24 January 2005

Sanitation Engineering

or Why Calling Something a "Traditional Publisher" Doesn't Change Its Nature as a Vanity Press.

I guess I'm in a somewhat eighteenth-century mood today. As I noted in passing on Friday, the Washington Post Book World has outed one of the current generation of vanity-press operations. I wish to expand a bit on some of my remarks concerning Publi5hAm3rica that Ms. Span quoted (and believe me, I said a lot more than she had space to mention!).

The bottom line is that a "vanity press" is a business model. It has little (or nothing) to do with the technology used, or the acquisition system, or the amount of editing provided, or the marketing support provided, by the publisher. Those are all important considerations in evaluating printing services (note the change in terminology, of which more anon); none of them, however, are absolute markers for the nature of the operation. As I've tried to pound into the heads of people before, there are only two absolute markers, both of which are measured objectively at the moment the first copy comes off the press:

  • Does the author have legal title to the first copy as it comes off the press? If yes, then we're dealing with self-publishing (and we don't have to consider the other prong). This is not to say that payment might be due before possession of that copy can be passed to the author; we're worried strictly about who owns the book presuming all terms of whatever contract was used to print the beastie have, in fact, been fulfilled.
  • Is the direction of guaranteed capital flow toward the author? If yes, then we're dealing with commercial publishing; if not, we're dealing with vanity publishing. Keep in mind that certain responsibilities of publishing must be included in here, such as permission fees, cover art, copyright registration, etc. Thus, in the instance of PA, the "$1 advance" (that is, the consideration paid) must be balanced against the $30 registration fee, leaving guaranteed capital flow of $29 away from the author—and proper characterization as a vanity press.

All of that said, vanity presses are not inherently fraudulent or evil. In some circumstances, they are in fact an appropriate option. For example, a family history written by someone without word-processing skills may well be an appropriate project for a vanity press. It has an extraordinarily limited potential market; it is primarily of value just for being printed; and it is unrealistic to expect any return based upon the purposes of the Intellectual Property Clause.

The least-sophisticated consumer—and even highly sophisticated individuals not familiar with publishing industry traditions, practices, terminology, and self-deception—would tend to believe that a claim that one is a "traditional publisher" indicates that one's practices are similar to those of, say, Random House. That means all of the following (among other characteristics), none of which PA provides:

  • An acquisition process that considers the quality of the manuscript, which necessarily requires reading it;
  • An editorial process consisting of consideration of manuscript content, propriety, and a wide variety of other considerations, to a greater or lesser degree as appropriate to the individual book and its anticipated market;
  • Access to bookstores without requiring special orders;
  • Adequate attention to the physical quality of the product;
  • A reasonable expectation for the author to obtain a positive return on his/her intellectual property, at however tiny a rate per hour;
  • At least some effective, targetted marketing support;
  • For all authors

For the morbidly curious, I have adequate documentation to support both these assertions of legal characteristics and the factual foundation for claiming that PA does not meet them. Don' t'row me in dat dere courtroom, Br'er Fox!

One problem, though, is that the knee-jerk reaction of authors to contact consumer-protection agencies does no good, because this is not a consumer transaction. Even though authors are in the same power and knowledge relationship as a consumer, this will be treated as a business-to-business transaction. In most states, the UDAP (consumer-fraud) laws do not apply to business-to-business transactions. False advertising law, though, does; it is only a question of the standard of proof that applies. And, unfortunately, who may apply it: Most false advertising law that would apply cannot be effectively asserted by individuals, as there are either legal or extreme practical barriers. That, in turn, means getting a bureaucrat to take an interest in it… too many of whom wouldn't know good English if it slid up their legs and bit them on the ass and don't read books in any event, and virtually all of whom have other priorities for their admittedly limited resources.

Students of the history of fraud will recognize the typical vanity press operation in the old "tin siding scheme." But the details of that are for another time. The point is that PA's claim that it is a "traditional publisher"—a phrase that appears in many places on its site, has appeared in many communications from it, and is probably ingrained in its principals' speech habits by now—bears as much relationship to reality as calling the guy who picks up the garbage a "sanitation engineer," or calling a used car a "pre-owned vehicle," or calling a headlong retreat "retrograde motion." The label does not change the nature of the underlying referent when the label is intended to deceive; that's why we don't refer to crooked politicans as "ethically challenged" without intending substantial negative connotations.

That I've built this entry around a metaphor of garbage is not a coincidence.