The Difficult Path of Self Publishing

9.6.05 | | 9 comments

Possibly the largest source of new LDS books isn’t showing up in LDS bookstores. Deseret Book doesn’t list them in their on-line store. Nor do they show up at Sam Wellers and Benchmark, stores that specialize in more academic and hard-to-find titles.

However, these new LDS Books do show up on Amazon.com and some other on-line booksellers. The reason they show up at on-line booksellers is not because these books are published by national publishers. Rather it is because they are self published.

Unfortunately, most of these LDS books will probably be market failures by almost any measure.

In the past five years self-publishing has exploded. Where self published books accounted for a handful of titles in 2000, the largest provider, iUniverse, now accounts for a full 10% of the 200,000 new titles published each year. The reason for this growth is technological — self publishing today uses print-on-demand technology (aka POD) and the Internet to ease the process of arranging for a book to be printed and to minimize the investment required. Have a book you want published? You can see it in print for that upfront payment of $299.00 and $10 (or so) a book. And, it will appear for sale on Amazon.com!

Sounds great, huh? Unfortunately there are some major downsides to these books, in terms of quality, distribution and pricing. They may also represent a problem for the LDS market.

First, the quality of these books is often poor. Books published for a fee have always had quality problems, whether they were published by Vantage Press, the well known 50-year-old vanity press that still advertizes in magazines and the New York Times Book Review, or by the current “print-on-demand” publishers, who are just vanity presses in disguise.

Its not hard to see why this is true. Quality depends on both a good writer and a good editor. Many times self publishers are simply poor writers. Other times they haven’t had anyone edit the book — usually because a good editor should cost $20 an hour, and editing a book is measured in tens or hundreds of hours. Even if your editor isn’t asking for money, it is still a lot to ask for the editor to spend a full work week on your book.

And when the “print-on-demand” publisher is getting a fee from the author of $299.00, or $459.00, or even $799.00, there just isn’t enough money charged to pay an editor to review the book. And if the book is hopeless, what will this vanity publisher do, reject it? Don’t bet on it.

Second, these titles don’t get distributed very well. In the national market, booksellers, librarians and book reviewers shy away from the “print-on-demand” publishers, because they know these titles are self published and believe that the quality will be poor. Without something to change their mind about a particular book (like a good recommendation or review), bookstores won’t stock these titles, libraries don’t purchase them and reviewers won’t read them.

The statistics from iUniverse, the largest of the “print-on-demand” publishers, bear this out. A recently published article in Publishers Weekly shows that the average title published by iUniverse has just 37 copies produced! Of course, when this kind of publisher is just getting a modest upfront fee to ‘publish’ the book, where will they get the money to market, promote and sell it? And how many of these self-published books are you familiar with?

In the LDS market, the problem is somewhat different. Because these “print-on-demand” publishers don’t know that the LDS market even exists, they don’t tell LDS booksellers that these books exist. LDS booksellers, on the other hand, aren’t accustomed to purchasing the books from the national wholesalers, where they are listed, and unless the publisher calls their attention to a book, (or a customer asks for it) they don’t look for it. Again, no one has the incentive to get the information to them.

Third, these books end up with a higher price than comparable books. Not only do the “print-on-demand” publishers get a fee to publish these books, they also take a higher per copy charge out of sales to cover printing — a cost that is double or triple what they are charged by the printer for print-on-demand services. As a result, the cover prices of books from these publishers are out of line.

For example, one of the gems among these self-published books is a local history of the Church in Las Vegas titled “Saints in Babylon: Mormons in Las Vegas” by Kenric F. Ward. Ward used the service now called AuthorHouse, and produced a book that is 5″ x 8″ and 168 pages. If you look at the book on AuthorHouse’s website, it carries a reasonable price for that size and number of pages — $10.95. But when you look at Amazon.com (or even Deseret Book, which must have the book because Ward called their attention to it), you discover that the cover price is actually $17.95!!! I recommend the book, its well written (the author is an LDS journalist) and unlike most local histories covers the people as well as the Church, but get it direct from AuthorHouse where you get a reasonable price.

