Friday, 30 January 2009

Vanity Publishing vs Self-Publishing

It is difficult to separate vanity publishing from self-publishing. Where do you draw the line between the two?

Vanity publishers often insist that what they offer is serviced self-publishing. For a fee (often a high one) they offer services like editing, typesetting and design: the problem is that there are some very useful self-publishing service providers out there which also charge for those services but which don’t count as vanity publishers.

The imprint under which you’re published provides a useful (but not infallible) guide. If you pay anything towards your own publication, either up-front by way of fees for editing, an ISBN or printing, or at the back end of the equation by buying copies of your own books for resale, then if the book has the name of your own publishing company on the imprint page it’s likely that you self-published it, while if it has the name of the service-provider as the imprint you are definitely vanity-published.

And, while there’s nothing inherently wrong with paying for expert help, remember that real, commercial publishers provide everything at no cost to the writer: it's part of the package when they agree to publish a book. If you do hand money over to anyone, make sure that the people you’re paying really are experts in their field, are going to add real value to your book: and aren’t just charging you a high price for help you don’t really need.


TOM VOWLER said...

A friend from my MA course paid a small fortune recently for publication. Usual fare: editing, design, ISBN. Think it also included a copy in the local Waterstones for a while. For her (she may not see many more years), this made sense - to see her novel in print, copies for family and friends, lifetime's ambition etc...and it has sold some copies thanks to publicity in local press.

It still saddens me, though. I wonder if those who vanity- or self-publish have unrealistic expectations about a) sales and b) the chances of a mainstream publisher picking it up (which I believe are slim to none). Articles which encourage self-publication often unfairly hype the rare few who have received deals afterwards. And I've heard writers saying 'You have to give yourself the best chance' the belief it's the system preventing them from being snapped up rather than the quality of their writing or the book they've produced.

Welshcake said...

The stories about self/vanity published work are really hyped up, aren't they? I wonder what the true statistics are.

I still think for most (but not all)a writer's best chance is the traditional route. This may change but, like everything else in publishing, it will be a slow change.

Nicola Morgan said...

Nicely put, as always, Jane. Tom: "in the belief it's the system preventing them from being snapped up rather than the quality of their writing or the book they've produced." Tom, you are SO right. If only authors struggling to be published could look really honestly and anaytically at why it's not happening, they'd do themselves such a favour. (Wish I'd done that sooner myself.)
I've blog-rolled your blog, btw (and How Pub Really Works, of course!!) on "Help! I need a publisher!"

Jane Smith said...

Damn your sexy red shoes, Nicola: you just made the comment that I was about to make. But yes, Tom nailed it with that one sentence. He should be a writer, you know.

(By the way, if anyone is interested in being a Real Writer they would be wise to have a quick look at Nicola's blog: she does appear to know what she's talking about, despite her habit of nicking the things that I wanted to say!)

Anonymous said...

You're right, it is difficult to distinguish between Vanity and Self-Publishing and that's generally because people with vested financial interest in a specific area will use those appellations in a negative connotation, especially when those are competing factions in the industry.

I work as a consultant with a full-service self-publisher, Outskirts Press, and have a traditional contract as a writer. Comparing the two options is interested. In fact, I work with self-published authors who earn several times what my advance is in one quarter of sales. Sure, they pay money upfront, but that really has no bearing on whether one is a 'real' writer.

That would be like saying that Radiohead or the Bare Naked Ladies are not 'real' musicians because they have recently foot the production bill to produce under their own label. Instead, they recognize the advantages of self-producing, although that option may not be best for all artists.

The same applies in book publishing. In the end, traditionally published titles are just as dependent on reader and market trends - and hard work - in order to be successful.

- Karl Schroeder

Jane Smith said...

Karl, you're right that all books, no matter how they're published, depend on reader trends to be successful: but what you don't address is the many problems that confront almost all self-published writers when they try to get their books in front of their potential readers--and that means into bookshops.

Books which don't get into bookshops don't sell in anything like the same numbers as the books which do make it onto the shelves: and I'm not talking about local placement, I'm talking about nationwide placement--which is well beyond the scope of the self-published writer.

I've had a quick look at your blog, and it didn't exactly fill me with confidence. Just about every one of your posts there links to Outskirts, and pushes the benefits of self-publishing compared to mainstream publishing: but many of the points you make about mainstream publishing are either ill-informed or misleading, which gives a false impression of the real benefits that self-publishing can offer.

