Michelle (msagara) wrote,

Publishers, Vanity Presses and evil, a digression

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.
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