with more authors than readers? And is there an infinite window of opportunity from customers -- authors -- who might only ever see a single copy of their beloved book in print?

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