Is it Vanity?

The terms “vanity press” and “vanity publishing” used to mean that people who wrote books too poorly written to interest a “real” publisher would pay to have their own books printed and bound. The implication, of course, was that “real” publishers published “good” books and authors of “vanity” books were by definition failures who couldn’t write.

I dare you to call Herman Melville a failure. He paid to have Moby Dick published after New York publishers turned up their noses at his crude tale in favor of the fashionable novels written in England. Or call me a failure, and I’ll brush up on my karate. (You don’t know how funny that would be.) God’s Thunderbolt: The Vigilantes of Montana was recently called a “literary Western” by one reviewer.

Wanting a second opinion, I asked Gus the Wonder Horse what he thought of that. He chewed on the question along with a mouthful of grass. After wiping his lips on a white fetlock and leaving green streaks, he decided that vanity was as much a force as it ever was. (He should know, being a big handsome equine dude himself.) “But,” he nickered, “there are plenty of poorly written books between covers these days, no matter who published them.” Then he bit off more grass and considered self-publishing (and the grass) some more. “Poor writing doesn’t come only from vanity publications.”

“We call it self-publishing these days,” I told him. “That has a lot fewer connotations of poor quality. Maybe.”

“On the other hoof,” he said, raising the left hind to demonstrate, “maybe proportionately there aren’t so many poorly written books in self-publishing. At least not a greater proportion than there are in ‘real’ publishing.”

He has a good point, even for a horse. R R Bowker projects that in the US alone traditional publishers put out 275,232 books in 2008, and POD books totaled 285,394. That’s a total of 560,626 books altogether!

Bowker did not report how many POD books were fiction, but traditional publishers together published 47,541 fiction titles in 2008. That’s a drop of 11% from 2007 (See the complete article on RR Bowker online). The article doesn’t say, either, how many traditional publishers were using POD technology, but there is some migration from the traditional publishing model to POD.

With all those titles rolling off the presses, no matter which printing technologies were used, we can’t say that self-published books are automatically worse than traditionally published books. There are simply too many books to make that generalization logical. People might gesture toward awards, most of which are won by traditionally published books. However, many awards are closed to self-published books. It is not logical, Gus tells me, to assume that no book worth a Pulitzer or a Nobel was self-published because those awards are not open to self-published books.

The National Book Awards are open to self-published books, provided the publisher also publishes books by other people, and the publisher may be asked to provide a catalog to prove it. But books published through “self-publishing services are not eligible.”

If a self-published book cannot compete on the same basis as a traditionally published book, how can anyone say that self-published books are by definition not good? One cannot say that these premier awards could never be awarded to authors of self-published books on the basis of inferior quality, when in fact the entire category is excluded.

Some book awards, such as the Spur (awarded by the Western Writers of America) and the Edgar (awarded by the Mystery Writers of America) are open to both self-published and traditionally published work. The Nebula (awarded by the Sci Fi Writers of America) is open only to books not nominated by authors, publishers, or anyone else with a monetary interest in the work. Both the Spur and the Edgar are awarded to nonmembers as well as members of the organizations. In my view, both of these organizations have leveled the playing field.

“Of course,” said Gus (acting as devil’s advocate), “you think so because you won the Spur for Best First Novel.” Perhaps. At least I admit the possibility.

However, as things presently stand, the attitude that self-published books aren’t as good as traditionally published books can’t be tested. Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry, won a Spur and then went on to win the Pulitzer. God’s Thunderbolt: The Vigilantes of Montana, which won the Spur Gus mentioned, is not eligible for a Pulitzer because it’s self-published.

And I’d suggest that until major book awards are open to any book, self-published or traditionally published, and both types of books are entered, we can’t adequately test the prejudice in favor of traditionally published books. Until then, we can assume that authors do not necessarily choose to self-publish their books because of vanity.

We do so for the same reasons that Herman Melville did. Because publishers with a hammerlock on publishing ignore us.

