IVP - Behind the Books - Vanity Publishing: Extreme Makeover Edition

October 19, 2007

Vanity Publishing: Extreme Makeover Edition

Vanity publishing. It even sounds a bit sleazy, doesn't it? Paying a "publisher" to print and distribute your work has always had negative connotations in publishing. If a legitimate firm won't produce your book, there must be something wrong with it. Right? Either it is commercially unviable or editorially substandard. It means someone is doing it just to satisfy their vanity.

No more. Vanity publishing has had an extreme makeover.

Earlier I wrote about the need for authors to establish a platform, that is create a place from which they can be seen by the reading public. Publishers now rely on authors to obtain endorsements from well-known people the authors have personal contact with, to have access to snail mail and email lists they can use to publicize the book, to write blogs to keep touch with their readership, to be speaking regularly to groups where their books can be sold, and much more. And even when an author does all that, sometimes a publisher still will not believe that an author has a sufficient platform to justify publication economically. So the book is turned down.

What is left for an author to do? Self-publish. Technology has made self-publishing easier than ever. And if the book succeeds, there is absolute proof to a publisher that the author has a platform. And publishers have realized that. Some publishers even scour the landscape for successful self-published books they can acquire.

If an author is succeeding with self-publishing, why would he or she want to go with an established publisher? Possibly such authors wouldn't. Obviously, they are likely to take in much more per book than just a royalty percentage. And with online sellers like Amazon.com being willing to take on self-published books, authors can reach a wide readership.

But often printing, warehousing, shipping and billing is just too much of a hassle. Authors may still have trouble getting into many traditional outlets such as bookstores. In addition, even with lots of design software out there, the final product may just not look as professional as what an established publisher is capable of.

InterVarsity Press has taken on several books which were previously self-published successfully and made them into even more successful publishing efforts. Discipleship Essentials by Greg Ogden and Short-Term Missions Workbook by Tim Dearborn both had strong histories before they ever came our way and have become stronger sellers since. Other publishers are experiencing the same thing.

Of course successful self-publishing does not automatically turn into successful traditional publishing. Sometimes instead of creating a market, self-publishing can exhaust a market. So some caution is in order. But the days of automatically consigning self-published books to the reject pile are over.

Are you an author having trouble getting a publisher to accept your book for publication? Self-publishing might be your next best bet.

Are you a publisher looking for books you can count on to be successful? Seeking self-published books with a proven track record might be the right thing for you.

Posted by Andy Le Peau at October 19, 2007 9:47 AM Bookmark and Share


"But often printing, warehousing, shipping and billing is just too much of a hassle."

Fortunately, this aspect isn't as big an issue now with self-publishers who utilize POD technology, unless they prefer direct sales.

Comment by: Chad at October 19, 2007 10:47 AM

This is true. Of course with or without print-on-demand technology, a vanity (or self-) publishing service will handle many logistics for an author. But whether authors utilize a publishing service or get a thousand copies printed at the local print shop that they sell out of their garage, self-published authors often find themselves handling a lot more sales and other logistics than they would with a traditional publisher.

Comment by: Andy at October 19, 2007 12:09 PM

I manage a church bookstore and am frequently asked to carry self-published books. My policy is to only take them if they are written by a member of the congregation, thus assuring some built-in market for the book. But I still have to deal with all the authors, who usually claim that "God told me to write this book." And then I look through the book, and can't help thinking that someone should clue God in on the value of a good editor. More often than not, the books look amateurish in layout and read like they were written by a middle schooler. The text tends toward the self-indulgent and cheesy, and the overall quality suffers from the author's emotional investment and lack of objectivity, things that would be counteracted by a good editor bringing an objective eye to the project.

Of course, I admit that sometimes I think the same thing about books that come from publishers!

Comment by: Joyce Burner at October 19, 2007 12:25 PM

It does seem like the stigma against vanity press titles is gone. Just last week, I asked three of our acquiring editors at Thomas Nelson if self publishing was a mark against a book proposal. All three said without hesitation that it did not figure into their decision making process. As a matter of fact, just as you were saying, Andy, self publication may very well be the new proving ground for first-time authors. If an author can show some numbers on a self published title, then that will help them when they approach an established house. I seem to remember that Critical Mass had a post about the self publishing efforts of now lauded authors a few weeks ago.

Now in terms of POD, everything I'm reading says that the quality of POD isn't quite there. It is, of course, only a matter of time. Barnes & Noble is already building superstores that feature the latest machines. But does POD solve anything in the long run? As with the acquisition editors I spoke to: the pitch is the thing. If the premise is good enough, a buyer will get it from Amazon or from LuLu or iUniverse (is it still called iUniverse?) just as easily as they will go into a store and print it.

One thing that hasn't been mentioned is the legal burden of rights and permissions. Even if self publishers can distribute product as easily and widely as professional houses, are they prepared to shoulder the legal responsibilities?

Comment by: Thom at October 23, 2007 12:06 PM

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