Vanity, Self, Indie or Trad?

Here’s my take on all the diferent paths to publishing out there for writers.

1. ‘Vanity’ Publishers. You want to publish your book and are willing to pay for the service. It’s that simple. Vanity publishing gets a really bad rap (and only sometimes deserve it). On the positive side, my own parents used a local publisher when they wanted to create copies of their memoirs last year. A distant cousin also used a paid or vanity publisher when she wrote a family history. No one outside the family would want to buy something like that, so it would be fruitless to try to ‘get a deal’ or put it out there on sites like Amazon. As interesting as my parents’ lives have been, I can’t imagine there’s much of a market for their books.

My mum and dad wrote their memoirs! I even got a mention!

The Vanity publishers who give the whole thing a bad name are the ones who try to scam the writer. Let’s face it, all would-be authors want to hear how great their book is, how it will be a number 1 best seller, blah, blah, blah….Like a lot of others with books on Amazon, I get emails from Balboa Press every few months. Once again, there is absolutely nothing wrong with going with a press like Balboa. There is a theory that if you can’t get a book deal then your book isn’t worth publishing but that’s just not true any more. It all hinges on why you wrote your book. If you just want to see your words in print with a neat cover, go vanity. If you want to sell or give away books to promote your brand or yourself as a speaker or other professional, go vanity.

2. Assisted Publishing. This service probably grew as an arm of the small printing houses that have traditional been called Vanity presses, but for an additional fee, they will help you out with editing, cover design, and even illustrations, author photography. Some will even guide you on marketing (which we all know is actually harder than writing the damn book!) It can be wonderful to have someone to guide you and often face-track the bumpy road to becoming a published author, but you have to be educated, aware and honest about the outcome you want.

I know quite a few authors who have opted for this path. One friend didn’t realise that her publisher had paid for a review which is a bit naughty. Her book could have done with a lot of editing so the publisher didn’t really give her value for money at all in my opinion. To this day my friend still refers to herself as a “Number 1 Best Selling author” but can’t work out why she hasn’t made any money from it.

3. Self Publishing. This is the DIY approach to publishing that the disruption of the publishing industry has made possible. What a time to be a writer! You can literally do everything from the comfort of your own home. Lots of people who have been in the industry for years (I listen to a LOT of podcasts!) say this is the best time to be a writer. From blogging apps to the rise of eBooks, we can truly write a novel, design a cover and publish it without leaving home! We can write our blogs on the WordPress app on our smart devices while sitting in the car waiting for the kids to finish school. EL James was publishing fan-fiction on Wattpad before she wrote 50 Shades (btw, not a fan, just using it as an example). There are so many paths to publishing.

Self publising has it’s detractors, of course. Like Vanity and Assisted Publishing, going it alone can have its drawbacks including no-one to tell you that your grammar is awful. Luckily, there are a huge number of people who have blazed the trail and have now created a lucrative and rewarding business guiding others on the path. The successful independent author Joanna Penn (The Creative Penn) is very honest about her ‘journey’ as an author. You can read about her trials and triumphs in her Author 2.0 Blueprint. She had a great start but still wound up with boxes of unsold print books in her garage. She is inspirational and I would recommend her books and courses to anyone wishing to write and/or ‘make it’ as a writer. Her website is full of resources, free and paid.

Which brings me to 4. Independent Publishing. I always thought that Self Publishing and Indie were the same thing, an interchangeable term for DIY publishing. However, I recently heard Joanna Penn use it to describe the next level up from self publishing; A writer who hires expert help in the form of editors, engages a professional book designer, etc etc It makes sense that this would be the next incarnation of the self managed artist or writer. Of course, you need cash flow to pay the people to do the things, so you need a day-job that you use to fund this until you begin to create a flow of income from your writing, or you can view it as a start-up and put aside an amount of money. (Then there’s the difference between being an indie author and being an indie publisher….phew…1106 Design Blog says it all.)

Any Indie author will tell you that among the many joys of being independent, the foremost is owning all your Intellectual Property. You are in control and get to keep all the money! JK Rowling is currently the Indie Publisher of her own audio books and ebooks. I know she made her name using traditional publishing, but I think if she had access to everything we have now, she might have chosen Indie from the outset.

The internet is awash with information for indie authors and publishers. Just search “on being an indie author” and brace yourself!

I’m a fan of writing, of being creative any way you can, so I am not knocking any form of self or paid publishing if this is what you want to do. I think it’s important that we are honest with ourselves as writers about what ‘success’ looks like to us. Is the point of writing (or making art or whatever) to be published? To make the New York Times best seller list? Anyone who has read more than a few of my posts will know that I am constantly at odds with myself over what ‘success’ as a writer looks like for me.

And last but not least 5. Traditional Publishing. Despite the massive disruption to the publishing industry, many new and aspiring authors dream of the publishing ‘deal’ or hooking an agent. (I know I do.) No matter how many known and successful authors tell us how much better it is to be Indie, we still dream of that holy grail. That many authors are still required to do most of the marketing for their books comes as a bit of a shock to most newcomers to modern publishing.

The indie scene in music has been around for a couple of decades, in writing, the last ten years or so. In visual art the advent of platforms like Instagram and Tmblr gave artists direct access to their clients. Most of the gatekeepers are gone, kids! We can play in the garden! Have fun!


  1. Gershon Ben-Avraham

    ​Marcel Proust paid for the publication of the first volume of his massive work “À la recherche du temps perdu” after many publishers rejected the opportunity to publish it. The rest, as the saying goes, is history. A kind of astonishing history.

    1. Christine Betts

      I think there’s a proud history of writers backing themselves but there’s so much shame around self publishing. I can only guess that at least some of that shame has come from the traditional publishers own fear that they will go by the wayside. I was amazed to hear an assisted publisher recently deride vanity publishers. I wanted to point out both a) the positives I’ve listed above and that b) he was basically the same thing. The assisted publishing area I think is the most fraught. People are parting with their money often under the false belief that they are going to make it big. I know a few quite disappointed people unfortunately.

  2. writtencasey

    Dig this topic. Glad you make and share.
    For a ‘fictional’, magical realist, perspective on this topic, I recommend Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum. Changed my assumptions about writing and publishing. Reading the copyright pages of books is also instructive. Cheers.

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