Saturday, January 10, 2009
Do writers deserve to be published?
I’ve often seen writers defend vanity presses by saying that they perform a useful service – printing books that would not otherwise be printed. Many people feel that they deserve to be published, and that the publishing industry is elitist at best or practising censorship at worst by publishing so few writers. Therefore, a vanity press or author mill is a good thing, since it allows nearly everyone to “publish” a book.
I’m not sure why anyone would believe that they deserve to be published. Even the Constitution of the United States doesn’t hold this truth to be self-evident: that everyone has the right to happiness. It’s the pursuit of happiness that’s an inalienable right: there’s no guarantee that you’ll get it.
But let’s deal with a few of the arguments for this position.
1. The reading public should decide whether a book is good – not the publishers.
I can see why a writer might feel this way. If the writer’s family and friends and co-workers read and loved the manuscript, but editors and agents didn’t even request a partial, the writer might well feel slighted. The regular people enjoy the book – it’s just the industry which stands in the writer’s way.
The thing is, though, the reading public relies on the publishers to screen and refine its reading material. I’ve ordered several books sight unseen from online sellers, but in each and every case I knew that I would be getting books that had been read by agents, vetted by editors and fine-combed by copyeditors.
I don’t want to be placed in the position of having to sift through trash to find the good stuff – if I want that, I’ll go to www.fanfiction.net, which is where I advise anyone to go if they truly believe that unleashing the slush pile on the reading public is a good thing.
2. The writer has a right to be heard.
I say: Absolutely.
But I also say: not on someone else’s dime.
If writers only want to disseminate their work, they always have the option of putting it up on the Internet. Do they want actual printed, bound copies instead? Well, then, someone’s going to have to pay the costs of book production.
In the case of commercial publication, the publisher pays, meaning that they pick and choose which manuscripts will give them a return on their investment. In the case of vanity publishing or self-publishing, the writer pays – one way or another.
3. The writer believes in the book and can make a success of it – once it’s made available.
Every writer believes in their work, without exception. But that belief doesn’t guarantee good sales.
Part of the problem is that availability doesn’t necessarily mean the reading public knows about it. A book can be on the online stores of Amazon or Barnes and Noble, but if the average readers don’t know the book’s title or the author’s name, how can they search for it?
I haven't heard of any book which had good sales even though it was a drop in the virtual ocean. Even self-publishing success stories rely on actual copies of the books being distributed, usually by the author. On the other hand, I've read numerous accounts of writers who signed up with vanity presses and then worked tirelessly to promote their books (sometimes through ill-fated ideas like reverse shoplifting or creating pages for themselves on Wikipedia). These efforts do not seem to have resulted in commercial success for the writers.
4. Having their books published makes writers happy.
This is true. Having their books published does make writers happy – more happy than going through endless cycles of rejection.
Most of the time, I think the rejections serve a good purpose, honing the writers’ skills, toughening their skins and making publication all the more valuable when it does happen. It’s all part of establishing a career. But what about those writers who don’t want a career? If an old lady only wants to see her recipes in print for her grandchildren, shouldn’t she get that chance?
Unfortunately that brings up the money issue again: who’s going to foot the bill for this indulgence? Even if the old lady can afford it, vanity presses often try to squeeze as much as possible from their customers/authors. They may, for instance, try to sell her things she won’t need, like promotional packages.
Another problem with vanity presses is that some of them deliberately foster the illusion that their customers are published authors just like Nora Roberts or Stephen King. This ties into making the writers happy, but it also means that writers will want the trappings of publication – reviews, awards and so on. So there are now amateur review services, some of which charge for their reviews, and fake contests. It’s an entire cottage industry.
Ultimately, publication is something best worked towards, rather than handed to any writer who has put words down on paper – because in the latter case, it will always come with strings attached and will do little or nothing for the writer’s career. With apologies to Stephen Crane:
A man said to the universe:
"Sir, I have written a book!"
"However," replied the universe,
"The fact has not created in me
An obligation to publish it."