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Is Self-Publishing Vanity?

Is Self-Publishing Vanity?

dsc_020-768x512Last week at an event in London, leading indie author Joanna Penn was asked to stand up in a room full of publishing professionals and address the question of whether her chosen vocation is an act of vanity. Would this happen in any profession except publishing? asks Director of the Alliance of Independent Authors, Orna Ross.

Before turning to this topic (which I'd thought I’d never write about again) I must explain the background.

I wrote about vanity and self-publishing, back in the early days of ALLi. So many years on, I thought this question had been answered, not by argument but by the obvious achievements of those in the self-publishing sector.

This post, therefore, was not planned. It was prompted by afterthoughts to an event here in London last week at which (personal interest alert!) my colleague and friend, Joanna Penn, spoke on the topic: The Author As Publisher: Opportunity or Vanity?

The event was organized by the networking forum for the publishing industry in London, Byte the Book, brainchild of the popular, gregarious publishing consultant, Justine Solomons. For the record, I like Justine and Byte the Book very much, am a happy member, and have spoken there a number of times.

And it was hosted and planned by Jon Watt, the equally likeable and well-regarded UK Country Manager of Type & Tell, a self-publishing platform, supported by Swedish publishing house, Bonnier, and a current ALLi Partner Member.

These people are supportive of self-publishing, and they work on behalf of indie authors, as well as with trade publishers and agents. Yet, they set up this topic in this way. And I, and a bunch of other indie authors, went along to the event at the Groucho without thinking too much about it. As self-publishers, we are used to having to explain ourselves.

What we do is new, and often readers and others outside the industry don't understand. Inside the industry, though? That's different, I believe. Or ought to be.

A belief that was strongly confirmed by this gathering of publishing people.

Self-publishing and Vanity Publishing

Byte the Book events are normally set up as a multi-viewpoint exploration, with three or more panelists discussing the given topic of the evening. This one was unusual: set up as a head-to-head. On one side, there was Joanna, representing the author as publisher, and so, presumably, opportunity and/or vanity?

On the other, a representative of trade publishing: another respected and popular publishing person, the literary agent Euan Thorneycroft, representing… well, it's hard to know what, exactly. Non-opportunity and modesty?

Euan is an agent at AM Heath, a literary agency that ALLi worked with, for a time, to help our professional members sell foreign rights. The arrangement didn’t work out, but again, his agency is not the sort that despises self-publishing.

So here we had three self-publishing-friendly folks asking an indie author to explain to a room full of people that her chosen field of work is not mere vanity.

Joanna Penn, Self-publishing Trailblazer

I get it, a little. Byte the Book billed it as a “controversial” event, knowing controversial events make for a better turnout.  Jon too said, as he introduced his panel of two that he had deliberately aimed to be provocative.

The questions is: why?

Joanna Penn is, for the few who may not know, a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author (as JF Penn), well known to almost everybody in publishing and self-publishing. Since 2011, when she left her job to become a full-time (and shortly afterwards award-winning) author-entrepreneur, she has blazed trails and shattered glass ceilings of all hues and heights for authors.

Nobody has blogged and podcasted and lectured more widely and consistently about the opportunities that self-publishing presents to authors but she doesn’t just talk about it. She does it. Brilliantly.

By dint of talent and hard work, she has sold more than half-a-million books in 83 countries; her Creative Penn website gets hundreds of thousands of hits a day. On many writing and publishing topics; she’s the first person Mr Google will introduce you to, should you need advice.

And she is widely recognized in her genre. For example, she is currently a Finalist in the International Thriller Awards 2017, alongside such writers as Megan Abbott, Nick Petri, Robert Dugani and Joyce Carol Oates.

Joanna Penn Author ProfileShe is so respected, and in some corners revered, because she has been generous enough to share every step of her publishing journey, without holding back the sorts of creative experimentation and commercial information most people keep tucked away.

This, then, is the woman who was being asked to stand up in a room full of publishing professionals and address the question of whether, actually, all that's just vanity, if she doesn't have a trade-publisher behind her.

All Kinds of Author Publishers

Joanna agreed to do the Byte the Book talk, I know, because she wanted to see off this vanity idea, and she addressed the question in detail.

Explaining that authors worldwide are reaching readers directly, and making more money than ever before, in ever more creative ways, inventing new genres, craft approaches and artforms — and changing the entire nature of the books and publishing industries and ecosystem.

Explaining how if another kind of writer is self-publishing for creative reasons, not caring about chart position or sales, that’s not vanity, that’s a hobby.

Explaining that this is a completely separate market from authors who want to be successful indies, or trade-published.

When she said, “If authors can reach readers and put their books in the world themselves, as well as earn better money, doesn’t that make trade publishing more about status and kudos and validation? Isn't wanting a trade deal the vanity/status option?”, Byte the Book’s organizer, Justine, vehemently agreed.

Afterwards, a comment from an author during the Q&A spoke for many when she said: “I came here tonight looking to meet an agent or publisher, thinking I would never self-publish. This talk has completely changed my mind.”

