Once Again: Vanity Publishing Doesn't Matter

I want to add a final word to this debate, even if I’m getting sick of it, as the debate about self-publishing vs. vanity publishing seems to be one that won’t die. I’ve got into plenty of discussions about it on Twitter, with people very vehement about separating self-publishing and vanity publishing through a pay service like AuthorHouse or iUniverse. Me, I see no difference. They’re both a method to self-release your work.

But people list these things as being decisive about calling something vanity publishing:

  • You don’t control your rights
  • You don’t control book cover design
  • You don’t control the editorial process
  • You make less money on each book

In short, it’s about control. Good points, but I still don’t see the dividing line because at its very core, it’s still a way for an author to self-release a book. That it’s a bad method is a judgment call, but it’s still a form of self-publishing.

I wasn’t quite sure why this was gnawing on me so much, but then it hit me: separating these different types of self-publishing into different camps is looking at self-publishing very much through the lens of the traditional publishing mindset. In other words, people who trump traditional publishing say that a book that goes through a standard editorial process is more legitimate. What they’re also saying is that those who vanity publish, rather than independently self-publish, are even less legitimate. In publishing, there are stages of legitimacy.

But this flies into the face of much of the discussion on this site. The way that a book was published doesn’t matter at all. All that matters is the book. Are you telling me that the same book published through AuthorHouse is less legitimate than a book published through Lightning Source, or Random House? No: the book is the book, regardless of how it’s been printed.

It’s like people want to further ghettoize self-publishing. Now that self-publishing is becoming more legitimate, people need to find something that’s really not legitimate. I don’t care if someone paid too much to AuthorHouse. That AuthorHouse can be predatory and offers too-expensive services is another issue. But the actual writing is what should trump any of these secondary issues. Enough talk about how the means of production define the merit of a book.

Mick Rooney, on his very excellent blog (and writer here) agrees with this:

I think this whole debate over the past few weeks has become anything but productive. The publishing debate has become far too insular. What I see is a traditional industry struggling to deal with the changes which digital print technology, social reach and online platforms have brought into the publishing forum.

Exactly. What’s so troubling about this is that the traditional publishing mindset has won the “battle” this week. And there shouldn’t even be a battle. The move by the MWA to drop Harlequin from its roster is particularly infuriating.  It’s like they see the creeping influence of self-publishing and want to bat it down.

They write:

MWA does not object to Harlequin operating a pay-to-publish program or other for-pay services. The problem is HOW those pay-to-publish programs and other for-pay services are integrated into Harlequin’s traditional publishing business. MWA’s rules for publishers state:

The publisher, within the past five years, may not have charged a fee to consider, read, submit, or comment on manuscripts; nor may the publisher, or any of the executives or editors under its employ, have offered authors self-publishing services, literary representation, paid editorial services, or paid promotional services.

Harlequin was not charging a “fee to consider, read, submit, or comment on manuscripts.”  They were offering an alternative if the manuscript wasn’t “good enough.”  What this means is that no publisher is going to want to take the chance to integrate self-publishing in this way – after all this kneejerk backlash about Harlequin.  Even if, say, a publisher paired up with Lightning Source so writers could retain rights and get more profit for each book sold, a group like the MWA could still say that the publisher is offering “self-publishing services,” which would violate their terms.  So this isn’t about vanity publishing at all, but self-publishing in general.

I agree wholeheartedly that Harlequin could have handled this better and Author Solutions is not the best method to offer writers.  It opens itself to abuse, potentially.  But I don’t have a problem with publishers trying to make money this way.  That’s their prerogative – if it is managed well and the terms are well-described.  This move by the MWA really seems like a reaction to the idea of offering this service, and seems like a step backward both in people’s attitudes towards self-publishing and the industry’s integration of self-publishing overall.

All in all, it hasn’t been a great week for self-publishing.

  • Henry,

    What the week showed me, when Harlequin pivoted, renamed the service and kept on with their plans, was that the integration has already started and may well be unstoppable.

    I was trying to describe these events to a friend and she looked at me puzzled.

    “But if I was a writer,” she said, “I’d much rather be published by Harlequin or Random House even if it did cost more. Who wants to be published by some website when you could have an actual publisher?”

  • Self-publishing is not vanity publishing.

