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What exactly is a vanity-press? Why wouldn't you sell many copies from it?

I'd like to get a bit of insight into the world of publishing.

A vanity press is a publishing house that makes the author pay for the costs of printing the book. It's almost impossible to get vanity-press books distributed to bookstores, so the author ends up peddling the books himself. Usually his friends and relatives buy a few copies, and that's about it. It can be an ego boost to see your book in print (hence the term "vanity" press), but it's rarely cost-effective.

I've always been suspicious of anything advertised in Writer's Digest; the ads there are the literary equivalent of those escort service ads at the back of slick magazines.

MP said it exactly right: if you pay to be published, you don't get distribution, period. And you're out real money. (As a writer, real money to me is as much as a thousand bucks!) You can drive around with a bunch of your books in the trunk of your car, but that gets old after awhile. Not to say that a few self-published books haven't done well, but they were always tied to some real-life hook. There was an old guy in the tourist town of Bisbee, Arizona, who paid a considerable amount of rent on Main Street for his "One Book Bookstore," where he hawked his book, "Me 'n Henry." Because he was a good talker, and was old and silver-haired and wore overalls as he dispensed his homegrown advice and down-homisms, he managed to sell a lot of books. It was such a freaky enterprise he ended up on David Letterman. The guy who was supposed to go on before him had a performing parrot, but there was a tragedy: the night before the fellow rolled over in bed and killed his parrot. It sort of cast a pall on the whole evening.

Sorry to hear about the parrot! Then again, that's what the guy gets for sleeping with the talent.

It's true that books with a built-in audience can make money even if they are self-published. This Ayn Rand book may be an example. I noticed it was ranked about 38,000 by Amazon, which is quite good for a vanity-press release. The name Ayn Rand and the subject matter may be enough to generate good sales. It makes me wonder why a more mainstream publishing house didn't buy it. Fear of lawsuits, perhaps?

Unfortunately very few books, self-published or otherwise, have a ready-made audience. And since, as Margaret says, the vanity presses offer no help in getting the book into the stores, the vanity author is pretty much up a creek without a paddle. Or even a parrot.

I am a fan of Ayn Rand, and an aspiring writer. As such, I've researched Durban House and can say that I find it odd that some people refer to them so casually as a 'Vanity Press.' One thing I can assure you is the Ayn Rand Institute would not turn over her unpublished diaries to a vanity press.
Michael Prescott aptly points out--"A vanity press is a publishing house that makes the author pay for the costs of printing the book. It's almost impossible to get vanity-press books distributed to bookstores, so the author ends up peddling the books himself. Usually his friends and relatives buy a few copies, and that's about it. It can be an ego boost to see your book in print (hence the term "vanity" press), but it's rarely cost-effective. "
In my research, I found Durban House titles being sold in all major bookstore chains in the US, Canada, UK, Australia and libraries around the world. I suspect this is a little better than selling a few copies to friends and relatives. I found a half dozen of their titles that have passed the 20,000 sales mark.
I also read the post about Durban House offering the writer a 50% stake in his book. (A cooperative effort.) The Durban House editor readily admited that the company got started by a group of writers pooling their resources to create a strong marketing and publicity program to back their titles. This seems like creative business thinking, given the difficulty new authors find getting their books published and the little promotional effort large publishes provide midlist writers. The Durban House editor also pointed out that Durban House had won two book of the year awards and had a number of titles that were finalist or runners up in book of the year contests.
A number of Durban House writers (one of them an Edgar winner) posted that they paid 'nada' to have their novels published. John Lewis of Durban House posted that writers who made promotional contributions received their money back, plus a profit. He also stated that the company no longer needed contributions from writers.
I'm not here to defend Durban House, but I think a quick look at the state of publishing suggest that more creative methods be found to help promote gifted writers with promising works that are otherwise overlooked by the large houses.

Mike,

I've done a little more reading about Durban House. All I can say is that opinions are divided. Some people insist it is a vanity house, and others insist it is not.

One blogger who initially characterized Durban as a vanity press later changed his mind. You can read his explanation here (copy and paste the entire URL into the browser bar):

http://leegoldberg.typepad.com/a_writers_life/2005/04/bancroft_press_.html

The other side of the story can be read here:

http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/archive/index.php/t-812.html

It doesn't surprise me that people who work for Durban claim it is not a vanity press, but such statements often need to be taken with some skepticism. At the very least, the standard Durban House contract seems to contain some questionable features, detailed in the second page linked to above (scroll down to bottom of page). Example from that post:

"Royalties are set at 50% of the wholesale price (which in many cases is 45% of the cover price), less a list of items including unspecified warehousing costs. The author has no real idea, therefore, of what his/her actual royalty percentage might be. Conceivably, it might be zero. Also, reputable publishers pay royalties on cover price, not the publisher's net receipts."

This clause (among others) smells fishy to me ... as does the fact that Durban House advertises for new writers in Writer's Digest magazine, something that mainstream publishers don't do. It also seems odd that an editor who works for Durban would have his wife, a literary agent, arrange deals for her clients with Durban. The agent is supposed to represent her clients' interests exclusively.

