Friday, August 20, 2010

Real Publishing is Vanity Publishing, Vanity Publishing is Real Publishing

Here is the deepest, darkest secret of the book publishing business: it's the true vanity press.

Let me explain. The vast majority of books are unprofitable. And authors make pennies on each sales dollar even under the best of circumstances (yes, they're paid advances on earnings, but most are puny). And, what's more, authors are expected to do their own marketing. The publisher's PR department might book you on a few piddling radio shows and book signings, but those will not do much. Unless you're a Stephen King, you will be expected to go forth and guerilla market. Like local musicians playing a club gig, you're unlikely to be invited back unless you fill the venue with friends and family willing to pay. So you do the writing
and you do the selling, and you receive only pennies on the dollar out of the sales.

Why do it? To be able to say that you're published and to have the thrill of seeing your book "out there". Yup, pure vanity!

If you lack a Stephen King-sized following, and you're writing for a living, rather than from ego, and you do possess the sales chops the publishing companies hope you have, the shrewd biz route is self-publishing (especially now that "publish on demand" technology has made it cheap to print very small runs on short notice), where you do the same work and keep vastly more of the profits. You do not, however, enjoy the ego boost of a fancy publishing contract.

Ironically, they call this vanity publishing!

Whenever I explain this to people unfamiliar with the business, they're inevitably certain I'm oversimplifying or exaggerating. But I'm not. The publishing business is about two things: 1. printing money from sales of star authors, and 2. flattering vain wannabes into working nearly free to fill out the catalog. The category 2 authors imagine themselves to be in a third category: unknown-yet-clearly-destined-for-grandeur. And their fantasies are dutifully indulged. As they write and market, in exchange for an infinitesimal fraction of highly unlikely profits, they are granted all the shiny deferences of that fabled third category. This, obviously, is the "flattery" part!

(I should note that I'm speaking from a position of objectivity, rather than defeated bitterness. I've experienced this from both sides, having lost $4000 on my first book, never receiving a dime of royalties though it's been in print over a decade, but also, among other publishing ventures, kept Chowhound running for two solid years on the advance from a multi-book contract with Penguin.)

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