The Self-Publishing Scam

Good news from my Barneys shopper – they have another Balenciaga blazer! In my size! (Or a size normally larger than I wear but actually abnormally smaller than Balenciaga makes as usual.) Pretty confusing, but the good news is the blazer is still within my grasp! If I motor down to Barneys tomorrow and snag it, of course. AND if it fits. Crossing fingers….

In other news, I’ve been getting a ton of email from you guys asking about how to get published and what about these publishing houses where you pay a fee for them to publish your book, and if you can trust those publishing houses, and if that’s how to get published.

First of all, let’s clear things up: If you have to pay someone to publish your book, that is not a real publishing house.

Sure, they can MAKE a book. They can typeset it and print it and put a nice cover on it and it will LOOK like a book. It will smell like a book, it will weigh like a book. But it is NOT a book. Not in the sense that Lord of the Rings, or Gone with the Wind, or Gossip Girl or Confessions of a Shopaholic or The Au Pairs or Blue Bloods are books.

Those are called VANITY presses. A vanity press is exactly that–a company that TAKES your money and makes your book to assuage your vanity as a writer. Because ANYONE can have their work made into a book. As long as you pay the fee.

Notice I said "make" your book not "publish" your book. Because publishing is something else entirely.

REAL books, those sold at book stores, and at Target, and at airports, and that are reviewed by newspapers and blogs, are PUBLISHED. My publishers PAY ME for my work so they can publish my books–which means that my work goes through a committee of professionals who DECIDE whether they like my work enough to pay me money for it. I make my living off my writing, I DON’T PAY anyone to publish it. It is the other way around.

(A side note: I think Amazon makes this very confusing because they give self-published books an ISBN number and there are tons of self-published books on Amazon. So those self-published books look just like the real published books because, hey, they’ve got an Amazon page and everything! It just means Amazon isn’t above taking money from the self-publishing world either.)

When I had my first novel published, my agent told me that a committee of twenty people has to decide whether it was good enough. This is not just the editor who acquires the book, but her boss,  her fellow editors, the sales team, the marketing team, the publicity team, her boss’s boss, and on and on. LOTS of people have to feel good about your writing for you to get the green light.

Which means not everyone can publish a book. (Although it looks like more and more books are published a year, it is actually a tiny amount compared to the vast numbers of people who WANT to be published but are not.)

What are vanity presses good for? Well, there are some books that get the attention of real publishers by going that route.  Christopher Paolini’s Eragon and Laurie Notaro’s Idiot Girls Action Adventure Club were both self-published before they found a traditional publisher. And both are great books. 

So you COULD go that route. But Christopher and Laurie are the exceptions to the rule. The traditional route to go is through sending your manuscripts to agents, finding an agent who will represent you, and then the agent has the task of SELLING your book to a publisher for a commission.

Do not think I am being too harsh on the self-publishing industry. I am not. If you would like your stories or novel to be bound and made to look like a book–go ahead. But this is not the route to take if you would like to make your living as a writer. Or to be considered a "published" writer.

And yes–you are a real writer even though you are not published. Of course! It’s not even a question.

But for me, I always wanted to be published. I wanted, I needed, that validation. I wanted to see my book in libraries, in bookstores, in airports and at Target.

I never felt as happy as when my agent called me while I was at a boring-ass business meeting in D.C. for the dumb software company I used to work for, to tell me that Simon & Schuster was making an offer on my first novel. I left that meeting a corporate drone and I returned to it as a published writer.

REMEMBER: Any company that CHARGES A FEE for publishing your work is not a real publisher. Please please remember that.

It is like when bogus MODELING AGENCIES charge a fee to work with a model. This is just bogus. Real modeling agencies are like book agents. They take you on so that you can make money, and charge a commission from it. If you have to pay them up front from your own pocket–they are not a real modeling agency.

Nothing that is worthwhile is had without difficulty. Most writers pay their dues, work their way up and work on their craft before making it.

I wanted to be a writer–a published writer–ever since I could remember wanting to be ANYTHING. It was the only thing I ever wanted to be. And when I graduated from college at 21, I couldn’t wait for it to happen soon enough. By the time my book sold when I was 27, I felt ANCIENT. It felt like it was six years too late, even though everyone was calling me a young writer and how great it was that I was publishing my first novel before I was thirty. I felt OLD. Because I’d wanted it for so long, that when it finally happened, the major emotion I felt was simply: RELIEF.

But here’s a happy story from the self-publishing experience. When I was twenty-two and recently graduated from college, I entered a poetry contest I saw advertised in a literary journal. I had won some poetry contests in high school, and I thought, why not? I was working in a bank, and wanting to be a writer, and I thought it would be fun–not expecting anything to happen from it.

You can imagine my surprise a few months later, when I received a very official letter telling me I HAD WON! I had  won a poetry contest! I was so excited! I told all my friends, and when the letter said I could ORDER BOOKS with my winning poem in it, for $50 each. Well–what was $50? I had WON A WRITING CONTEST!

I sent $150 of my hard-earned money to receive the book that my poem was in.  I wanted two copies, and one copy to give to my parents. And a few weeks later, the book arrived.

People, it was the size of the telephone book! It was a brick! THIS was the book that had all the poetry winners???

It was then that I realized I’d been CONNED.

EVERYONE who entered the contest was declared a winner so that they could sell us this dumb book for $50. It was basically a self-publishing operation.


I was not a real writer.

I didn’t win anything.

I was a dupe.

And yet–and yet–for those three glorious weeks, that letter had given me the CONFIDENCE that I might be a real writer, and that confidence burned in me, and even after I discovered I’d been had, I thought, why do I need some dumb contest to tell me that I’m a real writer? I’m a writer–and I’m going to go out there, and I’m going to get published. And I’m NEVER going to pay anyone to get a copy of my work again.

Two months later, I had an agent, and two months after that, I met a real editor at a real publishing house who told me I had a "voice" and that I should not give up writing. And two years after that, I was published in a real paper.

I was paid $100 for my story.

I used it to buy a round of drinks at a bar for my friends. The same friends who’d congratulated me when I "won" that poetry contest a few years before.

And I’ve never looked back since.