On the other hand, I agree that it would be odd to publish the Ayn Rand book through a vanity press, since Rand has enough of a following to ensure strong sales, and a book about her should have attracted the interest of a regular commercial publisher.

I guess I would say that people who are thinking of submitting a proposal to Durban ought to check out the company thoroughly and sign nothing they do not fully understand (which has first been vetted by an attorney knowledgeable about publishing - an attorney unaffiliated with Durban House).

In other words, approach with caution.

Michael,

I respect your opinion and the opinion of others who believe the axiom that 'writers write and publishers pay'. However, I would like to point out several things I've observed. As a practicing attorney (day job) I review any number of contracts and agreements during the course of a given week; an occupational hazard that probably gives me a slightly different perspective. I might add, not so proudly, that I sent my manuscript to Durban House's editor-in-chief, who rejected it.

First, the only people I see complaining about Durban House are people who have had no experience with them. The lone exception being the writer who made the post on writer's write. Yet, there were two sides to that post that no one seemed to notice (see John Lewis response). The writer who made the post also stated that Lewis recruited CRM's from major chains to lure unsuspecting writers into his literary scam. If such an accusation could possibly be true, why is it that I've seen only praise posted by Durban House writers about the way they've been treated? They must not recognize they've been scammed. And, is it really believable to think that none of the DH writers had their agreements looked at by an attorney unaffiliated with Durban House?

Secondly, from dissecting information posted on various blogs, I'd like to comment on the business model Durban House used to get started. I personally believe, given today's market conditions, it is quite appropriate and creative.

Assume for a moment that as aspiring writers you and I and a dozen or so other writers became associated with one another. We are all aware of the difficulty of getting fiction by first time writers published. We recognize that the problem is two-fold: large houses want writers with established readership bases; small houses, most of which are financially suspect, can do little to promote an author's work.

One day, I call you and the other writers and suggest we pool our resources and start a publishing company. Everyone agrees. We decide to give our manuscripts the finest editorial treatment, cover design, and quality material to produce our books. We also decide that merely producing a book will get us zip sales. So we develop a promotional program for our titles that rivals larger houses. We grow, we win national book awards, we have international distribution, we repay ourselves for the money we've contributed out of the profits. Ten or twelve other authors like what they see and are invited to participate. They agree. Four or five years later we have a successful business. Everyone has their money back and our once nascent publishing company has become an independent press, producing important works like The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics. What, may I ask, is wrong with that?

Given today's realities, I believe it's beguiling how easy it is to print up a book; it's formidable how the aspiring author must get word on his or her book out to generate sales.

Mike,

I think you're coming at this from the perspective that writers and publishers are comrades in arms who work together for the advancement of the written word. Unfortunately, based on my 18 years of experience in publishing, during which time I've published 19 novels, I have a different outlook. Publishing is a low-margin, precarious, cutthroat business, and publishers, even the best of them, will take advantage of writers when they can. This is true even of major houses, and is far more true of small houses using nonstandard business practices.

Writers are not unionized and have little bargaining power in most cases. Publishers' contracts are written to favor the publisher and limit the writer's rights as much as possible. The situation has improved in recent years not because publishers suddenly developed a newfound respect for writers, but because of the diligent efforts of writers' associations and the insistent demands of literary agents.

I know this sounds cynical, but it's the way the business works. Ayn Rand's fantasies about the glories of the unregulated marketplace notwithstanding, in the real world there are wolves in the woods.

Now, as for Durban House ... I'm willing to concede that they may not be a vanity press or even (exclusively) a subsidy press (there is, I've learned, a technical distinction between these terms). That is, they may publish some titles on a non-subsidy basis, and the Ayn Rand book may be one of them. Still, by John Lewis's own admission, they have functioned as a subsidy press in the recent past. Call it creative financing or anything else, but the bottom line is that if you have writers subsidizing (in whole or in part) the publication and/or promotion of their books, then you are running a subsidy press, by definition. Perhaps Durban House no longer requires subsidies from any of their authors, but I have not seen any blanket disavowal of the subsidy practice on their Web site or in their editors' statements.

Even if Durban House is entirely out of the subsidy press business, I would still be wary of them, for reasons argued at length in the final posting (by Victoria) at http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/archive/index.php/t-812.html .

Assuming that Victoria has seen an actual Durban House contract, as she claims (and since she runs a Web site devoted to this kind of thing, her claim seems credible to me), then what Durban House requires its writers to agree to is highly questionable.

Among other things, she says that Durban House "claims exclusively not just publishing rights, but all subsidiary rights, including the right to create derivative and successor works at will." This means if you create a character for Durban House, then the publisher, not you, controls the rights to that character and can hire another author to write a sequel, paying you nothing.

She also says that the "author not only has to indemnify the publisher, but any seller of his/her book, against any loss or expense incurred by 'any claim that said Work violates any rights whatsoever'." I'm sure that you, as a lawyer, realize that this sweeping indemnification is contrary to the author's interests and leaves the author vulnerable to any number of legal challenges and potentially ruinous court costs.

She says that Durban House "claims the right to edit without the author's approval."

