Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Thinking about vanity and vanity publishing

Is Mick "so vain?"
There’s a lot of confusion between self-publishing and vanity publishing.

For many years, there have been ads in magazines aimed at writers, with headlines like “For the writer in search of a publisher," “We want to read your book,” “Manuscripts wanted” and “Authors wanted.” The ads and affiliated websites promise to enable you to become a “published author.”

The ads are not from traditional publishers or from literary agents, but from “vanity” publishers — companies that use the author’s money to produce, promote and distribute the books.

However, no publishing companies that were perceived to be (or derided as) vanity publishers used that label themselves. If they used any description at all, it was usually "subsidy publisher." Today most of them use the term "self-publishing company."

I have previously spent lots of time fighting the term, pointing out that no one can self-publish you, just as no one can self-educate, self-immolate or self-medicate you -- but I gave up the fight. Pissing into the wind is pointless. Language does change, and I am now willing to accept the term which I know is illogical.

There is one major difference between the old-fashioned vanity publishers and today's self-publishing companies.
  • In the old days, a writer could have spent many thousands of dollars to receive heavy cartons of offset-printed books which often rotted away in garages or basements, or took up valuable space elsewhere in the house. The books were seldom sold, and remained in place until the writer moved or died.
  • Today, a writer can spend as little as a few hundred dollars and books are printed on demand when orders are received from readers or booksellers or the writer.
  • Also today, people like me can set up there own tiny publishing companies, hiring designers and editors and other specialists as needed. I call this "independent self-publishing."

There is only one customer a vanity publisher or self-publishing company is interested in selling to — the author/customer. A non-vanity publisher, whether a one-person self-publisher or a giant like Random House, hopes to sell books to thousands or millions of readers. Companies like Random House don’t have to advertise to attract writers and receive manuscripts.

The word “vanity” implies excessive pride in one’s appearance, qualities, abilities, achievements and appeal. Vanity has been considered a sin. It can lead to wasted resources and wasted lives. It can also lead to useful activities and important accomplishments.

Most or all artistic people have some degree of vanity, or they would not produce or perform.

Most people seem to like themselves. There are gradations in vanity, ranging from justified confidence to outrageous, obnoxious egomania.

In You’re So Vain, Carly Simon wrote and sang (possibly about Warren Beatty, Mick Jagger or both of them): “You walked into the party… You had one eye on the mirror… And all the girls dreamed that they'd be your partner… You're so vain you probably think this song is about you.”

Vanity publishers (whatever they call themselves) stay in business because many vain people are willing to spend money to flatter themselves. A vanity publisher depends on the vanity of writers who strive to become “published authors.” They make most of their money from writers, not readers. If you work with a vanity publisher, you pay all of the expenses of publishing, and have all of the possible financial loss.

Although less true now than in the 20th century, a book published by a vanity press is often assumed to have been rejected as unworthy of publication by traditional publishers.

Here’s another way of looking at vanity and publishing: Maybe the most vain writers are those who will delay publication for years or decades in hope of getting accepted by a traditional publisher instead of quickly self-publishing, reaching the public, and maybe even making some money.


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