Precious Cargo

Refreshingly Bitter And Twisted Observations On Life's Passing Parade.

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Location: Valley Village, California, United States

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

How Xlibris Targets Failed Writers

Here is part of an email I received yesterday.

"Dear Peter,

My name is Tracey Rosengrave, Marketing Manager for Xlibris Corporation, a print-on-demand self-publishing company. We obtained your name and email address from Blogger in an effort on our part to find people who might be interested in self-publishing. If you are interested, I’ve included a brief description of who we are below.

I do send out follow up messages, so if you are not interested in our company or services please click here and I will send no further correspondence. I completely understand how annoying unwanted email messages can be; if this is the case here my sincerest apologies.

For those who would like more information…

Xlibris is partially owned by Random House Ventures, the world’s largest trade book publisher. We have published over 14,000 titles and paid out over twelve million dollars in royalties. Everyday we help authors by offering flexible, inexpensive methods of publishing, editing, marketing, distributing and selling books both in trade and full color."

Xlibris knows that most bloggers are failed/wannabe writers.

As blogger Mark A. York recently wrote, "Blogs are vanity presses."

"Xlibris is partially owned by Random House Ventures, the world’s largest trade book publisher."

This is designed to mislead writers into believing that being published by Xlibris is like being published by Random House. It isn't.

"We have published over 14,000 titles and paid out over twelve million dollars in royalties."

This is also misleading. Most copies of self-published books are purchased by their authors. Still, when you purchase a copy of your own book, a percentage of the purchase price will be reported as a royalty.

These statements attempt to make Xlibris look like trade publishing, when it is really vanity publishing. These statements make Xlibris look more like PublishAmerica than Random House.

Sad, Mad Fran

Based on a comment she left over at literary agent Miss Snark’s blog, I checked out the blog Fran’s Whatever. I found it interesting enough to spend some time reading. Fran seems to alternate between depressive funks and angry rants, frequently using the words “elitism”, “patriarchy” and “male” as epithets.

Under a heading “Writing contest”, she wrote about this year's nominees for the Booker Man Prize:

“When I followed the links to that contest's site, I found this in the FAQ:

'Who is eligible for the prize?

‘Any full-length novel, written by a citizen of the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland and published this year, is eligible for the prize. The novel must be an original work in English (not a translation) and must not be self-published.’

--That would exclude Lady Chatterley's Lover, several of Virginia Woolf's books, and possibly Ulysses (I think Ulysses is overrated, but a lot of people seem to like it--Joyce supposedly hit up his friends for money to pay for the first printing). This literary snobbery turns my stomach. So many institutions, contests and writing organizations never seem to lose an opportunity to put down self-publishing, whether directly, indirectly or both. Two of the MBP nominations--those books supposedly aren't even in print yet! IMO, most of these big contests tend to promote the same-old firmly-entrenched-in-the-establishment writers, over and over and over again.”

I left this comment: “Ulysses was published by Sylvia Beach, proprietor of the legendary Paris bookstore Shakespeare & Co. It was not self-published.

If you look around the internet, you can research and discover that some of the famous books that are often claimed were self-published-like Virginia Woolf's-were not self-published. There's a blog, Scrivener's Error, that has a long post in its archives on this.”

Fran then wrote a long reply to my comment, including numerous hyperlinks, contesting my claims about Virginia Woolf and Ulysses. I don’t have the time and inclination to check all her links and research this in depth to see who’s correct. Frankly, it’s not the central issue.

What bothers Fran is that I am critical of self-publishing as an alternative for writers who can’t get a contract from a reputable trade publisher. You see, Fran is a frustrated writer. I mean in a big way. And she believes self-publishing is the answer. In fact, she has another blog where she’s posted a novel she’s written.

“Writing success to me is primarily about reaching people, about reaching readers, about moving readers, which I have tried extremely hard to do and is why I don’t have problems with self-publishing in general and think it can prove very valuable.”

Referencing the post on Scrivener’s Error discussing famous authors who supposedly self-published, she wrote: “Even the blog you mentioned says Woolf self-published (a blog that, by the way, looks like the kind of dismissive shit I cannot stand reading, so my posting the link here is by no means intended to be an endorsement).”

