I’m not a historian and I don’t feel like doing detailed research to back this up, but I think we can all agree that the publishing industry is evolving. It used to be that as a fledgling writer, if you couldn’t get an agent, you couldn’t get a publisher. For decades (maybe even a century), that was how writers got their start. First, they had to be good enough to convince an agent to take them on, and then they had to be good enough for the agent to sell to a publishing house. Of course, if that didn’t happen, it was never the agents fault—poor writer.
If publishers needed a filter, then agents were the first sieve, after that, their internal review committee was the cheesecloth in the colander. If you made it through that straining challenge, you were rewarded with a contract that most likely had no advance, a ten to fifteen percent commission rate, and out of that, you had to give fifteen percent to your agent. And lest you thought you might out smart that agent by renegotiating the fee—guess again. Your check from the publisher didn’t come to you. In fact, it wasn’t even made out to you, it was usually a joint check made out to you and your agent, or just made out to your agent. They took their cut before you saw dollar one.
I think it was sometime in the mid-nineties, computers were commonplace and word processors made everybody an editor (yeah right). Anyway, mom and pop publishing houses were springing up faster than Dell could ship PC’s and printers. Soon, there were thousands of publishing options available to the would-be writer, and as time went on, demand and sophistication increased too. The big publishers had a real problem because while product quality was going up, competition was keeping prices affordable. How affordable? I wonder if anyone has ever surveyed people who say they’ve written a book, and asked them if they still have a garage full of unsold copies. That’s how affordable.
Sure, anybody who wanted to write a book and publish it, could, at their expense, but then what? Yep, the big New York publishers had a problem: it was called change. But they also had a huge safety line—distribution. Maybe it was then that the term vanity publisher was coined and the PR campaign was so expertly employed, that the term took on a negative connotation that still resonates today. It implies that you aren’t good enough for legitimate publishers, so you paid someone to put your words in a book.
In many cases, this was probably true but not all, yet none, at least none that I know of ever broke through. The sad thing is, we as readers are the ones who pay the price; we will never get the chance to read those garage classics, those backyard bestsellers that may have been. Why? Because there were a lack of distribution channels fostered by a negative image that shut the independent author out of the industry.
It was looking pretty bleak until the Literary Gods took pity and sprung forth from the internet, the eBook. Hallelujah. Thank you Amazon. The distribution problem evaporated, but wait, the stigma of being self-published did not.
Well, it took some time but the independent author, the one who never majored in English Literature or went to journalism school, finally has a means to distribute. Sure, there is plenty of vanity publishing going on but that gets weeded out fast, as it should, by the free market. But for those of us who take our craft seriously and put in the time, effort, and money to perfect our work, the independent author has a place to turn, Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP).
Conventional publishers have the same problem they did before, and the PR campaigns are in gear. But the truth is, good writing is good writing, no matter where it’s published, and the truth is out.
I’ve never thought of myself as a Vanity Writer and I’ve never contracted with a Vanity Publisher. Today, my novel is published and I’m the writer/publisher. And you know what—I like it.