For authors, seeing what a dedicated self-publisher can do is an inspiring experience.

So What's With the “Vanity” Thing?

Yes, I am a friend of Joanna's, and I like both John and Justine, and so I hesitated to write this post. But this “debate” made me increasingly uncomfortable, the more I thought about it, not because of any personal relationship but because of the mindset that underlies it.

Just imagine, for one moment, an award-winning, popular and prolific musician being asked whether his or her work is just vanity? A prize-winning actor or producer or director who puts as many bums on seats as Joanna has sold books? An entrepreneur in any other field?

And being asked this question, in this way, by their colleagues.

You can't. In any other creative industry, in any other field of work, it's unimaginable. But not in publishing. Not even among the most supportive and well-meaning.


What’s going on here?

And what effect is this having on authors — and the industry as a whole?


OVER TO YOU Please join the conversation via the comment box – we'd love to hear your take.

Why was @thecreativepenn asked if her work was vanity #publishing? asks @OrnaRoss Click To Tweet


Author: Orna Ross

Orna Ross is a bestselling and award-winning author of historical fiction and inspirational poetry, and a creativity facilitator. As founder-director of the Alliance of Independent Authors, she has been named one of The Bookseller’s Top 100 people in publishing. 


This Post Has 58 Comments
  1. Self-publishing assumes that no one wants to publish your novel, short story or anthology. Writing groups are particularly scathing of their own members who self-publish! My first two novels did receive offers of publishing contracts. The interest shown gave me the confidence to self-publish. There is freedom to develop your writing without the constraint of producing more of the same for a voracious publisher in repeats. Like many authors I have submitted manuscripts seeking contracts, but you just might not be accessing a publisher who is interested in the particular genre. There is also the randomness of meeting up with the right person or publishing house. Like with all business luck does play a role. A recent poetry anthology comprises poems, which have been edited and published by publishers, but my edition is self-published. Does that mean published writing that is subsequently self-published loses its worth by being self-published?

  2. Two observations, for what they’re worth.

    First, you don’t overturn decades of wholly contemptible, predatory practices by vanity publishers in a couple of years – especially when predators (long-established and new chancers alike) continue to operate and prey on the naive. Blazing a trail has never been easy or comfortable work. We are fortunate to have people like Joanna who are prepared to fight our corner.

    Second, the comparison with independent musicians is not quite right. There always was a healthy independent music sector, comprised in part of hobbyists and partly of commercial enterprises. And while major labels considered themselves superior to indies, they actually worked together a lot – many of the biggest indie labels were (and are) distributed by majors. (XL Recordings couldn’t ship a gazillion Adele CDs worldwide without a lot of help.) That was never the case with traditional publishers and vanity presses: trads – and many other people – largely sneered at vanity publishers with some justification. Because of that opprobrium, it’s not entirely surprising that some continue to equate anything outside of the traditional publishing sphere with low standards and sub-par end product.

    That will change. It is already changing. And while I doubt traditional or academic publishers will cease to exist in my lifetime, would anybody today confidently recommend to their kids that they should pursue a career in traditional publishing? The direction of the prevailing wind is obvious: self-publishers will inherit the literary world. We’ve just got to fight some prejudices in the short term.

  3. Thank you, Orna and Joanna, for continuing to be such valiant leaders of indie publishing. I suspect it will take a generation or two to completely stamp out the prejudices regarding self-publishing. I, for one, am extremely grateful that this alternate career path became viable during my lifetime.

  4. I don’t think self-publishing is vanity publishing. I think there are a great many amazing authors, diligent publishers and beautiful books out there.
    But, there are also a lot of really bad self-published books and authors that put poorly edited, badly written and badly formatted books on the market. These tarnish the industry for all the quality books and professional authors that work so hard.
    Whilst there are also a lot of bad books from the mainstream press, I can see why some in the greater industry will automatically rule self-published work as not worthy. It is their loss, but all we can do is promote the quality and professionalism of our work until there is some recognition of “tiers” of self-publishing.

  5. Very thoughtful article, Orna and great kudos to Joanna for handling this prickly subject so well. I’ve been to quite a few Byte the Book events, and it is fascinating to talk to publishing professionals over a beer about the woes of their side of the industry.

    Thanks to ALLi, I recently had the opportunity to represent the indie author community on a panel at CrimeFest, a crime fiction festival put together by the Crime Writers Association (which, as an aside, doesn’t admit indies into their ranks). It was entitled ‘The Indie Alternative’ and was the only panel to explore indie crime fiction publishing. Interestingly, a show of hands from the packed room revealed that 80% of the audience were authors, many of whom I recognised as traditionally published (including a few of my personal crime fiction heroes). They attended the session to learn more about the ‘other side’. Many of them were mid-listers and related their dissatisfaction with the current status quo, hence their interest.

    Indie publishing is an option for every author: writers yet to publish, existing trad published authors out of contract and, of course, existing indies. But, more importantly, trad publishing is now also just an option. If the music industry is anything to go by, it will one day lose its de facto status as the default choice. And the fact that so many trad published authors came to listen to the indie panel I was on is a good indicator of the change afoot.

