29 April 2004

Mathematically Challenged

One of the great mysteries of life is how seemingly intelligent people become mathematically challenged when presented with big numbers. Today, we'll take a look at the "success" of POD vanity presses. Both of them attempt to impress with large numbers of titles and copies in print. However, some very simple math shows that these same numbers only reveal the futility of their business model for the author who expects "publishing success" from their services. We'll leave the blatant lies that appear on their websites and marketing materials for another time. Well, most of them; this one is just too juicy:

Is this vanity publishing?
No. Vanity publishers will charge you thousands of dollars to print box loads of books they will not help you sell. Xlibris does not require you to purchase any books. Also, since vanity publishers use the printing technology of traditional publishers, their costs are inherently high. Xlibris uses modern computer technology to keep costs down, freeing up resources to provide a wide array of services. Vanity publishers provide a one-time service.

http://www2.xlibris.com/faq/faq_aboutxl.asp#vanity (retrieved 29 Apr 2004). Note that this redefines "vanity publishing" essentially as "something other than what XLibris does." Contrary to the assertions in this passage, the test for whether a particular transaction is vanity publishing does not depend upon the magnitude of the charges, requirements to purchase books directly from the publisher, use of "traditional" printing technology, or the phantom distinction between one-time and "continuing" services. Whether one is dealing with a vanity publishing operation depends on the answers to two, and only two, questions:

  1. Is the guaranteed direction of money flow, excluding speculative future sales, on the date that the first copy comes off the press, away from the author?
  2. Does the publisher own the books as they come off the press (as opposed to the author)?

If the answer to both of these questions is "yes," then it is a vanity publishing operation; the other factors noted in XLibris's description merely describe just how bad a deal it is. XLibris's major competitors are no better; their statements aren't as well-written, though.

Returning to mathematical challenges, though, consider these sales figures and a few simple calculations:

Vanity POD Publisher Titles In Print Mean Per Title Resulting Royalty Base Fee Breakeven
AuthorHouse >20,000 1.7 mil 85 $408 $698 146
  Assumes a 250-page 6x9 softcover sold at $16 for 30% royalty under the "standard" publishing agreement, meaning no bound galleys, no cover proofs, no marketing support, no corrections, no copyright registration ($150 for a $30 service), no Library of Congress Catalog Number (without which no library sales), no shoes, no shirt, no service.
XLibris 10,300 1.3 mil 130 $520 $500 125
  Assumes the "basic" level of service with no add-ons, meaning no bound galleys, no cover proofs, no marketing support, no corrections, no copyright registration ($150 charge for a $30 service), no CD-ROM backup. The book in question is also at $16.

I won't bother with more: they're even worse deals!

Too many people let their eyes glaze over when they see "1.7 million in print" and forget to divide by the number of titles. Further, that vastly misstates the experience of the median title, as opposed to the mean title. Just as with traditional publishing, only a few books garner a disproportionate number of sales (maybe the authors' families were just that much larger?). For example, XLibris's per-title median appears to be between 70 and 75 copies, resulting in a royalty of $300 or less—and that's assuming that every single sale is a full-royalty direct sale.