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, 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."


beth said...

I agree with you on all points. In the end, I think vanity presses feed on immature writers. I know when I was young and stupid, I felt all those things you listed (deserved to be published, etc.), and vanity presses know that is the common attitude of first writers. Although I was tempted in those first early, idiotic years, I'm glad that I never succumbed to the siren call of vanity press--because the long and the short of it was that I was not ready yet to be published. Although I thought my work was brilliant, it wasn't--and the rejections from legit publishing houses kept forcing me to re-examine my work and revise it--and become a better writer.

Linda said...

I think one of the things that gets people into trouble is that writing a book is a huge time investment. They jump into writing the book, thinking, "How hard can this be? I just read [big name author] and can do better."

Then they write the book and find out how much work it is. Maybe they spend a year writing or five. Now it's become something where they invested the time so they deserve it.

When POD first came out, my initial reaction was doubt. Everyone on all the message boards were fawning over it, saying that this was their only chance to get published or now they had a chance. No one seemed to think, "Learn from your mistakes and write a better book." Or even to admit that a book might be unpublishable and start a new one.

Rejection is a great teacher.

Kami said...

Great post! I definitely agree on all points too.

I wish that, as beth (I think accurately) put them, immature writers would look at the publishing process as something that in some ways saves you from yourself. I wrote a long comment, and realized it was too long, so I put it up on my blog instead.

I like how you organized your thoughts. It made things really clear.

J said...

I'm not sure. I think you're right in saying that POD would be an abysmal failure if the goal was to sell a POD book to an audience seeking published works.

But say you had a different goal. Say you're an established writer with a following and many published works. Say your goal was to create an art piece or limited edition collectible book to bolster your branding and marketing efforts. Think something akin to Tales of Beadle the Bard. Say you were not going to sell these in traditional bookstores, but on etsy or ebay. Say you were going to charge, not twenty dollars, but two hundred or more a pop for these collectibles. POD might work in this case.

POD might be a really original marketing scheme for an established author. But the POD work would have to be something akin to a zine or something else that looks as if it's had a lot of TLC.

Something I've thought about.

Madison said...

I have less respect for authors who go the self-pulishing route than those who get an agent and do it the traditional way. Why? The traditional way is harder. I've written things that people like to read, even though I am not yet published. And even if I never am, at least I know I can write something that's at least halfway enjoyable. :)

colbymarshall said...

Publishing isn't a right. It's like saying everyone should be able to play in the NFL. No, they shouldn't be. Some people aren't talented enough to play in the NFL. In my mind, it's the same as writing. Everyone can write- do it for fun, do it for the love of it, but don't expect to be published, because that take special talent, a talent I hope I have.

Donna said...

Like spandex, publishing is a privileged, not a right. And to echo the words of Miss Snark, POD is a method of publishing, not an author mill or hack house. Many traditional publishing houses are looking into POD publishing for cost effectiveness. Unfortunately places like PubliSHAMErica also use POD so the name gets tainted. It's not a bad system, just used, more often than not, by sleaze companies.

Self-publishing can be beneficial if you have a specific goal in mind. I know many writers who publish their work over the internet as serials and then compile their work into a volume to be sold through someplace like Lulu. They're very grounded in reality and know that it's not their ticket to stardom or they're doing it because they somehow deserve to be published (I have run across a couple, but you'll always have them).

It's the shmucks that ruin it for the more level-headed ones. Delusions of grandeur abound in self-publishing and if they were only willing to accept the fact that writing involves years of sacrifice with absolutely no promise of an end of the means, they wouldn't be so rabid in the pursuit of their "right" to be published. Unfortunately their inability to see their own flaws and take their writing more seriously will only render others not to take them seriously. It's a vicious cycle they put themselves in.

Pink Ink said...

I am beginning to discover that everyone and their dog wants to be published. It seems pretty obvious, but forums like AW really showcases the fact that the competition out there is fierce, and I admit to be like most that feel:

"Yay for finishing a book!! Now I deserve to be published."

Marian said...

This might sound mercenary, but although I've wanted to be published for years, I've also wanted to be published for money.

Good money. As in, three or more digits, preferably more.

That saved me from vanity presses at a time when I didn't even know much about vanity presses. I just knew that I only wanted to sell a book if I'd be paid well - getting it into print alone wouldn't have been enough.

Marian said...

"the rejections from legit publishing houses kept forcing me to re-examine my work and revise it--and become a better writer."

Hi Beth,

IMO, that's one of the great disservices that vanity presses do writers. As well as printing work as-is, most vanity presses make the writers work as salespeople, meaning they'll have even less time and energy to spend on writing.

Which is fine if there's just the one book, but not if the writers are hoping for a career.

Several times now, I've seen writers grow disillusioned with a vanity press and try commercial publishing, only to get form rejections because of this.

Becky Mushko said...

I've vanity-pubbed some collections of previously published columns and stories for a small niche market where I already had a readership in place and places to sell them

That's the only way vanity-pubbing will work: niche market, small project, AND an established readership. Plus, I had no delusions of grandeur—and I negotiated with the POD publisher for a lower set-up fee.

However, I've run into a few people who think it's only a matter of time before Oprah discovers their vanity-pubbed books, and their books sell thousands. (Mine have sold hundreds—enough to make a modest profit.) They're horrified when I describe myself as "vanity-published." (One even told me that her publisher—iUniverse—was a step up from vanity publishing. Yeah, whatever.)

Vanity-pubbing can (not necessarily will) work for memoirs, cookbooks, family histories, collections of formerly published work, and certain other *small* projects. But it won't work at all if you expect a blockbuster novel or a wide readership.

Prices and services vary widely. If you think you have a *small* project that might work, do your homework before you sign any contracts. Know the limitations of vanity publishing before you even remotely consider it.

Marian said...

Some day, Becky, I'd like to interview you about making an informed choice with regard to vanity presses. :)

Marian said...

"I think one of the things that gets people into trouble is that writing a book is a huge time investment."

I see what you mean, Linda. Yes, I'd feel depressed too if I invested years of my life into college and was then told that I couldn't have a diploma.

That was one reason I didn't go any further in science - I'm fascinated by bacteria, but I didn't want my future to be dependent on what THEY were going to do.

At least with writing, I have the pleasure of creating a work even if it never gets published!

Becky Mushko said...

I'd love for you to interview me, Marian. But I likely won't be going the self-pub or vanity route again. I don't have any more small projects that would work.

My current WIPs are much better suited for commercial publication. Now, if I could just get an agent. . . .

Marian said...

"I like how you organized your thoughts. It made things really clear."

Thank you, Kami! I enjoyed your post as well - it brought up a great point. Fame brings critical reviews even to books which have been vetted by agents and editors; I can't imagine what kind of reception vanity-printed books would get.

Sue said...

Two of my three books were published by others. My first effort was put out by a large publisher. Book number three was created and distributed by a small press. I published the second book myself, using my own small press to accomplish that.

I earned the greatest return financially on the book I published myself. The best thing about the large publisher was being able to benefit from their marketing. All I had to do was go to the book signings, scheduled by THEM. Also, they did a bigger first run of the book than I (or the small publisher) could afford. The down side of the large publisher was that I didn't get the book cover I would have liked. I ended up having to settle for the one I disliked least.

Still, I don't think I would self-publish again, though I did make a profit on the book. As it turns out, I found the process of selling it more unpleasant than fighting with a publishing house for creative autonomy. Also, I think I would be a better bargainer up front now. The first go-round, I was so happy they had accepted it for publication that I sort of let them roll over me.