You’re so vain: debunking the self-publishing stigma

Justin Bieber. When a talent scout discovered his homemade videos on YouTube, no one thought, “you’re so vain.” In fact, if imitation is the finest form of flattery, then wanna-be musicians, who began sharing their singing selfies with the world, actually thought him enterprising.

“Long derided as evidence of a self-obsessed generation prone to oversharing, selfies are now being celebrated as a marketing strategy and creative business card.”(Boettcher) This truth is evident in most facets of the cultural industry – with the exception of book publishing. In much the same “vain” as the Biebs, authors are capitalizing on digital technologies that make self-publishing possible; however, while selfies have become perfectly acceptable forms of self-promotion for most artists, authors cannot seem to rid the stigma of vanity that comes with pushing their own work into the public, particularly if they’re paying for it.

Traditionally, if you worked with a trade publisher (who never asks the author for a contribution) “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,” blogs Orna Ross, founder of The Alliance of Independent Authors. “If you were the one reaching for your wallet, you were vain and deluded…why are writers the only artists who are asked to justify their urge to create?” she asks.

The disgrace associated with vanity publishing, in which authors relinquish creative control of their work, needs to be disassociated from self-publishing, in which they retain it. Self-publishing is “a perfectly respectable way to get your book into the marketplace. In fact, because getting published by mainstream publishers is so tricky, many authors are choosing to self-publish in the first instance by way of a stepping stone,” explains Jo Herbet, a writer for Bloomsbury. It’s simply a shift in the assumption of financial risk from the publisher to the author.

The derogatory association with paying to be published stems from the “cunning vanity publisher who will take your manuscript, take your money and print several (usually poor quality) copies of your book.”(Herbet)“They won’t consult you and they won’t offer any help marketing or distributing the book. They do not have relationships with booksellers, some of whom even refuse to stock the books they produce”. For these reasons, “naive or uninformed authors who had expectations of sales beyond a small circle of friends and family were sometimes faced with a basement or garage full of leftover vanity press books.” (Peterson)

A writer drowning in piles of their unsold book, in which they fell victim to their own hubris and paid to publish? It’s easy to see where the term “vanity publishing” stems from and its distaste. But save from the pride in which artists naturally regard their work, there’s no vanity in true self-publishing, where authors own all their rights and receive 100% of the profit. (Bricker) The writer enlists qualified editing and design resources, and assumes administrative tasks including ISBN, copyright registration, production and printing, as well as distribution and marketing. (Bricker) Fee-based self-publishing services like iUniverse, Penguin’s Book Country, Author Solutions, or Amazon’s CreateSpace (Archbold) do all of this. As authors are expected to do much of the marketing for their books anyhow, (including website development and social media outreach) with traditional publishers “offering little or nothing beyond sending out copies for review and giving the book space in the catalogue,” self-publishing has become an appealing alternative for aspiring authors. (Archbold)

While print on demand technologies like Lulu can rival the high production values of commercial trade publishers, and “e-book technologies have made it easy and inexpensive to upload and widely distribute digital content” (Peterson), critics may question the quality assurance associated with self-publishing, of which there is none. But if the popularity of, say, some less than stellarly written fanfiction is any indication of what “sells”, it’s evidence that selectivity is subjective anyhow, so let the readers decide. That’s what Amanda Hocking fans did.

