Wednesday, March 03, 2010


Lots of advice for writers out there, mostly repetitious and mostly making unexamined assumptions about publishing. So let’s turn the tables and see what I can do about giving publishers advice, which might even be more useful than the mounds of inappropriate advice coming in my direction.

This is my first attempt at this unfamiliar way of thinking:

1. Move to ebooks and Print on Demand ASAP.
2. Help bookstores convert to Espresso machine locations ASAP.
3. Abandon the Hollywood paradigm for publishing, which includes authors as celebrities, sales as indicators of quality, novelty for its own sake, pandering to low appetites, and misleading advertising.
4. Actively acquire the very best content you can within your own genre.
5. Accept the fact that every genre goes through boom and bust cycles. You can’t shut out the new ones and shouldn’t anyway, when the old ones are beginning to rot.
6. Learn and begin to use the new media, like embedded electronic material, as soon as possible.

Then I went around a corner in my approach and came up with a new list:

1. Decide what kind of publisher you are. The “mystique” of English upper class publishing that lifts the lonely writer out of poverty, equips him with an angel editor, and makes him a misunderstood genius instead of a loser, is gone. Here are some “new” kinds of publisher:

a. The Hollywood model. See above. Based on corporate models of how to achieve profit which inevitably hammer themselves into the ground, to say nothing of indulging in number-magic instead of true value. They came, they looted, they destroyed the profits, and now they should leave. Anyone going into publishing to make money, will be sorely disappointed.

b. The political publisher
: two sorts or maybe a continuum between the scandal of the moment (Sarah Palin) and historical analysis (The Fall of the Roman Empire), though they could also be distributed along a continuity according to the kind of authors: insiders to reporters to academics. There are also reform-focused books, exposes and demands for action.

c. The niche publisher producing materials meant for a specific affinity group to read. Ethnic or racially based writing might not be in English. Occupational material might be handbooks or narrative about experiences. (EMT, cop, firefighter often self-published books are QUITE amazing!) Management books like materials meant to guide leaders at every organizational level. Cooking, sewing, cleaning, building, plumbing, electrical, home repair. Stigmatized affinity groups need sympathizing publishers.

Academic publishing is really niche publishing but has the real world extra value of being a prerequisite for academic advancement. A professor cannot achieve tenure or respect without publishing, therefore is susceptible to deals, blackmail. empty publishing, and a host of other abuses. Academic publishers become used to this ethic and treat non-academics the same way.

Travel publishing may be seriously curtailed if the economy prevents the kind of travel that needs a guidebook, but well-written “ethnographies” and adventure lit will always have an armchair audience.

d. Printed directories
are disappearing because they are so much better handled online, esp. if they must be constantly updated or carried around. The same with published laws but not with interpretive case law and precedents, which remain the same.

e. Contract one-off publishing
can be based on the creation of objects. For instance, investors might commission a team to create a book for a specific market, contract various businesses (photographers, layout artists, copy writers, editors, printers) to deliver a certain number of books and then sell them almost privately to aficionados. There is no “publishing company.” This is how Bob Scriver created the books about his own work: “An Honest Try” and “No More Buffalo,” as well as the record of the Scriver collection which he called “Blackfeet: Artists of the Northern Plains” which is now worth up to $800.

This is related to the production of “artist’s books” which are made by the artist at various levels of sophistication and limited numbers. They vary radically which is the point of them.

f. Fiction and poetry have shattered out into so many genres and niches that I won’t try to itemize or even suggest, except that to say these “modes” are now moving into the new media where they will be deeply renewed or mutated. Books about that process can’t be far behind, the “meta” level, which will require a different kind of publisher.

2. Successful publishers will be the ones that are clearest about the “kind” of publisher they are on their internal level, and yet willing to understand what legitimately stretches and challenges their boundaries, like new media or new subject matter in a shifting society. These decisions need to be advertised to potentially affiliated writers as well as readers.

3. Agents have the “gradient” (knowing more) advantage over writers because of lack of transparency on the part of publishers. Agents, like lawyers and insurance agents, have been feeding off covert provisions and assumptions. A writer should be directly given information about practices, standards, provisions, and assumptions. New writers in particular can be thoroughly bushwhacked by moving parameters of things like number of books printed, level of publicity -- not just the amount of money spent but the expertise with which the readership is contacted (does the press in question have contacts in that field?) -- how royalties are paid (increasing reluctance to pay-as-things-go), the implications of an advance, and a host of other things.

