Subsidy Publishing: Proceed With Caution

POSTED ON May 7, 2011

Joel Friedlander

Written by Joel Friedlander

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It happened again today. In fact—and I know you’ll doubt me but it’s absolutely true—it happened twice in one day.

Two different stories with the same sad end.

In the first one, the author had gone to Outskirts Press, a subsidy publisher. She had the first book in a series, and wanted to brand the covers with her own art as a way of tying them together.

After getting resistance about using her artwork, the author insisted. When the books arrived, the artwork had been cut up and put back togther with completely irrelevant images that had nothing to do with the book. The resulting book cover, as you might guess, is a disaster.

Another Story, Same Ending

In the second story, the author went with Balboa Press. Do you know it? This is part of the gradual co-opting of the independent publishing houses by pure naked greed in the form of an alliance with subsidy king Author Solutions. They see all the money authors are paying to publish, they see every day how desperate writers are to get a contract with a publishing house. They decide to cash in, and Author Solutions is only too happy to help.

Author Solutions owns the AuthorHouse, iUniverse, Trafford Publishing, Xlibris and Wordclay imprints. It calls itself “the world leader in indie book publishing” despite the fact there is nothing even vaguely “indie” about the company or the books it produces.

But major independent publishers, perhaps pressed by the economy, perhaps with one eye on the coming tide of e-books, have also joined forces with Author Solutions. First it was Thomas Nelson, the huge bible and religious publisher, with West Bow Press, an enterprise operated by Author Solutions.

By tying the subsidy business to legitimate publishing houses, a true monster was born. The one thing the subsidy businesses lacked was respectability, and with good reason. But now, with major independents falling into line to reap the profits of the many people coming into self-publishing, respectability is guaranteed.

This author bought into the dream at Balboa Press, the Author Solutions-run subsidy branch of Hay House, a respected independent publisher of self-help and spiritual books. But many other publishers have also set up these so-called “self-publishing” branches.

So if Hay House doesn’t want your book, you can pay to publish at Balboa.

What Business are Subsidy Publishers Really In?

Now there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with paying for publishing services. That’s how I make a living, along with a lot of other professionals. But there’s a bait and switch involved here. Writers are sold by manipulating the dream they have of becoming successful published authors. But the truth of subsidy publishing has nothing to do with selling books.

All the income of these companies comes from their own customers/authors.

Because of this one fact, you can see that bringing in new authors, selling author services like editing, marketing, design and typesetting, are important business activities. Since selling books is irrelevant to the company’s profits, it’s logical that as little money and effort will be expended on the books themselves as possible. That’s how you maximize your profits.

But if you look at the “packages” that these companies offer, you soon realize you will be spending thousands of dollars to get into print, and that’s before all the upsells kick in. And before you start buying your own books.

I won’t even go into the litany of abuses these publishers heap on their customers, the same authors they pretend to be such champions for. The PDF files I’ve received with watermarks on every page, making it impossible to use the file for reproduction. The refusal of the publishers to turn over reproduction artwork for book covers the authors have bought and paid for. The list goes on and on.

So anyway, the second author went to Balboa Press, since her book is on a subject close to what Hay House publishes. She paid for everything. But here’s the problem.

The greed, once it starts, begins to consume everything. Her book is a 6″ x 9″ paperback with 284 pages. The retail price Balboa has set—and the author has no choice in this—is $22.95. I told her outright she would never sell the book. Who will buy it?

But wait, it gets worse. The author ordered lots of books to sell herself and to use for promotion. How much did the books cost her? $11.50 each.

A quick calculation told me that the publisher was paying their print on demand supplier about $4.90 to manufacture the books. More than likely the printer is Lightning Source, and part of the sell to the unwary author is that they will get “national distribution,” a scam so pervasive it deserves its own article.

So the subsidy publisher, not content to take thousands of dollars to produce a substandard book with a price so high no one will ever buy it, has turned the author’s own purchases into a profit bonanza. You pay them to create the book at inflated prices, then you pay outrageous prices to buy your own book. They are taking a profit of over $6.00 off every book this poor author buys.

Isn’t There Another Way?

I know the subsidy business is huge and growing because publishing is not, in the end, a simple or easy thing to do. Many writers don’t want to take on the considerable chores of publishing their own book, and look for a “one stop shop” type of solution.

This is one of the simplest reasons to educate yourself before you commit to a particular publishing path. I’ve consulted with half a dozen writers in the last two weeks, and this power of a little education has been proven over and over again. With better information, people make better decisions. When the facts are plainly in front of them, most people know right away what to do, it’s not confusing at all.

There seems to be room in this business for a subsidy publisher that honored authors instead of ripping them off. One that was transparent about their services instead of relying on hype and pretty websites to seduce people. A subsidy house that committed itself to helping its authors succeed at the one basic task anyone in this business ought to be dedicated to—getting their books the widest possible readership.

Now that would be something. In the meantime keep studying, keep learning. Book publishing is an incredibly exciting and rich place to be right now, at the nexus of change. There are huge opportunities for the entrepreneurial author, and they will continue to multiply. But the authors with paperbacks that cost $23, are poorly edited and unattractive, those people will miss out.

Don’t let that happen to you.

Photo by blech.

Joel Friedlander

Written by
Joel Friedlander

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