November 16th, 2011 by Will Entrekin

A (Publishing) House Divided

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.

Comments

5 Responses to “A (Publishing) House Divided”
  1. You make some good points but some clarification might be worth noting –

    First, “vanity” press often earned its sinful name — many vanity presses took advantage of authors.

    Second, authors like Mark Twain and Poe were *also* published by others and paid accordingly. Further, neither’s efforts were particularly financially fruitful, as I understand it.

    Further, getting an agent and a book deal is no small thing, you’re right: it’s a hard row to hoe. But self-publishing is just as hard in different ways.

    This post feels like a step backward: yes, yes, we already know self-publishing is an option, let’s stop shaking the pom-poms. I’d like to see self-publishing move into an era where we get past the cheerleaders and start looking at the tough and sometimes troubled reality of publishing traditionally *and* via one’s own efforts.

    Knowing what Poe did is fairly meaningless here (he also married his 13-year-old cousin!) given that we’re talking about an entirely different era in terms of being a writer and getting published. If you’re going to suggest that authors are better off self-publishing, then my hope would be you’d help them do so. You’ve got information to share as a self-pubber. Pluses, minuses — how are your sales? What difficulties are you running into? What tricks have worked, what ones haven’t? What marketing efforts can an author do? Self-publishers need more than just Yippie-Kay-Ey Go-And-Get-Em — they need more than just the agenda.

    IMHO, YMMV, etc.

    – c.

  2. Hey, Chuck. Thanks for stopping by with your thoughts.

    You’re right Twain moved on to publish in myriad different ways (including selling his books door to door, essentially–or was that first? I can never remember). Poe . . . well, Poe’s history was troubled, wasn’t it? In myriad ways. None of Poe’s efforts were financially fruitful, regardless of who published them and how.

    You’re right that going indie is hard in myriad different ways. I think my point is that agents and book deals are an actively closed system. I stopped counting the number of publishers closed to unagented submissions and the number of agents closed to submissions (and who basically ignore the ones they receive, taking a no-response=pass policy). Mainly because it’s so common and I honestly found better things to care about. And also because that’s the “troubled reality of publishing traditionally.”

    I don’t think anything is meaningless. Poe was a different era, sure. So’s today compared to a year ago, and a year again.

    I’m not suggesting publishing independently is better. Better than what? My goal here, in this post, was to consider the frustration behind the abrasive rhetoric recently discussed by so many, including yourself. Shorter: Sure, Barry Eisler’s word choice was poorly chosen, but that abrasive rhetoric everyone took umbrage with might be a result of a deeper frustration many writers feel toward a system that has increasingly not just closed its doors but also become condescending. I’m also not sure about pom-poms and pep talks, neither of which were my intention.

    As for all your questions: I’m getting to those things. But then again, do what thou wilt, right? What’s worked and not worked for me is probably not what’s worked and won’t work for others.

    The main difficulty I, personally, run into as an indie author is dismissal as such. EG: popular book bloggers as closed to “self-published” books as corporations are to unagented manuscripts.

  3. Thanks for the mention, Will :)

    I agree…and disagree. I started looking at getting published when I was 8 years old. The library’s copy of Writer’s Digest was my best friend. I remember seeing the phrase “No unagented submissions” for the first time when I was 10 and having to research the crap out of what an “agent” was (back before the Internet, it took some time). I saw the publishing landscape change around me. And I stopped trying to get published. The tone changed, from “we want to see your work!” to “don’t bother us with the garbage you call writing!”

    So yes, I agree that for some time now, corporate publishing (is that the correct word now?) has had tone issues. That’s no excuse for authors, for whom words are their livelihood, to try to beat publishers to the bottom on tone. I don’t care how frustrated everyone is. I hit my thumb with a hammer in front of my son and somehow manage not to shout obscenities. I see my property taxes increasing while the value of my home is halved, but I don’t call them slavers.

    As authors, we have both the ability and the responsibility to communicate well. The tone of the big bad publishing houses is driving people away. It is. It’s part of the reason I’m considering alternate publishing options. So why would independent authors want to emulate them? We see the result of corporate publishing’s dismissive and condescending attitude all around us. Let’s not give in to dismissing and insulting them right back. We’re professional communicators, and we’re better than that.

  4. No problem, Angela. I realize I didn’t mention I thought highly of your post. Woops! Because I did. Good stuff.

    I don’t think we actually do disagree. I don’t think authors should use abrasive rhetoric, and I’m certainly not advocating for authors to adopt the condescending tone corporate publishers and literary agents have. Like I said above, I was just attempting to explore and explain the reason for the tone issues you mentioned, not attempting to argue either for its use or that it’s correct.

    Far from it. It’s not.

    In fact, for myself, personally, I’ve been actively working on improving the tone I’ve taken. Being more positive and proactive. It’s made a big difference in how I’ve felt in general.

    And that’s kind of what I am advocating: people need to choose their options for themselves, and once they have done so, not listen to people telling them they are wrong. There are plenty of authors who signed publication contracts with corporations who are totally happy with them. There are plenty of authors who went to Kindle and CreateSpace who are totally happy with those options (that I am one of the latter doesn’t mean I think people who choose the former are doing so wrongly).

    All the best as you consider your publishing options. If you ever have any questions you think I could help with, you know where to find me.

  5. Great post, Will! In fact, I’ve spent much of my morning reading your last few posts (including posts that, chronologically speaking, came after this one) and feeling quite invigorated about my choice to become an indie author. Keep it up, brother!

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