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Last night, Robert sent me an e-mail abou an article he’d read about small presses that print a number of copies of a ook and then, if the demand exceeds that number, print the rest as  POD.  I’ve been looking around for the article on the internet, but haven’t been able to find it.  It sounds funny, all about silly people who are horrified to realize that they copy they’re holding is not a “rea” book, but a  POD, which is unacceptable because…because.

Here’s the thing.  There actually is a because, and it’s the opposite of snobbery. 

The problem with print on demand is not that it’s print on demand, but that so much of it is vanity publishing.

And there’s a reason they call it vanity publishing.  You’d be amazed how many people there are out there who sincerely believe the’re great writers who are being held back from publication and success by a cabal of toffee nosed snobs who just won’t touch anything that isn’t written by their own little in-crowd.

And you’d be even more surprised to find how many of these people are wrong.

Look.  There are some fields where there is no shame in self publishing–most of the sports and gaming communities support self-published work with no problem at all.

But they can do that because the number of such books, or of any books, is relatively small compared to the audience and the reviewers who re intereted in it.   A decently sized gaming community that sees fifty or so books published a year can handle that number without too much trouble.   People have time to read through the available offerings and determine what’s bad and what’s good.

The last time I checked–and it was a few years ago, so the numbers may be down by now–there were 40,000 books published in the United States by commercial publishers alone.

Look at that number for a minute. 

Even dedicated review organs, the magazines that concentrate on reviews and nothing else, don’t manage more than about twenty reviews per issue.  Most review organs manage much less.  Any major reviewer with any major outlet, magazines or newspapers or websites, will be inundated with books on a daily basis.  We’re talking about ten to fifteen to twenty of the things coming in every day, and more for things like the New York  Times, which are perceived to be important to sales.

The original reason for restricting the books that can be considered for such attention as reviews and awards–or as qualifications for acceptance to professional writers’ groups–was n ot snobbery but volume control, and the rationale made perfect sense.

Publishers are in business.  They need to make money.  If they accept your book, they put a fair amount of time and money into its publication–they invest in you and your book.

And that means that they must think there’s something there worth investing in, that something about what you’re written will command the attention of an audience.

If I get a book from such a publisher, I know that somebody thought that that book was worth inventing in and put his money on the line to do it.  What’s more, the people who made this decision are professionals in the field who have seen hundreds of books and followed hundreds of publishing histories and who know something about what will and will not work.

I’m not trying to say here that such people are infallible.  They aren’t.  T.S. Eliot turned down Animal  Farm when he was a reader for  Faber and  Faber, and Kon-Tiki, one of the great commercial successes of its year, was turned down by fourteen or fifteen places before somebody decided to pick it up.

But mistakes notwithstanding, “this book is worth risking tens of thousands of dollars of my money to publish” isn’t a bad standard by which to judge the worth of the thing before you pick it up.

For one thing, it demands that writing have the reasonable expectation of an audience, that it not be the equivalent of the French film industry, where government pays the tab for what it decides is “worthwhile” whether any actual people want it or not.

No matter how insulated the publishing industry can seem–and it can not only seem, but get, pretty insulated–it’s driven by the numbers of books sold.  To insist that a book have a legitimate publisher to be considred a “real” publication is to insist that the book have a reasonable expectation of finding an audience.

This is not snobbish, and it’s not stupid.  It does assume that not every book is good enough, in a myriad number of ways that define “good,” to merit publication.

Maybe something will show up in the future that will make it more possible to handle the volume of novels that appear every year, but I don’t see how we’re going to manage it–or the nonfiction, either–without some way of sifting through the dross.

Written by janeh

April 3rd, 2009 at 6:17 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Vanity'

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  1. I once read a number of self-published books. I would not have believed there was that much truly bad writing out there. Not stuff that wasn’t to my taste, but really, really badly written stuff. I think maybe one or two were so-so or OK out of the lot, before I finally refused to read anything that didn’t come from a publisher whose name I recognized.


    3 Apr 09 at 8:33 am

  2. Don’t sell snobbery short: it sells a LOT of books year after year–often in very nice editions too–which will eventually fall into the hands of readers. The man who buys his books by the yard is still providing a market for books.

    And I can well appreciate that just sorting through the pile of new and reprinted titles every year is a major operation, and the rule of thumb that some professional has to have bet money on the book is a good one. (But it should be a guideline, not holy writ. I believe Sturgeon’s Law is that “no generalization is always true–including this one.”)

    My amusement came from the evident concern of the the editors and reviewers of LOCUS that they could not tell the small press print run from the POD volume–the two being identical: it was only a matter of whether it was, say, the 499th or the 501st copy printed. But if the commitment of the small press to publish 500 copies is sufficient to make the title a real book, surely this is still true even if they sell more than they had expected? LOCUS was clinging to a guideline–no POD books–and not to the reason behind the guideline–the professional betting money on the title.

    [For that matter, many beloved titles and particular editions in LOCUS’ field came from one-man operations not always primarily concerned with clearing a profit. The line between commercial and “vanity” publishing is not always and everywhere clear.]

    Times change and the rules of thumb appropriate to different circumstances are not eternal verities. All of us have habits, but the wise man knows WHY he has them, and drops them when they no longer serve his needs.

    The cream of the jest is that LOCUS is effectively a trade journal and reviewer for fantasy and science fiction. Perhaps the LOCUS staff ought to cut back on the fantasy and read a bit more SF until they can recognize the technological change which is banging them on the head.


    3 Apr 09 at 4:09 pm

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