Thursday, 31 January 2008

The vanity publishing route - is it worth it?

These days, many authors, new and established, experience frustration at trying to get manuscripts published by commercial publishers – sometimes they are lucky if the publisher even gets to the basic stage of reading their work. It is perhaps due to this situation that some authors – aided by digital publishing, which has made book production a good deal cheaper – have published their books themselves.

There is, however, a third option – vanity publishing. A vanity press offers to publish a book provided the production costs are financed by the author. These production costs will, however, include a built-in profit for the press, thus guaranteeing an income irrespective of book sales. After all, unlike genuine publishers, vanity presses do not undertake the promotion, marketing or distribution of books that they produce – this is left to the author.

The press also usually promises professional editorial assistance and advice, and the book – the number of copies of which is determined by the amount that the author is able to pay – is delivered to the author within the relatively short period of a couple of months or so.

In certain circumstances, such a scenario is not necessarily bad in itself. For example: your favourite hobby is writing poems about your pet cat. The end of the year is approaching and you feel that an excellent idea for a Christmas present would be to collect your poems, publish about 20 copies of them through a vanity press, and circulate them privately as presents to family and friends. In this instance, no harm is done.

However, the usual situation involving vanity presses can prove quite damaging. A new author produces a novel that may not be of any literary merit. But with a vanity press, the sole qualification for publication is the ability to pay – whether the book is good or bad. Authors of bad literary works may, therefore, be misled into believing they have a saleable masterpiece on their hands due simply to the fact that someone is willing to publish it – even if at a cost.

While some vanity presses are upfront about the requirement for payment and will provide quotes prior to the signing of the contract, there are some that will hide the payment factor among a series of clauses and conditions, or while not actually stipulating that the production will have to be paid for, will state that a ‘consultation fee’ will be charged – the amount of which authors will only discover after they have legally bound themselves to the contract.

Despite promises, editorial consultation is generally poor or nonexistent. I have known of cases where even author’s corrections have been ignored. The print and paper quality may be poor, the cover design and colour reproduction inferior, and the binding weak. I recently saw a vanity published book with print on some pages so faint that it was difficult to read, the edges of the book had been trimmed skew, and the spine was falling apart – a matter of months after delivery to the author.

But even if the production is of acceptable quality, authors may encounter difficulty when they try to market and distribute the book. Vanity presses generally lack credibility among distribution agents, book editors, and bookstores; the reason being that it is known that the book would have been published solely on the basis of ability to pay and not on merit. Authors may, therefore, be sitting with 500 copies of a book that no one is willing to promote or buy, while the vanity press has already made its profit.

For some time it has been the payment factor – even if stated upfront – that has been the controversial aspect in vanity publishing. But due to the fact that more and more publications these days, especially in South Africa, are funded, wholly or in part, I do not regard the request for payment to be an issue in itself.

If the production of a book is funded and published by a genuine publisher, that book will probably have literary merit, plus the publisher will be both able and willing to provide the author with the services that a publisher should be able to – which is not the case with vanity presses. Furthermore, a genuine publisher has an interest in producing a quality product to ensure sales revenue, while a vanity press – which has already secured its profit upfront – has no such incentive.

Should you approach, or be approached by, a publisher whom you have never heard of, or know little about, it is worthwhile to:

· Establish whether the publisher has a website and check it out. Study the wording carefully to ascertain whether it may be a vanity publisher
· Find out what titles the publisher has produced and try to locate copies. If you are successful, study the quality of production and try to get a grasp of the literary merit of the titles
· Find out if the major bookstores store these titles; if not, phone the respective purchasing managers to find out if they have heard of the publisher, and if so, what they know of the business
· If you receive a contract from the publisher, study it carefully to ascertain whether there are any references to the possibility that you may be required to pay towards the production of the book. If so, query them with the publisher. As an independent publisher myself, I can appreciate a publisher’s reluctance to foot the bill for unwarranted costs such as excessive author’s corrections at final proof stage, so such clauses may not necessarily be an indication that you are dealing with a vanity press
· Check in the contract if the publisher does not undertake, or guarantee to undertake, promotion or distribution. Remember that a genuine publisher makes its income through the sale of books, so if a so-called publisher does not undertake promotion and distribution, this begs the obvious question of how the business is earning its money. If there is no reference in the contract to promotion or distribution, query it with the publisher and get a written commitment to these tasks

Should you choose to go the vanity press route, then fine. As I have said, some vanity press productions are of an acceptable quality, though promotion and distribution may still present a problem. It depends on what your expectations and requirements are. But in the age of digital publishing, I consider vanity presses to be unnecessary. Author can, given a bit of learning and time, publish their own work – the production of which they can oversee themselves – at substantially reduced costs.

