Vanity is the New Indie: Weasel Words from Author Solutions

Back around the turn of the century, a certain author mill headquartered in Frederick, Maryland decided it wanted to distance itself from the business model of the then-new print-on-demand self-publishing services–because even though it followed most of the same practices (little editorial gatekeeping, minimal distribution, no marketing, and reliance on digital technology), it didn’t charge an upfront fee, and even paid a miniscule “advance.” So it invented the term “traditional publisher”–intended specifically to denote a publisher that did not require its authors to pay upfront, and thus was not a vanity publisher.

“Traditional publisher” has come into wide usage over the past ten years. This is unfortunate, for it’s a meaningless term. Commercial or trade publishing, in which authors are not required to pay for publication, is neither more nor less traditional than vanity publishing or self-publishing, both of which have been around for just as long. Also, the simple fact that a publisher doesn’t charge an upfront fee may not mean much. Plenty of amateur publishers charge no upfront fees. Plenty of stealth vanities shift their fees to the back end. The fact that a publisher calls itself “traditional” tells you nothing whatever about its business model.

Into the publishing-related euphemism game now comes POD self-publishing juggernaut Author Solutions. In a recent widely-promoted “white paper,” The Next Indie Revolution, it attempts to re-brand itself, and services like it, as “indie book publishers.”

The term “independent book publisher” has a long-established and well-understood meaning: a publisher that is not owned by a larger company. Knopf, for instance, is an imprint of Random House, which is owned by Bertlesmann; although it has an independent identity within the company, it’s part of a conglomerate and thus not an independent publisher (any longer. Like many large-house imprints, it used to be). Macadam/Cage, on the other hand, is not owned by a larger company. It is an independent publisher.

Sensibly, Author Solutions doesn’t try to pretend that it offers independence in that sense. (Author Solutions is, in fact, a conglomerate: starting originally with AuthorHouse, it recently acquired rival services iUniverse, Xlibris, and Trafford, turning these formerly independent companies into “brands” in a process reminiscent of the way that large trade publishing houses have acquired formerly independent publishers and turned them into imprints). Instead, it attempts to attach a new meaning to “independent publisher,” or rather the hipper “indie publisher”: not a publisher independent of larger corporate control, but a publisher of “independent” writers. Invoking the example of indie films and indie music, in which artists bypassed big studios and big music labels to finance the creation of their own works and market them directly to the public, AS announces that “Now it’s publishing’s turn.”

Over the last decade, as new technologies have emerged, the obstacles that once loomed in front of prospective authors have all but vanished. Since the introduction of print-on-demand technology and the Internet bookstore, the process of getting a book to market is following the pattern previously established in film and music. It’s not longer necessary for authors to wait years for someone else to put their book on the market. Now, through indie book publishing companies like AuthorHouse and iUniverse, authors can let the reader decide if their book is any good or not.

This analogy doesn’t hold up, however. Those independent filmmakers and musicians didn’t pay a company to package and market their work, they did it themselves. They’re equivalent to the true self-publishing author, who coordinates the entire publishing process on his or her own–not to writers who buy publishing packages from self-publishing services. If you sign a contract with a self-publishing company, you are not an independent writer, no matter how emphatically the self-pub company says you are.

AS is eager also to establish that these new “indie book publishing companies,” which provide a service that it dubs “supported self-publishing,” are not the same as vanity publishers. Unlike vanity publishers, AS claims, supported self-publishing services make books available through major retail and online channels, offer additional editing and marketing services, and don’t require authors to buy their own books. But this argument doesn’t hold up either. Today’s vanity publishers, most of which have switched to digital technology and use the exact same printers as the self-publishing services, do or don’t do all those things as well.

The irony of all this indie-ing, of course, is that it offers indirect proof of something that AS, and many of its clients, would no doubt hotly deny: like the stigma attached to vanity publishing, the stigma attached to self-publishing is still alive and well. Otherwise, why be so eager to adopt a euphemism?

