Saturday, July 3, 2010

Publishing choices

In his June 1st column, "Dilbert" creator Scott Adams predicts that in the not too distant future there will be no publishers. He bases this vision of the future on the fact pirates already make most valuable web content free, including novels and stories reproduced without permission from – or remuneration to – the writer. The "books should be free" philosophy treats the product of years of a writer's craft and effort and discipline – years of a writer's life – as though it was a found object. Something the writer stumbled upon and is refusing to give away freely solely because she and her publisher are selfishly denying others the "right" to take what they want without asking. This mindset is common among folks who regard creating a novel as a function of having enough free time to type. (Show of hands: How many writers out there have had someone, anyone, at a convention or library or bookstore or family get-together say "I always wanted to be a writer; I just never have the time." I realize these folks are trying to establish they are kindred spirits, but the assumption underlying their statement is the only reason they haven't written a novel is their life is filled with more important things than mine. I do not punch these people.) Scott Adams' contention is the internet and assumption all content should be free will make professional publishing obsolete. In a generation, maybe two, professional writers will have gone the way of lamplighters and town criers – careers alluded to only in history texts. He envisions a future in which people write web content for free and occasionally readers who like what they've written will make donations.

Foreshadowing Mr. Adams' vision of a future without publishers and professional writers is the vibrant and expanding – more like exploding – legion of vanity presses.

I am not a complete Luddite, some million of the words I've sold to date have been internet content, but when it comes to writing, I remain firmly old school. In fact, I'll take that one step further: When it comes to writing, I'm an alligator. (No, I don't mean I lurk in murky water to ambush unwary waders; I mean alligators both predate dinosaurs and are still around.)
And two fundamental and non-negotiable old-school truths of writing are:
1. Writers write. Writers are writers because they cannot not write.
2. In professional publishing, money flows to the writer. Period. If you're paying an agent to read your ms, or a copyeditor to edit, or a typesetter to layout, or a binder to bind, or a truck driver to carry your books to stores, you are not being professional. You are being victimized by the vanity press, a shadow industry that preys on writers' dreams.

A few weeks ago, in her thought-provoking article on modern alternatives in marketing and publishing, Guest Blogger Pam Perry discussed William P. Young, a writer who had exceptional monetary success by going the vanity press route. It should be noted Young wrote a terrific book, one that has deservedly been a best seller – I have and will continue to recommend The Shack to anyone. But I would no more advise a novice writer to base her goals and career on Young's example than I would advise any of the at-risk young people I work with daily to base their educational choices on LaBron James. Yes, many people have made money with the vanities. There are some who have made a lot of money -- and there is no question that many talented writers choose to go the vanity route. But for every writer who succeeds (and here I'm defining "succeed" as breaking even) there are hundreds, if not thousands, with garages or storage rooms full of unsold and unsellable books.

I've read many a vanity book and been at a loss as to why the writer didn't sell it to a professional press. Based on totally subjective research consisting of me asking writers – both in person and online — who've taken this route, I estimate 99 out of 100 writers who go the vanity route do so because they believe they could not get their book published any other way. Some writers gave up on professional houses after one or two or a dozen rejections. Some never even tried, convinced "the system" was stacked against them.

There's no doubt it is hard to become published. And this would be the place where one would expect a pep-talk citing the seemingly insurmountable odds great writers have overcome to get their words into print. Not going that route today.

I have heard many who chose to go the vanity route bemoan the fact that their books are not treated with the same respect as "traditional" books produced by a professional publishing house. Given the high quality of the writing in some of the vanity books I've read – and the low quality of writing I've seen in way too many professionally published books I've read – they would seem to have a point. Actually, they would have a point if the discussion were of a specific book, such as Young's The Shack. But the sad fact is that many writers who go it alone do not benefit from the support, feedback, input and tough love of a savvy agent and strong editor – and it shows in the finished product. When it comes to self-published books as a whole, the ratio of dross to diamonds is daunting. Many reviewers and distributors and book buyers don't think it's worth the effort.

There is a prejudice against the vanity press among professional writers and publishers. This prejudice – which in my case is more like hostility – is directed toward those who take advantage of writers. In an ideal world, this prejudice would not extend to the writers themselves. It should not. But sadly there is a prestige factor separating perceptions of the vanity-published from the professionally published. Let me use a bit of substitution to illustrate: Are you more impressed with someone who won a humanitarian award or someone who paid a trophy maker $600 for a replica of a humanitarian award? This mindset, while not universally accurate, informs a lot of thinking about the relationship between professional publishing and self publishing.

And it may inform how publishers, and readers, perceive you as a writer.
Something to consider as you pursue your writing career.


Charles Gramlich said...

I guess these folks never heard the story of the goose with the golden eggs. If you kill off the professional writer then the whole human race loses immensely. People who suggest that all internet content should be free obviously don't really have any creative urges or talents of their own. They are parasites on the body human.

G said...

Interesting that a cartoonist of all people would make that kind of statement.

I'm curious as to what his opinion is of all those compilations and what nots that are created from his precious strip.

Having briefly gone through the vanity press route (advice from a writer who chose to go that path herself) and experienced first hand some (if not all) of the points you'd made, I can safely say that for the moment, self-publishing isn't for me (at least in its current form).

I originally did it because I felt (wrongly now) that I couldn't do it the normal way. Now four years later, I feel confident to give it another crack the normal way.

Liane Spicer said...

I can empathize with the hostility. I've seen far too many writers, including a friend or two, who went the way of the vanity presses despite good advice from people who know the realities out there, only to spend a load of money for nothing.