Friday, January 22, 2010

"Subsidy" or "Vanity" Publishing?

Victoria Strauss of Writer Beware has penned a spirited analysis of such terms as "traditional publishing," "indie publishing," and the like here, and I recommend everyone read it. It has much useful information about what to call what in this very confusing time in publishing, and we could all use a little boning up.

There are, however, two things I don't agree with in her blog.

First, the phrase "traditional publishing." As Strauss suggests, I think "commercial" or "trade publishing" are the phrases we should be using. What I don't believe is that this term found its way into the vernacular because of one rogue scam mill infiltrating us with it. (No doubt, they tried.) The phrase "traditional publishing" does reflect some common sense for many writer-publishers, as in the publishing model we think of as traditional, and thereby some publishers and writers, this one included, may have pulled that phrase from their own sense of things. Of course, self-publishing is older than commercial publishing, so technically more "traditional," but no one would confuse the predominant publishing model of the past century with self-publishing. And that's our frame of reference. (Again, I advocate using the phrase "commercial publishing." I simply add that the use of "traditional publishing" didn't derive entirely from one scam mill trying to inoculate us. A small point, but if we're trying to be accurate, one that should be made.)

Secondly, for all of her intent to clarify the segments of the publishing industry, Strauss also seems intent on labeling one segment, those of subsidy publishers, with the pejorative "vanity publishers." That's fine. "Vanity publisher" as a phrase has a certain history, and the companies she's labeling are, by and large, charging too much for not enough service. (I'm amazed, in this day and age, that someone would pay more than a hundred or so dollars to get a book published print-on-demand.) I encourage every would-be writer-publisher to avoid subsidy publishers. For a little more money, you can be a self-publisher.

So, demonize subsidy publishers if you want, but not the writers who have used their services.

As we know from the alarming rate of growth in this segment of the publishing world, many writers have gone the subsidy route. In 2008, the number of books published print-on-demand--a group made up largely of subsidy-published books--surpassed the number of book published otherwise. This is a first, and it isn't likely to change any time soon.

Many subsidy-published writers will take this "vanity" pronouncement as a shot at them--they're working with "vanity publishers," which makes them "vanity writers"--and that isn't the purpose of referring to these publishers as vanity publishers. These writers did nothing but make an economic decision--"this service is worth this much money to me"--and some have been talented--or shrewd--enough to profit from it, or have used the subsidy route as a stepping stone to future commercial publishing success.

Moreover, never would we expect a group, any group, to refer to themselves in the pejorative.

Customer: "Nice book. How was it published?"

Writer-publisher: "Oh, it was vanity published."

I realize this throws another--perhaps confusing--phrase into the soup of public discourse, but if we're making distinctions, we should make them in the clearest ways possible, and in ways that don't shame the wrong people.

Subsidy publishing is here to stay, has led to success, and the writers who choose that path aren't just succumbing to a scam, or to their own vanity. Also, to indirectly slur these writers isn't a way to win friends in the fastest growing segment of the publishing industry.

One final point. What always gets lost in these conversations is the end user: the book buyer. Strauss's blog doesn't pretend to address this, so this isn't a criticism of the ideas therein. But amongst all of the turmoil about "self-publishing" versus "traditional publishing" versus "vanity publishing," the most important person in the equation, the book buyer, is simply buying a book. They rarely care how a book is published. They just want a book that appeals to them. That's something every kind of publisher hopes to deliver, and in this important sense, all publishing, even vanity publishing, is equal.

Yours in laying down the law,


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Anonymous said...

Well put, Art. In the end it will come down to what the consumer, that book buyer thinks is a quality publication. They do not care so much as to who the publisher is.

Book buyers/readers do care, however, if a book appears well designed and readable, or a is good read. This will be the challenge in the rapid proliferation of self and subsidy published books: quality identification.

Levi Montgomery said...

I don't know the etymology of the term "traditional publishing," but I do try not to use it, mostly because we live in a world where "traditional" can easily mean "better" to a good percentage of listeners. I try to use "corporate publishing," partly because I think it more accurately reflects the actual distinction being made, and partly because to some (although not to me) "corporate" inevitably means "Bad! Nasty! Wholly evil! We hatesss it! Ssss!"

On the other hand, to a lot of people, "vanity press" seems to simply mean "Any publishing situation I never would have used, on account of 'cause I'm smarter'n you!" I try not to use it, simply because it's a poorly-defined term.

I've seen CreateSpace listed as a vanity press. I've been told that I shouldn't say I self-publish because I don't own the ISBNs (which is about to change, actually). For the record, I can publish a title through CreateSpace with 100%, ironclad, totalitarian control over everything from the front cover to the back. I call that self-publishing. It costs $39 plus the cost of a proof and leaves me with no big box o' books to try to hawk. I call that "not a vanity press."

But my point is not so much that any particular press is or is not a vanity press, but that the term itself seems to be so fluid, depending on who's talking. XYZ Press might be the most evil thing on Earth to you or me, but to the guy who just published his book through them, they're the bee's golden jammies, and guess what? He's the one who gets to say if he got ripped off, not you or me or anyone else. His money, his vote. Down the line, sales may fall off, and he may change his story, but I agree, I don't think it's fair to him or his readers to imply that the whole thing was just an exercise of his own vanity muscle.

Art Edwards said...

So many good points, Levi. It is funny what gets tabbed as "vanity" and what doesn't. Orwellian, at times.

I would imagine "corporate publishing" is pejorative too, for those committed to it.