Friday, December 09, 2005

Let's Define the Terms

Yesterday I blogged about a writing scam. Today let’s talk about avenues to being published. Unless otherwise specified, the definitions that follow are my own, cobbled together over a couple of years of studying and reading about the world of publishing.

Years ago, the distinctions were simple: you had legitimate publishers and vanity presses. A legitimate publisher solicits authors’ manuscripts for commercial sale and distribution. This means that the only revenue the publisher will receive is from sales of the author’s published books. The costs the publisher incurs include advances to the author, editing, printing, binding, marketing, warehousing and distributing the books. Hopefully, the end result of this long process will be revenue for the publisher and royalties to the author. Legitimate publishers include large press houses and small press houses.

A vanity press, on the other hand, solicits manuscripts with the intent of providing services to the author who pays for them. Those services include the editing, printing and binding of books. Some vanity presses have added warehousing charges and advertising to their menu of services. The author pays for all of these services. Recently, vanity presses have signed deals with bookstores through which they “market, distribute and sell” the books for the author. Again, the author pays for these services. The term “vanity press” comes from the industry-wide belief that the book is only being produced to satisfy the writer’s vanity.

Since the author pays for all production and distribution costs, book sales do not produce revenue for the vanity press. They receive their monies upfront from the author. Any revenue from sales goes back to the author to offset the dollars they’ve already paid out.

Legitimate publishers need to be choosy in which manuscripts they accept. If they make a mistake and the book does not sell well, the publisher loses money. This is not the case with vanity presses. Their upfront fees are their source of revenue. They don’t care about the quality of the manuscript. This is why they are held in such low esteem by the industry.

There was a very funny expose of one of the big vanity presses in 2004. PublishAmerica advertised itself to wannabe writers as a legitimate publisher that was very selective in the manuscripts it chose. To prove that this was not true, a group of sci-fi writers joined together to produce the worst possible book they could. The result was “Atlanta Nights” by Travis Tea (pronounced “travesty”). On the Critters website (, Dr. Andrew Burt proudly displayed the acceptance letter dated 12/7/04 from PublishAmerica’s Acquisitions Editor reading “I am happy to inform you that PublishAmerica has decided to give “Atlanta Nights” the chance it deserves.” Yeah, right.

I want to introduce two other terms to this discussion: self-publishing and print-on-demand (POD).

Self-publishing refers to an author who seeks a printer to produce bound copies of the writer’s work. The fees are substantially less than those charged by a vanity press. The reasons for self-publishing are varied. A writer may wish to produce a small number of books as a memento for his family and friends with no intention of selling the book on the open market. The work may be of a scholarly nature and not of interest to a large audience. The work may simply not be commercially viable.

In some cases, writers choose the self-publishing route with the hope of shortcutting the process to becoming published. This very rarely works out. The name that jumps to my mind is M.J. Rose, who had a background in marketing when she deliberately chose to self-publish her first book, “Lip Service,” in 1998. Because of Rose’s marketing expertise and her use of the Internet to advertise and sell “Lip Service,” the book went on to become a Literary Guild/Doubleday Book Club choice; and Rose eventually got a contract with a legitimate publisher. Again, this is exceedingly rare.

By now, you’re probably thinking the boundary between vanity press and self-publishing is a little squishy, and you’re right. It is. Sometimes defining whether a particular book has been produced by a vanity press or self-published depends on who is doing the defining. Either way, a writer who claims to be “published” when s/he paid for the experience is not likely to get much respect from the industry at large.

Print-on-demand (POD) is a technology. It is not a synonym for vanity press nor for self-publishing. It is simply the digital technology that allows for the printing of a specific number of books based upon the demand for that book. The beauty of POD technology is that it saves warehousing costs and permits as few as one or two books to be produced after consumers place orders for them.

I firmly believe that, someday soon, the combination of the new book search ventures and POD technology will provide authors with an opportunity to sell their books long after the books have been removed from booksellers’ shelves. If a reader finds your book on Google Book Search three years after publication and POD technology is offered as a way to purchase that book, you would still be able to earn royalties on that sale.

I wince when I hear someone saying POD when they mean vanity press, or when a person calls a well-known vanity press “their publisher.” In order to be taken seriously, writers need to learn the terms used to discuss publishing.


For The Trees said...

Ah, Maya. Once again you've hit the nail on the head so hard it vibrates and resonates and pulsates with Truth. Thanks for your clear-cut delineation of the differences between publishers.

I decided to go with POD and do my own publishing when I realized I didn't have the patience to do the agent-and-publisher dance. Or the courage. Or the stamina. Now I hand out business cards with my book website on it and read MJ Rose's blog religiously.

And I've learned that everyone writes for themselves. It's all about getting the words out of one's head and into pixels via a keyboard. So I'm writing for myself, and if I get some sales, yea!

Thanks again.

Maya said...

You're welcome.