'Vanity' presses -- boon or bane to writers who can't get published?

Several months ago, when the campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment was in full swing, Marjorie Childs decided it was high time to become a writer. This Utah housewife and former teacher believed that the anti-ERA arguments she was hearing demanded clear, forceful refutation.

Mrs. Childs submitted articles to newspapers all over the United States and then collected her writings in a book that appeared this spring. Since the amendment died in June, she now hopes ''The Fabric of the ERA'' will help build momentum for a second ERA drive in the near future.

Unlike most would-be authors, however, Mrs. Childs didn't go through the common ritual of submitting her manuscript to several publishers and having it rejected by some or all. She didn't have time for that. Instead, she circumvented the process by investing not only hard work in the project but cash as well. She paid $8,000 to have her 129-page volume produced in hard cover, with a dust jacket.

Mrs. Childs is one of about 1,000 writers who this year will sink from $4,000 to $20,000 into getting their books copy edited, designed, printed, bound, and publicized by America's three large ''subsidy'' publishers, Vantage Press of New York City, Exposition Press of Smithtown, N.Y., and Dorrance & Co. of Bryn Mawr, Pa.

Subsidy houses reject hardly a manuscript on literary grounds, though they don't publish libelous material, hate literature, or pornography. ''Subsidy'' refers to the fee these publishers charge their authors, but detractors have come up with a pejorative label of their own -- ''vanity'' presses.

In normal trade, university, and small-press publishing there is no fee. The publisher provides the financial backing to launch the book, and the author's advances or royalties are compensation for their labor.

In general, the literary world looks down on the need for a fee as a signal that the subsidized book isn't good enough to make it on its own. Few bookstores will stock it; not many review media will give it attention; and some papers and magazines will refuse to accept ads for it.

Yet, despite the stigma, subsidy publishers seem to be doing better than ever. Slow trade sales and heavy dependence on mass-marketable ''blockbusters,'' as well as tight budgets at university presses make it hard for books of limited appeal to find acceptance. Today, previously published authors, as well as scholars and diplomats who might have published commercially a few years ago, are turning to subsidy houses. The list of prominent people who have published recently with subsidy presses is long. It includes:

* Benjamin E. Mays, former president of Morehouse College and head of the Atlanta school board, who published an earlier book with Scribner's.

* Wallace H. Fuller, a biochemist and professor at the University of Arizona, who previously published two books with a university press.

* Frank J. Devine, US ambassador to El Salvador under the Carter administration.

* Joseph Guannu, the current Liberian ambassador to the United States.

While Expositon, Dorrance, and Vantage dare not hope this distinguished clientele will completely erase the subsidy stigma, there are signs of some mellowing.

Karen Kennerly, executive director of PEN-America, the US branch of the international writers' organization, says, ''Right now I don't think that PEN or anybody else can afford to have a restrictive attitude about vanity presses.'' The financial limitations that keep pushing the break-even point on trade books higher and higher now mean that ''if a book can't sell 12,000 copies and can't break even, (it won't be published, and) one can't buy it,'' she adds. ''Some of the most brilliant books in our literature have sold only 4,000 to 5,000 copies the first year. . . . It's very, very important to consider what the vanity press is and what it could do in these times of great difficulty for authors who write serious but not necessarily popular books.''

Ms. Kennerly, however, seems to speak for a minority.

Theodore Vrettos, whose newest novel, ''Lord Elgin's Lady,'' was published this spring by Houghton Mifflin (a trade publisher) and who teaches creative writing at Simmons College in Boston, gives each of his classes a lecture on the hazards of vanity publishers. ''A lot of first-time writers, unaware of how costly such a project can become, have been duped and disappointed,'' he comments.

Sylvia Burak, editor of The Writer magazine, published in Boston, says she advises authors never to publish with a vanity house. ''We don't accept vanity ads, because we don't feel there is a way to protect writers from the shoddy practices that really go on. You see, they purport to be publishers, but really what they come down to is very, very expensive printers.''

Observers like Ms. Burak and Mr. Vrettos feel that the majority of books in subsidy catalogs have little or no sales potential beyond the author's circle of friends and relatives. Even though a subsidy house will devote 10 to 15 percent of the fee to modest promotional and advertising efforts, additional sales will be negligible, they argue. It is far cheaper, they insist, for the author to arrange with a printer to have a few hundred books manufactured and then try to place these in a local bookstore on a consignment basis than it is to lay out thousands of additional dollars for a subsidy edition. That edition, they argue , seldom achieves any better sales results. In the end, it may provide the author with only 400 to 1,000 finished ''remainder'' copies of his book anyway, which he must then pay to have shipped to him or must acquire at 25 percent of the retail price, depending on the policy of the particular publisher he deals with.

Simmons's Mr. Vrettos advises any writer who can't get published commercially to ''take the book to an honest printer and say, 'I want 400 copies.' People can control the expense this way, and it's not going to be enormous.'' They can ''self-publish'' in the tradition of Hawthorne, Poe, Whitman, Pound, and Eliot, he says.

Subsidy author Gil Stevenson couldn't disagree more strongly, however. In ''Before the Wind,'' the fifth book he has published with Dorrance, he defends the vanity/subsidy route with common sense and good humor:

Subsidy publishers ''perform a real service for authors . . . . They do not promise to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear or assure a little old lady from Howell, Wyoming, that her novel will be another 'Gone With the Wind.' What they will do is edit your manuscript, get it printed and bound, obtain a copyright in your name, and make an honest effort to sell it. It will be listed in 'Books in Print,' cataloged in libraries in your community, and made available to bookstores through regular channels. If you acted as your own publisher you would have to take care of all this yourself.''

