Vanity Press vs. Real Publishing

The advent of the e-book may seem to have made the distinction between professional and vanity press publishing less important. Electronic distribution obscures the traditional gate-keeping functions of publishing houses, distributors, and booksellers.

The electronic-format vanity houses argue it is possible now for authors to go straight to consumers and therefore skip all the hypercritical (and hypocritical?) publishing professionals. One of these outfits is now bragging that it “published” 92,000 new titles in 2011. How much attention could have been paid to any of these titles? I have heard it said that attractive covers and careful editing are wasted on e-books.

But is it true that the traditional publishing gatekeepers are passé?

If you have been paying attention to the chatter that has surrounded the rise of e-books, you will have noticed that a new word, curate, is popping up everywhere. While “gatekeeper” has a nasty, undemocratic sound to it, “curate” is drawn from the classy world of museums and sounds tasteful and fair. It might almost be a pleasure to be “curated.”

This new choice of words however is just spin, a distinction without a difference. While it is certainly true that plausible book-like objects can now be produced easily and cheaply—approximately a million new titles were published last year—all but a very small percentage of these have no business taking up bookstore shelf space or even being displayed on Web sites. They just aren’t good enough.

Somehow those of us who consume books will need a means of separating the wheat from the chaff. Otherwise the chaff will suffocate us. Somebody is going to have to curate this mess.

(This is an excerpt from an essay that will soon appear in the Independent, the magazine of the Independent Book Publishers Association,

Curt Matthews

CEO, IPG/Chicago Review Press, Inc.

Curt Matthews is the founder and CEO of Chicago Review Press, Incorporated, which is the parent company of Chicago Review Press and of Independent Publishers Group (IPG), the first independent press distributor and now the second largest. Curt has served on the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) board and has also served as its president.

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2 thoughts on “Vanity Press vs. Real Publishing

  1. I am of two minds on the topic, but what I do know is that I’m not too concerned about a need to curate. For one, this is likely similar to the issues that were brought up with the advent of mass production of books and print materials–suddenly, it was so much easier to get stuff out there. With ebooks, it’s just another step in that direction (rather than a revolutionary change).

    Two, I don’t think we should underestimate the reader. A person browsing the shelves (be they digital of physical) has a long list of tools at her disposal, be it the amazon/Smashwords excerpt preview, the perusal of goodreads/NYT book reviews, a look at the book/stats for whether the novel was published by Penguin, Luna, or, or an impulse buy based on a clever blurb and an attractive cover. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that every reader develops the browsing mechanism that gets him to the kind of book he wants, be it a vampire romance novel, or Pulitzer-worthy expose.

    I know I trust myself to find the kind of books I want to read through the internet, through friends, through blogs, through booksellers…(and the venues go on and on). I don’t need someone to come in and curate the variety, even if it were posible.

    I am my own gatekeeper. I like holding the keys.

  2. Melvin says:

    I think that the conception of “curation” described in this essay comes close to the mark, but it misses an important point that the reader brings up above: Marketing.

    Sure, curation in a way is marketing. You are separating the few from the many, and in doing so you make the few (in a sense) stand out more strongly.

    But as Canary points out, she has no problem finding the books she wants, because they are all over the internet.

    I think the point she misses is that self-published books don’t get found on the internet. Just because Amazon has a search engine result for a book doesn’t mean anyone will ever find it.

    Self-published books don’t have marketing or publicity teams behind them. Searches overlook the hundreds or thousands of self-published works that will never be visible to an important newspaper or an influential blog.

    Marketing, in short, is the second major difference between a vanity press and a serious publishing house, and the difference matters.

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