Is this a vanity book, or a commercial book?

So goes one of the first questions I pose to writers who contact me for some guidance about the publication process.  I have to ask it somewhat gently, but I can’t fail to ask it.  I decided that the distinction would make a good subject for a blog post.

A vanity book is not expected to be a money-maker. If it makes money, great, but often the author just wants to say what’s on his or her mind, tell a story or a series of stories, what have you. Grandpa wants to tell his life story to the world. Mom has a wealth of advice for teachers. Jim believes that his Vietnam experience will pass on a message to the current generation. Sue knows more about quilts and quilting than a whole grangeful of Kansas grandmothers. The vanity book is motivated more by a desire to ‘get this out there,’ whatever ‘this’ may be. It’s usually based on a certain level of conceit that one’s knowledge, experiences or ideas are going to be fascinating to the public, but that’s not a negative. Without that conceit, one can’t really put oneself out in the shooting gallery of public comment, can one? The conceit may be fairly placed; it may be misplaced; but it is needed. The writer should embrace it and call it by its right name, at least in private with colleagues.

The main issue with the vanity book is that I so bluntly call it that. Most writers bristle and refuse to acknowledge that; ‘oh, no, no, this is a commercial book, we want to make money.’ The unspoken assumption is that a vanity book is pure frippery, something no one (perhaps including me) takes seriously, making the label intolerable. They are rarely being self-honest, because most haven’t thought too much about finding a way to sell books.. With a vanity book, you market as and when you feel like it. Once you cover your costs–if you do–the rest is gravy, right. Unless you outshine your costs by a lot, it’s not much gravy.

That’s the problem. Suppose after it’s all said and done, you net $2000, which is more than many self-published writers will net. How many hours did you spend on this? 500? You worked for $4/hour, which is barely half the US Federal minimum wage. If your goal was money, you could have earned more asking people if they wanted fries with that. So, in reality, if that’s an acceptable outcome, it is a vanity book because you could have made more money doing something else. You might have enjoyed it less, but remember, you said it was commercial and rejected the label of ‘vanity book,’ right? ‘Commercial’ means a focus on money, revenue, profit, and other yucky non-literary stuff.

Which is why a commercial book, naturally, will have a marketing plan. Yes, I know that marketing is icky to many writers, as is much discussion of money. If I were better at it, I might make more money myself, so I know what it’s like to lag in marketing. However, if you insist that it’s a commercial book, you must support that with motivation, a plan and the willingness to invest some funds. Above and beyond the basic production value issues and costs–a capable editor, quality proofreading, cover design and typesetting–the author must be ready, willing and eager to market the work. ‘Hope it gets discovered’ is not a marketing plan. Neither is ‘but my life has been really interesting, it’d be a really good story.’ They’re fine sentiments, but they are not marketing plans.

Even if you are not going to try the small-press or New York routes for publishing, a query letter and book proposal (for nonfiction especially) are good exercises. Your query letter is how you advise publishers that you have a finished ms that is ready to market, and try to attract their interest. If you can’t come up with a good query letter, can you really market a book? If you find it distasteful to write a simple letter pitching your work, how will the rest of marketing feel to you? The book proposal goes into greater depth, and is in effect the book’s business plan. Both the letter and proposal will make you see your book through the publisher’s eyes as a commercial prospect. If you’re self-publishing, the publisher obviously is yourself, so this will force you to see the commercial side. Who is the audience? Why? What’s the competition, and why is this different/better? How will you get it noticed and purchased? It’s a commercial book–you insisted–thus surely you have thought this through?

If you have not thought your book through well enough to write a book proposal with ease (and the aid of a guidebook to the conventional format), I submit that calling it a commercial project is self-deception. Look, it’s okay to call it a vanity book. That is simple self-honesty, if true. Just admit it, accept that you have no marketing plan and don’t plan to develop one, and be at peace. Your editor will work just as hard either way, since s/he gets paid the same either way. Nowhere on your Amazon page are you required to call it a vanity book. To thine own self, and to thine editor, be true. Others aren’t entitled to know.

I could probably make a lot more money playing along with writers’ conceits about commercial books without taking a moment to give them some honesty, but I believe that would betray the editor’s role. If as a writer, you cannot count on your editor to tell you the truth, that’s sad. What is more, your editor isn’t much of an editor for what you paid him or her. The idea behind hiring anyone for anything in life is that the person knows more than you do about a specific subject. Would you hire a plumber who didn’t know more than you about how a household water piping system worked? The other idea behind that hire is that the person will trade their knowledge and expertise for your money. Failure to offer that equals failure to deliver value. Failure to deliver value equals ‘no point in paying you.’ Third rail.

And since my editing and proofreading and freelance writing work is definitely commercial in nature, what I may not do is touch that third rail.

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2 thoughts on “Is this a vanity book, or a commercial book?”

  1. I remember that you asked me this when I first approached you about Feels Like the First Time. I can’t remember my answer at the time, but I do know your question achieved its desired effect: It made me think and more carefully consider how I approached the project. And now, on our fifth project together, we’re facing the same question again.

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    1. Indeed we are, Shawn. And I realize that posing the question probably ruffles some feathers, but I hope for it to provide positive effect. In your case, I can’t take much credit, because you more or less hauled in the punt and took it to the barn. Which you are still doing.

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