4. Commissioned books -- requested by the publisher or responding to a query are different from completed manuscripts. Perhaps they should be handled by different kinds of publishers.

5. The innocent are quite happy to print some books and call themselves publishers. Self-publishers also sometimes feel that they are “publishing” when they are only printing and this has been confused with vanity publishing, local vending, And now we are faced with DVD’s, website distribution, the renewal of subscription publishing, blurring between magazines and books. The complexity of publishing is growing without even looking at business models which often transfer the focus to the reading device instead of the content. How can publishers educate others until they figure it out themselves? Or was it always this complex and we just THOUGHT we knew what publishing is?

6. Previous barriers between countries are gone. Get over it.

7. Blogging IS publishing. Better get over that, too.

8. If publishers are going to represent themselves as quality filters, guaranteeing the value of what they’re publishing, they’d better live up to that standard. And explicitly describe what they mean by “value.


Richard S. Wheeler said...

The New York Times just did a fine analysis of actual costs and liabilities of print versus ebook publishing, which can be read here:

Lance Michael Foster said...

"Self-publishers also sometimes feel that they are 'publishing' when they are only printing and this has been confused with vanity publishing, local vending..."

"Blogging IS publishing. Better get over that, too."

Mary, could you clarify what the difference you see is then between "self-publishing" and "blogging"? Isn't blogging just another form of self-publishing?

prairie mary said...

Vanity publishing is a big box of books you paid someone to print and keep under your bed.

Blogging goes out into the world in a form anyone can read anytime and anyplace.

Prairie Mary

Lance Michael Foster said...

I think we still have crossed communication wires, Mary. I asked what you saw as the difference between self-publishing and blogging, not vanity-publishing and blogging.

Do you think therefore that self-publishing is the same thing as vanity-publishing?

I think it might be worthwhile to define what publishing is exactly in this new landscape.

prairie mary said...

Oh, sorry. Not enough coffee yet. I think vanity publishing is a canard and a pejorative in some hands.

Self-publishing: one does everything for oneself that a regular publisher would do: editing, formatting, illustrating, printing, advertising, distributing, etc. All the steps. Walt Whitman did it.

Blogging: The format is provided. The blogger provides the content. The distributing is provided.

Both can be electronic. Blogging is not done on paper but can be printed out and distributed that way.


Prairie Mary

Lance Michael Foster said...

Main Entry: pub·lish
Pronunciation: \ˈpə-blish\
Function: verb
Etymology: Middle English, modification of Anglo-French publier, from Latin publicare, from publicus public
Date: 14th century
transitive verb
1 a : to make generally known b : to make public announcement of
2 a : to disseminate to the public b : to produce or release for distribution; specifically : print 2c c : to issue the work of (an author)
intransitive verb
1 : to put out an edition
2 : to have one's work accepted for publication
— pub·lish·able \-bli-shə-bəl\ adjective

Therefore the critical element of publish/ing/etc is for the work to be put out there. Based on this, blogging is publishing, while both self-publishing and vanity-publishing (not always the same things-- for example?) may or may NOT be publishing as such if they stay in boxes under the bed.

So self-publishing would mean one is the creator, designer, promoter, marketer, accountant, etc. all rolled into one.

By this standard, vanity publishing is not self-publishing as such, because while one creates the product, someone else (the company you pay) does the design etc., then hands it over to you to do something with.

Although some online POD firms like xLibris are dancing on the vanity line too, as you are required to pay them (to design, publish, market, etc.) while doesn't make you pay for the "extras" like ISBN, but you need to do it if you are going to market through sellers beyond Lulu's site.

How would you characterize Is it vanity-publishing? Self-publishing?

Do you believe self-publishing and vanity-publishing are the same? Was Bob Scriver a self-publisher or a vanity publisher?

Blogging is self-publishing, just not on paper. Unless your blog is optioned, bought, published by another entity.

If I understand you right, the critical issue is getting the words/product out for public view/consumption, in whatever format: paper, internet, pictographs ;-)

Publishing= getting your product out there for the public, through oneself, an external firm, etc.

I think it is worth looking at the issues of self-publishing vis-a-vis vanity publishing. Are they the same? Is one a subset of the other? Where and how do these concepts intersect?

Lance Michael Foster said...

ok, sounds good. gotcha :-)

I do think it is good to chew on definitions once in a while.

Too many confuse self-publishing for vanity publishing, that's for sure.

Either way, the author is paying for the horse and wagon. The difference is if you take the reins yourself.