  • Shane

    Did Melville pay to have Moby Dick published by a vanity publisher or did he pay to have it printed? There’s a big difference. Also, I’d swear that the Pulitzer is open to self-publishers. At least I see nothing in their guidelines that states otherwise.

    Sorry to play devil’s advocate, Ms. Buchanan, but one more point. A self-publisher is one who publishes his/her own work through a publishing company of which they are the sole proprieter. Meaning, they pay for printing not publishing. Lulu and Booksurge are publishers. If you pay them to publish your book, then they still remain the publishing entity, not you. I know these vanity presses advertise the opposite and have done a dern good job of convincing writers that they’re being enabled to publish their own books. It’s just technically not true.

    Self-publishing should be hard work and financially risky, but if the writing is exceptional the rewards should be better than publishing with a major publishing house, because all of the profits are yours. With a vanity press, they just want your money. They don’t care about whether or not your book is sold unless you pay them to care. I’m extremely wary of this.

    There’s going to be a shift towards self-publishing as it becomes easier and it’s proven to be more profitable for the author that knows how to market and promote his book successfully. I just question the necessity of vanity presses in this shift, and I absolutely think there needs to be a distinction between true self-publishing and using a vanity publisher to publish a book for you.

  • Lulu and Booksurge are publishers. If you pay them to publish your book, then they still remain the publishing entity, not you.

    I’m curious about this, because I used Lulu. The only cost associated with them is when a book is printed. They take a small percentage, but there are no up-front costs outside of printing.

    UNLESS you buy an ISBN and publication rights – but even without someone like Lulu, an ISBN costs money. The distribution paid for when you buy it from Lulu gets the book listed on Amazon and a number of other online book stores – but there is no pressure to pay for marketing materials, cover art, editing, advance copies (minus the single one you must buy prior to approving distribution).

    I’ve noticed a significant difference between POD and a vanity press.

  • Shane

    I was trying to make a petty distinction between self publishing and using a publishing service like Lulu, but I’m not sure that I really nailed it.

    Without splitting hairs about the terminology, a real difference has to do with the promise of financial success. For self-publishing to become an ideal alternative to the traditional model it has to be proven that you can support yourself financially as a self-published author, at least as well as those authors who make a living from traditional publishing royalties. I hate to make it about money, but without it the definition of success becomes ambiguous and meaningless — and often having a lot to do with vanity.

    Kristen, I forget how much lulu takes as a cut, but I’m positive it’s addition to the 60% Amazon is going to take. My friend who published through lulu had it worked out so that for a $16.00 book sold on Amazon he would see about $2.00.

    Also, I’m not attacking authors who publish through the vanity presses; Ms. Buchanan has shown us that good writing will find its audience regardless of the obstacles. I simply stand with the group of critics that want to caution authors from using these services and suggest traditional channels first.

  • Shane,

    It’s been absolutely ages since I’ve been to the Lulu site, but those figures sound about right from what I remember.

    The main issue is that Lulu doesn’t allow the author to fix the discount. So the calculation is something like (Printing cost+your royalty+lulu’s cut)*2 to get the retail price. If the author went to LSI directly – which can be a bit of a pain in the ass since they don’t like to deal with authors and will always try and push you towards the vanity presses (note – this is just what I hear from author friends I haven’t tried) – they’d be able to make a bigger profit and set their own discount levels.


  • Shane Durgee

    It sounds like you have to sell your book above the usual cost of a novel to make any sort of reasonable profit.

    I do have to backpaddle a little bit and state that I used Lulu and Booksurge merely as examples and now that I think about it they’re probably two of the least offending examples one could come up with. I’m really talking about those predatory businesses out there that are deliberately tricking authors into paying for packages they don’t need, gouging their profits deceitfully, and doing nothing to actually help the author sell their product once the inflated initial fees have been sucked away. These entities do exist and they are called “vanity presses.” I don’t actually regard Lulu or Booksurge this way, though I also won’t say that the family resemblance is completely missing.

