OP-ED: Has Trad-Pub Just Become a Vanity Press?

So this question was posed and tossed around the other day in a writing chat after I came out with this week’s Being a Better Writer post (Working with Trad-Pub). Initially launched because someone had asked me if I was going to discuss Vanity Presses in conjunction with Trad-Pub, it later came back up because while the two are still different and separate, that barrier between the two has, from my perspective, shrunk quite a bit.

But before we get into this observation and musing, I do have one bit of news to share. The first draft of Starforge is now at 300,000 words, and about 66-70% of the way done. Step by step, day by day, the finale to the UNSEC Space Trilogy moves forward!

That’s all. Not saying anymore. So let’s talk about this odd question: Has Trad-Pub basically just become a form of Vanity Press? Well … yes? And also no. Vanity Press itself is on the way out, thankfully, due to the changing conditions of the publishing industry (independent authors helped, but print-on-demand is the real heavy hitter), but I’m getting ahead of myself. What is a Vanity Press, for those of you that don’t know?

Basically, back in the day, someone realized that of all those people submitting to the slush pile, there were a percentage of them with lots of money who didn’t have the inside connections that could have gotten them around the slush pile (this was in the days before agents or independent authors). So if they got their hands on a printing press, they could charge these people a large amount of money for their dream. They would provide no editing, no advertising, no marketing, nothing. And there wouldn’t be an advance. But they would deliver completed, printed copies of that “customer’s” book! And then that customer could tell people “Look, I’ve published a book!” which for many of them, was all they wanted to do.

And sure, they might promote the chance of fame and fortune, with a constant reminder that “Hey, that end is on you.” Might be just a little predatory, especially if they’re convincing people to take out loans to meet their printing costs, but that’s the cost of “business,” right?

Yeah, you can see where this is going, as well as why Vanity Press has such a negative stigma. People with a printing press taking folks money in exchange for printing copies of a book 100% as it was from the creator. Vanity Press didn’t provide editing, marketing, promotion, aid for the author (such as flying them to signings, or even setting those up) … none of it. Oh, and the person wanting the book published paid the publisher, not the other way around.

Okay, so that was what a Vanity Press did and how they operated. A business of letting people “skip” the Trad-pub process … but also providing none of the benefits of traditional publishing houses. Their revenue stream was would-be authors coming to them, not the success of any book they printed (though to be sure if they made certain that a few were “successes” it likely would have helped their marketing.

But a lot of people saw Vanity Press for what it was: A money machine preying on those who wanted to be published but couldn’t get through the nigh-impenetrable mire that was the Trad-Pubs (and the only option in the world at that time). Their books were unedited, often questionable insofar as plot, pacing, and consistency … you get the picture. Again, if you’re being paid to just produce copies of something without caring about the content, and the content is not your problem, well …

This is why when Print-on-Demand (PoD) and Independent authors and publishers started to become a thing the initial reaction from the public was that they were just “another form of vanity.” And of course Trad-Pub seized on this, not wanting any competition to their nicely controlled markets, making sure that articles and opinion pieces everywhere decried these new publishers as such. And since there were similarities with how some things were handled, some readers saw it as such.

But the truth wasn’t quite so simple. The biggest difference between these new, independent publishers, and Vanity Press was that with Independent Pubs, authors weren’t paying a giant up-front cost simply to be acknowledged. In the event that they were paying for anything, it was services like editing and marketing, or a portion of the print costs in return for a much larger royalty (and in this case, the publisher was doing marketing as well, helping sell the copies of the author’s book).

In truth, the new, independent publishers were still trying to promote a good product. These small publishing houses were trying to provide editing services, marketing, and the other things that the larger pubs did. They were just smaller, more one on one. But where a Vanity Press made their money in having an author pay them, indie pubs and authors made their money by selling the books. And while they couldn’t provide all of the services that a large Trad-Pub could, like flying an author out to a book signing they had set up, or paying a large advance, they could counter that by offering a much larger royalty.

But this stigma has stuck, and Trad-Pub has pushed its hardest to make it stick. And with situations like PoD, yes, there are people who don’t submit books that have been edited in any way, shape, or form, and send them to market. And those who like to point fingers point at that and say “AHA! Vanity Press!”

But that’s not Vanity Press. It’s one of their hallmarks, but so is “pay us to get your book made,” which PoD doesn’t do (instead the cost of a single print is part of the book’s sale cost). And indie pubs still have slush piles (and even go looking for authors to publish in a complete inverse from classic Trad-Pub) to go through. Even places like Amazon offer basic services double-checking for common mistakes (all automated) and advise heavily that those who publish make sure their work is properly edited. This does put the onus on the author (which Vanity Presses were known for), but at the same time they do a little more than a standard Vanity Press, and again, no one has to pay Amazon $20,000 up front to get in.

Now at this point some of you are probably wondering “Okay, this is neat—” or “I knew this—” and then following both up with “—but what about the title of this post? And that whole cryptic ‘well yes, and also no’ at the beginning?”

Well, I say yes and no because by the standards of what a Vanity Press is, the biggest key being “Pay us to get your book published,” no, a Trad-Pub is not a Vanity Press.