Having declared that the commercial book trade is in crisis (“According to Nielsen BookScan, fewer than 10 percent of new titles published in the US in 2007 sold more than 1,000 copies in their first year”–a percentage that’s seriously skewed by the fact that it applies to all new titles, including vast numbers of self-published books, for which sales average fewer than 200 copies), and implied that reality for a self-published author isn’t really all that different than for a commercially published author (“[T]today, even if your name is Clancy or Rowling, you will do your own marketing”–a glib claim that ignores the fact that post-publication promotion is not the same as pre-publication marketing), AS draws to a grand conclusion, envisioning a brave new world in which all is vanity:

There’s no argument that the independent publishing model is changing the book-publishing industry; the only question left is how soon it will become the standard, and how quickly traditional publishing houses will adapt to this model to remain profitable and continue to discover new talent. That’s the next chapter.

So all you would-be “traditional” authors, start saving, because that book your agent just submitted to Doubleday? Next year, you just might have to pay to publish it.

Sadly, I’m not entirely joking. See this post from Jane Smith’s How Publishing Really Works blog on what may be a new trend: commercial publishers making referrals to self-publishing services, or establishing their own pay-to-publish divisions.


  1. Betty R Anderson. If I had any doubts about writing and getting published, you all have opened up a new world for me. I have got to find myself, for you all took me to the top of the mountain, and pushed me over. Thanks. I have had three books published, but my biggest problem was marketing. I spent so much money getting those books edited, illustrated and marketed. One was through iUniverse, and the last two, were published through Author House. Many are telling me to go through Create Space. Really, I don't know where to go. I guess I will think about what Frank Panetta said," See the landscape from both sides."

  2. Very interesting comments here about Vanity press/Indie publishers – v – traditional and everything in between.
    I have been plagued by a Vanity Press (Xlibris) who just want to get into my credit card and leave me penniless.
    I am a writer at heart, an artist and an editor. I was forced to become a publisher because of a a need to be published. (Why leave my MSS in a drawer to become fodder for cockroaches).
    Is the secret to being published to become a 'Traditional Publisher' (i.e, give others a small royalty). Or as a traditional publisher do I edit, print, market the product myself?
    I feel tired now…

  3. Don't forget, its not only the few that are bad publishing entities on fraud vanity publishing deals that you're using as the focal point of your diatribe BUT is also those that fixate and focus on those companies as a seeming seedy way to deter or spook people off from the pursuit of their dreams/careers. I know this view from both perspectives as I'm a US National Publisher (with nationally released acts that have been awarded at #1 status in national FM radio etc) and I started at 14 yrs old as a musician seeking the 'record deal' way back when. I'm a publisher that offers 'vanity publishing' to artists/bands. I charge usually about $50 to $100 for processing and for any work done to allocate placements for their music or lyrics and any help they need in questions on all forms of copyright/trademark, publishing, contracts, development, marketing campaign planning etc. What some refuse to point out when blowtorching the 'vanity publishing' deal is .. If you're an unknown artist/band/musician but you're good at what you do, the reality is unless you're connected you're not going to get the top level publishing and record deal. The vanity publishing is possibly going to be your first. It also works better than self-publishing unless you know all the in/outs of the music business/copyright/trademarking/contracts and everything else that goes with your business planning and strategy. Part of our Vanity Publishing deal is included strategic marketing design tailored to your music. Will I get your music to a tv commercial or soundtrack of motion picture movie the next day after you pay $50 ..probably not. Be realistic. The music business in 2012 isnt the same business of 1970's – 80's. The question comes down to "what are you doing with your music right now?" and your answer of what you're doing is going to be a whole world separation of what an experienced Publisher, Booking Agent, Producer, Musician, Songwriter, Recording Engineer, Copyright/Trademark, and Marketing/PR/Promotions guy that has handled rated #1 acts in USA going to suggest you do. For $50 to $100 if you call that a scheme then stay away from my record company and publishing company. America United Records/ Lestat Publishing / ASCAP. I'm also an elected member for 13 years in ASCAP where I don't pay membership fees. See the landscape from both sides.

  4. My publishers pay me a substantial amount up front. This creates a need on their end to promote and distribute the book, to recoup their investment. They pay for top cover art, provide copy-editing and production out of their pocket. They market and promote for their benefit, and when successful, I receive additional monies as royalties.

    I do the important part for me–I create the story.

    I don't have to shill my story. They shill for me.

