Should Authors who Self-Publish be Considered Vanity Press?

I don’t ever think there has been a more appropriate time in this industry than to seriously revisit the question of what happens when authors “self-publish” their books and whether or not they should be considered “vanity press.” After attending 30+ conventions, I can completely understand the “why” behind name-calling some print-on-demand and self-published authors.

There’s always one or two authors who buy a booth, don’t bother to decorate or make it appear friendly, and sit behind a pile of books, waiting desperately for someone to stroll past and throw money at their feet. In many ways yes, these writers could be considered vanity press because, on the surface, it appears as if they don’t know what they’re doing, that they’ve published their book because they wanted to see it in print. Do you ever ask yourself, why they bought a booth?

Maybe they really don’t know what they’re doing, and they believe (like so many other writers) that fame and fortune will knock on their door–all they have to do is publish a book. Just because they have stars and dollar signs in their eyes, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ve gone to all the trouble to print books just so they could see their name in print.

Yes, there is a definite disconnect between writers who understand the business of writing and those who understand the business of selling, marketing and publishing books. Sandwiched in the middle, there are those writers, like myself, that fall somewhere in between the two schools of thought based on our experiences. When a writer focuses heavily on the creative process, they lose the ability to detach themselves from their work; hence, the innocence. Writers sometimes forget that best-selling books are not just a function of the creative process, they are also a function of luck, networking, and timing. Still, more authors than I can count worship the large presses, thinking that they will somehow magically recognize their name among the masses and grant them a publishing contract.

I think that within traditional publishing there is a fear, and that fear resonates and trickles down to hopeful authors who have never had anything published before. The fear for the amateur is that the book, their self-published book, will somehow suck so bad that no one will want to publish them and they’ll get a bad reputation. I’d like to venture a guess and say that perhaps the publishers are afraid of the opposite scenario, since it’s very rare to see a publisher that’s on top of Web 2.0 let alone take chances on an unpublished, unproven author. Also, I’d like to put it out there that the major publishers are probably tightening their belts because the cost of printing keeps going up every year, and they’re more likely to go with an author whose books they know readers will buy, even if it’s written poorly. Most inexperienced writers also don’t realize that editing is an expensive, costly venture for many publishers. Add that cost into an untested author whose books are not a guarantee to sell, and that quickly factors into a huge risk for the big houses.

That fear of garnering a bad reputation is very real; just within the past year I can name five, fellow authors who have been determined to “agent up.” Not one of them has been successful so far, and not one of them will consider self-publishing as an option. Why? One of them has told me that since best-selling author X said self-publishing is vanity press, they’ll never do it.

Unfortunately, best-selling authors don’t have to go through the same hoops as new ones, especially writers that have been around for a number of years. While veteran authors do give great advice, you have to remember that their experiences entering the publishing biz might be outdated–10, 20 maybe even 30 years old or more.

In truth, the self-publishing model has worked for some authors (not all) who simply got around the stigma by developing their own emprint and use the tools that are available to them. Authors like Gregory Solis and David Wellington, who you’ll hear me mention from time to time.

Remember, too that advances are virtually non-existent for new authors, so if you can get one, you’re darn lucky. You’re even more fortunate if you haven’t negotiated any of your rights away; some publishers leverage copyright with taking a risk on an unknown. Don’t even get me started on how much first-time authors make; in some cases, it’s pretty pathetic.

So the attraction to self-publish is understandable; you, as the writer who has created this story, have control over how many copies you publish, what you charge, and how you market, sell and distribute that story. To give you some scale, according to this stat referenced in Beneath the Cover’s Publishing Statistics for May 2007, 78% of titles come from small press or self-publishers out of as many as 86,000 self-publishers, compared with six major ones in New York.

As an author who tries her darnedest to be savvy about the market, I don’t believe that the popularity of small press and self-publishing can be ignored, even if the number of books sold doesn’t equate to the numbers from larger presses. I certainly don’t want to write any of my books for my Violet War series just so I can see it in print; I can’t imagine why any other writer these days would do the same.

So before you consider a writer to be vanity press, maybe it’s better to ask the question, “How much does this author really know about the industry?” If they don’t know as much as they should, I’d encourage you to either communicate with them or take a second look at the words beneath the cover. You might just find that their story is fresh and innovative, something worthwhile reading.

It’s one thing to throw around labels, it’s entirely another to comprehend why they are there in the first place. Since the phrase “vanity press” was coined back in 1959 (according to Wikipedia, I think I can say, with the utmost confidence, that publishing and selling books have changed dramatically since that time. After all, haven’t you heard? There’s this new-fangled invention that’s been utilized pretty heavily since then called “the internet.” Toss in iPhones, eBooks, PDFs and other ways to distribute content, and I think we need to reinvent what that phrase means.

Hey, maybe that’s what we should write to Amazon about?

Folks, I’m always looking for more relevant stats about the publishing industry to share, so feel free to send them along if you have them, with a link to the source.

