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Is there any chance you could link me back to your discussion of vanity
presses? I've been having a dreadful time trying to convince a first-time
author I've been editing not to go with a vanity press. She took a class
and believes that publishing houses are the work of the devil (?!). Any
info much appreciated!

Everything I say here is about fiction. In fact, it's about genre fiction in large part. Non-fiction is different. If you have a non-fiction book, you can read this, but it doesn't apply to you.

I mentioned in one or another of these rambling posts that the reason I started all of them in the first place was the mention of Vanity Presses. valancy made the above comment in one of the topic threads, but I wanted to break it out to address it at length. Which is, yes, how I do anything <wry g>. It's not one that's overly dear to my heart in the same way that bookstore neep is, because it's not a large part of my life.

But the relevant comment was that an editee of valancy believes that publishers are evil, which is her reason for wanting to go the vanity press route.

I do not know what the reasons for this attitude are, so my post is addressing reasons I've heard before; they may actually be irrelevant to this particular author. They will not, I hope, be irrelevant to others under the same impression. And valancy, if you want to expand a bit on why the writer in question thinks -- from a class! -- that publishers are evil, I can probably me much more specifically useful by way of reply.

First, I never had the sense that publishers were evil, because publishers publish books, and I adore books. None of the books I adore, none of the books with which I was imprinted at early ages, would have reached me had it not been for the avarice of publishers. I had, of course, an entirely naïve view of publishers, because I had an entirely naïve view of everything, writing included. For years, I believed that true writers just dripped perfect words onto the page, that those words were, each and every one of them, gems of wit and elegant emotion. I also believed that the people who wrote the words that had moved me so damn much must be like me at heart because otherwise how could they reach me?

I was a book nerd. Authors were gods. And crucifixion included, what we sometimes expect from our gods isn't pleasant. That's a different digression.

Authors came first. My dim understanding of the editorial process came later, as did my understanding of publishing as a business.

Okay. We've all heard stories of authors who had works of genius rejected fifty times before they finally found a home -- and great subsequent success. It happens often enough that it's worthy of note. I will now say: editors are human, and tastes are unique. I know I'm belabouring the obvious. Humour me.

I finally had a chance, after listening to one such author speak about their attempts to get their first book published -- and their twenty-six rejections -- to ask the one burning question that has for years laid at the back of my little mind.

"Did you revise the manuscript in between submissions?"

Their response was, "Of course I did! Every time!"

In which case, I was tactful enough not to say, the book that endured twenty-six rejections was not, in fact, the same book. Substantially the same story yes -- but the difference between story and the telling of it are pretty profound.

Moving right along. I once spoke to a high school English class about writing. One of the things that shocked the students (the vocal students were all male, oddly enough) was the fact that I allowed my genius to be edited. My words should be sacrosanct. Only a hack would allow someone else to touch their words for the sake of a contract and money. The emphasis was theirs. Honest. They felt that the editors must be evil people if they could demand that the heart and core of genius be damaged by their own mundane concerns. The students who spoke then went on to mention favourite authors -- Barker, King -- and I assured them that King, at least, was certainly happy to be edited. Which may have lessened their opinion of him.

In high school students who have not yet begun to write for publication -- and have certainly done no research -- this was still a bit of a surprise to me. But I've also run into similar attitudes from new writers who are many decades out of high school.

This may not be why the author in question considers publishers evil.

I have heard published authors evince the same opinion. There is some evidence that this is not a simple delusion; individual experiences differ greatly, and there are certainly some packagers who have a lot to answer for. Some authors have been incensed at publishers for the difference between the print run promised them when the deal was inked and the print run delivered. I understand this outrage. But I also understand the process (as outlined somewhere downstream).

Some authors feel their books were orphaned; they were cast out, without support, into a market that eats authors alive, and they vanished without a trace. Again, I can understand the unhappiness this causes. And again, having seen books sink without a trace, I can't argue that it isn't true. Some books do not have the same support that the Big Books do. In fact, most books don't. Having gone on about that already, I'll leave that one alone as well.

Either of these viewpoints might contribute to the idea that publishers are evil.

