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The New Vanity Publishing?
By Scott Nicholson

When you first get into this writing game, you get hammered with lots of truisms by writers who have been around for 30 years.

One of those is "Never self-publish." And that was probably sound advice for something like 29 of their years, but it's a new ball game now. Previously, the major publishers not only held court and serve, it was match point and they owned the ball and the racquet, too, as well as employing the line judge.

Today, major publishers only have three distinct advantages over the self-published author: the ability to pay an advance, the ability to get your books onto store shelves, and the prestige afforded to authors talented, skilled, or lucky enough to enter the inner circle.

I've been in the inner circle, though admittedly the edge of it, where mid-list paperbacks get their three months in the sun before hitting the compost heap of forgotten tales. Close enough to glimpse the ivory tower, anyway, up there where decisions are made and best-sellers determined. Yes, best-sellers are made, not born, because there is only one way to be a best-seller and that is to get paid a lot of money and have hundreds of thousands of discounted hardcovers stacked across the world.

It's a pretty good system for everyone involved in the making of a best-seller. Efficiency, ease of promotion, a pre-determined outcome, and everyone gets paid, even though about half of those hardcovers will eventually be composted, too. If you can publish a best-seller, you'd be crazy not to do it.

If you are at the bottom end of the mid-list scale, you'd be crazy to give your book license away at current industry standards. Let's examine the three publisher advantages in light of the modern digital/print-on-demand landscape.

Advances are shrinking for non-bestsellers, especially for new writers. Sure, new best-sellers are still created, but generally, someone has to bear the brunt of declining sales and shrinking profits. The writer is the easiest line item to cut, because of Advantage Three--writers have been indoctrinated to believe they aren't "real writers" until they have published in New York.

The generally quoted standard advance for a new, unknown writer is $5,000. For that, the publisher usually seeks a specific time period in which to sell the book. For paperbacks, it's a fair arrangement, since most books lose money, at least on paper. The catch now is e-books, where publishers are increasingly imposing Draconian terms that could leave the writer forever indentured.

The most onerous are the clauses that say something like, "If the book earns $100 in e-book royalties in six months, Publisher retains the electronic rights." Ad infinitum.

E-books have little additional overhead, depending upon the value you place on formatting and the original editing involved. Yet publishers are pushing e-book royalties down to between 15 and 25 percent, mainly by wielding the club of prestige and the virtual hammerlock on store distribution.

Yet, haven't we all read of the dramatic rise of e-books, the fastest-growing segment of the industry? And how bookstores are going out of business? Sure, the tipping point is five to 10 years away, but at that time, is the author better off getting nickels and dimes on their e-books, or earning dollars per sale?

And print-on-demand technology is changing the role of distributors and rack jobbers. Remember when every convenience store, drug store, and grocery store had a paperback rack near the checkout counter? Now you're lucky to find 20 titles, those aforementioned best-sellers, if there are any books at all. Even some "legitimate" smaller publishers are now using POD to help control inventory and reduce warehousing costs. And plenty of authors can find POD sources for their own books and reach the same Internet market as the large publishers.

If Advantage One and Advantage Two are neutered, all we have left is Advantage Three. Congratulations, you have a corporate imprint on the spine of your book, and it only cost you between 88 and 94 percent of the cover price. For the e-book, you have given away up to 85 percent of your book's income, possibly for your entire lifetime, and the rest of the copyright term which you'd hoped to leave as an inheritance for your children.

The prestige may be worth it. There's no price on self-esteem, and there is no barometer of vanity. Everything else is just math.


Scott Nicholson is the author of nine novels, six screenplays, four comic-book series, three story collections, and the freebie manual "Write Good or Die." A freelance editor and journalist in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, his Web site is He blogs about writing and publishing at

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