Self-Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing: The War of Words

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for traditional publishing: “legacy publishing,” a term that’s intended to convey the uselessness of a ponderous, outdated system that clings blindly to its established rut even in the face of rapid and overwhelming change.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. Yes, a lot of pejorative labels get tossed around, especially during the past few years. But I don’t think authors are the ones primarily responsible for creating or propagating these labels. There is a large and nasty publishing war on. And it’s not being conducted primarily by authors. It’s being conducted by numerous, mostly large businesses and organizations who see new technology—especially e-books, print-on-demand books, and the Internet—as a way to grab a much larger slice of the publishing pie than they had already. Larger publishers see e-books and POD as a way to gain publication rights in perpetuity and in some cases, to claim rights that already revered to authors under older contracts. The old vanity publishers see a way to rehabilitate their tattered reputations and gain new customers. The new e-book vanity publishers see a way to lure authors who previously published with the old print publishers or the old vanity publishers. (I’d include Smashwords and Amazon/Kindle in this category; they are acting more like publishers than distributors in many ways.) Retailers such as Amazon see a way to expand from mere sales into publishing. Search engines such as Google see a way to muscle into book publishing and sales. Libraries (huge consortiums of them) see a way to save tons of money by cutting e-book deals highly favorable to themselves with whoever they can. Budding licensing/collections agencies see a way to get a share of any money made by publishers and authors who don’t want to bother searching for rights holders. Magazines desperate to sell ads and paid reviews see self-publishers as a large new market.

    And many readers are happily watching the fray and thinking the outcome is sure to be a permanent, drastic lowering of book prices for themselves, at everyone else’s expense.

    But let’s get back to the big businesses. They all have expert PR departments. Those departments carefully crafted the memes and slogans picked up the media discussing publishing issues, and by authors and book readers. For example, if you talk to a representative of a vanity publisher you will hear the memes and slogans Victoria mentioned in her post.

    The really important thing is that authors are the parties most likely to lose the publishing war. *Everyone* wants a piece of the income from authors’ work. While sometimes it is smart for the author to relinquish or spend this income, often it is not. What we really need to worry about is not some author who wrote a competitive novel, but numerous big businesses working in their own, often opposed interests.

  2. I've no particular axe to grind here on which route is best but the bulk of the books I buy (both on Kindle and in store) still come through traditional publishing houses. If they're not marketing the author or somehow adding to the process in terms of editing, copyediting, cover design etc then why am I still buying them?

  3. My sister, a history major, has the following take on the vanity publishing label, "Pff anything not peer reviewed is, by definition, vanity publishing."

    The words of a vain academic?

    Donald Kennedy

  4. M3nac3r said…

    I still feel a quality divide. Maybe it's my own prejudice, but when I look at self published books, I can't help but feel terms like inferior quality, fan fiction, and specialized genre. As someone who wants to be known as a serious, literary writer, I don't feel serious draw of ditching big brother.

    If people started calling me serious and literary, I would start to wonder what I was doing wrong. I'm genre all the way, reading and writing.

    My publisher is very small, but I get the money from them, not the other way around.

  5. It's nice to hear a more balanced view on this issue. I cannot believe that writers, who are all supposed to be on the same team, tear each other to shreds like they do.

    I happen to be a self-published author who really wouldn't mind being published traditionally. There is something vindicating about it, I suppose.

  6. I still feel a quality divide. Maybe it's my own prejudice, but when I look at self published books, I can't help but feel terms like inferior quality, fan fiction, and specialized genre. As someone who wants to be known as a serious, literary writer, I don't feel serious draw of ditching big brother.

  7. More voices are speaking out for reasonable discourse, like you. I think, just like the polarized politics in America, the large majority are actually somewhere in the middle. Most authors I know are tired of the rhetoric and bashing.

    The truth is, the future is going to be a mix – most authors will be hybrids, in that some projects will be self-published and some will be traditionally published. Which kind of publishing you use will depend on the project.

    Each type of publishing has pros and cons, and each author will need to decide for themselves what works best for them at that point in their career.

  8. I am going to say something, and I'm not sure what kind of a response I'm going to get. But here goes! I think that publishing based on an author's pre-existing success in the fanfic community is the wave of the future, and that this is where self-publishing will really shine. However, this method is BY FAR the hardest to use. You need many years of work behind you, and you need to have spent staggering amounts of time in both writing and interacting with your fanbase. (Cassie Claire, whom I spoke with at two Harry Potter conferences, is a good example. The Draco Trilogy was far from the only thing she wrote before getting a publishing deal, and she was in the fandom for years. E.L. James too.) And after a snarky article in the Willamette Weekly which involved much fanfic bashing and musing along the lines of "What version of 50 Shades of Grey will we be forced to put up with next?", I threw the paper across the room and said aloud, "Oh no, you didn't! I've been writing NC-17 fanfic for ten years!!!"

    So I'm planning to self-publish and self-promote my 2 books, both inspired by several of my fanfics. The marketing will be based on my fanbase, and I do have a very large one in my fandom. I have over half a million (verified) readers, many thousands of reviews, and a big database of fans who've sent me email. (We love the book! We hate the book! If you don't finish it the way we want, we'll track you down and make you rewrite it!) So I think that some of the publicity and marketing is already built-in, and THAT is when self-publishing makes lots of sense.

  9. I have an acquaintance in my city who had her mystery novel published in hardcover by a traditional publisher. That alone brought her some measure of prestige along with the fact that he won some sort of prize (although the publisher never informed her).
    However, after only a few months the book was pulled. End of story.
    This pretty much ended her hopes of becoming a successful author.
    My books may never become widely read, but they'll probably still be on the Internet a hundred years from now.
    I think the traditional publishers with their proprietary bookoutlets are indeed the vanity publishers, and their vanity is becoming more and more tarnished.

