One of which had a rather stuffy sounding guy talking about "the author in search of a publisher."
He was trolling for suckers for the vanity press. For a few thousand 1979-dollars you could have your manuscript turned into a real book and get it printed. Yay.
Then what? You'd have a garage full of boxes of books. Then it was up to you to find a way to sell them. Good luck with that. Most of the time, this was not a wise investment of one's savings.
Time passes and technology advances. It is now completely feasible to realize camera-ready typeset pages using just your home computer and a laser printer. It's trivial to produce good looking book designs using just Microsoft Word or any number of other cheap or free tools. Good. We can now produce "galley proofs" at home.
And if you want to fill your garage with boxes of books, any medium-sized town will have several print shops who can obliged you.
The last two paragraphs enable any non-idiot to completely disintermediate the vanity press guys. The dirty little secret is that writers in search of a publisher could have disintermediated them back in the '70s, too.
But even if you did, and you saved thousands of 1979-dollars it was a sucker bet. How are you going to get those boxes of books out of your garage and into bookstores?
Then an amazing thing happened: Amazon.com. Now, all you had to do was hook up with Amazon to get those boxes of books out of your garage. The amazing thing got amazinger. Amazon came out with the Kindle. And they had the good sense to buy a print-on-demand publisher. Now, anyone could click a web site and your book in bits or printed-on-demand would be shipped to their door.
This made me think that self-publishing a non-sucker bet. (And I hope you'll vindicate my opinion by buying either The Aristotelian or Finding Time.) I think self-publishing is a viable route for any writer who doesn't have a book deal. But you gotta be smart about it.
I think the vanity press companies are still a sucker bet. I don't understand how they can still exist when they are so trivially bypassed.
What's truly amazing is the tangled network of ownership. The biggest vanity publisher is now owned by a traditional publisher. You can get the details here.
Why would a traditional publisher own a vanity publisher? In the former case, the publisher pays the author an advance and royalties. In the latter case, the author pays the publisher. Heh. If I were the publisher I'd quit with the advances and royalties. So, there are some conflicts of interest here.
I don't quite know what will come of these changes in book publishing. It looks to me like we aren't seeing the old sucker-bets going away. Instead I think we'll see a whole raft of new and improved sucker-bets to beware of. Let me know if you come across any.