Last: publishers want to make money. That's what they exist for. Editors want many things. So do writers. Business and art is that uneasy alliance. There is no question that publishers publish books that I think are utter garbage. But that garbage sells, and so, demonstrably, my opinion isn't the one that counts -- because I'm not speaking with my wallet. People want the stories that I reject out of hand; that's why they're published.

If everything was unreadable, I would never have gone to work at a bookstore. I would never have started writing. So books that I love are also published. And edited. And handled in sub-optimal ways. I found them.

And that's the key thing: I found them.

Before you start on this road, before you imagine being J.K. Rowling (whose initial publisher support was the standard, first book, small printing, btw), ask yourself how you found the authors who influenced you. For me, it was at libraries or bookstores. Libraries don't stock vanity press books. Bookstores don't.

Ask yourself what you want from this process. If what you want is a book that you wrote in your hands, Publish America might be for you. It doesn't edit. It doesn't get titles out into stores. But it does, thanks to POD, print books at no cost to you (in theory). If what you want is a book that is entirely yours, from start to finish, without the cruel criticism of editors and the interference of publishers, then perhaps this is the way to go as well.

But if you want to be read, if you want to reach readers in the same way that the authors you loved reached you, a Vanity Press has nothing at all to offer you. If you see a print run of 100 copies, you're in the minority. Even the bottom rung of a mass market novel will get more copies out than that, and they'll be on shelves, at an affordable price. POD is expensive; it produces trade paperbacks of questionable quality that retail for more than most trade hardcovers.

With a Vanity Press, you won't have the advantage of proof-reading in house (never mind typesetting or formatting). I won't mention copy-editing or line-editing or the substantive editing that will make your story better, because very often, people who want to go the Vanity Press route have a terror of those things. You won't have an art department, but then again, you can always point to covers that you hate and sneer at the idea of art departments in general. You won't have a sales force, you won't have someone presenting your books to the buyers who will see it onto bookstore shelves. Even people who feel that publishers are evil should see the advantage in a sales force.

So why a Vanity Press?

With a Vanity Press, you don't risk rejection. No one will tell you your writing isn't suitable. No one will tell you it isn't publishable. Why would they? They want your money. Have you written a book that you can't figure out how to market? Well, with a Vanity Press that isn't a problem. They don't care about the market because you're it.

The point is this: The majority of editors you deal with at a publisher care about their books. If they didn't, why would they want to make sure those books have the best shot possible at selling, at reaching an audience, at telling a clear story? Passion is a double-edged sword. There are cases in which editors will be wrong. But it comes out of caring for the book. (Yes, there are cases where this is not true. There are cases where editor and writer are hideously mismatched. But even in those cases, the writers decry the editor; they wouldn't then go to Vanity Presses in order to publish. Because the want to be read.)

The Vanity Press doesn't care about the book. The book has nothing to do with them. Your money does. The business of making money is finding people who want to have a book in their hands, period.

The argument for Vanity Presses I've often heard is that a publisher won't promote your books. But most people's idea of promotion is advertisement, print, interviews -- and these sell few books, in my experience. However, getting any of these for your own book? It's vastly harder. It takes way way more work than you think. And it doesn't have a net benefit that I can see. Placement dollars for a vanity press book? Even if you had the money, chains wouldn't take it.

My take on Vanity Publishers is probably clear, here. I think they're vultures, for the most part. I think they feed on an author's insecurity and fear. I think they appeal to the underside of ego. They want your money. But if a person is determined to publish in that fashion, there's not a lot that I -- or anyone else -- can do to stop them. There's a lot of bitterness that occurs after their experience with a Vanity Press, but then again, there's a lot of hard-knock education that comes out of it as well.


( 19 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 4th, 2004 06:30 pm (UTC)
I've always been astonished at the illogic of "the publishing houses are all full of corporate bean-counters, so I'm going to go to a vanity press." Yeah, the big houses are indeed full of bean counters, and they do look at the bottom line and make decisions based on that -- but at least they put books in bookstores and libraries. At least they'll pay an advance. At least they edit and copy-edit and line-edit and proofread. At least they'll pay for a professional artist to create an original cover for your book (sometimes paying them more than they paid you...). At least they have some semblance of an editorial filter to get lower the Sturgeon Law percentage.

