Wednesday, November 25, 2009

On Vanities...

Phew, copy edits are in the mail. Now I can let the official Thanksgiving festivities begin!

It has also been frustrating to be up to my elbows in deadlines when a hot discussion is swirling around the internet. At last I can weigh in.

Is it just me or do the recent Harlequin Horizons and Thomas Nelson’s WestBow Press Vanity press ventures strike anyone else as the publishing equivalent of credit default swaps?

Sure, every business wants to make money, and rightly so. But there is a point when the legitimate desire to find revenue streams crosses over into predatory behavior. Not only is this bad for the parties involved, but over time, it threatens to topple the entire business model and crash economies.

Just like Wall Street, publishers are now wanting to hedge their bets. They want to continue to take only professional, agented, submissions, but with these vanity press ventures, they also want to take out credit default swaps on those they’ve rejected just in case they’ve missed their guess. But sometimes, when we hedge our bets, we remove the impetus needed to make the original enterprise a success.

It is also hugely frustrating to have those who oppose this move called Luddites or be told they are standing in the way of progress. No one has managed to convince me that this step is progress. Exploitation is not progress. Nor is what these companies are doing part of a legitimate publishing model. Publishing involves paying a fee to license intellectual content, enhancing it with editorial input and professional book design, marketing it, and distributing it. With this existing model, the publisher definitely adds value to the original content. In this new scenario, they do not. They act as a print broker, hooking up eager writers with a printing service, a service they could just as easily access on their own—and keep more of their profits to boot.

It also strikes me as the very opposite of a sound economic model. When you are looking to increase the value of something, is it really wise to flood the market? Everything I’ve heard has lamented that there are far too many books published every year already. Does it really make sense to add more? And books that, by and large, were not able to cross the bar of existing standards?

I am so proud of RWA for moving so swiftly and decisively to repudiate HQ's move, and am equally pleased that the other writing organizations (MWA, SFW, and NINC)
have their backs.

If the internet is becoming a more and more critical factor in publisher’s book promotional and marketing strategies, are they not now flooding those same channels with even more choices and distractions? They have basically just polluted their own stream. It’s similar to the current phenomenon of how there are 763 available channels these days, but one can never find anything good to watch on TV. It seems to me that when businesses spend so much of their energy trying to capture market share and cover all the bases and hedge their bets by being involved in too many ventures, they end up diluting the initial spark and value that so many got from their product, and consumers give up.

This coupled with the recurring meme out there that information wants to be free worries me. Not simply because I love being a writer and being paid for what I do, but because it is one more step in a long line of steps of devaluing everything except the bottom line. Those who do the actual work or create the content are diminished or expected to find or create other revenue streams to support their art, while the ability to shuffle paper and come up with ways to charge money for nothing are praised. Personally, I think they need to shuffle paper for free and find other revenue streams to support that enterprise.

Yes, the current publishing model is far from perfect. The inefficiency can be staggering and the distribution expensive. But let’s work on improving the current model instead of blowing everything up. We already did that with Wall Street, and look how well that turned out.

Now lest I get accused of elitism, please understand that at one time my books could not cross that bar either. (And as far as some readers are concerned, may still not cross that bar.) But that’s part of what separates published writers from those that don’t get published—that huge drive and commitment to do what it takes to produce a well-crafted, saleable book. The tools to do that are available to anyone—especially here on the web. You can give yourself a master class in novel writing techniques by a judicious visiting of a number of great, informative sites.

Will it be quick? No. Will it be easy? Hell no. But it is part of what is required to produce work of a certain quality.

Another huge downside to this of legitimizing of vanity presses is that budding authors will shift their focus. Once they have that unsaleable manuscript in book form, they will likely spend all their time flogging a new book that has little chance of furthering their career instead of spending that time improving their craft. Why should they? They already have the carrot! But there is a reason a butterfly has to struggle its way out of its cocoon or a chick has to fight its way out of the egg—there are huge lessons and great skill building in the struggle.

Even, I suspect, for publishers.


Katy Cooper said...

This is a very thoughtful take on the whole, hideous mess...

Vonna said...

"You can give yourself a master class in novel writing techniques by a judicious visiting of a number of great, informative sites."

Thanks so much for being one of them.

andalucy said...

I second both Katy and Vonna!