Sylvia Bronner, vice-president of Dorrance, which, now in its 42nd year, ranks as America's oldest subsidy house, feels the bad reputation of the subsidy industry was built on abuses that are nearly gone. ''There have been bad subsidy publishers who have given the whole industry a bad name,'' she comments. ''A lot of them are no longer in existence.

How do clients learn about subsidy publishing? Initially through advertisements in specialty publications like Writer's Digest, or general publications like the Wall Street Journal, or even the Yellow Pages.

''Most trade houses don't advertise; in fact they discourage people from sending them manuscripts,'' says Linda U. Margolin, publisher of Exposition, which was founded in 1936 by her father, Edward Uhlan. ''So when people go to the Yellow Pages they will see our name and not any other publisher.''

The ad they see will probably include the word ''subsidy'' or refer to the ''cost of publishing,'' but unsophisticated readers are likely to overlook that. If they send for information, they'll receive an illustrated multipage brochure that does explain clearly to a careful reader the basic distinctions between trade and subsidy publishing but gives no indication of the likely size of the subsidy. (At Exposition, the average now is about $7,500 for a 150-page book.)

Of course, the exact subsidy amount is necessarily determined after a manuscript has been submitted, and the fee is announced to the author with the letter notifying him his manuscript has been accepted. It doesn't take a vivid imagination to visualize an unsophisticated writer being completely dazzled by the ''acceptance'' and influenced by the unrealistic hope of recovering all or part of the subsidy through heavy sales. Such writers are the source of much of the disappointment and bad press about subsidy publishing.

''I don't want your readers to think that people make money by subsidy publishing, because most of them don't,'' says Martin Littlefield, vice-president of Vantage, the largest and newest (1949) of the big three. Asked to estimate the share of his authors who will break even or make a profit, he says, ''Less than 10 percent.'' And although he declines to reveal the exact proportion, he admits candidly that ''with all subsidy publishing houses, more income comes from subsidies than from sales.''

The potential subsidy client needs to look at this kind of publishing purely as an expenditure, says Peter Heggie, executive secretary of the Authors Guild, which ''takes no official position for or against subsidy publishing,'' since its membership requirements call for publication under a normal commercial arrangement. Then a writer can dispassionately measure what he or she will get against what it will cost, Mr. Heggie adds.

Services and costs are explained in the standard contracts of the three large subsidy houses, which are similar in many respects to one another and open somewhat to negotiated amendment.

The author assigns domestic, foreign, paperback, and screen rights to the publisher. The house supplies heavy or light editing at the author's discretion, but will make final decisions about content, book design, jacket design, and jacket copy. The author will pay the subsidy (in installments if he wishes) before the book is printed. The company will allocate 10 to 15 percent of the subsidy for promotion and publicity and will make final decisions about how the money is spent. The publisher will keep the book in print for a minimum of two years, after which the company can terminate the agreement, if it wishes.

The author receives 40 percent of the retail price for every copy sold from the first edition, and 20 percent from later editions (which require no extra fee). The writer gets 50 copies of the book upon publication at no additional charge, and possibly 50 more at no cost or at a significant discount, if he meets certain conditions. He receives 80 percent of the proceeds from any sale of subsidiary rights. And when the agreement is terminated, he can have any remaining copies from Dorrance or Vantage for the cost of shipping. Exposition sells authors its remainders at 25 percent of the retail price.

The economics indicate that ''The Fabric of the ERA,'' published in June by Exposition and priced at $10, will have to sell 2,000 copies before Marjorie Childs will recover her $8,000 subsidy. So far the book has been reviewed in Mrs. Childs's hometown paper and a newspaper in a neighboring town. She has had one television and two radio interviews. The book is in stock in a local store, and ''a few hundred'' copies have been shipped from the Exposition warehouse, according to a company spokesman.

Benjamin Mays, the black educator whose earlier book was published by a trade house, says he has received more than $8,000 from sales of his autobiography, ''Lord, the People Have Driven Me On,'' published last year by Vantage. That has more than covered his subsidy, he says.

Once a potential client has come to terms with the fact that fewer than 1 in 10 authors will recover their money, as Mr. Mays has, there may be other factors that will persuade them to go ahead, the subsidy publishers point out. Time may be a factor, as it was for Mrs. Childs, and subsidy publishers routinely complete the job faster than trade publishers. There are other reasons, as well.

''I know authors who were trade-published and who were very unhappy about the experience,'' says Exposition's Mrs. Margolin. ''They didn't pay anything, but they may have lost control of the book.By the time it was edited they couldn't recognize it as theirs anymore. Or the publisher may have spent a lot of money producing it, but there was zero promotion budget.''

In summarizing the advantages and limitations of subsidy arrangements, Mrs. Margolin says, ''I feel pretty strongly that subsidy publishing is a last resort for many people who want their books published. I think they should be able to do that.It's not up to me, as it is to a trade house, to say we don't think your book has sufficient sales potential, or we don't think your book is the best thing written on the topic, or we're not interested. We're a service, and people pay us for it.''

Dorrance's Ms. Bronner says, ''In providing a service which is, in effect, access to one form of free speech, we admittedly cannot be as discriminating as trade publishers in considering literary quality. . . . We are also obligated to our authors not to engage in heavy-handed editorial changes against their wishes. So while we do not by any means publish (just) anything that comes across our desk, we do produce a number of books which critics may hold up as examples of mediocre writing. But it is simplistic and erroneous to categorize all subsidy books in this manner.''

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