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The Stigma Of Self-Publishing

The Stigma of Self-Publishing

The Vanity Publishing Question

Vain? Moi?

Are self-publishers just vain? Is this the main reason for the stigma against this way of publishing and reaching readers.

The vanity publishing question used to be easily answered. On the one hand, you had trade publishers and they paid you. On the other, you had vanity publishers, and you paid them.

If you worked with the former, you were entitled to call yourself “published” and revel in the fact that somebody besides your mother thought you’d something worth saying for yourself.

If you were the one reaching for your wallet, you were vain and deluded and deserved every thing you were being dealt from the assorted literary fraudsters that lurked on the fringes, with their advertisements appealing to your dream of seeing your story between two covers and on a shelf.

And self-publishing didn't work. The distribution of books was a tightly controlled supply chain and it was almost impossible for a writer with a garage full of books to break in, no matter how good their book might be.

But even back then, it wasn't quite so simple. You got writers like Wayne Dyer, who put his self-published books on the back of the car and went from town to town, promoting them, until they became bestsellers. He passionately believed in the value of his book.

Is that really vanity?

Given the changes that have engulfed the books industry in recent years, it’s time to reconsider the question of vanity publishing.

• Is it vanity to seek the validation of a publisher/agent for your work rather than relying on your own creative imperative and going straight to readers?

• Is it vanity to publish your book if it is not yet – like most first books – fit for publication? Or is publication now merely a much earlier step in a writer’s creative development?

• Is it vanity to choose to spend thousands of dollars “self”-publishing your book with Archway or Book Country,  just because they have brand-name trade publishers attached (even though they own your ISBNs and are therefore the legal publisher, not you, and, when you could quite easily do what they do for yourself)?

• Is it vanity to write at all? Why doesn’t the musician entertaining the crowd down the pub not get accused of vanity for getting up and playing his music? Why is only writers who are asked to justify their urge to create? Is it a measure of the power of our medium?

Or is it just that trade publishing has benefitted for a very long time from authors feeling to go it alone is somehow not good enough?

Where does the self-publishing stigma arise and what is vanity-publishing these days?

Let us know what you think in the comments below.



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 28 Comments
  1. First of all I wish to display an element of innocence/ignorance – what is POD? I guessed at Print On Demand but I’m probably wrong? Just a thought but it’s not always a good idea to use acronyms throughout an “advice” column/stream. It does tend to convey the biassed “wanna be in our gang” atmosphere.

    To get to my point: I have submitted a manuscript for a children’s book of mine to two publishers I found online who seemed to encourage new authors. They are Novum-Publishing and Austin Macauley Publishers and both asked for sums between £2500 and £3700. I have resisted taking things further for the moment as I have already paid out almost £1000 for the excellent colour illustrations and no hint of consideration for this has been forthcoming from either company. In fact one of them offered only black and white illustrations of their own design etc.

    A couple of other authors I know advise don’t touch ’em etc etc. Has anybody else got an opinion or helpful information to offer?

  2. In my opinion, the term “vanity publishing” describes the behaviour of certain publishers rather than the authors they prey upon. These companies used to sing the praises of every manuscript they were sent, encourage authors to have unrealistic expectations of sales and charge them large amount of money to produce books that would probably never sell. They now seem to have branded themselves as extremely expensive. “Self publishing companies” who effectively do the same but these days they only produce ebooks and POD so they don’t even have the expense of a print run. By so doing, they take advantage of inexperienced authors and give legitimate self-publishing companies a bad name.

    I don’t think it’s fair to brand authors who have used these companies as “vanity published”. They and their bank balances have suffered enough. We are all authors, however we are published, and each of our books should be judged on its own merits by the people who really matter – the readers.

