Self-Publishing vs. Vanity Publishing

But wait, you say. Isn’t self-publishing just vanity publishing?

Not exactly.

Self-Publishing is not Vanity Publishing

Self-publishing is when an author pays for the expenses of having their work published – editing, cover art, formatting, etc. That’s a pretty broad category, and it includes a number of classic works. You see, publishing has always been subject to the whims of a number of gatekeepers – agents, editors, publishers, and bookstore owners, to name a few. Sometimes those gatekeepers hit a homerun – they identify and back a truly worthwhile book by a magnificent author. That’s great!

But sometimes, for whatever reason, a good book (even a great book) doesn’t make it past all those gatekeepers. It’s the wrong time, the agent doesn’t think it’s marketable for some reason, the agent’s list is full, the publisher doesn’t see the potential, the book directly competes with another author’s work that they’re already committed to, or something else. What happens then?

An author can decide to “trunk” the novel, i.e., put it away to deal with later (or never). Or, the author can decide to self-publish.

Vanity publishing is a subset of self-publishing

Vanity publishing means essentially that the author paid a fee to be “published” by a company. In practice, it typically means that the work has undergone minimal to no editing, and/or that the author was taken advantage of by a predatory company. Vanity publishing houses often pursue authors and aspiring authors with promises of great sales, lots of money, the excitement of seeing their name in print, and grandiose visions of awesomeness. They typically do NOT provide the editorial oversight that a traditional publishing house would (although some claim to be selective in what they publish, in practice, if they don’t edit, then they’re not selective), nor do they provide any real assistance in getting an author’s books into bookstores (which often do not accept vanity or self-published books anyway) or any other marketing assistance. They may recommend cover artists or accept the files provided by the author. In short, they publish anything an author submits – for a low low fee of much more than an author should spend!

Vanity publishing is to be avoided. If you are an aspiring author, and you get unsolicited emails/mail/phone calls about your awesome work, chances are it’s from a vanity publisher. A real, traditional publisher will never expect you to pay for anything upfront. They may eat all your profits through excessive royalties, they may give you a lot less marketing help than you expect, but they won’t demand money from you in order to publish your work.

Choosing to vanity publish basically means that A) the author was too naive, too lazy, or too much of a luddite to do the research necessary to avoid being taken for a ride by a predatory “publishing” company, B) the author did not care about the downsides to vanity publishing because he or she just wanted to see their name in print (or some other reason I cannot fathom), or C) the author vanity published before there were decent self-publishing options available.

In contrast, savvy self-publishers realize that they DO need editing, professional cover art, and possibly marketing support. Yet they choose to forgo traditional publication for business reasons. Self-publishing means that the author either did not pursue, or did not find success (defined by the author), through publication with traditional/legacy publishers. Self-publication is an appealing option for authors because A) royalties are higher, B) the author retains much greater creative and artistic freedom, and C) the author has much more control over the marketing of their book. A number of traditionally published authors are now publishing their own work and making more money.

But how is self-publishing different?

It comes down to the attitude of the author/publisher. If you are an author and you are considering self-publishing your work, do your research! Approach your writing as a business, because it is.

That doesn’t mean you have to write for the masses. If you want to pursue purely artistic writing, and want to self-publish just to share your work, that’s fine. If you don’t care about sales, that’s fine too. But if you plan to charge money for your work, you owe it to your readers to give them a product on par with traditionally published works.

What does that mean?


Your work must be edited to a professional standard. Pay an editor. Trade services with a friend who has editing skills of a professional caliber. Get unbiased feedback from people who know what they’re doing. Don’t think that because you’re self-published, readers won’t mind grammar errors and meandering, pointless asides. Besides, your published work is your best advertisement for your next published work. If someone reads your book, and likes it, they might purchase the next one from you. If they don’t enjoy it, that chance to gain a new fan is gone.

Cover Art

The cover should be of professional quality. A number of considerations go into choosing cover art for your book, but suffice it to say that your cover is your book’s first chance to make a good impression. It should represent your book well, give the reader an idea of what to expect between the pages, and should be attractive and legible even in thumbnail format. You can find more information on choosing cover art here.


Making a decent-looking ebook is not difficult, though there is a time investment. You may also choose to hire a “book designer.” To be honest, I’m not sure if the cost is worth it – I’ve always done my own formatting. But I am a detail-oriented perfectionist, and I’m fairly experienced with all those little-known options within Word and Scrivener, so doing my own formatting is practical for me. If you are not as familiar with the programs involved, it may be worth the investment to pay someone to do it for you. I am also not such a prolific author that I have 8 more novels clamoring to be written at any given moment – if you churn out novels at 3 or 4 a year (good ones, mind you!), it may be more cost effective to pay someone to format them so as not to delay your writing. Do your research! Read ebooks and note which ones look good and how they were constructed. Follow established formats.

Formatting a decent-looking print book is more difficult, but still doable if you are reasonably technically competent. Again, you may choose to hire a book designer, or you may choose to do it on your own. If you do it yourself, do your research! Use fonts that are available for commercial use. Pay close attention to books of your genre and note even the tiny details. What font is used? Is there a drop cap at the beginning of each chapter? What about all caps at each chapter or scene break? How are chapter breaks defined? What about scene breaks? Work within the templates provided by your chosen printer.

You are using a print-on-demand printer, aren’t you? If not, you probably should be.


This is entirely up to you. As a self-publisher, no one else is invested in your success. You are the only one who cares whether your book sells.

I’m not a marketing expert. I prefer to write fantasy books, and I choose not to stress about my sales. But I realize I’m fortunate to have that option! There are a great many authors and marketers much more savvy than I am about book marketing. Do your research

My summary of marketing concepts is:

  1. Write good books.
  2. Write more good books.
  3. Connect with your readers. Make it easy for them to find you – social media (Facebook, Twitter, Google+, etc), a website (preferably with a blog, or at least updated periodically), etc.
  4. Spend more time writing than marketing. You won’t have anything to market if you don’t write.
  5. Free advertising. Ideas include blog tours, sending out ARCs (advance review copies) of your work, blog interviews, press releases, KDP Select free promotions, etc. Don’t spend all your time promoting one book. It’s not worth the time. Write more books, then promote once you have a body of work.
  6. Blog if you want to. If you don’t want to, don’t. Don’t let blogging take over all your writing time. Blogging isn’t going to finish your next book. A blog is important, but if you can’t maintain it, it looks bad.
  7. Continue improving your writing. Have something new to offer when readers find you again: a new book, a new short story, a new extra that relates to one of your novels, etc.
  8. Consider paid advertising. Don’t spend all your money on it.
  9. Play with your visibility. For ebooks, try Amazon KDP Select, which requires that you distribute that work exclusively through Amazon, and experiment with giving your work away free. Or don’t. Try Smashwords. Or don’t. Be everywhere, or don’t. Consider alternate methods of visibility – try making an audio book, or a video. Post fan art on Flickr or deviantART (only if you have permission!). If you write short stories, submit them to contests and magazines. Get your name out.
  10. Don’t be a pest! Be a good citizen of the writing community. Lift up others and they’ll lift you up too. Don’t always shout “Buy my book!” – it’s too easy to tune that out. Book marketing isn’t about marketing… it’s about connecting with your readers. Offer value and genuine friendship, and readers will be happy to buy your book because they want to hear what you have to say.
  11. Write more.

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