I’ve come to the conclusion that the single most important defining feature of each of the publishing models that I’ve personally tried, or that I’ve explored, comes down to one important question: Who is paying?
Way back when vanity publishing was that icky, underbelly of the publishing world (at least that’s how mainstream publishers and many I-wouldn’t-stoop-that-low self-described literary writers thought), the main defining feature of the genre, if you will, was the question of who pays. And of course, as we all know, in vanity publishing the author pays. So, if it is vain for a writer to pay for his or her work to be published, and self-publishing smacks of the same defining feature, they are one and the same – we’ve just sanitized our vocabulary for the sake of appearances. And the truth is if you begin to protest that there is a difference: availability of editing blah blah blah, you’re really missing the point.
Good ideas, followed by good writing, followed by good editing, followed by good marketing is the formula for a really great piece of writing and getting it into the hands of readers who might appreciate it/learn from it/ be entertained by it. There is no reason at all why this formula can’t work – and work well – regardless of who is paying. It’s just publishing snobbery. The problem of course remains that many indescribably bad books are published by mainstream/traditional publishing models where the manuscript is acquired by a publisher who pays for the publishing (there is no guarantee that the publisher knows a good book from a bad one, nor is there any guarantee that the editing will be done well); just as many unspeakably ghastly volumes are published by authors who are paying out of their own pockets. The digital age with its consequent ease of publication is what has contributed to the sheer volume of bad books regardless of who is paying. So, I got to thinking about this notion of following the money.
Last month The National Post’s Mark Medley published an article “Words from their sponsors: Can authors cash in on crowd-sourced funding sites?” In it he explores the vast new world of online crowd-sourcing for funds for a variety of projects zeroing in on writing. I had been peripherally aware of the phenomenon – evidently even the saintly and storied Margaret Atwood has used crowd-sourced funds – but I had never really taken the time to look closely. I think that if you are the funder, there may just be a lot of money to be made on the backs of people with hair-brained ideas who can persuade others to give them seed money.
In general, here’s how it works: you, the writer sign up for one of these funders online (indiegogo, for example), describe your project in a way that entices others to believe that it’s a project that should see the light of day, and wait for the money to flow in. You then use the money to make it happen. You can hire an editor (if you want), hire a book designer (if you want), hire a book publicist (if you want), and if you have enough money. I suppose you could also offer the money to a traditional publisher to defray the cost of publication – but of course since that would be like marrying traditional publishers with the author-pays, vanity approach (there’s a word in academic publishing for that: co-publishing), you’ll probably get an icky I’d-never-touch-that-project kind of response – unless, of course, the project is fantastic and the publisher can see past the end of his or her metaphorical nose. But there’s another kind of crowd-sourced funding publishing model that I found more fascinating.
I’m talking about the UK online funder Unbound. Here’s how they work:
“… instead of waiting for [writers] to publish their work, Unbound allows you to listen to their ideas for what they’d like to write before they even start. If you like their idea, you can pledge to support it. If we hit the target number of supporters, the author can go ahead and start writing (if the target isn’t met you can either get your pledge refunded in full or switch your pledge to another Unbound project)…”
When a selected project is funded, the writer then completes it and Unbound designs, edits and prints the book. The funders get copies and even sometime lunch with the author. So, the author doesn’t pay. So it’s not vanity publishing and it’s not self-publishing. It’s a new model. In my view it’s an innovative idea that adds to the richness of the publishing approaches. But does it make for better books?
In the end, I doubt very much that it is the publishing model that has much to do with the success of a book project. It has more to do with a book that resonates with its readers that is somehow is able to connect with. Just look at 50 Shades of Grey and its story. When it comes to commercial success in book publishing, sometimes the writing is fantastic, and other times it’s epically flawed.
But it’s really the writer who is at the heart of it in any case. If the author pays, what difference does it make?