Vanity, Vanity: Turning The Label Around

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

In the war of words that rages between advocates of self-publishing and proponents of traditional publishing, one of the long-standing weapons is the term "vanity publishing." It's often leveled, dismissively and contemptuously, at self-published authors, especially if they've paid for one of the POD-centric self-publishing services such as those provided by Author Solutions.

Understandably, self-published authors resent this. Some have come up with their own equally contemptuous epithet for traditional publishing: "legacy publishing," a term that's intended to convey the uselessness of a ponderous, outdated system that clings blindly to its established rut even in the face of rapid and overwhelming change.

But now, it appears, some self-published authors and self-publishing advocates are taking possession of the term "vanity publishing"--one of the best revenges when you're called a nasty name--and turning it around. It's really traditional publishing, they say, that's all about authors' oversized egos. Traditional publishing is, in fact, the new vanity publishing.

I became aware of this via a recent article by author and professor Bernard Starr.
Commentators on the current upheaval in publishing have observed that many authors desperately seek a traditional publisher when self-publishing would serve them far better...These writers are willing to forego the benefits of self-publishing for the unshakable belief in the "prestige" of signing on with a "real publisher."
Not only is the ego-driven pursuit of traditional publishing an exercise in vanity, Starr writes, it's also an illusion, for it yields few benefits:
Fact is that authors no longer need a publisher. And more and more writers are awakening to the realization that if you are not a high-profile author who can command large sales, a traditional publisher will do little for you beyond editing and printing your book....

A prominent literary agent recently told me that unless an author receives a hefty advance of $100,000 or more most publishers will do virtually no promotion, leaving it to authors to create and exploit their own platforms via social media and networking connections, workshops and webcasts. So when you go the traditional-publishing route, you may well find yourself self-publishing without the benefits of self-publishing.
If you follow publishing news at all, you're probably familiar with this kind of anti-traditional publishing rhetoric, a mix of myth and selectively-cited truth that reduces publishers to little more than printers in order to paint a propagandistic picture of the shortfalls of traditional publishing.

Starr goes on to mention some iconic self-publishing stories (that on closer examination don't quite support his point): Barry Eisler, who turned down a six-figure advance from a traditional publisher in order to self-publish (but later signed a trade deal for his book, complete with hefty advance, with Amazon Publishing), and Amanda Hocking, one of the new self-publishing's first phenomenons (who lucratively transitioned to traditional publishing and seems to be quite happy with the results). Starr concludes by counseling first-time authors to "seriously consider self-publishing," citing, as one of the advantages of this route...guess what? The possibility of parlaying self-publishing success into a traditional publishing contract.

So, vanity is okay after all? A mixed message, to say the least.

Similar trad-is-the-new-vanity arguments--complete with myths about evil editors and peculiar ideas about why publishers warehouse printed books--can be found here and here.

In my last blog post, I wrote about polarization. This gleeful label-appropriation is yet another example of how polarized the discussion of publishing is becoming. Why does it have to be one thing or another with no possibility of middle ground? Why must traditional publishing be evil and self-publishing awful and never the twain shall meet? Why is it so difficult for commentators--on both sides of the issue--to acknowledge that self-publishing and traditional publishing are not mutually exclusive--that both offer benefits and pitfalls and what's important isn't name-calling and ideology, but making informed choices based on one's own individual books and goals?

The digital revolution that has transformed self-publishing has gone a long way towards eliminating the stigma that has accompanied it for so long. Still, self-publishers remain conscious of the stigma, and understandably resentful of it. Conversely, the growing viability of self-publishing as a choice for both first-time and established authors--and the rhetoric that accompanies this change--has put traditionally published writers on the defensive in a way they've never been before. The result is this destructive, pointless war of words, in which extreme views--all self-published books are crap written by losers, self-publishing is the One True Path For All Writerkind--too frequently stand in for intelligent discussion.

Ask yourself, the next time you're tempted to tempted to aim the term "legacy" at a traditionally published author, or toss the "v" word at an enthusiastic self-publisher, how this kind of polarizing argument is helpful to new writers seeking direction in the contentious, complicated, and confusing world of publishing--far more contentious, complicated, and confusing than it has ever been before. Wouldn't it be better if we could all just talk to each other?

1 comment to Vanity, Vanity: Turning The Label Around

  • Absolutely right! We need to stop playing gotcha games and trying to one-up one another, instead helping each other find the best way for each individual to publish to the readership he or she wants to reach. (Though the hierarchy thing is deeply human, so I’ll bet oral storytellers around ancient fires used to snipe at one another much the same way. “All Stalks-Deer can tell are deer-stalking stories, and he can’t even rhyme!” “All Chief Wannabee can tell are how-I-was-robbed stories and he thinks rhyming makes up for boring plots!”)

    As a traditionally published writer (who doesn’t do it for the prestige, but the money, by the way…it’s not my ego, but my bank balance that’s involved in the choice) I see the big advantage of traditional publishing as $$ and the time it saves me–leaving me time to write while someone else does some of the donkey work.

    But there’s always been good work coming out of other streams–the v-word presses were simply scams on writers, but there were other small, independent, and even cooperative presses that weren’t scams. Now, with the ability to do-it-yourself (if you have the skills and want to) writers have more choices. The day I can make twice as much by self-publishing–and still have time to write at the rate I enjoy and do the other things I now do in my (not abundant) spare time, I will probably do that too. (Am considering it for short fiction related to my various book series.)

    Polarization is a fact on the internet, but it’s not one of the good things about it. We all have egos. We all have some level of vanity. We all want more from writing than we get by just doing it, or we wouldn’t consider publishing at all. Writers still have little clout legally (as witness recent court cases and decisions that treat publishers and distributors and libraries as the only folks with skin in the game) and we never will as long as we waste time sniping at each other and publishing models.

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