Publish and be damned? What is vanity publishing?
In the old days it was easy. Vanity publishing was when you paid someone to get your work published and no one offered any critical appraisal of the quality of your work. Self publishing was seen as a variant of vanity publishing by those who refuse to accept that a writer might be able to be a critically competent judge of their own work (or hire/work with people who might also be critically competent before they published.) The ‘gatekeepers’ or ‘industry’ professionals (the elite?) jealously guarded publishing, feeding us all the myth that unless a book was published by a ‘reputable’ publisher (one in their ‘industry’ club – the ones with the money!) then it wasn’t worth the paper it was written on. And writers and readers pretty much bought into the myth. Because people don’t tend to look beneath the ‘quality’ statement and ask ‘who decides quality?’ and on what basis? And with what bias or agenda?
With the emergence of digital publishing the genie has somewhat come out of the bottle. While we are still a way away from successfully unmediated relationships between writer and reader (a simple communicative act based on personal taste and common ground) there are more ways of finding writers than simply going with the flow, following the herd, liking what you are told to like, buying what is most ‘in yer face.’
The mediators of course want to hang onto their market dominance. Consequently to get ‘visible’ as an indie you either have to spend a lot of money or put in a lot of marketing work. Being a good writer is never enough. You have to find people who either a) agree you are a good writer or b) like what you write and don’t care whether someone else says it’s good or bad. We (as readers at least) have been communally programmed against such freedom of creative thought. We tend to be blind to the fact that we only ‘see’ things that other people want us to see and that these are usually due to some underlying financial/economic imperative.
It’s often said that Content is King for the reader and the writer. Well, Product is king for the distributor and publishers are caught between the two. To distribute ‘product’ most effectively they have to convince us that their ‘product’ is ‘quality’ – ie that they are providing us with ‘content is king.’ Some do, some don’t. You have to make up your own mind. Their job is to make it up for you.
What is ‘good’? is a question which we should debate contextually. Vanity is not good. We all know that don’t we? But what’s in a word? For me, at the root of it I believe ‘good’ or vanity depends on the quality of the book. And here I mean not only the physical quality but the quality of content too. Obviously there is subjectivity in ‘what is a good novel?’ but the argument is too often abused in an attempt to dismiss perfectly good work as ‘vanity.’ Always by those with an ‘agenda’ of their own be that political or economic. In the ‘real’ world it’s not that hard to work out if a novel is good or bad if by that you mean well or poorly written. Beyond taste there are certain basic literary criteria which can and do apply the same as they do to all creative art forms. But a ‘good’ work is not the same as a work that ‘I like.’ Opinion is not enough when it comes to ‘good’ in writing. I don’t like Jane Austen but I can give you a list of reasons as to why she is a ‘good’ writer and explain, using accepted critical standards (as objective as it’s possible to be in life) what is ‘good’ about her writing. Obviously if you are a dyed in the wool post modernist you’re not going to buy my opinion, but I’m afraid I pity the view that ‘a work is only as good as its reader’ It’s a nice handy view for the ‘elite’ to pedal to keep the ‘masses’ in their place but it doesn’t wash as a critical argument for me. There are also people doing many things which ‘subvert’ the ‘established’ critical ‘rules’ which people may or may not like – Orwell divides books into ‘good’ novels and ‘good bad’ novels and I think I know what he means. It's certainly worth pondering on the concept.
My personal opinion on ‘vanity’ publishing is that the vanity exists if the work is not what it purports to be. Driven by ego rather than by more relevant literary criteria. (My definition may just be my 'opinion' backed by experience. Make your own choice. Define how you like. I'm not up for an argument, just saying what I think. Other opinions are available - and valid!)
Getting their work read is important to most if not all writers (writing after all is usually a communicative act) but retaining control of the publication process is also important. The switch is from mediated to unmediated. Which is not the same as vanity. Or doesn’t have to be. And this is part of the rise of the ‘indie’ author concept (and reality). Bad writing will always be there. Good writing will always be there. What writing is promoted and published and marketed and funded is more about the economic and political mores of a society. And whatever you are told, at present the ‘reader’ does not choose the reading matter – the reader is ‘sold’ what to choose and then ‘sold’ the idea that they’ve chosen it freely. But finally, with epublishing it may be possible to change the paradigm. To stop telling people what they ‘should’ like or what they ‘must have’ and give them informed choice. Let them choose. Show them the options without ramming them down their neck. I think the most significant thing about the epublishing ‘revolution’ in which we are all engaged to some degree is that it may afford the possibility for writers to begin to have a new and more direct relationship with their readers. “Which will allow readers to choose their own ‘good.’ Irrespective of what may be objectively ‘good’ perhaps but equally, they may start to learn how to judge writing using appropriate critical ‘rules’ rather than commercially. That, I hope, is the future of indie ebook publishing and that’s what I find exciting about the whole new ‘indie’ ebook publishing ‘revolution.’ Finally writers (and a lot of good writers) are realising that there’s more than constantly aspiring towards the holy grail of mass market publications. Being on the supermarket shelves is not every writer’s aspiration. We are beginning to be free to reclaim our means of production and to take responsibility and make choices for ourselves.