While I've been moving my daughter Kate into her first apartment, the internet has been buzzing with news about Thomas Nelson (a huge CBA publishing house) announcing that they are moving into the self-publishing business. You can read all about it here http://michaelhyatt.com/2009/10/should-you-consider-self-publishing.html and here www.news.thomasnelson.com
Some people are angry, thinking Nelson is profiteering... but my feeling is, "They're a business. OF COURSE they're profiteering." I mean, I'm in business to make a profit. That's what a business does! The team at Nelson has simply noticed the abundance of wannabe writers out there, and decided to create an option for them to get into print. Nothing wrong with that. The industry is changing rapidly, and we're all trying to figure out how to make a living in the new economy. If Nelson wants to start a self-pub unit, it's not much different than if they started a "plush toys" unit or a "TV movie" division. That said, I do think there are some issues to think through.
First, there's no getting around the fact that the Thomas Nelson name has huge cache. So there's the potential for offering a bit of a "come on." I think that's what has upset people -- the notion that the team at Nelson is saying, "Self-pubbing with WestBow is sort of like publishing your book with Thomas Nelson." And that's just not true.
When the president of the company, Michael Hyatt, blogged about it, he alluded to this when he stated self-pubbing "provides us with a kind of 'farm team.'" Um... Mike... please. I respect you very much, and I've publicly sung your praises, but that looks like you're letting the marketing guys create your copy for you. You're already publishing 500 titles per year, and these books weren't good enough to make your list. Sure, if somebody self-publishes and sells 10,000 copies, you might sit up and pay attention to them -- but so will everyone else. A "farm team" implies that your editorial and marketing people will be investing in these authors, shaping them for a brighter publishing future. And that won't be happening.
(A side note: Mike also mentioned that authors wanted to self-pub "without getting ripped off." Uh... ripped off by who? Haven't the majority of the complaints been aimed at iUniverse and XLibris and Author House? Nelson has announced they're doing this in a partnership with ASI, who, um, owns iUniverse and XLibris and Author House. So if you're concerned authors are getting ripped off, it's by the very company you're partnering with. But I'm not trying to cast aspersions. I don't have any firsthand knowledge of problems with Author House, for example. And I know Michael Hyatt -- he's a good man, who's just trying to make his company successful.)
Second, the Nelson group must understand that some folks are afraid of the huge potential to scam people -- having some editor say, "We're not interested in publishing your book through our regular publishing company... but have you considered self-publishing with us?" No, I don't expect that will happen. But do you know that's exactly why members of the Association of Author Representatives aren't allowed to have their own editing services or publishing companies? There's too much temptation to look at every bad manuscript that passes an agent's desk and say, "This isn't ready... but for $500, I have an editor who could really get this in shape." A successful agent would have a bonanza -- EVERY crappy manuscript would have the potential to earn the agent money. (And there are several literary agents who do this -- running an editorial service or offering "proposal consulting." They'd be drummed out of the AAR for that reason. Stay away from them.)
Third, the folks at Nelson probably wish they hadn't decided to use the name WestBow. They used it for expediency (Thomas Nelson already owned it; WestBow was the name of their fiction program a few years back), but that creates real issues... Can a WestBow author now say, "I'm published by the same imprint that publishes TED DEKKER"? Yeah, they can. (And yes, the WestBow authors are livid about this.) My guess is that they'll change this.
Fourth, I have a real problem with the blog stating, "We want to work with agents and affiliates as 'WestBow Press Affiliates.'" That would mean I, as an agent, would supposedly send an author to WestBow, so that I could get a bird-dog fee? Um... no. Sorry. That's a clear ethical violation.
In retrospect, I was surprised the Nelson folks did this so publicly, since most people in publishing look down on self-pubbing as the low-end, potentially seedy side of the business. Another CBA house, B&H, has a self-pub company -- Cross Books -- but they keep it under wraps. So far as I know, there are no connections between their self-pub side and the actual B&H publishing business. And if this whole enterprise is going to come back and bite Thomas Nelson in the backside, it's because of that. There's at least one publishing house who has sent out rejection letters stating, "We've decided not to publish your book... but you may want to consider self-publishing with us." That doesn't pass the smell test.
I'm not down on self-publishing. In fact, I've self-pubbed my own books (they were books of card tricks) and done very well. But all of us who work in the industry have seen poor quality, badly written books with no editing and poor production qualities. So, to make sure we leave with a learning tool, let me answer one question: Who should self-publish?
The answer is simple: Only authors who can sell their books. Period. If you can't sell your book -- either by speaking to a group or pitching them to your organization or offering them to your regular readers, don't self-publish. You'll just lose money. It's extremely rare for a fiction writer to sell any self-published books, no matter what company name is on the spine. So be aware, and do your homework.