Is There Sanity in Vanity?
About two years ago a student, who was majoring in education and working on her senior project, came to Misericordia University Print and Mail Services looking for help.
Her assignment was to write a children's book. She had completed the writing and wanted to get it printed. I told her we could provide the layout, and she asked me
if I could supply illustrations. It was at this point that our communication broke down. I informed her that I did not have an artist on staff but that I could provide some royalty-free clip art that would suffice.
The student returned a few days later, and I could see the disappointment on her face when I showed her a proof. I immediately realized where I had gone wrong. She didn't want this to look like a senior project; she wanted this to look like a book, and my clip art simply didn't cut it.
After she left I reminded myself that my staff and I go to great lengths daily to make every project we do the best that it can be. Thinking I would never see that student again, I reminded myself to start with the proverbial bar set high, and lower it as need be.
To my surprise the student returned to the shop with a flash drive. A minute later we opened an InDesign file and before me was the original layout that we provided but in place of the meager clip art were professional illustrations. I clicked through the full color pages, thinking that they looked like those of a book taken from a bookstore shelf.
The student explained to me that she sought the services of an acquaintance who was trying to "make it" as an illustrator. In the end we printed 20 copies of her 36-page, 8x8˝ saddle-stitched book—and it looked great. However, I knew that I had spent far more time on this project than the proceeds of Danny the Duck and the Scary Road justified—or so I thought. I also couldn't help but wonder if this was a case of an overachieving student, or what I have heard called vanity publishing.
Opportunity Knocks Again
Fast forward to a few months ago. I received a call from a customer outside of Misericordia University who had been referred to us. (I love when that happens.) Like many in-plants, we bring in work from outside customers to help boost revenue.
The author was interested in publishing a children's book that she planned on selling for a profit with the proceeds going to a homegrown charity. When I met with her the first time to discuss the project, she told me the text of the book was complete but she needed layout and illustrations. Hmmmm…this sounded familiar.
I searched for a copy of Danny the Duck to find the name of the illustrator listed in the credits. With a name in hand, the author tracked the artist down via Facebook and contacted him directly. This turned out to be a true collaboration, with our shop working with the author and the illustrator to create another shelf-worthy book. The author asked for an initial printing of 500 copies of a full-color, 52-page, 8x8˝ saddle-stitched book. OK, I thought, we might be getting somewhere with this vanity thing.
This time, however, besides looking like a "real" book, it needed to be identified as a real book using an ISBN (International Standard Book Number). An ISBN uniquely identifies a book and simplifies its sale to bookstores and libraries. Bowker is the only company authorized to administer ISBNs in the United States. With an ISBN, a book is listed in Bowker's Books in Print, which is used by all major search engines and most libraries and bookstores. One can obtain an ISBN instantly by going to www.myidentifiers.com. A single ISBN costs $125 but there are significant discounts for ordering larger numbers of ISBNs.
Digging Up More Work
Shortly after this book left the shop an author/archaeologist was referred to us. His book was also about local history, but specifically as it applied to an archaeological dig in which he was personally involved. This was no children's book though. It was to be a 200-page, 81⁄2x51⁄2˝ perfect bound manuscript, peppered with full-color photos of the dig site. He wanted an initial printing of 250 copies. The author explained to me that he planned on selling as many as he could. When he left the shop with his books he told me that he was going to refer us to another author he knew in the field. I was excited with the prospect.
So why are these self-publishers having their books printed at a small in-plant serving a university with 3,000 students instead of using one of the Internet big boys that can offer editing, reviews and even marketing services? After all, marketing, promoting and selling a self-published book is difficult. Sure there are exceptions (think Fifty Shades of Grey, which started as a self-published book), but often the audience of vanity authors is a small group of people with similar interests.
Many authors like retaining complete control over the process and like the fact that we can offer them personalized attention in regards to layout, cover design and paper choices. They often make serious commitments to self-promotion, relying on social media or their own websites. Some authors speak at conferences on their area of expertise and may want copies of their book to distribute, which lends a perceived credibility to their spoken words or supports some other private agenda.
So does printing these books make my shop a vanity publisher? No. We are still an in-house print shop. The authors agree to a series of printing services and pay for them just as they would for a letterhead or brochure job.
When print volumes are going down and in-plants strive to recover costs and/or turn a profit, self-published authors can serve as another stream of revenue. At the risk of sounding devilish, vanity is fast becoming my favorite sin.