Book Country And Self-Publishing: Why the Hate?

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Last week, Penguin subsidiary Book Country--a digital slush pile/peer critique community with a focus on genre fiction--announced that it was adding self-publishing services.

This prompted an explosion of negative commentary, including criticism from self-published authors. But I've been following the Book Country story for some time--Book Country staff have been active in reaching out to the writing/blogging community--and a good deal of the commentary I've seen is either inaccurate, or ignores the forest for the trees.

It's a scam!

A fair number of people have been claiming that Book Country's self-publishing service is a scam or a con. How, exactly? You may not think the service is a good idea; you may not like its terms. That doesn't make it a scam. A scam is an enterprise deliberately set up to deceive, cheat, and defraud victims. Using the word so loosely and inaccurately cheapens it, and makes it less meaningful when it's used to describe a real fraud.

Book Country is targeting vulnerable writers with deceptive hype!

I wonder if some of the people who are saying this have actually looked at the self-publishing pages on Book Country's website. There's actually very little hype, and none of the implied false promises of success that you find with so many other self-publishing services.

Book Country is gouging authors by keeping 30% of their income!

The problem here is that many people are comparing apples to oranges, contrasting Book Country, which acts as a middleman, with Amazon's KDP program or Barnes and Noble's PubIt, where there is no middleman.

All middleman self-publishing services keep a percentage of authors' income. Book Country keeps more than some, and less than others. For instance, Lulu keeps 20%. CreateSpace keeps 20-60%, depending on what distribution options you pick. Author Solutions companies (iUniverse, Xlibris, etc.) keep a whopping 80%.

I'm not saying this is good or bad. I'm just saying that Book Country isn't unique.

Book Country is overpriced!

Packages from self-publishing services run the price gamut. You can pay anything from $99 to over $10,000. Book Country's packages, which range from $99 to around $600, are at the lower end of this spectrum.

I'd also point out that, unlike other self-publishing endeavors associated with major publishers, Book Country hasn't contracted its program out to Author Solutions, but is doing the work in-house.

The fees don't even include editing or marketing!

Seriously? That's a criticism? The editing and marketing services sold by self-publishing companies--whether a la carte, or included in publishing packages as a way of bumping up the price--are like liquor in restaurants: a major profit center, because they can be bought cheap and sold high. Like cocktails, they are frequently overpriced, undersized, and cause for serious buyer's remorse once consumed. I frankly think that one of Book Country's strengths is that it doesn't lard its packages with this crap, or nickel-and-dime authors by shilling it separately.

It's not self-publishing, it's vanity publishing!

This is absolutely correct. So what? Publishing through Lulu, CreateSpace, or any other middleman service that charges a fee is also vanity publishing--yet authors who use these services routinely identify themselves as self-published or (shudder) "indie," and no one challenges them. Besides, the lines between self-publishing and vanity publishing have become so blurred over the past decade or so that I'm not sure this is a meaningful distinction any longer.

Am I endorsing Book Country's self-publishing program? No. Am I suggesting that anyone run out and use it? Certainly not. And I remain concerned by the potential conflicts of interest that arise when trade publishers expand into self-publishing.

But given the realities of Book Country's program--especially compared with other trade publishers' self-pub divisions, all of which are much more directly connected to their parent companies--it seems to me that the hating is out of proportion (and I do wish that some of the commentary were more accurate). Sure, Book Country's packages look costly when you contrast them with self-publishing on the Kindle or the Nook; sure, there's no need to use a middleman service when you can DIY for free. But the truth is that not everyone wants to DIY--and there's absolutely no shame in that, as long as you do your research and choose your middleman wisely. If you want a middleman, you can do a lot worse than Book Country.

All of which, of course, is entirely separate from the question of whether or not it's a good idea for you to self-publish to begin with. 

It's interesting how human nature seems to drive us toward caste and class systems. One of the things that has really jumped out at me in the response to Book Country is how the self-publishing community seems to be organizing itself into hierarchies, drawing a line between digital self-publishers and those who use middleman services. The implication is that only the former are truly self-published, are truly entrepreneurs. Could we be moving toward a point where the stigma that has traditionally attached to vanity publishing will arise from within the self-pub community, rather than from outside?

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