Vanity Publishing 2.0?

Guest Post by Chuck Litka

(Mark here — Chuck just sent this to me and I think it’s a really good topic to discuss. I’m going to post it now and then come back with a response in my own post in a couple of days. Hopefully.)

They changed their name. They didn’t want to be associated with all those schmucks who believed in their stories enough to pay someone to print them – when no real publisher would. This new breed of authors were an entirely different breed than the old vanity press authors. They called themselves “indie publishers” because ebook self-publishing was different.

And maybe it was. You didn’t have to pay anyone to publish your ebook. You didn’t end up with a thousand copies of it in your garage. And your book was for sale world wide, all without spending a dime. At least you could, a decade ago.

But the times have changed. Fast forward to 2021, and indie publishing – especially if you’ve only gotten into indie publishing in the last couple of years – has become a slightly improved version of vanity publishing. Call it vanity publishing 2.0.

Oh, it’s still possible to publish your book without spending a dime. But it’s not considered “best practice” these days. The experts will tell you that a self-publishing author needs to hire a professional proofreader, and cover artist. They may also suggest that you consider hiring an editor, in addition to the proofreader. And maybe someone to format your ebook, and design the paperback edition as well. Oh, and we can’t forget audio books. You need someone to do that too. You have more choices these days, but indie publishing – the right way – isn’t much cheaper than in the old days of vanity publishing. You need to pay hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, to self-publish your book, the “right” way.

In the old days, you’d end up with boxes of books that you were expected to sell yourself. Today you have Amazon, et al, to sell your book. Except that they won’t. Oh, they’ll put your book in their online store – along with 10 million other books. But adding your book to their virtual shelves is about all they’ll do. It’s unlikely that anyone will ever find your book. Not unless you get out and sell it yourself. Just like in the old days.

They say that you have to “pay to play” in indie publishing these days. You need to spend money to make your book visible to readers. You need to advertise – on Amazon, Facebook, Bookbub, or whatever. The most popular indie publishers are spending thousands, if not tens of thousands of dollars every month to keep their books in front of readers. You’ll need to compete with them. Somehow.

And you’ll need a platform. Certainly a website or blog, plus a presence on Facebook, Twitter, and maybe Youtube. And pay for an email service to handle your mailing list as well.

Confused, overwhelmed, lost? Don’t despair. There are classes and seminars on every aspect of indie publishing, taught by successful indie publishers. Most cost hundreds of dollars. Or you could simply turn to the vanity press – they’re still around – who will take all the hassle out of self-publishing, in excange for thousands of your dollars. But if you want to be successful…You know what they say; pay to play.

Most of all, you need luck. Lots of luck. Luckily, luck’s free.

So, yes, indie publishing today is different from the old days of the vanity press in many ways. But the fundamentals of self-publishing haven’t changed. If you can’t sell your book to a traditional publisher, you’ll need to spend your money to publish it. And the chances of making any real money, or reaching a wide audience, are little better than in the old vanity press days. And, truth be told, the name change fooled no one. Indie publishers are still considered publishers of the last resort – even if they’re raking in a million dollars a year doing it.

It’s never been easy to make money writing. Writing has always been about chasing a dream. A dream that, even if caught, would all too often, end up in a desk drawer. Computers, ebooks, and indie publishing promised not only to make catching that dream easier, but making money in doing so easier as well. They got it half right. It’s far easier to catch that dream and write a book these days. But, if it was ever actually easier to make money in doing so, that time has faded away.

So what? Creative writing is an art. Art doesn’t need to make money to be valued. Books need to be published to be a book And if an author believes in their book enough to open their wallet and publish it themselves, I think that’s money spent in a noble cause. Heck, a lot of people spend money on their passions and hobbies. A lot of people spend a lot of money. Viewed in that light, spending money printing your book is quite normal. So snobbishly dismissing this faith as mere vanity is missing the point. Self publishing today may be vanity press 2.0, but, if you believe in your dream, there’s no vanity in spending your money to bring it to life.