  6. So really what traditional publishers, agents and self appointed literary critics are saying is how dare any author be proud enough of their own work to take on uninvited all the exremely hard work , disappointment, elation and perhaps unattainable hopes and dreams involved in going it completely alone? The work that they do individual segments of for a lot more money than many self published authors aspire to? Oh no self confidence and a belief in in your work is never, ever “Vanity”

  7. Several thoughts come to mind as I read this article. If paying someone to publish your work is vanity, then every traditionally published authors is guilty of vanity publishing. Traditional authors are in fact paying someone to publish their work. That is why they only get to keep 15% of the monies made from their books. Everyone involved has to be paid from agents, to editors, to marketing etc. The difference between traditional and indie is that trads get their money up front.
    Traditional publishers are circling the wagons as it were because they failed understand that readers want to read. Readers want to read specific types of books: heir favorite authors can only produce so many books a year. So, they look for other authors similar and read them. The problem is that authors can only produce so many books and traditionally published hard or paper back books can only produce so many, leaving people with voracious reading habits to starve. The trads like it that way because supply and demand means that they can charge more money for their books.
    There is some perception that traditional publishing represent gatekeepers that keep the quality of books high. But, case in point, I recently read where J.K. Rowling was turned down by 30 publishers before she found one. Guess those 30 gatekeepers got it wrong. And now that Indie’s are indeed hiring editors and artists etc to make their books more professional, what I ask is the difference. Oh, I know when trads put that powerful marketing arm behind their chosen artists they create megastars. Except when they don’t, as I’ve read in many places if you aren’t their bread and butter client you don’t get the publicity arm. You, like, indies have to get out there and hustle some sales yourself or your bottom line means you probably won’t get a new contract with the trad again.
    Also, the thing that irks me most about this subject is that truth plays no part in it. I mean, gatekeepers are there to try and find products that will sell. No problem there, except that every manuscript or query has to sit before the eyes of the first gatekeeper and if it isn’t to their taste, doesn’t tickle their fancy that day, isn’t their genre…you get the picture it never makes it to the next gatekeeper. So, it’s as much a matter of taste for the people who see it as for judging talent. There seems to exist the idea that if you can’t get past the gatekeepers its because you don’t have talent. What if Rowling had taken the first ten no’s as an answer. How many other well respected authors are there out there who were turned down by more than one publisher. Gatekeepers aren’t necessarily good standards of quality writing whether something is going to sell. The opposite side of that coin is how many people that are published aren’t really considered “good writers”. It is a matter of taste most of the time by the ones who get the chance to say yes or no. Or worse it’s a matter of offending the values of the particular gatekeeper and thus not getting accepted. Case in point Nick Cole, sci-fi writer had a traditional publisher, had been successful but chose one angle to a story that upset the editor and he was told he would not be published, not asked to rewrite the story element…flat out not published through the publisher. He had to self publish the next book.
    Dictionary.com defines vanity as: excessive pride in one’s appearance, qualities, abilities, achievements, etc.; character or quality of being vain; conceit:
    That sounds like traditional publishers in my book.
    There may be some self-published authors who value their skills more highly than they should, but I don’t think that fits most self pubs.

  8. I’m grateful to Joanna for going out there, discussing this issue, and sharing it. The hard work and effort self published writers put into their work deserves visibility, along with the pay off. Thank you. (bows)

  9. I’ve been following Joanna’s journey since she began interviewing other people in the business and her approach has always been to do the hard work – no shortcuts or publisher pulling strings – just the opposite of vanity publishing. So it seemed an insult to ask that question to her of all people. The question is traditional publishing now vanity seems more relevant.

  10. Thank you so much for posting this. I’m planning on self publishing my first novel this December. I’ve been doing as much research as I can (including info from Joanna Penn) but it’s still a case of “I don’t know what I don’t know”. That can be frightening. This post reminded me that self publishing may be difficult, but it is not only possible, there are people who will stand up and defend it.

    Please also thank Joanna for us. She is a needed example for those of us just starting out. 🙂

    1. Indeed, most certainly will. And do consider joining ALLi — http://www.allianceindependentauthors.org. You’ll get lots of good guidance, from authors who have gone before you, discounts and deals that will earn you your money back in no time, and many other benefits. And every member makes us stronger and helps us to keep on flying the flag for indies!

  11. It is early days, really, for self-publishing to develop a full acceptance by the public at large. In 2006 I was senior editor on an international editing website for authors, and all the authors who reached out to us needed edits done for vanity presses. No one without a great deal of money was able to do it on their own. The alternative was query letters to traditional publishers and agents who, as we know, accept maybe 2% of offerings. Slim chances all round. Of course, that changed, thanks to Amazon, in 2010. Now, in the space of a mere seven years, self-publishing has been completely transformed. Stars have risen like Joel Friedlander and Joanna Penn that willingly help thousands achieve their passion to publish. Even in just the last three years the marketing of self-published books has been aided and abetted by consultants like Nick Stephenson, Dan Blank, Bryan Cohen, Joan Stewart, so many more. Websites like this one of Orna’s provide a total platform and deep grounding for authors to flourish. The production of books is now as professional as the trads, but with control over design in the creative hands of authors. These are all extraordinary things and signal a remarkable shift in a very short period of time. The only thing left to be developed is effective distribution.

