Everybody seems to know about 'vanity publishing' these days. From the #acknowledged heights of the literary #establishment to the most obscure corners of the Internet, you regularly come across people pouring scorn on those who pay to have their work published. This scorn is often very liberally broadcast, bespattering authors who, quite successfully in some cases, self-publish in order to fulfill niche or local markets. As the administrator of a club for authors and illustrators with all sorts of career paths, I spend a lot of time defending the 'indies' from cries of 'vanity' - but with my other hat on, as an independent publisher, I wonder why no-one cries 'vanity' when people pay through the nose to have books offered up for sale by big-name sellers.
Many people say the way to distinguish a vanity publisher from a worthwhile one is to find out whether they are making their money from the authors or from book sales. I think it would be very interesting to ask the same question of booksellers. A traditional bookseller is a person who owns a shop and orders books - either paying a discounted price up front or arranging a sale-or-return deal with the publisher, and paying when the books are sold. In recent years, many traders have set up businesses on similar lines on the internet. Some go one step more 'virtual' by simply displaying book-cover images on their websites and only ordering books from the publisher or distributor when buyers order one. There are also publisher/booksellers who 'print on demand' (POD) only actually producing a book when it is sold. These net-based businesses amount to the same thing though. The trader is making money by selling books and doesn't get paid if he or she doesn't sell the books.
There are enormous exceptions though - enormous and very significant ones. Let's think about the big online book stores and the corporate chain bookstores. We all know that small bookshops are suffering, and we tend to say that this is because shopping online is easier and the big, web-based booksellers are getting all the profits - but how much of their profits are they getting from book sales? If you aren't an indie author, you may not have heard of Amazon Advantage - it's a system this web-based bookseller has set up in order to charge authors or publishers for stocking and displaying their books. And when you count the number of hopeful indie authors and small presses out there who are paying for this 'advantage', you can see that Amazon have guaranteed themselves an income higher than most people ever dream of without having to sell a single book.
Similarly, chain bookstores such as Waterstone's collect large amounts of money from publishers and authors by charging for putting books in prominent places, for entries in their Christmas catalogue, and for the composition of reviews and recommendations. And then there are distributors, who often charge around 50% of the cover price of a book in return for making it visible and quickly available to #bookshops and libraries. You may say they still have to sell books to get their money - but some distributors push booksellers info financial trouble by surcharging for small orders, and selling them set-up packages and various other services. Selling books is far from being their only means of earning money.
Now, back to vanity publishing for a moment. It is commonly understood that the biggest problem with vanity publishing is that it erodes standards - the author doesn't have to produce a well-written, interesting text, he or she just has to have enough cash to pay the publisher. That's why we say that you should never trust a publisher who doesn't need to sell the books in order to make money. I would now like to suggest that we apply the same rule to booksellers. If a business presents itself as a bookseller but is actually making its money from publishers or authors, I think it is doing us all the same disservice that vanity publishers are said to do. I also suggest that independent book shops are not falling by the wayside because internet shopping is easier, or because we've given up reading, but because they are facing devastating competition from companies who claim to be booksellers but are also shameless exploiters of the publishing industry. If we don't buy their books, little shops go bust. Big online ones survive because they just keep charging the authors.
So I am appealing to book lovers - put yourself in the place of this generation's aspiring, working writers: when you get the big break, and your own book hits the market, do you want to hand it over to a vanity bookseller, who will charge you or your publisher for every effort they make to market it, and make it look more or less like a desirable bestseller depending on how much you have paid them, or do you want it to be handled by a book lover who sells books for a living?
Please don't say the high street bookshop is doomed because no-one wants books any more, or because no-one can tear themselves away from their computer screens. Most book lovers want the same thing - a big, comfortable room full of books, staffed by book lovers who can talk about, and find, the book you want even if it isn't on the shelf at the moment. This isn't a pipe-dream - even the most hardened business people will agree that when enough people want something, it becomes good business to provide it - so don't despair. Go encourage your local bookshop, firstly by buying your books in it, and secondly by spreading the term 'vanity bookseller' until people distrust the traders who don't rely on book sales, and pour scorn on them as much as they do on vanity publishers.
Look at it like this: If a book is on display in an independent bookshop, the shop owner has chosen it because he or she thinks it's one you will want to read. If it's prominent on a big commercial website, it just means the author or publisher has paid money.
But don't feel guilty about buying books online - if you can't get to, or don't have, a local independent bookshop, then look on the internet for the author or publisher of the book you want, and see if they have a web page where you can buy it direct. Both author and publisher will benefit more from your purchase if you do this. They may have to pay the postman to send the book to you but believe me, this is cheaper than paying a distributor and/or a vanity bookseller and it encourages the survival and growth of a genuine book industry.
Kay Green's short story collection 'Jung's People' was first published by the award winning Elastic Press, and is now available in an independent edition published by Circaidy Gregory Press - http://www.circaidygregory.co.uk.