Friday, 3 October 2008

How Vanity Publishers Hook You

It is daunting for an inexperienced writer to approach a commercial publisher direct. It’s difficult to find out who to submit to, and what those editors want to see. And once all that’s done, those editors aren’t often keen to chat. While commercial presses value their writers they don’t cosy up to them: they prefer business relationships with their writers, not instant friendships.

Vanity publishers, on the other hand, go out of their way to seem friendly and approachable to all the writers they can find. They indulge in cheerful chatter and use all sorts of techniques to encourage new writers to feel that they share a friendship, rather than a business relationship: they make their writers feel safe, special and valued right from that very first contact.

Vanity presses insist that the big publishers consider themselves too important to consider work from new, apparently insignificant writers. They foster the belief that commercial presses treat their writers badly, and that vanity publishing is the only way to proceed if a writer wants to be treated with any sort of respect. It’s difficult to face rejection, and the criticism that that implies. It’s not surprising that many writers don’t feel up to exposing themselves to it over and over again, and that when they find a press which seems to understand what they’re going through, and it is willing to take a chance on their writing, they decide that it must be a good one.

When they are eventually slapped with a demand for money they justify it in all sorts of ways. This publisher must be a good guy, they reason: it understands how difficult it is to get published, it’s prepared to give a chance to an unknown, and no one else will even consider them—which is what the publisher has told them, one way or another, right from that very first contact. The vanity publisher has made them feel safe, among friends, and appreciated, whereas the commercial publisher simply rejected their work.

Commercial presses aim to seduce their readers, not their writers, because that’s who they sell to, and that’s where they make their money: vanity presses focus their attentions on the writer, because that’s where their particular pot of gold lies.

10 comments:

Sally Zigmond said...

Spot on, Jane. That's the neatest definition I've ever read on the nature of vanity publishing.

Jane Smith said...

I do my best...!

Kate said...

Ah, yes, rejection. Isn't that what we'd all like to avoid? You're right. That's exactly what the Vanity Presses offer - freedom from rejection. At least until after we're published?

Gulliver said...

Well said. Couldn't agree with you more.

Jo said...

Vanity......says it all really doesn't it?

Marian said...

Great post, Jane, and almost as depressing as it is true. I've been posting on a forum with some ex-vanity press authors (ex-"traditional publisher" authors, actually) and it's interesting how many of them, even after moving on from a notorious vanity press, retain what they've learned from it. Commercial publishing : bad. The speed and lack of quality control that comes with self- or vanity publishing : good.

They're still not thinking of it as a business, asking about distribution, judging covers in terms of how they contribute to the book's marketability. They're not used to any of that. And it's sad to read posts where an author hopes that a vanity-printed novel will help and encourage people nationwide.

Jane Smith said...

Marian, you could always drop a couple of links to this blog if you didn't want to take them on yourself. Meanwhile, good luck with that: it's difficult to persuade people who are determined to ignore what's right in front of their faces.

Sally Zigmond said...

The stubbornness of those who have been vanity published to admit they've been had is amazing, but understandable. I once entered into a lengthy correspondence with a man who'd squandered his pension only to end up with crates full of books clogging up his garage. To begin with he was belligerent and told me I was wrong to criticise, that 'his' publisher had been totally professional and helpful throughout and that he was perfectly happy with the deal he'd got, even though it had been expensive. Only later did he admit that he was disappointed and then angry and that I was 'probably' right.

It's hard for anyone to admit they've been foolish, especially where money is concerned. That's another reason why vanity presses will probably always be with us--alas.

Peter Jurmu - Creative Byline said...

Thanks for this post, Jane.

Since I started working at a legitimate intermediary/submission service (partnered with Macmillan through St. Martin's and Tor/Forge, as well as Globe Pequot, Dutton Children's Books, and others), I've heard some of the same characteristics of vanity presses' insidious methods of acquiring "clients" leveled at us at first. Not that it surprises or upsets me: I haven't been burned by a VP, but I know several people who have been, some with boxes of their own books stacked in their basements. Clearing up the confusion generally isn't very difficult.

In addition to their glad-handing, vanity presses attempt to identify themselves with the process of self-publishing in order to acquire the appearance of the real independence the latter can bestow on local or ebook authors, while still promising the same results, or similar, as commercial presses. (A friend recently self-published a children's book and enjoyed taking it to local bookstores and libraries. She's glad for any success she gets, but has a job and writes in her free time.) Vanity presses prey on the entrepreneurial spirit, turning it into a vehicle for psychological comfort (who doesn't like the idea of going into business for yourself, which is what publishing your work is, with hardly any risk?). That sort of comfort, however, as C. S. Lewis wrote, only gets you "soft-soap and wishful thinking to begin with and, in the end, despair."

I recently met an author who recommended a vanity press to me for my own writing. When I suggested that nothing that plays up its "freeness" so while hiding its true costs (which aren't, in the case of vanity presses, merely financial) is worth one's time or work, I received an incredulous look. "But," she said, "where else are you going to go? One of the publishing houses?" Well, yeah.

Jane Smith said...

Good to see you here, Peter. Come back again soon (but meanwhile go and feed your blog, it's starving again).