    Granted, the more I can do, the more sales I get, but I have no obligation or need to, and the publisher is contractually and economically obligated TO ME, not me to them.

    50% of the cover price goes to the bookstore, and this is true regardless of who imprints the spine. The store may choose to sell cheaper, but generally only for titles they know will be successful, not "independent" works. The majority of works cleared through a production company will sell enough to justify investment by all parties. The majority of independents will not. Of the remaining half, production, distribution, warehousing, promotion, publisher and author get paid. This is true whether the publisher is HarperCollins or Joe Writer. At the end of the day, the company with the mechanism in place is more cost effective.

    There are some things for which self-publishing is advantageous. It is not, however, a way to get around any myth of a conspiracy designed to keep new writers out, which is often how it is billed by vanity presses.

    Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, if a story doesn't get published, it's because it's crap.

  5. But do not make the error of thinking that Random House is any different than LULU, they just get paid for functions 2 through 8 in a different manner at a different place in the cycle.

    It's much more than this. Lulu and CreateSpace are good services, but what they provide is not equivalent to what commercial publishers provide. Services like Lulu, for instance, do not provide marketing (#6 on your list), and their distribution (#7 on your list) is wholesale only–which is less than half the full distribution picture. These aren't functions that authors can easily duplicate, either.

    Henry Ford's car could do what the horse and buggy could not. Right now, self-publishing services still cannot do what commercial publishers can.

  6. Karen Syed seems to have said it all, I would like to add a few comments of my own.

    I came to writing and ultimately to publishing after a long career as an entrepreneur. I looked at writingpublishing as a new venture with no preconceived ‘Path’. My process went something like this:

    I parsed the process into 8 high level functions:

    1-Writing the book.
    2-Editing the book
    3-Graphics and layout

    I analyzed my labor/capabilities/cost against ‘buying’ those functions where it was a prudent business decision.

    This all began because I wanted to write a book about a specific ‘Mystery’, it grew into a collection/series and I did not like the deals that providers of the functions (other than writing) were offering.

    Each author has different capabilities and preferences. Some are contented or only capable of doing # 1 and must seek support for 2 through 8, others can do 1 & 2 but must seek support for 3 through 8, etc., etc.

    But do not make the error of thinking that Random House is any different than LULU, they just get paid for functions 2 through 8 in a different manner at a different place in the cycle.

    The difference is that Random House takes the risk which is why the royalty is minimal.

    I have at some point in my career done most, if not all of the 8 except book production so my decision was to take more of the risk:

    I elected to do or manage directly 1, 2 3, & 6 and outsource 4, 5 & 8. Shopping I found that CreateSpace (formerly BookSurge) provided those services at the least risk up front (0 to 50 bucks) and the best product.

    Six months later here is what we have:

    Look For The Hook (my wife’s self help book) and Treachery In Turtle Bay (my mystery) are available on Amazon, On Barnes & Noble internet site, In Barnes & Noble Stores (via IngramLightning Source POD through CreateSpace

    In hundreds of other Book Stores (again via IngramLightning Source POD through CreateSpace)

    In Libraries via Baker & Taylor by way of CreateSpace Direct POD

    In a Global E-Store provided by CreateSpace (where by the way the royalty is higher than any other channel except direct sales)

    And, if you love the book and want a signed copy, it is available directly from the Author Page on the specific book’s internet site, Fulfillment handled by us.

    I have sales every day in either trade paperback or an e format from somewhere in the world. (The market for my mystery is global and CreateSpace provides global distribution)

    Now that having been said, I do not know what label would be applied to our enterprise but we refer to ourselves as independent author/publishers and I really do not care what label MWA would apply because I do not know how they would contribute to my bottom line and therefore they are irrelevant.

    We market and promote 24/7 and as we rollout each new book we get smarter and better at it.

    So when you cut to the chase, it is just the old trust fund babies that have run publishing since 1945 joined by the conglomerates that are protecting their turf (and their pocketbooks) from the disintermediation being brought on at warp speed by technology, that are trying to throw a cat among the pigeons and slow things down. I believe buggy whip manufacturers tried the same tactic when Ford broke the mold.


