Catalyst Book Press

The places, ideas, and people that change us

What Exactly Is Publishing Anyway? Take II.

I recently received a disgrunted comment from Bert Stern, co-editor 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 press. He suggests that  because they are highly selective and publish beautiful books, that should distinguish them from vanity presses like AuthorHouse.

I agree with Mr. Stern that Off the Grid’s books are different than the garden variety book from vanity presses like Author House. But what Off the Grid Press does still fits under the rubric of a vanity press, even if they are selective and even if they make no money off it, as Mr. Stern claims and as the website itself states.

I can reiterate much of what I said in the earlier post, but I’ll just offer generally accepted definitions of publishing practices.

The definition of publishing itself fits whatever model you want to consider–it is merely the act of producing printed material for sale or distribution. That is publishing, pure and simple, without any loaded meanings attached.

The standard publishing model is described in this way: a writer submits his or her work to a publisher, who accepts it, then bears all the costs of production and marketing and works to ensure distribution. This is “traditional publishing.”

Self-publishing is when an author assumes the financial cost of publishing a book, marketing it, and distribution.

A vanity press, according to the Free Dictionary online, is defined this way: “A publisher that publishes a book at the expense of the author.”

Off the Grid’s publishing model fits this definition, no matter how you slice it. They can distinguish themselves from AuthorHouse in any number of ways, e.g., by being selective, by producing good books, and even by not making money off of it. However, as Off the Grid press states itself, “Rather than finance the press through contest fees, we ask the writer to bear the cost of book design, printing, and distribution.” This fits the generally accepted definition of a vanity press.

Now the real question, and here is where it gets interesting, is whether we should place any VALUE on these distinctions. Can a self-published book be a good book–well-written, well-designed, artistic, etc? You bet. This isn’t often the case but it sure could be. Can a book published by a vanity press of any stripe be a good book? You bet your bottom dollar. Again, not often the case but it sure could be. Honestly, while I am following the standard publishing model for my own press and for my own writing (I have an agent, who submits all my books to publishers for consideration, and they either accept or decline), it is merely because I am not willing to subject myself to the social stigma of self-publishing. I want social legitimacy as a writer, and as a publisher. I’m willing for the most part to accept the standards imposed by the industry in order to be considered socially legitimate. But that doesn’t mean I think the rules for so-called legitimacy in the publishing world are the end-all be-all.  There are no Ten Commandments of Publishing, etched in stone. These are simply customs, and like most customs that are not imbued with morality, they are made to be broken, they are made to change, and they are being broken and they are changing. But like most traditions, those who adhere to the tradition will feel superior to those who don’t. It may not be right, but it’s certainly common.

As I said in my earlier post, I think the music world is light years ahead of the publishing world in this regard. Nobody cares who produces a musical c.d. or if it’s self-produced. If people like the music, they’ll buy it. I personally don’t think books should be treated any other way. Who cares whether it’s self-published or published by a vanity press or published by the so-called best of the best, Penguin or Random House or some other biggie in the business? Unfortunately, people in the book business do care. People in the book reviewing business do care.

And that is why we have dozens of small presses that are essentially a front. This is what I mentioned as the “dirty little secret” particularly in the literary world. There are excellent presses out there, who are selective in what they publish but who do demand that the author (usually poets) either share the production costs or pay for them altogether. None of this is publicized, allowing both the press and the author to enjoy the social legitimacy bestowed by the literary world and reserved for the traditional publishing model, even while they are breaking the rules.

What Off the Grid press has done, and I commend them for this, is simply be honest and above-board about what they’re doing. They’ve said, “Publishing poetry is expensive and hard to sell. But we believe in good literature. So we’ll publish good literature, and we’ll make sure it’s designed and produced well, but we don’t want to or we can’t afford to bear the production costs. If you’re willing to undergo the usual scrutiny of the submission process, the same kind you would undergo at any of the best small presses, we’ll consider your book–but please know in advance that you as the author will pay for the production costs.”

I understand Mr. Stern’s frustration with my characterization of Off the Grid as a vanity press. This carries a lot of stigma to it. I don’t think it should carry the stigma that it does but I can’t change those wide-spread knee-jerk reactions from people in the book industry. Nor can I change the definition of “vanity press” to fit Mr. Stern’s satisfaction either. It is what it is. I can only hope that as the publishing world continues to go through a revolution–a revolution brought on by digital imaging technology, the internet and online sales, and the new focus on publishing green–that some of these stigmas will fall by the wayside. This will allow *all* of us to get on with the business of publishing good books…

July 1, 2008 - Posted by | Catalyst Book Press, digital imaging technology, independent publishing culture, indie, POD, print on demand, publishing, self-publishing, small press, traditional publishing, Uncategorized, vanity presses, writing & publishing | , , , , , , ,


  1. […] Original post by Catalyst Book Press […]

    Pingback by Books and Magazines Blog » Archive » What Exactly Is Publishing Anyway? Take II. | July 1, 2008

  2. I agree with your thoughts about the music industry. Bands make their own CD’s all the time and no one cares, just as long as the music is good. The same should go for books, but for some reason it doesn’t. Maybe it’s because the technology to easily make a book is so new, compared to the technology of making music (before CD’s there were thousands of tapes made by garage bands everywhere).

    I also agree with your definitions of what a Vanity press, and I agree a Vanity press isn’t necesserely a bad thing, just as long as the quality of the work is good. That’s my biggest problem with ALL forms of publising, and this goes for the big houses too. I’ve read too many books that are poorly made and/or poorly written. It doesn’t matter who published it, it’s still a bad book.

    Comment by terena | March 2, 2009

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: