Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Working Experience and Vanity Presses

I recently sent off a few agent queries for my romance novel that contained the following biographical paragraph:

"[Cut for privacy by the Rejector, but basically she says she was an editorial assistant at a small press and goes into what she did there]."

Now I'm wondering if "vanity press" is really the right term to use in this case. Vanity presses are demonized by bloggers, but the company I worked for was perfectly harmless. We didn't swindle writers. In fact, we didn't accept any outside manuscript submissions at all -- we developed everything in-house with the help of the artist we were devoted to promoting. At the time that I worked there, we understood ourselves to be a vanity press in the most pure sense: a press devoted to one person's vanity.

Would you mind taking a look at [the company's] web site and letting me know what you think? I'm afraid that in misusing a common publishing term, I have shown myself to be an idiot. If [this press] isn't a vanity press, then what is it?

A side issue is whether or not my experience in publishing is even worth mentioning at all. I have no idea, and I'm almost afraid to ask.

So there are two issues I see here:

(1) You are wondering if you worked for a vanity press. Well, you didn't work for Vanity Press, which was actually the name of a major self-publishing company before the word "self-publishing" existed. When I was 14, I submitted a manuscript to them, not knowing any better, and lo-and-behold, they accepted me. I was on top of the world. Then my mom looked at the fine print and said, "I'm not paying for this" and that was the end of that.

The term has come to main places that make you pay up front for copies printed, as opposed to POD presses where there's a more complex financial arrangement that requires only a set-up fee or no set-up fee at all but takes a larger chunk from each copy and prices the copies very high. POD only exists because the technology to print books quickly exists, and it didn't when I was 14.

Looking at the website, I honestly can't tell for sure, but if I had to guess I would err on the side of "oh look, a small press" and not discriminate. A lot of small, specialized presses like this one have different financial structures (for everyone else, this is a press for books about glassmaking).

(2) I think it's OK to mention you worked for a press unless it was one of those huge, corrupt vanity presses or POD scams like PublishAmerica or Authorhouse. Saying you edited for PublishAmerica is like saying "I have NEGATIVE editing experience, less than people who've never edited." We know those houses exist to make a profit and don't edit their work. If you did legitimate work at a legitimate press, don't worry about the structure and mention it.

That said, the paragraph you sent me that you put in your query was fairly long, and I would cut it down to two lines, max. Editorial experience doesn't make you a good writer; it makes you a good editor. Editing is a useful skill for writing, but it's part of the writing tool set, not the whole of it. In other words, your book might still suck even if you were the CEO of Random House after working your way up from the mail room and through every editorial station before moving to executive positions. So give it a line or two because it shows you know how to edit (and would thus be capable of doing so if we asked) and focus on your novel.


Anonymous said...

I interned at a small press and did a lot of editing. I asked an agent if this would be useful to mention in a query letter. I was told that this said nothing about my writing experience, and it really didn't matter. So I've decided to keep it out.

Anonymous said...

If you're talking about querying a novel, I don't think anything matters except whether or not the agent thinks s/he might be able to sell the story.

Not that I'm an expert, mind you--I'm still unpublished myself; however, I have been getting requests for partials and personalized rejections, and there is nothing about any writing or writing related work experience in my query whatsoever. I only mention my degree and would you like to represent my "new novel."

Anonymous said...

I feel so clueless right now. I saw a book on Amazon that had similarities to the one I am writing, so I checked out the publisher. It was PublishAmerica. I checked out there website and they seemed OK since they said that they would not require any $$ from the author. I was thinking that maybe if all the publishing companies I know about reject my novel, maybe I would send it there. I had no idea that they were "evil." Is there a place where you can look up different publishing companies to determine if they are legitimate?

Lea Ann McCombs said...

I was wondering about an Oklahoma-based publishing company called Tate Publishing. A local author was featured in our newspaper as his first children's book was being released and he gushed about the wonderful Tate Publishing who accepted his manuscript on the first attempt. My warning lights went on and I looked them up on-line and it is hard to tell if they fall into the category of "evil vanity publishers" or something else. Have you heard of them? Are they reputable?

Anonymous said...

The best place to look up publishers is Preditors & Editors. Absolute Write is also a very good choice.

Tate is a vanity press.

Issendai said...

The Absolute Write Water Cooler Bewares and Background Check forum is a good place to search for information or to post questions.

You can also pull up excellent information about most publishers with a plain Google search. Try Googling for the publisher's name plus "scam." Or Google for the publisher's name alone--many scambusting sites rank high enough in Google that their comments about a given publisher will appear on the first page or two of search results.

If these methods don't pull up useful information--say, if the press is very new--then look for linguistic markers that indicate that the company may be a scam. Also keep an eye out for whether the press seems to be more interested in signing on new writers, or selling books. Good presses keep their books front and center and shove the link to their writers' guidelines off to the side; bad presses pitch to new writers right on their home page and shove the link to their books for sale off to the side. That tells you who pays the publisher's bills. You want a publisher who appears to cater to writers as little as possible. No talk about understanding writers' hopes and dreams, no front-page wooing, just a set of basic guidelines, an address to send queries to, and a quick return to the business at hand: selling books. They won't be like that if they sign you on as a new author, but that's the face you want them to present in the marketplace.

In response to your question about Tate Publishing, Lea Ann, a Google search for "Tate Publishing" pulls up several first-page links to discussions about how they're a vanity press. Tate's site opens with a pitch to authors that contains several linguistic markers ("hopes and dreams" talk, discovering unknown authors) and contains references to only two books available for sale--yep, scam scam scammity scam.