Thursday, March 04, 2010


Okay. Cue up Carly Simon. I’ll put aside my other ideas for today’s blog and concentrate on vanity publishing, since it is a concerning tangle.

LANCE: The critical [let’s say “definitive”] 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.

MARY: Yes. My first self-publishing act was a neighborhood “newsletter” when I was maybe ten, printed on one of those hand-cranked machines that squeezed ink through a blue waxy stencil stuck to a drum. I delivered by hand.

LANCE: 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.

MARY: “Publishing” is a means. Vanity is a content classification. My childish newsletter was rather vain since it was all about the Strachans and the assumption was that anyone else in the nabe would care. Strict Puritans feel that vanity is a vice, a narcissism, a neglect of the community in order to aggrandize oneself. ALL writing is vanity: how dare one put one’s thoughts in print? This is the thinking behind the classification of “memoir” as a vanity, an account of one’s own thoughts, and the attempt to impose morality by demanding that it be “true” according to the standards of onlookers. Of course, bowing to the standards of the onlookers takes one from vanity to pandering, also a vice.

LANCE: 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.

MARY: Print on Demand is a technical achievement and refers to the ability to not have to “batch print” books, which means incurring expenses like storage and taxation. Some have accused xLibris and others of pandering to the vanity of authors by allowing them the smoke screen of a sort of quasi-publishing (un-curated by a publishing business). PRINTING AND PUBLISHING ARE NOT INTERCHANGEABLE TERMS!

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

MARY: LULU.COM IS NOT PUBLISHING. IT IS PRINTING. Whether or not that printing is done in the service of personal vanity (all about me), community vanity (a history of an institution or area), family vanity (geneaology), national vanity (a collection of poetry celebrating the USA), cause vanity (the accomplishments of a “green” organization) or some other kind of vanity has nothing to do with the fact of the printing, which could be ink-on-paper, graffiti on a wall, electronic, sky-writing, or whatever else uses printed symbols. (Lulu will "print" DVD's and photos.)

LANCE: Do you believe self-publishing and vanity-publishing are the same?

MARY: Self-publishing is a means. Vanity-publishing is an end. The confusion of the two is another legacy of the Victorian middle-class efforts to inflate their status to that of landed gentry. It is a signal that one has the money to pay for printing and maybe a exceptionally nice binding and maybe even friends and admirers who have the resources to maintain libraries and the leisure to read. (A common put-down is “have you read?” something or other that’s considered a popular item of “insider” consumption promoted by the media. That’s been largely replaced by “have you seen?” referring to television or YouTube. This interferes with wanting to know whether someone has actually read something so as to know whether they have the information.)

Of course, this book-worship syndrome is much underwritten by the three big Book-Based religions. “Have you read: the Bible, the Koran, the Torah?” can be followed by the hat trick of memorized passages or just mentioning the “chapter and verse” to show you know them. At one time only priests were allowed to read the Holy Books.

LANCE: Was Bob Scriver a self-publisher or a vanity publisher?

MARY: Both. And more. He paid for his three books to be printed but he also commissioned the photographers, wrote the copy, and edited it. In his lifetime he was the only distributor. He didn’t have the skills to do computer layouts. The two books about the sculptures were also sales catalogues. The book about his artifact collection was meant to certify its importance and attach it to his family as well as to document the objects. But there was also a “higher” purpose which was to provide a sub-set of the physical collection that could be purchased and owned by people of lesser means, including Blackfeet and local libraries and a record that could be as close to permanent as such things get. The collection itself has since been largely dispersed, especially the religious objects which were claimed back from the Alberta government by the tribal subsets.

Bob’s mother was Victorian to the core, representing her cousin’s husband -- who was knighted for his contributions to Canadian manufacturing -- as landed gentry and believing that the Macfie country estate, bought with sugar money, indicated superiority. She was brought up this way in Quebec, Anglo among the French.

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

MARY: Yes, except that some of the functions of a publisher, like formatting, are pre-determined and standardized. I suppose that’s sometimes true at a publisher, too, but the author doesn’t have so much control. Google is a distributor of blogs (and so are other aggregators) and some blogs “curate” or critique other blogs. There’s a website in Montana that does nothing but list Montana blogs and their content. A wide range of material is presented on blogs. One of the first blogs that I ran across was a biology class quiz on fish. It was all photos of fishes and questions about them. Some blogs are incredibly long, complex and challenging to read. Others are tweets, blips, burps.

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

MARY: Well, yeah. And then the next step is called “monetizing.”

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

MARY: Of course, that doesn’t mean anyone is going to read it! So it’s always a little bit vain or at least an act of faith.


Lance Michael Foster said...

The concept of publishing reminds me of when I learned what land "ownership" really meant.

No one ever really "owns" land. Instead, when one is a land"owner", one really has legal control over a bundle of rights: right of access, subsurface minerals, water rights, right of disposition, right of use, etc. When one buys land, one is really buying a bundle of such rights.

