Friday, December 12, 2008

Vanity isn't Easy

There was a rather annoying article in one of our local papers the other day: a rather glowing profile on a vanity publisher.

Now, if you don't know what a vanity press is, it's a publisher that will, for a (often sizable) fee turn your manuscript into a printed book.

Such presses can take slightly different forms at this point.. They may (usually for yet another fee) pretend to market your book.

More likely, they'll simply deliver a pallet of books to sit in your garage while you try unsuccessfully to pawn them off on local bookstores, until finally you give them away to every friend and relative on every birthday and Christmas, leaving the bulk of them as a white elephant for your estate to dispose of at the local landfill.

Oh, come on, Steve! Tell us what you really think!

Okay, perhaps my usual level of contempt for self-publishing is a bit pumped up by the article, which was full of myths, distortions, misinformation, unquestioned self-promotion, and generally suffered from a complete lack of basic fact-checking. (For example, it went unchallenged that conventional publishers take ownership of the copyrights on books they buy. You'd think that newspapers would know at least the barest essentials of copyright law, but I guess not.)

But for the purposes of this rant, I'm going to push all the misinformation aside and deal with a couple of things the article (and the vanity publisher) got right.

One fact that the publisher used in support of using their service was that getting a book sold to a conventional publisher is hard.

This is true. It is very, very true. (Speaking as someone who's currently trying to turn a string of well-received media tie-in novels into an original novel career, I can speak to this personally.) It's hard. It takes time. The deck is stacked against you, and a lot of the publishing process exists primarily to keep the flood of dreck out, sometimes keeping good books and writers out in the process.

What's wrong is that this is any reason for an aspiring writer to turn to self-publishing and vanity presses. If it bothers you, and it probably does, I've got two words for you.



Like many things worth doing, getting a book published is work. It requires patience, resilience, and determination. And despite all this (and this is what the vanity publishers don't tell you), it beats the alternative.

Okay, early on I told you what self-publishing is, but now I will give you the precise definition of self-publishing: A process by which, through the application of large amounts of money, an unsold manuscript can be transformed into a large quantity of unsold books.

There's the ugly truth of it. If selling your book to a legitimate publisher is too too hard for you, then going to a vanity press won't solve your problem, it will multiply it.

Yes, for only a few (maybe quite a few) thousand dollars you can expand a hundred-fold your opportunities for rejection, abuse, disappointment, and perceived failure! But wait, there's more! We'll throw on a huge distraction from your writing, and a tangible monument to your inadequacy that can squat in your garage, basement, closet or unit at the Mini-Storage for decades to come!

Where's the logic here? Getting a job is hard too. Does that mean that if you can't get a job as a dish-washer, you open a restaurant? If you like to fly, do you start an airline?

Of course not. It's obvious that these enterprises are expensive, time-consuming, risky, and highly prone to total failure, and that to manage one takes a skill-set completely separate from those possessed by most of the people it employs. You start an airline because you want to start an airline, not because you think it's a shortcut to getting some time in the cockpit.

Why then do so many would-be writers think they should start a publishing company? I can't tell you. If you have the skills and desire to be a manager, a salesperson, a marketer, a warehouse manager, a shipper, a bookkeeper, and you'd rather do those things than write, then maybe a writer is not what you want to be. Maybe you should start a business. (I wouldn't recommend publishing though. There are easier ways to make money.)

Writers write. That should be obvious.

Being a writer already is a business anyway, one that will, as you become more successful, take far more time and energy from your writing than you want. If you are a writer who has time to run a second (publishing) business, then it's a good sign that you aren't very successful as a writer (and probably as a publisher too).

It's that simple. That should be the end of it, and we should never speak of this thing again.


The whole vanity publishing thing is like Dracula. You think you've got it staked real good, and it just keeps popping out of the grave. It doesn't help that every now and then you hear (usually a lot, because it makes a good story) about the exceptions to the rule, the self-published books that went on to great success, that were picked up by major publishers, and in a few cases, even turned into New York Times best-sellers.

I shake my head every time I hear one of these, because they are rare exceptions, because most of them would have sold through conventional means if the author had only been a little smarter about it, and because I know it's the nature of would-be writers to treat any crumb of false-hope like the all-you-can-eat buffet at the Rio.

Just because somebody won 40 million in the Powerball doesn't mean you should invest your life savings in lottery tickets.

Yes, selling is hard.

Buck it up, keep writing, and keep the manuscripts in the mail.

It's easier that way.

(Postscript: Chris just wrote her own blog post covering some different aspects of this same issue. Read her "No Hope Publishing Plan" here.)


  1. It's interesting that, in the digital age, this kind of publishing is no longer restricted to the printed word.

    I'm part of an Internet-based rock band and we released an album earlier this year. The most succesful part of our strategy was to pay an agency to get our album into the download sites where a small profit has been made.

    We also had some real-world CDs made. This is actually quite cheaply done and good quality product can be obtained from the right manufacturer. I could see a young band doing a quick calculation along the lines of £2 to make a CD and £10 from selling it equals huge profits.

    However, the "selling it" bit is the trick. We just had 50 CDs made up. The important one was the one that went to the downloads agency and the rest went two ways. A very few have been sold at gigs, but we're lazy and don't do too many gigs. The rest we send to radio shows or give to famous musicians we meet. So really these are just publicity for the real business of selling downloads.

    I think all creative people need to realise that, once money is involved, you are doing business, and you have to apply a business head to that. Selling is hard work.

    It makes sense to sell once to someone who can sell more for you than to have to sell every single book or CD yourself.

  2. As you say, there are many awful self-published books out there. The painful vetting process involved with traditional publishing has a lot of value. On the other hand, traditional publishers are taking on fewer and fewer authors. Is this because there are fewer good writers today than there were two or three decades ago? And if not, should the competent mid-list writer with a small niche audience simply give up if traditional publication isn't an option?

    That said, if you decide to self-publish, go into it with your eyes open. You will not get your book on Oprah. You will almost certainly not sell a million copies or quit your day job (most traditionally published authors don't either). If you expect to achieve even modest success, you need to make sure your book is written well, and then you need to invest a LOT of time and effort into marketing your book. Instead of selling your book to an agent or publishing house, you're selling it to your audience, one reader at a time.

    I recently wrote about what you can reasonably expect when you self-publish. It's possible to find an audience if you're willing to do the work.

  3. Oh, and this is a minor detail, but:

    But wait, there's more! We'll throw on a huge distraction from your writing, and a tangible monument to your inadequacy that can squat in your garage, basement, closet or unit at the Mini-Storage for decades to come!

    Thanks to new printing technology, it's now possible to print just one copy of a book at a time. This means you shouldn't have a buy a thousand copies of your own book when you self-publish it. At my company (Wheatmark) we've actually talked authors OUT of buying that many copies. Our advice is to start with a smaller number and see if you can sell that before making a huge financial/storage investment. :)