  10. I always interpreted the term 'legacy publishing' as being akin to 'legacy code' (software development term) – what's already there that's going to have to coexist with whatever new code you're developing, which is a pretty apt term, for me. "Traditional" publishing always seemed a bit of a misnomer, as the current business model isn't all that traditional when compared to the lengthy history of literary publication.

    This is the first I've heard of anyone using the legacy term with a sneer. Makes me wonder how much of that sneer is in the reader's mind, rather than the writer's.

  11. I like the term "legacy publishing". It conveys a depth and tradition which is lacking from vanity publishing. :3

  12. Great post, Victoria.

    One thing I've never been able to figure out is the fervency with which certain people attack so-called 'legacy' publishing. Now, they say it's because their championing their fellow authors, yet it often rings a little hollow to me. I'm not sure what they stand to gain by pushing everyone toward self-publishing.

    As I see it, there's plenty of room for both, but for me, I know myself well enough at this time to be pretty sure that self-publishing is not a route I'm comfortable with. But because I've made that choice doesn't mean I'm going to rip anyone for self-pubbing.

  13. Wise words, but I think the reason it is so heated is that for some this is a revolution in the Marxist sense. Some authors stand to gain from the new access and volume e-publishing allows. For others the influx of new authors may feel like a threat and I think this is hard to accept after fighting long and hard to get a trad publishing deal and a seat at the high table so to speak. I was prompted to push the button and self-publish after those on the trad published side of the writer's list I was on actually moved to shut down even discussion of e and self-publishing. I have no cause to regret the decision. Readers have provided the validation that historically could only be achieved through a trad publishing deal. If I'm honest I do think it was a sort of oppression, calculated or not.

  14. When did publishing become black and white eg traditional and self-publishing as the only options? I thought the options for publishing were traditional publishing house, small press, micro-press, vanity press, and self-publishing. I thought there was a difference between vanity publishing and self-publishing in that the services the vanity publisher provided were crap bordering on scam while the services provided by self-publishers were good.

    This is coming from a professor emeritus at CUNY. Sigh. Apparently he got his PhD from the back of a box of Cheerios.

  15. Ha ha ha ha! Irony is probably fourth on my list of all-time favorite things, behind beer and soccer and, well, that other thing.

    Traditional (sorry, "legacy") publishers are the new vanity!

    Commenter said: "I thought that making money from writing involved getting paid by the publisher, not paying the publisher." And other commenter asked, "why pay somebody to publish your book when you can do it yourself?"

    PRECISELY. Why sell your rights to a "legacy" (sorry, "vanity"… going to be difficult to get used to the new terminology) publisher when you could publish yourself and keep all your rights? For a higher royalty rate? And all the other things that people way more famous than I have enumerated ad nauseum?

    I have self-published and have loved the experience. But I still covet a good publishing contract, and I may seek one with a future book. My vanity? Maybe.

    Regardless, I am sincerely tickled by this turnaround of labels. I will be giggling all evening.

  16. I have self-published, and I have published with small presses, and I have published with large commercial houses, and they're all good and well suited for different types of books and different types of authors and different types of readers.

    What I got out of publishing with a large commercial house was the benefit of having their large staff do the basic legwork around marketing, publicity, and distribution. That was of much more value to me than the cachet of the publisher's name.

    Self-publishing has also been great, but boy is it hard work. I applaud everyone who takes that path and puts the extra effort in to market, promote, and distribute their work themselves. Y'all are awesome.

  17. I'm glad to see someone calling for thought, rather than absolutes in this debate.

    I find that the polarization is fed by emotion. Many writers resent the traditional publishing business for the rejection that they've suffered.

    There are also a few people who go out of their way to mislead the writers who know least about the industry as it has been. They often stand to make a lot of money from misunderstandings.

    And last, but not least, there are those who see the exceptions, and get carried away with wishful thinking. Anything which injects a note of reality into those dreams is seen as very threatening indeed.

    Given all of the above, I think it's critical that those of us who've seen the good and the bad of the new models should try to add balance and logic to the debate at every chance we get.

    Thank you again for doing so.

  18. I'm still against vanity publishing for all the reasons I was against it twenty years ago. If anything, the internet/publishing revolution has made vanity publishers *less* useful to writers. If you're not going to go with the traditional model (and I'm not saying people shouldn't), why pay somebody to publish your book when you can do it yourself? There are endless writers forums and websites and blogs explaining how to do it. I don't see what utility vanity publishers give to their clients that isn't already available for free on the internet.

    It seems like people have gotten vanity publishing and self-publishing conflated, and unscrupulous businesses capitalize on the confusion that arises from that to continue to exploit hopeful new writers.

  19. Well said, Victoria! Our company (Acacia Publishing) is a "vanity" press in that authors pay to be published; we use the term "hybrid" because in many other ways we operate more like a traditional publisher. We do not use POD, and we assist authors with marketing and distribution way beyond "you get 25 'free' copies" of some of our competitors. Our authors maintain control of their books and their budgets. Since they typically don't know what they don't know, we provide them with lots of options and information.

  20. I absolutely see self-publishing as a valuable and legitimate tool for working writers, but your last paragraph specifically mentions "new writers", who are the least likely to benefit from self-publishing and the most likely to do it wrong. Those are the people I'm going to continue warning away from it, almost without exception–no matter what self-publishers are calling themselves.

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