Rendered Fat Content


Hanabusa Itchô. : "Blind monks examining an elephant" from Itchô's Freestyle Album (Itchô kyôga shû).
Niigata: Meguro Jûrô (1888) Woodblock-printed book.

"Is it my vanity that so soundly rejects seduction from the vanity penny press?"

A week ago, I missed an incoming call. I uncharacteristically called back to find myself trapped in a conversation I had not anticipated and in fact had been avoiding. The woman on the other end had been trying to contact me about republishing my best selling book under her company's imprint, though my The Blind Men and the Elephant (Berrett-Koehler 2003) remains in print. As she prattled on about the many benefits her operation offered, I recognized that she represented what's referred to as a vanity press, one where the author pays for publication of an edition destined to never sell. This one relies upon remarkably low prices—ninety-nine cents a copy—to entice people who might not ever read a book to buy it. Why not? A network of self-selected book reviewers each receive a free copy in the probable delusion that they might value that gift enough to write a glowing review of it. Tens of thousands of frequent ebook readers are likewise offered special give-aways and deals in an attempt to inflate readership into the noteworthy range. As I listened, I wondered how she'd gotten ahold of my phone number. I was on the phone with a junk caller.

I mentioned that I write four books each year and that comment seemed to perk up her ears.
I described one of those manuscripts when she asked after it, one called Clueless, which my more dedicated readers might remember seeing serialized here three summers ago. Oh, she thought that idea would improve on sliced bread. Her "executive team" would love it. A glowing description of a veritable Eden followed. I asked how much her company might charge to publish Clueless and learned that thirty-five hundred dollars would suffice. I could pay in three easier installments if I wished. Almost nobody writes books for a living. Even best-selling authors live on speaking fees or their day job salary more often than on royalties. Most books published end up as pulp after a shockingly short period on shelves, if they even make it to shelves, and most of those shelves are virtual. When was the last time you visited your struggling local bookstore? Thirty-five hundred was less than I lost Promoting my best-seller, which had been published by a more prestigious press, rather than by a vain one.

I'm at a point in my life where I write without the expectation that my writing might one day make me famous. I've watched as fame ruined some of the more promising voices of my generation. The Muse, reflecting upon my early failure to 'make it' as a songwriter and musician, suggested that had I succeeded, the business probably would have killed me. I believe that she's right. But still, there's a long tradition in this culture that one simply must capitalize upon their gifts. It's fine if you want to play the piano at family gatherings, but considered much better if you're getting paying gigs and in some demand. You're not considered a "real" anything unless you earn your living from it, and only excellent if you're hauling in tons. Those who struggle to make ends meet are considered probable pretenders to their profession, only mildly blessed at best. Had The Gods smiled warmly in their direction, they'd be on the top of their peers, or not have any. In our neo-liberal minds, economics defines success. Poets living in garrets are seen as essentially worthless. So are unpublished authors.

It seemed to me that the universe was offering me a choice. I could probably afford to hire this vanity press to publish one of my works. I held no illusion that their promotion scheme would work, but I would at least end up with another ISBN credit. Would that narrow notoriety satisfy me? I realized that my seductress didn't know anything about that work, other than my vague and perhaps misleading description, so I offered to send her a link to the manuscript so she could determine if it might be a fit. I already knew she would find it fitting. I suspected that they insisted to every paying customer that they were a potentially best-selling author. These people live in the land of the pretend. I could perform some background checking to determine just what sort of vanity press I was dealing with, the regular or the worse. We were supposed to continue the conversation last Thursday, but she didn't call when we'd agreed to chat and my availability window slammed shut. We're re-scheduled to continue chatting tomorrow. I dread it.

I dread that call because I'm going to tell her that it's no deal. I'll be gentle and insistent. I will not show up seducible. The Better Business Bureau site shows way too many complains from their former clients. Their marketing plan makes no sense. Their manner of doing business deeply offends me. They specialize in stroking egos, of releasing recyclables into the environment, products that might just as well be all packaging. I have little ego left. I can't care if I ever get published again, not if I intend to continue writing as I do. Promoting serves as perhaps the best distraction from writing. Writing proposals seems to suck purpose out of me. My fussing over selling books does nothing to improve this world. I realize that I'm no longer a neo-liberal, if, indeed I ever was. I no longer mistake cover for content or popularity for talent. I consider every person a genius, except, perhaps that idiot who scribbles anti-vax garbage on downtown sidewalks. Clueless might one day find publication, but probably not thanks to my intervention. Is it my vanity that so soundly rejects seduction from the vanity penny press?

©2021 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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