A vanity press is a true money-grubbing parasite. All they want is your money. Those corporate publishing houses want the readers' money, not yours; a vanity press only wants yours. They take advantage of writers' egos and insecurities and impatience, and deliver very little in return.

XLibris (I won't give their URL...) is the largest vanity press, to my knowledge. They also send out spam e-mail regularly (to me, too), and in it they croon about how they've published over 10,000 books, have sold over a million copies of those books, and paid out over a million dollars in royalties. That sounds wonderful until you do the math: a million copies of 10,000 books is 100 copies and $100 in royalties per title. Considering that the average cost to publish with XLibris seems to be around $500, that doesn't sound like a bargain to me...

The absolute worst selling mass market book published by those money-huungry nasty corporations is going to sell into five figures and make the writer at least a few thousand dollars. And the best-selling ones, well...

I'd wager that most writers write to be read. Yes, some of us also write for money, too, and if you want that, then you have to go with the big publishers. But even if you primarily want an audience, you still have to go with the big houses first, and then perhaps a small press of some variety if you can't sell there. A vanity press will net you few readers past your family and friends, and is a last resort only.

I think my attitude on vanity presses is also clear.
Aug. 4th, 2004 09:50 pm (UTC)
What is it about college courses, anyway? We had a thread in my lj where a college class had given the impression publishers were evil, too.

If I were still on the list I'm no longer on, I'd point them to this post. :-) Publishers and their editing process were considered suspect there, too.
Aug. 4th, 2004 10:02 pm (UTC)
e had a thread in my lj where a college class had given the impression publishers were evil, too.

If I were still on the list I'm no longer on, I'd point them to this post. :-) Publishers and their editing process were considered suspect there, too.

I don't understand why this is considered suspect. Unless the writers are all poets and don't ever expect to make money by publishing. I think poetry is important for academics -- it's in the prestige, and not in the money, that its importance lies.

I also think that, depending on the course, there's a strong sense that publishers produce hack-writers, not 'real' writers. Or perhaps there's a sense that you can write for love, or you can write for money, and that publication by Evil Corporations is akin to prostitution. I'd never be in one of those because I write SF/F. Ditto mystery or romance writers -- in fact, any genre writers. I might be able to get in on the poetry (university reviews), but that was a long time ago.

I honestly don't know; I'm trying and failing to understand the mind-set. What I'd really like to know is what, exactly, these people are told in that class. And no one is stepping up to offer that information <wry g>.
Aug. 5th, 2004 03:50 am (UTC)
I don't know what is being taught in those courses where "publishing by the big imprints is evil" is disseminated, but I do know the bias against fiction that is "just genre work." Usually that phrase gets uttered by a professor whose publication credits are literary criticism and/or poetry, with a lift of the chin and a haughty sniff.

I had exactly that response while looking for a MA/MFA program. I toured a university which will remain nameless. I'd noticed that if I added together all the publication credits of their entire Creative Writing staff, I still had more, but... As I went into the Department Chair's office, I perused the course offerings on the bulletin board outside. Every creative writing course description -- and I mean every one, had in bold letters: "No genre work will be accepted." So I asked the Chair what their opinion of "speculative fiction" might be. He did the sniff and the chin lift, and answered (and I quote): "Not much. If that's the type of fiction you write, this may not be the program for you."
Aug. 5th, 2004 08:15 am (UTC)
The University of Arizona's MFA program is well-known by locals to not accept any genre work, too.
Aug. 5th, 2004 03:38 am (UTC)
I do teach Creative Writing in a local university, and I'll guarantee my students don't get the impression that vanity presses are the way to go... :-)
Aug. 4th, 2004 09:24 pm (UTC)
Fear of editing is one of the Marks of the Wannabe. The real, red-blooded Author can deal with it--either he'll grind up editors and make tacos, or better yet, he'll take what they say, consider it, use it, and--get this--make the book better.

I've walked away from a publisher because I felt the book would be trashed if I did what the editor wanted me to do to it. (Turned around, sold it immediately to another house, eventually got World Fantasy nomination. It's nice to be right.) I have also, going on three dozen times now, taken my revision letters and processed them and done the rewrites and ended up with a stronger book than I started with.

