Thursday, March 13, 2008

Oh the vanity

I found this article by Claire Kirch from today's Publishers Weekly quite interesting, and no, not because I'm a huge fan of romance novels.

The article concerns Tsaba House Press, a small Christian publisher, and their frustration with the Romance Writers of America, an organization that will not allow them to nominate one of their books for a Rita Award. Why, you ask, should poor li'l Tsaba be shut out so harshly? Because the RWA has decided they are, in fact, a vanity press, and I guess our tiny Tsaba don't really agree.

According to this article, the RWA is particularly concerned with Tsaba's boilerplate contract, which includes "such clauses as charging authors if manuscripts have to be retyped or if the press considers it necessary to add frontmatter and backmatter to the manuscript that the author didn’t provide." This makes the publisher "a subsidy or vanity press."

Tsaba, though publishing Christian fiction, has a dog in this fight:
“I really feel that this is an affront to independent publishers to try and once again group us in the category of subsidy presses and try to take away the advances the small publishers have made in the industry,” said Schwegerl. She founded Tsaba House in 2002 and uses a boilerplate contract she bought from self-publishing guru Dan Poynter’s Web site as part of a package of contracts and agreements.

The debate is about where we put the line between publishing and self-publishing. I've seen clauses in contracts about charging the author if they fix errors at too late a date, and I've seen language about the publisher having someone other than the author revise a book after publication if the author is unable to do so (don't think it's a matter of being unwilling - that would seem unfair). I'm not entirely clear on why these are the terms that are being used as the red flag.

But I do appreciate that someone is monitoring the line, as I think it's an important distinction to make, even if readers don't bother making it. Publishers should have an identity and take a certain ownership over a work. That seems fair to me. As an author, you come to an agreement with that publisher, and that agreement inevitably involves a certain amount of sharing. It's no longer just your work. I can appreciate that being scary, but one must remember the benefits. To put it in leftist terms, you're now in solidarity with other authors!

But of course many corporate publishers have abused this ownership and made it all look pretty nasty. They don't call the author back, they don't reprint the book, they package it horribly, etc.... Other authors are more like step-siblings battling for a parent's attention rather than fellow travelers. So self-publishers spring up and say they're giving you, dear author, the power to keep ownership of your work, with no sense of shared identity with other authors. And these self-publishers are becoming more sophisticated, getting books into better distribution and even promoting them or giving the author the tools to promote them him or herself. Hell, Alan Thicke did it! But it's all a paid service, and that makes me nervous. I don't want to outlaw them, but I also want to be clear that these companies are not endorsing the books they publish, but rather putting into print anything that comes their way, within reason, with a bit of cash. Thicke's "publisher," the Jodere Group, lists this as their philosophy: "Good books change lives." Huh. How might an editor build a cohesive list around that philosophy?

So it has a place, but more and more, it's pretending, to some extent, to be what it's not.

Is that you, Tsaba?! I can't say for sure myself, even if the RWA has made a ruling. I let my membership in the Romance Writers of America run out years ago...

I should also mention that my friend Christopher, now a star literary agent, sent me a link to this article by Ursula K. LeGuin for Harpers on the supposed "decline of reading" (sorry, need subscriber info to see whole thing - or go to library and get February's Harpers!). It's an excellent article that I'd highly recommend, and I may lift from it for my header here on this blog. She nails it in many ways. She critiques the concerns on reading, as well as the work of corporate publishers, announcing brazenly, "For years now, most editors have had to waste most of their time on an unlevel playing field, fighting Sales and Accounting." Here here!

I guess my favorite paragraph, typed by me so excuse any errors, is this one, for your enjoyment:
The book itself is a curious artifact, not showy in its technology but complex and extremely efficient: a really neat little device, compact, often very pleasant to look at and handle, that can last decades, even centuries. It doesn't have to be plugged in, activated, or performed by a machine; all it needs is light, a human eye, and a human mind. It is not one of a kind, and it is not ephemeral. It lasts. It is reliable. If a book told you something when you were fifteen, it will tell it to you again when you're fifty, though you may understand it so differently that it seems you're reading a whole new book.

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