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by Thomas M. Sipos, managing editor  [June 3, 2012]




[]  Back before Kindle, before print-on-demand even, the public derided self-publishing as vanity publishing. Vanity books were not real books. Vanity authors were not real authors.

To be published -- to be truly published -- required more than having a book in print. It required that an objective third party had invested in printing your book. A commercial publisher believed that your book was entertaining or interesting enough to find favor with the paying public.

Commercial publishers are motivated not by vanity, but by an objective calculation of how much a book is worth on the market. Self-publishers call these people "traditional publishers," as though self-publishing is new and ground-breaking. It's not. Self-publishing is not ground-breaking. And "commercial publisher" better describes non-vanity publishers than the term "traditional publisher."

If your book was printed by a commercial publisher -- an objective third party who risked his own money to publish your book -- then you, the commercially published author, derived prestige and status. The public admired you for overcoming the hurdle of an objective third party.

By contrast, if an author self-published, that meant the book was printed solely because of the author's faith (i.e., his vanity) in the book's merits. And because every mother believes her child to be beautiful and gifted, however ugly and stupid a child may be, the public was rightfully skeptical of self-published books. Which the public called "vanity books."

Vanity were not real books. Vanity books weren't published, they were printed. They sat stacked in cardboard boxes, unsold, in the author's basement or garage.

Interestingly, even self-publishers never denied that vanity books existed -- they only denied that their books were vanity books. They were engaged in "true self-publishing" (or co-op publishing, or subsidy publishing, or independent publishing).

What was the difference between "true self-publishing" and vanity publishing? However you did it, that was true self-publishing. Those who did it differently were vanity publishers.

Why didn't self-publishers just deny there was a thing called "vanity publishing"? Why affirm the validity of the term, even if denying that it applied to oneself?

Because self-publishers craved the prestige and status that came with having a book in print. They saw commercial publishing as an exclusive country club. Self-publishers did not want to open the club to every author. That would remove the prestige of admittance. Rather, every self-publisher wanted to lower the bar just enough to allow them in, while keeping other self-publishers out.

"I'm a true self-publisher, just like my 'traditionally published' colleagues. But you're a vanity author! Keep out!"

Self-publishers offered many bogus distinctions (but no substantive differences) between "true self-publishing" and vanity publishing. I never one that made sense. The only real difference is that in commercial publishing an objective third party invests in your book. In all other forms of self-publishing, there is no third party gatekeeper.



Until the late 1990s, to almost everyone except the self-publishers, all self-publishing was vanity publishing. The only times the public called a book self-published, rather than vanity published, was if a book sold well (e.g., What Color Is Your Parachute, The Christmas Box, The Celestine Prophecy).

Why? Because a bestselling self-published book has been endorsed by an objective third party. Not by a commercial publisher, but by the paying public. Their willingness to pay turns a vanity book into a "real book." Not a book that's merely printed, lying unsold in cardboard boxes, but a book that's been published.

In the late 1990s, print-on-demand (POD) technology and heated up the controversy over what constitutes a "real book" and real publishing. POD made self-publishing quicker, easier, and cheaper. Amazon made distribution easier and less shameful. Self-published books appeared on Amazon, side-by-side with commercially published books. Only discerning and knowledgeable readers detected which books were self-published.

The controversy over what is a "truly published book" heightened not because POD or Amazon changed the nature of books or publishing, but because they inspired more authors to self-publish. More self-publishers meant more authors with a vested interest in explaining why their books were not vanity books.

Authors who previously sneered at print-run vanity presses (e.g. Vantage), now flooded Amazon with their self-published POD titles. They rationalized that Vantage authors were vanity authors, but not them, because print-run publishing cost more than did POD. As one author said, "To me, vanity publishing is if you pay too much."

Ehr, no. The nature of a book's vanity status is not determined by whether you got a "good deal" on the price, but on whether an objective third party endorsed it.

Today, Kindle has again lowered the barrier to self-publishing, and exponentially increased the number of self-publishers. Not only unpublished authors, but commercially published authors are self-publishing on Kindle. Even non-authors. That is to say, it seems that people who had never even considered writing a book are doing so, just so they can self-publish on Kindle.

This unprecedented Katrina-like flood of self-published books again raises the question: What does it mean to be published?

Does appearing on Amazon equal publication? It's just a webpage. With POD and Kindle, until a book is ordered and paid for, no copies are produced. Not on paper. Not as an ebook. Many self-published books don't even sell a dozen copies. If that.

Check their Amazon sales rank. A book with no rank means no sales. Not a single copy.

Most pathetic are the books with no sales rank and a long list of five-star reviews. Since nobody bought a copy, the reviews were obviously written by the author under various false accounts, and whatever friends and relatives he could pressure.

So, no. Appearing on Amazon does not make for a "real book" or "real publication."

And yet, what of self-published books with a paying public? Fifty Shades of Gray is a bestseller. Whatever its artistic merits, or lack thereof, one can't say the book is not really published. On the contrary, it's widely published. Not by a commercial publisher -- and not by the author -- but by the readers who paid Amazon to produce the copies.

And that, I think, in this modern world, is what "real publication" is. It's when a book sells a critical mass of copies -- a threshold amount -- to third party buyers (as opposed to the author's friends and family). Otherwise, if the book is merely listed on Amazon, but hasn't sold up to that threshold amount, then the book is merely "available for publication." It has yet to be published.

What magic "threshold number" constitutes publication -- 500, 100, something else? I don't know. I leave that for others to discuss.


Thomas M. Sipos's self-published Vampire Nation first appeared on as a POD title in December 1999. In 2001, he wrote Self-Publishing: Is It for You? and Marketing Through Amazon. These articles, though dated, provide a window into the early days of modern self-publishing.

Copyright 2012 by

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