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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I totally agree with John (and The Big O was, in fact, the book I was talking about in my earlier post. It's a brilliant book). Small publishers do a wonderful job publishing books which may not otherwise get a chance - publishers like Busted Flush, Point Blank, Hard Case Crime, Stark House and others like them, including smaller ones such as the aforementioned Hags Head who published The Big O, and larger ones such as No Exit and Bitter Lemon - I spend a lot of my book buying money with small publishers. Probably most of it, in fact. But there's a huge difference between them and the iUniverse type.
Having read (or tried to read) quite a large number of iUniverse books in the past, and only found one of any merit, I am quite happy to say 'never again' :o) And there are a number of other printing companies whose covers are so dire that I would definitely say 'no thanks'; there too, just based on that alone. On the other hand one of my favourite books was...I don't know...self-published/co-published - not sure what the terminology is - so I am not against them as a breed. The difference is that the good self-publishers, like the wonderful small publishers out there - really care about the books they publish. They might not have much money but they make sure that the books are edited and not just flung together to make a quick buck.

I've used Lulu myself. I did a competition for the children from the schools I visited in Alaska and I decided to put their short stories in a book to give to them when I went back this year. I have nothing but praise for Lulu. They were easy to use, fast, good quality, and pretty cheap (I got about 100 copies in total - the more you get the cheaper they are). I would definitely recommend them. But they're a printing company - there's no way I would class them as a publisher.

And John - I don't believe it's sour grapes OR snobbery. Personally, I've only ever read one half decent iUniverse book. It was later picked up by a legitimate publisher, edited, changed (and the author was quite happy to admit that it was a much improved book). I want a well told story with great characters. I'd rather not wade through dross to find one diamond in the rough.
The thing that concerns me is that there's a tendency to lump a lot of small publishers into the 'doesn't count as published' category just because they don't follow the traditional corporate model for publishing. I'm not talking about iUniverse or other self-publishers, but small, small houses that read submissions, make decisions on whether the manuscript is publishable, edit, provide cover art, and publish the books. Some of those companies are small enough that they cannot afford to provide advances. Does this somehow make them not legitimate? The argument is that they're only legitimate if they back up their faith in the book by paying you in advance--but are they not also showing their faith in your work by putting their own money into paying an editor and a cover artist, and printing the books? They don't have the economy of scale that larger publisher have, but does that make them illegitimate? Are their authors wannabees because they went with a smaller publisher, knowing they weren't going to get on any bestseller lists?

If a lack of an advance makes you not a published author, what about the new Harper Studio project, where there are no advances and the author gets their money through splitting the profits with the company?

We live at a time when the publishing model is starting to change due to the sheer unwieldiness of the current system. With things as they are, getting in with even a small, small publisher may be the only way even very talented authors are going to see their work in print. And with the advent of the Kindle and the slow rise of ebooks in general, marketing is likely to change as well, making books available where you might not have known about them before.
I would say it depends on the press, Pepper. How selective they are, their level of distribution, etc. The advance isn't really the issue.

I can start a company called Bogus Books, and technically I would be a "small press." But if in reality all I'm doing is paying to have my own work printed and bound, it's not any different than going through the previously mentioned POD outfits.
The advance actually is an issue with some of the professional genre organizations in determining if a publisher is legitimate and its authors 'published'. They use this as one of the gauges of whether an author has been published through a vanity press or not.

You have to understand that there is a certain amount of literary chauvinism at work here. This is an issue that a lot of authors at legitimate small publishers see a lot, because it gets used as a stick to beat them with. There's an assumption that no one would submit to a smaller press if they were good enough to get accepted by a bigger one, but that's not necessarily so. Some of us chose small presses because we wanted to go that route. It becomes tiresome to be told repeatedly that you're not really published just because you didn't go through one of the conglomerates.
Really? Which professional genre organizations determine if a publisher is legitimate or not based on the amount of the authors' advances against royalties? Surely there must be other criteria.
Last I heard, RWA and MWA both included authors' advances among their criteria for whether an author is 'published' and a publisher is 'legitimate'. MWA's most recent rules change knocked a lot of legitimate small publishers off their approved list. Maybe only small presses and their authors are aware of this, because it directly affects our eligibility for membership in said organizations?

I do think it was aimed at keeping authors who went through PublishAmerica, Author House and other such self-publishing ventures from gaining active author membership. They're supposedly going through on a case by case basis with the small presses that got knocked off the approved publisher list, but in the meantime, small press authors are getting treated with the same level of respect as your iUniverse author.
Hmm. I might be wrong, but I don't think Poisoned Pen, Busted Flush, Bleak House, etc., offer author advances, and they're all still on MWA's list of approved publishers.

Are you sure there aren't other issues with your publisher?
I did say small and very small. And economy of scale. Do you know all that much about successful, very small presses? If not, you might want to educate yourself on it.
Do you know all that much about successful, very small presses? If not, you might want to educate yourself on it.

I don't know anything about them, really, other than some of them put books out that I like. Please, educate me. What's the name of your publisher, and why did you choose them?
Give me a bit to gather my thoughts on this, and I'll send you a message on it. It's way too much to post here.
Pepper:

Here's the actual rule from MWA's website:

2. You have been paid for your work. If you are a writer of books, you have been paid at least $1,000 in advances, royalties, or a combination of advances and royalties. Your publisher, to be approved, must have paid a minimum of $1,000 during the preceding year to at least five authors with no financial or ownership interest in the company. (See Rule 7.) If you write short stories, your cumulative earnings are at least $200, with only payments of at least $25 counting toward the total. Scholarly articles or chapters of nonfiction books will be treated like short stories for purposes of Active Category qualification.

So the $1000 can come in the form of royalties. No advance required.

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