The proof of this is severability of some of those rights. One can buy a piece of land without investigating things, and then find out to one's horror that you have no right to the water in the river through the property, or that someone is drilling for oil there, or that someone has a road going through your property. And you can't change any of it. Some previous owner has reserved those particular rights or sold them off, such as an easement. (Of course if land has gone through few sets of hands, such things are less likely to have happened, such as with old family places).

So "publishing" is also a bundle of responsibilities in a way, rather than a single "thing." There is the writing, the design, the copyediting, the proofing, the negotiations for various copyrights and intellectual property and royalties, the printing, the accounting (who pays for what), the distribution, the fulfillment, storage, publicity, marketing, etc. etc. etc.

It used to be there were only one or two variations. With regular publishing, all the writer did was write, go on book tours others arranged, and collect a royalty. The publisher did the rest. With old school vanity publishing, the writer added payment, marketing, publicity, storage, fulfillment, etc. If the writer didn't do those things too, the books just sat in boxes. With self-publishing (in the larger sense), the writer did it all (or could do it all) except printing/production (because of a lack of the equipment-- except your mimeograph machine!). And the self-publisher could subcontract out the other tasks too if that was desired. Some even contract out the writing (ghost-writing).

Things changed radically with POD and online companies like Lulu and the others.

I think that if all you use Lulu for is printing, yes, then it is not a publisher. BUT it does also provide the author with a place to sell one's books, so Lulu performs some of those tasks of publishing besides printing: monetization, fulfillment, even at the bottom rung of services. You can also pay them to copyedit, set you up for public distribution through Amazon and Bowker, etc. So Lulu takes on a few more "responsibilities" from the bundle called "publishing." It is up to oneself, to decide at one point enough of these "responsibilities" to get a creative work (book, movie, song) out in public so that one or the other is the "publisher."

Why is it that a book, a vook, a photo, a video, a song, an album are published when they are "printed/produced" and put out for the public's consumption (free, paid, or otherwise), but a painting is not? But then a print of that same painting is "published." So the content of "publishing" is also not an original, but a multiple of some kind.

As you say, just because you "publish" something doesn't mean many (or anyone) will read it. I think of this when I go to a library or used bookstore and find a book that appears never to have been read.

I guess people just gotta decide what's important to them when it comes to publishing or getting published: is it money? Is it recognition as a writer? Is it validation by other writers or a press? Is it the satisfaction of seeing your work in print in a store? Is it making a living (or part of a living) through your writing? Is it going on a book tour (national? local?)

It seems to me all these notions also fall under "severability."

Art Durkee said...

Speaking as a typographer, book designer, and artist, there is also the AESTHETIC aspect of publishing: of making a beautiful, durable object. Some books are also beautiful objects in their own right, not mere content-carriers for the author's thoughts and words.

There is a flourishing movement now, which is not at all vanity-press, of handmade printing done on old letterpress and other old printing technology. The people involved in this book to revitalize the beautiful book are writers, artists, printers, designers, and so forth. A lot of this is revived older tech that is meant to create beautiful objects in small editions. Poetry published as broadsides is part of this movement, and is becoming more common.

My sister, who hand-binds books and is an accomplished print-maker, and I have collaborated on making a handmade book of my haiku. Is that vain? Only in the Puritan sense. ("Vanity of vanities. . . ." Even the post-Christian can quote the Bible's wisdom literature such as Ecclesiastes.)

What POD provides is DISTRIBUTION. You can print anything you want, but if you don't tell anyone about it, it just sits under your bed in a box. I'm not even talking about money: I'm talking about spreading the word.

I worked for 24 years in marketing as well as publishing, for book and magazine publishers. (Some more dysfunctional than others.) I've done every single job that there is publishing, beginning to end, from computer-assisted design to bindery. So again I say, there is pleasure in the book itself, not as merely a carrier for words.

Blogs are perfectly fine for distributing one's words to the world: a form of publishing. But you can't curl up with them in your hands, and there's no ink or paper to smell. Reading a beautifully-made book is a full-sensory experience. It's not just a mental gnosis—cyberspace is all about cybergnosis, and it tends to completely divorce the physical from the mental, supporting the mental while neglecting everything else. So you can argue whether or not publishing in cyberspace is actual publishing—I can argue both sides of that myself—but it remains a fact that it's mostly a mental exercise.

Of course, many writers are very good at the mental exercise of making words happen, and not so good at the physical fact of presentation.

For that matter, most poets are terrible performers of their own written words; if you go to a poetry reading, the mumbling shoegazers far outnumber those who can ACT, and make you feel what they feel in the poem.

So my bottom-line thought here, after rambling, is that this discussion of publishing still barely touches on the fact of a book. A book isn't just an idea. It's a solid object. An artistic product, if you will. We can talk about the artistic and publishing processes all we want, but it remains that the solid object has a reality that just the words on a screen can't achieve.