Mar 20, 2013

Jerry Jenkins' vanity press

Jerry B. Jenkins is the consummate hack.

The man knows the Christian fiction market and he works it.

I'm not very interested in the moral and aesthetic disapproval that's normally implied by calling a writer a hack. I am quite interested in how book markets work, though, and especially how the Christian fiction market works. So I'm very interested in hacks. Hacks consciously and actively respond to the market as they find it. In some ways, they are just more pure. They're untroubled by fantasies that artistic quality correlates to commercial success, unbothered by the sense of aesthetic justice that insists artistic quality should correlate to commercial success. Hacks write for the world as it actually is.

Hacks write like it's their job.

They know that writing is their job, and they embrace that, and embrace all the marketing analysis and economic acumen necessary to succeed at that job. Jenkins, for example.

"I make no apologies for writing for the masses," he once said. "I am one of them."

He has always had an eye for the markets with mass potential, such as Christian children's series and Christian athlete biographies. He has authored or co-authored 220 books, by my count, or about 3.4 for every year he's been alive. Fourteen of those books have been New York Times bestsellers. He accepted the deal to co-author Left Behind where others would have balked (and did balk), and he wrote the first book of the series in under 24 days. Left Behind sold as many copies as Catcher in the Rye, and it's never been required reading for high schoolers. Jenkins stayed on for 12 more books, plus three prequels, and he cooperated with lots of spin-offs, including a series of 40 children's books. He was pretty consistently smart about how and where to push the franchise -- in one case, at least, smarter even than the people who actually made the marketing decisions.

So, when Jenkins takes up a new project, it's likely that that says something about the way the Christian fiction market is evolving. He's not necessarily innovative, but he's paying attention to the market, and responding to it. When that project, further, is explained specifically as a response to market conditions, it's especially worth noting.

His new project is a vanity press, Christian Writers Guild Publishing. They will be charging would-be authors nearly $10,000 to put their works in print.

Thus speaketh the consummate hack: this is the fiction market now.

His explanation for the vanity press -- which he doesn't call a vanity press -- is that authors now need well-established "platforms" to get published, and that the $9,995 will help aspiring writers get that platform. For the cost, Jenkins' group provides proof-reading, cover design, e-book formatting, an ISBN number, and a package of promotional material, "everything the writer needs for a successful book launch."

The vanity press does not itself sell the book, nor promote it, nor take any financial risk or responsibility for actual marketability, which is pretty much the definition of a vanity press.

Jenkins told Publisher's Weekly that "good, passionate authors are ignored because they're unknown," but that they can "prove their worthiness in the market."

There are a number of self-published authors who have became very successful that are kind of the model being promoted here. They chose an alternative route, built a fan base, "proved their worthiness," and became very successful. One noted recent example is Hugh Howey, who's self-published e-book sic-fi series Wool has become a phenomena. He reportedly has made as much as $40,000 a month while selling his e-books for as little as $1.99 apiece. Another is E.L. James, whose cultural juggernaut, Fifty Shades of Gray, started out as Twilight fan-fiction, available free online, and was then published by a vanity press, and was then picked up by a traditional publisher. In the Christian fiction market, the main example of this route to market success is William Paul Young. The first printing of Young's book, The Shack, was an edition of 15 -- photocopied at Office Depot. About one million copies of the book were sold before the rights were bought by a mainstream publisher.

There's a difference is a difference between self-publishing and a vanity press, but Jenkins' is kind of eliding the distinction. The promotional material for the press positions it as an aid to self-publication. Jenkins' claim is that his company can help aspiring writers follow this path to popular success, mostly by helping them produce a product that isn't as obviously terrible as most self-published fiction is. A decent edit job, a good cover, and a little marketing advice could make all the difference. Or so it seems is Jenkins' proposition.

That's the hope that costs $9,995.

Jenkins, of course, is not the only one who sees that the shrinking book market is accompanied by an expanding market of aspiring authors willing to pay for the chance to see their words in print. The Christian publisher Thomas Nelson -- owned by NewsCorp, FOX New's parent company -- has also recently launched a vanity press. Now, manuscripts rejected by the publisher may be referred to the WestBow division, where would-be authors can pay to have their books printed by the vanity press division of a major publisher. There's also a Catholic vanity press, which promises to provide "proper checks" to "ensure that authors' works are free from doctrinal or moral error," but which appears to charge extra for editing.

