Posted in Self-Publishing, Vanity Publishing

Self-publishing versus vanity publishing: What’s the difference anyway?

publishing word cloudBefore self-publishing had any kind of credibility (one of my assumptions here is that it has risen a notch or two on the credibility barometer in recent years,) it was referred to strictly as vanity publishing.  Presumably it was vain for an author to pay to have his or her book published.  I’ve never been sure why it isn’t vanity recording when a musician pays to have a CD recorded and subsequently distributed, but perhaps that is another discussion.

According to a man by the name of Jonathon Clifford, he coined the phrase vanity publishing around 1960.[1] Clifford’s lifetime crusade was for honesty in the vanity publishing world.  It is true that over the years, authors who could not get – or did not try to get – mainstream publishers (often now referred to as traditional or legacy publishers) would pay to have their work produced, and those vanity publishers would suggest to the authors that they could, perhaps, just maybe, probably get rich.  That was the problem. As Clifford says:

“If you cannot find a mainstream publisher to publish your work at their expense, you must look on the whole process of publishing not as money invested to make you a return, but as money spent on a pleasurable hobby which you have enjoyed and which has provided you with well-manufactured copies of your book. If you do also manage to make a small profit, then that should be looked upon as an unforeseen and unexpected bonus”[2]

Things haven’t really changed all that much.  At the end of the day, most writers – even those traditionally published – make less than $5000 a year, indeed most make much less than that.  Today, the notion of the vanity press (versus other self-publishing options) seems to be tied into the issue of promises made by these entities – promises that they cannot possibly keep.  So, the term self-publishing has arisen to take the place of vanity publishing, and it seems to have taken on a less pejorative connotation.

Self-publishing, from the author’s point of view though, is exactly the same as vanity publishing.  The author pays.  And any author who thinks a publisher, regardless of whether they make you pay or they pay you, can predict much less guarantee sales success of your book, is naïve in the extreme.  Unless you have a name that is widely recognized, there is no way to predict sales.  This is where my personal skepticism begins to creep into the relationship between author and publisher.  But, it is now time for me to come clean as they say. Stack of Books

What seems like a hundred years ago now, I did take up with one of those vanity publishers two years after my first non-fiction book was published by a ‘real’ publisher.

The book was called Confessions of Failed Yuppie.  And it was funny.  It was nothing like what I had written previously, nor like anything I have written since (although I did recently re-write it and make it available as an e-book).  The vanity press I chose was one of the big ones in New York.  They took my seriously substantial fee and provided me with two cartons of the 130-page, hard-covered books.  I was thrilled.  But something kept me from mentioning its provenance to anyone – although I’m not sure anyone would have cared.  Many of my friends read the book and told me that they were amused.  I even still get a small check every year from the Public Lending Right Commission[3] in Canada because there are copies of it in libraries across the country.  Anyone want to read it?

So, what’s wrong with this kind of model?  What makes a vanity-published book, or a self-published book less worthy than a book published via the more traditional publishers?  In a word, quality – but not necessarily quality of the content, story, theme or writing.  It is often the quality of the editing as well as the production values – the cover and interior design mainly.  The problem with self-publishing is that it permits you to publish without any kind of quality controls.

In the grand scheme of things, I believe that self-published books, and books published by as-yet-to-be-created business models that include the authors, will, indeed be the way of the future.  I think that these models will find ways to enhance both the quality and the reputation of the products.  Until then, those of us who are concerned about quality will continue to write, publish, market and hope that our work will stand on its own in the eyes of the readers.

Professor Dana Weinberg, co-author of the 2014 report Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Survey[4] commented as follows:

“Publishing a book for sale is a matter of both art and commerce. I would argue that for most writers publishing is not only about money; it’s about a lot of other things including touching readers and sharing stories, but the money is important in a lot of ways.”[5]

It seems that not much has changed for authors and their love of writing since Jonathan Clifford wrote about vanity publishing.  And perhaps it never will.