    1. Diana, there are no doubt sharks out there still, against which ALLi’s Watchdog services are on constant guard, but there are also many excellent author service providers who in return for a fair sum add great value to the offering of authors who are not willing or able to manage the technical side of production themselves. Some authors use them because they do not have time to do it themselves, perhaps because they have a demanding day-job or family life; others because they are not comfortable with technology or with finding and negotiating the specialists needed to provide a marketable cover design, formatting, etc etc. These companies are also used by previously trade-published authors who have decided to self-publish. With their experience of professional book production by the likes of Penguin, HarperCollins, etc, they have high standard for their books, marketing and commercial savvy, and would not use these services if they weren’t offering value for money.

      Most self-published authors will in any case use at least some third parties to make their books the best they can be, and it can be more convenient to have all of these services offered under one roof.

      Most of the companies offering these services are not simply old-style vanity publishers who have rebranded themselves, but new companies that have grown up in response to a real market need, borne out of the growing numbers of authors who want to self-publish.

      Regarding the POD issue – I suspect most will be able to provide a traditional print run if the author requires one, but for many self-published authors, POD is a much more affordable and sensible solution, giving them more flexibility and in real terms more profit per copy, because it enables them to print only the quantity of books that they know will sell, as the orders come in, rather than having to order and pay for up front a large volume of books that will probably sit for years untouched and unsold, in their spare bedroom or garage. This is a welcome new technological development that makes self-publishing print books much more affordable and viable, and I for one am extremely thankful that POD exists.

      Without naming any individual companies, as I don’t want to appear biassed, I should point out that ALLi has approved a number of partner members who provide such services to author client. These clients’ level of satisfaction is indicated by the fact that they return to the company for more.

      Even those authors who are technically capable of managing their own book production may prefer to delegate production to an author services company because they prefer to spend their time writing rather than being a publisher. Great that they have that choice.

      Any author planning to use an author services company and unsure which company to choose, or wondering whether their intended choice is a good one, is warmly invited to ask ALLi for advice, whether by posting a comment on our very active Facebook forum, or by asking ALLi’s Watchdog team.

      What matters most is that we as authors now have so many choices at our disposal to help us create the best books we can, for, as you rightly point out, the people who are paramount in this equation: the readers.

  3. Well done. The comparison between musicians and writers is very interesting. Any artist that practices a craft with a performance component needs to put it out there. How many wait for a music label to “discover” them before booking a gig? That said, in general public performance is not part of the writer’s repertoire (readings notwithstanding). Still, self-publishing strikes me as the way to go. As Amy wrote, “it’s great and exciting.”

  4. Lots of good comments here. I believe that all writing that is not specifically to educate or persuade (think academia and editorial, e.g.) is in some way an act of vanity. I came to this conclusion when I grappled with the question of pursuing traditional publishing or self publishing. Ultimately, I chose self publishing because I did not see that the value added by the traditional publishing industry was worth the additional cost in time, effort, rights, etc. My ego/vanity would be satisfied either way because I was looking to have a real book, really available for purchase, and really out there for review and reader response. When I really searched my soul, I found that my own vanity did not require the validation of the establishment. I would be better served by doing the work myself and seeing what the market thought.

    It’s a very personal question. I think people will be much happier with their own decisions if they honestly assess their own feelings before choosing sides. So many people have chosen sides before understanding their own feelings; then they spend their energy defending their choice. We’d all be better off if we recognized our own vanity in the process and made rational decisions understanding our feelings.

    Or not. The internet would be way less fun if people were rational, I suppose.

  5. The world has changed. Traditional publishers have changed. The best work doesn’t always get published. Publishing is a business that is being turned upside down the with closure of many bookstores and the competition of authors publishing themselves.

    I think it’s great and exciting.

    I say call it whatever you like.

    Art and artists are vain. What makes anyone think anyone else wants to hear, read, or see something they’ve created?

    Vain – Having or showing an excessively high opinion of one’s appearance, abilities, or worth.

    So regardless if you are traditionally published or decide to invest in yourself, there is an element of vanity there.