“The snobbery and dismissiveness I often see in the ‘literary community’ today on self-publishing is ridiculous; this same shit doesn't often get spewed against screenwriters and filmmakers who finance their own films, or even painters who sell their paintings directly to customers. Yet ‘bookwriters’ have to put up with this nasty bullshit often.

I've seen your comments about self-/POD-/’vanity’-publishing elsewhere. I don't want dismissive shit posted here. So I suggest you go elsewhere if you're going to spew any snobbery. I won't put up with it here.”

I wrote a follow-up comment to Fran’s. I didn’t save it and she deleted it, but it began something like this: “You are abrasive, hostile and given to splenetic rants. I love you more than I can say.” That was meant as an ironic appreciation. Well, Fran didn’t like it one bit. So she deleted my comment and wrote a great, big rant about how nobody was going to call her hostile. In fact, no one had better do anything the least bit critical of her.

I left a comment to that. Since she deleted that one as well, I offer it here.

“You admit you are hostile at times, but let anyone else describe your demeanor correctly and you fly off the handle.

Buried in your post is the nub of truth. You are invested in the idea of self-publishing and any realistic appraisal of self-publishing compels you to overreact.

You get what you give. Anything short of pure flattery and 100% agreement with you is greeted with a splash of acid in the face of the critic.

I don't believe in God, so I can't even wish "may God help you."

You don't have the guts to leave my comments in place, which will make anyone reading your blog wonder what the hell causes these rants of yours.

You don't have to worry about quitting blogging or writing. With your attitude, nobody except a sycophant or masochist will stay around you for very long.

You are screaming in an echo chamber. Good luck with that approach.”

What prompted me to leave my first comment was her mention of Woolf, Joyce and self-publishing. That is like a trigger for me. You see, certain POD companies have placed full page ads on the inside front cover of Writers Digest magazine with old timey portraits of writers like Poe and also mention writers like Woolf and Walt Whitman with some tagline like, “Some of the greatest writers published their own works.” This irritates me because it is misleading. This ignores the contexts surrounding these great writers' lives and their self-publishing experiences. It draws a false analogy between someone with a hopelessly bad fantasy novel and the work of some of the most exceptional writers who ever lived.

“Edgar Allan Poe was not yet 20 years old when he contracted with a Boston printer to do 40 copies of Tamerlane and Other Poems. In 1827, Poe sank most of his meager U.S. Army private's salary into the printing of this slim volume of 406 lines of poetry by ‘A Bostonian’ and priced at 12 1/2 cent. Poe mailed review copies to all the proper sources but his poems were totally unreviewed. Two magazines bothered to include the title in lists of recently published books.”

© 1975 - 1981 by David Wallechinsky & Irving Wallace
from "The People's Almanac" series of books.

I have nothing against self-publishing. But, for all but a handful of very lucky writers, it is a dead end, and often an expensive one at that.

In one of my deleted comments, I challenged Fran to suggest a practical way the Booker Prize committee could select and consider even a handful of self-published books, given that tens of thousands are published. She had no answer. To cast a realistic light on the potential of self-publishing is, for Fran, snobbish, dismissive, shit.

Fran says screenwriters and filmmakers who produce their own films aren’t viewed this way. She writes of painters who sell directly to customers. Who does she have in mind? Thomas Kinkade, maybe? Independent filmmakers need to convince a distributor of their film’s commercial potential. Painters need galleries to present their work. This is analogous to writers requiring publishers.

Here’s a clip about the Booker Prize from the BBC.

“Nominees for this year's Booker Man Prize have been chosen. ‘Four previous winners - Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, Salman Rushdie and JM Coetzee - have made the 2005 longlist, as has Julian Barnes They are up against debut author Marina Lewycka's A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, winner of two comic fiction prizes. White Teeth author Zadie Smith has also made the list with an as yet unpublished third novel, On Beauty.’”

Do I approve of this? I do not. Is it exclusive? Yes. I don’t know who comprises the Booker committee, but the selection suggests cronyism, nepotism and cliquishness more than snobbery or elitism.

I find all arts awards to be inherently ludicrous. You can’t quantify what makes a work of art unique, so it’s impossible to say one is better than another. Prizes like these are popularity contests and subject to corruption and influence peddling. Certainly, none of these writers is unrecognized. Since a prize is a gift, they should not keep heaping them on writers who have already been given one before. That should be a rule.

But excluding self-published work is not proof of snobbishness and elitism. It is merely practical.

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