by Pat Holt
Tuesday, September 11, 2001
RUBY ANN BOXCAR: THE FORCE, THE BOOK, THE PRO-iUNIVERSE STANCE
One of the joys of the book business today, no matter how much conglomerates tend to dominate the mainstream, is the continued resilience of independent writers who insist upon being heard.
Ruby Ann Boxcar, who lives in a doublewide trailer at Lot #18 in Pangborn, Arkansas, is one of those writers, though in many, many ways she stands alone. Let me get out of the way and let Ruby Ann speak for herself. This woman is a force of nature:
"I'd like to pass a little story on to your readers," Ruby Ann writes,"includin' Mr. Williams of Venture Press, about an author who tried to get her book published usin' the traditional method. She got an agent who passed out copies of her manuscript to many of the well known publishin' houses in the United States. Well, all of 'em sent back letters sayin' how the manuscript was fun and interestin', but they had to pass on account of the uniqueness of the book.
"The agent told the author that it didn't look like there was much hope in gettin' her manuscript printed, so she said thanks and they parted their ways. Well, while walkin' around a Barnes and Noble Book Store, she noticed a flyer for iUniverse.com.
"Before you could say, 'Wow doggies,' this gal had emailed her manuscript to iUniverse along with her cover ideas. Four months later (the last week of December 2000) her book was ready and listed with Ingram and online at bn.com, amazon.com, and other electronic book dealers. The author took time to create and mail out sell sheets across the US as well as send out press notices to local media outlets.
"Soon she found herself on the radio as well as answerin' questions for both TV and newspaper articles. And then the responses started to come from the book stores. April 12 marked her first book signin' and more would quickly follow. By the first of June she'd sold several hundred books and had only spent around $200 on marketin'. That would change.
"Earlier in the year she had mentioned to iUniverse that she would love to attend any book conventions that they might be involved with, so she was thrilled to get a call from them invitin' her to attend the BookExpo America convention in Chicago. She still had to pay for her transportation (she and her husband drove) and for her hotel (thank God for those discounted mom and pop places), which came to around $1000.
"In any case she attended the BEA with press kits and copies of her book in hand. She walked that convention center till her poor polyester slacks were smokin' from the friction (thank goodness she'd remembered to pack the Gold Bond). She also participated by sharin' a booth with other authors she'd met at http://www.bookhaunts.com at Chicago Printers Row Book Fair. Her sales at that event paid for most of her trip. Long story short, by the time she made it back to her abode, she had several emails from big name publishin' houses who were very interested in her book.
"The book is 'The Down Home Trailer Park Cookbook: A Twister Of Tasty Treats.' The new selected publishin' company is Kensington Publishing Group, and the author is me, Ruby Ann Boxcar. Thanks to iUniverse I can proudly hold my head and big hair up high and say that I was right, my book is mass marketable and people can enjoy it. [The Kensington edition will be out in May 2002.]
"Sure, there are some books that iUniverse puts out that might not be that great a read, but so what. Who does that hurt? I can name several times I've bought a traditionally published book at a book store, read it, and then asked myself the simple question of, 'who was drinkin' when they published this thing?'
"Just years ago there were both good and bad books bein' self published for thousands of dollars a printin', and now, thanks to new technology, it costs much less. If anything, these companies that y'all want to call vanity press have helped bridge the writer with the readin' public.
"They've allowed us to have more choices in what we read. They've allowed the consumer to meet characters and visit places that the traditional press understandably couldn't give them simply because of the financial risk it might cost. And they've worked as a talent scout who allows publishers to see what a potential client can produce.
"Thanks, iUniverse, for bein' there for people like me!
Love, Kisses, and Trailer Park Wishes,
Ruby Ann Boxcar http://www.rubyann.org
Ruby Ann and Her Strategy
So if you attended BookExpo this year, a picture of Ruby Ann may come instantly to mind. She is a large-sized woman whose mention of "big hair" doesn't begin to describe the Upright Tower of Pisa supported by pillowed buttresses she has constructed on her head. Ruby Ann wears oversized bejewelled glasses and so much blue eye-shadow that every blink looks like a rescue SOS from the island in "Cast Away."
But nobody needs to rescue Ruby Ann Boxcar, shrewd self-marketer that she is. Her all-pink website's musical rendition of "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town" sounds like it's blown out of a duck caller and backed up by twanging rubber bands.
A picture of Ruby Ann and her husband Dew reveals that the couple's three dogs (miniature schnauzers) have been coiffed from the forehead up with as much architectural flourish as Ruby Ann brings to her own hairdo. For another, that double-wide pink trailer that figures so prominently in the cookbook beckons to us in the background.