    BUT–public attitudes toward self-published books are barely aware of this amazing transition. Most people equate self-publishing with vanity presses because they have not heard otherwise. There is no real “propaganda” out there. We need a thousand speeches like Joanna’s, and mainstream news and arts coverage, if public perception is to change. My local library will not shelve self-published books–yet. I had a delightful book signing set up for one of my books that the sponsor loved, but she canceled when she realized it was a self-published book. She felt the signing would not be legitimate.

    I spent years teaching in academia and was involved with traditional publishers often. The name of the game is status here as much as in England. There are exceptions, but for over a century the trend has always been toward exclusion in publishing. A lot of that is arbitrary, and relies on a system of contacts and connections–and custom. Changing that mindset is no small endeavor.

    But again, it is early days. Once upon a time in the past self-publishing was the norm. It very likely will become so again. I for one have high expectations for the next seven years…

  12. I fall under the hobbyist banner, and therefore get it from both sides of the fence. Self publishing is a fantastic way of getting stories out there of all kinds, not just what might sell, but it has its snobs just as traditional publishing does.

  13. This debate should have been put to bed 5 years ago.

    There is a section of the traditional publishing industry who will always have this view of “us vs them” and “self/indie publishing is second class and not to be taken seriously”.

    Whatever indies say or do, these people will never change their minds. For two reasons. One, they truly do believe they are the ultimate gatekeepers and are the only ones capable of delivering content readers want. Two, their livelihoods depend on the status quo. Which in turn translates to fear and age old human survival instinct kicking in.

    Indies and hybrid authors are happy to say that trad and indie publishing can co-exist and trad publishers still have a big role to play, particularly in terms of translations and print distribution. We think they just need to learn to think outside the box, like indies do, and be ready to adapt faster to a rapidly evolving market.

    Indies and hybrid authors are incredibly generous and helpful to each other. They share their successes and failures with aplomb and celebrate each other’s small and large victories with genuine enthusiasm.

    I don’t get that vibe from trad. The only vibes I get from trad are of negativity, condescension, and a superiority complex the length of the Great Wall of China. Yes, things are changing and there are many people in trad who are receptive to the idea of co-existence, but the core of trad publishing hasn’t changed.

    I have to say I was shocked when I read this article last night (2 am as I’m on nights this week) but I am glad you wrote it Orna.

    And I have utmost respect for Joanna for having done this debate. I just wish she didn’t have to do it in 2017. I doubt I would have been as gracious as she most likely was and I suspect I would have had severe jaw ache from grinding my teeth.

    The word vanity in this context irritates me. A lot. In this context, it is a word used to try to shame and belittle someone who has the courage of her convictions, the courage to pursue her dreams and aspirations, and the courage to go out there and build a successful business from scratch.

    Vanity in this context is a word used to tell us to “know our place.” To stop thinking outside the box. To conform. To kill originality and creativity.

    It shows one of the ugly sides of our human nature. Call it envy. Call it jealousy. Call it survival even.

    By this definition, every single creative in the world is vain. Every singer, actor, painter, dancer, screenwriter, etc. So is every scientist, every engineer, every philosopher, every public figure who has brought about changes to our history and culture. Every single person who made our species progress was vain.

    We are vain for getting up in the morning, going to work, and hoping to make something useful out of our lives. We are vain for wanting to make a difference. We are vain for wanting to be different. We are vain for thinking outside the box. We are vain for being successful at what we do. We are vain for wanting to work hard and deliver a great product that will make thousands of other people happy for a few hours of their lives.

    That’s what bugs me about the word vain in this context.

    FYI, I am post night shift right now and as most of you know from my post nights posts, this is when I am at my most brutally honest.

    Normal sweetness and light will resume this weekend. There may even be posts about cats doing funny things.

  14. I think “vanity” is a convenient catch-all phrase bandied about by the publishing industry to dismiss indie authors, and to discourage writers from becoming indie authors. All writers are vain (or self-confident; driven; egotistical; ambitious; whatever) and surely the most vain are those who seek only a trade deal, in their eyes, a “proper” deal. But having a trade deal is increasingly not worth the paper the contract is written on. Just look at the sheer numbers of books published each year. Many of those books are badly written (and edited) dross. And yet still writers aspire to be taken on by a publisher, to receive, in all probability, little marketing, little publicity, low sales and low royalties. Just so they can say, “My publisher…”.

    I’ve been there and done that, and I’ve been to events, surrounded by glum-faced authors who are less than thrilled by their trade published experiences. I’ve heard countless tales of woe, and I’ve whined about my own.

    I’m not evangelical about it, and I know the indie world also turns out buckets of dross. But I’m not glum-faced anymore. I’m energised, working my arse off, learning new skills, making my own decisions (and mistakes) and loving every freaking minute of it.