    G. Hugh Bodell
    Independent author/publisher
    Visit Me at

  7. There are a myriad of POD-based publishers popping up all over. It’s all vanity in my view. Most aren’t specialized nonfiction or anything close. They’re contest losers who start a new independent publishing company. As Victoria said, they are no Macadam/Cage.

    Such as:

  8. Victoria,

    Orwellian word games are always scary. Unfortunately (or not, depending upon perspective), writers have to be, to some degree, businesspeople as well and know what their publisher’s model is to get them out there.

    Still, I hate to see someone picking on the underinformed, and we’re lucky to have people like you and Jane spreading word.

  9. I think the main distinction between self-publishing and vanity publishing is that self-publishing isn’t predatory.

    Self-published writers may be self-deceiving, but they are not trying to take advantage of anyone else’s ambitions or desires. By contrast, vanity presses too often take advantage of people’s dreams to extort money from them. That’s why ethical vanity presses are an almost mythical creature; if they were being truthful, then the only honest assessment they could give most customers is that their books would not be accepted by any publisher, and have no chance of selling. But to be that honest would mean no business for them.

  10. It doesn’t just produce physical copies of books, it selects, prepares, markets, and distributes them through the channels of the book trade.See, that’s the difference in semantics between indie media, which is a focus on DIY, and independent publishing, which is a publisher not owned by a larger publisher or part of a conglomerate.

    The line does eventually get a blurred, when you have things like independent imprints and larger independent publishers (like SubPop in the music world).

    However, from a music and film standpoint, “indie” means that the artist takes on all of the risk, and merely offloads the physical production of the media to a third party. The modern digital advances had even freed many musicians (and some film makers) from the need to invest in third party.

  11. Lehcarjt said,

    Where is the line between Vanity and Self-Pubbed? Is the good stuff self-pubbed and the rest vanity?I agree with Jane–the line has nothing to do with quality, it’s strictly to do with control. If you don’t own your ISBN number, you’re not really self-publishing.

    Digital technology and the rise of the POD self-pub services have really blurred the lines and definitions, though. While the POD self-pub services aren’t truly self-publishing, they’re equally dissimilar to the pre-digital vanity publishers, where you paid a company to print X number of books that were shipped to you and which you then kept in your basement or garage.

    Bradley Robb said,

    In this instance, companies which merely facilitate the printing of books would meet some of the qualifications of an indie publisher.I don’t agree. A publisher is more than just a facilitator of printing. It doesn’t just produce physical copies of books, it selects, prepares, markets, and distributes them through the channels of the book trade. This is another reason why companies like AuthorHouse don’t qualify as “indie publishers:” they are not publishers at all, they are publishing services.

  12. Victoria, I seem to have used the word produce in a vague manner. As I meant it in my previous statement, I didn’t mean to reference any production of actual music, rather producing the physical medium which carries that music. Film, similarly, would be those who physically created the DVD, VHS, or transferred films into reels which could be played in theatres.

    In this instance, companies which merely facilitate the printing of books would meet some of the qualifications of an indie publisher.

    I’m still working on my post about this, but suffice it to say, there are a lot of semantic similarities which set the worlds of indie and independent apart.

  13. I got offered a free proof copy from CreateSpace if I submitted by I think April. I had originally thought to go ahead and self-publish, but then all at once there seemed to warnings everywhere against self pub, so I let that coupon expire and I’ll just go the “traditional” route. Given one of my novels is ever finished editing-wise.

  14. Self-publishing can be an excellent way of publishing–but only for some books, and some authors; and vanity publishers often masquerade as self-publishing companies in order to take advantage of the growing interest in this route, and to avoid the criticisms of what they do.

    It can be difficult to distinguish between vanity publishing and self-publishing, but there are ways that it can be done which I’ve discussed on my blog (apologies for the self-promotion, Victoria). It comes down to control: who controls the ISBN, the sales, the print-runs, etc.? If it’s the author then you’re probably looking at self-publishing; if it’s the publisher, then you’re almost certainly looking at a vanity press.

  15. Where is the line between Vanity and Self-Pubbed? Is the good stuff self-pubbed and the rest vanity?

    I get that vanity is supposed to be aimed at self/families/friends, but I have never in my life heard a writer who pubbed their book through a vanity publisher name it as anything but self-pubbed.