A kazoo/rubber-band version of "King of the Road" accompanies the website's tour of the trailer, which is two stories high, so if you're a visitor who gets into "a bout of wild love makin'" in the guest bedroom, you only have to look up at the ceiling to see a giant picture of Ruby Ann smiling down.
I go into this because of course the website is inventive and charming, but more than that, it makes the point that Ruby Ann is an original whose personality and stories ("I selected [a glass coffee table] 'cause it stops guests from carvin' their names in it") as much as her recipes will lead us to buy that cookbook.
So far, thanks to iUniverse and its low discount terms for independent booksellers, the site uses Barnes & Noble as her default bookseller. But Ruby Ann is one happy (trailer) camper when it comes to using a company like iUniverse - not to make a pile of money from sales, perhaps, but to get her book where she's wanted it to go for years.
Now for the opposite view.
JEFFREY YAMAGUCHI: THE EXPERIENCE, THE ESSAY, THE CON-iUNIVERSE STANCE
Very seldom do we hear an insider's take on a controversial publishing company that's as maligned as often as it is praised.
But Jeffrey Yamaguchi seems to have the goods on iUniverse. Hired last year "to build up iUniverse.com's Author Toolkit in New York," he writes that he was laid off five months later along with "all the people in its New York office who had worked on helping authors promote and sell copies of their books."
His blistering analysis of the company can be found at his website http://www.bookmouth.com . The piece is worth excerpting here, for one reason because it's just as passionate as Ruby Ann's testimony though it takes the reverse stance, for another because Jeffrey's observations and advice are hard to ignore.
"Here are the reasons why you should absolutely not publish your book through a Print-On-Demand publisher," he writes.
"Print-On-Demand companies are vanity publishers. That means you pay them to publish your book. Old-school vanity publishers get a bad rap because they charge a great deal of money to publish your book, and promise success - through expert promotion and placement - that they never deliver.
"You do, however, get boxes of books delivered, and that's an upside that POD publishers do not offer. You pay the POD publishers to publish your book; they don't do any marketing or publicity for you and tell you front and center they won't be providing any such services; and you don't get any books.
"Even though POD companies tout very low prices to publish your book, as low as $99, the real price is hidden in all the add-on 'options.'
"Want to design and submit your own cover? Extra money. Want someone at the POD company to design your cover? Extra money. Want an ISBN number? Extra money. Folks, all the add-on items are essential elements in the creation of your book. $99 bucks to publish a book sounds great, but remember, you get what you pay for.
"Once all these add-on items are added up, you are paying closer to $500 or $1,000 bucks to publish your book. But that's just for services. Remember, the concept of Print-On-Demand is that books aren't printed until someone orders a copy, and that includes you. In order to get copies of your own book, you have to order them. That means forking over more cash. These POD companies have the nerve to acknowledge as part of their packages, 'One Author Copy.' What about a copy for Mom, you stingy bastards?
"Worse yet, you have to pay very close to retail for copies of your own book. The discount for authors ranges from 20% to 40%, but it's usually closer to 20%. That means just to send out review copies, you've got to fork over a great deal of money . . .
"Keep in mind that in order to get even the slightest amount of press attention, you'll have to send out between 50 and 100 review copies of your book, and most likely more. If the cover price of your book is $12.95, and you get a 30% discount, you'll have to shell out $453.25 to order just 50 copies of your book. And who knows what the shipping costs will be.
"Before we leave this crazy cost analysis, let's use the same example - $12.95 cover price and a 30% discount - to figure out how much it would cost to buy 500 copies of your book. Hang on to your jaw, folks: $4,532.50. FOR A MEASLY 500 COPIES OF YOUR BOOK!
"POD companies lose money on producing your book - the $99 plus even the add-on fees don't cover the costs of the work involved in getting your book POD ready. They make their money when copies of the books are ordered. Unfortunately, the people who are ordering books are usually the authors themselves. It seems kind of shady. No. It is shady. Not a scam, but shady.
"Once you've bought your copies, the POD publisher has recouped its costs and made some bucks off of your orders. It has no incentive to help you sell copies of your book to the public. That's why it offers very little in the way of marketing services. It's already marketed to you, the sucker, I mean the author. . .
"The proof is in the pudding, or in this case, the iUniverse.com homepage. It's less about selling authors' books than it is about promoting some kind of digital management content system. Can't actually figure it out? Neither can I, and I used to work there. I have no idea what iUniverse.com does, other than sell a crap product to ready-to-be-duped, wannabe authors. Xlibris.com is no better, and might even be worse . . .
