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 | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

books & wine

I was describing the controversy in the publishing world between POD books and offset printing to a friend, and she said, “Oh, it’s kind of like screw-on lids on wine.” She’s right. The purists may think corks are the best way to go–but it doesn’t make any difference to the final product. Maybe book lovers would disagree–there is a difference in quality. But it’s an interesting analogy.

March 15, 2008 Posted by | digital imaging technology, POD, print on demand | , , , , | 1 Comment

Publishing & the Public

Everyday, I run into people’s curiosity about the book business–as well as a lot of misperceptions about it. I guess when you become a publisher, by default you also become an educator. Perhaps it’s that way with any business.

 One of the most common misperceptions about publishing is that there is a lot of money in it. That would be great but most independent publishers do what I’ve heard called “publishing by Visa.” Meaning: They’re in debt. Sometimes, a lot of debt. (This, I am trying mightily to avoid!) Unless you use print-on-demand (digital imaging technology), it costs a lot to get a book together. Even if you do use POD, it can cost a lot. Plus, the risks are many and profits low. Let’s say a press manages to get the cost of printing a book down to $2, and they charge $16 per copy. They have to sell it at 50% off to bookstores, which means they sell it for $8.00 per copy, for a total of $6.00 profit per copy. But that doesn’t include publicity costs, shipping costs, receiving un-sellable returns from bookstores that couldn’t sell it, or the cost of warehousing/storing the book, not to mention royalties or other payments to writers.

Another common idea is that all you have to do is publish a book and it’ll do well or be available in bookstores or that it’ll sell thousands and thousands of copies because so many people across the U.S. will be interested in the book. I really, really wish that were true. I went to the Book Expo America in 2003, the most important conference in the book industry. That year, over 100,000 new books were published. 100,000! Even if all 250 million Americans bought a book each year, there wouldn’t be enough to go around.

My novel, The Confessional, has done all-right and has received excellent reviews. Plus, it’s published by one of the big guys, Knopf. But I get emails from people all the time who say they couldn’t find it in the local bookstore, including the local bookstore in El Paso, where the book is set and where it’s sold really well! So you never can tell why a bookstore will stock a book and why they won’t, but I’ve heard through the rumor mill that B&N gives a book a “two week window” to sell and then they return it. Maybe that’s exaggerated and it wouldn’t surprise me–but it also wouldn’t surprise me if it’s true!

Anyway,  I guess I’m going into publishing because I really, really, really LOVE books. And if they can bring me some income, enough to make it worthwhile, that will be great. But I’ll probably do it anyway. It’s just like being a writer: I write because I love writing. Am I paid what my writing is worth? No, not really. But who is, except J.K. Rawling? (and we can’t all be her…)

March 10, 2008 Posted by | bookstores, digital imaging technology, independent book publishers, independent publishing culture, indie, literary presses, POD, print on demand, publishing, small press | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

P&W’s take on publishing

Good ol’ Casey and I have been having a back-and-forth about what exactly is publishing. I think we essentially agree that publishing is when the publisher selects a manuscript that they think is excellent and then the publisher edits it, pays to have the book printed, then distributes & markets it. But though I agree that this is the tried-and-true, socially legitimate form of publishing, I am still curious about how the trends are changing. As I mentioned before, I know many of these socially legitimate presses–and no, I am not going to name names–do in fact split the costs of printing with the artist. Is that publishing, when they select a manuscript they know is worthy but do this? Good ol’ Casey says no. I’m on the fence. It is not how I intend to operate my press, ever, but then I’m not publishing poetry. And I do admire many indie music artists who produce their own music. Why is that acceptable but self-publishing is not? Of course, the people who choose to self-publish may not care about the sort of social-contract that the literary world demands if you want to be part of it.

 Casey actually called Poets & Writers to find out what they thought. He talked to someone in the advertising section, who said that they discriminate against pubishers who publish on what they see as a vanity-press model, and that splitting the printing costs is vanity publishing, period. (I’m pretty sure that’s why this is the dirty little secret, and kept secret, as such.) Casey also asked how they feel about presses that fund their operations through “contests”–writers who submit their books pay a fee and the writer whose book is selected gets published, plus prize money. The guy in advertising said that they do see that as legitimate but only if the prize is at least 10 times more than the fee for entering. (So if you entered the contest for $20, the prize would have to be at least $200, I guess.)

So if you don’t publish poetry by splitting the costs, and if you don’t fund your press through contests, then another way to do it is to publish a very limited number of copies, say 100. And that is something many presses do. In fact, one press I ran into at the AWP does both the contests PLUS digitial-imaging-technology, which is either lucrative or allows them at least to break even. I went to Bookmobile and saw that they were advertising one of Greywolf Press’s books. Bookmobile is a print-on-demand or digital-imaging-technology printer. They are not a publisher, they simply provide the services of printing in such a way that you can order only 50 copies or 100 copies, instead of laying out $2-3000 for 1000 copies that you know you can’t sell. And Greywolf Press is, I might add, a highly respected press.

Of course, all of this is applicable to non-poetry publishing, too. It’s just that poetry is an obvious problem for any press that chooses to publish it. How to sell it? How to market it?

February 17, 2008 Posted by | Catalyst Book Press, digital imaging technology, independent book publishers, independent publishing culture, indie, POD, print on demand, publishing on demand, self-publishing, small press, traditional publishing, Uncategorized, vanity presses | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


I met some interesting people at the AWP and in the weeks to come will be posting some snippets of interviews, as well as much commentary about how small presses are using digital imaging technology (often known as POD), how some are saying “Screw you” to Ingram’s, and how online sales and internet marketing are driving the new style of small press.

I had wondered about the quality of some of the POD books. I thought Bookmobile’s quality was superior, but even Lightning Source’s quality was pretty good and if I hadn’t known it was POD, I wouldn’t have guessed. But admittedly, the price they pay per book is horrifying. Still, when I asked Richard Peabody of Paycock Press how he felt about Print on Demand, he joked, “It saved my marriage!” Then he explained how much money he spends to warehouse books that never sell, how much money is tied up in that….And, well, it makes sense.

Morris Rosenthal and Aaron Shepard do say that most small presses are simply using POD within their traditional publishing model and they suggest that that is unimaginative and still ties up lots of money and time. This is because most of these presses are still targeting brick-and-mortar stores, still offering returns, still getting back unsaleable books from bookstores. They’re right. But if you’re not self-publishing, and you want to publish self-respecting authors, they want to know that their books can end up in bookstores, so you do have to cater to that market to some extent. In the weeks to come, however, I will be talking to different presses to see how they do it and how things are a-changin’ in the book world.

February 6, 2008 Posted by | digital imaging technology, POD, print on demand, small press | Leave a comment

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 | 3 Comments