Vanity presses, self publishing and PoD

Just a quick note, because it came up in the long comment thread attached to this post at Whatever, John Scalzi’s blog:

Self publishing and vanity publishing via vanity presses are not the same thing. Lulu and CreateSpace might (or might not) be a third thing.

I’m pleased to say that most commenters who chose to address the issue do make a distinction, unlike a number of people I’ve seen in the past (who regard anything other than traditional “New York publisher” publishing as vanity publishing).

The basic difference:

  • Vanity Publisher: The author pays a fairly substantial sum, based on the idea that the book will then be “published”–that is, edited, printed, promoted, sold in bookstores–as part of the imprint of the vanity publisher. Typically, that sum is in the thousands of dollars. The author “gets royalties”–if anybody other than the author ever buys anything.
  • Self Publishing: The author is the publisher–and uses other agencies to handle some of the chores involved with publishing. Generally, the author understands that nobody else is going to edit, promote, place in bookstores, whatever, unless the author pays them for those specific tasks. The author controls the book, sets prices, gets all net proceeds, etc.

Traditionally–and self publishing has been around for centuries–a self-publisher has a run of books printed and bound, then sets about selling them. There’s still a considerable up-front cost, but the author goes in with eyes wide open, not some questionable promises.

Here’s where Lulu and, to some extent, similar services are a little different: The service agency only prints and binds books when they’re ordered, but the service agency can also act as the “bookstore”–taking and fulfilling the orders. In Lulu’s case, that can mean $0 upfront investment. (Of course, if you want to peddle your books to local bookstores or sell them yourself, there is an upfront investment: You have to pay Lulu’s production charges, which are considerably higher per copy than traditional publishing–but considerably less than the minimum price for a traditional print run, when you only need a few dozen copies.)

(It gets muddled. Lulu also has all sorts of optional services, which they pointedly do not push at you, in which you pay for things like cover design, manuscript editing, ISBN and Amazon distribution, Ingram distribution and Books in Print listing, publicity packages… I’ve never used any of those services, so I can’t speak to them.)

Interestingly, Scalzi–a successful science fiction writer–uses Lulu to process his manuscripts, for his own use, so he has nice printed-and-bound versions of what he’s working on, at very low cost. To some extent, that’s what I’m doing with the annual volumes of Cites & Insights: If nobody else buys a copy, I’ve acquired the bound copy I need, with better quality than I could do locally, for a very reasonable price. (My wife’s doing two genealogical volumes for her family; she decided to do the first “published” copy so she could do a final editing pass more easily than on screen…and we’ll upload a revised version later, before acquiring the copies she’s giving away and making it available to others.)

I don’t think most Lulu projects (over a million to date, I believe) are traditional self-publishing, because I don’t think the creators have any expectation of selling more than a handful of copies. They’re family calendars, photo collections done as gifts, very short-run publications, what have you. I believe some open access journals are using Lulu to make an annual hardcopy version available for the libraries that might wish to purchase one–and, to be sure, the price is likely to be reasonable. Some Lulu authors have probably done quite well, and a few Lulu titles have gone on to become traditional books (the author always owns the copyright and maintains total control; the Lulu edition is not exclusive)…but that’s not usually the point.

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