Publishers aren't evil. Editors aren't the Antichrist. What publishers do is pay you money to write books. Often quite a bit of money. And editors provide quality control. I've seen enough self-published and POD books to have concluded that conventional publishers, even when they publish dreck, are still hitting a higher standard of quality, page for page, than the alternatives.

Vanity presses are about gullibility. And ego. And impostor syndrome. You want evil? That's where it is--taking money from vulnerable would-be writers who could be making money instead.
Aug. 4th, 2004 09:47 pm (UTC)
or better yet, he'll take what they say, consider it, use it, and--get this--make the book better.

And it's such a wonderful feeling when this happens, too. I've thanked editors for revision letters. I've yet to write the book that couldn't be made better by some skilled editing.
Aug. 5th, 2004 04:52 am (UTC)
My editor has the knack for asking me seemingly innocuous questions that compel me to rethink/rewrite entire subplots. She doesn't tell me what to write. She tells me what isn't working in her view, and I decide how/if it should be fixed. Up to this point, we have yet to butt heads to any great degree (knocks closest wood-bedecked surface). We tend to see things the same way, and I do come to understand the majority of the issues she sees. This type of cooperation--not quite conscious but above the level of subconscious--is not the flavor of editor/writer relationship I sense is being discussed in these classes.

Truth be told, I sometimes wish my editor was a shade more forceful in expressing what she feels are a book's issues. Again, maybe we've yet to arrive at that steep a slope. Maybe I should be careful what I wish for.
Aug. 5th, 2004 04:56 am (UTC)
I love those questions. All hail leading editorial questions! :D
Aug. 5th, 2004 08:38 am (UTC)
>I love those questions. All hail leading editorial >questions! :D

My editor's revision letters usually consist of many pages of page/paragraph/line questions, followed by a paragraph or two of general impressions. Needless to say, the specific questions can usually be handled within hours/days. The general impressions can take a couple of months to address.
Aug. 5th, 2004 11:22 am (UTC)
Well, rats. I ran out of publishing entries to read.

I have one somewhat strange question to ask about POD.

I was thinking that it might be cool to use a POD house to produce the "reader draft" copies of my unedited novel. That is, instead of sending out printed manuscripts to be marked up and commented on by the people who've offered to proof it, I could send an actual book-like object. Which would be more expensive and less practical than a printed copy, but hey, it'd look cool and that's gotta be worth something. >:) (I may also be underestimating the cost. I think CafePress was on the order of $15-$30 per book with no minimum order, which didn't seem too excessive for a half-dozen gift copies).

However, I'm somewhat concerned that somehow, doing so would jeopardize my ability to sell "first publication" rights -- that somehow, having a POD house run off copies bound in book form would make that a "first publication" even though I was only distributing them to a handful of friends. Hrm.
Aug. 5th, 2004 12:34 pm (UTC)
I'd rather have the manuscript myself, if I'm expected to read and comment and make corrections. A book doesn't have enough room in the margins and is single-spaced. A manuscript is double spaced so I have room to write between the lines. A manuscript has big margins in which to make long comments. I can pull twenty pages of a manuscript from the pile and take it off to a coffee shop to read. A manuscript lays flat so I don't have to prop it open. Besides, if I'm proofing/critiquing a manuscript for a friend, it's gonna get marked up and then sent back, so I won't be keeping it anyway.

To me, having it in book form not only doesn't matter, it makes the work significantly more difficult to read and critique. Don't waste your money on POD.
Aug. 5th, 2004 08:18 pm (UTC)
I know many authors who have, in the past, done their own bound galleys (at a time when POD wasn't available, and it was actually more costly to do so).

So my answer would be: No, as long as you made it clear it was an ARC (Advance Reading Copy) or readers proof, you wouldn't be "publishing" the book. You'd be printing copies for your own use. Don't, of course, do this through an outfit like Publish America, because you will be tying things up contractually and with no benefit to yourself.

But I'll admit that I'm with sleigh here; if I'm to mark things up, to read them with a more editorial eye, I want them to look like work-in-progress. YMMV.
Aug. 6th, 2004 01:33 pm (UTC)
In reading your recent posts, it kind of concerns me that you go to such lengths to, well, point out the obvious again and again. Are there so many clueless people in the world?
Aug. 6th, 2004 02:12 pm (UTC)
In reading your recent posts, it kind of concerns me that you go to such lengths to, well, point out the obvious again and again. Are there so many clueless people in the world?

