Category Archives: Ethics

The difference between traditional press, vanity/subsidy press, and self-publishing

Recently I’ve had friends of friends approached by vanity presses trying to lure them into buying their overpriced mediocre services.  The story is always the same–a newbie writer has just written a first book, is not a member of any sort of national writer’s organization, and has absolutely no clue of how the business side of publishing works.

Then there was the whole uproar over the creation of vanity/subsidy press Harlequin Horizons (see the link about it at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books for the most info.  But be warned, the comment section now stands at over 830 comments!) I’ve read quite a number of comments on this controversy, and was troubled by the number of people who didn’t know the difference between traditional vs. vanity/subsidy vs. self-publishing.

I think Writer Beware at SFWA does a terrific job of explaining the differences.  Here’s a link to their publisher definitions page.  Once you read this, you’ll know how to tell which press is which.

The Novelists Inc. blog has a post which lists several websites to help understand the hazards of vanity publishing.

My rule of thumb is “keep control of the money.”

In self-publishing, a writer gets competing bids from the best freelancers she can find for every part of the process (editing, art, making the book, publicity, e-book versions, etc.), keeps copyright and controls ISBN, and gets to keep all money made from sales.   You don’t get to do those things with a vanity/subsidy press–and on top of that you shell out large sums of money while they shell out little, and then you have to deal with them taking a huge cut of the money from sales as well.  A vanity/subsidy press makes its money off of writers, not book sales.

A traditional publisher pays the writer.   They take care of all of the expenses, which is why they get a big chunk of the sales.   Some writers exchange being paid an advance by an e-publisher in order to get a higher royalty rate (usually about 35%).   But those writers don’t pay the e-publisher, ever.

Writing is an art, publishing is a business.  Publishing presses are like any other business–there are great ones, good ones, mediocre ones, and slimy ones.   Shop around.

Janet and Isaac Asimov on HOW TO ENJOY WRITING

I stumbled across a hardback edition of Janet and Isaac Asimov’s HOW TO ENJOY WRITING: A BOOK OF AID AND COMFORT (published 1987) at a used bookstore.  The book is out-of-print, so you’ll have to buy a used copy or go to a library if you wish to read it.

This book is not written for beginners.  It does not discuss how to write science fiction or how to get published.  Readers will get more out of it if they’ve been writing for a few years and have a basic understanding of the publishing industry.  Janet Asimov chooses to focus on the psychological aspects of writing (which makes sense since she was trained in psychiatry).   The writing style of the book reminds me of long rambling talks with a favorite academic adviser.  If you don’t enjoy chatty talks, you’ll probably get restless reading this book.

Despite having read many books on writing, I found fresh insights in Chapter 3:  Coping, Ch. 5 : What Writers Go Through, Ch. 8: Words vs. Pictures, and Ch. 16: Integrity.  Here’s some advice Isaac Asimov gave a young writer from Ch. 3:

And most of all, to be a writer means to write whether there is any reward or not.   That is why a writer finds it so difficult to overcome the feeling of annoyance at any interference with his writing whether from a friend, from an editor, or even a person whom he loves above all else….

Write for the pleasure of writing only, and never think of whether of what you write is “good” or “bad.”  Do you wonder whether the echo of your footsteps is good or bad, whether the blink of your eye is good or bad?  Writing is a bodily function for a writer and it is what it is.

It may be wise to give up the illusion of being a famous writer, a renowned writer–but it is never an illusion to think of being just a writer….

ISAAC  (at the top of his voice):  Please don’t help me!  Happiness is doing it lousy yourself.

For over a century, the publishing industry has debated if books will disappear due to each new development in the entertainment industry (vaudeville, radio, movies, VCRs, video games, internet, etc.).  In Ch. 8 Words vs. Pictures, Isaac Asimov talks about this debate in depth.  Even though the chapter is over twenty years old, he brings valuable insights to share about writing as a form of communication in human history: 1) writing has been around for thousands of years and still provides a way to get certain information across that no other form can, and 2) the percentage of humans who are intense readers has been, and probably always will be, small–but those readers are loyal.  I’d rather not summarize his arguments here; better to go read the chapter to get his thoughts straight from him.

Their book also has cartoons about writing done by Sidney Harris.  My favorite is the one about Hemingway’s dog meeting Faulkner’s dog.  🙂

Five novelists in Oliva Goldsmith’s THE BESTSELLER (Portrayals of Writers)

I’ve read reviewers complain about the characters in Olivia Goldsmith’s THE BESTSELLER (published 1996, ISBN 0-06-109608-3) being two-dimensional, but I don’t care that they are.  That’s because I love how in this novel she writes passionately about the publishing world she lives in.  And she knows it intimately, being a New York Times bestselling author.  And being fiction, she can discuss some of the seedier pitfalls, abuses, scandals, and scams of publishing that writing guides don’t cover.  For example, we get to see how an author who is also head of a publishing house can rig the royalty accounting statements in order to steal money from other authors.

Readers get to follow the progress of five novels in different genres at the fictional publishing house of David & Dash.   Only one of the authors will hit the top ten NYT bestseller list in the story, and we get to follow what happens to all of them.  There are also peeks at the lives of editors, publishers, and agents.

Goldsmith explores some of the psychological hazards of the fiction writing profession, such as depression and suicide and disillusionment.  For example, Chapter 1:

Books, her mainstay and her escape, had turned on her.  Every published book taunted her.  Words, which had been her comfort, her tool with which to weave a story, were now a chain that was dragging her down.

And she also shows us the joys of being a fiction writer.  For example, Chapter 110:

And then she’d write about it, because for some reason capturing life on a page was her talent, the thing that gave shape and meaning to her existence, the gift that had brought all the other rich gifts into her life.

Anyways, this novel is a fun way to learn about the business of fiction writing.