The term "vanity press" is sometimes considered pejorative,and is often used to imply that an author who self-publishes using such a service is only publishing out of vanity and that his or her work could not be commercially successful. In other words, a work published by a vanity press is typically assumed to be unpublishable elsewhere or not publishable on a timely basis.
A couple of weeks ago, I organized a small, low-key wedding shower as part of a family dinner in a public place. I had planned two simple games and everyone had brought gifts. The problem was that we were surrounded by other people and the room was buzzing. I had a decision to make: the bride and groom are all about people and not materially oriented. Even though it was hard to hear, I decided we would go ahead with one of the games, rather than just opening gifts. The game was a success for the people right next to the couple, but was impossible for everyone else to play. It made the couple feel appreciated, but it was kind of a dud. Afterwards, I felt disappointed -- chiefly because I wondered whether the other guests had indulged me, thinking that I thought I had gone to all the work of planning the games and so they would make me feel good by playing along as best they could under the circumstances. I wanted to explain myself, to say that I had no ego attached to the games, that I would have been happy to jettison them but had attempted to keep them for others' sakes, that I actually knew how to plan games and throw a good party.
In other words, my ego got involved, although perhaps not the way it might appear at first glance.
I wonder whether we really know our own vanity or if it's a kind of blind spot. I'm thinking about this because the idea of self-publishing has been on my radar for the last little while. I have two manuscripts of books all dressed up with nowhere to go. They've been sent out in the world lots of times but they always find their way home, with notes attached to their coats.
Here is one such note:
I had just spent the few days before Christmas reading your novel. The fact that I spent that time demonstrates the quality of your storytelling; your writing is quite lovely and I found Jason's story absorbing. I'll be honest; I think the Canadian setting works against your favor. I used to work on the editorial side at Doubleday and I can't tell you how many novels we turned down from our Canadian counterparts because of the setting - deemed as a "hard sell" unless the book had already hit the bestseller lists in Canada. Of course, hardly any editor will tell you that's the reason because it seems so superficial, but in my opinion that's the reality. Also, there's a big push to publish bigger, more ambitious stories painted on large canvases, and that trend also is likely working against this project - there's less space for these types of stories. Sorry for the hasty response; I'm still on holiday with family but wanted to get back to you quickly. I do admire your writing and hope you can find someone to take it on!
Some of the notes are more like this one:
After review, I have unfortunately come to the conclusion that it is not something I wish to pursue.
I often tell writers I work with that publishing is a difficult business these days. As the first note above indicates, anything that makes a book a "hard sell" is, in fact, hard to sell. An editor friend of mine said wisely, "Sometimes what sells is not what should sell."
Which brings us to self-publishing.
After my first book was published seven years ago, the publisher went out of business a year later. All rights and responsibilities reverted to me. I had a good lesson in what's involved on both sides of the table. Distribution was something I had never considered before and really came to see as valuable.
They say every cell in the human body replaces itself within seven years, and so too, the publishing industry has changed remarkably in that period of time. The popularization of e-readers and the proliferation of self-publishing programs and print-on-demand options has made the option of self-publishing much easier and cheaper -- and has meant distribution is less of an issue than ever. There are success stories of writers like Amanda Hocking who have built successful writing careers and healthy bank accounts on a foundation of self-publishing.
What stops me from taking this route is primarily stigma that isn't that different from how I felt after the wedding shower. Will anyone who has literary chops to speak of think that my books are even half-decent if I can't find a publisher? And, even deeper, if I can't find a publisher, is there any chance the books are actually half-decent?
What makes me toy with this option is simply the fact that I want these stories to be read. I heard someone say once, "What we want is not a publisher, but readers." And that is true indeed.
I can't seem to pull the trigger to go this route. Honestly, it still feels like some degree of failure, that my ego might be more bruised by self-affirmed publication than traditional publishing's rejection. And yet, I want these stories to be read. I think people would like these stories. In my heart, I think they are decent and deserve to see the light.
And many writers who have been traditionally published are going indie themselves. This fabulous blog followed the story of a writer who did just that, and the benefits she found in self-publishing.
What I am doing is writing, working away on a new book whose characters I love. That's what I will continue to do because the motive to write doesn't come from a place that needs fame and fortune. And yet, I am quite sure that we write to communicate, and that the desire for readers is a very good thing.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this -- reader, writer, publisher, whoever you are -- both in general and in particular. And stay tuned. I'll keep you posted.