Can I be honest about your writing? (Part 1 – Oh, the Vanity of it all!)

My child’s a genius. Your child’s precocious. Their child’s an obnoxious brat. – We use language to distance ourselves from uncomfortable truths

Note: this will be a multi-post arc on the theme of storycrafting versus publishing. Hope you enjoy.

Long, long ago (we’re talking late 1980s early 1990s) when we called vanity publishers “vanity publishers”, I knew a fellow who just had to get his book in print. I think the title was “The Decapitation Project”. We were in a workshop together and it didn’t matter what he submitted, everything got back to The Decapitation Project and how it was based on fact and the government had a secret lab where they were keeping heads alive.

You mean like Donovan’s Brain?

“That was a book. The Decapitation Project is real.”

A friend told me they saw him at a con with a table selling copies of his book (again, decades ago).

His self-published book.

Except back then we called it “vanity published” and it was something one only admitted to if asked.

When you had a gun pointed at your head.

If then.



There’s an apocryphal story (I love apocryphal stories. They’re so apocryphal) about Sebastian Junger originally vanity publishing The Perfect Storm and selling it door-to-door in Gloucester, Mass. He had a bunch of copies in a kid’s wagon and one door he knocked on was opened by a Hollywood producer vacationing in Gloucester that summer and the rest is perfect stormic history.

No idea if any of that’s true. Makes damn good story, though, doesn’t it? It’s so apocryphal. The purpose of apocryphal stories is to give you hope. You feeling hopeful yet?

Back then the big question was “Was it DTPed?” “DTP” was the acronym for “DeskTop Publishing”.

DeskTop Publishing use to be a big market. It allowed companies to make truly horrible marketing material in their own offices without having to go to professional printers.

Within a few months of DTP tools becoming available, there were individuals, groups and companies who would teach you how to DTP like a pro, how to produce material that couldn’t be told from professionally produced material.

Lots of people believed them. Perhaps you remember those flimsy DTPed business cards that you handed out while leaning towards your prospect and whispering confidentially “I’m using these until I get my real ones printed.” Those cards immediately told whoever you handed one to that you were an amateur and didn’t know what you were doing. Clever people, after their first such fiasco, told prospects “I didn’t get my cards from the printer yet. Give me yours and I’ll be sure to get back to you.”

Non-clever people never left the business wannabe ghetto. The only people willing to accept DTPed material were other DTP ghetto dwellers. You could always tell people in the DTP ghetto at a business meeting. They sought each other out, handing each other their DTPed marketing material, smiling and shaking hands and secretly saying “Thank god there’s somebody else here handing these out.” There was power in numbers and two was infinitely more than one.

I Pity the Fool!

Hey, water seeks its own level, right?

My point is, you could tell a vanity published book from a traditionally published book back then. You still can.

More to the point, does this “… individuals, people and companies willing to teach you how to publish like a pro” sound familiar?

Anyway, this guy’s book wasn’t DTPed. He’d paid a vanity publisher to produce several hundred copies and he was going from con to con, expo to expo, buying a table in among all the professional authors and publishers who had real books to sell.

Ouch. Anybody catch that? Anybody cringing at the above? Anybody got their dire up? Anybody want to tell me to frag off?

real books…

He vanity published his book because no self-respecting publisher would touch it. One, his writing sucked. Two, most of the book was a political rant. Three, it wasn’t that good a rant.

He was incensed that no trade publisher took his book. He showed them, he did! He drove from con to con with a trunk full of books and a backseat of DTPed marketing material.

Longer ago than that, I worked with a guy who vanity published a book on dating. Specifically how he got over being divorced and got back into the dating game. One day in the parking lot he proudly opened his trunk and showed me boxes of his books.

He’d even sell me one. At a discount. The challenge was that I’d seen this guy in the office. He had the intergender communication skills of Donald Trump.

His main use of the book was in bars. Picking up women. He didn’t have much luck. His book sucked but I doubt that had much to do with his lack of dating success. I suspect it was the suggestive pictures of himself, drink in hand, standing alone at a bar. Poorly exposed, poorly taken, poorly captioned and all interspersed with poorly written content. Again, no self-respecting publisher would touch it.

But yeah, these guys showed publishers, they did.

Next up – Vanity/Self Publishing.