The Best of E-Reads: You Got That Right, Ecclesiastes

From time to time we bring back some of the more popular articles and blogs posted on E-Reads.  This one is from November 2009.

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“All is vanity.”
Ecclesiastes

The uproar over Harlequin Enterprises’ launch of a self-publishing venture reminded me of something my father used to say. He was an honest businessman, but every once in a while, when he saw an unscrupulous competitor getting stinking rich, he would shake his head and say, “I’m in the wrong racket.”

I sometimes wonder if I’m in the wrong racket too. Maybe I should have gone into vanity publishing. I’m sure I’d have made a fortune. Everyone who’s gone into it has made one, so I can’t blame anyone for succumbing to its allure.

And now mainstream publishing has jumped on the bandwagon, with respectable firms like religious publisher Thomas Nelson and, most recently, Harlequin Enterprises picking up the banner. The line that once sharply separated traditional publishing (“We pay you”) and vanity publishing (“You pay us”) has all but dissolved in this corrosive environment of fabulous riches.

My early exposure to the power of vanity occurred when I joined Scott Meredith’s literary agency after graduating college. Meredith had a fee-reading operation that ran like a turbine engine. Using his agency’s track record as bait – his brochure was a collage of six- and seven-digit checks paid to professional clients – Meredith attracted countless would-be authors prepared to shell out hundreds of dollars for a manuscript reading they hoped might lead to acceptance for representation and an eventual professional career. I don’t believe I ever saw a book accepted for representation out of the fee-reading program in all the years I worked there. Meredith’s operation made tons of money and he died a wealthy man.

Around 2000 a number of enterprising business people recognized the profit potential in self-published books utilizing digital media. (For purposes of this piece I draw no distinction between self-publication, subsidized publication and vanity publication.) Until then the most famous name in subsidy publishing was Vantage Press (which, significantly, is still going strong). But companies like iUniverse, Xlibris and an outfit called Fatbrain offered a variety of self-publication services. How well did they do?

Well, Fatbrain with its subsidiary Mighty-Words, which published technical and professional material online (someone described it as Amazon for geeks), was sold to Barnes & Noble for $64 million. Xlibris? Acquired by Random House for an undisclosed sum, then sold to Author Solutions, the vast self-publishing empire which embraces iUniverse, Author House, Wordclay, Inkubook and Canadian vanity publisher Trafford Press. Kevin Weiss, CEO of Author Solutions, projects $100 million in revenue in 2009. Last year, Author Solutions released more than 21,000 new titles, according to Mediabistro, “including one out of every 20 new titles put into distribution in the U.S. Overall, ASI’s catalog now includes more than 120,000 titles from more than 85,000 authors.” Author Solutions is partnering with Harlequin in its soon-to-be-renamed Horizons self-publication program.

But there’s more. Publishers Marketplace publisher Michael Cader recently reported that “Ebook distributor and online self-publishing platform Smashwords announced late Friday that BarnesandNoble.com will sell titles from the company as part of its new ‘premium feed.’ Smashwords, which says they publish about 2,600 titles electronically, will sell to BN.com at a traditional discount… Founder Mark Coker says that ‘additional distribution relationships are forthcoming.’ He says that ‘until today, it was difficult if not impossible for independent authors and publishers to gain such mainstream digital distibution.'”

Yet another company, Scribd, calls itself “the largest social publishing company in the world, the website where tens of millions of people each month publish and discover original writings and documents.” Scribd boasts “10 million documents published” and “5 million Scribd document reader embeds.” Last spring it was reported that Scribd was partnering “with a number of major publishers, including Random House, Simon & Schuster, Workman Publishing Co., Berrett-Koehler, Thomas Nelson, and Manning Publications, to legally offer some of their content to Scribd’s community free of charge. Publishers have begun to add an array of content to Scribd’s library, including full-length novels as well as briefer teaser excerpts.”

With so much money being thrown at subsidy publishers, and with the blessing of mainstream publishing, the evolution of vanity from the margins to the center of the publishing universe is complete. The erosion of traditional gatekeepers like reviewers, critics, newspaper book editors, and other refined literary tastemakers makes it clear why even a conservative publisher might lose its head over the prospect of all that money – and be tempted to go into another racket.

Richard Curtis

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