Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Traditional Publishing Is The New Vanity Publishing

From The Hyperliterature Exchange
"Traditional publishing is the new vanity publishing." If you are the originator of this bon mot, quoted in Passive Guy's comments, come here and claim attribution.

Of course, one thing publishers CAN do is get your book into bookshops, and in a world where the majority of book sales are still print, this has value. I'd love a print deal myself - though an ebook deal, entailing swapping a 70% royalty for 17.5%, would not arouse my enthusiasm.

When writers protest they will settle for nothing less than a traditional publishing contract, a frequent reason they quote is 'validation'. Search for 'validation' on AbsoluteWrite and you'll come up with ten pages of quotes. Just as vanity presses turn your text into a book in your hand (at a cost) so the big publishing conglomerates will allow you to hold your head up and say you are 'properly' published (at a cost).

Authors certainly aren't hankering after a contract for the sake of the money, given the size of most advances. And any lucky trad-published writer who makes a small fortune (earning 8% of the price of her book) has made a big fortune for her publisher.  The writer of a popular book can make more on his own, and faster. I've noticed that new writers with a trad deal are much less likely to bandy figures about than indies.

Does a legacy deal let you off the chore of marketing? No. The majority of books get little or no promotion, unless the author does it himself.

Editing? You might get lucky with a brilliant editor. Or you might get one who wants you to rewrite your novel to fit her ideas, or one who misses nonsenses in the plot. I enjoyed Lee Child's Bad Luck And Trouble, but when the protagonists needed to find out what the sixth track on Jimi Hendrix's second album was called, they walked a long way east on Sunset to a record store and bought the CD. Really? They didn't just google it on their smartphones?

For those whose spectacles are still firmly rose-tinted, you need to read several scary and true stories of writers' experiences of publishing when it all goes wrong in this thread.

EDIT: I believe I have found the identity of the first person to call traditional publishing the new vanity publishing - Scott Nicholson, here, July 6th, 2010.


  1. Mmm, that's pretty grim. I don't earn very much and I don't sell many books but the further I get the less the idea of belonging to a 'proper' publisher appeals.

  2. MTM, you are but a young thing and the world lies before you :o)

    It's the taste of independence and freedom self-publishing gives that makes the old system seem so unappealing. I'd have signed pretty much any sort of contract two years ago.

  3. Very interesting perspective! And definitely a bon mot. Like most bon mots, I think it contains a lot of truth without being strictly true. There are big differences between traditional publishing and vanity publishing. For me, the main benefit of traditional publishing is not so much validation, which suggests a personal, psychological benefit, as credibility, which has very real benefits in the marketplace. There are millions of books out there, and having a name like Penguin or Random House on the cover immediately sets a book apart from the other 99%. It makes it much more likely to get reviewed, to get stocked in bookshops, etc. You are of course quite right that the benefits of traditional publishers are eroded somewhat by ebooks and the ability of self-published writers to use the internet for marketing (and the expectation, rightly stated, that traditionally-published writers do plenty of their own marketing too). So to sum up a slightly long-winded comment: I think the headline goes a little too far, but I think most of the points you made in the article are correct, and thanks for a thought-provoking post!

  4. Andrew, welcome to my blog! 'A lot of truth without being strictly true' - true, that :o)

    I'm not sure readers notice who published a book. Getting into bookshops is the only tangible advantage of a traditional deal, one that will diminish as more bookshops go out of business.

  5. "Validation" is just another word for "I'm insecure--PLEASE like me! I'll give you ANYTHING!!!!"

  6. Ha! I'll settle for validation by reader. And lots of money would be nice :o)