    Trade publishers clearly regard indie publishing as a threat, hence the ongoing insult of “vanity”. But that’s their problem, and they need to look to themselves. In the meantime, indies will continue to do what they do, with the best of us doing it exceptionally well. Ignoring the naysayers is the best way to deal with them.


  15. If vanity publishing means slogging for hours each day, on top of the day job, agonising over each word, spending hours doing research, learning masses of new skills like marketing and sales strategy, and investing dollar after dollar on creating the most professional product you possibly can. And, you’re motivated and determined enough to do it without the help of publisher or security of a contract ie on your own, just so you can share the story in your head with as many like-minded people as possible, *takes breath.* I’m a vanity publisher and pretty proud.

  16. We have to be clear that the publishing industry is still operating within a paradigm in which there are ‘validated’ authors – because they’ve gone through the acceptance mill from agent to reader to editor – and ‘the rest’, to which has been given the handy label ‘vanity’. This paradigm is strong and is still being imprinted onto the graduates that populate the lower levels of the publishing industry as part of their initiation routine.

    We should also be clear that the motivation behind a publishing professional’s acceptance and validation is – generally speaking – can I, as an agent or publisher, make money from this product? (Of course literary novels, not ostensibly commercial, are still published, though perhaps in fewer numbers nowadays, and possibly as a way of burnishing the reputation of the publishing house.)

    So on the one side we have a commercial imperative, tarted up as morally superior simply because a number of ‘expert’ heads have nodded in agreement; and on the other a creative drive from authors who are unwilling to be denied their place in the sun. They may also be as expert, experienced and practised as the former group, but simply producing work alone or alongside one other editor or with the input of a group of beta-readers. I’m not in the slightest against expertise, by the way, but it seems to me that expertise in the world of publishing is in fact largely opinion dressed up as fact. We don’t need to retell the stories of now-famous writers whose work was rejected umpteen times before finding a home.

    So I refuse to believe that the commercial rationale behind traditional publishing is morally or even commercially superior to the creative persistence and sheer pig-headedness that drives independent and self-publishers. Sometimes – and we can’t deny it – that persistence, self-belief and ‘vanity’ is misplaced. But it’s not true every time, or anywhere near every time, and I’d prefer to focus on the creativity and independence of this group of self-published writers than the lack of commercial appeal they’re perceived to have by those passing judgement on them.

  17. In 2013, after I sold my first 200,000 self-published books, I was asked to speak at a mystery writer’s convention in Chicago. To say that I was treated like a cheeky upstart who had no business being there is an understatement. There were comments like “Well, if all you want to do is make money, I supposed self-publishing is fine.” I was asked to speak about self-publishing, but it was presented to me as a lecture/presentation about self-publishing. Bob Mayer was a co-presenter and he’d just moved from traditional publishing to self-publishing. The presentation turned into several people (including a representative from St. Martin’s Press) debating us and stating that Amazon and Kindle were just a flash-in-the-pan. It seemed as if the traditionally published folks were angry/jealous of our success.
    I have never felt that writing was a competition with other authors. But, perhaps, that’s part of being in this new era of self-published writers. I often promote other writers – and they promote me. I’m happy/thrilled for their success! I know I can’t write fast enough to fulfill the voracious appetites of my readers 🙂 – so, I’m happy to introduce them to authors I know and enjoy!
    Although it’s been argued that the word “Vanity” could be celebrated and maintained – I tend to disagree. In the past a vanity press was only considered by those who could not be traditionally published and, therefore, had to pay someone to publish their work. I think that spins a negative connotation towards self-publishing. Many self-published authors could have chosen a traditional route and chose not to, and some traditionally published authors have left their publishing houses to move to self-publishing. I would rather not allow someone else to label me with an unflattering and somewhat dismissive label as “vanity.”

  18. What a great article, and RESPECT to Joanna for entering the lion’s den and emerging with all their fangs & claws 🙂 Ten years ago, the vanity = sp could have had some validity, but today? Pfff! I rarely get the question as to how I publish, and when I do I straighten up and say “I control it all. That’s teh way i want it.”

  19. As you’ve said, Orna, in no other sphere of endeavour is the word “vanity” used as a slur – my friend Cecil Rice is not a vanity watercolorist; Ed Sheeran is not a vanity musician; Damien Hirst is not a vanity sculptor; and when I have my other hat on, I’m not a vanity designer!

    I also, however, agree with Peter Snell above – any artist *must* have at least a slither of vanity to propel them towards achieving their goal, in the belief that their voice is worth hearing, their art worth seeing. It’s not quite the same as “greed is good”, but there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging the self-belief required to face the brickbats and yet persevere all the same.

    What is it, after all, that makes us want to create? The feeling that however wonderful the art that already exists, there’s nothing out there already that *quite* expresses precisely what we want to say, be it in words, a succession of musical notes or paint upon a canvas. And no surprise, because art should and can only ever be an expression of *us* as individuals, the world seen through our eyes.

