Considering Self-Publishing? Examine Pros and Cons


". . .the new breed of vanity press has a few fatal flaws."


Many writers frustrated with the state of traditional publishing ask whether they should self-publish with one of the big "vanity" publishing sites now proliferating on the web.

Within the past six months, a major bookseller and publisher invested in a couple of online electronic and print-on-demand vanity publishers, lending a new air of legitimacy to a practice that a few years back would have been considered a sham. As late as 1997, UK publisher, Commonwealth, was legally pressured out of business for a similar fee-based approach to publishing.

True, this is a new millennium, a changing world. But the new breed of vanity press has a few fatal flaws, flaws every aspiring self-published author should assess.

Vanity publishing has been around since the printing press. Now armed with new book- manufacturing technologies, and the glamour of the Net (at a time when traditional publishers are dwindling in number), self-publishers have become both affordable and seductive.

So, what's wrong with investing one's hopes and dreams into vanity publishing? And when does "being published" really mean "being published."

Self-publishing can be a viable option, if the writer understands how to market their work. But many online authors, enticed by the idea of being "published", will be sorely disappointed when their royalty statements arrive.

Before leaping into self-publishing, any serious writer would do well to examine what services such publishers do and don't offer, the level of marketing required on the author's part, one's own expectations for sales, and how self publishing might affect one's long term writing career.

How does vanity publishing impact your credibility?

The going rate to have your book self-published by an online "publisher" today is about $300. This buys you the setup of your book in an electronic library so that it can be printed in quantities as low as a single copy, if someone should order it. The offer also usually includes registration with online booksellers (which you can do yourself if you chose), a few free copies of your own, and possibly a free web page.

While it may thrill you to see your first book displayed among's eight million titles, does this mean people will consider you truly "published?" Or have you paid $300 to "duplicate" your work for family and friends? (Your neighborhood Kinko's might offer a cheaper option).

Perhaps the biggest problem with vanity publishers is that they are known to publish almost anything by anyone, without regard to quality. Most of the book publishing and bookselling world realizes this, and won't take the time to evaluate a self- published work. Even if your book is well-written, it may be perceived as low-quality in the general marketplace, by mere association with a vanity publisher. Busy editors at major houses who once considered self-published books for possible acquisition, will find it more daunting to wade through the new electronic slush piles.

The esteemed Romance Writers of America –for one–refuses to recognize electronically published authors as "published" at all, and other similar organizations are biased against the practice.

"New technologies will radically change the way books are distributed but they will not displace the essential work of editing and publicity, " said former Random House Editor Jason Epstein, in a recent article for the New York Review of Books, which he founded (

"These new technologies will also test the human capacity to distinguish value from a wilderness of choice. . ." said Epstein. "The filter that distinguishes value is a function of human nature, not of particular technologies."

Will the book ever make it to the bookseller's shelf?

Most self-published books will never reach bookstore shelves, despite the claim of one vanity publisher who promises to "feature certain books" in stores. Why? Because booksellers stock what sells, and there's a natural prejudice against selecting a self-published book that may sell two copies, when the store manager can use the same shelf space for a hot author from a major house spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on title promotion.

On the surface, it looks as if many self-published authors will be seen on shelves at major bookstores– until we examine the economic realities.

At a time when booksellers limit shelf exposure for even the biggest publishing houses to a scary three weeks, how many square feet will booksellers grant to self-published authors? Can we expect a subsidy publisher to displace houses such as Simon & Schuster, St. Martin's, Random House–houses that often pay big bucks to display their titles in-store end-caps? (It could happen, but then so can somebody win the lottery).

A self-published book is simply a tough sell, in an overloaded, chaotic marketplace already brimming with titles by major houses.


"Vanity publishing appears to aim more at selling books to the author than selling books for the author."


Who profits from vanity publishing? You or them?

Vanity publishing appears to aim more at selling books to the author than selling books for the author. And for a very good reason.

Some vanity publishers now offer "free" book setup. How can they afford to do so? They make it up on the back end. Take a typical 300-page trade paperback book, retailing at $15.95. The publisher sells the writer copies at 25% off, or about $12 per unit, and pays the printer about $6 for manufacturing. The publisher earns a gross income of roughly $6 per unit from the writer. Why should you care how much the vanity publisher earns?

