We seem to be doing a lot of part ones and part twos around here right now, but hey, I’m running with it.
Last week I talked about editors, agents and editorial services. This week I’m going to talk about the evil side of vanity publishing (next week I’ll talk about its positive side, and Print On Demand). And I’m going to steal commenter Chris Branch’s comment from last week as a springboard. Chris wrote:
Regarding paying to publish your own book, I guess it’s clear that no writer wants to do this, but maybe the thinking goes like this (DISCLAIMER: I know this is wrong – or at least idealistic – I’m just justifying for argument’s sake why it might be easy to think this way):
As a writer, I have a product to sell, and I have to sell it in order for the money to “flow toward the author”. So, who is my customer? The tendency is to say (correctly I think): the reader. But wait, all I have is a manuscript and a handful of rejection letters. I can’t sell that to the reader; what I need is a book. The responsibility for turning my manuscript into a book lies with the publisher. If they would just do their part, then the money could start flowing. This might lead me to conclude: turning my manuscript into a book is not so hard – I can do that step myself and cut out the middleman. Sure, I might have to pay for it, but hey, sometimes you’ve got to spend money to make money. Okay, the self-published book might not sell as many copies as a traditionally published one, but it can’t be worse than the zero copies that are being sold as long as all I have is a manuscript.
I suspect Chris has hit the nail on the head with this thought process. Now I’m going to explain why it’s wrong.
The very most basic wrongness about this belief is the idea that ultimately your books are going to end up somewhere that people will be able to buy them.
Occasionally a local bookstore can be harrangued into carrying a copy or two of your vanity press book, but mostly they simply won’t touch them. They will not be available on Amazon (although you could set yourself up as a seller, I suppose). The only people who will buy them are your family, except your family largely expects you to /give/ them the book anyway. You could go the door-to-door route, but really, that’s not what you’re imagining, is it? When you say, “My book has been published!”, you want people to be able to go to the bookstore and buy it, not for you to be hoofing it around the neighborhood trying to sell them like they’re vacuum cleaners.
What this means, in essence, is that you have spent a thousand, or five thousand, or ten thousand dollars on books which are now filling up your garage, and which will almost certainly never go anywhere beyond the garage. I suspect most people can see the flaw in this plan right away. And I’m sorry, but that’s the reality of vanity press publishing.
To make matters worse, vanity books tend to be extremely expensive. Well, hey, you’ve shelled out $18 for production per book, the publisher adds another $10 on top of that so they make money, that means to break even your book has to cost $28, and the idea here is to *make* money, so maybe you better charge $40 for your novel.
When was the last time you a hardback book that didn’t have a discount on it already, be it through store promotion, your bookstore preferred reader card, or a discount table? And those are books by popular, well-known authors. You may find one or two suckers with more money than sense and a whole lot of entitlement guilt who’re willing to pay forty bucks for your vanity press book, but realistically, no. It’s not going to happen.
Worst of all, if you go to the trouble to get a table at a local convention or conference and spend the whole weekend hard-selling your vanity press book in an attempt to drum up some sales, what you will end up with at the end of the weekend is a conference full of people who are trying very, very hard not to meet your eye, and who will go away from the con wincing and muttering, “Did you get stuck talking to that guy? I’m sorry. I couldn’t get away from him myself.”
This is not really the image you want to leave behind. Overall, I cannot emphasize enough what a bad idea vanity press is. I truly do believe that if you write a good book, you will in time find a traditional publisher for it. The vicious truth is that if you *can’t* find a publisher, there are one of two things working against you. The first of the two things is actually positive:
1. You’ve written something that’s genuinely too hard to categorize and publishers just don’t know what to do with it. If this is the case, chances are very good you’ll be getting rejection letters that say, “This is actually quite good and we can’t figure out how to sell it.” Having an agent will go a long way toward helping to alleviate this particular difficulty. So will writing another book and trying to sell it instead. If you’re getting rejections that say “sorry, we don’t know what to do with it”, you have talent and will sell. Just try something else.
The second of the two things is somewhat less positive:
2. You’ve written something unpublishable. Not because it’s genre-defying, but because it’s bad.
The vast majority of vanity publishing pieces fall into the second category.
Now, there *are* times and places for vanity press publishing. The collected family recipes, for example, so everybody can have a copy, is a pretty good reason to do vanity press or print on demand (which I’ll get more into next week). Generally people aren’t under the impression that the whole world would like to buy a copy of the family recipes, so yeah, that’s a good use of the system. But if you’re trying to create and sell the great American novel, and want to become rich and famous, or at least moderately well known and perhaps get paid, you don’t want to go the vanity route.
I open the floor for questions and comments.