So how many books are we talking about? I surveyed the largest of these “print-on-demand” publishers and I believe that some 200 to 300 books related to Mormonism have been published in this way. It seems to me that this could easily be 10% or more of the new books published each year — there are only about 5,000 books in print in the LDS market, and my own observation of the LDS market suggests that there are perhaps 100 new titles a year, not including these self-published titles.

Of course, this is mostly a problem for the authors involved. Unless they are successful at doing a lot of work promoting their book, it won’t see many sales — likely they’ll sell the 35 or 50 copies that is typical and the book will be forgotten. If you are one of those thinking about self publishing this way, I urge you to think carefully about it.

But I also think this is a bit of a problem for the LDS market. Some of these titles are worth publishing for the broader LDS market, and they aren’t getting to LDS bookstores. That at least hurts the bookstores. And when the good authors that choose to self-publish realize that they aren’t successful, aren’t they likely to stop trying? With a market that is, on the whole, underdeveloped in comparison to the broader US market, the Christian market and even the market of many other countries, the LDS market needs all the quality new titles it can get.

Regardless, the situation is one we should all keep an eye on.

9 comments: “The Difficult Path of Self Publishing

  1. Anonymous

    I’ve self-published. You are definitely delusional if you, as an author, think a self-publishing house is going to edit or market your book.

    You left out one additional problem: as the result of a good review, I had LDS bookstores that did express interest in publishing my book. But the pricing structure made it impossible for them to do so.

    Self-publishing is not a good route for most people. I don’t regret my decision, because it met my needs. It may for a few other people, as well. But, in general, it has many disadvantages. 

    Posted by Julie in Austin

  2. Anonymous

    I self-published via Kinkos. I asked a few hundred people on my LDS Seminar list if anyone was interested in a print copy of my comments on Isaiah and if they would pay for the cost of reproduction and shipping. Ten people said “Yes” and I made a dozen copies and had them bound. I gave one away and still have one today, and its full of red pencil where I self-edited.

    Now, I just post everything online in PDF format, if people want it, they can print it themselves. Besides, if I never print any hardcopy, then I can always go back and keep editing and updating my comments. Cant do that with hardcopy. 

    Posted by Kurt

  3. Anonymous

    All of the self-published stuff I’ve ever paid for has been in PDF format (excluding course packets and other school stuff.) At $2-5, all of which went to the author him/herself, it seemed like a much better arrangement. And I didn’t have to pay for shipping (no LDS bookstores in Ohio, last time I checked…) 

    Posted by Sarah

  4. Anonymous

    I self-published via pdf. and CDs that were burned with the file on it.

    DB and other “Mormon” publishers said no because it would have been too many pages. I think that is a weak excuse; but then again, they are more concerned with being profitable than edifying the saints; although happily they manage to do both…most of the time.  

    Posted by lyle

  5. Jon in Austin

    The link to the book on Authorhouse doesn’t work, nor does searching for it come up with any results.

  6. Kent Larsen Post author

    Jon:

    I’ve updated the link to Amazon.com, which seems to have used copies for sale. Apparently the author has taken the book out-of-print for some reason.

    I may try to contact him and see what happened.

  7. Meg Stout

    Hi Kent,

    Thanks for the link to this article.

    For “Talk with Me: Experiences with Autism in the LDS Community” we were 13 authors (mothers of autistic children and on autistic individual) who had never met. When no one we contacted seemed interested in publishing, it was worth us to each pitch in $20 to see it get into print.

    The book could have gotten more play, but as mothers of autistic children our time was fairly constrained.

    As I understand it, it is possible to have a reader at Deseret Book look at the book for possible distribution.

    AuthorHouse and lulu.com etc are not venues I plan to use in future, but they do have a place, in my opinion.

  8. Pingback: Is Deseret Book the only LDS publisher worth publishing with? | A Motley Vision

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