But by the standards of finger-pointing that has gone at Independent Authors and Publishers? Well … then yes. If they are “Vanity Press” then so has Trad-Pub become … something similar. Though in a worse way.

Let me explain. Trad-Pub these days seems to be all about cutting things. Editing? Costs too much. It’s the author’s responsibility. Advertising? We could let the author pay for that unless we’re really sure this book can be made to be worth it. Paying for flights to signings? Setting up signings? That’s the author’s problem now. Basic fact-checking? We don’t do that anymore. Too expensive.

Quick note: Trad pubs are a varied bunch. The Big Four, certainly, fit a lot of what we’re talking about today, but other pubs like Baen are still known for providing the services just talked about. Where you go will find you with a different approach and set of services offered, and this post uses “Trad Pub” as a general majority focused around the Big Four and their subsidiary houses, not as a declaration of “All traditional publishing does exactly this.”

Hmm … Sounds like a lot of the “identifiers” they assigned to indie pubs trying to declare them Vanity Press are now their own practices, doesn’t it? So if you believed the old claims that indie pubs and authors were just a new form of Vanity Press, then that would make today’s Trad-Pubs the “newest” form of Vanity Press.

Save for that one little sticking point of “who is paying who?” Trad-Pubs don’t require that you pay them to get in (yet, though with agents it’s certainly looking like things could move that way), so as far as I’m concerned:

No. Trad-Pubs aren’t a Vanity Press. Neither are Indie Authors and Indie Pubs.

However, this doesn’t make Trad-Pubs a good press either in a lot of cases. See, all this stuff that Trad-Pubs have been cutting, such as editing passes (which has resulted in some really … rough … stuff coming out of major Trad-Pub houses lately, the discussion of which in part kicked off this article), comping authors for travel to signings, marketing … all that stuff? See, indie pubs can’t afford to do much of that either, but the compensate by raising the royalty given to the author. If the author has to pay for those things out of pocket, then they can have a bigger slice of the pie. So with indie pubs you’d be looking at a royalty rate of 30-70% per copy sold to make up for these additional cost.

Guess who hasn’t done that? Nope, in fact they’ve gone the other direction. Shrinking advances, shrinking royalties … all while piling more and more costs on the author’s plate that used to be part of the publishers’ in “exchange” for that lower royalty.

And those rising costs on the author, combined with the shrinking payments, mean that the “cost” of being a Trad-Pub author is, well, kind of similar to the cost one would “pay” a Vanity Press, isn’t it?

But similar is not the same. So at the end of this post, once again I’ll state that Trad-Pubs are not a Vanity Press. Not by the most determining factor of what makes a Vanity Press a Vanity Press.

But … They’re slowly becoming parallel. No editing, a large portion of costs passed to the author … And there’s one last thing that’s making Trad-Pub adopt, via a new method, that final gate of a Vanity Press: agents.

Now before you get angry, I like the concept of agents. But remember above where I talked about what Vanity Presses did? Allowing people to pay money to skip the slush pile to get their book in print?

What do some agents do? Exactly that.

Now I want to stress that agents are a varied lot. Some agents double as editors. Some have slush-pile submissions of their own. Some work to market and advertise.

But some don’t. Some put their services behind a paywall. Want to skip the slush pile? Cough up the dough, and that agent will make your book a priority. Want editing? Well, they might recommend someone, but you’ll have to pay for it yourself. But hey, for a fee, you can have the chance at seeing your book in print with a Trad Pub, a market that’s relying more and more on agents with each passing year!

See where that gets a little murky? It’s not identical. But it is similar. The author pays to skip the slush pile. They pay for the editing. The marketing. And then they get the smaller, Trad-Pub royalty, some of may go right to the agent to pay for their services and …

Sands and Storms, that is different from a Vanity Press … but not by much. Those are minute details that really don’t change much and come to a similar outcome at the end.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I like the idea of agents, and I know there are successful, big-name authors very happy with theirs. But agents also happen to look a lot like the old “pay to publish” gate of the Vanity Press as time goes on. And if a Trad Pub shuts their slush pile down entirely, as some houses have done, and only accept submissions from agents? Well … then what sort of “paywall” has Trad Pub set up for itself?

This is all part of the current “storm” rocking publishing, of course. And no one is really sure how it’ll shake out. What ships will capsize and which won’t. But at the end of the day, if you were to ask me if Trad-Pub has become a Vanity Press, I’d have to say no.

But also yes? There are similarities there.

It’s certainly getting close at some publishing houses. Cia some different methods, but where it’ll go from here, well …

I guess we’ll find out.

3 thoughts on “OP-ED: Has Trad-Pub Just Become a Vanity Press?

    • Currently? MacMillan, Penguin/Random House, Hachette, and Harper Collins. It was the Big Five, but last year Simon & Schuster was put up for sale (with the note that they would be broken up and sold individually if not sold by the end of the year) and Penguin/Random House purchased them (or last I checked, is in the process of doing so, the DoJ needs to approve it, as it would give Penguin/Random House a very large chunk of the US book market).

      Liked by 2 people

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