Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Vanity Anthologies

A while back my son posted a portion of a short story to a website that allows comments and critiques (theoretically, though I've never actually seen it happen). A few days ago, he was contacted by the representative of a company saying they had noticed his writing (it is good), and they were putting together an anthology of short stories by new writers. Would he be interested in submitting a 1000-word story?

My son responded asking for more information, and received an email back from one of the two (!) guys who run the company. From their response and the impersonality of the original email (which he showed me today), it's obvious that they simply spammed everyone on this website. I went to the company's website and read the information there. The "company" is really just a vanity press. Although they aren't charging authors to include their stories in the "anthology," they are up-front about the fact that they don't expect to sell copies to anyone but friends and family of the author.* A lot of their statements show that they are somewhat ignorant about the publishing world, though. They say they formed their company when one of the partners was unable to get his book published due to "getting the run-around" from publishers. I've never known a publisher to turn down a good story -- for any reason. Odds are the book simply wasn't any good. That's why people use vanity publishers anyway. But they also talk about how the "author gets to keep the copyright" -- duh, you never sign away the copyright; you just license someone the right to publish your work. They also say they will shop the book of short stories to agents to see if there are any authors the agents are interested in. Sorry, agents decide if they are interested by looking at submitted work -- and they almost never deal in short stories.

The bottom line is this: writers get paid to write. If all you want is a bound book with your name on it, by all means, find a print-on-demand service and print a few copies of your masterpiece. It's definitely cool to see your name on the cover of a book. But don't pretend that it means you're published. These guys aren't trying to scam people, I don't think -- they don't make any money at all if you don't buy the book -- but I do think they are misrepresenting themselves as a "publishing company." Even on their FAQ they mention that the two guys met in business school. This definitely sounds like a project cooked up in a classroom. The idea of a "vanity anthology" is a bit of a twist on the old theme, but it doesn't change the tune. Vanity presses are not evil (generally), in spite of what you may have heard. But you do need to always keep in mind exactly what you are buying -- and you are buying your book, not some reader. It's just as important for a writer to learn the business of publishing as the mechanics of creation. Sometimes it's easy to forget that not every young writer knows how things work. My son was flattered to be asked to contribute to this book. I think he's starting to realize that everyone was asked to contribute -- they didn't even know his name. For that feeling of disappointment, I'm pretty pissed off at this company. They may not be misrepresenting themselves in a legal sense, but to an inexperienced writer they certainly are.

*In this way it's very much like the "Who's Who Among American High School Students" book my parents were suckered into buying when I was in high school -- anyone can get in and the only real "honor" is seeing your name and picture in print. You still had to buy the book to do it, something none but those inside would do.

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