  1. I think self-publishing now is more than just a different version of vanity publishing. It’ quite possible to produce a book whose quality is indistinguishable from a trad-pubbed book, without spending a lot of money. The writer has to figure out what parts of the process they can do themselves and what they have to pay someone else to do. Cover design and audiobooks most likely need professional attention.
    The really hard part is selling. But by all accounts that’s true for many trad-pubbed authors as well. Few writers make a lot of money just from writing, and most of us write for rewards other than money, as you say. And at least we can decide how much we want to spend on our projects, and on what parts of producing our books.

    Liked by 7 people

    1. Chuck Litka says:

      If it is merely improved or different is probably just a matter of where we care to draw a line. We certainly have more, and better choices .But much of that we owe to the existence of the internet and its lability to connect us with other writers, providers of services, and readers. It makes it possible to be part of a community of like minded people from around the world. A big plus.

      What does have a pure “vanity press” vibe is producing paper copies of our books:) I don’t think many of us can justify the effort we put into paper books based on sales. It’s more about having something physical to show for our efforts. And the cool thing is you can do it for little or no cost and only pay for the copies you need.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. I love having printed copies of my books, but not hundreds or thousands of copies going moldy in the garage. At the very least, it’s a way of preserving them from posterity (haha). And they make good Christmas presents (to an extent). You’re right though–even when someone buys a print copy, the royalties aren’t great. But then, self-publishing isn’t all about money. 🙂

        Liked by 3 people

      2. kingmidget says:

        Yes. Some people still like to have the physical object in their hands and I, too, want to be able to have a collection of my books in hard copy. It’s just a nice thing to look at every once in awhile.

        Liked by 2 people

      3. kingmidget says:

        With Amazon’s publishing platform, as well as others, we have the capacity to limit our paper books to essentially print on demand. I’d agree with you if part of indie publishing still involved having to buy boxes of books you hope to sell some day. Somewhere. Anywhere.

        With each of my books, I’ve made them available as both ebook and paperback because I know there are people who will never read an ebook — my parents and brother for example. So, I at least have that option available for readers. And then I order about ten or twenty hard copies for myself, to hand out when I want to.

        It’s possible that with my new book that’s coming out, I’ll order more and try to figure out how to have some local events to sign or whatever. Still not sold on that though.

        Liked by 2 people

    2. acflory says:

      Absolutely agree, Audrey, but you and I and most of the Indies we know have put in the hard yards to learn how to create a quality product for ourselves. The problem is not the product but the marketing. And luck. Chuck Litka is dead right about luck. He’s also right about writing being a vocation. But I’d still strongly warn new Indie authors NOT to spend that money.
      What’s that old saying about fish? Give a man a fish and he eats for one day. Teach him to fish and he’ll eat forever. Or something along those lines. 😀

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Agreed. After writing, rewriting, editing, formatting, and even designing a couple of my own covers, I have a sense of accomplishment from my books. When people buy, read, and review them, that’s the icing on the cake (well, maybe part of the cake too). And I would advise writers starting out with self-publishing not to spend more than they can afford in the hope they’ll recoup it from sales.
        Fish and chips, and cake for dessert! 😀

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Chuck Litka says:

    The only problem with paper is that you can’t update them. I have only a couple copies of each on hand, but I’ve gone through all my older books several times since they were printed correcting typos, so I’d hate to give those books to anyone.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. And there are some of us. Cussed and Cantankerous who looked out upon the published world and said.
    ‘Yeah. I can do that. My way. Because I can, I want to and I will’
    With a rider.
    ‘Nope. Don’t need your help, my money stays in my pocket. The books are on Amazon Kindle and I’m on Word Press (free). That’s it. I’ll just my own odd sort of marketing when I feel like,’
    Maybe. But getting there was so much fun. And I did it!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. kingmidget says:

      That’s bascially been me for the last eight years, trying to break out a bit with my next book.

      Liked by 2 people

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