- by Vonna Harper
Like most who see writing as a business, a career, and a passion, I’ve been closely following the backlash to Harlequin’s recent decision to associate with a vanity press. I don’t need to get more detailed than that because I believe everyone reading this blog knows what I’m talking about.
What I want to spend some time on is my personal experience with vanity/self publishing. No, I didn’t nor would I ever go that route. IMO that would be akin to buying a diploma that says I’m a brain surgeon. I could flash that diploma around, but hopefully everyone is too smart to let me anywhere near their brain with a scalpel. If I haven’t dedicated myself to learning how to make words work, if I haven’t educated myself about how this business works, and repeatedly knocked on publishers’ doors, why would I assume that paying to put my words in a book makes me a WRITER?
Okay, I feel better now. Unfortunately I’m not going to for long because I’ve been thinking a lot about two people I care a lot about. One signed with one of those piranhas. The other in essence went to Kinkos. The piranha victim is a man in his late thirties, married with two children. He belonged to a critique group and was working on a sweeping historical. Week after week he’d bring his work to the group. Each week the other members would tell him his action scenes moved but characterization was nonexistent. Instead of revising, he’d jump into the next battle. Then, despite warnings from the members, he signed with a vanity press. In order to bring his book out, he borrowed thousands from his in-laws. Soon after he lost his job, his wife had to leave a preschooler and an infant at home and go to work, and his in-laws haven’t seen a penny of repayment. The unsold books fill too much of his bedroom.
The Kinko woman was a teacher with a terminally ill husband. She had a dream of writing a book that would appeal to reluctant boy students. Although family members warned her that she was a babe in the publishing woods, she took a night class on auto repairs to research her topic and wrote her book on a typewriter. She paid to have 300 copies bound and began making the rounds of school districts and educational materials shows. That’s where she encountered the big education publishers and learned of their lock on districts’ budgets. Her books are in her closet and under her bed. Her husband is dead. That woman is my mother.
As a incredibly grateful member of Ninc, the wisdom and friendships that have evolved from that membership are what keeps me sane in a sometimes insane business. Hopefully I bring what I’ve learned from the world of hard knocks to this organization. Undoubtedly other Ninc members have done so. We have each others’ backs.
In contrast, that young man and my mother swam alone in shark-filled waters. They’ve both been diminished by their failures. They’re out the money their ignorance cost them, but that’s only part of the story. Their self confidence has been shaken. And their joy of writing destroyed.
If an unpublished writer contemplating opening their wallets reads this, please, please heed the warnings from those who live in the trenches. Believe me, we understand your dream of becoming a published writer. We’ve been there and in many respects we’re still there. But vanity presses aren’t the path to that dream. Instead, they can become the nightmare.