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Pulling the Readers Into Vanity Fare

Published in the newspaper The Glasgow Herald

By: Mike Russell

February 19, 2005

'JK Rowlings is only one of many who was rejected, leaving those who said "no" much the poorer.'

If you had the misfortune to be a client of Northwest Publishing of Utah (whose owner is now serving 30 years in jail) or Sovereign Publications (another American firm whose principals are languising in a federal prison) you will be more than aware that vanity publishing can be an expensive matter.

These companies -- and several others in the same business, including at least two in recent years on these shores -- were accused in court of taking large sums of money from aspiring writers and delivering little or nothing. Books, if they ever appeared, were badly printed, shoddily bound and unsaleable. Publicity and marketing -- the life blood of getting writing into the world -- was non-existent and tantalising promises of success proved worthless.

Although vanity publishing-- the payment to a publisher by an author in order for his or her book to be produced -- has been around since the printing press was invented, the concept still smacks to many of arragance, false self belief and desperation. It was Dr. Johnson who observed that "No man but a blockhead ever wrote but for money" and our society still firmly expects that this flow of money (no matter how small) should come from the publisher to the writer and not the other way around. Those that get burned are, it is sometimes said, only receiving what they deserve. Yet for anyone who has experienced the depressing effects of receiving rejection letter after rejection letter, in response to sending a manuscript that has taken months or years to produce, there is at times a sneaking sympathy for the individual who decides to venture his or her own cash to beat the market. The fact that the market is virtually impossible to beat is conveniently forgotten.

There are undoubtedly good - and potentially highly successful - authors out there who are never published because commercial publishers are either professionally risk averse, or unable to see how new or unconventional approaches can be made to sell. Others take time to make their mark. JK Rowling is only one of many who was rejected again and again, leaving those who said "no" much the poorer.

Finding a route between throwing oneself into the hands of the unscrupulous (whose well recorded tricks include shortening texts without consultation, dubious contracts that preclude any authorial come back, verbal abuse and even threats of violence when the client complains) and just tholing the endless refusals is a difficult task for the aspiring writer. Yet the emergence of a new type of publishing venture, based on new technology, may not only provide the answer, but may also provide opportunities that conventional publishers cannot give.

Ten days ago I attended a packed and enthusiastic book launch in Kilmarnock, which was celebrating the publication of a collection of short stories by the Ayrshire author, Sergio Burns. The event was hosted by Wordshack Publishing, a web-based company which takes money from writers to showcase their work. A vanity publisher, in other words, but perhaps the acceptable face of that industry, and a productive one for those involved.

The basic deal is simple. For a small payment, you can have your short stories, or even your novel, visible on line to all-comers. Moreover, those all-comers are actively invited to submit their feedback and to review what you have written. Those behind the site will offer their support and suggestions too, ultimately gauging your success by the number of people who read and comment on your work, and who seek more of it.

Wordshack currently gets about 6000 readers a month logging on from every continent. It has now taken its role a step further producing - at its own cost - six printed titles, all contributed by on-line authors and all chosen as the result of positive recommendation by on-line readers. Sergio's eclectic collection, called Dark Ghosts Rising is one of them. A modernist, hard edged and in places, sinister book, it is written in an approachable style and his dedication to the profession of imaginative creative writing shines through every page. Yet no established Scottish publisher would take him, or it, on.

The book is now available in John Smith's bookshop in Kilmarnock, a feat that took much negotiation. But it is also available world wide through internet bookshops, such as Amazon. And because Wordshack is internaitonal - both in audience and in organisation - it is able to promote the book in key markets such as America, resulting in a much larger take up. That is something that even the most effective traditional Scottish publishers usually cannot do.

For those who are trying yet failing, sites like Wordshack offer, for modest cost, at least a chance of making progress. Some Wordshack authors have been taken up by literary agents - many of whom are now regularly visiting the site - and others have developed their abilities, largely as a result of their experience, and gone on to achieve conventional publishing contracts.

Wordshack exhorts its paying contributors to consider their fee as a means of "advertising their own talent." For once such a piece of marketing soft soap may turn out to be true for Wordshack may well be re-inventing vanity publishing as something more than the dubious and disreputable trade it had become.