Modernization Puts an end to the Vanity Press and Rescues BooksellersBy Ransom Stephens, Ph.D.
In most quarters of publishing, the phrase “self published” equates to “trash.” Self-publishing used to require thousands of dollars and orders of magnitude more patience and sweat than working through the conventional publishing process. Of course self-published books, by and large, sucked. Why would anyone go through all that extra work unless they couldn’t find a publisher to buy in?
But now, clicking the “upload” icon to self-publish an ebook is free and easy. Within a few weeks anyone paying attention can see if the title has legs.
I fear that I self-published the electronic version of The God Patent. I admit it, I clicked the “upload” icon at Scribd.com. Call me a self-publisher, label it “vanity press” because I didn’t send 100 queries and indulge the 18 month conventional process. Call me crazy for investing the fraction of a calorie that it took to click the mouse. The manuscript had to be ready anyway and now that we’ve all grown up on Microsoft Word, formatting no longer calls on typesetters. Besides, the publisher Numina Press, LLC found it faster than if I’d gone the conventional route.
The label “vanity press” is a legacy concept. Is Scribd.com a vanity press? Smashwords? Amazon? Google? Throw the Six Sisters into a pool with these companies and ask yourself who is likely to survive the next decade. Interesting question isn’t it? Some of the new players won’t make it, neither will some of the old players.
The most common objection to self-publishing is that crucial components of the process are ignored. That without the copyediting and proofreading expertise of the legacy publishing industry we’ll face an artistic meltdown. There is a tradition of excellence in established publishing, but more and more authors are being called on to employ their own editors and fact checkers. At writing conferences it has become a cliche for editors from legacy publishing houses to complain that they have no time to actually “edit.”
Just as independent contractors in most fields must tend their own quality control, so must authors. They either hire brilliant copyeditors or do what Numina Press does: leverage the collective expertise of a community of writers. In San Francisco, writers congregate in workshops, grottos, and communities to share the burdens of “product development.” The God Patent was vetted by a dozen authors with bestseller credentials, an attorney, two particle physicists, a Baptist Preacher, a recovering Baptist Preacher, a retired English Teacher, and a New York City agent before I posted it on Scribd.com, long before it appeared in print. It’s not perfect, though the latest electronic version is close.
Ian McEwan’s book Solar has been through the legacy process: major author, major publisher, major process. Solar is about a Nobel Laureate physicist. The Dirac equation appears on page 42 incorrectly. It’s an egregious mistake for three reasons: first, the Dirac Equation is cited later in the book as an example of mathematical elegance; second, because if I mizpelled a French or Latin word in The God Patent the San Francisco literati would have been out on the porch with figurative torches and metaphorical pitchforks; and third, I paid $27 for it! Rest assured that both equations that appear in The God Patent are accurately portrayed (except on some ebook readers that bungle the symbol formats, but in that case you paid less than $10 for it so stop complaining).
The upshot is that, yes, many ebooks uploaded to places like Scribd and Smashwords don’t meet the minimum threshold of language mechanics and story clarity, much less the goal of editorial excellence, but if they take off, the revised versions will.
The whimsical and dramatic nature of art means that it is not easily categorized. The first question agents ask prospective authors is “Where should your title be shelved?” And the answer better not be “literary fiction, science, philosophy, and science fiction & fantasy.”
In the future, titles will be positioned by the people who know them best, their readers. At Amazon, Smashwords, Goodreads, Shelfari, etc, readers position books for other readers. The God Patent is a novel about a guy who makes bad decisions and must overcome them. It’s also, according to Numina Press, “a story with Nick Hornby characters in a Neal Stephenson plot seasoned with authentic and accessible Steven Hawking science.” Numina Press positioned it as literary fiction. Readers applied tags at Amazon and now it sits in or near the top 50 in both “science > physics > quantum theory” and “religion & spirituality > fiction > science fiction & fantasy.” You might say, “Aha, failure of the system!” But read the book first and I bet you’ll agree with the tags. In stores, The God Patent is shelved either in literature or thrillers.
