In a former life, I tended bar at a Mexican restaurant. It was a hole-in-the-wall dump of a place, a converted Frisch’s Big Boy with a few colorful blankets and sombreros and piñatas tacked to the walls for “atmosphere.” The food was authentic, though, and we always got good reviews in the newspaper.

I started each shift by cutting dozens of limes into wheels for garnishes, mixing five-gallon tanks of margaritas, and generally prepping the bar for what we called “Fiesta Hour.”

Between 2PM and 7PM, you could buy jumbo margaritas and well drinks for half-price, and you could eat fresh tortilla chips and homemade salsa for free. In theory, the cheap drinks and free snacks were supposed to stimulate customers’ appetites. In theory, they would then order a plate of rellenos or enchiladas or pollo con salsa verde. In practice, however, quite a few patrons regularly came in strictly for the cut-rate tequila buzz and comp munchies.

One of those patrons was a guy named Marco.

Mid-thirties, tall and thin, stringy blond hair, big Adam’s apple, still lived with his parents.

He always ordered multiple margaritas on the rocks (light on the ice; he got more booze that way), multiple baskets of chips, and multiple tubs of hot and mild salsa. He never bought anything off the menu, and he never tipped me a dime.

But those weren't the main reasons I dreaded seeing him.

You see, Marco was a self-proclaimed perfumier. He had a “laboratory” set up in his basement, where he distilled oils and essences, spices and extracts--all sorts of exotic and volatile concoctions designed to titillate the human olfactory nerve. Drop-by-drop, Mad Scientist Marco filled tiny glass vials with these precious potions of his, and then mounted the vials in a briefcase for display. Sometimes he brought the briefcase to the bar with him.

There was only one problem with Marco’s fragrances: they didn’t smell very good. In fact, they stunk.

That’s not just my opinion. Everybody who ever smelled Marco’s products said they stunk. Popping the cork on one of his bottles was like unleashing the hounds of perfume hell. Imagine an elevator full of blue-haired, lipstick-toothed octogenarians, whose senses of smell died sometime during the Carter administration. Add a couple of funeral sprays, some rubbing alcohol, and maybe a dash of Pine Sol. Shake well.

Oh, he occasionally sold one of those vile vials, to a kindly cocktail server or a nearby customer who took pity on him. I even bought a bottle one time, only to pitch it in the dumpster on my way home.

Unfortunately, our patronage only encouraged him. He kept making more of that kerosene cologne, kept trying to hawk it during Fiesta Hour. Eventually, the restaurant owner had a talk with him. Marco didn’t come in very often after that.

Marco’s dream was to be a famous perfume designer. The way I see it, he went about it all wrong.

Shouldn’t you know a little bit about chemistry? Shouldn't you be aware of how various substances might interact with human glandular secretions? Shouldn’t you maybe spend some time in Paris or New York or somewhere studying with masters of the trade? Shouldn’t you analyze popular scents on a molecular level to see just what it is about them that turns people on?

Marco didn’t do any of that. Marco bought some smelly stuff through the mail, pumped it into amateurish-looking containers, tried to sell it from a briefcase at the cantina.

And he wanted to call himself a perfumier.

Sorry, Marco, but you have to earn that title.

Just as, in my opinion, writers have to earn the title of published author.

Anyone who can scratch out words on a page can have those words printed and bound and put up for sale on sites like Amazon. To me, that type of publishing is tantamount to bottling perfume from a basement lab and selling it from a briefcase in a bar.

In other words, it’s very likely that the end product will stink.

I was at a writer’s conference one time, outside smoking a cigarette, when a fellow attendee strolled up and asked for a light.

“What kind of stuff do you write?” he asked.

“Hardboiled. I’m working on a private eye novel.”

“Anything published yet?”

“Not yet. I’m still looking for an agent. How ‘bout you?”

“Yeah, I have a book out.”

“Really? Who’s the publisher?”

He named a certain POD outfit. "Here, let me give you one of my cards...”

He handed me a business card and walked away. He avoided me for the duration of the conference, preferring instead to hang around with other “published authors.” I felt like grabbing him by the collar and shouting you’re not published either, you punk, but of course I didn’t. Anyway, I doubt my harsh words would have penetrated his cloud of arrogance.

There are no shortcuts to becoming a published author. You have to earn the title by landing a contract with a legitimate publisher, and that can take years of hard work.

Some folks would rather throw up a lab in the basement and start hawking product right away (throw up and hawk being the key words there).

That’s their choice, I suppose, but I really don’t see the point.

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Seems like sour grapes to me.
Not at all, John. I just think the title "published author" is thrown around a bit too loosely these days.

