Catalyst Book Press

The places, ideas, and people that change us

What exactly is publishing, anyway?

Last week, my friend and editor at New Pages (Casey) got really excited one night and emailed me, sputtering, to talk about Off the Grid Press’s publishing model. Off The Grid Press is pretty open about what it does. Here’s part of its submissions policy: “To be eligible for publication by Off the Grid Press, you must be at least sixty years old, have a completed manuscript of sixty pages or more in hand, and have already published at least one book with a non-vanity press or five poems in three or more nationally distributed literary magazines. You must be willing to bear the cost of book design ($800-$1200), printing (about $2000 for 1000 copies), and distribution.”

“I mean, is this even publishing?” Casey asked.

 “I can see how this doesn’t differ a whole lot from vanity presses,” I said. “But it’s still sort of/kind of publishing, isn’t it?”

“No!” Casey howled. All-right, actually he just said it, with emphasis. But howling sounds better. “There’s no marketing, no distribution, and the author pays to have his/her work printed. How is that publishing? Sure, the press is making money but the poet who publishes with them–how are they going to sell a thousand copies of a poetry book?”

“Okay, it doesn’t follow the traditional publishing format, no, and I see your point, yes, but it seems to me that things are changing so fast these days–what are the rules to publishing anymore?”

“So…is this just part of publishing culture now?”


Well, exactly what is publishing these days? One of the dirty little secrets (and maybe it’s not so secret) is that in order to publish poetry these days, many presses split the costs of printing with the poets. Sure, maybe they don’t publish just anybody–maybe they only publish poets they respect and honor and think do good work. But the fact of the matter is that they’re still splitting costs of printing with the author, and that has traditionally been called “self-publishing.”

We also know that many presses pay for the poetry they publish by sponsoring competitions with $10-20 entry fees. The entry fees pay for at least part of the printing costs.

And then there’s definitely tons of ethical issues with the “you scratch my back/I’ll scratch your back” approach to publishing, which occurs not just with books but also with lit magazines. We’re not even talking about self-publishing or vanity publishing here. And what constitutes self-publishing anyway? Hell, Catalyst is going to publish a number of anthologies related to fertility, sexuality, and family. I’m the publisher/editor/marketer for the press but I also plan to be the series editor for those books because, well, who else is going to do it unless I can scrounge up a guest editor whose taste I trust, whose values are roughly in line with mine in terms of how I want to approach the topics? I’m not going to write what’s between the pages of the book, no, except maybe an acknowledgements page or perhaps an introduction, but my name will be on a number of those books, if not all of them, as editor. Is that self-publishing? God, I hope not. But why is it that I hope not? Because I want to be accepted by my peers.

“Why is it that the publishing industry doesn’t accept self-publishing?” I asked, with trepidation, I admit because well, frankly, I want to be liked and thought well of and admired, eventually, by all those people who don’t like self-publishing and I also have some of the same biases regarding self-published books. I’ve seen a few decent books come out that way. Many self-published books, however, are cases in point–they prove exactly why those books weren’t published by a regular press anyway and why the author had to resort to self-publishing. But still.

I continued with my thoughts. “The music industry has no problem with musicians who record and produce their own cds. In fact, the indie music scene is thriving. Why aren’t we as evolved as the music scene?”

Then I answer my own question in my head: part of the problem is that writers don’t have a venue, like musicians, to prove our worth. People have to buy the book without hearing the music, to mix metaphors.

“I’m probably going to lose friends over this,” Casey moaned.

Okay, he didn’t really say that. But I like to imagine he did.

This whole publishing culture thing: we’re in the middle of a revolution. Not everybody recognizes it yet and tons of people are clinging to the old way of doing things. Maybe the old way is the best way. Maybe the old way will win  in the end because it has all the power and money (though power and money have never been the determining factors for winning when there’s a revolution). Maybe what will emerge is a hybrid of the old and the new. Maybe books are lost forever to Amazon’s Kindle and internet publishing.

And surely, digital imaging technology–which is getting better every year–is (gasp) the wave of the future.

I asked a friend in the bid-ness why digital imaging technology (often known as POD or print-on-demand) is such a dirty word among authors and publishers. Well, about publishers, he didn’t have much to say except that he knew a number of publishers who kiss but don’t tell. But about authors, he had this to say, not in so many words but close to it: “No author wants to be told that their book can only sell a few hundred copies. Every author wants to believe that their book should sell tens of thousands of copies.”

So maybe it all comes down to pride.

January 23, 2008 - Posted by | Catalyst Book Press, digital imaging technology, fertility, independent publishing culture, indie, POD, print on demand, publishing on demand, self-publishing, small press, traditional publishing, vanity presses


  1. What Off The Grid Press sounds like to me is a book shepard, not a publisher. A publisher is the person or company who assumes the cost of producing the book (editing, design, printing). A book publisher is someone who guides the writer to create a book, but the writer pays the costs. A book shepard isn’t a bad thing (Cypress House for example does excellent work), but there does need to be a distinction between the two. Just my opinion.

    Comment by Terena | January 26, 2008

  2. Excellent point! I hadn’t thought of a book shepard before–that’s entirely different than “vanity press.”

    Comment by catalystbookpress | February 7, 2008

  3. […] of Off the Grid Press. His disgrunted comment was in reference to my blog post of last January, What Exactly Is Publishing, Anyway? Mr. Stern takes issue with my suggestion that Off the Grid Press is no different from a vanity […]

    Pingback by What Exactly Is Publishing Anyway? Take II. « Catalyst Book Press | July 1, 2008

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