The terms “vanity press” and “vanity publishing” used to mean that people who wrote books too poorly written to interest a “real” publisher would pay to have their own books printed and bound. The implication, of course, was that “real” publishers published “good” books and authors of “vanity” books were by definition failures who couldn’t write.
I dare you to call Herman Melville a failure. He paid to have Moby Dick published after New York publishers turned up their noses at his crude tale in favor of the fashionable novels written in England. Or call me a failure, and I’ll brush up on my karate. (You don’t know how funny that would be.) God’s Thunderbolt: The Vigilantes of Montana was recently called a “literary Western” by one reviewer.
Wanting a second opinion, I asked Gus the Wonder Horse what he thought of that. He chewed on the question along with a mouthful of grass. After wiping his lips on a white fetlock and leaving green streaks, he decided that vanity was as much a force as it ever was. (He should know, being a big handsome equine dude himself.) “But,” he nickered, “there are plenty of poorly written books between covers these days, no matter who published them.” Then he bit off more grass and considered self-publishing (and the grass) some more. “Poor writing doesn’t come only from vanity publications.”
“We call it self-publishing these days,” I told him. “That has a lot fewer connotations of poor quality. Maybe.”
“On the other hoof,” he said, raising the left hind to demonstrate, “maybe proportionately there aren’t so many poorly written books in self-publishing. At least not a greater proportion than there are in ‘real’ publishing.”
He has a good point, even for a horse. R R Bowker projects that in the US alone traditional publishers put out 275,232 books in 2008, and POD books totaled 285,394. That’s a total of 560,626 books altogether!
Bowker did not report how many POD books were fiction, but traditional publishers together published 47,541 fiction titles in 2008. That’s a drop of 11% from 2007 (See the complete article on RR Bowker online). The article doesn’t say, either, how many traditional publishers were using POD technology, but there is some migration from the traditional publishing model to POD.
With all those titles rolling off the presses, no matter which printing technologies were used, we can’t say that self-published books are automatically worse than traditionally published books. There are simply too many books to make that generalization logical. People might gesture toward awards, most of which are won by traditionally published books. However, many awards are closed to self-published books. It is not logical, Gus tells me, to assume that no book worth a Pulitzer or a Nobel was self-published because those awards are not open to self-published books.
The National Book Awards are open to self-published books, provided the publisher also publishes books by other people, and the publisher may be asked to provide a catalog to prove it. But books published through “self-publishing services are not eligible.”
If a self-published book cannot compete on the same basis as a traditionally published book, how can anyone say that self-published books are by definition not good? One cannot say that these premier awards could never be awarded to authors of self-published books on the basis of inferior quality, when in fact the entire category is excluded.
Some book awards, such as the Spur (awarded by the Western Writers of America) and the Edgar (awarded by the Mystery Writers of America) are open to both self-published and traditionally published work. The Nebula (awarded by the Sci Fi Writers of America) is open only to books not nominated by authors, publishers, or anyone else with a monetary interest in the work. Both the Spur and the Edgar are awarded to nonmembers as well as members of the organizations. In my view, both of these organizations have leveled the playing field.
“Of course,” said Gus (acting as devil’s advocate), “you think so because you won the Spur for Best First Novel.” Perhaps. At least I admit the possibility.
However, as things presently stand, the attitude that self-published books aren’t as good as traditionally published books can’t be tested. Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry, won a Spur and then went on to win the Pulitzer. God’s Thunderbolt: The Vigilantes of Montana, which won the Spur Gus mentioned, is not eligible for a Pulitzer because it’s self-published.
And I’d suggest that until major book awards are open to any book, self-published or traditionally published, and both types of books are entered, we can’t adequately test the prejudice in favor of traditionally published books. Until then, we can assume that authors do not necessarily choose to self-publish their books because of vanity.
We do so for the same reasons that Herman Melville did. Because publishers with a hammerlock on publishing ignore us.