Vanity or Validation

I always wanted to be a writer, but I also always knew it was a difficult gig to get in on. When I was growing up I knew that you had to send your manuscript to publisher after publisher (agents didn't seem to be big back then) but if no one accepted it, that was it. Your book wasn't good enough and it never saw the light of day. End of.

Of course, there was the Vanity Publishing option. That was for people who were really terrible writers (as evidenced by the fact that no publishers wanted their work) but had lots of money. They could pay several thousand pounds (multiply that by 1.64 to get the dollar equivalent) to have the book printed up for them. They then got boxes and boxes of their very poorly produced book which they stored in their garage, and had to go round local bookshops asking very nicely whether the manager would be so kind as to sell their book in his shop. I suspect many of those 1970's and 80's would-be writers still have boxes and boxes of damp and mouldy books in their garage. 

Vanity presses were looked down on by us would-be serious authors. Pah! I knew that I would never resort to Vanity publishing. Real authors didn't pay to get their books into print, they were paid for the honour of producing and marketing their wonderful words.

Then things changed a little. Print-on-demand technology arrived and Self Publishing appeared in the form of agencies which would do everything for you at a much more affordable rate than the old vanity presses. Some of these were even a little bit respectable. And some of their authors actually made back a small percentage of the money they had spent on publishing their poorly written, badly constructed and error-strewn unedited work.

And then along came ebooks and everything changed. With Kindle Direct Publishing and similar schemes would-be authors could not only publish their books for free, but could actually make decent royalties from them. They could even set up their own publishing companies and have all their books published under a particular imprint. These independent small publishers, Indies, led to the latest incarnation of publishing your own work, Indie Publishing.

Indie authors are proud bunch, Just the word conjures up tie-dye and free-spiritedness, bucking the trend and challenging the status quo. The huge old publishing houses are dinosaurs, they tell us, and their time is over. Readers are now the gatekeepers of quality, not submissions editors. We don't need them any more. What do they do for authors anyway, apart from pay a tiny royalty and set stress-inducing deadlines?

Indie publishers spend a lot of time and effort assuring themselves, and each other, that their work is only self-published because it doesn't fit into any accepted genre, or because agents are over-cautious and make arbitrary and meaningless decisions these days. Their book is wonderful (their mum said so), and they weren't prepared to kowtow to the demands of Bloomsbury or HarperCollins but instead chose to maintain control of their own masterpiece.

I sit somewhere in the middle. I don't have an agent, but I have been published by three traditional publishers (albeit in a small niche market). They edited my books, designed the covers, took the financial gamble, did varying levels of marketing  and paid me varying levels of royalties (mostly varying from tiny to miniscule.)

But you know, a little part of me wonders whether we have come that far from the old days, really. Whether, in fact, these Indie publishers are not prepared for knockbacks, so they bypass that stage altogether. Their own vanity demands that their book be published by any means, but most of them are still insanely jealous when someone they know gets picked up by an agent, or accepted by a publisher. And maybe they have the sneaking suspicion that actually their book isn't that good and that's why they can't persuade anyone to publish it.

I'd still always rather be published by a traditional publisher. For me, it's about validation. If my work is any good, someone should want to pay me for it. What about you? Do you go for Vanity or Validation?

[Next weeks blog: Why my next book will be self-published]


  1. Like you, I still prefer traditional publishing for most works. But I also have a project that I will probably go indie on, because it probably won't be something my publisher wants to take on, nor would it fit well with another publisher. It's great that authors have so many options now! But I'll definitely have the book professionally edited--no way would I dare put a book out there without that professional touch and objective feedback.

  2. My road to traditional publishing actually began with self-publishing. I self-published (POD) my first medieval romance, Loyalty's Web, it became a Whitney Award Finalist, and *then* the traditional publishers became interested in it. I had tried the LDS market for it before and been turned down, but once it got the attention of the Whitneys, that's when things changed. My new publisher did minimal editing on my manuscript before republishing it, and most of that was "adjusting" a few things so that some "little old lady who wanders into Deseret Book wouldn't be offended." (I bend over backwards not to write offensive stuff in the first place, but I guess everyone's "offensive" threshold is different.)

    I do think it's a bit of an overstatement to suggest that all indie authors are "insanely jealous" when another author gets an agent or traditional publisher. If that were the case, then small published authors like us are "insanely jealous" when another author lands an agent or gets a contract with a national publisher. I don't think that's true in every case. I know an indie author who is doing very well (I've read her books, they are very professionally written and edited) who has been offered traditional publishing contacts and turned them down because her career is going just fine as it is. She's not the least bit jealous that other authors take a different route. I personally don't feel consumed with jealousy when an author-friend lands an agent and I haven't. I am happy for them, but given my personal experience with the national market (and yes, I've had them, mostly of the "add some sex scenes and we'll buy it" variety), I'm quite content where I am for the moment, and frankly, have little desire to "make the leap." I don't disagree that "insanely jealous" authors of any stripe (indie, small published, etc) are out there, but I think we should be careful of sweeping statements that imply that *all* authors who choose a different path fall into that category. From my experience, that just isn't so.


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