Self publishing and vanity publishing are not entirely the same these days… well, not according to everyone. If you listen to your uncle Bob who knows everything about everything and definitely knows everything about books despite never having written one, self publishing and vanity presses are all for “stroking yer delicate damn ego cuz you can’t hack it in the Real World (TM) of publishing!”. Sigh. Really need to stop talking whenever uncle Bob is around….
So let’s break this down a little. A vanity press/publisher takes on small runs of books to publish. They may offer a package deal on 1000-2000 copies that would include cover design, but most vanity publishers have a set price for the run and then they want you to buy editing and cover design and publicity at an extra charge from them. You will pay out of pocket for the books that you’ll eventually receive and then have to work your butt off to contact sellers and hawk your wares because the money you just invested (and it’s not going to be a small amount) is now sitting in your living room/garage as physical copies of the book. There are publishers who do this with digital books as well. Point is: YOU pay, you pay a lot, there’s little to no marketing done by the publisher on your work and sellers are reluctant to stock items printed through these publishers because they’re perceived as “of lesser quality”. The out of pocket costs for a few boxes of books in this case can be in the tens of thousands. The product here is not the book. Vanity presses don’t make money selling books to readers, they make money selling publishing services to authors. This whole practice started in 1959-60 when a few publishers started offering to publish poems in anthologies for a fee from the author. You’d pay to get your poetry included. Vanity presses, the worst ones, continue soliciting would-be authors with letters of flattery and taking out ads that say “XYZ Publisher is looking for books!”. God I hope that’s not an actual publishing house… Y’all, that’s an example, so any similarities to an existing publishing house is purely coincidental!
Self publishing through Amazon/Createspace/Lulu/B&N/Kobo etc. print on demand services is a bit different, as your initial, required, monetary investment is very small. Usually about as much as you’d pay for a single paperback book, sometimes even less, and this goes down to you needing to order a proof copy from them. The marketing platform is already there but there’s still little to no marketing on the service provider’s end and it’s easy to get lost in the crowd so you can and should do marketing yourself. BUT you’re not treated differently by the publisher for not wanting to buy editing or cover design services from them as you might get with a straight up vanity publisher. You also wont have most of your money tied up in stock. Createspace, for example, has options for making your book available through Amazon and B&N as well as their own website. That’s already 3 platforms as opposed to 1 or none. Your book exists in a digital form with the publisher and physical copies are made when orders are received, hence the moniker Print On Demand. They make their money by selling your book as well as selling publishing services to authors.
You can also go “full” indie by simply contacting a printer and dealing with them directly to get your book made. Now that’s hardcore self publishing. You find a good printer and you might get good deals for making book related merch as well since, ya know, they print stuff. Books aren’t their sole bread and butter nor are authors their sole client group.
Ok, so why does uncle Bob and a whole host of other people say all self publishing is vanity publishing? It’s not entirely unjustified conflation, but really depends on how you view the extent of the publishing process and not just how you view the author. First “vanity publishing” as a term clearly states what the person flinging it, and uncle Bob, think of the person who takes that route: you think your writing is too good and pure to be touched by dirty, old strangers and whatever you have to say has to be heard by everyone. DO NOT EDIT MY PRECIOUS BOOK, IT IS PERFECT!
The reality is that a lot of smart self publishers do employ someone to edit their work and take on their suggestions, not just the proofreading. If they have the money to spare. Seriously, a lot of the time when you wonder how such a misjudgment of creativity was ever put on sale, it’s not because the author didn’t want to put their best foot forward in a creative sense, it’s because there were limitations like, say, money. Or experience. Or time and place. Take your pick. They also look for beta readers (people who don’t edit but represent your average potential reader) to give input on the book. That’s an awful lot of trouble to go through for a quick ego wank.
That’s not to say that there aren’t those special snowflakes who take pride in never having shown their work to anyone for a second opinion before unleashing it to the world. But writing and publishing aren’t a matter of agreeable personality. Authors, like plumbers and politicians, come in all shapes and sizes.
Another point is that while there are bunches and bunches of publishing houses in the world, enough that you could safely say that there’s a home for all kinds of material, traditional publishers are there to make a profit from selling books, so they can be reluctant to take chances on unconventional material. There’s that story about some YA author who got rejected 12 times… can’t remember her name now… I’m sure it’ll come back to me at some point. And that other author, well a few of them, who is often cited as having written like, really really badly. Like absolute shite. And yet they got published and got really wealthy from it. Point is, it’s obviously misguided to assume that going through the extensive editing of an “official” publishing house would guarantee a good, high minded book. So at this point, you gotta ask yourself: what exactly, would be wrong in just self-publishing?
Nothing mate, on a conceptual level, not a damn thing. In fact, it might be more apt, when talking about self publishing and vanity publishing (because you CAN reasonably say that all self publishing is vanity publishing in the sense that people want their special story to get out into the world, unlike traditionally published people who do it for altruism. Wait, what?) to instead talk about self publishing and predatory vanity presses like dem eggheads in academia already do. They call those papers who charge budding academics for publishing their articles predatory open access publishers. T
here’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to just make a book and not sit through the very long process of getting published traditionally. People like books. People like stories! If you want to and can afford waiting it out and going through the traditional publishing route to get a home for your books and a nice deal that guarantees you a home for future books, that’s just nifty too. Both routes are equally part of the real publishing world.
Traditional publishing can guarantee you, at least for a certain amount of time, a professional editor, cover design, marketing and distribution. Maybe even a steady paycheck, it really depends on how you play things, how your publisher fairs and how long your book remains in print. That’s a whole lot of good things that you don’t have to worry about and the lump sum of the advance is nice too. The main differences between self publishing and traditional publishing these days, is the amount of creative control you’ll have and how much work you have to put into it to get that money. Because unlike in years gone by, thanks to digital publishing you can actually make a living self publishing, it’s just going to take an exponential amount of work. So uncle Bob with his ego stroking theories can just sit down cuz his ideas of what constitutes a proper job and what’s fiddling with pretty paperweights to give out on Christmas is going the way of the dodo. Self publishing, for profit, is hard work just like working independently in any creative field. To get financially stable (-ish), you can’t really afford much of that vanity.