    I don’t know who Ms. Buchanan published with, but if it is one of the ones I’ve listed or something similar then obviously her book is a glaring example of how an author can meet with real success going that route. There are others like Lisa Genova, though her real success seems to be that she landed a massive figure from a major publisher after her novel, published through Iuniverse (and marketed by a third party that she paid handsomely for) began attracting favorable reviews and media interest. To me that’s a self-publishing failure, since she abandoned the self-publishing model as soon as the major publisher pulled out their checkbook. I’d like to see self-publishers strive for something greater, like total control of their creative property and full profit by remaining self-published even after they’ve reached the stars.

    Oh and I disagree with the talking horse. I think there’s a lot of junk in both worlds, but infinitely more junk being self-published since no one’s watching the gate. That doesn’t deter me from being an advocate for self-publishing. I just hope I sell more of my self-published book in my lifetime than Melville sold in his (Moby Dick barely sold a few thousand copies before Melville died. It was rediscovered and reprinted decades later by a newer, kinder audience. So it goes…)

  • BookSurge and Lightning Sources are printers, not publishers. I was going to use LSI before my distributor found me a better printing deal. Nothing else changed. I set the suggested retail price and controlled every element of the production, including interior design and cover art.

  • Steven Reynolds

    I don’t think self-publishing is driven purely by vanity. It’s a simple numbers game. There are obviously far more people wanting to be published than there are opportunities for traditional publishers to make that dream come true. Some of these would-be authors are talentless and delusional and, yes, probably driven solely by the vain desire to see their name on the cover of a book. Some are real artists with something new and unusual to share with the world, and traditional publishers are too conservative to risk their money on it (it’s their money, after all). Most fall somewhere in between.

    Are there more bad self-published books than bad traditionally published ones? Before you can answer that, you have to articulate your standard of quality. You have to define “bad”. This will always be subjective but, for me, a “bad” book is one that: bores me; uses an ineffective style or voice; has dull or unrealistically drawn characters; shows no ear for the music of language; shows no grasp of the creative choices at an author’s disposal and what the good choices might be; has nothing new or interesting to say; is full of typographical and grammatical errors that show the writer doesn’t give a damn about the reader. In my experience, vastly more self-published books tick some or all of those boxes than traditionally published ones do. Especially the last box, which really is pathetic because it’s so fundamental and so easily fixed.

    Rather than pretending things are otherwise, I think we’d be better off admitting the quality gap and encouraging self-published authors to get independent editorial help. The editorial process is often rejected because it’s bound up with arguments about the supposed Evils of Big Publishing and “gatekeeping”, as if it’s all some kind of conspiracy against creativity. It’s not. Editing isn’t always and only about perverting your creative vision into something a stupid publisher deems marketable. It’s also about making sure your work shows some evidence of literacy; some evidence that you actually have an interest in writing and reading, and not just in being called “an author”. Until self-published books meet that basic requirement, readers will assume it’s vanity.

  • What I find annoying is that the Oscars have a section of awards for indie filmmakers. Yet a lot of book awards don’t let indie authors compete. It’s just plain stupid.

  • Becky,

    It’s not true that LSI will push authors away. I’ve spoken with LSI reps and they knew I was self publishing my work under my own imprint. They were encouraging because I wasn’t asking questions that people who haven’t done any research about self publishing ask. I did my research before approaching them, I had my ISBN block, and I didn’t ask for hand-holding with the file creation guide.

    LSI welcomes with open arms any self-pubbing author willing to behave like a micropress. But if an author wants a lot of handholding, then Lulu is better for that author.

  • Hi Zoe,

    Then why – before she could ask them anything – did they ask one of my friends if she had at least five titles ready to publish? And when she replied that she only had 3 said they didn’t deal with micropresses with less than 5 titles (an outright lie – but that’s what he said to her) and another – who did go through LSI eventually said she had to jump through hoops to prove to the rep that she was a micropress (and this person had experience with small presses and micropresses and knew what she was doing) and the rep she spoke to was hostile until she did. Of course this was a couple of years ago, so things might have changed.