[This post is largely — but not entirely — excerpted from Who Will Read Your Book? The Unknown Author’s Guide to the Realities of Writing & Publishing]

[1] Vanity Publishing: Advice & Warning. http://www.vanitypublishing.info/

[2] Johnathon Clifford.  Vanity publishing – Advice ad warning.  http://www.vanitypublishing.info/

[3] Canada Council for the Arts. PLR Frequently asked questions. http://www.plr-dpp.ca/plr/faq.aspx

[4]What advantages do traditional publishers offer authors? 2014  http://store.digitalbookworld.com/advantages-traditional-publishers-offer-authors-t3591

[5] Alison Flood. 2014. Most writers earn less than £600 a year, survey reveals. The Guardian online.  http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jan/17/writers-earn-less-than-600-a-year

Posted in Self-Publishing

Ethical issues in self-publishing: Why you should care

j0321197It’s probably safe to say that most of us don’t think about ethics on a daily basis — at least not consciously.  But every once in a while we see, read or hear something that makes us think that something is not quite “right.”  Something about it makes us feel that it’s just wrong.  That something might be perfectly legal, but still doesn’t feel right.  That’s your own internal ethical compass telling you to look at the issue more closely. The problem is, often when we ought to see something as not quite right, we don’t even notice.  Self-publishing comes to mind.

Writers have been self-publishing for many years. Mark Twain, Edgar Allen Poe, Beatrix Potter and Virginia Wolff come immediately to mind, giving self-publishing what should be a kind of positive cache.  However, the image of self-publishing has, over the years, diminished in the eyes of many — the media, literary critics and even many readers are among those who often carry a negative prejudice toward self-published works and their authors.  This bad reputation is not always unjustified. There are myriad ethical transgressions perpetrated by self-publishers every day. These are the activities and people who give everyone a bad name.

Historical novelist Jane Steen in her article Opinion: Why We Need to Talk About Ethics in Self-publishing suggested we should be concerned about ethics because “we owe it to our readers,” but perhaps even more importantly,”we owe it to ourselves. Our indie career is not just about the books we write—it’s about the person we are.” Improving the image of self-published works is important to their (and the authors’) broader acceptance, and in the end it has to be said, success as an author.

My own personal experience and observations suggest that there are a few key areas that have contributed to negative perceptions and that are ethical minefields for indie authors. They are behaviors to be avoided at all costs.

  1. Writing 5-star reviews for crappy books. It is beyond irritating to buy a well-reviewed book only to find it riddled with stylistic errors (grammar, punctuation, sentence structure etc.) at a minimum, and be practically unreadable at the worst. Some indie authors write these reviews for others to ensure glowing reviews for their own publications.  This is dishonest and therefore unethical.  Don’t do it.
  2. Asking friends and family to write glowing reviews for your books.  This is hardly third-party endorsement.  These individuals are biased, and will likely want you to succeed so their reviews are not objective.  Readers are looking for objective, honest recommendations.  This is unethical. Don’t do it.
  3. Buying reviews.  Since the surge in self-published books, a whole industry has grown up for paid book reviews.  You can find thousands of review writers more than willing to write and post (for a fee of course) glowing reviews for you. This disingenuous practice can also be used by traditionally published authors.  Any way you look at it, it is a dirty practice and should be avoided at all costs.  Dishonest.  Unethical.  Don’t do it.
  4. Flooding the ebook stores with appallingly poor, ill-conceived ebooks.  There is another cottage industry that has grown up around the notion of simply writing ebooks on anything you can think of simply to generate income.  This is one of the most insidious ways that the reputation of all self-published authors is dragged through the mud.  Unless you are an expert on your subject matter, step away from the computer with that brilliant idea for an ebook. Unethical.  Don’t do it.
  5. Over-inflating your wonderfulness and success.  This is so problematic in the self-publishing industry.  Every time someone sells themselves to me as “best-selling” or “award-winning,” I get out Mr. Google and have a look.  That award should have been from a credible, well-known organization and you had better have had a best-seller on the New York Times (or equivalent) best-seller list or you’re padding.  This is dishonest.  Unethical.  Don’t do it.  (If you want to see how even being on these lists can be dishonest, read Here’s How You Buy Your Way Onto The New York Times Bestsellers List)

There have been a number of bloggers who have suggested codes of conduct for self-published authors.  They are worth reading and are among the following list of pieces you should read if you care about your reputation as a self-published author.

Posted in Backstory, Book launches, Book promotion

Making old manuscripts live again

An old manuscript gets a 21st century makeover.
An old manuscript gets a 21st century makeover.