    That does not mean the mere fact of investing in your work and bypassing the gatekeepers of the book publishing industry means you are any more vain than someone who received a publishing book contract, a music contract or a acting job.

    Look at the democratizing of video games. The majority of video game sales are from apps at the apple app store, android market or windows store. The traditional video game producers, like microsoft, sony etc are getting real competition from small startups selling games as apps.

    No one accuses them of vanity when they decide to sell their games online.

    No one should accuse self published authors of vanity either.

  6. No one accuses a craftsperson of vanity when he or she creates something and takes it to market. That product is often even valued higher than the product that is mass-produced.

    No one accuses an artist of vanity for painting a picture and offering it for sale, or even creating prints of that painting and acting as a business in order to sell the work.

    While it can’t be denied that publishing companies have done a good job of marketing books to the public it remains that the suppliers (the authors) always have the option to skip that middleman and take their own product to market. However, the traditional publishing world has done a good job of using emotional blackmail on authors by effectively convincing them that their work has no value unless it goes through the publishing house. If their suppliers, authors, stop using them for distribution, they will soon be out of business.

    It’s not unlike the owners of the sinking ship screaming at its passengers, “Don’t get into the lifeboats. You’ll die if you don’t stay on the ship and bail.” The goal is not to save the paying passenger; it is to save the ship for the owners. As long as the symbiotic relationship works, that’s great. The ship gets the passenger where she wants to go. But when the passenger is denied access to the ship, or the ship can’t take the passenger to the destination, she’s going to have to find another way. There is no vanity in that.

  7. Good point about musicians performing their work. I think the current climate of self-publishing model provides every feasible opportunity for new authors to debut their unpublished work and for established authors to limitlessly expand their market to new territory.

  8. My critique partners and I ventured into the world of independent publishing earlier this year and I can say, with certainty, that we don’t regret it. We are in control of our work, and we are solely responsible for our success or lack thereof. What I’ve found is that the only folks who consider what we’ve done to be vanity publishing are nervous trad pubbed folks, and they’re not paying my mortgage. Thanks for the great post!

  9. I found that last point extremely interesting; someone who writes their own songs, arranges them, sings them, records them, is considered a genius. A writer who does it all is … ? I am not sure why most people are so reluctant to give writers their due. True, there are a lot of self-published books out there that are of questionable quality, but isn’t that true of artists and songwriters, too? Any art form is going to have the full range of quality, from bad to mediocre to genius, but that’s not a reflection on the art form itself, only of the people who express themselves in it.
    I have been both traditionally-published and self-published and I love the new indie paradigm. I love having full control; I love creating and designing and publishing my books just exactly as I envision them. It’s a lot of work, but it’s infinitely worthwhile, and no one (particularly no one who has walked the same path) can convince me otherwise.

  10. Self-publishing can be all the things those commenting are writing about. However, the real test for a serious author is whether the desire to be published is to become rich and famous or have everyone possible read the stories or non-fiction research. If any author is truly an author, the criteria might be to get that book, short story or researched document to as many readers as possible. Publishing success for an author’s work can only be accomplished by finding the most widely available source of distribution.

    The most obvious source aside from a publisher is your local library. How does an author published or contemplating self-publishing (especially an EBook) get the title included in the national library register? Listing the book in the local library appears virtually impossible unless the author is already in print and a client of a major or even a small press publisher. Most small libraries now have the capacity to offer EBook downloads to patrons.

    The solution and possible a new direction for getting those good reads more widely read is for local author groups to organize a committee in concert with your local library administration or library support group. The committee could then search out well written and acceptable content manuscripts by local authors promoting the books locally and regionally. The plan would serve the dual purpose of getting otherwise impossible to compete in the publishing world books into the hands of readers and using the library to promote local artists.

    Word of mouth advertising is the best proven method of promoting any product. Major publishing houses and literary agencies would soon be scanning every small town library for the next blockbuster hit if libraries became a primary source for new books already well edited and accepted for local publication.