    Self-publishing can be a terrific choice for an author — the big catch is that it is difficult to self-publish successfully. It is expensive, and if the author is printing hard-copy books, the author needs a distribution/sales strategy so that he or she isn’t stuck buying all of the books and then keeping them in a basement. (According to Writer’s Digest, the average number of copies each self-published title sells is 75.) Self-published e-books are easier to do than ever before, and for the right author with the right book, this could be a terrific choice.

    The three differences between self-publishing and assisted self-publishing (what many people in the publishing industry refer to as “vanity publishing”) are:

    1. When an author self-publishes, s/he keeps 100% of the profit. The assisted self-publisher takes a chomp of the profits, even after the author has already paid for every service. Now, these days it’s increasingly difficult for authors to find a self-publishing print option out there that doesn’t take some of the profit at the end; from what I hear, LightningSource is one. If you are using a so-called self-publishing program (I say “so-called” in this case because the printer would also be taking some of the profit, so that doesn’t meet my definition of self-publishing), PLEASE make sure you get all the costs up front and that you know exactly how the publisher gets its royalties/commission/whatever term it uses.

    2, When an author self-publishes, s/he controls the ISBN. If it’s not true self-publishing, the publisher controls it.

    3. When an author self-publishes, s/he creates the brand. Whose name is on the spine/is listed as the publisher? If it’s anything other than the author’s name/creation, it’s not a self-published book, period.

    Look, as I said above, self-publishing can be a terrific option for the right author with the right book, who makes the choice to self-publish completely aware of the differences between commercial publishing and self-publishing and still opts for self-publishing. And as I said above, if you’re going to go the assisted self-publishing route (for example, CreateSpace), make sure you know exactly what you will be paying for, what profit the publisher gets, and what the quality of the work will be before you sign on the dotted line. (Some assisted self-publishers charge exorbitant fees; it’s up to the author to comparison shop before signing.)

    Anyone who thinks that assisted self-publishing is the best choice to make when his or her manuscript has been rejected from commercial publishers needs to understand that there are three reasons why a commercial publisher rejects a book: (1) the book isn’t right for that publisher — either because it’s a poor fit for its imprints, it has another book it published that’s extremely close to the offered manuscript, or it simply cannot determine how to effectively market it; (2) the author’s sales record is too low for the publisher to want to take the risk of signing the author; or (3) the book isn’t good enough to be published. If the author goes the assisted self-publishing route because of (1) or (2), then there is a chance the author will do well.

    But if the author goes the assisted self-publishing route because of (3), that’s a recipe for disaster.

    As for why so many have spoken out against Harlequin’s DellArte Press, it comes down to ethics. For a publisher to promote its so-called self-publishing arm **in it’s rejection letters** to authors is saying that while the manuscript isn’t good enough for the publisher to pay the author, it is good enough for the author to pay the publisher. This is the same thing scammer agents do when they reject an author’s manuscript but strongly suggest in the rejection letter that the author go to Papa Jack’s Editorial Services to clean up the manuscript…and the agent owns Papa Jack’s. This is nothing more than a way for the publisher to make money off its slush pile — and it doesn’t help authors at all.

    The most important thing **any** author can do is make an informed choice about his or her manuscript.

  • Click the #3 trackback above. Great reading.

    Joel, I agree. Though Author Solutions charges too much, it does make some sense to charge extra to be listed with the Harlequin name, even if it’s a tangential relationship. I think people would be more proud of a Random House Horizons and readers would be more likely to buy it. That might seem unethical to some, and affect Random House’s brand, but that’s the risk. That it’s got Horizons attached to it is enough of a difference for me – if the press isn’t a total misleading scam, i.e. telling authors that this is a step closer to getting picked up by Random House proper, which might not be the case.

    Jackie, I agree with what you’re saying. Self-publishing is difficult. Vanity publishing has limitations. I’ll make the point again – “vanity” publishing is just another way to self-release a book. You can argue about its merits, but it still begins and ends with the author’s decision to put out the book.

    What is wrong with publishers making money off the slush pile? Publishers need money. That extra money could help publishers take greater chances on publishing new writers traditionally. The publishing world is changing. There are just too many people writing books right now and not enough slots to publish them. Offering them an alternative has ethical questions, but those questions aren’t necessarily a dealbreaker.