6 Responses to Should Authors who Self-Publish be Considered Vanity Press?
  1. Julie Trelstad

    Hey Monica-

    Here are some stats for you. As a big-publishing-co expat and the now the owner of my small press and publishing services firm, I can tell you what big publishers are actually looking for today are pre-sold books. One agent told me there is a rule of thumb that any author who walks in the door is automatically going to bring the sale of 25,000 books with them through their own network, contacts and personal marketing efforts. Publishers determine royalty advances by how much they believe a books can earn back in 6-12 months. If an author has a track record (previously sold books) or is known to have a large media presence, that’s a fairly easy calculation to make. If an author’s never published before or has never appeared on in The New York Times or in major magazines, that’s a really hard call, no matter how good the book might be. Keep in mind that the business people and not the editors in those companies determine which books get bought.

    With that said, if an author is savvy enough to sell 25,000 copies of their book, and has the resources to get the book professionally edited and produced, she’s vastly better off publishing on her own! Do that math! If an author is savvy about the business of publishing it’s not vanity at all.

    For information on how to do it, check out the excellent resources at

    Julie Trelstad
    Publisher, Plain White Press

  2. Nocat

    Many first time and repeat authors come to BRIO looking for consultation regarding their book. We have worked with first time authors that hit a home run right away and sell 5,000 and 10,000 books and we others who are still working at it. Often times people are making simple mistakes. Luckily, they have found us and we can help. Here is a post at Brioprint on Some of the basic “Do’s & Don’ts”on self-publishing.

  3. Yvonne DiVita

    Hi Julie and Monica, I agree with both of you. We’re an author services company using Print-on-demand and we are very hard on ourselves to produce quality work that authors can be proud of. Then, we do our best to help our authors market and sell their work. We believe in full support, and yes, we do ask for payment for the production of the book… but we try very hard to then support the authors with blogs and other social media, as well as traditional marketing tactics. We also recommend authors hire a publicist, if they do not have time to do it themselves.

    Over at Beneath the Cover, I wrote a post about traditional publishers looking at self-published books for possible publication – and was roundly and rudely criticized by one Lee Goldberg, a screenwrite, who said — over and over – that anyone who couldn’t get a book in a traditional house was a crappy writer. And, that NO ONE should ever self-publish or, heaven forbid, pay an author services company.

    Well, he was rude and unpleasant, but in the end, the truth is here, on this blog. Thanks for making it clear.

    Are you aware of the Amazon fiasco? They are insisting all POD publishers now use BookSurge, their POD division…instead of whatever printer they have now, but especially if they use Lightning Source. Any comment on that?

  4. Atilla Vékony


    you mention a couple of authors who are holding out for agents and refuse to publish their books on their own. Contrast that with a savvy, entrepreneurial author who believes in his or her book enough to want to invest in its success, get higher royalties, and keep all rights to the book.

    The question that’s begging to be asked is, Which one of them is in it for vanity’s sake? The one who self-publishes or the one who is holding out for traditional “recognition” (so much that they’re willing to give up their rights)?

    I am just trying to show that there’s enough vanity in publishing to be spread around, although I’d venture to say there’s more vanity in the creators and propagators of the phrase “vanity publishing.”

    Atilla Vékony
    Wheatmark, Inc.

  5. Monica Valentinelli

    Thank you to everyone who commented on my blog.

    Yvonne: There has been a lot of chatter about the Amazon fiasco, and I believe they handled it pretty poorly. They claimed today in this press release that it was about the speed of shipping. You can read the press release here, on their site. I had blogged about it earlier, but in the end I think that Amazon is making a big mistake. They FORGOT that the very people they are making demands to, are also customers of Amazon. Personally, I think they could have gone about this a different way, instead they will suffer from the effects of a justified blogstorm.

    Atilla: I think that you bring up a good point, but the disconnect for me is that I am writing to put my work out there to sell copies. Simply, even though I write because I love to do it, I view the craft to be a business.

    I feel that the term “vanity” is applicable in many cases, because there is such a thing as the writer’s ego. The sad thing is, I couldn’t afford to put food on my table if I wrote full-time, and I don’t think many authors can either. Sometimes writers arm themselves with vanity so they can continue to motivate themselves, to believe that one day maybe, just maybe, they’ll succeed.

  6. April L. Hamilton

    I totally agree with Atilla from Wheatmark. I’ve elected to go indie rather than seek some kind of perceived status with a mainstream publisher who wants total control of my work and career, yet offers scarcely anything of value in return. No reader gets pulled into a book by jacket copy or reading an excerpt, only to flip over to the spine and throw the book down, exclaiming in horror, “Why, this was published by Joe-Bob’s Bait Shop, Falafel Hut and Press, not a REAL publisher at all!” In the end, it all comes down to the writing. However, since indie books have to look at least as good as mainstream books to be taken seriously, and promotion isn’t generally something that comes naturally to authors, I’ve documented my indie authorship experiences and skills in a how-to reference book, The IndieAuthor Guide. I hope the book will give more authors the knowledge and confidence they need to stop begging for crumbs at the tables of big publishers and take their careers into their own hands.

Monica Valentinelli is a writer, editor, and game developer. Her portfolio includes stories, games, comics, essays, and pop culture books.

In addition to her own worlds, she has worked on a number of different properties including Firefly, Vampire: the Masquerade, Shadowrun, Hunter: the Vigil, Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, and Robert E. Howard’s Conan.

Looking for Monica’s books and games that are still in print? Visit Monica Valentinelli on Amazon’s Author Central or a bookstore and game store near you.

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