21 November 2004

Sanitation Engineering

Remember when we called them "garbagemen"? OK, unless you're my age or older you don't. For whatever reason, that was a pejorative term. So, instead, the business reinvented itself under a different name: sanitation engineering. Used cars have become "pre-owned" or "off-lease"; teen-oriented dance music aimed at the suburbs has become "alternative." Sometimes these changes lead to greater accuracy (for most "alternative" music, it's "alternative" to good). Sometimes they're neutral; "sanitation engineering" is a much more accurate term than "garbage collection," but most of the individuals who are on the front line are not what Americans understand as "engineers."

And sometimes the name change is outright deceptive; adopted in the service of hiding misconduct; and facilitated by parties masquerading as either disinterested or advocates for the potential victims. Philip Morris's ads on the evils of tobacco are almost in this category. Publishing, however, has provided the most egregious examples—aided and abetted by F+W Publications.

Once upon a time, we called them "vanity presses." Once writers began to understand what that means—the worst of all possible worlds in publishing—the "in" term became "subsidy publishing." Indeed, that's what the three biggest old-line vanity presses have called it for years. Changing the name, though, did not change the substance. As POD printing technology moved into private hands, publishers using the same model emerged. XLibris, iUniverse, et al. are still vanity presses once one gets past the New Age rhetoric. Now "POD press" has started to tarnish with some of the muck that rightfully covers vanity presses, just because so many publishers that use POD technology are vanity presses. It's sort of like being a used-car salesman—the few honest ones are tarred with the brush that rightly tars the majority.

But that's not what's pissing me off this morning. No, it's much more insidious.

Once upon a time, in the classified ads in the back of Writ3r's Dig35t, one found ads for "agents" and for "publishers." Then, as the proportion of advertisers in those categories that were merely running scams grew, the number of ads in the categories declined. Not, however, the number of ads for that type of service. Now, one finds people advertising for "literary services," and not as "agents." It's some of the same scams and deceptions: Sun5hin3, Mark Sull1van, ST. Similarly, vanity presses that dominated "publishers" have moved to "alternative publishing" (you should have suspected there was a reason I spent so much time on that term in the first paragraph!): Morri5, Ivy Hou53, and some new players whose practices appear indistinguishable.

WD proclaims itself as an advocate for writers in general, and beginning writers in particular. Its advertising has never been free of self-interest; the classifieds have been worse than the rest. And now this—in a publication, even a field, that by its nature should be devoted to disseminating truth but is instead devoted to obfuscation.