According to Rick Archbold, a writer and editor for the Literary Review of Canada, there are several good (non-vain) reasons novelists choose to self-publish (of which Hocking is case in point). They are:

  1. Because of repeated rejection
  2. To get the book to market more quickly
  3. To have more control over the process
  4. To receive a larger share of the book’s earnings
  5. To attract the attention of a major publisher

Hocking, a successful self-published and self-promoted author, chose to go the do-it-yourself route when she failed to interest a literary agent or traditional publisher in her manuscript. After the first book in her My Blood Approves series was rejected because publishers deemed the vampire book market to be oversaturated, Hocking, who simply “really liked” her book despite the discouraging opinion of professionals, self-published a Kindle edition on for $0.99. Thereafter she priced subsequent e-books in her series at $2.99, “the amount she said she herself would be willing to pay, and the lowest price point at which she would net 70% of the sale proceeds.” (Peterson) And Hocking’s marketing efforts, mainly an authentic connection to her fan base, whom she kept in contact with on Facebook and her blog, garnered a greater audience than a traditional publisher could, what with launch parties and promotional plans falling out of budget. Within a year, the young adult paranormal romance and urban fantasy novels had sold hundreds of thousands of copies and netted her close to 2 million dollars. “Hocking’s Trylle Trilogy was optioned for film, and the author signed a 2+ million dollar book deal with traditional publisher St. Martin’s Press for a four-book series entitled,”Watersong.” (Peterson)

And same are the stories of New York Times bestselling authors Lisa Genova and E. Lynn Harris. These are examples of writers who believed in their storytelling power when the publisher did not. Their self-publishing feats did not stem from vanity, but rather volition.

Paige Crutcher, indie author and Publishers Weekly columnist, corroborates that the motivator of the self-published author is not a narcissistic, “look at me!” one. “The purpose of writing, for me, has always been to connect with readers, to share what I hope are books of escape and hope, and to grow into a more seasoned and skilled author, so I can better serve my readers. But when my books never reach the hands of those readers, it’s less of a career I’m making and more of a dusty library for no one.” (Crutcher)

And so ignoring the stigma of self-publishing is the path of least resistance, or at least regret. When Crutcher asked bestselling indie author Hugh Howey if there was anything he would have done differently on his self-publishing journey, he said “I would have started younger. Barriers to entry kept me from pursuing writing. Had I known the world would open like this, I would have had 30 works sitting and ready to go. You can’t get these years back. If you like telling stories, get started. Don’t stop.” (Crutcher)

The self-publishing model dates back to the pre-web world, and some of the most influential literary legends, including Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Mark Twain, James Joyce and Jane Austen, at one point or another in their career, self-published their work. (Peterson) So it’s not a new thing or a taboo thing. It’s just a thing that has been exacerbated by the capabilities of digital technology, and conveniently scoffed at by the very entity whose viability it threatens – the traditional publisher. If the literary work contributes positively to society, how it came to exist–whether it was commissioned or paid-to-be-published–is moot.

It’s important that the four letter V-word be disassociated with self-publishing and that it be replaced with a more accurate descriptor, such as DIY or indie, to encourage mainstream recognition of art created outside the mainstream.

Works Cited

Archbold, Rick. “All Is Not Vanity: The rise of literary self-publishing.” Literary Review of Canada. Sep 2012. Web. 25 Mar 2014.

Bricker, Dave. “Self-Publishing & Vanity Publishing: Confuse Them and Pay the Price.” The World’s Greatest Book. Essential Absurdities Press. 4 Feb 2013. Web. 24 Mar 2014.

Crutcher, Paige. “My Self-Publishing Journey: On Becoming an Indie Author.” Publishers Weekly. 24 Mar 2014. Web. 25 Mar 2014.

Herbet, Jo. “Self-publishing vs vanity publishing. Confused?” Writers & Artists: The Inside Guide to the Media. Bloomsbury. Web. 26 Mar 2014.

Independent Book Publishing Professionals Group. “What is Indie Book Publishing?” Web. 26 Mar 2014.

Peterson, Valerie. “Vanity Presses vs Self-Publishing Service — Publishing Your Own Book”. Web. 25 Mar 2014.

Peterson, Valerie. “Self-Publishing Success Story: E-Book Author Amanda Hocking”. Web. 25 Mar 2014

Ross, Orna. “Indie Authors And The Vanity Publishing Question”. The Alliance of Independent Authors. 25 Mar 2013. Web. 25 Mar 2014.