Wednesday, February 19, 2014

I Refuse to be Conned

Last week I bought this shirt:


For those who don't get it, a very famous New York literary agent recently wrote a blog post that was incredibly insulting to authors. One of the lines that was particularly infuriating was:
Print publishers have the luxury of culling the prize cattle from the herd.
Passive Guy, an Intellectual Property attorney whose wife self-publishes historical romance, opened a Zazzle shop to sell t-shirts that have pro-indie-author sayings on them shortly after that post appeared. There are lots of fun ones. Go look!

But I think he needs a new one. It seems as if almost everyone you meet wants to write a book someday.  And now, thanks to authors like Amanda Hocking, Lawrence Block, and Hugh Howey, everyone also knows you can self-publish that book and even possibly earn a great deal of money from it.

Do I have to tell you that a whole other industry has been revived to take advantage of people who want to be published but aren't sure how to go about it? I say "revived" because this industry has existed for decades. Vanity presses, those which take money from a writer to put their books in print, are not new. I'll even admit that they still serve a purpose for certain writers. Those writers are not writers by trade, but people with an area of expertise who are already giving paid talks on the lecture circuit or presenting at fairs and expositions. On a topic. Say, for instance, you have a new diet that will make people lose weight by adding seven kumquats a day to their meals. (I'm making this up.) You're a registered dietician, so you have some credentials that show you know what you're talking about, and you've spoken at diet club meetings, been interviewed in health publications, and things like that. That's called a "platform."

You've also developed a hundred recipes on how to use kumquats. You decide to write a kumquat cookbook for the fans of your program. Chances are, no traditional publisher will want to take that on. The market is too small and Barnes and Noble isn't likely to carry it. But you know, based on requests at those talks you give, that you could probably sell ten or twenty books each time you speak. That's the kind of book that could be successfully published by a vanity press and hand-sold by the author.

I'm not sure non-fiction authors are better off using vanity presses now that there are other options. But an argument could be made and, as long as the author does their homework and knows what their options are, publishing through a vanity press might work for them.

Fiction writers don't have platforms. We're typically introverts who would have a nervous breakdown if asked to get up in front of a group and talk about something. Even those writers who do readings and signings will most likely tell you it took a long time and a lot of practice to be able to do them. And then they have to go take a nap afterwards to recover.

That doesn't stop the vanity presses from marketing to fiction writers. They don't care that the books won't sell. They don't make their money from sales to readers. They make their money from the writers. Thousands of dollars.

But in the past, a newbie author had to know something before they found these vanity presses. They usually advertised in "The Writer" or "Writer's Digest," so the author was at least reading those and getting some exposure to the business of writing. If they were lucky, they hooked up with a writers group of some kind, joined Romance Writers of America or Sisters in Crime, and learned there that a vanity press was not the way to go for fiction. Now, with Internet search engines that "helpfully" display ads related to your searches and sites that track cookies, you don't have to know anything to stumble upon a vanity press.

And the one you'll most likely stumble upon is Author Solutions in one of its many guises. No, I'm not going to link to their site. It's too easy for naive writers to find it as it is. It's even worse since Penguin bought them, giving this company the gloss of respectability. It's not respectable, no matter who owns them. If you clicked away from the David Gaughran blog, click back to read about their history.

I am a huge fan of the Tucson Festival of Books. I've gone every year since it started. I've stood in line to hear some of my favorite authors speak, discovered new-to-me writers, and bought books to have signed. It's a celebration of the written word on the mall of the University of Arizona.

So you can imagine my horror when last year I saw the multi-booth display from Author Solutions with people standing three and four deep in front of it. I wanted to run over and scream, "No! No! No!" Although they represent themselves as being there for author signings with authors published by them, I'd have to assume that there are plenty of representatives willing to discuss how you, too, can be a published author. All you have to do is pay them.

What I can't understand is why the Tucson Festival of Books allows them to be an exhibitor. Yes, they're back this year. Don't they do any vetting of exhibitors to make sure they're legitimate? Or does all it take is a check to reserve the booth?