And then there is the option clause, in which, she says, Durban House "claims the option to publish the author's next two books on the same terms as the current contract; the author is barred from writing a book for any other publisher until his option books are completed." This clause effectively bars the author from making a living at his trade until his obligations to Durban House are concluded, and since those obligations cover his next two books (!), we are looking at a long period of de facto indentured servitude.

Finally she points out that Clause 23 requires the author to acknowledge "that for a period up until the signing of this agreement, John H. Lewis, Karen Lewis and or Karen Lewis and Company jointly or separately may have been acting as Author's employees of Publisher. Author hereby waives any claims of conflicts or conflicts of interest arising therefrom." This clause seems to tacitly confirm that the relationship between John Lewis (of Durban House) and his wife Karen (a literary agent who steers her clients to Durban House) could be seen as unethical.

Given all these (and other) highly questionable contractual clauses, and given the fact that Durban House at least began as a subsidy press and may still operate in that fashion in some instances, I would repeat my warning to would-be authors: Approach Durban House with caution, if at all.

One more note: the Web site run by Victoria Strauss, who posted the comments quoted above, is found at:
http://www.sfwa.org/beware/

Victoria's personal Web site is http://www.sff.net/people/victoriastrauss/

Michael,

I’ve enjoyed our exchange. It’s interesting to see the different POV people have after reading or witnessing the same thing.

I agree that publishers (large & small houses) and writers generally have an adversarial relationship. This sort of thing is true in all business, labor relationships. However, Durban House was founded by a group of writers looking for a way to introduce new voices into a marketplace dominated by large New York publishers. That indicates, at least to me, that an adversarial relationship did not exist when the company was founded. I review numerous agreements and contracts and rarely find one that isn’t modified. Standard agreements are starting points for parties to reach agreement. They are rarely designed as a take it or leave it proposition. I would be surprised if the standard agreement offered by Durban House wasn’t modified in most if not all cases before the writer signed. It’s incredulous to think that DH writers, or any other writer, would not consult with their agent or attorney before signing any agreement regarding their work. The clause regarding conflict of interest between Durban House and Karen Lewis & Company is appropriate. It is a standard clause to protect third party liability. The clause would only apply to writers that had been clients of, or had some kind of association with Karen Lewis prior to signing with Durban House, but who were not influenced by her to sign. In the event she sold a project to Durban House there would be no conflict, and the clause should be deleted.

In conclusion, I applaud the efforts being made by small publishers who think out of the box. They are publishing books by talented writers that would otherwise never reach a bookshelf. Traditionalist advise the growing mass of wannabe writers to first get an agent and then sign with well-known New York publishers. Fifteen or twenty years ago that might have been the correct procedure. In today’s world, they might as well be advising them to catch the wind. Today’s marketplace is tough. Experience has taught me that it’s almost impossible to get an agent to reply to a query with anything other than a preprinted postcard or a scrawled “Alas, etc, etc.” That’s not to say new writers aren’t published each year. However, usually some extraordinary event must be attached to their work (movie deal, Oprah) or they are rarely heard from again. Why? Because traditional houses have most of their promotional resources allocated for a handful of front list writers.

I’ll leave you with this thought. I don’t know how much reading you do, but, in my opinion, the quality of writing produced by front list writers, by in large, is abysmal. Some of the stuff put out by the “big names” is virtually unreadable. I understand capitalism and marketing realities of sizzle taking precedence over steak. However, as an aspiring writer, I would like to think the quality of the written word stands for something more than a brand name.

Mike,

I appreciate your extensive comments on Durban House, and your enthusiastic defense of their operation. We'll have to disagree about this. I remain skeptical and would advise caution in approaching this publisher.

As far as negotiating the contract is concerned, in my experience publishers rarely depart very much from their boilerplate, especially when dealing with first-time writers (who have no leverage). Maybe Durban House is an exception.

I'm not an expert on conflict of interest, but ordinarily an author with a literary agent relies on the agent to review his contract. So if a writer is represented by Karen Lewis, who is married to the editor-in-chief of Durban House, and she steers the author to Durban House and then reviews and approves the Durban House contract ... well, some people might see a problem there.

It's been twenty years since I broke into the business, and I know things are tougher now (although publishers weren't exactly knocking down the doors of aspiring writers back then, either). But talented writers do come out of nowhere and get published. I know a few personally: Danielle Girard, J.A. Konrath, Alex Kava, and J. Carson Black. All have started their careers within the last few years. All are published by mainstream houses. None are capitalizing on any pre-existing fame or celebrity status. You will often hear people say that no one who's not already a famous name can break into publishing anymore. Not true. It can be done.

People who were convinced by John Lewis's claims that Durban House has abandoned its fee-charging ways might be interested to know that Writer Beware recently received a Durban House contract and Service Agreement, with a mid-2005 date, that levies a five-figure fee. I don't want to say exactly what the fee is for fear of identifying my source. It's not quite as much as the $25,000 that's been discussed here, but it's still a substantial chunk of change.

So obviously Durban House is still charging fees, despite its President's claims to the contrary. I'd say its status as a vanity publisher is pretty unequivocal.

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