L'Ombre de l'Olivier

The Shadow of the Olive Tree

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13 August 2007 Blog Home : August 2007 : Permalink

Townhall Press - Rip Off the Rightie Writers?

The basic rule in publishing is that money flows towards the author. The author writes it, agents and publishers cut deals giving the author an advance and once the advance is earned out the author gets royalties. In other words if a real publisher takes your book authors never need to pay for anything beyond postage to send corrected proofs around. Thus the basic corrolory that those of us who are considering publishers etc. need to understand is - if you have to pay to get published then it's probably either a vanity press or a scam.

Over at Making Light (the blog of Tor editors Theresa and Patrick Nielsen Hayden), TNH noted that Townhall press seems to resemble the latter (scam or vanity press) rather than the real publisher because they want aspiring authors to pay $999 or more to be published. They seem to claim that this is a Print on Demand (POD) service but it seems a rather expensive one By contrast Lulu.com, a well-established POD company, there is no fee for the basic service. There are fees if you want help editing, creating covers etc. etc. from Lulu.com but the fees are optional, if you think you can do it yourself then you don't have to pay. At Townhall Press you have to pay a fee and that gives you these services whether you want them or not (and editorial services appear to be an extra priced by word count - for a 100,000 word book you're looking at a $1500 bill).

[Amusing sidenote - $600 saving only on the most expensive package]
And it gets worse. The $999 package doesn't pay any royalties so if you expect any sort of return then you have to pick one of the other two, so your investment is a minimum of $1500. The royalties you get are relatively generous (Generally you’ll receive from $2.00 to $5.00 per book sold to wholesalers, and up to $7.50 per book sold to individuals.) but, working on a probably generous $5 average per book sold, you need to sell 300 to break even on the minimum package. If you get $3 per book then it's 500 and if you went for the more expensive package, added the editing etc. then you're looking at 1000 copies and up.

OK you say, but how hard can it be to sell 300 copies? Well if you read the about section, you learn that:

TownhallPress.com uses revolutionary on-demand book publishing technology, and is powered by the same people who bring you XulonPress.com – the leading on-demand Christian book publisher. We’re financially secure with a stellar reputation.

XulonPress.com has helped more than 3,000 authors and printed more than 1,000,000 books! [...]

1 million books, 3,000 authors (presumably one book each) making average sales per author/book of 333. In other words the average author, if he chose the basic $1500 package, might expect a return of about $150 if royalties are $5 per copy. However the average guy isn't going to get this. Book sales follow the long tail (or half-life) model where the big sales are made by the top titles and the tail end sells very little. Assuming an 80:20 rule (80% of the sales come from the top 20%), then 600 authors (20%) will sell 800,000 books leaving the remaining 2400 to account for the 200,000 left. If you run the sums this means that the top 20% sell an average of 1333 books (and therefore make $4000 at a rate of $5 and 2500 at a rate of $3). The next 20% or so more or less break even (at a $5 rate it's an average $150 profit at a $3 rate it's $500 loss). The bottom third sell an average of about one book per author.

In other words unless your book is one of the top 25% or so you will make a loss. And even if you book is one of the top bestsellers you will make a minimal profit.

Now that we've looked at the sums, lets see what the pitch is:

Have you written a manuscript and you're tired of being rejected by the traditional publishing houses? Townhall Press wants to be your book publisher. We can turn your manuscript into a high-quality book and make it available to 25,000 bookstores and on the Internet – all in less than 90 days. Townhall Press is an on-demand book publisher, and a part of Townhall.com – one of the leading self-publishers on the Internet. Send us your manuscript today and within 90 days we'll promote it on Townhall.com and Amazon.com in high-quality paperback or hardcover editions. Start today for as little as $999.

First the hook: "(liberal) traditional publishers reject your work". This may be true but traditional publishers reject most unsolicited manuscripts that arrive in their in-tray and, although it is possible that this is on ideological grounds, there is evidence (e.g. this JBU column) that most rejections are because the manuscript pitched is crap. If the manuscript is good then Regnery Publishing would probably handle it once an agent submitted it.

Now the dazzle with numbers: "make it available to 25,000 bookstores and on the Internet". Make it available does not mean actively market. If you want your book to sell then you the author are going to have to do the marketing and you are not going to be spamming 25,000 bookstores.

And finally the lowball price: "Start today for as little as $999". As noted above for $999 you get no benefit for any sales your book makes. In other words the $999 is a pure vanity publishing deal. You pay $999 and then buy 50 copies to give to your friends (at $11.99 each). Townhall press makes $999+$8*50 = $1400 from you. Not bad business for them. Not quite so good for the author.

In her post TNH, a self confessed member of the liberal publishing establishement says:

I’m torn. On the one hand, Townhall.com just cries out for the kind of dispassionately analytical thrashing the gang at Absolute Write’s Bewares Board is so good at administering to deceptive publishing operations. On the other hand, I really like the idea of Wingnuttia entrusting its cherished manuscripts to a print-on-demand publisher that doesn’t take returns and has no brick-and-mortar distribution deal. For years, I’ve watched hapless, naive authors get mired in deals like that, finding out the hard way that no amount of energetic self-promotion will sell a book if the publisher isn’t helping. There’s nothing different about the deal Townhall’s offering its authors, except I won’t feel bad about it.

In other words the liberal publishing elite would be upset if this deal were offered to people she cared about but she's a tad less concerned about people she dislikes getting ripped off. This is not a conclusion that makes me want to recommend Townhall Press to anyone.