Yesterday's prize-giving event at the Society of Authors in London celebrated several categories of book (in addition to the club anthology section). Prizes were awarded for the best self-published children's book, best self-published novel, best self-published non-fiction book and the best self-published poetry collection.
These awards, given by the David St John Thomas Charitable Trust, are apparently the only awards of their kind, celebrating achievement in the field of self-publishing.
What is self publishing, why does it merit celebration and how does it differ from the dreaded vanity publishing business?
If you write a book and instead of getting it published through an existing company, edit, typeset, have printed and market it yourself - this is self publishing. I have seen enough excellent writing being turned down by mainstream publishers to believe that self-publishing at its best is an honorable route between pen and audience, and well deserving of celebration.
It has also been a route into mainstream publication for a few authors. These are the ones who did it so well that the sales proved the book had merit. After which even the most sceptical publishers were prepared to take them on.
(Why do the mainstream publishers turn down excellent writing? That is a topic in itself. But the central reason is usually economic. In short, they do not know how they would market it to sell enough copies to make a profit. This can be because of sound financial acumen. Or it could be a lack of vision. I have seen 5 or 6 manuscripts that were SO good, I couldn't believe they were turned down by mainstream publishers. In those cases I wished the authors had self-published rather than giving up after the Nth rejection. I would have bought a copy. I would have told my friends about it. Perhaps they would have told theirs.)
What of vanity publishing? Vanity publishers usually describe their role as helping authors to self-publish. The vanity part comes from the fact that they accept any manuscript, however bad, saying it is wonderful. A work of art. A discovery of great importance. A book that deserves an audience.
The author hands over a few thousand pounds and they say they will do the rest. They will edit it, typeset it, print it, send a copy to the British Library etc, and send out press releases to inform a grateful public of the arrival of the best thing since Hamlet. Money is sure to flood in to the author as sales mount. They can reprint as necessary.
In reality, the manuscript will printed with little or no editing, and the author will receive hundreds of copies which eventually be stored in the loft because no one will buy them. There they will be forgotten until the house is sold, whereon the owner will have to hire a skip to put them in pending the inevitable landfill.
Am I being too harsh? Perhaps. But the vanity press is an industry that grows fat by manipulating people's the unrealistic expectations. Anyway - three cheers for the best in self-publishing. You're an inspiration to us all.
Below are two of the the editorial team from Leicester Writers Club standing outside the headquarters of the Society of Authors.