    “It doesn’t help authors at all.”

    Why not? This seems like bias against self-publishing. Yes, self-publishing isn’t great, but it’s not a bottomless pit, and it can be more productive than having no book at all. As finding readers for self-published books becomes easier (as it is) these scenarios will make more sense, as self-publishing will seem like viable alternative. It is already.

    • Henry,

      Instead of self-publishing, why not think in terms of “starting your own publishing company.” Then you are separating the writerly dimension from the business dimension (two forms of creativity).

      If you are a writer who starts his own publishing company, then you (as the business person) are the producer or director–who is guiding the process of publishing your own book.

      If you publish with a Vanity Press, you may still have the pleasure of getting your ideas into print, but then you have abandoned the business dimension (for the most part) to someone else. I think you have to place more emphasis on the business dimension of your identity as a writer.

      This doesn’t mean compromising at all.

      It simply means that you take into hands the responsibility for producing and directing the publication of your own book. You develop an identity–PUBLISHER–that is somewhat separate from your other identity–WRITER

  • I agree with you Henry. Self-publishing is all about decision making, and I outlined the nuts and bolts of all that in my rant here:


  • Hi Henry.

    We’re seeing the world from two different frames of reference. You’re sitting inside the book looking out, and I’m sitting outside looking in. So our perspectives are not the same. But we ought to be describing the same reality, right? So let me try this:

    Yes, if the author is a master of the craft and has written an excellent book, accepted input from peers, self-edited it carefully, and then published it through a vanity press, it can be just as good a book, in terms of content, as it might be if self-published some other way. You are absolutely correct about that. I might quibble that unless the author is also an experienced typographer it is likely the finished product won’t be a thing of great beauty, but most readers won’t care about that aspect if it’s a good read.

    Unfortunately, the numbers work against the author, not only because vanity publishing is a bad financial deal for the author of that masterpiece but also because the vanity imprint taints the book in the minds of everyone in the book business. The reason is that the vanity press’s only criterion for “accepting” a book for publication is that the author’s check clears. So the marketplace is awash in hundreds of thousands of new titles each year that are pure dreck, not even worthy of being called books. How is anyone supposed to find our author’s book in the midst of that mess?

    I applaud you for running a site that is open to reviewing vanity-published books. If your site can help good books find a market, more power to you. But realistically, an author stands a better chance, at least with the rest of the book review community, if they self-publish. And their financial prospects are better too. They should also end up with a better product, because the professionals they work with in true self-publishing are craftspeople with personal reputations at stake, unlike the nameless, outsourced, underpaid, under-motivated vendors the vanity presses employ. Some of those people are perfectly competent, but they are not paid enough to do good work. It’s desperation employment for good editors. Otherwise, the work just goes to the lowest bidder regardless of quality.

  • Henry, I’m worried: I think we’re in danger of agreeing about something!

    I’m not sure that the debate about self- vs vanity-publishing has helped at all in the Harlequin debate. As Victoria Strauss has said, the real question should have been “is this publishing model good for writers?”

    From my point of view, it isn’t because of the deceptive language used in presenting the imprint to the writers concerned. Sure, you know what its limitations are, and so do I: but I bet a lot of the people who are funnelled towards DellArte Publishing won’t know, and they’ll end up out of pocket and disappointed.

    As I’ve written recently on my blog, if the publishers were honest and up-front about the limitations AND the possibilities that such an imprint presented, then it really would be one of those ground-breaking moments, and I would love to see it. As it is, the creation of DellArte Publishing is a great disappointment and deserves all the criticism it’s attracted.

  • bowerbird

    what you’re saying is that
    you don’t care if writers get
    scammed and ripped off…

    ok, then, let the scams begin!


    p.s. love the ad for authorhouse
    on the front page of your website.
    how much do you get per click?
    that’s how much your soul is worth?

  • “All in all, it hasn’t been a great week for self-publishing.”

    It hasn’t been a great week for publishing…period.

  • Right on, Mick. I probably shouldn’t (again) but bowerbird, I point out that the set-up is fine if the terms are clearly explained, i.e. not a scam. AuthorHouse has its place for some writers – it’s more convenient than true self-publishing. Author Solutions is not the devil of the industry compared to a place like Publish America.