In addition, Outskirts Press's prices seem pretty high considering the services that are on offer: it charges anything from $399 to $1099 for the basic package, then offers various optional extras like copyediting, polishing the back cover copy, copyright registration and marketing for further cost--all things that mainstream publishers do as a matter of course, while simultaneously paying their authors money upfront. I was particularly interested in noticing that for a further fee, Outskirts will enter books to certain literary prizes, or represent those books at book fairs--something that mainstream publishers do for free (I wonder, though, what form that book fair representation takes, and if any sales whatsoever have ever resulted from it).

I'd advise anyone considering using Outskirts Press's services to compare them carefully with POD services, such as Lulu and Lightning Source, because I can't see that it offers anything to the author that the author can't do for themselves: and to read through the following link, which takes you to Absolute Write, before proceeding.

TOM VOWLER said...

Interesting points, Karl, but Radiohead had 15 years and millions of album sales behind them; their album would have sold in droves if it'd been recorded on a piece of toast. A new writer is unknown. Certainly, some attain a level of success from self-publishing - with extraordinary marketing and a large slice of luck - but I wonder what proportion of all those who pay someone to produce their book do make a profit / comfortable living without, as Jane says, the abundant access to High Street chains. It just makes me a little cross when, after ten or so rejection letters, a writer is seduced by the eroneous conceit that it's impossible to get published unless you're famous for something else, or are sleeping with a publisher. They seem to find comfort in this, and regard paying thousands (5 in my friend's case) as 'the only way these days'.

Before I had an agent, I collected about 40 rejections - mostly standard, short paragraphs. But one took the time to make a few salient points, countering the idea that publication is impossible.

1) The overwhelming majority (over 95%) of submissions are so hopelessly bad, they shouldn't be included in statistics (ie they receive 200 MSS a week, and take on 2 writers a year).

2) In 2005 130,000 new titles were published.

3) That there is a vast amount of undiscovered talent out there is a delusion. If you have genuine ability, perist; the odds are less fearsome than they first appear.

Anonymous said...

Just out of interest - how on earth does one get an Arts Council grant to write a novel, Tom? Where do I apply???

TOM VOWLER said...

Erm...I won't use Jane's wonderful blog re Arts Council grants, Nicky. They're tough, but possible, to get. Will do an article on mine soon.

Jane Smith said...

Tom, I was wondering the same myself, so do make sure ot let us know here once you've blogged about it--I bet you'll have a lot of interest in that one.

Anonymous said...

"if it has the name of the service-provider as the imprint you are definitely vanity-published."

Not necessarily. I think that if one self-publishes via lulu or iUniverse, then the name of the provider is the imprint.

Jane Smith said...

Kate, there's a big difference between Lulu and iUniverse.

If you publish through Lulu but choose not to have an ISBN then there's no imprint mentioned (I know--I've done it); if you do go for an ISBN, you can choose to have your imprint or Lulu's listed. Lulu is a POD provider and one of the most straightforward to use, although there are others, obviously, like Lightning Source. It makes no upfront charges, apart from the cost of the ISBN; and when you buy your books you only pay for the cost of printing and a small premium so Lulu can make its profit. There are other packages which it offers, which veer towards the vanity, but I'm not clued up on the details of those. Anyone?

iUniverse, on the other hand, is a vanity press. There's no question about it. You can see its charges here:

Using iUniverse is NOT self-publishing, it's vanity publishing. Despite what it might tell you.

Anonymous said...

Good point - I hadn't actually looked at them in detail. I think I am getting increasingly confused these days about exactly where the line is between self- and vanity-publishing! And if I am getting confused, what chance has someone new to the book trade got. At what point is paying a company to help you publish vanity rather than self-publishing? Are there are any good self-publishing companies out there? I hear good things from people about Lulu, but that's about it.

Jane Smith said...

Kate, that confusion was the point of my post: it's a minefield. As I wrote before, the lines are blurred: but the name of the imprint is a good guide. And while paying for help can be fine, there's little point in paying for help from people who don't know what they're talking about--which is often the case with vanities, and with editorial agencies and the like.

The way to avoid it is to write a book that's good enough for mainstream publication--then it's all done for you, and for free: but as we both know, that's easier said than done.