All Is Vanity

I had an idea. I wanted to take my e-novel to the next level and make a print version. My mom always gives cash as birthday gifts, and she is generous. I said “Mom, you’re my publisher.” She said “Oh, I would give you money for both things.” Yes, she is generous to her family, but I said no, it would be my gift to myself just to have that book in a print edition.

My writing pals, Tom, Bob, and Vernie, and I sometimes get into discussions about the difference between self-publishing and vanity presses. It is a fine line, but basically a vanity press will print up a book without edits and send you a thousand copies which no bookstore or library wants and so they stay in boxes in the basement unless you sell them out of your trunk. Vanity press (in these days of self-publishing and indie novelists) is the way of the lazy writer with a lot of cash and not much ambition.

Indie novelists, writers who use their own skills or Create Space or freelancers, are different in that they care about their product and strive to make it the best possible book. They distribute, they market, they network. Such a fine, fine, line. But it makes all the difference. If you have a book that nobody has read except you, and you publish it, chances are nobody else is ever gonna read it. Indie writers embrace craft, critique, cover artists, editors, and other professionals to help polish their work and make the best book possible.

But as I said to my mom “this is just for me” and that’s vanity. One of the definitions of vanity in my Shorter Oxford (isn’t it vain of me to tell you what dictionary I use?) is “desire for admiration.” I think that applies to all people, all the time,  everywhere. Who does not want to be liked? Whatever creative thing we do, if we do it for free, then it’s all vanity and that’s okay. Blogging for ten years is vanity. Teaching is vanity. Calling oneself an artist is vanity. Tweeting is vanity. Publishing any book through any venue is vanity. So too is exhibiting art. Everything is vanity if you think about it. Putting on make up. Combing your hair! Vanity!!

This bit of  a rant has a point, which is the lines in publishing are very blurry right now. If you indie publish a great book that gives joy to others, that is a very different degree of vanity than if you type up your handwritten diary from when you were 16, which you wrote instead of paying attention in English class, and then have it printed at great expense, that’s another level of vanity altogether.

Publishing Shorthand

Indie, self-published, small press published, vanity published, e-published, POD, traditionally published. If you’ve always wanted to write a book, and don’t know where to start because there are so many different ways to do it, this post is for you. Vernie:)

Although many of the above terms are related, each one is a little different, and if you’d like to save time and effort, you should know everything about all of them before you decide what your path to publishing will be. I’ve published five different ways, and worked in the field as a professional reviewer for several years, so I’ve seen the behind-the-scenes stuff, too.

Indie Published

Indie published is a synonym for self-published. I like it. The hip vibe of “indie” nails it for me. You might rather say you are self-published, but they both mean you did the publishing work yourself or, when things got too technical, paid someone to do the hard parts for you. My first book, Your Words, Your Story, was self-published. I started a small press (TCAM Press) used only for my own work, wrote the book, found a reputable printer, paid someone to format the book, paid very little for a cover that used two photos from a friend. I applied for bar code and ISBN, I contacted Library of Congress to register my book, picked up and distributed the books with my husband on a magical snowy day in December of 2007. Below you can see my distribution center, otherwise known as a closet.

xmas 09 001


I teach creative writing and my first published book was written specifically for my students, but it works for any writer, and if you’re not my student, you don’t have to do the homework:) A closet is not an ideal distribution site, but lucky for me, the college bookstore sold the books to my students. More recently, I’ve put the book on Kindle for 99 cents, so when I teach creative writing these days, I bring a box of books to class and hand them out for free. Your Words, Your Story cost me approximately $3000 to print, and I made that money back through sales. But it was not the ideal situation. I still have 3 or 4 boxes of books in my closet and I could use the space.

My next venture in self-publishing was with Scribd. Just checked out Paradise Fields, my chapbook of poems there, and it’s been read by close to a thousand people! Scridb is a free sharing writing site. Meaning, I make no money for it. But I didn’t have to pay money either. I wanted to try this indie avenue, so I did. I’m happy with it, but again, not perfect. For example, no hard copy to give to friends. When one of the poems won an award, I had ten copies printed at Kinkos. For the covers, I used photos from my sons. With their permission, of course.