    Vanity is only bad when it becomes the desire for status, the belief that we are somehow intrinsically ‘better’ than the next person, and deserve greater recognition, but without putting in the graft to achieve it. What scares many traditionalists is that the indie movement is revolutionary, not evolutionary, and we are the ones with the courage to plunge into the jungle and fight for our existence. No cosy armchairs here, no portrait-laden walls of fusty clubs where deals are done with a nod and a wink to keep the same old venerable heads on pedestals. No, it’s those that fight the good fight and blaze the trails that get rewarded, and rightly so.

    Good on you, and Joanna and all the rest who raise the indie banner high and storm the beaches, yet have the humility to reach down and lend a hand to those of us who follow on behind. The world of indie feels wonderfully democratic, egalitarian and sunrise-fresh, embracing so many different paths to success. Long may that continue.

  20. I find it bizarre that there should still be so much contention over this. I can’t think of any other creative or economic pursuit where there is so much debate over what is essentially an alternative route to market! In other industries this would be described as disintermediation and would be lauded.
    It is also surprising that so little attention is paid to the wonderful innovations that have underpinned self-publishing – I have worked with clients in the past who look for ways to “Uberize” their industries i.e seek out opportunities to completely rethink routes to market and create new business models. All the innovation in publishing seems to come at the SP end – I am thinking of software and online services that facilitate it like Vellum, Draft2Digital, and many many more. Traditional publishing instead of trying to innovate themselves, focus all their energy on preservation of the status quo – and knocking SP – or getting patsies in the media to do it for them.

  21. At the risk of being succinct, fear and envy seem to be two possible reasons.

    I have long taken the attitude that I won’t put up with attitude. We publish in the way we publish and that should be the end of it. It’s about the book, not the method of production.

    I merely look surprised if anybody asks how my books are published. ‘What a strange question,’ I reply as I look over the top of my glasses.

  22. This is a fascinating conversation. I’m a relatively new Indie Author (self-published 2 books in Nov 16 and April 17) and I haven’t got a clue about ‘the industry’. I have had minimal contact with industry professionals and can only go by reader responses to my books, which has been positive with some social media advertising. I have been totally open that I’m self-published and readers have been surprisingly supportive. I get the impression that most readers don’t care how a book is published, only whether it’s worth reading. But perhaps I haven’t yet sold enough to know the true picture.

    1. I think you are exactly right, Fiona. Readers don’t care — and they have always ultimately been the arbitrers. It’s wonderful that one can write and publish now without having to think about the industry. When I started, that simply wasn’t a possibility. My first novel was rejected 54 times before finally finding an editor who appreciated it. Good luck with Book 3 – often a game changer for indies.

    2. Absolutely Fiona. As a bookseller I think I am gaining a minor reputation as a supporter of indie authors. Actually I support all trad and indie authors if I consider their writing to be of quality. I hand sell to my customers and they trust me. I dare not have an author in for a signing unless they pass my benchmark. Their publishing provenance is irrelevant. However, it is hard work trying to read and acquire good authors and filter out those both trad and indie who do not deserve space on our shelves.

  23. It looks like a combination of a click-bait title/concept and setting Jo up for slam-dunk win. Whether they meant to or not is not for me to say. The point about Trade being the vanity option where you sacrifice money for kudos/validation is brilliant… I’m mildly irritated I hadn’t noticed it myself.

    Also, people seem to be conflating vanity with self-confidence… and assuming desperation or ignorance as the reason people go indie, rather than the opportunity. I think it’s more Darwinian to let them stew in their own ignorance.

  24. This discussion seems to me more like tradional publishing showing a deep resistance in part due to their own survival. And it also appears that the word vanity has now replaced the word “ego”. Every writer needs a dose of this to survive and there’s nothing wrong with it. Self-publishers have to be creative to survive and because they are beholden to no-one but themselves they can respond to the changing times – attitudes and technology much quicker than traditional publishers. Proffesionalism in content and editing is not confined to only one mode of publishing.

    1. Absolutely Kathryn, and it is that professionalism — the hard work of writing and publishing well — that takes us beyond vanity, in my opinion

  25. Vanity = wanting to be on a book shop’s shelves.

    Common sense = choosing the means of delivery that allows me to make more than 7x the royalty I used to get when I was traditionally published.

  26. The more I see of the publishing industry the more I am convinced that no one really understands it. In most spheres of commerce if you have a premium product in great demand you don’t discount it, you might even put a premium on it. Harry Potter has been given away in supermarkets and denied the trade much needed cash flow. Self published authors give away their e-books and this helps nobody. The book buying public are being taught that an authors time is worthless and expectations are being raised about the cheapness of books in all their forms. I submit from the evidence in this piece that all publishing is vanity. Bloomsbury want the top spot and self published authors give away their books to increase their “sales”. Of course I know that not all publishers and authors are like this but many are. Right, I wonder what that will stir up.

        1. Though I do think a judicious use of free can actually be a good discovery tool — and may be the only one available to an unknown author, in certain cases. Emphasis on “judicious”.

