Back in its heyday, Vantage Press ruled the self-publishing (then known as vanity publishing) world, with a market share that hovered around 25% from the 1950s through the early 1990s. The profitable family-run New York company occasionally drew complaints, and lawsuits, from unhappy authors, but its biggest failure was not keeping up with the changes in technology that resulted in dozens of Web-based companies springing up to offer author services. “The Vantage of November 2009 looked pretty much the same as the Vantage of 1981,” acknowledged David Lamb, who acquired the company last December and has been working as rapidly as possible to make it competitive again in a self-publishing market that bears little resemblance to the one that existed in 1949, when Vantage was founded.
At its peak, Vantage was publishing 400–500 books annually, but will likely do only 200 this year. Lamb has spent his time overhauling the company’s technology, streamlining its workflow, and upgrading the quality of its products. By January, he expects to have an online bookstore and a much more robust Web site, which he believes will enable Vantage to compete more effectively with the new industry leaders, Author Solutions and Amazon’s CreateSpace. And Lamb’s ambition goes beyond making Vantage competitive again only in the “traditional” self-publishing market. In the spring, he will launch Vantage*Point, an imprint that will offer the best of the company’s self-published titles, but also titles that are published in a copublishing arrangement with authors who will not pay any fees and with whom Vantage will split royalties. Lamb is currently looking for an editorial director to head the imprint, which he envisions publishing books “by midlist authors who can’t find homes. A book that sells 6,000 copies would be wonderful for us.” The spring list will launch with six to eight titles, and Lamb has signed with Ingram Publisher Services to sell and fulfill the line.
Lamb sees his agreement with IPS as key to rejuvenating Vantage, which will use Ingram not only for distribution but for converting its print titles to e-books and for print-on-demand as well. Lamb also hopes that IPS’s clout with retailers will raise the visibility of both Vantage*Point authors and all of the company’s authors. Among the major bookstore chains, Borders stocks some Vantage authors, but Lamb acknowledged that the company “needs to do a better sales job.” To that end, he has hired a number of people from traditional houses to augment IPS’s sales efforts, including Jim Benjamin as COO and Kaylee Davis has director of author care. Both are publishing veterans, including recent stints at Sterling. David Carriere, who has run his own public relations firm since leaving HarperCollins, has been hired as head of publicity. Vantage had always sent out review copies and press releases, but Lamb expects the new team to do a better job getting the books to the right places, including targeting bloggers.
One aspect of Vantage that Lamb has not changed is charging relatively high prices for what he termed a turnkey author service. With virtually no barriers to entry in the self-publishing field, Lamb believes that for the Vantage brand to stand out it must showcase its value-added services. “We’ll do anything an author wants, from hand-holding and editing to promotion and fulfillment,” Lamb said, noting for example, that converting a print title to an e-book comes at no extra charge. For their initial payment, authors receive 25 copies and can buy books at 50% off of cover price. Any book that Vantage sells nets authors a 40% royalty until the cost of their investment is recouped, when the royalty slides down.
While Vantage has a long history, not all of it was good, something that Lamb doesn’t hide from. A Google search of “Vantage Press publishing scam” yields articles on a 2005 controversy, but also a Google ad showing that Vantage is now accredited by the Better Business Bureau, which has received only one complaint about the company in the past 36 months. Even before he took over, Vantage was working to make its operations more transparent, a strategy Lamb said he will continue to emphasize.
Lamb is confident enough in the turnaround of Vantage—and in the opportunities in the self-publishing space—that he plans on upping the title output to 400 books next year, with approximately 11 titles set for the Vantage*Point fall list. And with his background in mergers and acquisitions—he still does deals as part of GSL—he is on the lookout for an author services company or small trade house to buy.