Seeking opinions of authors who've used subsidy (sometimes called POD) publishers

If you're an author who has had a book published by a subsidy publisher (companies—sometimes called POD publishers—like Trafford, iUniverse / AuthorHouse Outskirts Press, Bookstand Publishing, Infinity Publishing, and others that charge authors a fee to publish their books), I'd like your help. I've created a short survey that I hope you'll fill out so we can get a more comprehensive picture of authors' experiences with subsidy publishers.

The survey takes only a few minutes and all responses will be anonymous. You can go to it by clicking on this link or by going to my blog, The Populist Publisher and clicking on "Survey of Subsidy-Published Authors" at the right side of the page under "Author Surveys."

Here's why I am doing this survey. I've read criticisms of books published by subsidy publishers, saying that many are badly written and poorly edited, that their layout and covers are amateurish, and that no reputable reviewer will review them. Some also say that subsidy publishing companies rip off authors by making false promises about how well their books will be promoted and how many copies they are likely to sell.

But as a long-time (30+ years) social-science researcher, I find myself wondering to what extent the authors who use subsidy publishers agree with these criticisms. The common belief seems to be that these authors are so gullible and ill-informed that they unwittingly sign on with predatory companies and later regret their choices. Is this true? I think we should hear directly from the authors.

Just so you'll know, I started my own small publishing company years ago and have never used a subsidy publisher, nor do I have any connection with any of them. My interest here is to find out more about how things have actually worked out for authors who have used these publishers. I will post the results on my on my Populist Publisher blog and make a complete report available for free download on my website so that everyone can read what authors have to say.

Thank you so much for your help.
Lynn Osterkamp, Ph.D., MSW

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Lynn, I know you've asked people only for the survey, but I have a unique perspective here having gone over almost each rung of the ladder from subsidy press to traditional, and I'd like to offer my perspective here, if for no other reason than to do my part in helping to convince serious writers to keep away from subsidy presses.

In 2002 I self-published an early version of Fast Lane through iUniverse's MWA program. It didn't cost me anything because of the deal MWA worked out with them, and I went into it with my eyes wide open--I didn't expect to sell any copies, I was looking at it as more as a resume for another book of mine, thinking that I'd be able to get enough blurbs to convince someone to buy my second book. At no point did iUniverse lie to me or promise me anything they didn't deliver, and infact they deemed my book of their worthy ones and was able to get PW to review it. Still, it was a miserable experience. No newspaper (rightly) will review a self-published book (rightly because why review books that bookstores won't carry?), and no bookstore will sell it other than through a consignment arrangement. There's a stench to self-publishing, and outside of a few rare cases, it's about the worst thing you can do as a new writer--I'll explain more later.

In 2003, a traditional Italian house bought the Italian rights to Fast Lane. In 2004 I got lucky in that a small POD publisher, Point Blank Press/Wildside Press, published Fast Lane in the US and I was able to escape the stench of self-publishing the book--although I'm still haunted by the earlier, self-published version sticking around on amazon and With Point Blank, the book was carefully and professionally copyedited, and was given a brilliant cover. It didn't get many more reviews than the self-published version--although Craig McDonald did review it, as well as mystery bookstores now looking at it (and in Poisoned Pen Bookstores case--naming it as one of their hardboiled crime club selections). It also didn't get any trade reviews. The reality, to date it has probably sold maybe twice as many copies as the self-published version, and far less than the Italian version. And while it didn't get me many reviews, or get into more than a handful of mystery bookstores, it did provide me some credibility.

My next book was published by a small traditional press (Five Star). In their case, they sell primarily to libraries, so your book is going to sell somewhere between 500-2000 copies, and won't get into many bookstores. Again, they're upfront with what they do, they're very professional, and pay an advance ($1000--which is roughly the same as a lot of small houses). With them my book ended up getting reviewed by three of the trades (LJ, Booklist, PW), EQMM, Poisoned Pen's Booknews, but other than that mostly online.

My next three books are with a traditional UK house (Serpent's Tail). In this case I'm getting good advances, and it's a night and day difference in the PR/marketing that's being done. The first of these books won't be out until March 20th, but I already know some of the large UK newspapers are going to be reviewing it.