Earlier this week Jennifer Alsever wrote a piece for CNN Money called “Guerrilla Marketing for Books.”  A cautionary tale for would-be authors, it tells the story of shrinking promotional budgets at traditional publishing houses and the lengths to which authors now must go to get their books to stand out from the ever-increasing numbers of both traditionally and self-published books.  The truth is, it has been ever thus – unless you are a big-name author.

One tactic mentioned in the story is of an author who commissioned a jewelry artist to make necklaces that are featured on her book’s cover as well as a new perfume based on one of her fictional characters. The amount of work and money involved for an author in doing this is staggering to consider.  This, however, reminded me of an event in the provenance of one of my recent ‘new’ books Confessions of a Failed Yuppie.  Stick with me for a few minutes!

If you’ve been reading Backstory for a few years or even months, you might have realized that the “backstory” I’m trying to tell is the anchor of my own experience in writing and publishing.  More than that, though, my objective is to explore the issues that are important to all of us who are more than passingly interested in reading – and writing.  Sometimes I rant about things that have annoyed me; sometimes I tell you a story of my experience.  Sometimes I tell you a real backstory to my writing: what inspired it, how it developed, what happened next.  This post is one of those true backstories.

In the early 1990’s I was on a rant about the Yuppie lifestyle.  So I decided to write a book about it – but rather than a non-fiction examination of the phenomenon, which would have been more akin to my writing experience at the time, I decided to write a novel – a satire of sorts.  I felt strongly, though, that I wanted it published no matter what, so I did what self-publishing authors did at that time, I sent it to a vanity publisher.  (For the working definition of a vanity publisher, you might want to surf back to last week’s post: The confusing world of 21st century publishing jargon: A glossary for writers).

In due course, a box full of hard-cover copies of Yuppie arrived on my doorstep.  What to do with them?  Those were the days before book promotion through online networking channels was de rigeur.  Indeed, there were no social media channels.  Just imagine such a world!  I decided that the first order of business would be to have a book launch.  But before the launch, I’d need some “merchandise.”

The old Yuppie cover and the mug: "I confess: I'm a failed yuppie" with a "reject" stamp!
The old Yuppie cover and the mug: “I confess: I’m a failed yuppie” with a “reject” stamp!

I created a design for the front of T-shirts and for mugs and had dozens of these pieces of paraphernalia created – all at my own expense, of course – and had them available on the day of the pary.  I also had a poster-sized blow-up of the cover of the book so that it could be the focal point of the party, next to the book-shaped cake that adorned the dining room table.  I then created a guest list and sent out invitations.

As parties go, the event was a great success.  We had door prizes of T-shirts that the guests obligingly sported and everyone went home with a signed copy of the book.

As the weeks went by, a number of the guests told me that they had enjoyed the book and when was I going to write another one?

The book, naturally enough, never sold.  Getting a self-published book reviewed in those days was not next to impossible, it was completely impossible.  And since there were no social networks available to promote it, short of taking out advertisements at great expense (I did that once) and going door-to-door with a pile of books (which didn’t sit well with my personality), the book would languish with thousands of others.  And so it did.  Until last year.

Writers have lots of finished and unfinished manuscripts hiding on their hard drives or taking up space in filing cabinets.  I know that most of us should toss most of it, but sometimes a manuscript draws us back and that’s how I felt about Yuppie.

So, I took out the hard-cover copy with its tattered edges and began to write rewrite the book.  It’s now a 21st century Yuppie story, and taking advantage of the digital advances, I decided to make it available once again.

Two decades in the making, Confessions of a Failed Yuppie lives again, and it starts with a definition of Yuppie:

 

“YUPPIE”: A Definition

Acronym for Young Urban Professional, usually occurring in a married pair (often male/female but not necessarily). Categorized as upper middle class or at least moving in that direction, ambitious, well-educated.  Characterized by excessive concerns about appearances.  Lightly narcissistic.  May have money or at least leverage.  But not necessarily. Normal habitat is the urban condo, sometimes the single-family dwelling of dubious heritage in a downtown area with a postage stamp for a yard, for which a bidding war took place prior to acquisition.  Yuppies with children often move to larger, more impressive dwellings.  Diet consists mainly of cocktails, organic kale and the latest gastronomic fad.  Would not be caught dead in a North-American-produced automobile brand.  Skis in winter, does hot yoga, plays squash (it’s making a come-back), and quietly brags all year round. Widely thought to have become extinct in the early 1990’s.  Not so much.

Maybe you’d like to read the rest.  Or not.