  11. Vanity and justified seem to be common words when discussing aspects of self publishing. For some there seems no difference between vanity publishing and self publishing and it often seems to involve the need for justification. For me it is a “so what” subject. Why would the reasons that others write or publish concern me. These are simply choices.

    My first book was published by a national organization and even though it wound up a good book, it was no longer my book. I have published many books since then and, good or bad, they are my books. That is my choice, not necessarily a better choice but definitely mine.

    I don’t see the negativity that sometimes accompanies self published books disappearing any time soon in spite of its popularity because even self publishers are down on their work. I recently provided publishing services for a writer who had been trying to get a book published for over ten years. We produced an attractive book with interesting content but even though he chose self publishing, he still frowns on the book because it was not picked up by a “real” publisher. I recently wrote an article called “The Stigma of Self Publishing” on my blog at: http://self-publishing-support.com describing that situation in more detail.

    I prefer not to concern myself with the opinion of others regarding self publishing. I write and publish my books and those of others and then do my best to sell as many as possible. If my books please readers then my job is done and what others think of the method used to arrive at a marketable book is not important.

  12. That’s a very fair comment Katherine and one echoed by Debbie Young a little while ago in her post about choosing an assisted SP service: https://selfpublishingadvice.org/assisted-self-publishing/. You’ll be pleased to know that Mill City Press get an honourable mention in our book “Choosing A Self Publishing Service: The Indie Author Guide”, which will launch in ebook at London Book Fair and pbook at Book Expo America. Thanks for the connection!

  13. I’m interested in that 3rd bullet point that seems to query the wisdom of giving up ISBN ownership and “publisher of record” status in return for services, “when you could quite easily do what they do for yourself”. I’d question that “quite easily” part. For my first toe-dip into the self-publishing world, I chose a package through Mill City Press. I did pay a premium rate for services, but I got services in return that would have taken me quite a lot of research, time and effort to do for myself. I didn’t have the first idea about ISBNs, LCCNs, or where to go and who to trust for professional cover design and formatting. I also got a website designed for me. A starter site, maybe, but again, I had no clue how to go about any of this. They got the book registered and uploaded everywhere. It’s true that as I look at it now, and as the learning curve evens out, I can see there are things I need not pay for again, but when it is your first time and you know nothing, it is comforting to have a professional and reliable source to take you through it. The trick is to find the professional and reliable ones!

  14. The word “vanity” implies excessive pride in one’s appearance, qualities, abilities, achievements and appeal. Vanity has been considered a sin. It can lead to wasted resources and wasted lives. It can also lead to useful activities and important accomplishments.

    Most or all artistic people have some degree of vanity, or they would not produce or perform.

    Most people seem to like themselves. There are gradations in vanity, ranging from justified confidence to outrageous, obnoxious egomania.

    In “You’re So Vain,” Carly Simon wrote and sang (possibly about Warren Beatty, Mick Jagger or both of them): “You walked into the party… You had one eye on the mirror… And all the girls dreamed that they’d be your partner… You’re so vain you probably think this song is about you.”

    Vanity publishers (whatever they call themselves) stay in business because many vain people are willing to spend money to flatter themselves. A vanity publisher depends on the vanity of writers who strive to become “published authors.” They make most of their money from writers, not readers. If you work with a vanity publisher, you pay all of the expenses of publishing, and have all of the possible financial loss.

    Although less true now than in the 20th century, a book published by a vanity press is often assumed to have been rejected as unworthy of publication by traditional publishers.

    Here’s another way of looking at vanity and publishing: Maybe the most vain writers are those who will delay publication for years or decades in hope of getting accepted by a traditional publisher instead of quickly self-publishing, reaching the public, and maybe even making some money.

