Is Self-Publishing Still a ‘Vanity Press’?

A Short Look at the Future of Self-Publishing

Amid the growing whirlwind of the self-publishing world, it is easy to see why some aspiring writers think that they will be lifted off the ground of obscurity, only to land in the Technicolour world of Oz (or Authordom, if you will).  The commotion around ebook publishing through sites such as Amazon and Smashwords is creating a new breed of people – those who don’t sneer at the concept of publishing your work yourself.  These websites have taken away the snobbery and elitism that come with traditional publishing and replaced it with freedom, excitement, and above all: hope.  Is it all a little misplaced though?

A Bibliographical Narcissus 

A printing press in Kabul, Afghanistan
A printing press in Kabul, Afghanistan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The old view is simple.  Your book is bad.  That’s why is hasn’t been accepted by a traditional publisher.  Self-publishing is for those people with more money than sense – those who are vain enough to pay big bucks to see their name in print.   At the very most, you’ll sell a handful of copies: one for you, one for your mum, one for the guy you talked into designing your cover, and perhaps one for the work colleague that you harangued into buying it.  It may come across as snobbery and elitism (it may even have been that), but that’s the way it was.  In fact, many major literary prize-givers still stipulate that books should be traditionally published.  The Man Booker Prize is just one, specifying that nominated books “must not be self-published” (Man Booker Prize FAQ).

The eBook Generation: Taking Back the Power

That attitude, though, is rapidly becoming a thing of the past.  With the advent of ebook publishing, it seems that everyone can get their voice heard.  Those authors that have had manuscripts languishing in drawers and cupboards (or on dusty, old C drives) now finally have their time to shine.  They can stick two fingers up at the publishing giants who scoffed at them and they can show the world just how fantastic they are.  But is it going to be the same old story?  Are the books self-published on the likes of Kindle and Kobo the left-overs that the big publishing houses didn’t want?  It seems not.

English: A Picture of a eBook Español: Foto de...
English: A Picture of a eBook Español: Foto de eBook Беларуская: Фотаздымак электроннай кнігі Русский: Фотография электронной книги (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

eBook sales accounted for £3.34 billion in revenue in the UK last year (BBC news, 2013).  In fact, in August 2012, the Guardian reported that for every 100 physical hard- or paperback books that were sold on Amazon, they sold 114 ebooks (Shiv Malik, 2012).  That’s excluding the many ebooks that are free to download.  That’s a massive 14%.  So ebooks are definitely bringing home the dough.  But are they any good for the writers?

The Beacons of Fame and Delight

Today, self-published books are making their way into the best-seller lists.  The sensation is even stretching its way to established authors, like Stephen King and David Mamet, and the Folio Society Award is the first literary prize to open itself to self-published work (Dan Holloway, 2013).  Undeniably, there are success stories and some people make a living, if not riches, through self-publishing.  However, the most notable successes are still those who are eventually picked up by traditional publishing houses.  E.L. James of Fifty Shades fame is an unforgettable example; growing from seedy fan-fiction, to print-on-demand self-publishing, to becoming the biggest selling book of all time (Anita Singh, 2012).  A more recent example is Beth Reekles, the 17 year old girl who uploaded her book Kissing Booth chapter by chapter, unsure of how it would be received.  She now has a three book contract with Random House and the possibility of a film-deal too (Helen Rumbelow, 2013).  They are not the only ones either.  The world of self-publishing then has gone from something laughable to something glittering in fame, fortune, and wonderment.  Or has it?

It’s Not All Sunshine and Lollipops

As an aspiring author, the truth about self-publishing can be hard to hear.  We all like to dream of the dizzy heights of book launches and signings, tours, and seeing our name in lights…er…print.  But the truth of the matter is that success stories such as James’ and Reekles’ are few and far between.  If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be such big stories.  In fact, in 2012, the Guardian reported that half of all self-published authors earned less than $500 a year (Alison Flood, 2012).  At least the manuscript isn’t languishing, but it’s not quite time to buy a new outfit for your press interview.

After reading articles like the John Winters one, in which he describes his self-publishing failure (John Winters, 2013), the dark side starts to show itself.  The thing is, it’s not as easy as it looks.  To be a successful self-publisher, you need to be more than just a fantastic writer.  You need to have talents in editing, marketing, sales, and more before your book will even begin to make you any money.  And if you don’t have these talents, you need to pay someone to do those things for you, which is an outlay that most can’t afford.  After all, that is why traditional publishing houses are so picky – they are the ones who have to invest in your work.  It’s a financial gamble.  Are you prepared to take it?

Shovel (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Perhaps self-publishing isn’t about vanity anymore.  Perhaps ebooks are the future.  Reputable authors and some fantastic aspiring writers are increasingly publishing their work through online platforms, success stories are becoming more and more regular, and self-published work is becoming more main-stream.  But because it is now easier to get your work published, it is also significantly more difficult to gain any measure of success.  The flurrying sea of competition is huge and the work that the author has to put into their book has exponentially increased.  The one thing to remember if you are an aspiring author is that if success with traditional publishing seems hard, success with self-publishing is going to be a damn sight harder.


Alison Flood, May 2012.  Stop the Press: half of self-published authors earn less than $500 [online] available at [accessed 27th May 2013]

Anita Singh, August 2012.  50 Shade of Grey is best-selling book of all time [online] available at [accessed 27th May 2013]

BBC News, May 2013.  Self-Publishing ‘Wonderful Phenomenon’ [online] available at [accessed 27th May 2013]

Dan Holloway, May 2013.  Folio Prize: a level playing field for self-published authors [online] available at [accessed 27th May 2013]

Helen Rumbelow, January 2013.  At 17, Beth Reekles has a three-book deal.  How?  [online] available at [accessed 27th May 2013]

John Winters, April 2013.  I’m a self-publishing failure [online] available at [accessed 27th May 2013]

Man Booker Prize.  FAQs [online] available at [accessed 27th May 2013]

Shiv Malik, August 2012.  Kindle ebook sales have overtaken Amazon print sales, says book seller [online] available at [accessed 27th May 2013]

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