Last week, I caught a post by Angela Perry, in which she mentions she’s considering “self-publishing” but ultimately moves on to discuss writers and tone. I honestly think that tone is at the heart of why people think a “debate” exists, and why there are two sides to it. Some of the rhetoric recently used has been hyperbolic and not-so-helpful, but I’ll be honest: I can, in ways, see why it’s been used. Why some loud, brash independent authors have resorted to using somewhat shocking language.
Publishing never used to be so divided, but then, it was never really so conglomerated, either.
John Locke and Amanda Hocking are merely the two most recent examples of authors who started publishing their own work and only later signed on with something, or someone, bigger. The list goes back at least to Mark Twain and Edgar Allan Poe, and includes people like William Carlos Williams and e.e. cummings. Benjamin Franklin owned a printer he used to publish his own autobiography. Noted Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson encouraged Henry David Thoreau to publish A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and basically made Walt Whitman’s career when he pretty much blurbed Leaves of Grass.
People with vested interests in corporate publishing quickly dismiss ideas like I just explored by noting either those authors are exceptions or that publishing is very different now.
For a long time, that managed to hold true. Especially during the late twentieth century, when so many publishers, straining under the weight of ginormous slush piles but largely unable to find interns and junior editors to wade through it, began to conglomerate and started out-sourcing the slush pile to literary agents. Literary agents weren’t really new at the time, but I’m pretty sure their role as slush sifters was.
Before then, though getting a manuscript plucked from the slush was still arguably exceptional, it was at least possible. The phrase “over the transom” came from this time; transoms are windows above the sort of door that would have served as publishers’ front entrance, and there were occasions–so the stories go–when authors would chuck their manuscripts over the door and through open transom windows after business hours.
Or at least I think that’s how it went. I doubt anyone has transoms anymore. I’ve never seen one, except in movies.
Now, in general, at least when considering conglomerated corporate publishers, that’s no longer the case. The only people who can pluck manuscripts from the slush pile are agents.
At some point, as publishing evolved and more people made more deals, language began to change.
One of the earliest changes might have been the moment someone decided that paying for a printing of a manuscript–as Twain and Poe and Thoreau and Whitman all had done–was “vanity publishing.”
If writers who had believed in their books and paid to print them hadn’t been looked down on before–and I’d argue that Poe and Twain and Franklin, in general, were not–you can rest assured that changed then.
Let’s digress to discuss words and their use for a moment. Not long ago, I read a fantastic book called Words that Work by Frank Luntz. Luntz is, so far as I can follow, a guy who’s worked on Republican campaigns but consults for Democrats. Something like that.
But the book isn’t about politics. It’s about language. And how the words we use not only mean different things but influence people’s ideas. The example that stands out from the book was the inheritance tax: called a “death tax” by those who were against it. During the “health care debate” a couple years back, Fox News’ Roger Ailes demanded that all television personalities on the channel use the term “government-mandated health insurance” during discussions, because people were universally opposed to it. People were, on the other hand, nearly universally in favor of “public option.”
If you said, “Wait a minute, aren’t they both the same thing?” Congratulations. You’re paying attention.
Just different words for the same thing, but the words used changed how people feel about them.
“Vanity”? Not a fun word. Isn’t it one of the Seven Deadly Sins? Don’t forget America is still very Puritanical in its beliefs. “Vanity Press”? Why, authors must be committing a sin! Who do these authors think they are? Their work must not be good enough to attract the sort of conglomerated publisher who believes in the literary talent of Snooki, which is why they had to pay to publish it themselves. It’s not like they went to a real publisher. Shysters and scam artists one and all, and the poor, gullible writer fools who fall victim to unscrupulous printers.
Now, I’m not saying that’s exactly a wrong mindset. I’m sure that, as technology developed, there were indeed some unscrupulous sorts who took advantage of trends and fleeced aspiring writers.
But then again, who cared? Agents and editors used to decry “vanity publishing” as the last resort of the desperate, and where are you going to store all the boxes of books you never manage to sell, in your garage, like writers with a few boxes full of hardcovers in their basement were going hurt their business or something? Sure, maybe writers paid out of their own pockets, but they at least got something real and tangible–hard copies of their books–in return.
And when you think about it, having a huge pile of your own books with your own name on it is probably somewhat more gratifying than a pile of rejection letters addressed to “Author,” which makes up for probably 90% of literary agents’ outbound correspondence.
Now that digital publishing has taken off, the idea of a “vanity press” is a bit outdated. If you really want a hardcopy of a book, print-on-demand technology is such that you can order just one.
Otherwise, there’s Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing and Barnes & Noble’s Pub It and Smashwords. All are simple enough. Formatting is not difficult once you get your feet wet and work out some kinks. Even in html. Anyone can do it.
Which is, of course, the battle cry of agents and editors and others with vested interest in the late twentieth century model of book distribution. “Self-publishing” is the new “vanity press” in terms of working words. It’s got just the right dismissive connotation such that you can sometimes even imagine the implied sniff. “Anyone can do it!” they exclaim. “There’s no vetting! Who ensured quality? We didn’t, so no one must have! We are the only people who can determine quality. Just look at this fine young woman and her hair.”
Words work. They change things. They inspire ideas and influence people. Perhaps recent rhetoric from independent authors has had a certain abrasive tone, but might that not be in response to the tone in general used? Might it not be borne of a system that seems increasingly closed off?
I’ve seen a lot of authors note the utility of both “self-publishing” and “traditional publishing,” which here is translated to being independent or having corporate support. Which is all fine and dandy, except that the people who have co-opted the term “traditional publishing” (given the aforementioned authors who published their own books, there is at the least an equal argument that publishing one’s own work is as traditional an idea as enlisting support from a corporation. Oh, wait. Conglomerate publishers are relatively new, existence-wise. My fault) have increasingly closed access to the system. Publishers offer lower and lower advances while agents take on fewer and fewer clients. It’s all well and good to say that an equal mix of independent work and work published through corporations is the way to go, except it treats getting an agent and selling a book to a publisher as if it ain’t no thang.
As if merely writing a good book is enough to ensure its support from an agent and corporate publisher.
Which, I’m sorry to report, it’s not.
I know! Believe me, I was as surprised as you must be.
But you know what? You can write the books you believe in, and put them up on Amazon for people to read on pretty much whatever device they want, and when people sniff “Oh, you self-published? I’d rather go the traditional route,” you can say, “Actually, I don’t know what traditions you’re going by, but Poe, Twain, and Whitman all published their own work, and if it’s good enough for those guys, it’s good enough for me. Why not try the book and see for yourself?”
Because in the end, it’s the words that count. Not what they’re printed on or how they’re distributed. What words say matters. Which is why you have to consider people’s motivations for using them.
- How Reading Stores Might Survive If Book Stores Can’t
- Oh, the New Vanity (of Penguin & Book Country)