    Just out: “1001 Powerful Pieces of Author Advice,” http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00BO8FODA/

  15. You’ve touched on several important considerations.

    With the number of self-published authors going directly to the readers and enjoying varying levels of success, it’s hard to justify going the traditional route any more. For those who still want the validation of the traditional publisher, they must be aware that they have a very slim chance of winning a contract and if they do, must give up control of their book, look forward to a long delay in publication,still have to do their own marketing and receive a very small percentage of the profits.

    Do you wonder how traditional publishers are reacting to the self-publishing boon? Are they improving their operations, loosening the tight rein they’ve had for centuries or made it easier for up and coming writers to get published?


    Some of the biggies–Random House,Penguin, Simon and Schuster, for example-are quietly and quickly buying up the self-publishing companies that have high visibility but questionable business practices. What does that tell you about what the traditional publishers see as the future of publishing?

    Follow the money.

  16. Thank you Orna and fellow authors – your article and your replies on “Vanity Publishing” have resonated with me. My book, Jupiter Remembered, will soon be published by Booklocker, which is an excellent POD to work with. It has taken 3 years almost to the day to be birthed, and yes, I have lived with a “Creative imperative” throughout the entire process. I wouldn’t have missed anything, from the development of my book’s template, to my research, and the many many changes that took place, till it went into the hands of a competent editor, and ultimately ethical publisher who is very author-centric and screens all material beforehand. It has been a process that has changed me, a soon to be seventy-year-old, who had a dream some fifty plus years ago, and the dream is now being fulfilled.

    I went with my heart, and the self-trust that I have honed over many years of living. Why, if this is vanity, so be it! But here’s the real truth, every book stands on its own, and I am standing tall with my decision, and holding my head up high.

    Best of luck to you all, and Orna, you have created something positive and powerful with the Alliance. Excellent work! Myra

  17. Your last bullet point hits the proverbial nail as far as I’m concerned. If a writer wants readers, then they should polish and perfect and then get their work out there – in any way they see fit and publicise it in any way they’re comfortable with. After that it’s over to the readers. I enjoy the fact my work is read – if that’s vanity – and it is a bit – then I’m vain.

  18. If vanity is what you begin with, you sure as hell won’t retain it, when the mammoth indifference, and wall of turned backs confronts you.

    I think the point is interesting that buskers aren’t accused of vanity, or shoe shine boys, or DIY builders…and I have spent most of my life being the last…everyone has called it ‘brave’.

    I think this legacy is the last vestige of the traditional publisher’s stranglehold. Like all vested interests it walks away with an oath.

  19. For me, this is a really thought-provoking article.

    I think there will always be that hardcore who accuse self-published authors of vanity publishing no matter what the circumstances. I feel like it’s almost an accusation thrown out in bitterness; almost like saying “I had to work damn hard to get published and you just chuck your book out and dare to call yourself an author?”.

    In my mind vanity publishing is not self-publishing. Vanity to me, is when you produce a book that will not be of value to anyone outside your family and you do it just to have a copy of a book with your name on it. As soon as a piece of writing becomes interesting or valuable to others, it is in a different category. The fact that authors are going it alone, taking control and doing the business side of things is just more empowering to them. Why shouldn’t we produce our own work? It’s like having your own business.

    There is still a stigma attached to self-publishing because of the sheer number of books that are published before they are ready – the books littered with grammatical errors, spelling mistakes and typos. People are so excited about writing that they often jump the gun and release their work before it is ready.

    If I self-publish, I hope to hire an editor to help me ensure that my work is ready for the public, but it is a big step. It’s scary and my inner critic mocks me for having the audacity to even think that anyone might want to read my work. And if I do release a novel I have to be damned sure I work hard to market it.

    I think becoming an indie author is an exciting venture and I look forward to the challenge – if I can shut up my inner critic for long enough!

    1. I like the analogy you draw, likening it to our own business, which of course it is. I read 70 % of published books are indie books. wow.

  20. It is vanity for a traditionally published author to look down upon a colleague simply because he has chosen a different path. Especially when the latter is selling more books.

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