Thursday, October 8, 2009

Lulu, Wikipedia and vanity

I've been looking into lately, not because I plan to use it, but as part of my ongoing and mostly unsuccessful effort to understand how the web and print publishing interact. Along the way I had a look at the Wikipedia article on vanity presses. Immediately my spidey-sense tingled that something was amiss there. In particular, the article mixes vanity presses with on-demand printers. On-demand printers such as Lulu fit the definition given at the top of the article, since they don't screen authors, but they definitely don't fall under the more popular notion of a vanity press scam.

There's a pretty good summary of the problem in discussion page, under the heading This article is entirely wrong and defamatory to some of the organisations it references (no, tell 'em how you really feel). To understand the basic distinction, follow the money:
  • In a vanity press scam, you pay the publisher. They run a small printing of your work at an exorbitant fee, send you the books and pocket the difference.
  • With an on-demand printer, you upload your book and pay nothing. When people order it, they print it, ship it, send you a cut and keep a cut for themselves.
Both of these are different from a commercial publisher. A publisher does much more than just print books. It also markets, distributes, and edits them, typically pays an advance to authors against future royalties and assumes the financial risk involved in doing all this.

A vanity press pretends to be a publisher, but charges you in advance for what a publisher would normally do while not actually doing any of it. An on-demand printer does not claim to be a publisher (except in a limited sense described below), tells you exactly what they do and don't do and makes its money by taking a cut of whatever's actually printed and purchased.

From what I can see Lulu and company occupy a legitimate niche, allowing an author to bypass the screening process at the cost of assuming the marketing and editing duties. The author also forgoes any advance on royalties, thereby assuming some financial risk even without paying out of pocket. Printing costs are higher for on-demand publishing, but I doubt that's a major part of the picture compared to the other factors.

That said, if you're looking to self-publish, don't underestimate the value of the traditional publishing services. If you expect to sell purely on-line, you won't have to pay anything, but if you want to, say, sell physical books on a speaking tour, you'll have to buy the physical books. If you want your book listed on Amazon, you'll have to buy a distribution package from Lulu for $25-$75 plus the cost of a proof copy and make sure that your book meets certain distribution requirements. In any case you'll have to decide where to price your book, what the cover will look like, where and how to advertise it (at your own expense), etc., etc.

Caveat scriptor.

[I was going to write a follow-up for this, but on re-reading more closely it didn't seem like much had changed.  Even the "entirely wrong and defamatory" screed is still on the talk page.  Not every Wikipedia article has lots of eyes on it.

The basic analysis still holds, I think.  There are three segments: traditional publishers, print-on-demand support for self-publishers and outright vanity presses.  Where you put a company like Lulu depends on which dividing line seems more important.  If you care about which way the money flows, Lulu is on the "real publishing" side.  If you care about editing and marketing services, it's just another form of vanity/self-publishing. 

This piece, linked by the current version of the Wikipedia article, falls rather caustically on the "just more vanity" side, but does give a list of several uses for print-on-demand, including yearbooks, technical how-to-manuals and "time limitations" --D.H. Dec 2015]

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