(This piece was originally published as Dye Hard Press Newsletter 3)

Monday, 28 January 2008

Dancing on the edge of a volcano - Val Sing

Published by Dye Hard Press in 1996 (out of print).

Thursday, 24 January 2008

All nine South African provinces spend only 25% of library grant

A task team should investigate why all nine provinces had spent less than 25% of the R180m first tranche of a R1bn grant Finance Minister Trevor Manuel allocated to public libraries last year, the Democratic Alliance (DA) said yesterday. Read more here

Monday, 21 January 2008

So Why Compromise?

The Secret Hour - Gary Cummiskey

Published in 1994, this was the first title by Dye Hard Press (out of print).

Friday, 18 January 2008

Burning Aloes - Alan Finlay

Published by Dye Hard Press in 1994 (out of print).

Brutal Syrup - Roy Blumenthal

Published by Dye Hard Press in 1996 (out of print).

Monday, 14 January 2008

Still Worlds

Icarus Rising: Selected Poems - Gus Ferguson

Published by Dye Hard Press in 1995 (out of print).

Sunday, 13 January 2008

Green Dragon 3

Published by Dye Hard Press in 2005, with poetry and prose by Daniel Abdal-Hayy Moore, Kelwyn Sole, Tania van Schalkwyk, Abdul Milazi, Allan Kolski Horwitz, Kobus Moolman, Ingrid Andersen, Michelle McGrane, Vonani Bila, Silke Heiss, Arja Salafranca, Richard Fox, Bernat Kruger, Khulile Nxumalo, Gus Ferguson, Liesl Jobson, Gertrud Strauss, Joop Bersee, Alan Finlay, Paul Grillo, Lesego Rampolokeng, Philip Hammial, David wa Maahlamela, Colleen Higgs and Gary Cummiskey. (Out of print)

Thursday, 10 January 2008

Green Dragon 1

Published by Dye Hard Press in 2002. Poetry and prose by Kobus Moolman, Kay Benno, Alan Finlay, Thachom Poyil Rajeevan, Michael Vines, Keith Gottschalk, Gus Ferguson, Michael Cope, Maria Petratos, Philip Hammial, Roy Blumenthal and Arja Salafranca. (Out of print)

Green Dragon 2

Published by Dye Hard Press in 2003. Contains poetry and prose by Daniel Abdal-Hayy Moore, Allan Kolski Horwitz, Paul Wessels, Sumeera Dawood, Kobus Moolman, Gus Ferguson, Richard Fox, Aryan Kaganof, Alan Finlay, Philip Hammial, Joop Bersee and Arja Salafranca.
Amazingly, some copies are still in stock and are available at R20 per copy (including postage) from Dye Hard Press, Po Box 783211, Sandton 2146.

Wednesday, 09 January 2008

Romancing the dead

The meeting takes place at Unit 305 at 2am. It’s a funeral ceremony and all the sleeping relatives sit on the floor of the bedroom around the bed where the corpse is laid. Once the sleepers have been given the pills to swallow, this will allow them to communicate with the dead who will feel their bodies rejuvenating and may even emerge from their winding sheets and float up to the ceiling.

An area of concern is that the pills may cause the sleepers’ minds to drift onto other matters, when they should be focused on the newly departed. Also, in some rare cases, the pills are known to cause the sleepers to start spouting what they consider to be beautiful lines of poetry but which sound like the trumpets of hell to the dead, terrifying them into remaining laid where they are and closed off to any contact.

It is also important not to draw attention from the police about this newly discovered but actually very ancient operation. A few years ago, the police did hear rumours of such activities, but getting their facts mixed up, tried instead to create a homunculus.

There is also the fear that policemen allowed access to the ceremony may take advantage of the situation and sodomise one or even several sleepers.

Sunday, 06 January 2008

The Red Laughter of Guns in Green Summer Rain - Philip Zhuwao & Alan Finlay

Published by Dye Hard Press in 2002 (out of print).

The fire in which we burn - Arja Salafranca

Published by Dye Hard Press in 2000 (out of print).

Head - Gary Cummiskey and Roy Blumenthal

Published by Dye Hard Press in 1998, cover design by Roy Blumenthal (out of print).

Electric Juice: an anthology

Published by Dye Hard Press in 2000 ( out of print).

Reigning Gloves - Gary Cummiskey

Published by Dye Hard Press in 2001. Cover design by Roy Blumenthal (out of print).

Saturday, 05 January 2008

Thursday, 03 January 2008

Dye Hard Press - an argument for independent publishing

Dye Hard Press was launched in 1994 almost by accident and on a shoestring budget. For some time I had been frustrated by the lack of poetry publishing outlets in South Africa, whether in journal or book form. South Africa has always suffered from a lack of outlets for poetry, a situation Lionel Abrahams once described as being more destructive than censorship.

