borders self-publishing and the idea of vanity 02.21.2008, 2:16 PM
posted by ben vershbow
Borders, in partnership with Lulu.com, has launched a comprehensive personal publishing platform, enabling anyone to design and publish their own (print) book and have it distributed throughout the Borders physical and online retail chain. Beyond the basic self-publishing tools, authors can opt for a number of service packages: simple ISBN registration (49 bucks), the basic package ($299), in which someone designs and formats your book for you, and the premium ($499), in which you get all the afore-mentioned plus "editorial evaluation." According to the demo, you can even pay to have your own book tour and readings in actual Borders stores, bringing vanity publishing to a whole new level of fantasy role-playing. Writing and publishing, as the Borders site proclaims in its top banner, is now a "lifestyle."
A side thought. It's curious how "vanity publishing" as a cultural category seems to have a very clear relationship with the print book but a far more ambiguous one with the digital. Of course the Web as a whole could be viewed as one enormous vanity press, overflowing with amateur publishers and self-appointed authors, yet for some reason the vanity label is seldom applied -? though a range of other, comparable disparagements ("cult of the amateur", "the electronic mob" etc.) sometimes are. But these new labels tend to be issued in a reactionary way, not with the confident, sneering self-satisfaction that has usually accompanied noses snobbishly upturned at the self-published.
In the realm of print, there is (or traditionally has been) something vain, pretentious, even delusional, in the laying out of cash to simulate a kind of publication that is normally granted, by the forces of economics and cultural arbitration, to a talented or lucky few. Of course, so-called vanity publishing can also come from a pure impulse to get something out into the world that no one is willing to pay for, but generally speaking, it is something we've looked down on. Blogs, MySpace, personal web pages and the like arise out of a different set of socio-economic conditions. The barriers to publication are incredibly low (digital divide notwithstanding), and so authorship online is perceived differently than in print, even if it still arises out of the same basic need to communicate. It feels more like simply taking part in a conversation, participating in a commons. One is not immediately suspicious of the author's credibility in quite the same way as when the self-financed publication is in print.
This is not to suggest that veracity, trust and quality control are no longer concerns on the Web. Quite the contrary. In fact we must develop better and more sensitive instruments of bullshit detection than ever before to navigate a landscape that lacks the comfortingly comprehensive systems of filtering and quality control that the publishing industry traditionally provided. But "vanity publishing" as a damning label, designed to consign certain types of books to a fixed cultural underclass, loses much of its withering power online. Electronic authorship comes with the possibility of social mobility. What starts as a vanity operation can, with time, become legitimized and respected through complex social processes that we are only beginning to be able to track. Self-publishing is simply a convenient starter mechanism, not a last resort for the excluded.
And with services like Lulu and the new Borders program, we're seeing some of that social mobility reflected back onto print. New affordances of digital production and the flexibility of print on demand have radically lowered the barriers to publishing in print as well as in bits, and so what was once dismissed categorically as vanity is now transforming into a complex topography of niche markets where unmet readerly demands can finally be satisfied by hitherto untapped authorial supplies.
All the world's a vanity press and we have to learn to make sense of what it produces.
sol gaitan on February 22, 2008 4:40 PM:
Before printing became publishing, pamphlets and other small books were self-published. The printing press allowed for this. The Web, so many times compared with the "invention" of the printing press, is producing its version of the pamphlet. And, as before, they serve myriad purposes. The money-making middleman, the one that sees the profitability of a book and provides its glossy covers and pays for the book tours is not what books were all about. Experiments like the Borders program, are responding to the Web with purely commercial purposes. One hopes that authorship online will not succumb to the market quite yet, but it will. Fortunately, there will be publishers of publishers and the Bloomsbury groups will have their online Hogarth Presses.
John Culleton on February 25, 2008 12:56 PM:
It is a very simple game, once you understand the rules.
There are roughly 200,000 new titles every year.
Half of more of these come from the various forms of subsidy/vanity presses.
These subsidy titles almost without exception do not sell enough copies
to cover expenses. The important reviewers will discard them as soon
as they see the subsidy imprint. The unit costs are too high for
wholesaler discounts, and bookstores only buy from wholesalers.
Self published titles, done right, have a better
chance, but only if the book is marketable and
marketed. Poetry, memoirs, polemics are generally not salable.
Targeted fiction (erotic romance, humorous crime fiction involving pets)
can succeed if marketed properly (prepub reviews etc.)
For books describing successful self publishing and marketing see my short list:
bowerbird on February 25, 2008 5:35 PM:
> These subsidy titles almost without exception
> do not sell enough copies to cover expenses.
except, when you have no "expenses",
there's no need to "cover" expenses...
this exciting "zero-cost" type of print-on-demand
enables a new breed of non-commercial publications.
who cares about the brick-and-mortar stores?
don't you hear the music? tower records is dead!
Jeremy B on March 2, 2008 2:16 PM:
Self-publishing is simply a convenient starter mechanism
Possibly true, but there are certain very real doors that self-publishing can't open. As John mentioned, lot of reviewers won't touch self-published material, and self-publishing doesn't really aid any writer who is on an academic path. Distributors are another huge mechanism that isn't really "tooled" to work with self-publishers, although Amazon is cannily working around this latter one-- which is great, as long as you're content to have your work on sale at Amazon exclusively.
bowerbird on March 6, 2008 3:27 AM:
once the corporations can no longer make money
by publishing books, they'll exit very quickly.
(because making money is the reason they do it.)
and then everything will be "self-published"...