31 July 2004

A Word Means…

In yet another example of the kind of self-deception and ignorance that pervades the publishing industry, Nicholas Clee—a respected British "expert" whose weekly column in the Guardian is essential reading (regardless of its accuracy), and who was allegedly on the shortlist for potential editors of the NYTBR earlier this year—has demonstrated that he doesn't know the difference between self-publishing and vanity presses.

The phrase "self-publishing" is replacing "vanity publishing", and reflects the increasing respectability of financing the publication of your own book. That in turn reflects two phenomena: the difficulty of finding mainstream publication if you cannot get the attention of the big houses that dominate certain genres; and the sense of eclipse you feel if you are not in the first rank of those houses' authors.

"The Bookseller" (24 Jul 04).

One doesn't change the substance by replacing "the phrase." Vanity publishing remains as disreputable as ever, whatever it is called; and it remains distinct from self-publishing. Although both involve the author paying for publication, the former leaves all control and profits in the hands of the vanity publisher, while the latter leaves all control and profits in the hands of the author. A vanity publisher owns each copy of the book as it comes off the press, whether a traditional liquid-ink-and-paper behemoth all the way down to manual POD; the author owns those copies when self-publishing.

There is a notorious list of purported "success stories" in vanity- and self-publishing frequently used by vanity-press apologists to support their positions. Many, if not most, of the "success stories," however, are for works outside of the publishing industry's ability and/or interest, regardless of their quality. That the industry has too narrow a focus gets no argument from me; the point is that a "success story" is in this context a comparative matter, but there is no valid comparison to nothingness. For example, one of those "success stories" is the allegation that Virginia Woolf was an "enthusiastic" (according to one source) user of vanity presses. Looking at the context reveals a rather different story. In the context of her times, Woolf was more a Larry Flynt than anything else: Under the standards then in effect, the two works that appear to be the source of her vanity publishing "success" were obscene, and could not have been legally published in England by a commercial publisher. That Joyce's Ulysses enjoyed the same dubious distinction is beside the point.

Of greater interest is that none of the sources of those "success stories" will state exactly what works it considers prove such "success" for most works published before the 1970s; this should itself be a big hint. Woolf, for example, is named only as the author of works that were vanity-published, without specific mention of the works (leaving some weasel room in the face of challenges). Similarly, Mark Twain's name garners frequent mention; however, the apologists don't state which work(s) led to his inclusion on the list. The apologists happily name Walt Whitman without mentioning that commercial publishers of the time—there was this little internecine conflict going on—just didn't publish poetry in book form. And on, and on, and on.

Let's just say that I'm unhappy with Mr. Clee's bald counterfactual assertion and fear the consequences for authors about to be ripped off by vanity publishers with the assistance of his "validation" of their business practices.