Because there have always been more would-be authors than mainstream publishers are willing to sign up, writers can turn to a variety of do-it-yourself alternatives. The major difference is that, one way or another, those writers wind up paying, instead of being paid, to be published.
First came the old-fashioned vanity press, now more politely called "subsidized publishing" -- Vantage Press, Dorrance Publishing and Ivy House are examples. They charge writers directly, at prices that can run into thousands of dollars, but their cautions probably prevent misunderstandings. "Some prestige and popularity may come your way, but it is important to recognize that you may only regain a small part of the fee," 50-year-old Vantage warns on its Web site.
The Success Stories|
The self-published books that go on to become bestsellers are few, but they never cease to inspire:
Celestine Prophecy, by James Redfield. The novel was self-published by the author in 1993 through Satori Publishers, which sold 100,000 copies. Redfield re-sold the rights to Warner in 1994. As of 2004, it has sold over 5 million copies in its Warner edition after well over 50 printings; worldwide, nearly 12 million copies in print in more than 40 languages.
Feed Me, I'm Yours, by Vicki Lansky. This cookbook was self-published in 1975 by Meadowbrook Press, an imprint the author founded and continues to manage. In all, it has sold 3 million copies worldwide.
Invisible Life, by E. Lynn Harris. This successful African-American novelist self-published his first book in 1991 and sold 10,000 copies. In 1994, Doubleday offered him a mass market contract and went on to sell more than 500,000.
The Christmas Box, by Richard Paul Evans. Evans orginally conceived of this story as a gift for his family in 1992. He printed 20 copies at a Kinkos, and ultimately published and sold 250,000 paperbacks himself. In 1995, Simon & Schuster bought the rights and sold more than 7 million copies worldwide.
-- Compiled by staff researcher Julie Tate
Newer models like iUniverse and Xlibris use the digital print-on-demand technology. Certain industry sages -- former Random House editorial director Jason Epstein, for instance -- have predicted that POD is the likely future for all publishers, that one day there will be ATM-like kiosks where readers who order books via the Web can pick up their nicely bound copies, eliminating warehouses, sales forces, shipping and returns. This has yet to materialize, but in the meantime, POD technology has considerably lowered the cost of subsidized publishing.
iUniverse, for instance, will print a trade paperback for $299 to $748, depending on how many "free" copies and how much "editorial review" a customer wants, with additional charges for line-editing, proofreading and press releases. POD companies like iUniverse and vanity presses in general don't appear to generate much public rancor, however, because they make it quite clear that the author bears the expense. Besides, such publishers do serve a purpose. The Authors Guild, for example, has an arrangement with iUniverse to keep its members' out-of-print books available. For a PTA planning to sell a cookbook, or a family elder passing her memoirs around to the grandchildren, a vanity or POD press makes sense.
But it's very unlikely to lead to a career. Once in a great while, a highly entrepreneurial author gets lucky: His self-published book comes to the attention of a bigger fish. A recent example: Suzanne Hansen set up a company to print and distribute her You'll Never Nanny in This Town Again! When she and her sister had managed to peddle 4,000 copies -- a big hit in these circles -- they sent mass e-mails to publishers and agents. Crown acquired the book last month for what Hansen's agent calls "a good six figures."
Hansen couldn't enjoy the same resale triumph if she'd teamed up with PublishAmerica; its authors sign over publishing rights for seven years. Instead, the company would have negotiated the purchase and kept half the proceeds. In any case, a success story such as Hansen's is rare. (It helps that her Hollywood nanny saga drops celebrity names like Streisand and Ovitz).
Otherwise, in subsidized or self-publishing, "the overwhelming majority of sales are to the friends and family of the authors," says Barnes & Noble CEO Steve Riggio. He's a print-on-demand believer (his company owns 22 percent of iUniverse) but cautions, "if authors want their books in stores, they need to go the traditional publishing route."
Enter PublishAmerica, a hybrid that uses POD technology but identifies itself as a "traditional" publisher. PublishAmerica doesn't charge authors to produce their books, so authors wary of vanity presses feel reassured. "I was more than willing to give a small press a shot," St. Amour explains.
PublishAmerica is hardly a small press: It released 4,800 titles last year, far outstripping Random House, the nation's largest trade publisher, which released about 3,500 titles in all formats through its many divisions. And it signed 5,000 new contracts, says Clopper, bringing its total to "almost 11,000 very, very happy authors."
Here's how a contract from PublishAmerica works: An author gives PublishAmerica the exclusive right to publish his book for seven years. In return, the company pays the author a $1 advance and agrees to print and distribute the book at its expense. PublishAmerica will edit the manuscript if it thinks it requires "substantial editing." It agrees to pay royalties ranging from 8 percent to 12.5 percent on book sales. Marketing is left completely to PublishAmerica's discretion, though the author pledges "to actively participate" in promoting sales. PublishAmerica also gets the exclusive right to sell the book elsewhere. Those proceeds are split 50-50 with the author.
What happens if the author wants out of the contract? Some authors have been asked to sign a confidential release, agreeing to say only that the relationship "dissolved amicably" and not to disparage PublishAmerica.
Indeed, amicable testimonials from PublishAmerica's authors fill its Web site. But not all are so delighted.
The Campaign Against PublishAmerica
Feeling betrayed, a number of disillusioned PublishAmerica authors have taken to the phones, the mail and the Internet. They've filled hundreds of Web pages on writers' sites with their bitter sagas; they've complained to the Better Business Bureau of Maryland, the Federal Trade Commission and other law enforcement agencies. In November, they sent the Maryland attorney general's office a petition bearing more than 130 signatures. And they've contacted news organizations, including The Washington Post.