Recent conversations about vanity publishing, e-publishing, and self-publishing got our heads spinning as we tried to advocate for self-publishing, only to find our points dismissed by someone who confused it with vanity publishing. So let’s go back to basics here.

None of us in the ebook sphere can have productive, progressive, and sometimes painful conversation about self-publishing if we don’t define self-publishing in the same way.

      We posted a comment on this blog about our view on the differences between the terms. Here’s the fleshed-out version of our view on self-publishing, vanity publishing, traditional publishing, and e-publishing.

Traditional Publishing

      For many years, this was the only way to be published. Stick with us for this history lesson:

      An author would write a book, polish the manuscript, and then send out query letters to agents. Any interested agents would contact the author for more information and a full manuscript. Then, it became the agent’s responsibility to send the manuscript to publishing houses and work out a deal. The publishing house took care of editing, cover design, and marketing for no money upfront: they took their cut from the sale of each book. The agent wasn’t paid upfront either, but only after the publishing deal went through.

      The process wasn’t totally transparent, and it was up to the individual author to choose a reputable agent who would best represent his interests. In addition, the process could take years and it was hit-or-miss. Some of the best-selling books of our time were repeatedly rejected for publication. It was nothing to do with the quality of the work; rather, the demands of the market, the views of the individual editor, and simple human error all contributed to this imperfect process.


      e-publishing is an umbrella term. It simply refers to things which were published electronically. Sometimes they have a corresponding print version. Sometimes they don’t. The New York Times has an electronic edition available for ereaders and tablets. So does The Onion, Star Trek Magazine, and Cowboys and Indians. JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy has an ebook version, and the Harry Potter ebooks are available through Pottermore.

     e-publishing is not disreputable in and of itself.

However, there is a very low barrier to entry in this marketplace. A major media corporation can spend millions of dollars on a beautiful electronic edition with corresponding app. Or someone sitting at home in front of his computer can blast his poorly written ebook across the internetscape. e-publishing is all of these things. In our eyes, e-publishing isn’t inherently bad, but there’s e-publishing done well and e-publishing that’s not.

Vanity Publishing

      Some will argue that self-publishing your work is vanity publishing. And others will respond that it’s equally as vain to assume that a traditionally published book is automatically better than any self-published book. Instead of talking in circles, let’s lay down a concrete definition of vanity publishing:

      Vanity publishing is when an author takes his completed manuscript, gives it to a vanity publishing house, pays thousands of dollars for editing, cover design, general support, and distribution, has little control over the process, and ends up with a final book or ebook.

      In vanity publishing, there is no transparency. There is astonishingly little accountability when you consider the prices charged by vanity publishers.

      Let’s take a look at They charge about $5,000 for their Laureate Publishing Package. Copy editing is part of that package, but Lulu’s mum on the names and qualifications of their editors. Cover design is also included. However, if you choose Lulu, you’re virtually forced to work with the assigned editor and designer within the limits of Lulu’s policies. You don’t pick your publishing team and you know precious little about them. Besides that, Lulu charges for many services which can be done by the author himself. Formatting, “EPUB conversion, assembly, and submission to retail channels” can be self-taught, and they’re certainly not worth the $699 that Lulu has deemed fair market value.

      Some vanity publishers intentionally mislead authors about their services. These “publishers” promise to get your book in bookstores everywhere, but they don’t mention that there will only be one copy in stores. Or only in the store’s online catalogue and not the store itself.

      The main distinction between vanity publishers and traditional publishers is this:
Traditional publishers make money by selling books. Vanity publishers make money by selling (sometimes unnecessary) services to authors.


      Here’s a secret: self-publishing is publishing done by the author himself. That much should be obvious, but what does it mean in practice?

      In self-publishing, the author takes control of the entire process, from writing to editing to cover design to distribution and marketing. Please note that taking control of editing (or cover design or marketing) does not necessarily mean the author simply does it herself. It means the author decides how to do it and whom to hire.

      The author can pay top dollar for high-quality editing and design. Or she can decide to save money and use less-qualified editors and designers. She can choose to pay the graphic design student next door in cases of PBR. She can decide to do it herself, or she can decide to not do it at all.

      Now, we’re not saying it’s a good idea to go without editing (or offer to pay in beer). The important part is the freedom. The author doesn’t have to stick with a designer she doesn’t like, and she doesn’t have to pay for services she doesn’t need.

      So if traditional publishers make money selling books, and vanity publishers make money by selling services, how do self-published authors make money? Same way as traditional publishers: by selling books. The difference is that a traditional publishing house will eat the initial cost of publishing and recoup it through sales, leaving no burden on the author. In self-publishing, the author has to pay out of pocket for the publishing process and tries to recoup the money through sales. However, the self-published author will make more money per sale of a $9.99 ebook than a traditionally published author would make on an ebook of the same price.
      We’re not going to argue about the best way to publish your book. But please, when we do have those conversations, let’s make sure we understand those terms in the same way.