Vanity Publishing in the Age of Celebrity

One thing that puzzles me about the criticism that any type of self-publishing is a kind of vanity publishing is the fact that vanity is actually rewarded in so many corners of our culture. Here’s a small taste of the insanity that passes for mainstream American culture:

Perhaps I am shooting fish in a barrel by pointing out the vapidity that is the heart of celebrity culture, but that you see there? That’s vanity. A writer trying to get the word out by publishing his book that (maybe) will be read by 100 people is not vanity. It’s hope. It’s putting something out into the world knowing that it’s probably not going to get a lot of takers.

In the old days vanity publishing was considered vain because it was much easier to get published. There were fewer writers writing and publishers didn’t care if the first book wasn’t immediately successful – it was about cultivating talent. So if a writer paid to put out his own book, the quality might have been more questionable. I guess the argument is that if the guy’s willing to shell out his own money, he must be really self-important to “waste” money in a medium that won’t be widely distributed.  Still, the guy finished a book. He wants to see the book between covers. That doesn’t seem like vanity to me – it seems logical. If the book’s bad, so what? The writer’s accomplished what he set out to do. Then he can get to work and write another one.

The reason that cheaper self-publishing like Lulu isn’t considered as vain is because a writer isn’t putting his own money on the line.  It’s more like “free” expression.  Which doesn’t exactly make sense – because if a writer is going to publish the right way with Lulu he’ll pay for an editor, book cover designer, marketing materials, and so on.  It’s still money coming out of the writer’s pocket.  So at the risk of shooting myself in the foot: today’s self-publishing is still vanity publishing.  I just don’t think that matters.

Writing as Vanity

There’s an argument that the self-published writers are so vain that they won’t even allow their books to go through the system and be criticized or rejected.  They’re thin-skinned.  But vanity publishing usually applies to someone who’s sent out a book that was rejected and then published the book anyway.  This seems puzzling to me: why shouldn’t this be the author’s own decision to make?  Unless the book has been submitted to every possibly publishing house (thousands of them) then submitting the book to a handful of editors comprises only a fraction of the potential responses.  And a small group of editors (or agents) who initially rejected the book shouldn’t have so much power to decide what should be in print and what shouldn’t.

An argument could also be made that all writing is vanity – it takes a vain person to think that a stranger should devote hours to reading your literary output – but that’s way too cynical.  There’s also an argument that says it’s more vain to think you deserve that someone else pay your way, rather than paying it out of your own pocket, putting only your own bank account on the line.  But that’s too cynical as well.  Patrons of the arts are fine, and writers earn their payment.

Plainly, I think the word vanity is totally misused when it comes to writing. Vanity is for someone who is totally superficial – someone who thinks that outward appearance matters more than talent. Whatever level of artistry there may be in a self-published book, it’s still the product of someone’s mind. Perhaps the process of writing a memoir in which you paint yourself as heroic is a type of vanity – but someone writing a standard work of fiction isn’t vanity, it’s a product of interior self-expression – i.e. non-superficial.  Nor is the process of publication superficial – it’s an extension of the writing process.

So I would make the argument that not only does vanity publishing not exist today – a time when more and more good books are being rejected by the traditional system, no matter the quality – but vanity publishing has never existed. I’m not talking about the method of production, or the cost involved. Most often the term “vanity publishing” is used as a pejorative for people who are releasing work they shouldn’t be releasing.  There’s nothing vain about wanting someone to read what you write.

In a culture where the truly vain are rewarded with fame and wealth, it really seems like people have the wrong targets. Writing isn’t a vain person’s game. It’s too isolating, too personal. There are only a handful of writer-celebrities and they have nothing on Paris Hilton. So lay off the writers who release their own work by targeting them as vain. They’re not. They’re actually the opposite: acknowledged and read by a few number of people. That takes a fair amount of humility, not vanity.

  • When I moved to Los Angeles in 1985, I was assured by one agent that “once you strip off the phony glitter of Hollywood, you find the real glitter underneath”. There are all kinds of people who pay to get their scripts before agents and producers, making multiple copies and trying all sorts of ploys to get noticed. Those agents, by the way, cannot get your stuff to a traditional publisher in most cases (William Morris is an exception.) Self publishing is not so different from that. At least you don’t get judged or catagorised by the way you wear your clothes or the car you drive in New York they was you do in L.A. You do get the same bad advice about how to succeed. Call me naive but I always thought writing was about telling interesting stories. .

    I feel sorry for most celebrities, and I’ve met a few over the years. It’s a lonely life.

  • Hi Henry, another brilliant post I wish I had written!
    I also get very annoyed with the term ‘vanity publishing’ – many self-pub authors are humble, lovely people who want to share their story, or help people or entertain – why spend the time and effort otherwise!
    I also think these people should not be put in the same boat as people like Paris Hilton (Kanye West was the other example!) – people who presumably have a ghost writer anyway, and who are not humble, caring or sharing.