    For me, a vanity writer trying to sell their book and a self-pubbed writer trying to sell their book are the same thing. Am I wrong?

  16. Ironically, the most “traditional” form of publishing is the vanity press — that's what the Company of Stationers was (for private, as opposed to government, authors).

  17. Karen, did you actually read my post? Which was about misleading claims made by a particular self-pub conglomerate? In what way does that constitute “dumping” on self-pubbed authors?

    Bradley, I’m not an expert on indie music, but it seems to me that the artists you describe, who hire a company to produce a CD, are analogous to true self-publishing authors, who hire a printer to print and bind their books. Self-publishing companies or vanity publishers are more similar to an outfit like Tate Music Group, which offers vanity music production services. Neither, in my opinion, has any relationship to artistic DIY movements, although they are certainly succeeding in making a profit from the DIY ethos.

  18. Come on! Should it really be about who publishes your or should it be about HOW your book is published. Vanity is one thing, but let’s stop dumping on all self-published authors. There are many self-published authors whose work is excellent. Well-edited, well-printed, and well-sold. They work hard at it and they are paying their dues like everyone else.

    The difference is, they have enough confidence in what they are doing to put their money where their mouths are. I find that courageous. I am not talking about all self-pubbed authors, I am talking about the ones who go out and do the work and make it a quality product.

    By making generalized comments about self-pubbed books, you are doing a disservice to those who deserve praise and kudos.

    Same for Vanity. I have seen some pretty cruddy vanity published books, but I have also seen some that the authors didn’t settle for less and got a dang good product that sells well.

    Generalizing and lumping everyone together does no one any good.

    Why not do the right thing at look at the overall quality of each book individually, like we should be doing with people.

    Just wondering…


  19. Having spent a great deal of time covering the independent film and music industries for various publications (not to mention the culture associated with them), I can say that the claims of the various Author Solutions are only marginally off the mark.

    Independent culture, as it’s known, typically starts with a DIY movement which is geographically focused and deals with content which would typically be ignored by the traditional media industry. The indie movements are typically art above business. One of the typical necessities for any such medium is the ability to replicate said pieces of media in the same means as the traditional media. For music, this means paying companies to produce albums or CDs in the days before the MP3. For movies, this meant procuring film and some sort of distribution deal if a film wanted to be in theatre. Skipping the theatres still means coming up with a finished product which could then be transferred to a playable medium.

    In that regards, the various machinations of the vanity publishing industry are quite similar to the distribution bits of the other genres. However, they are missing the mark on cultural aspects.

    I think you might have stirred up a post on this.

  20. I agree with Jane.

    it would be amazing to see a POD/self publisher actually develop a business model focused on quality enhancement – provide a service to customers by being upfront about their services rather than trying to scam. I wonder what sort of business such a self publisher would get if it followed that sort of model – having a decent reputation and decent services for those who may not have been able to sell their books to publishers

    I assume there would be a niche market there for ‘indie’ writers (i mean indie not euphenism for VP)- such as talented writers that might be writing unmarketable stuff that big publishers don’t want? or is that where independent publishers like canongate come in?

    Off topic: may i say how great your blog is! i was on a forum and a writer was talking about whether she needed a LAgent cause she couldn’t afford (she’s a teen)to PAY UPFRONT for their services. I told her to head over here and have a read. Terrible how they pray on people.

  21. Thanks for linking to me, Victoria!

    I can’t help feeling that if the vanity presses were open about what they do, and put their energy into providing authors with honest advice about the realities of the business and supporting them as much as possible they would provide a great service and put an end to a lot of the criticism that they attract.

    It would benefit writers, the mainstream publishing business, AND the vanity presses. And I doubt that it would take any more time than their current system takes: after all, it must involve a lot of effort coming up with all these weasel-worded press releases and websites: they don’t write themselves.

    They might earn themselves a little less money by being honest with their writers about their chance of success. And there’s the rub.

  22. I’ve recently seen a trend on Amazon boards, etc. where authors are calling themselves ‘indies.’ When I look at their books they are all self-pubbed. I can see why the authors would chose to do this as self-pubbed can have such a negative context. Sure makes things confusing though and in the end it is the writing that counts not the title.

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