So here's what I've learned through all this--if you're serious about becoming a published writer and having a career at it--don't unser any circumstance go the POD route--either subsidy or small publisher. Your first book gets looked at differently than your others--and you want it widely reviewed and in bookstores. If it means putting the book away and writing more books until one sells to a traditional house, then keep doing that. Don't settle. Find a way to be patient, and keep writing until you break through with the right house.
So here's what I've learned through all this--if you're serious about becoming a published writer and having a career at it--don't unser any circumstance go the POD route--either subsidy or small publisher. Your first book gets looked at differently than your others--and you want it widely reviewed and in bookstores. If it means putting the book away and writing more books until one sells to a traditional house, then keep doing that. Don't settle. Find a way to be patient, and keep writing until you break through with the right house.

I agree. Bottom line is, even if you don't pay to be published if you go with a 'publisher' that isn't established, that doesn't have the ability to distribute to bookstores and doesn't know what the hell they're doing, you're going to have a lot of obstacles against you.

It's a bit of a catch 22. I got an agent because of the profile I built through my first book, which did come out from a small POD press. (And let me be clear - I didn't pay for it to be published. It's really lazy of people to just label self-publishing outfits as POD because there is a difference.) But I haven't come close to recouping the expenses for the promotion I did in order to build that profile. Although the distributor is Ingram I found out after the fact that the press didn't know what they were doing when they made their arrangements and as a result bookstores were only being offered a 20% retailer discount. So I'd done my homework, they had good distribution... but the discount wasn't in place so bookstores wouldn't stock the book.

Another thing to consider is the overall professionalism. Remember that whoever you do business with reflects on you. In my case, I had readers forwarding me extremely rude e-mails they'd gotten from the publisher in response to queries about the book availability. The publisher also committed to releasing a more affordable paperback version four months after the hardcover. It's been 14 months since the hardcover release and no sign of a paperback in sight.

And without ever self-publishing, I've been tarred with the same 'lack of credibility' brush... A stain that has not been removed by my deal with Dorchester. Many still don't consider me a 'legitimate' author.

While I feel some of the attitudes go way too far, it is hard enough to build a name for yourself in this industry and build a readership. The reasons many people end up self publishing vary. With some, they don't know enough about writing to understand why the book needs to be reworked. With others, they think three or four rejections along that people just don't get what they're about and they'll show them.

We always hear cases cited that are the exceptions - John Grisham selling books from his trunk, for example. Ultimately, I think the problem for most authors who go the self publishing route is they don't understand enough about the business to know why it's a bad move, and they're impatient and anxious for validation. That's a real problem, because they don't understand it won't be forthcoming.

As to reviews... On any given day I'm offered several review copies of books. My reviews online go to Spinetingler Magazine and Mystery Bookspot, and in print to Crimespree Magazine. But I'm a slow reader. My partner and I pool the books, as he's also a reviewer. And yet I can tell you that in a good year I might read 40 books. When I'm writing, when I'm editing, it's tough. With two books out this year I could see it being closer to only 30 books I read.

At a guess, I presently receive five times as many books as I can review. Some self published and some small press pod books have been in those numbers. There's actually one written by a Japanese fellow about ww2 that's pretty well written (at least, as far as I've gotten) but I haven't finished it yet. Again, an exception. Most do come with terrible covers.

With review space in decline, my personal focus for reviewing is centered on books that interest me, books by people I'm interviewing, and new authors who can (and in my opinion should) benefit from the profile. That barely leaves time for the odd indulgence of some of my favourite authors. Even with books that come from mainstream, well-established publishers, there are ones I look at and go "ugh". With a self published book it's far riskier. I can at least expect something from MIRA to be edited reasonably (although even for mainline presses it's hard to find books that don't have typos in them anymore) but once you've been burned trying a few self published books you're more apprehensive. Even a few established publishers have that reputation with me, and I don't typically review them anymore.

So consider the 150-200 books offered per year to me, not to mention what my partner gets in, and it isn't hard to understand why books that look professional and have been through an editorial screening process will get reviewed over self published offerings. Even as a reviewer I never sit down thinking I want to hate a book. Frankly, I don't want to waste time reading something bad. As a reviewer that happens, but the will and the hope is there for every book to be good. Books that don't look professional give you misgivings before you even crack the cover.
Thanks for your response. You wrote "And without ever self-publishing, I've been tarred with the same 'lack of credibility' brush... " Self-published books, especially those from small independent presses, vary quite a lot. I'm hoping that eventually they will be judged individually rather than being tarred with the same brush.
Lynn Osterkamp
The Populist Publisher
You're a weather balloon that thinks it can stop a hurricane. If you want individual judgment per book you have to find a way to get books assessed individually.

I already explained some of the reviewing obstacles. I'm also in agreement that newspapers serve a specific community and obviously aren't going to focus on reviewing books that their readers can't easily buy. Almost 90% of book sales still occur in stores, not online. Being on amazon isn't enough.