  • Becky, I would say things have changed HEAVILY in that time. I spoke with an LSI rep late last year and she was nothing but professional with me. LSI now takes on micropresses that publish just one title a year even.

    Or, it’s also possible that it was an employee of LSI misrepresenting the company. There are always bad eggs in a company who either don’t understand how a company is run, don’t care, or both. It’s entirely possible a bad employee, tired of working with authors who weren’t willing to do the work, was trying to screen people because that individual employee thought that was what was best, in the interest of the company… though they were never authorized to say such a thing.

    I’ve encountered employees like this in all types of customer service oriented businesses.

  • That’s probably it. *nods*

  • What a good discussion! I have been in Oklahoma City at the Western Writers of America convention where I received the Spur award for the Best First Novel of 2008. The Spur is for God’s Thunderbolt: The Vigilantes of Montana. It’s a genuine Spur firmly attached to a wooden plaque so that its rowell turns with a satisfying rattle. Then I returned to find that my article has piqued considerable interest. Thank you all for your contributions.

    In return, I have some questions and comments, too.

    First, I’ve emailed the Pulitzer people to confirm whether or not the Pulitzer is open to self-published books. I had read their guidelines that excluded S-P books, but can’t find that now on their Website. If they’ve changed their policy I’ll ask Henry to print the news.

    Shane: What do you perceive to be the definitions of vanity publishing and self-publishing? It would be good to have these terms clearly defined. I’ve read several definitions of each by different people. I disagree that BookSurge and Lulu are publishers rather than printers, although I had BookSurge put its ISBN on God’s Thunderbolt. After paying the agreed costs for designing, printing, and binding, the profits are mine. Because the books are POD, I pay a per book charge for printing and designing, but that charge is much the same as if I had used a local printer and ordered a thousand books to sit in my garage until sold. Amazon has a distribution charge, but so does any distributor. In both self-publishing and vanity publishing, the author pays the costs. In Melville’s day there were no ISBNs, and the lines between publisher and printer were fuzzier than they are now. The bookseller was often the printer as well as the publisher, so the question about Melville does not apply.

    Francis is right that LSI and BookSurge are printers, not publishers.

    Also, Shane, I’m not sure your distinction holds up when you say, “For self-publishing to become an ideal alternative to the traditional model it has to be proven that you can support yourself financially as a self-published author, at least as well as those authors who make a living from traditional publishing royalties.” As one who has published both with traditional publishers and as a self-published author, it can be tough to make a living from either one.

    I published through BookSurge and have been happy with them and their account rep, Whitney Parks, except for one thing: They have not publicized my winning the Spur on their Web site.

    Kristen: What are the “significant difference” you’ve noticed between POD and a vanity press? POD is the technique of printing and binding a book only when it’s ordered, and that technology or method can be used by either a self-publishing printer or a traditional publisher. Royalties through BookSurge are 35% when the book is ordered on Amazon.

    The difference between LSI and a company like BookSurge is correct, but a self-publisher must use LSI if he/she wants to have the book distributed by Ingram. Ingram will accept no self-published book except through LSI. Or so their Web site states.

    Steven: There is no book written that editing would not help. I had the good fortune to work with a fine editor for my third (nonfiction) book, which became a Top Ten finalist in the Washington State Book Awards for 2002. More writers should be guided by editors; we’d either have far fewer “bad” books, or more “good” ones. I gave up on traditional publishing for God’s Thunderbolt because it took so darned long. After 6 months two publishers had not even looked at it, and after 2 months another publisher hadn’t moved it off her desk. These were publishers who had asked to see it. I could be a much older woman before the novel was published if I had waited for someone else to accept it. The problem is that traditional publishers are trapped between rising costs, lower revenues, more wannabe writers, and shorter staffs.

    Thanks to all of you for your contributions. This has been an interesting discussion. I’m sure Gus will be pleased, too.