Drowning in Books

Publishers Weekly, the trade journal, noted in a recent article that in 2009 self-published books, which included those issued by vanity presses and micro-niche publishers, reached a staggering 764,448. That’s three-quarters of a million books, and it doesn’t even include the “traditional” books from commercial publishers. That number: 288,355. Not all of the latter are intended for the public; they include textbooks and other specialized publications, but still! Put them together and you are talking about more than a million books published in just one year.

It’s even more astounding when you take into consideration that the number of book readers in proportion to the population is not high. In 2002, the National Endowment for the Arts reported that only 57% of American adults had read a book that year. It hasn’t gotten better since then. According to a poll take in 2007 by Associated Press/Ipsos one in four Americans read no books at all, and that for those who did read the average number was only seven per year.

So while it appears that interest is reading books is dropping off, it is also true that the interest in publishing is growing. Everyone wants to have someone read their writing, thus it should come as no surprise that many turn to vanity-publishing and self-publishing to “get it out there.” The result of those decisions is the focus of this post because despite the Submission Guidelines we have for those seeking to send books to BiblioBuffet for review consideration, we are receiving more e-mails, press releases, and books that are self-published or vanity-published.

We just don’t hear from the authors either. Earlier this week I received an e-mail from a successful publicist whose name is familiar to us. We have reviewed a couple of his clients’ books in the past, and they were good. However, in this e-mail he listed a book that had been published by Lulu, a printer with a good reputation for quality but a printer nonetheless. Anyone can upload anything to Lulu and create a book at a reasonable cost. But it is not a published book, at least by our definition. A published book doesn’t always mean high quality but it does mean that it was professionally edited and produced by a publishing house that thought it had an audience and was willing to put its money behind it in the form of an author advance, editorial guidance, copy editing, professional design, high-end printing, catalog inclusion, review copies, and marketing and publicity. And it will be found in bookstores.

Books printed by vanity  houses and by authors (self-published) may or may not have some of these benefits. If the author is willing to spring for a professional freelance editor and book designer the book will likely be indistinguishable from its commercially-produced competitor. But these are rare because professionals cost money. Lots of money. And relatively few authors have that to spend. So they edit themselves or ask a friend to do it. They might use a drawing or photograph they made, or they use clip art. The nuances that make up a fabulous cover (meaning it “reads” well) are missing because cover design is a highly specialized field. They don’t understand kerning, and leding and the reason behind them. They don’t understand the purpose of genuine editing. The most inexperienced may even still be caught in the “Golden Word Syndrome,” meaning they think that their words are perfect as is. And even if the writers are sufficiently experienced to want and use the best help they can get, they are faced with, as a book publisher once told  me, the fact that “as hard as writing and publishing a book is, it is at least ten times harder to market it.” And she was a successful small commercial publisher who had spent decades honing her writing craft, owning a weekly newspaper, and giving lectures before thinking about opening her own house.

She was, I fear, one of a type that is rapidly disappearing. Both today’s technology and, more worrisome, mindset focused on immediacy encourage writers to think that they can and are entitled to bypass the learning curve that successful writers (and publishers) know they must traverse. They have the “right” to do that, and now they have the ability with the help of technology providers like iUniverse, Lulu, and so on. And when that happens what usually results are books that are no better than a publisher’s slush pile, which mostly range from illiterate to mediocre. Except that they are now in book form.

But what looks like a book, talks like a book, and quacks like a book is not necessarily a book that should show its face in public. But every once in a while—a great while—there is a self-published or vanity-published book that should. It was one of these that the publicist was writing about. The author had credentials, had obtained professional services, and was going about it in exactly the right way. Yet we declined to request a review copy, and I gave the publicist my reason.

Within an hour I received a polite but irritated response wondering why it mattered that the author had used Lulu. I pointed him to our guidelines—which we have had in place the day we opened our doors—and apologized because I recognized that he had a valid reason to be irritated. He has standards too. He represents fine writers. The author was no doubt one. But BiblioBuffet is not going to change its policies for the few because if we did so the floodgates would open to the many. We have enough trouble handling the volume of mail we get now. The thought of 764,448 or more books flooding into us makes me nervous, especially because I have worked with slush piles. To say they are not pretty is an understatement. Read enough of one, and it was make you literally sick. Formatting the slush into book-like forms won’t improve it. So to those few quality authors who elect to self-publish or vanity-publish, I am sorry. Please try a commercial house next time. You won’t end up disappearing in the slush flood. And then we’ll consider your book for review.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Drowning in Books

  1. It’s clear you’ve given this subject a lot of thought, and your policy makes sense. Thanks.

    • It wasn’t an easy decision to make, Cynthia. I don’t miss seeing the slush piles or the vanity-published books. But I do sympathize with the authors who, after all, only want people to know about and appreciate their books. Denying their book even just consideration based on how they published can be difficult, even heartbreaking. But the truth is that even if BiblioBuffet had a hundred reviewers writing every day we couldn’t even begin to crack the flood of books put out by commercial houses. Some days it really does feel overwhelming.

  2. henry

    Nice piece, Lauren. Next time, though, it would be nice if you could mention publishers other than the “commercial houses” of your last sentence. Authors can take their projects to plenty of small independent publishers or to university presses–none of which are vanity presses, as you know–and publish a “real” book that has undergone all of the editorial development that you mention in your article. The “commercial houses” aren’t the only “real” publishers who publish good books.

    • Oh, oh, oh, you are right, Henry. When I say “commercial publishers,” I am including university presses and small and mid-size houses. We define commercial presses as those that have been in business a minimum of one year, have published two books that are not authored by anyone connected to the house, and have legitimate distribution. I will make that clear in all future posts.

  3. Pingback: Riding Waves of Literature or Drowning in Crap? « Behind the Words at BiblioBuffet

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