  27. Fantastic work, Orna. The trade attitude to self-publishing reminds me of mainstream-journalist sniffiness over blogging/online publishing a few years ago.

    The trade model is increasingly becoming anachronistic, because the current generation of author now has the capability to run their writing career as a multi-stranded start-up business, rather than just surrender their creative work to a well-resourced corporation which is designed to tilt the profits in its own direction.

    The means of production are now under the control of the creatives and anyone who persists with the ‘vanity’ slur is just exposing themself as irrelevant and obnoxious.

    1. Why do you assume that vanity is necessarily a bad thing? Admitting to vanity is not in any way to decry professionalism or expertise. Vanity, per se, should not be a slur, just part of the complex of motivations that drive some (not all) to be published. Without some degree of self belief why would anyone publish. It can be vain to consider your words worthy but that does not make them not so.

      1. Hi, Peter! I suppose, as ever, it’s all about the intent behind the language, and in this context, the term has always been a lump of mud slung from the trad-pub moral high-ground at the people the slinger considers illegitimate. Good old-fashioned elitism, basically.

        The implication is that non-trad authors are showing a certain arrogance at daring to bypass the ‘accepted’ route to publishing. It’s more about the process they’re following than their desire to get their work in front of readers.

        I do agree that there’s a ‘look at me!’ aspect to all art, but I get more satisfaction from connections/relationships with readers – having moved or entertained them – than I do from just seeing my writing out in the world.

  28. Excellent post, Orna Ross! And well done to Joanna who is a phenomenon and a brilliant spokesperson. I find myself at every teaching gig I do having to enlighten people about the current state of indie publishing and the professional motivations and practices within it. When someone says to me they will hold out for a ‘proper’ deal and ‘proper publishing’ I want to scream – a proper deal seems to be as much to do with vanity as professionalism. As for proper publishing – well, we all lament the slippage of standards of editing over the years and many’s the traditionally published book blemished by factual inaccuracy and spelling errors. However, I do think Joanna’s judgement is too narrow when she says anyone not concerned with sales is a hobbyist. We in ALLi have a wide range of reasons for self-publishing and mega-sales don’t always matter to us – nor are they reachable if we write certain types of fiction. What does matter is self-respect. Professional standards. Creative freedom. Reaching readers unimpeded by limited risk-averse views held by trad publishers about what the public wants or will buy.

  29. I always told (i may be completely wrong) that self publishing and vanity publishing were two completely different things, that vanity publishing is where you pay someone to publish your book for you (sometimes a great unnecessary expense) whereas self publish yes it does have a cost implication is about you creating and sharing your work on a platform thats tailored to you as a creative. I was always cautious of telling people I was self published for fear of people judging me inadequate without even looking at my work, but now i can proudly say I am a happy self published author who enjoys having creative control over the direction and choices of my work.

    1. Thank you for sharing your shift in perspective BB and you are completely right that vanity publishing and self-publishing couldn’t be more different — and you have perfectly explained the difference. Thanks so much!

      1. Orna, I was going to respond once I’d read all of the replies to the main post, but I got to this, and what I want to say actually relates best here.

        I want to call you out on the above. I want to call everyone out on another piece of ‘wouldn’t happen in any other industry’ thinking.

        Please stop with the ‘predatory publisher’ and ‘paying someone else to publish your book is vanity”. Because it’s not….. It is understanding your own limits and skills, and choosing to outsource something that is not your core business / not necessarily something you want to learn. In any other industry, being a business owner who provides a service to meet a need, so that their clients can focus on their own core business, would be lauded.

        Sure, there would be some businesses who did not do as good a job as they promised – that happens in any industry, as does a wide variance in pricing of services. But no one tells the painting business that they are predatory, because anyone could, obviously, paint their own house. And if you what a painter, you can find one for any price from cheap to incredibly expensive.

        So why do we continue to bash the businesses, that are helping indie authors, who do not want to learn every little bit of formatting and getting the best out of the distributors interfaces etc, so that those authors can focus on writing?

        So – the disclaimer – yes, I run one of those businesses, but I am also an author. I have 39 books of my own out there, fiction and non fiction, under my own name and pen names, and have published close to 70 books between my own and my clients. My own books are getting to the point where I am earning a close to full time income just from them. It would have been faster if I had known more about marketing, much earlier, but, a lot of the last 5 years I have spent more time on my clients books than on my own.

        I have a very strong quality ethic – if something is going out under my imprint, it will be of the highest quality, with the best editing, cover, and layout that we can create for the author. It won’t go live to the world until we, and the author, are utterly happy with it. It will go out in digital and paperback, to wide distribution. Yes, the author will have to put personal effort into marketing, as they would no matter which way they published.

        But – the price I charge, for the number of person hours that go into making that book that good, I’d ludicrously small – there are very few industries where anyone would work for the miserable hourly rate it comes out at. In any other industry, I would be told, ‘you provide a good service, that people want, increase your prices, you are killing your own business’ but, in publishing, I am told that I am ‘predatory’, that I am unreasonably taking adavantage of the ‘poor author’. That’s the author I spent 90 minutes or more with, on Skype, before they ever even signed up with me, to make sure that we were happy with each other and could work together, and that what they paid for would be what they wanted and needed.

