Interesting: as I discussed words and their meanings and how the ways they influence ideas (good and bad), a development:

Giant corporate publisher Penguin announced “self-publishing services” through their Book Country site.

And yes, those words are in quotation marks because that is not what is meant. At all.

The Penguin Group is the largest trade publisher in the world, having overtaken Random House for the honors. It’s owned by Pearson.

It’s one of the sponsors of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. The one I wrote about earlier this year, when I mentioned I, for one, wouldn’t sign a contract I hadn’t first read, which is what submitting to the ABNA amounts to, as it’s right there, in the rules.

Now, Book Country. Which is, apparently, a sort of online writing workshop, or has been since its inception not so long ago. In the past year or so, say. I’ve seen the site but never really been interested in it. I’ve seen online writing workshops before, and was even a member of one before I joined MySpace and discovered a writing group there. They’re great for community and camaraderie.

Yesterday, Book Country announced that it’s going to start offering “self-publishing services,” which in this case apparently mean it will sell authors’ books. For a mere $99, authors can upload their already formatted manuscripts for sale . . . somewhere. I’m not clear on where the books will be available. It might be solely at Book Country. I haven’t seen discussion of any partnerships they’ve set up with, say, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Apple (which are the big three when it comes to digital publishing, basically).

Now, that’s the price of an already formatted manuscript, it seems. Other packages are offered, with prices of $299 and $549. I’m not totally clear on what authors get for those amounts, mainly because I’m not sure it matters at all.

At first, I thought no ill. At first I thought, interesting, a new publishing platform. That was before I found out they were charging for said services.

Yesterday, here on this site, I briefly discussed the idea of a “vanity press.” I mentioned many people with vested interest in corporations used the term as a label for publishers who charged authors money, which is, in general, seen as a bad thing. Sometimes the chargers of money were engaged in underhanded business practices.

In general, the only thing worse than “self-publishing,” at least in the eyes of corporations and those associated with them, is “vanity publishing.” Paying to make your book.

Here’s the Wikipedia page on vanity publishing. Don’t just take my word for it, after all.

The Romance Writers of America, a professional association of authors etc., is pretty clear about what a vanity publisher is:

“Subsidy” or “Vanity” publishing means the production of books in which the author participates in the costs of production or distribution in any manner, including assessment of fees or other costs for editing and/or distribution.

They’re not the only one with rigid definitions. In fact, many have noted that distinctions blur as the digital revolution continues, and have remarked as such.

For example, at the Science Fiction Writers Association website, Victoria Strauss considers the blurred distinctions between “vanity” and “self” publishing. She even attempts a working definition:

Vanity publishing. Any kind of publishing or publishing service that requires you to pay an upfront or setup fee. This would include print-on-demand publishing services like the Author Solutions brands, former offset vanities like Dorrance Publishing that now use a digital model, and book manufacturers like Brown Books that offer a more elaborate (and more expensive) service, but also the option of short-run printing. Such companies handle the entire publishing process for you, and may or may not exercise some degree of selectivity. In return, you grant publishing rights (usually nonexclusive and terminable at will), accept the company’s ISBN and pricing structure, and are paid a pre-set “royalty.” While not attempting to conceal the fact that they charge fees, or pretending to match your resources with their own, these companies can be quite misleading in their presentation of the benefits of fee-based publishing.

Now, this, she is clear, is an attempt.

But if you look at this SFWA page defining “vanity” and “subsidy” publishing, the language is less forgiving:

A vanity or subsidy publisher charges a fee to produce a book, yet still presents itself as a publisher. There’s a wide variety of models for vanity/subsidy publishing, from companies that do little more than produce a print run that’s shipped to the author, to companies that provide a menu of design, editing, distribution, and marketing services in addition to book production. Vanity/subsidy publishers may or may not be selective (if they are selective, it’s not likely that their gatekeeping processes are comparable to those of commercial publishers), and may or may not make a claim on authors’ rights. Marketing and distribution, if provided, are usually limited; as a result, most of the burden of promoting and selling falls on the author. Costs for vanity/subsidy publishing can rise into the five-figure range.

(Some fee-based publishers will try to convince you that there’s a difference between vanity and subsidy publishing (with subsidy publishing being more respectable). Others style themselves “joint venture” or “co-op” or “partner” or “equity” publishers in order to suggest that they’re contributing their own resources to the relationship. Don’t be fooled. Fee-based publishing is fee-based publishing, and whatever you’re paying, it covers 100% of the cost and then some.)

Now, I think that’s Strauss again. I admit, I’m not sure that’s really the SFWA’s working definition. Their list of membership requirements includes both Ace–a Penguin imprint–as well as the Penguin-Putnam conglomerate as qualifying venues of novel publication.

Further, to qualify, a venue must not be

self-publication, vanity press, or other type of author-paid or fee-charging press, as demonstrated such as (1) by having published at least ten distinct works by different natural persons during the date range; and (2) by authors not having paid or been requested to pay fees or give consideration of any kind.

Of course, I suppose one could argue that Book Country is merely one arm, and probably a minuscule one, of the greater Penguin/Putnam corporate conglomerate.

It certainly violates Yog’s law, which can be succinctly summarized as “The only place an author signs a check is on the back.”

(A lot of aspects of digital publishing do. I signed up for the Pro part of the CreateSpace plan. It was $40, includes an ISBN, and saves me some cash. Overall, good investment.)

Now, mind you, I’m not saying Book Country, a subsidiary/imprint “self-publishing venture” of corporate conglomerate Penguin Putnam, is a vanity press.

I’m just telling you that Book Country charges authors fees to make a book. And that several professional author organizations (including, but probably not limited to, the RWA and SFWA) define vanity presses as publishing ventures that charge fees to make a book.

But really, besides all that, the three major retailers in digital publishing are Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple. Both Kindle Direct Publishing and Barnes & Noble’s PubIt (which puts books in the Nook bookstore) are free. Both Kindle and Nook are apps available for Apple’s iOS.

And last I checked, while there is a fee for publishing to the iBookstore, it’s $99 to go through Apple.

So the big question isn’t whether Book Country is a vanity publisher. The answer to that seems pretty clear.

The big question is: why wouldn’t you go to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple directly?