Monday, March 06, 2006

How Much Are You Willing To Pay?

To publish your novel, that is. Apparently, a Lot of people are willing to pay a lot of money to get "published". Herewith, a few comments about why I think the vanity press industry if booming. NOTE: this post is not about self-publishing as a marketing tool or the validity of vanity presses for publishing small print runs of works of extremely limited interest. Those are separate topics. Today's victim is "pay to play" fiction.
  1. Validation. Writers are insecure, with the possible exception of Paperback Writer, but then she seems to be the exception to most every rule. Writers are frequently overtly neurotic. The few who are not only hide it well. Writers seek validation that they are writing something meaningful, something the world needs to read. If traditional publishers are not willing to buy it and publish it, then maybe they will go with a vanity press and sell it themselves. Once word gets around, everybody will want one.
  2. Paranoia. Why don't agents/editors jump at the chance to publish this modern-day classic? I know stuff like this sells. The bookstores are full of it. Besides, just look at all the pure crap that's on the shelves. It must be a conspiracy. If you don't know the secret handshake and today's password, you can't get in the door. Vanity presses are the only options open to new writers, right?
  3. Egotism. Or narcissism, if you prefer. This is really nothing but a cover for vast insecurity and paranoia. The craving to see one's name on the cover of a book filled with one's words overwhelms reason and discretion and becomes the only goal worth pursuing. At any cost.

Vanity presses (including "subsidy publishers", if you have to pay to play, it's a vanity press) play on writers' weaknesses, their fears and insecurities, their pride. They offer an easy way to escape the responsibility of doing the hard work of writing well, crafting a story that people will want to read in readable prose. Just one question: if vanity presses are a viable oiption, why aren't big name authors going that route? The royalty rate is much higher, the author has vastly more control over the process and over his/her book. Why not?

The reason is simple: quality. When everyone is publishable, publication means nothing. The traditional system, for all it flaws (and, Lord, they are a-many), provides a screening mechanism that weeds out (most of) the crap and lets the cream rise to the top. Being published by a traditional publisher is a real accomplishment, and one you have to work very hard to achieve. Very hard. No matter what someone else tells you, you cannot avoid the blood and tears, the night sweats and morning trembles. If you want to achieve publishable quality, it will certainly cost you, but not in money.

Money flows toward the writer. Writers who do not consider their work to be serious work and are willing to pay to have it published cannot expect to be considered seriously by the rest of the world. If they value their own words so little, why should anyone else care?

Writing is a job, a profession. How many other professionals do you know who pay for the privilege of practicing their profession? Baseball players? Mechanics? Doctors? There are none. Real professional writers are paid for their work. Not much, assuredly, but still: money flows toward the writer.

Writers produce a product--their stories. Readers have a certain expectation of quality when they lay down their money to buy that product, and writers are seldom, if ever, a good judge of the quality of their own writing. I certainly am not. I bet you're not, either. Good product demands quality control, and that control comes from other professionals--editors, copy editors, publishers, etc.-- whose job it is to turn your prose into a publishable book.

Not everybody can make the cut. That's just how life is. Not everyone is able to produce quality fiction. There is no "right to be published".


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