        So – as someone who is both a small publisher, of the kind that is called ‘vanity’and a successful, multi award winning indie author, I ask you to really look at your words. Let’s get rid of ‘predatory’. Let’s talk about custom or collaborative publishers, who are, like any other industry, a spectrum from brilliant to terrible, and who are providing a critical service to authors who choose not to learn everything about publishing for themselves, but who also don’t want to go the Trad route, for all of the reasons that the rest of this discussion make clear.

        Give us the courtesy that you would have people give the authors too.

        If you’ve read this far, Thank You! I appreciate you reading my rant.

        1. Hi Kim, I think there may be a misunderstanding here. The key is in the second sentence of BB’s comment – paying somebody to deliver the platform that is perfect for you as a creative — and the creative intention of the writer.

          Option B still involves hiring, and paying for, a service, of course but with a vital difference — you, as author, are still the publisher and the creative director of the work. Whereas when a writer wants to hand over publishing to somebody else, without keeping control and involvement: this is where lack of clarity about needs, little or poor research come in — and with them, the poorly rated services.

          Much of the work of ALLi’s Watchdog Desk lies in drawing out the distinction between these two. We reserve the strong word “predatory” for the very worst: those who deliberately target the old, housebound and vulnerable, for example, convincing them with repeated sales calls that they should publish a book.

          It doesn’t help authors that these companies have the buying power to dominate Google search

          To counteract their distortion of the self-publishing market, we have 1. a guidebook “How To Choose The Best Self publishing Services”; 2. A ratings page and 3. A Partner Membership for good author services, including all kinds and sizes of service, from Amazon KDP to the local freelance designer or editor to a good full service provider.

          All services are carefully vetted and from that list we draw up a Partner Directory, to help our author members and other indie authors have access to good service.

          Our team, especially the watchdog Desk, headed by John Doppler, does a great deal of good work in this area.

          Having said that, I agree that we have a terminology problem in this area – and collaborative is one of my favourite words. Also, I’m a fan of people charging their worth. Proper (even high) pricing does not make a service “predatory” and personalised one-to-one services are, by their very nature, expensive.

          Seasoned authors know this but the first time author may not, especially those surrounded by people who seem to think publishing a book should be free. Our Ethical Author campaign lays down the responsibilities of indie authors to readers and other publishing professionals.

          All this is, indeed, an important aspect of the “vanity” debate, Kim, and thank you for contributing to it. I have added and a line to my original post, to draw distinctions in the same way between authors, as it’s my sense that we must differentiate. But I’m curious to hear what others think about this, particularly other Partner Members.

  30. sounds like a deliberately provocative, but slightly playful, title to the topic. After all, it seems like almost everyone present already knew the answer to the question. Perhaps we indies are still a little thin-skinned about it – with good reason, given the twaddle peddled by some of the industry and press even now. I do keep seeing successful indy authors portrayed by mainstream media as ‘rags-to-riches’ feel-good stories, rather than a practical career route for a writer to follow. Still, the genie’s been out of the bottle for a while now, so a change in attitudes is inevitable.

    1. Thanks Ian, and what you say about practical career route is exactly right. This was what drew me to self-publishing, that an author could build a viable business, step by step, book by book, in a way that was impossible before. I don’t think the “vanity” issue it’s just a question of thin-skin, though. This attitude is stopping trade-publishing working with indie authors in ways that could be beneficial to both — and to readers.

      1. Having to justify myself has always felt like a terrifying thing. I freeze. The “Hell Yeah!” burst out at the point in the article where I realised that it wasn’t necessary at all.

  31. Wonderful blog, thanks Orna. I’m delighted the talk provoked a passionate response.

    For me, this topic was about confronting head-on the residual industry bias against self-publishing. It’s not as prevalent as it once was, but it is still there. It shouldn’t be, but it is. That’s the reality and, as with confronting any prejudice, I don’t think we should not talk about it because we find it distasteful. Instead we should hold up our best and most successful self-publishing authors, like Joanna, and continue to debate and discuss our industry models as they evolve.

    And I hope we did that – after all, we all agreed by the end that the word ‘vanity’ should not be discarded at all, but instead should be reclaimed as something good and positive. Being an author, however you choose to publish, by definition requires an element of vanity, and so perhaps that should be celebrated. You have a story to tell. Tell it and be proud.

    1. Thanks so much Jon, it’s very interesting to hear your motivations and yes, the debate did draw out the many merits of self-publishing and had all agreeing that publication is, by definition, an ego thing — and nothing wrong with a healthy ego. Or a less than healthy one being healed by the act of creative expression. As you say: arise, proud indies!

  32. I think the UK is backwards in many ways in its attitudes. I recently went to see Alan Johnson, the former home secretary, speak at a University Alumni event. He had just published a book. I went and asked a friend “I wonder if he self-published it” and he just laughed at me.

    In the general public, in the UK at least, self-publishing isn’t yet mainstream…

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