Monday, June 2, 2008

Should Authors who Self-Publish be Considered Vanity Press?

by Monica Valentinelli

I don’t ever think there has been a more appropriate time in this industry than to seriously revisit the question of what happens when authors “self-publish” their books and whether or not they should be considered “vanity press.” After attending 30+ conventions, I can completely understand the “why” behind name-calling some print-on-demand and self-published authors.

There’s always one or two authors who buy a booth, don’t bother to decorate or make it appear friendly, and sit behind a pile of books, waiting desperately for someone to stroll past and throw money at their feet. In many ways yes, these writers could be considered vanity press because, on the surface, it appears as if they don’t know what they’re doing, that they’ve published their book because they wanted to see it in print. Do you ever ask yourself, why they bought a booth?

Maybe they really don’t know what they’re doing, and they believe (like so many other writers) that fame and fortune will knock on their door–all they have to do is publish a book. Just because they have stars and dollar signs in their eyes, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ve gone to all the trouble to print books just so they could see their name in print.

Yes, there is a definite disconnect between writers who understand the business of writing and those who understand the business of selling, marketing and publishing books. Sandwiched in the middle, there are those writers, like myself, that fall somewhere in between the two schools of thought based on our experiences. When a writer focuses heavily on the creative process, they lose the ability to detach themselves from their work; hence, the innocence. Writers sometimes forget that best-selling books are not just a function of the creative process, they are also a function of luck, networking, and timing. Still, more authors than I can count worship the large presses, thinking that they will somehow magically recognize their name among the masses and grant them a publishing contract.

I think that within traditional publishing there is a fear, and that fear resonates and trickles down to hopeful authors who have never had anything published before. The fear for the amateur is that the book, their self-published book, will somehow suck so bad that no one will want to publish them and they’ll get a bad reputation. I’d like to venture a guess and say that perhaps the publishers are afraid of the opposite scenario, since it’s very rare to see a publisher that’s on top of Web 2.0 let alone take chances on an unpublished, unproven author. Also, I’d like to put it out there that the major publishers are probably tightening their belts because the cost of printing keeps going up every year, and they’re more likely to go with an author whose books they know readers will buy, even if it’s written poorly. Most inexperienced writers also don’t realize that editing is an expensive, costly venture for many publishers. Add that cost into an untested author whose books are not a guarantee to sell, and that quickly factors into a huge risk for the big houses.

That fear of garnering a bad reputation is very real; just within the past year I can name five, fellow authors who have been determined to “agent up.” Not one of them has been successful so far, and not one of them will consider self-publishing as an option. Why? One of them has told me that since best-selling author X said self-publishing is vanity press, they’ll never do it.

Unfortunately, best-selling authors don’t have to go through the same hoops as new ones, especially writers that have been around for a number of years. While veteran authors do give great advice, you have to remember that their experiences entering the publishing biz might be outdated–10, 20 maybe even 30 years old or more.

In truth, the self-publishing model has worked for some authors (not all) who simply got around the stigma by developing their own emprint and use the tools that are available to them. Authors like Gregory Solis and David Wellington, who you’ll hear me mention from time to time.

Remember, too that advances are virtually non-existent for new authors, so if you can get one, you’re darn lucky. You’re even more fortunate if you haven’t negotiated any of your rights away; some publishers leverage copyright with taking a risk on an unknown. Don’t even get me started on how much first-time authors make; in some cases, it’s pretty pathetic.

So the attraction to self-publish is understandable; you, as the writer who has created this story, have control over how many copies you publish, what you charge, and how you market, sell and distribute that story. To give you some scale, according to this stat referenced in Beneath the Cover’s Publishing Statistics for May 2007, 78% of titles come from small press or self-publishers out of as many as 86,000 self-publishers, compared with six major ones in New York.

As an author who tries her darnedest to be savvy about the market, I don’t believe that the popularity of small press and self-publishing can be ignored, even if the number of books sold doesn’t equate to the numbers from larger presses. I certainly don’t want to write any of my books for my Violet War series just so I can see it in print; I can’t imagine why any other writer these days would do the same.

So before you consider a writer to be vanity press, maybe it’s better to ask the question, “How much does this author really know about the industry?” If they don’t know as much as they should, I’d encourage you to either communicate with them or take a second look at the words beneath the cover. You might just find that their story is fresh and innovative, something worthwhile reading.

It’s one thing to throw around labels, it’s entirely another to comprehend why they are there in the first place. Since the phrase “vanity press” was coined back in 1959 (according to Wikipedia, I think I can say, with the utmost confidence, that publishing and selling books have changed dramatically since that time. After all, haven’t you heard? There’s this new-fangled invention that’s been utilized pretty heavily since then called “the internet.” Toss in iPhones, eBooks, PDFs and other ways to distribute content, and I think we need to reinvent what that phrase means.

Hey, maybe that’s what we should write to Amazon about?

Folks, I’m always looking for more relevant stats about the publishing industry to share, so feel free to send them along if you have them, with a link to the source.

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