Surveying authors who've used those services isn't going to change perception. Beyond reviews, most self published books are not eligible for any industry awards. Those writers aren't even eligible to join the writing groups as authors. Most conventions will not put self published authors on panels. And there's no consistency of quality in those books. Unless you've gone the POD route (using Dave's definitions below) and then moved on to a traditional publisher - as Dave and I both have - you have no idea what the differences are in terms of editing, marketing, in-house support, distribution.

Surveying these writers isn't going to change the established views and policies of the industry at large. It does seem you have an agenda, but a survey falls far short of effecting any change in perception.

I believe the only way to change perception is to have a few break out self-published books. Eragon kind of sort of counts, but even if you do count that one, you still need more. But publishing as I understand it is much like America's two-party system: it's set up to exclude third parties, and the publishing industry is organized/set up in such a way as to exclude self-published books. So, unfortunately, at least for now, self-published books are the Ralph Nader of publishing.

I have an agenda for my blog, which is to promote equal opportunity for authors so that their books will be judged by thier merit, not on the basis of who publishes them. I have my own publishing company. We have a stress-management book that we first published in the 1980s, is now in its 4th edition and has sold over 50,000 copies. My mystery novel, TOO NEAR THE EDGE, published in 2006, won an IPPY award, is returnable, is offered at standard discount and is carried by two local independent bookstores as well as Barnes & Noble. I agree that there is prejudice at conferences and with reviewers. Read my blog.

I don't have an agenda for the survey. I've been a researcher for 30+ years and I know better than to have an agenda for a survey. I just want to find out what these authors have to say. It seems that the experts tell us what happens to subsidy-published authors but no one asks the authors. Stay tuned.

Lynn Osterkamp, Ph.D.
How can you not have an agenda since you are in the business?
And what's the point of the degree after your name?
The point of the degree is to show that I know how to do research. And I don't have an agenda because this is research--which if done right asks questions and looks for answers.

Thanks for you response. I hope you also completed the survey so that your views will be counted with the others. I will be posting the results on my blog, The Populist Publisher, and will put a link here on crimespace. I would like to remind you that POD (print-on-demand) is not a type of publishing. It is a printing method, using digital technology. Any publisher can use it and many do.
Lynn Osterkamp
The Populist Publisher

In my response I used subsidy press to refer to self-publishing (i.e, iUniverse, etc.) , small POD publisher to refer to a small publishing house that primarily uses POD technology, traditional publishers to refer to houses that use offset printing, have a sales force and a business model on how they sell their book. I'm sure there are exceptions, but I see small POD publishers usually falling into one of two groups:

1) well-intentioned but grossly under capitalized
2) one or more authors trying to hide that they're self-publishing by starting their own press and adding other authors

For (1) above, as well intentioned as someone might be, if you don't have enough capital to distribute, market and sell your authors' books, it's not a good situation for an author to get involved in--ESPECIALLY for a first book. The industry pays special attention to debut books--and the worst thing for an author is to miss that by publishing with someone that the industry doesn't hold as credible (or doesn't qualify for awards, such as Edgar for best first novel). I'd strongly suggest any author, especially first time authors, only go with publishers who 1) get their books reviewed by the trades 2) get their books into bookstores. For (2) to happen, the publisher has to have a sales force, has to offer the standard 40-55% discount, take returns, have a distributer, and be paid attention to by the industry.
It seems like this is something that's changing every day.

A guy named Jim Munro has a lot of info on his site. He published his first book with HarperCollins and then went to indie, or self-publishing, and he gives a lot of the details. It's called No Media Kings.
My first book was a self-published book, although it wasn't vanity pubishing. I organised the cover designer, I organised the printer, I set the whole book out, I did the marketing, and it was satisfying. That self-published book got me an agent, and ultimately a publishing deal.

Looking back, it is filled with typos and grammatical errors, but it all worked out okay. If you start on the basis that all the vanity publisher is doing is sorting out the printing, cover and ISBN, then you won't be disappointed. If you expect it to be edited and marketed properly, then you will be disappointed. No-one will stock it, and you will lose money. But if you want to write for fun and sell copies to your friends and family, then do it.

Optimistic self-publishing is the problem. I had a thousand copies printed. They line my loft at the moment, although without it, I wouldn't have ended up with a publishing deal.

There is a very good book called How to Self-Publish by Peter Finch that tells you how to set out a book so that it doesn't look self-published. If you do that, why not organise your own cover designer (there are plenty on the internet) and printer? At least all of it will then be your own work.


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