Publishing on a Digital Platform

I went all in with my third published book, the indie novel Sister Issues. I didn’t want to pay any costs, I wanted to try KDP (Kindle Digital Platform), and most of all, I wanted that novel in the world. There are tons of digital publishers out there, but I chose Kindle because I am on my second Kindle and love them. It wasn’t as easy as I thought to get a book up on Kindle. The cover shot was difficult. Gave it my best effort, but I’m no photographer. Still, I didn’t have big bucks for a picture. This time my daughter-in-law saved me with the perfect pic. I did pay her for the photo. Not much, but something. If a friend or family member allows you to use their photo on your book, I think it’s essential to give them something in return.

Sister Issues as an e-book only, at least right now, because I didn’t have the cash to pay for the POD (Print On Demand) fee Amazon’s Create Space charges, and I was already running into production problems. In the end, I paid someone I trusted $100 to format the book for me so it correctly uploaded to KDP. I do plan to get a print edition published soon. I chose the price point for this book. 99 cents again. Not sure I’d go so low next time. I think $2.99 is fair for a novel-length e-book.


And then, after going it alone with a few hired guns, I finally got an offer from e-publisher Wild Rose Press for my second novel The Paris Notebook. The major difference between my publisher and let’s say Harper Collins, one of the traditional New York publishing houses, is that there are no advances. No money is paid to me up front. I have to earn it through royalties. The other thing is that e-Pubbed books are sold online, not in brick & mortar stores. On the plus side, I worked with an editor who helped me greatly improve the story, WRP chose an awesome cover artist, did the formatting and uploading to online bookstores and their PR people sent copies to many review sites, a few of whom picked up my novel and gave it great reviews:) Also, if your book is 65,000 words, the publisher has a POD option. So my friends without Kindles could finally read one of my novels.

My WRP editor asked me to delete a storyline. It was a great subplot, but she felt, since the novel was a romance, it took away from the main love story. So I extracted that plotline and with a few edits Sarah’s Survival Guide is now available free on my webpage. I paid a trusted designer $100 for the cover image. And I love having that free story up. Whenever a friend asks me to “write more” about the characters in The Paris Notebook, I direct them to my website for a free read of Sarah’s story.

I loved my e-publishing experience with The Wild Rose Press. I got to do what I wanted to do, write the book, and they did everything else. I’ve got another manuscript with them now. Fingers crossed!

Vanity Presses

Vanity presses are often confused with e-publishers. There are all kinds of e-publishers, and the vanity people are in the mix, so you should make sure you use a reputable, established publisher. Check out “Predators and Editors” website for unscrupulous agents, editors, and publishers.

Here’s how you can tell a vanity publisher from a legit e-publisher: they ask for money. Lots of it. I’ve heard $10,000 is not unusual. And they do nothing for your book. No editing, no marketing, no nothing. They slap a cover on it and print it. That’s it. They prey on the uninformed and the (gotta say it) lazy would-be writers who don’t care if the book is poorly edited, who just want to have published a book. Then the books land in their basement where they stay unless the author works full time on marketing their book from the trunk of their car.

So, I paid $3000 for 1000 books. How is that not vanity publishing? First of all, I established myself as a small press. Like Virginia Woolf, Walt Whitman, and countless other intrepid writers. Also, I have two degrees in English and I edited the heck out of that book. I also had trusted beta-readers give it a close read for me. I visited the print shop, saw copies of the books they published, worked with an editor on the typeface, font and paper (you really don’t want white/white pages.) I took in a copy of a book that I admired the look of and the print shop did a similar job for me. Also, I had a distribution plan.

Traditional Publishers

Traditional publishers have been hit hard by the e-book phenomena and aren’t accepting many new writers these days. They rely on their top sellers like Stephen King and Danielle Steel to keep bringing in the bucks, and some are even developing e-pub subsidiaries. If you do find a traditional publisher, their benefits are many: your book in a real store! Up front money for your book. $5000 or more! Maybe some publicity, more reviews in traditional print venues like newspapers and magazines. Here’s the down side: Most traditionally published writers don’t earn out their advance, so that up front money is all they see. Most traditionally published authors need day jobs. And if their books don’t perform well, they may not get a contract on a second book.

So, there you have it, the big messy fun exciting world of publishing today. Hope this post helps you find your way to publication!