A vanity press is one that operates in one of two ways. Either it accepts a full-length manuscript – whether a novel or collection of poems – praising the author’s work with superlatives and charging such a generous profit margin on publishing the book. Or a vanity press publishes an anthology of ‘poems’ and encourages the authors to not only buy their own copies but encourage friends and relatives to buy copies as well. Some vanity publishers will charge extra for including a brief biography of the author, perhaps in exchange for a certificate stating the author has now joined a library of other writers who have paid for a biography. Both methods make a profit for the publisher who doesn’t actually need to bother marketing or promoting the books. On the face of it, these vanity presses simply fleece the naive and gullible into parting with too much money for books that don’t and won’t sell. So where’s the harm?
Consider these scenarios:-
The Radio Talk Show Host
A local poetry society has produced an anthology of poems selected by an established, respected poet. A caller complains that “none of the poems rhyme” and goes on to say that they were so disgusted with the anthology they threw it away. The DJ asks about the caller’s writing experience. The caller states they have a certificate confirming that they are a member of a library and have been published in many books. The DJ interrupts the caller’s list of books by asking if the caller has attended any writing courses. The caller hesitates, then attempts to list those publications again.
The problem is the local poetry society know full well that those publications are all vanity publications. But does the radio audience? Are listeners thinking “the caller’s vanity published therefore the anthology is worth buying because it’s real, contemporary poetry” or are they thinking “the caller’s got an impressive list of publications and a certificate, so the anthology must be rubbish.”
The Poetry Workshop
An open workshop: simply bring several copies of your poem, hand them round to the attendees, read your poem and wait for feedback. A new attendee produces their poem with a flourish. The other attendees, which include several widely published (properly published) poets with years of experience in critiquing poems. They offer constructive advice, indicating that a couple of lines don’t scan and suggest minor alterations to fix the problem and suggest alteratives to the cliché in the second stanza. The new attendee challenges every single comment, accusing the others of not understanding the point of the poem, of mis-reading the poem, of not understanding what poetry is about. To justify this, the new attendee produces a list of publications and argues the poem is complete and doesn’t need meddling with.
The Mourning Grandmother
A live literature event: several professional writers have read extracts from their published work. During the interval, a woman nudges the arm of one of the poets and pushes several pieces of paper in the poet’s face. “What do you think? Where can I get it published?” asks the grandmother. The poet suggests that the grandmother gives the poet chance to read it first. While the poet is reading, the grandmother turns to the other professional writers asking the same questions. The poet reads what appears to be a biography in what seems to be an attempt at rhyming couplets (“Oh, I must get to the shop/ I remembered, I must buy a mop” being a typical example), however, it becomes clear that this is a heart-felt piece about a much-loved grandchild who died from a terminal illness. The grandmother, who has worked herself into a fluster, is impatiently waiting an answer. “I’ve been published,” she says. “But I couldn’t afford to buy the anthology. So I never saw my poem in print. Where can I publish this one? You’ll know, you’re a writer as well.”
What do you say?
The Local Newspaper
The editor gives a talk and mentions some ideas for maintaining and increasing readership. One of those suggested ideas could be a poetry supplement – a double page spread featuring readers’ poems. An audience member (a novelist) asks what payment will be offered to the poets if the poetry supplement goes ahead. None, is the editor’s response. The novelist points out that locally there are some established published poets who would welcome the opportunity to promote their work to a wider audience and get paid for it so why is no payment forthcoming? The editor’s replies, “Well, there are all these people who write poems and who will pay for copies of the anthologies. So we don’t need to pay them.”
The poetry supplement didn’t go ahead. I don’t think I have to spell out why.
The Local Independent Bookshop
Poetry presses are run on a shoestring and it’s not usual for for a press to be run by one person as a side-line to a full or part time job, a writing career and family commitments. Consequently all poetry presses expect the authors to do as much as they can to promote their books. There’s no marketing department to send out review copies and run promotions. There are no sales representatives to visit bookstores and persuade them to stock copies of the books. Most poets hold readings and workshops to sell their books. Naturally, it helps if poets can persuade their local independent bookshops to take copies on a sale or return basis.
The problem is that bookshops don’t like being approached by poets. The staff are suspicious. The only poetry publishers they’ve heard of are Bloodaxe or Carcanet. They suspect that, because the poet is approaching them rather than the press, the books have been self-published. Actually looking at a copy of the book and reading one or two poems to establish whether the poems are any good or not is too time-consuming and too much like hard work. Their default position is no.
A local bookshop were not interested in a book by a local poet published by an established, respected poetry publisher, despite the poet offering copies of reviews, a list of publishing credits and emphasising membership of a local group of professional writers. The bookshop were not shifting from their default position. But then, the bookshop needed local writers for a series of readings. The poet volunteered, sending copies of reviews, publishing credits and mentioning membership of a local group of professional writers. Needing to fill slots, the bookshop said yes. The poet turned up on time and read. The bookshop realised this poet was real and offered to stock their book.
Vanity presses do harm and their reach is beyond the naive and gullible and impacts on genuine writers.