Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Don't Haul Me Off to the Guillotine

Yesterday, writer Karin Gillespie pretty much placed her head on the chopping block by speaking her mind in regards to vanity press published books in her column on RTB. I didn't realize what kind of explosive device Karin was setting off until I read the comments in response to her column. Man, there are some people out there who really don't like someone else insinuating that things printed by a vanity press are inferior or less worthy.

At the risk of calling the mob's attention to myself, I'd say that a good bit of what Karin said in her column resonated with me even though I've never been published, traditionally or in a new-fangled way. Basically, she expressed her frustration that a fellow local writer received the exact same attention and level of....let's see, I guess respect is the best word...as she has, but this other author's book was published via a vanity press. Not only did this Other Writer (OW) short-cut his way around all of the hoops those published by NYC houses go through, but the end product he is offering is rife with errors and just generally a poor quality ordeal.

I think Karin's complaint isn't that those who don't take the hard and torturous road don't deserve their kudos. I think what she feels frustrated about is the fact that without doing the leg work, without really offering something worthy of praise, this OW is being automatically lumped together with her, when clearly IN THIS INSTANCE there is a difference in the end product. He's receiving the respect without offering the raw talent needed at the very least to earn it.

Because, after all, there are those out there who just have it. They don't need to practice or learn or suffer failure before finding success. They are the miracle people, the one-hit wonders who come out of nowhere and dazzle us all with this amazing talent, all while claiming "I don't know. I just picked up the microphone and started singing..." or "I just sat down at my computer and started writing. It was all there, inside me!"

And these people, as much as I hate them, they can take all of the glory heaped on them without guilt. They have a gift, they are lucky, and good stuff comes to those who are gifted and lucky even if it pretty much sucks in the fairness department. Besides, for all their claims of it coming naturally, really those who achieve success without any past failure are so rare as to be almost nonexistant. Otherwise there wouldn't be so many country songs out there.

But when those who don't have the raw talent and who haven't taken the necessary steps to make up for what God and nature failed to provide them jump to the head of the line, it is more than a little bit annoying.

I don't blame Karin for her frustration, yet many many people really got on her case, calling her a snob and saying that there is just as much crap coming out of NYC publishing houses as there is coming off vanity presses.

Is Karin a snob? Well, yeah, sort of. But here's the thing. She has earned that right. She has paid her dues. She's spent years and years honing her craft, suffering through rejection letters, learning from her experiences. And through this she perservered until finally she got the break she wanted. She chose to take the hard road and succeeded.

She earned a spot on a team that is very selective, through her own efforts, not because she paid for it out of her own pocket.

I think of it this way. Say there is a student who studies all year for a big exam. She forgoes social activities, spends hours and hours researching and studying at the library. She really wants to do well on this test, so when she goes to sit for it, she knows the subject inside and out. She does all this because she wants to go to Big Time University, a very selective school with a prestigious reputation.

Student #2 doesn't do well on tests, therefore she can't manage to pass the big exam. But she has rich relatives who are willing to contribute large sums of money to BTU, thus securing her a place in the incoming freshman class.

Both students gain entry into BTU. Both students are called up on stage at a special school assembly to acknowledge this great achievement. But no one ever sees that Student #1 knows her stuff and earned her way in while Student #2 bought her way in.

Can you blame Student #1 for feeling a bit annoyed?

As for the issue of whether or not there is just as much garbage coming from NYC publishing houses as vanity presses, IMO that's kind of a no-brainer. Yes, I will admit without a single argument that a lot of stuff that publishers choose to publish is pure crap. Nothing annoys me more when I pay money for a book, take it home and get no more through Chapter 1 before I know that I've just flushed $7 down the drain. I count on these NYC publishers to weed through the junk, and sometimes they fail miserably.

But knowing how much stuff they turn down versus the fact that vanity presses turn nothing away, the imperical mathematics of the situation mean that vanity press offerings are bound to on the whole contain more problems. There are no gates, no filters, no editors or copy-editors. Heck, there's no guarantee that the story printed via vanity press didn't go straight from the writer's hard-drive to the printed page, sight unseen by any eyes other than those of the writer.

And I'm sorry, even if that writer is Earnest Hemingway, he or she is only human. There will be mistakes. And it's my understanding that a vanity press will not worry too much about correcting even the simple things, so in they would go.

I'm not saying that all vanity press printed books are bad. I'm sure there are a lot of very good ones out there. I'm sure of this because there are a lot of very good writers out there who cannot seem to make it out of the slush pile, a huge shame for readers everywhere. And in such a case, it is a boon to everyone if the writer decides to go another route.

Thing is, readers who don't follow the industry - and believe me, that's a majority of readers out there - do not know the difference between a vanity press and a regular publishing house. To them, a book is a book, and if they sit side by side on the shelf or table at their local bookstore, they are equal to a certain degree in the potential they offer.

Yes, readers are smart. It doesn't take them long to figure out which writers are good and which are bad. And they certainly are smart enough to figure out that if OW's first book was horrible, they needn't buy OW's second or third book. Eventually OW will fade away into the cosmos of failed writers of history past while the Karins of the writing world will continue to succeed.

I suppose that has to be enough.


Humaira said...

I've been reading your blog for a couple of weeks now but your post today wanted to make me leave a comment.

I just want to say Thank you for saying it. I'm a writer and a student, and your analogy really struck a chord with me. I've had that kinda thing happen in my student life but to think it might happen in my writing life makes me sad.

Humaira said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.