What’s the difference between vanity publishing and self-publishing?

Dear Cecil:

Why is it that a young, struggling writer can pay to have his or her work printed — and it's called "vanity" publishing. But a young film grad can write, produce, direct and star in his or her own movie and it's called "independent film making"? Where, in art, do we cross the line from independent to vain?

Cecil replies:

No question, sometimes it’s a pretty fine line. I’d define it this way. To put it strictly in print terms, self-publishing, the equivalent of independent film making, is what you do when you can’t find a regular publisher but nonetheless have some reasonable expectation of being able to sell what you wrote. Vanity publishing is when you’ve abandoned all hope.

Vanity publishers — they’re the ones who run those ads saying AUTHORS WANTED — will take a manuscript and, for a stiff fee, turn it into a book. You wind up with a garage full of printed copies but that’s about it — promotion of vanity books is usually minimal. Vanity publishing tends to attract people with delusions of grandeur who just want to see their prose in print. (To be fair, vanity presses also print a lot of family histories and such where making money is not the object.)

Self-publishing, on the other hand … I’m not saying it doesn’t attract its share of deluded souls. But by its nature it requires you to have a little more on the ball. The author of a self-published book typically not only writes the thing but also arranges for its design, printing, marketing, and distribution. Most self-published authors are lucky to break even, but a few hit it big. Some books that were initially self-published: The Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer. Self-published in 1931 (Rombauer had a firm produce the books but she did all the promotion), it was picked up by a trade publisher and has sold more than 15 million copies to date. What Color is Your Parachute? by Richard Bolles. Sold five million copies. The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield. Initially sold out of his car, it went to Warner for $800,000. The One Minute Manager by Blanchard and Johnson. Sold 20,000 copies before being picked up. Fifty Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth by John Javna. Sold 3.5 million copies. Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun by Wess Roberts. Sold 486,000 copies.

Of course, you need some entrepreneurial hustle even if your book is published conventionally. Many a novice author has figured his work was done once he’d delivered the manuscript, only to have his publisher inform him (usually not in so many words), “What? You expect us to PROMOTE this?” Understandably some writers think, if I’m going to do all the work, I’m going to keep all the cash.

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.

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