Compare this to what the same publisher would make selling a book to a bookstore at the typical 50% off. The retail price of about $8, less $6 to manufacture the book leaves a $2 gross-profit.

First, if the marginal cost of book setup is approximately $100, the vanity publisher needs to sell only 17 copies to break even. The rest is pure profit.

If the self-publisher figures they can sell the author just 100 copies of every self-published book they "publish," the numbers stack like this: $6 x 100 =$600 per author. If the self-publisher has 10,000 titles listed on the site at $600 per title, the gross profit is about $6 million, compared to an income of only about $2 million from booksellers on the same quantities.

Little wonder these sites appear so lucrative to large investors.

Also, it would not be surprising if some literary agents, suffering from a lag in the publishing market, steer clients to such sites to earn an under-the-table commission, not from bookseller sales, but from author sales.

The point is, if you expect to sell a lot of self-published books, and make a lot of money, you will probably be disappointed.


"Availability does not equal visibility, and without both, sales will suffer." What will vanity publisher offer in distribution and marketing?


Because one's work is merely listed among the millions of titles on, or on a personal web page, doesn't mean it will sell. Someone must be motivated to buy.

The two keys to successful publishing are marketing and distribution. If either side of the equation is weak, sales simply will not follow.

As Jason Epstein so eloquently said, " Several literary web sites that have so far emerged are in effect vanity presses, willing to publish anything, regardless of quality, provided the author pays. It is highly improbable that from this clutter works of value will emerge."

"There are three key things that will make or break the e-book industry: content, content and content," said rare books developer Hans Hansen in an article, Internet Essentials, The E-book Boom (May, 2000, Publish magazine).

These are the perceptions you must conquer as a self -published author–all the way from the book reviewer to the bookstore manager, and finally to the reader.

We have yet to see a vanity publisher who puts marketing clout behind its individual authors. Even the big houses have trouble doing that. You are on your own. Advertising, book tours, publicity, word-of-mouth public relations, reviews–all the efforts which go into selling a book, and building the career of the next Tom Clancy–are missing from vanity publishing.

Availability does not equal visibility, and without both, sales will suffer.

At a time when good PR firms charge a minimum of $10,000-$25,000 for a three-month media campaign that may not yield a single interview, how will you position your self-published work against heavily- promoted titles from big, established houses?

When we consider that the biggest boys in the business are having a tough time selling books in that "wilderness of choice", self publishing may not do you much harm, but it may not do you much good–unless you do some serious marketing.

So, if you decide to self publish, think "marketing" long before the first copy of your new book ever reaches your hands. How can you get your book to stand out in the new wilderness?" How will you get your book to be perceived as a quality read? How will you convince major houses that your self-published book is worth being acquired?

Not all new electronic publishers are "vanity" houses. Some have a reputation for producing high quality work. So, when you're considering options, look for a publisher who:

sets high standards for quality, that won't sign on everybody operates an aggressive marketing program for its authors gives its authors about the same discount on author copies it gives to booksellers has the real ability to sell your work "up" to a bigger house if your book takes off makes a valiant effort to get your book on bookstore shelves works to get you media coverage and reviews

Without doubt, the world of electronic publishing holds many new opportunities for the author. New ways of publishing, by big, trusted houses and new publishers alike will emerge. So, too, will new and better ways of marketing, as sites such as find innovative strategies to help both unpublished and self-published authors get their titles seen by the media, major publishers, and by the reading public.

Ultimately, it is they who will determine the sites that offer the best books. Chances are, that's where you'll want to be.


–Doris Booth, Editor-in-Chief,

This article may be freely distributed by writers groups, provided full credit is given to the author and the web site,

Note: Many of these remarks were included in a recent keynote speech by Ms. Booth to the 10th Annual Southwest Florida Writers Conference. Here is a partial list of her forthcoming conference appearances:

June 8-10, the Heartland Writers Guild Conference, Coach House Inn, Sikeston, Missouri July 14-15, the Harriette Austin Writers Conference, University of Georgia, Athens, Ga. October 13-14, Trinity Writers Conference, Tarrant County College, Fort Worth, TX October 27-28, 18 th Craft of Writing Conference, University of North Texas, Denton, TX