Given that, when I was much younger, I believed that each and every book I handled had been put together by hand, I assume that there will always be people at varying levels of cluefulness.

Certainly I didn't know as much when I was starting out in the bookstore as I do now -- and I didn't know what a Vanity press -was- until I started working at Bakka, where a Vantage Press title would occasionally show up in the mail. Someone else (possibly andpuff explained it to me.

I tend to assume certain things, but have stubbed my conversational toes on the assumption. Because of this, I'm perfectly happy to go on at length until people tell me I'm boring them to tears with stuff they already know.

Is that what you're saying, hmmmm? <eg>.
Aug. 10th, 2004 10:20 pm (UTC)
Heh, don't get me wrong, you're sharing lots of useful stuff.

It's just that just about every resource on writing gets to the "don't spend money on vanity press" point fairly quickly. I would not have thought you needed to repeat it. But based on some of the responses you've gotten, I guess it must be.

I can't claim expertise in this. But it does seem to me that if one wants to learn a profession, a key method is to talk to people in that profession to learn what they do. I know many published authors, and what they have in common is that they are, well, published. And as far as I can see the way to get published is to deal with, well, publishers.

It's just like, I know lots of people who have succeeded in business for themselves. And I know people who got into Amway. The latter are not the former. The activity of selling a few dozen units to family and close friends isn't really a business, it's just a way for parasitic corporations to get money by trading on people's personal relationships.

Everything I know about publishing makes it sound like actual work. I can empathize with authors who want to do publishing to get more value per unit, but it seems to me like just a distraction from writing. I understand things like logistics, printing, and marketing, but none of these publishing activities has much to do with the artistic act of writing. Even for successful authors (e.g. Piers Anthony), the books they publish under their own control aren't as good as the ones they publish under other editors, and even if the books were as good, they are received by the market with some suspicion because of the appearance of lack of quality control.
Aug. 10th, 2004 10:38 pm (UTC)
It's just that just about every resource on writing gets to the "don't spend money on vanity press" point fairly quickly. I would not have thought you needed to repeat it. But based on some of the responses you've gotten, I guess it must be.

I can't claim expertise in this. But it does seem to me that if one wants to learn a profession, a key method is to talk to people in that profession to learn what they do. I know many published authors, and what they have in common is that they are, well, published. And as far as I can see the way to get published is to deal with, well, publishers.

I'm amazed at the number of people who've friended me -- and this is relevant because I'm also amazed at the range of ages I see on various user info pages. Not everyone lists by birthdate; some do, some don't -- but there are a lot of younger writers who are reading these (or at least, that's what friending suggests to me).

Which is my way of saying that they are, in fact, doing what you've done; they're taking in the commentary of one writer, with a particular set of experiences about the publishing industry.

I'm certainly not the first person to say what I'm saying. I may, however, be the first person they've found who is; they'll no doubt go on to find other people with similar -- or disparate -- experiences, and they'll build some of the same knowledge that you've built based on this.

I posted the bit about P&L statements and the costs associated with publishing a novel/book because many people aren't clear that there are costs beyond the actual production associated with publication. It's something you already know; it's something that they might not.

And without doing a survey, I decided that it was useful enough to state the obvious -- because every published writer's experience will differ -- in the hope that if I am the first person they stumble across who makes this clear, I've done something useful.

Aug. 6th, 2004 05:09 pm (UTC)
I'll note that there is a set of publishers between Vanity Press & Coporate "Evil" Publishers.

Namely: Edited POD books/Small press.

Meisha Merlin is not a big publisher. Niether is Golden Gryphon. Nor Wheatland Press. All have editors in charge, and the books those publishers release are edited manuscripts. They reject people and in fact may be more picky than some corporate publishers as they don't have the resources to support a huge flop.

And yet, they are respected Genre publishers. They're books appear in some independents & Amazon & on websites. They won't be found in chain bookstores. Unless there is a kind soul in the community donating, they also won't found in the library. Which is unfortunate. What would you say about those publishers?

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