"Bookstores will not stock a POD book. The main reason is that POD books are unreturnable to the publisher, a condition that goes against the grain of how the book business currently works (bookstores can return unsold books to publishers). The unreturnable term is the deal killer, but the other main reason why bookstores won't carry a POD book is that the discount pricing structure offered by POD companies is nowhere close to that offered by traditional publishers.
"This is especially difficult if you arrange an event at a bookstore. Bookstores usually order 30 or more copies of a book for an in-store event, knowing that if the event is a bust, they can return the books. With POD books, that's not possible, making events with POD published authors less likely."
An important question that's bothered observers for some time is whether iUniverse or other POD publishers have POD printers on the premises.
Jeffrey says no: "Quality for one-off printing is inconsistent, and usually poor. The printing of POD books is done by different printers with POD capability all over the country. This leads to problems with not only shoddy production but poor packaging (which leads to damaged books) and worse, erratic shipping timetables."
As a result, he says - this is not news to any POD author - "delivery of POD books is downright awful. It might arrive within two weeks of being ordered, but it might take two months. It might be 'Print-On-Demand,' but that doesn't mean delivery on demand."
Well, it seems everybody is "right" about the POD issue (see also LETTERS below) - it sounds as as hopeless today as it is inspiring about the future.
MANUSCRIPT CONSULTANT - NEW LISTING
Here's an addition to our growing list of manuscript consultants (see #258, #261 #262):
Suzanne Sherman (Bay Area): Author, ghostwriter, writing instructor, freelance editor with 18 years' experience in trade books and magazines. Specialties include cookbooks, creative nonfiction. Clients include Chronicle Books, Ten Speed Press, McGraw Hill, Pacific Bell Directory. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Phone: 707-823-9069.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Tom Williams repeats a stereotype about iUniverse which deserves rebuttal. He says:
"iUniverse and other epublishers have appropriated the POD initials, apparently, and it has come to mean 'eBook publishing.' Even this is unfair to serious eBook publishers, who are working hard to make this kind of publishing profitable and working to keep it respectable.
"It is unfair because iUniverse (and others that live off the backs of unwary writers who pay them to publish their books) is not much more than the new breed of vanity press."
Unlike vanity publishers who bilk writers thousands of dollars and create an undistributed inventory, iUniverse, digitz.net and others like them, provide a service for around $100 that enables books to be promoted into markets they couldn’t reach before, or to be sold to closed circles of interested parties at no cost to the author.
For the experienced writer and even published author, they enable good and well-written books to reach the market which otherwise never could.
Their contracts are easily cancellable and the writer can upgrade his/her publisher in the event of success.
I agree that the markups on sales to the author on the face seem excessive - and in large quantities are - but iUniverse does not recover cost in getting its titles ready for Lightning Source or e-book distribution from any of its setup fees.
POD is becoming a competitive market as well, and POD publishers will also have to compete.
P.S. Full disclosure: Two years ago I was retained by iU as a consultant.
Tom Williams responds:
Gene Schwartz is a very knowledgeable person in publishing, but his reply seems to me to show just how unclear the term "POD" has become. With respect to iUniverse, what he describes is simply a new paradigm for vanity publishing.
In the old style (as he calls it), these "publishers" got their pay-off in advance of printing. In the new style, so-called POD vanity publishing, the pay-off comes later.
In the sale of books to authors. a member of the Executive Committee of the Publisher's Marketing Association reports that a recent meeting held to choose member books for distribution by the Independent Publishers Group, the "POD" books were rejected out of hand because the costs built in by the publishers were too high - the books were simply tossed aside as not worthy of the time it would take to consider them.
I am aware that not all iUnvierse-style "POD" publishers may fit the some mold. Time-Warner's iPublish tries to break out, but its author contracts are the subject of a warning from the Author's Guild. Anyone interested can see the Guild contract analysis and warning at http://www.authorsguild.org/pripublish051701.html .
Holt responds: "The seductive appeal of e-book publication should not blind authors to the risk involved in the iPublish contract," says Authors Guild president Letty Cottin Pogrebin in the statement Tom Williams mentions above. The Guild says that "by merely submitting their manuscripts, writers [give up] a laundry list of rights to Time Warner [for] a bargain-basement advance." Adds Pogrebrin: "No professional writer or responsible agent would accept terms that call for the author's virtual surrender of basic literary rights, yet with its pitiful advances and Draconian option clause, this contract does just that. The Authors Guild deplores Time Warner's exploitive approach."
Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.
"Holt Uncensored" is an online column by Pat Holt
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