Five years ago, Kevin Weiss was leading a dodgy start-up in vanity publishing, one of the least respectable niches in what the world had already condemned as a dying industry, pumping out books that nobody else wanted to publish and charging their unloved authors good money to do so.
Today, Weiss is the latest member of the board of governors of publishing giant Penguin Group, which acquired the start-up, Indiana-based Author Solutions, for $116-million last summer. This week, Author Solutions signed a deal with Simon & Schuster to manage that venerable company's first-ever foray into the mirror world of vanity publishing, where profits come not from sales of books but from sales of services to aspiring authors. Currently three of the six largest publishers in the world are travelling to Indiana on a regular basis, chequebooks in hand, to secure a place in what is now a booming business.
"Vanity is no longer vanity," Weiss said in a recent interview. "Last year over 250,000 self-published titles came to market. It's the fastest growing segment of the industry. There's a lot of profit, a lot of revenue growth, a lot of book sales taking place in that space."
And as more traditional publishers crowd into it, there is less distinction between vanity publishing and the normal variety, both of which are profitably taking on characteristics of one another.
Actual book sales are gravy in a business where individual authors can spend several thousand dollars to have their book published, depending on how they choose from the broad menu of services the new vanity publishers offer. With several different imprints serving as many as 29,000 authors a year, Author Solutions charges an average of about $1,300 a book, according to Weiss.
"We're a services company," he said. "You get everything that's available in the marketplace, but as an author you pay."
But sales do happen, especially in the lively market for self-published e-books, which is kept that way by regular incidences of spectacular success. Author E.L. James self-published the earliest version of Fifty Shades of Grey, and self-published titles regularly appear on e-book bestseller lists, which have become important sources for traditional publishers searching for new talent.
The latest star to emerge from the slush is romance author Bella Andre, who reportedly made millions self-publishing e-books and recently signed a seven-figure contract with Toronto-based Harlequin Enterprises to publish the same titles in print form.
Such an "unprecedented" deal shows how well self-publishing and traditional publishing can work together, according to Mark Lefebvre, head of Kobo Writing Life, the Toronto-based e-book seller's new venture into self-publishing. Rather than sifting through thousands of raw manuscripts at great expense, Lefebvre said, traditional publishers can now depend on the market for 99-cent, self-published e-books to detect potential winners.
But not everybody is thrilled with the convergence. When Harlequin contracted with Author Solutions to produce a self-publishing imprint called Harlequin Horizons, the powerful Romance Writers of America rebelled, refusing to let Harlequin participate at the group's annual conference in any form as a penalty for its flirtation with amateurism. The company ultimately appeased the group by removing its brand from the vanity imprint, which is now called Dellarte Press.
Now even self-published writers are complaining about the corporate takeover of the market they pioneered, targeting Simon & Schuster's new vanity imprint, Archway Publishing, in particular.
"Becoming yet another bloodsucking parasite is not the path forward for publishers," said Mark Coker, CEO of popular e-book self-publishing platform Smashwords. "It runs completely counter to what the best publishers have always represented. Great publishers invest in authors, not exploit them."
Kobo's Lefebvre shares the concern. "I think it's really smart for a major publisher to pay attention to self-publishing," he said. "But I'm disappointed in the way that they've rolled it out."
Like Smash words and other companies that work exclusively on the digital side of the self-publishing phenomenon, Kobo Writing Life offers minimal editorial services, aiming to succeed on sales alone. "We only win if we sell e-books," Lefebvre said, boasting that a number of Kobo authors have won book contracts based on their success in self-publishing.
But even the most successful of them need support, he admitted, and all ultimately become customers of companies or individual experts selling design, editorial and marketing services. And that, as Big Publishing has discovered, is where the real money is.
"People do need help when they're developing a book and bringing it to market," said Andrew Fennell of Vancouver's FriesenPress, the new vanity-publishing subsidiary of well-known Manitoba printer Freisens Corp. "And it's a growing market. Every statistic we read indicates that more and more people want to write their own books."
Self-published authors are also proving to be one of the last, best markets for physical books (albeit their own). Virtually every package Author Solutions sells includes delivery of printed books, according to Weiss. As a result, he added, "We haven't seen the same shift away from the physical book business as the traditional industry has."
With major distributors now willing to accept self-published titles, more and more flow to bookstores – and back again, at authors' expense, in the form of unsold returns. Some things about the publishing industry never change.
But much will change as a result of the convergence, observers say, as more and more traditional publishing activity migrates to the pay-as-you-go "indie" model. Both Weiss and his new masters at Penguin Group say that traditional publishers can learn a lot about talent-spotting, digital marketing and distribution from the upstarts.
Self-publishing has gone legit, according to Weiss. "And as the self-publishing world expands, the world of traditional publishing is going to morph as well," he added.
Already the gates are down, and the masses are streaming into the once-impregnable citadel of elitist publishing. Wielding not pitchforks but wads of much-needed cash, they are more than welcome.