Vanity Publishing vs. Self-Publishing: What's Changed?

SONY DSC The term “vanity publishing” can be traced back through the last twenty years or so to the ’90s, when publishing companies started offering publishing services directly to authors. The perception was that these were authors who couldn’t “make it” in traditional publishing and that these companies offered packages and print runs that would make an author look like a published author, but for a price. A large number of these companies offered terrible services, and thus earned the fledgling “self-publishing” industry a terrible reputation. They overcharged for less-than-professional products, and authors who chose these companies were thought of as desperate and unprofessional.

But is vanity publishing still an applicable term for companies operating in today’s robust self-publishing industry? Not really. In order to understand the evolution of the term, it’s important to understand the evolution of traditional publishing in that same time.

Years ago—before, e-readers, and large retail chains—there were fewer books published per year. Fewer books meant less competition for publicity and a more standard discovery process. At that time, a good review in the New York Times Book Review or Publishers Weekly was enough to launch a book onto the bestseller list.

Now, with the availability of publishing and promoting books online and the number of new online marketing channels available to authors, it is both easier than ever to market a book and harder than ever to sell a book. This puts considerable pressure on traditional book publishing companies, whose margins are shrinking just as their competition gains strength. Traditional book publishing (on a large, general scale) has had to become less about publishing good books and more about publishing sell-able books, ones with viral potential or predictable niche audiences (a title like Fifty Shades of Grey never would have found a publisher’s desk in the ’90s, but the internet earned it worldwide fame, and a six-figure advance, today).

When traditional publishing was stable and well-written manuscripts typically found solid publishing homes, self-publishing was mostly unnecessary. Now, it seems, first-rate manuscripts fall through the cracks due to lack of author platform (read: lack of Facebook followers, Twitter followers, trade publications, and blog readers and subscribers) or lack of a “marketable” genre. Self-publishing becomes less a matter of vanity and more a means of rerouting the market.

When traditional publishers struggle for stability, writers lose out. Potential authors struggle to get worthwhile advances or marketing promises; they struggle to find agents. Why shouldn’t they bring their books to market themselves? If they can find companies or individuals offering professional editorial and design services, and honest contracts, why shouldn’t they direct their own success? Self-publishing is no longer a matter of vanity, it’s a matter of independence.

This, of course, is the opinion of this author. What are your thoughts? Is “vanity publishing” still a relevant term?