Many observers are skeptical of the self-publishing and vanity press models. Michael Ann Dobbs, at io9, writes that, "Once a sign of slightly deluded grandiosity, self-publishing now looks like a reasonable move for writers," but, still, even after these very public successes,
self-publishing landscape threatens to become a vast wasteland for authors too. They have few ways to get recognition and little to no support. They risk spending years trying to sell books no one seems to want, when a good editor or few more drafts could have made the books successful.
The numbers are pretty dismal. The average book published by a vanity press sells between 40 and 200 copies, according to Jane Smith of How Publishing Really Works. Self Publishing Resources reported that one vanity press with 10,000 titles had seen an average of 75 copies sold per title. If the would-be authors that use Jenkins' service have similar sales, they would pay between $50 and $200 per copy sold, recouping just a few dollars with each sale.

survey of self-published authors found that over half of them never even sold $500 worth of books.

None of the reports on Jenkins' vanity press or the press' promotional material give any indication for how things would be different for the aspiring authors who use this service. It is true that those who get help with editing, cover design, etc., generally sell more copies than those who don't. Not $9,995 worth of more copies, though. Even if a lot of Jenkins' authors do better than half the self-published authors out there now and sell, say, 168 digital copies on Amazon at $2.99 each and make a gross of $500, they'll pay Amazon 30 percent of that, net $350, and still be more than $9,000 in the red.

This is a vanity press, too, so all the burden of selling will fall on the author, which has led some to call this whole thing a scam.

Victoria Strauss of Writer Beware doesn't use that word, but seems a little flabbergasted by the audacity of this enterprise. There's little to nothing in the way of a plan that would vault one into the ranks of a Hugh Howley or an E.L. James or a William Paul Young. She writes: "Can [Christian Writers Guild Publishing] really be expecting authors to pay nearly $10,000 for a path to publication that doesn't even get their books into retail channels? .... Even with distribution, $9.995 is a hell of a lot of money." According to Strauss, Jenkins' vanity press is expensive even when compared to other vanity presses.

The man who has himself has has more than 200 titles published by traditional publishers responded to such criticism when asked about it by a reporter from Christianity Today. He said the cost is "reasonable only for those who can afford it and want the quality we offer."

And it seems reasonable, of course, to those who believe that this is their way to prove their worthiness to the market, the money understood as a sign of good faith and fealty to the book market's gods.

There's not a market for all the Christian fiction books that are being written right now. But there is, clearly, a market of aspiring novelists willing to pay for the chance, the promise, the hope, of breaking into the little market that there is. Readers may not be consumers, but with a vanity press, books aren't the product, authors' ability to call themselves authors is the product. And there's a burgeoning market for that. This is the first conclusion about the market for Christian fiction that can be drawn from the new project of the always-saavy Jerry Jenkins: there's money to be made off of those who want to be the next Jerry Jenkins.

There's also a constriction of opportunities for traditional publishing. Publishers are just making fewer bets on the unknown, these days. Christian fiction publishers especially.

This isn't entirely new. It's always been the case that Christian fiction presses have been incredibly cautious and tended to put their resources into known commodities. Series have always been popular, new names have always struggled for recognition, and there's always been strong support for established genre fictions and a great leeriness of anything that doesn't have an established audience (i.e., market). But with the book industry as a whole suffering, those tendencies have become even more acute.

Add to that the third thing that can be concluded from Jenkins' latest project, the reality that's inducing angst among publishers and aspiring authors alike: it's just not clear that there's a standard model for success in publishing, anymore. As late as the '90s, it seemed clear what worked. There were paths, routes. Popular fiction publishing seemed like a business with rules, and there was a belief it was possible to know who had the potential to be the next Steven King, the next Danielle Steel, and possible to know what to do with a book that had that potential to launch it into the upper echelons of bestsellerdom.

Jenkins, for one, knew what those rules were, and followed those rules, and reaped his success. He embraced his inner hack, and was willing to do what he had to do to move books.

Now it seems like no one knows what the rules really are. Those who are willing to offer a sacrifice to the market don't know what sort of sacrifice they should be making. If someone tells them the required sacrifice is $10,000, that's at least can seem like a definitive answer.

The bestselling authors of the last decade on the other hand don't seem like they offer models for success, but really seem to be flukes. Stephanie Myer's story is the most traditional, but even it depends on a bit of an accident, where the person who reviewed the manuscript for the agent didn't realize the book was significantly too long and should have been rejected out of hand. E.L. James' path to success is stranger and less likely to serve as a decent model than Meyer's; Steig Larson's success doesn't really seem easily emulatable; and Hugh Howley does not even appear to know how he did what he did, much less what someone else should do if they wanted to do what he did. It all seems very anarchic, right now, like no one knows exactly what one has to do to get a chance to prove worthy of the market.

Which is why some will willingly do what a consummate hack says, and pay that hack $10,000, since he at least has a history of knowing the market and really working it.

Even if "working it" now means selling a different sort of fiction.

But to see how he does it is to see something state of the Christian fiction market right now.