    So, thank you for this – duly tweeted!

  • Henry, nice take on Vanity in popular culture.

  • Randall Radic

    Great post! Of course, you remember what Solomon said about vanity? “All is vanity.” Which would mean that even traditional publishing is vanity. Ha, ha, ha. Solomon, of course, was looking for the secret to happiness. Most writers are simply looking to get read. And I agree with Henry — that is not vanity. It’s merely the social animal trying to express itself, to communicate. And the best form of communication, according to the scientists, is storytelling. People love stories. So write! Publish! Get your story out there. It beats the heck out of digging ditches!

  • I am so with you Henry. I don’t think I have ever met a vain artists, true artist that is. Starving, isolated, delusional, misfit, anarchist, masochist, emotionally damaged, drinker with a writing problem … whatever, but never vain.

    Maybe there are some self-published authors who are vain. Maybe they are the writers who have all their friends/family post 5 star blurbs on Amazon, but as far as real Indie Writers go, I don’t see vanity at all. If they were, why would they subject themselves to critical reviews. Most serious Indie artists are not afraid of critical review. They know that’s the only way they will grow and develop their voice, style, and technique.

    It takes a lot of blood and sweat on the page to write a good book. That takes humility. The vain writer just doesn’t have the desire to work that hard.

  • Thanks, Henry — once again you are a voice of reason in the midst of a wacko circus. I’ve often struggled with the brainwashing I’ve received in this culture, which suggests my efforts to put work into the world mean I’m a narcissist rather than an artist, and that I should just shut up and be another brick in the wall. But as Popeye said, “I yam what I yam!” — I can only do what the universe made me to do, vain-sayers be damned.


    What’s really sad is that many of the celebs in that video clip have published books — and received 7-figure deals for their trouble. And those who haven’t published a book would probably find themselves in the middle of a bidding war if they ever expressed an interest in writing. Intellectual lightweights like Paris Hilton or Sarah Palin have no trouble scoring a book deal while the rest of us have to wait at the bottom of the slush pile.

    Self-published authors are celebrities too, but we’re Z-list celebrities. We’re celebrities in our own imaginations, and although we mock and make fun of celebrity culture, I wonder just how many people here wouldn’t jump at the chance to trade places with those real celebrities.

  • I wonder just how many people here wouldn’t jump at the chance to trade places with those real celebrities.

    I wouldn’t – not for a second. I was at my local park when Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes came to see his daughter playing soccer. Swarms of paparazzi photographers all over the park waiting for him to slip up so they could make some money. He looked totally at ease, but this is my version of a nightmare. I think one of the reasons the Michael Jackson story has become such a phenomenon is because it revealed that celebrity can actually be pretty isolating and sad – and this is something that’s supposed to be an American Dream.

  • Yea, me too. You can count me out. I think I would rather keep my private life private. Somehow the recluse author thing seems much more romantic to me than being a celebrity. You barely sell any books, but the odds against coming down with a stalker are better than average. I would rather sit by the “pond” and write the book than pimp the book. Sorry, but these days, that’s what marketing amounts to it seems.

    I don’t mock celebrity. I look at it with bewilderment and morbid curiosity. Why, because I can’t understand why anyone would want to be objectified by the masses like that.

  • Amen to everything Henry wrote!

    Who is the real vanity publisher? Tori Spelling, who only became an actress because daddy put her on his cheesy tv show, and who later became a commercially published “writer” for that reason?

    …Or a struggling artists who embrace the freedom of expression that the pod/self-publishing world offers us?

  • Every author wants attention, but a real author wants his or her book to get the attention. When someone crosses the line and uses publication (or even the hint of getting published) as a way of getting attention for themselves, that’s when the whiff of vanity begins.

    Of course, some authors have become famous themselves due to the consistent quality of their writing, but most of these try to get out of the spotlight as soon as possible. Lesson from Stephen King who dove into a pseudonym to get back the feeling of being a new writer and to see if he could produce bestsellers without his brand name (hint: he could).

    Celebrity authors are vain by definition. Most celebrities use books to drive their fame. Others use biographical or autobiographical treatments to explain their lives in a humble or entertaining manner. The former are much more vain than the latter.

    The vanity of authors that still has me perplexed is the vanity that has prospective authors bragging about landing an agent, although there is no book deal and the agent is obviously running the clock on them (much more common nowadays). This is vanity without publishing, another order of magnitude more conceited than vanity publishing, and a lightyear more vain than publishing without vanity.

  • I think this is an excellent article. Writers are entitled to publish what they’ve written.

  • Henry, I agree. So glad there’s intelligent people like you who can articulate a valid argument about self-publishing.