Being published and having something printed up in book form are two entirely different things.
Yeah, one is socially acceptable and the other is not. That's the difference. What if I wanted to say that anyone who isn't a member of PEN doesn't count as a real author. They require a certain number of books published and maybe some other requirements, I don't remember. Anybody, if they try long enough, can get a book published (at least, that's what all the writing books and teachers say, just keep at it).

Or maybe anyone who hasn't sold at least X-number of copies doesn't count. It doesn't matter what the benchmark is; there is no authority to determine which one is "correct". And setting any kind of benchmark for a such a title is just snobbish. It's just like the literary community looking down on genre writers. I guess everyone needs someone to look down on.
Yeah, one is socially acceptable and the other is not. That's the difference.

Wrong. One requires a certain skill level, and the other requires...nothing. That's the difference. I can send my grocery lists from the past year into a POD outfit, have them printed up in book form, and all of a sudden I'm a published author. Woohoo!
Being published by a major publishing house doesn't mean you're a good writer either. I'm sure everyone has read plenty of bad books that were published by major houses.
But compare the worst of the major houses with the worst of the PODs and see what you think.
Being published by a major publishing house doesn't mean you're a good writer either.

"Good" is subjective, but being published by a major house (or a legitimate indie) means several industry professionals have agreed that your work has literary merit or the potential to compete in the crowded marketplace or both. There's a reason the vast majority of manuscripts are rejected: the vast majority of manuscripts don't meet either or both of those criteria.

The gatekeepers do a pretty good job, for the most part, starting with the literary agent.
Excellent reply, John. If I had read Jude's posting on "Marco," I would have been hesitant to post about my POD experience in response to Jude's self-publishing question elsewhere. I've read good as well as abominable POD books, but the same holds true for traditionally published books. Or maybe "abominable" is too strong a word for the conventionally published ones. More often, the bad ones are just boringly predictable and pedestrian. POD authors don't have to play it safe or appeal to standardized tastes, and sometimes they come up with intriguingly different work.

There's definitely a lot of snobbery on this topic, but times are changing rapidly.
I have a few friends in a writers group who have gone with POD publishers to get their books in print. I'm happy for them, and they definitely get a kick out being able to hand out--and sell--books with their names on them, but I agree with Jude, it's not like really being published.

I have several unpublished manuscripts on my hard drive. Some day I may choose to have books made of them though a POD operation, but that will mean I've given up on getting published, and am just looking for some copies for friends and relatives who have enjoyed reading excerpts.
There are dabblers at every art, ultimately egoists who more than anything enjoy telling people "I'm a perfumier" or "I'm a published author." The guy published by iuniverse has probably moved on to another hobby by now. (Maybe iuniverse is no more too?)

The Beatles (sans Ringo) paid cash money to record their first record when they were still teenagers. You can hear the songs on the first anthology album. But I'm sure they didn't kid themselves about what the recording meant.
In his new book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell uses The Beatles as his example of his 10,000 hous theory. Before they recorded their first 'real' record they had performed about 10,000 hours together (sans Ringo, as you say, for most of that). These were mostly in 8 hour shifts at strip clubs in Hamburg. And remember, the record company had very low expectations for The beatles.

Elmore Leonard has said that it takes a fiction writer about a million words to find their own voice - he did say you should be able to start selling before the whole million has been written ;)

So, sometimes the quickness people rush into self-publishing with is a problem, yeah.

But really, the publishing world is changing so fast now that the "title" published author is becoming pointless (or even more pointless depending on your view). For many big publishing companies fiction is a small part of what they do. I was recently dropped by Harcourt as they aren't even sure if they're going to continue with fiction.

If these trends continue and the technology continues to change the difference between publishing companies and POD and self-published will become a lot less important. Which could be good, maybe we could just look at the content of the books instead of who put up how much money for them. Maybe the self-published book the guy handed out was actually pretty good. Maybe self-published books of the future will be good.

Books are about the only art form where we have less respect for "independent artists" and more respect for the corporate world. We love indie movies and indie music (which usually means 'self-made') but we don't like indie books. Why is that?

It's true, most of the self-published books I've seen could have had better editing, but I feel that way about a lot of the big publishing company books, too.

I think once publishers, editors and booksellers realize they have more to offer than simply being bankers, printers and warehouses and concentrate more on the expertise they bring, we might start seeing some exciting changes.

At least to the publishing of fiction.
True. The general opinion is that self-published books are inferior in quality to traditionally-published books. That may be true, in general, but I don't know that personally. Ive never read a self-published novel. Maybe in general self-published books are of higher quality. Maybe not.

That iUniverse guy could have written one of the greatest crime novels ever, but you'll never know if you just write him off after looking at the publisher logo on the spine. Makes about as much sense as not wanting to converse with someone who wears Levi jeans.


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