Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A Note Regarding Vanity and Subsidy Publishers

I can't count the number of times I've been asked if it wouldn't be easier simply to publish my own work.  Whenever I tell people I write novels, that's often one of the first responses.  It's a natural one, but my answer is always the same.  Not in a million years!

But why wouldn't I consider it?  Why would I choose to struggle through endless stacks of rejection letters in the hopes I will get picked up by a major publishing house someday?  That sounds less like the "Great American Dream" and more like a pipe dream.

There are several reasons why I don't, and why I would strongly caution other budding authors from doing it.  To understand why I and many others feel this way, we need to look at the logistics behind self-publishing, better known in the forms of vanity publishing and subsidy publishing.

Vanity publishing is essentially where you take your finished manuscript to them, pay them up front for all printing, binding and associated costs and they print your book.  They do not provide editing, proofreading or any other such services.  They will take any kind or quality of manuscript, which makes them a somewhat attractive option for the disillusioned author who can't stomach the thought of another rejection letter.

Subsidy publishing is similar, but differs somewhat in that they allocate some of the money paid by the perspective author toward editing, distribution and marketing costs.  This makes them more selective, but the author receives at least basic typographical editing.

There are several other forms of this sort of thing, including conglomerates types.  The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America website has an excellent read on the subject, with definitions of each type of publishing.  It's one of their "Writer Beware" topics, which is an excellent set of articles and advice for authors.

There is a ton of advice out there about these sort of publishers.  Many times the authors are quite scathing in their reviews, such as this author.  And this author.  I could go on, but I'm sure you get the point.  This isn't to say that an author is automatically doomed by publishing this way.  The Wall Street Journal had a more upbeat look at where this industry is headed, especially as more and more publishing melds with the virtual world.  There were several success stories there.  It can happen.  But it's rare.  For every very talented author that just got tired of trying too soon, there are countless hacks and really talentless writers for whom this type of publishing is simply the only option they're ever going to have.

They don't call it vanity publishing for nothing.  The entire industry feeds off authors' desires of getting their stories out there.  It feeds off their vanity, so to speak.  After all, it's not their fault those stupid agents and publishers just can't see how tremendously awesome their novel is.

But it is their fault.  It's entirely their fault.  If they would have written it better, edited it until their fingers bled, and taken the time to write queries and synopses that enticed those agents and publishers to read the manuscript, it would have gotten picked up.  Those that do this get the book deals.

And that is precisely why I slog away at query after query, honing my work and editing out all the fluff and unnecessary crap, and why I'll continue to do so until I break through.  My first two novels will probably never get published.  At least not without almost completely rewriting them, they won't.  They're just not the quality they need to be.  I have come to terms with the fact that they were a really fun way to practice for the real thing and that is reward enough.


  1. I am with you regarding the pluses of going with a major publisher over a vanity press because to me this would be a recognition that someone besides myself thinks my writing is worth investing in. However, the problem I see with what you are saying is that for the publishing houses it’s all about the bottom line and what the consumer wants. While I don’t dispute that the buying readers should get what they want, I am not sure that the number of people who buy a book is always the best indicator of the book’s literary value. I am afraid that some of the greatest works of literature would have never seen the light of day if they were written today.

  2. You're absolutely correct that some of the greatest works of literature would nowadays be buried under the slush pile. In fact, some of the heavies in classic fiction self-published. Authors such as Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, Edgar Allen Poe... the list goes on.

    The problem is that the business, like any other field, is all about the bottom line. They have to be. Consumerism drives product, and if product doesn't sell, they're out of business. The big publishers have to be ruthless, because they have to bring a high quality product every time.

    That's good for authors in the end, though. It drives them to hone their work until it is good enough. Sure, it may weed out some really good ones, but those are simply unfortunate casualties of what makes the whole thing work.