All Is Vanity

I had an idea. I wanted to take my e-novel to the next level and make a print version. My mom always gives cash as birthday gifts, and she is generous. I said “Mom, you’re my publisher.” She said “Oh, I would give you money for both things.” Yes, she is generous to her family, but I said no, it would be my gift to myself just to have that book in a print edition.

My writing pals, Tom, Bob, and Vernie, and I sometimes get into discussions about the difference between self-publishing and vanity presses. It is a fine line, but basically a vanity press will print up a book without edits and send you a thousand copies which no bookstore or library wants and so they stay in boxes in the basement unless you sell them out of your trunk. Vanity press (in these days of self-publishing and indie novelists) is the way of the lazy writer with a lot of cash and not much ambition.

Indie novelists, writers who use their own skills or Create Space or freelancers, are different in that they care about their product and strive to make it the best possible book. They distribute, they market, they network. Such a fine, fine, line. But it makes all the difference. If you have a book that nobody has read except you, and you publish it, chances are nobody else is ever gonna read it. Indie writers embrace craft, critique, cover artists, editors, and other professionals to help polish their work and make the best book possible.

But as I said to my mom “this is just for me” and that’s vanity. One of the definitions of vanity in my Shorter Oxford (isn’t it vain of me to tell you what dictionary I use?) is “desire for admiration.” I think that applies to all people, all the time,  everywhere. Who does not want to be liked? Whatever creative thing we do, if we do it for free, then it’s all vanity and that’s okay. Blogging for ten years is vanity. Teaching is vanity. Calling oneself an artist is vanity. Tweeting is vanity. Publishing any book through any venue is vanity. So too is exhibiting art. Everything is vanity if you think about it. Putting on make up. Combing your hair! Vanity!!

This bit of  a rant has a point, which is the lines in publishing are very blurry right now. If you indie publish a great book that gives joy to others, that is a very different degree of vanity than if you type up your handwritten diary from when you were 16, which you wrote instead of paying attention in English class, and then have it printed at great expense, that’s another level of vanity altogether.

Indie Wonderland

New writers may well be confused by the superfine distinctions between self-published, vanity published, e-published and indie published.

I self-published my first book, a non-fiction writing manual, Your Words, Your Story, because I wanted to use it in the classroom as soon as possible. I knew from experience that trying to  traditionally publish a book takes years, so I decided to go it alone. What self-publishing means is that the author pays a printer to print copies of her book. She sets up a small press, buys her own ISBN number, writes a letter to the Library of Congress and later sends copies of books to them so they can be filed along with a jillion other books. Distribution can be a problem, but I had a built-in source–my college bookstore.

Self-publishing was a difficult endeavor, and had I known how much trouble it would be, I might not have done it. I hired out some of the work, formatting, design, cover image. The entire venture cost me about $3000 and I recouped that money quickly. Now I sell the digital form of that book on Kindle for 99 cents, and to my surprise people other than my students buy it.

The difference between self-publishing and vanity publishing is simple. Self-published authors with small presses have a long tradition in literature and are involved in every step of the production of their book. They learn the business end of the publishing industry. They take care that their books are scrupulously edited. Virginia Woolf’s husband set up Hogarth Press  so he could publish his wife’s brilliant but misunderstood novels. Walt Whitman, a poet far ahead of his time, self-published too.

I feel fine about being in such company. I found a printer known for quality work and met with them to discuss everything from the size of my book to the color of the pages (buff is better than white) to the type of print I wanted. Then I hired a skilled professional to format the book to the printers’ specifications. This is not how the Vanity Press folks do it.

Vanity Press companies take out ads in writer’s magazines and promise to do everything for you. Just send your manuscript and they’ll do the rest. What happens here is the writer loses creative control, and at a price far above $3000. More like $10,000 or more. Writers who don’t understand the slim but important distinction between vanity and self-publishing are writers who do not do their homework. Neither vanity writer or vanity press has any interest in editing. To their own detriment, vanity writers don’t want to know about or deal with editing or any of the many other aspects of the publishing end of things.

Now Kindle Digital Platform and other internet sources are making it easy for self-published and vanity authors to upload their books with free distribution at little to no cost. And thus the indie writer was born. Indie books run the gamut from unedited unformatted vanity projects to professional quality books. These indie authors aren’t just for e-readers. They have the option to print their work on demand. (POD). I decided to use KDP for Sister Issues, my first published novel, that fits no mainstream niche (one sister is chick lit the other is women’s fiction). Also because I was familiar with it from my first book.

With Sister Issues, I didn’t bother with the print version; I just wanted to join the band of indies. I still ended up paying someone to format my book, but this time it was for $100, a price well worth the work–because the internal workings of KDP demand certain formatting details if the writer wants an e-book not riddled with mistakes and strange re-arrangements. I found that out the hard way, too, but it’s so easy to “publish” and “unpublish” on KDP that it didn’t cost me respect or readers.

Right now, indie books vary wildly in appearance and content. Some authors, like Terri Giuliano Long, are trying to change what we have: vanity and self-published indie writers along with  traditionally published authors reprinting their back catalogs all duking it out for a spot on the list. It isn’t easy promoting an indie novel, and so far the mainstream press has been wary. As Terri Long notes, this is also changing.

Still there are so many books out there. The serious novelist who doesn’t fit any major publishing parameters finds her work buried under vanity crap and well-known traditionally pubbed authors. This is where we are now and this is what we, the indie authors who care about production and content excellence, are trying to fix.

Something funny happened to me when I indie pubbed. I received a contract for another novel from an e-publisher. These folks have been around for years and their quality of content varies. Anybody can put up an e-pub house on the net. And frankly, most of what sells is very spicy sex to soft core porn like 50 Shades of Gray. Although I love building sexual tension, I’m not fond of what my editor politely termed “consummation” scenes. Still, as an adventure, I decided to try working with an e-publisher as well. They take care of all the things I didn’t like doing on KDP, like providing a book cover, formatting, editing, distribution, and marketing.

The Wild Rose Press is set to release my new novel, The Paris Notebook, July 18, 2012 in both electronic and print versions. It will be interesting to see which novel does better, the indie self-published or the e-published by an online publisher. Right now, it’s anybody’s game.