Just as titles ought to appear in as many stores as possible, they should also be available in every salable format. In other words, formatted for every bookreader; paper or silicon. Some legacy publishers actually claim that it costs more to develop, maintain, and warehouse electronic books than dead-tree books. More. It’s one of these statements that begs either deception or incompetence. Anyone with a few years high tech experience can formulate and code up a system to reformat the files appropriately. Of course it’s easier to go to Smashwords.com, click on “upload” and let their meatgrinder program do it for you. The meatgrinder takes an MS Word file and spits out files formatted for every known bookreader. And it’s free. Seems a lot easier and cheaper than loading paper and toner in a big printer and then gluing cardboard and cloth to the piles of printed paper, packing up the results in boxes, labeling them and sending them out. And warehousing? My external hard drive cost $100 and can hold a million ebooks including cover art. It gets weirder, most legacy publishers offer smaller author royalties on ebooks than printed books.
(A quick parenthetical comment on electronic books: don’t call them “digital books.” The antonym of digital is analog. “Digital” means that the information is encoded in a discrete set of symbols, like an alphabet. Books that use a finite set of characters are by definition digital whether displayed on paper, liquid crystals or e-ink (e-ink is the technology used on the Sony Bookreader, Kindle, Nook, etc.) )
In the mid-1990s corporations moved to Enterprise Resource Processes (ERP) that automate inventory control. When the last product is sold or the second to last, or wherever the retailer sets the trigger point, the ERP system orders more. No phone calls, no human-to-human contact: automated inventory enables automated ordering. ERP works all the way down the food chain, too. Wherever possible, manufacturers build products to order.
ERP makes it possible for modern companies to warehouse as few products as possible. Warehousing means that money is sitting around doing nothing, it requires that inventory be performed, and it’s a tax liability. Legacy publishers make huge print runs and, due to their sub 25% success rate, must warehouse most of their stock until it becomes clear that it won’t be ordered. Then a strange thing happens: it either goes back to stores as “remainders” and is sold at wholesale prices or the books are recycled – in neither case does the author receive royalties.
Numina Press operates on a Publish on Demand (PoD) model where inventory is carefully controlled. Print runs are designed to meet immediate need and when stock is depleted orders come in and books go out. It typically takes three to five more days for PoD books to get out the door than it takes to ship warehoused books. The time lag will improve as more publishers adopt the practice. Plus, there are no remainders and, with no warehouse cost, there is no reason for a book to ever go out of print.
The technological disruption that changes the equation is automated setup. The economy of scale has historically front-loaded the cost of printing. That is, once the presses are set up it doesn’t cost much more to make 15,000 copies than it costs for 10,000. The disruption is that the front-end setup cost is now only incurred for the first run, even if the first run is one book. Including setup, the cost per unit plateaus around 3000 copies – the point that defines legacy publishing’s minimum cost-effective print run. In the PoD model, after the first run subsequent runs don’t require further setup reducing the minimum optimal print run to about 100 copies.
There is a new approach to stocking and inventory that Numina Press embraces but legacy publishers remain wary of: the Espresso Book Machine is about the size of a copy machine and can print and bind a trade paperback in about five minutes. All it requires is electronic access to the formatted file including cover art. Once legacy publishers enable their titles, the local bookstore can provide almost any book you want in a few minutes.
The Espresso Machine can solve a problem that publishers would cheerfully be rid of, but the end to which booksellers fear: Returns.
Books are one of the final remaining retail industries that operates on a consignment model. Books are provided to stores by publishers for free. Shipping is free and, should the bookseller decide a given book is taking up shelf space that could be better occupied by another title, the publisher pays to have the book returned. Before The Great War, pretty much every other retail industry had rejected consignment. Instead, manufacturers sell products to retailers at wholesale and those sales are final.
It may horrify booksellers, but it shouldn’t: the consignment model is finished. Numina Press does not accept returns. It is the only way that Numina can calculate and distribute royalties in real time. Legacy publishers can’t even calculate their royalties in time to do their taxes. The burden on the accounting department isn’t cheap.
Writers and readers love bookstores. We want them to survive! When stores have Espresso Book Machines, they won’t need to overstock titles because they can produce them as needed. Plus, every bookstore can have a complete inventory, can have every book “in stock,” with hardcopies on hand of just those books that the proprietor selects based on the tastes of her clientele.
Bookstores just might make it after all. But will legacy publishers? Some of them. Stay tuned.