In the most recent Pagan Hangout on Patheos.com, Star Foster and Cara Schulz talked very briefly about “The Future of Pagan Publishing.” I wish I could get the necessary equipment together to take part in one of those at some stage…that would have been a good one to have done, for a variety of reasons.
One of the phrases that Star used several times, though, and which wasn’t ever elaborated upon, qualified, defined, or discussed between Star and Cara was “the vanity presses” in pagan publishing. And, to be honest, this had me shaking my head every time I heard it. Let me explain why.
As a (professional–literally!) researcher into a variety of topics, I’ve encountered more than one respected author, poet, or other literary figure who wrote between 1850 and 1950 and had their work “privately published,” so that it is almost impossible to lay hands on a copy now (outside of the British Library, for example!), but the works concerned and the authors in question have often been very important indeed. And, some of them have been pagan, or at least have had an influence on modern paganism.
But, would we look at them, see that their work was “privately published,” and then say, “Aleister Crowley was a vanity press author.” (Okay, maybe he’s a bad example…he certainly was vain, but that’s not the issue here!) The reality is, with occultism, magic, polytheism, and paganism, then as much as now, many “mainstream” and “respectable” publishers wouldn’t have touched such writings with a thirty-foot cattle prod. If various enterprising authors simply went “Well, since no one will publish this, I guess I’m finished” and gave up, and didn’t take the initiative to get their work published privately and distributed to various people, we wouldn’t even know they existed now in many cases.
Speaking from my own viewpoint and from relatively extensive experience, I can say the following. No matter what might have been negotiated with Llewellyn or Weiser (or perhaps even Inner Traditions), there was no way that any of the books I’ve published with The Red Lotus Library would have been done the way they were with those companies, if they had been done at all. The cultus of Antinous and the writings of a person dedicated to him are a niche within a niche within a niche as far as modern polytheism goes, and thus as a potential good seller, or even okay seller to a major publisher, would have rated at next-to-zero, most likely. If I had tried to gear these books toward what such mainstream publishers might prefer, we’d end up with “Antinoan Wicca,” and, honestly, that notion somewhat nauseates me–not because Wicca is in any way a bad thing, but because the notion that anything new and marketable has to come in a Wicca-wrapped basket in order to be palatable to modern pagans is a notion that I’d rather not buy into nor feed.
Further, I also know from other experiences, and just from reading their books, that Llewellyn is not the best publisher when it comes to fact-checking or proofreading (though no one is perfect on the latter, including myself), and they often make changes to things without talking it over with the writer at all, often in egregious fashion. Certainly, there are good Llewellyn books out there by authors like Brandy Williams, Rachel Pollack, and Patrick Dunn, but there is an awful lot of garbage as well…And Weiser, being the other big name on the block, is often not much better in certain respects (with no offense to Orion Foxwood, T. Thorn Coyle, and other Weiser authors). It’s rather improbable to expect editors at those publishers to know a huge variety of subjects well enough that they can spot bullshit whenever it emerges, or to have a team of fact-checkers looking things over whenever they come up as a matter of course–many (academic!) publishers these days don’t even proofread manuscripts, and I know this from direct personal experience with them, so why should we expect that “real” and “respectable” occult publishers would do that either?
I know that many other modern pagan and polytheist authors, who are producing really good work, are doing so through their own publication labels and via the extreme convenience of print-on-demand technology. Sannion’s Nysa Press is one such example; Raven Kaldera started Asphodel Press, which also publishes a great deal of Galina Krasskova’s work, and they’re doing some excellent work; and Dver recently put out Dwelling on the Threshold without any publisher named in it at all, and that has not made the work any less valuable or of a lesser quality.
The reality is that occult, magic, pagan, and polytheist authors have had to get creative, and have had to make their own go of things more often than not in order to get their work out there and to a wider audience at all. No, most of them can’t just put out a book or two (or even twenty) and simply sit back and wait for the money to roll in; but, likewise, not putting anything out, or watering it down and compromising their own standards in order to fit the preferred models of larger publishers has not been seen as a good option either. So, via Sam Webster we have Concrescent Press; because of Taylor Ellwood’s first book, Pop Culture Magick, Immanion Press opened its nonfiction imprint, Megalithica Books, which has gone on to have a rather large and impressive catalogue; and, not unlike Asphodel Press, that puts out a lot of devotional volumes, Bibliotheca Alexandrina has emerged likewise to publish several anthology volumes a year of devotional work, as well as occasional single-author volumes as well. O Books has published the work of a number of different authors as well, including Brendan Meyers, which is worthwhile. And, need I rave further about Scarlet Imprint and the phenomenally beautiful physical books that they produce because they want to and can? This list of publishers of modern pagan, occult, magic, and polytheist material is not by any means exhaustive or comprehensive, it’s just a small flavor of a few groups I’m aware of or have in some manner worked with or explored into further than others.
If HarperOne or HarperSanFrancisco won’t take something, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad, it probably just means that Buddhists and other people of a more New Age bent might not find it palatable. That doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile work, however, at least for some potential readers. There’s a huge amount of drivel that is produced on a regular basis by many mainstream publishers of all sorts; just because those publishers are “respectable” and don’t do print-on-demand (which is, let’s face it, a lot more environmentally friendly than traditional publishing, as well as more lucrative for the authors a lot of the time) doesn’t guarantee the material they produce is good or worthwhile, in fiction, academia, or pagan and polytheist, magic and occult, or other spirituality and religion-related topics.
So, while I guess we’ll never know for sure what the content of the discussion of “the vanity presses” would have been, I’d suggest in the meantime abandoning that phrase. Print-on-demand is print-on-demand; and, it’s not often vanity that pushes people to put out their materials in this fashion (although some, admittedly, do, and you can tell when that’s the case rather immediately!), it’s more like necessity–that may be the only way the material will get out, and it’s more important to have it out than to have the imprimatur, such as it would be, of some major and “respectable” professional publisher of some renown upon it.