In the early 1990s journal outlets for poetry consisted of New Coin, New Contrast, Sesame and Staffrider. A major obstacle to publishers then – as now – was the high cost of production and lack of capital. Funding could be obtained from the National Arts Council but even then funds were limited and allocation committees understandably cautious about funding individuals or ventures lacking a credible track record.

One publisher who worked his way around this scenario was Gus Ferguson who, apart from publishing numerous poetry collections under his imprint Snailpress, produced 30 issues of a monthly poetry journal Slug News, which was produced relatively cheaply – photocopied rather than printed – and distributed free of charge.

Slug News made me realise that a poetry journal did not have to be a glossy production and could be produced cheaply. This example was followed shortly by Roy Blumenthal, whose Barefoot Press printed poetry pamphlets by the thousands and then distributed them via bookshops throughout the country.

This encouraged me to start my own independently published poetry journal called The Magazine With No Name. In retrospect, the venture was doomed from the start but back then I couldn’t see it. Being able to produce something cheaply was not enough, and one of my main problems was that I did not have the credibility of “a name”. If The Magazine With No Name had been published by an Abrahams or Serote, it would have probably been an instant success – but not when it was being published by an unknown named Gary Cummiskey.

My solution was to get a small collection of my own poetry in circulation so people would see I was in earnest. I brought together 20 poems, typed them up on my computer at work, produced a simple cover, photocopied about 100 A4-sized copies, stapled them down the side, and there I had my first collection of poems, The Secret Hour, ready to hit the streets.

I had thought of stating that the collection was privately published, but then considered thinking up a crazy publishing-press name for a once-off production. Partly as a joke and partly as a reflection of my determination not to lay down and die after my plans for The Magazine With No Name collapsed, I decided to ascribe publication to Dye Hard Press.

Shortly afterwards I met Alan Finlay, who was starting up his own poetry journal, Bleksem. He suggested I continue publishing poetry collections by this method, as it was a quick and easy way to get poetry in circulation. If the high-gloss publishing route wasn’t working, all we had to do was ignore it and take over the means of production ourselves.

More titles from Dye Hard Press followed – Structured Space by JDU Geldenhuys, Burning Aloes by Alan Finlay, Icarus Rising by Gus Ferguson, Inside My Pocket by Robert Homem, more samples of my own work, plus others. I also started up a poetry journal called Atio, which ran to four issues.

There was, around this time, an explosion of new poetry publishing ventures, big and small. This period saw the emergence of Botsotso, Carapace, Guter 3, ImPrint, Something Quarterly and Sun Belly Press, to name a few. There was talk of a poetry renaissance and these ventures were generally received with enthusiasm. There were readings at public venues and on radio and TV. As Karen Press perceptively pointed out in New Coin, this sudden burst of activity was undoubtedly linked to the wave of optimism experienced in South Africa in the aftermath of the first democratic elections in 1994.

By 1996, however, a good deal of the initial energy behind the renaissance began to wane. For myself, I became swamped with manuscripts of poetry, stories, novels and plays, mostly of poor quality. I would conscientiously provide feedback to writers on their submissions, but eventually felt unable to keep my head above water. The effort of managing the process from collecting about 20 submissions per week from the mailbox to distributing pamphlets to the bookshops became too much for me. At the end of 1996, after publishing Roy Blumenthal’s Brutal Syrup, I decided to call it a day. Soon afterwards ImPrint stopped appearing, as did Something Quarterly, Sun Belly Press and Guter 3. There were, of course, diverse reasons for these closures, and they were not necessarily linked to my experience.

Old habits die hard, however, and after two years’ break I produced a small poetry anthology called Mad Rains. Unlike previous publications by Dye Hard Press, Mad Rains was A5-size, which made bookshelf storability a good deal easier. Toward the end of 1998, Roy Blumenthal and I collaborated on Head, which was designed by Roy and printed on better-quality paper with a cardboard cover. Roy had also designed a Dye Hard Press colophon for the collection and I have retained the colophon to this day.

Four more titles have followed since then - another anthology called Electric Juice, Arja Salafranca’s The Fire In Which We Burn, Reigning Gloves, Bog Docks and April in the Moon-Sun by myself, The Red Laughter of Guns in Green Summer Rain by Philip Zhuwao & Alan Finlay, and most recently Kobus Moolman's Full Circle.

I also published five issues of the annual literary journal of poetry and prose Green Dragon from 2002 to 2007.

Dye Hard Press is now recognised as a bona fide independent press and has a distribution agent. While originally Dye Hard Press was self-funded, publications are now sometimes dependent on funding.

The lesson behind Dye Hard Press is that print publishing need not be an expensive affair. No one will become a millionaire (or even earn a living) through publishing poetry, so there is little point in bankrupting oneself in the process.

(The above is an updated version of a piece than originally appeared on donga online. It was also published as Dye Hard Press newsletter 12.)

Wednesday, 02 January 2008