    Vanity publishers have a right to charge for certain services and authors need to weigh the options. I’m getting a sense of some nanny state kind of legislation here. That writers need to be protected from themselves, when a great deal of the onus is on the writer doing his or her homework.

    Dick: “The reason is that the vanity press’s only criterion for “accepting” a book for publication is that the author’s check clears.”

    How is this any different than me paying Lightning Source a set-up fee or hiring a printing company for a print run? Even if the author owns the ISBN, it all boils down to the author paying to publish.

    Frankly, I don’t know why this argument needs to be made. This is a good point: “They should also end up with a better product, because the professionals they work with in true self-publishing are craftspeople with personal reputations at stake, unlike the nameless, outsourced, underpaid, under-motivated vendors the vanity presses employ.”

    However, I’ve read some good iUniverse/Xlibris books, so I don’t think you can paint so broad a brush that vanity-press books are bad any more than you can say all self-published books are bad.

    adding later…I can’t know for certain but I would venture to guess that the quality of writing via Lulu is probably worse overall than books from Author Solutions. That Author Solutions costs some money to set-up and Lulu doesn’t might act as some kind of filter, so the quality of books could actually be better.

    • But the question is no longer, “How do you publish a book?” There’s many ways to do that now.

      The question is: Who is going to read what you write?

      And: What is the motivation for writing?

      Is it primarily to express oneself?

      To convey ideas to others?

      To make money?

      Why does one want to write anything in the first place?

      What are the consequences of what one writes?

  • darkmistress

    Read Constance O. Irvin’s THE WALKING MAN. Yes, it was published by Outskirts Press, an assisted self-publish outfit, but it is a phenomenal book….one of those that sticks with you after you close the covers. Professionally edited, nicely printed.

    Better than many traditionally published books. There should be no stigma at all with independent publishing. Friends, it’s all about the story. The book. Why all the rest of these ego trips??

    • connieo

      Found your comment on the net. Thank you for kind words regarding my self-published novel, The Walking Man. One thing though, iUniverse published it, not Outskirts.
      Just so people on this site know…That novel had hours of my editing, and two separate professional edits.
      In today’s market, with the outrageous sales expectations that traditional houses have, I knew the only way for me to go was to self publish it. Anyway, it is still selling (well beyond the average 75). Although I know I will probably never get my investment back, I have no regrets.

  • Didn’t quite finish my previous post (slip of the mouse).

    In conclusion, I think you should conceive of yourself more as a businessman (Henry Baum the publisher who is handling the work of Henry Baum the author).

    Best regards,

    Mei Ha

  • As a twice self-published author through iUniverse, I essentially “produced” both books, providing the cover art, back cover blurbs, and in the case of my second book, I even selected the type font for both the cover and interior, and did the typesetting, so as to control the page count. Those who deride self-publishing need to reckon with several points: First, the world of commercial publishing today is no meritocracy, at least in terms of literary quality. It is a profit-driven juggernaut , and publishers will opt for an inferior book whose author has an established sales record over a superior book by an unknown author. Secondly, getting a vaunted book deal with Random House is no guarantee whatsoever that the book will ever be published at all, or if it is, that it will stay in print long enough to acquire a following. Legions of authors tell tales of having their book deals cancelled after months of edits and rewrites. Still more have experienced the initial gratification of their book’s release, followed by an anti-climactic withdrawal from publication after just a few months of lukewarm sales. And should that happen, the fine print of the contract allows the publisher to retain ownership even though they’ve abandoned the book. Self-publishing may be only the “amateur theater” of the book world, but the elitism of those who view it with disdain is disturbing. So, writers, choose your poison—if you don’t have a substantial track record in the “minor leagues” of publishing, namely short stories, essays, and magazine articles, it’s very, very hard to break into the majors. But by self-publishing, at least you can enjoy the gratification of favorable reader reaction, of queries as to “when is your next book coming out.” CAVEAT: I strongly recommend getting a sample of any self-publisher’s, so you can decide whether they adhere to commercial standards in terms of paper, type font, and other criteria. Most of the self-published books I’ve seen practically scream their origin; in contrast, both of mine are indistinguishable (at least in terms of production values) from those of a major book company. Check them out for yourself: “Rabbit Stew” and “The Devil Won’t Care,” both available via Amazon.