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« Thumbs Race as Japan’s Best Sellers Go Cellular | Main | Innovation Issues »

January 25, 2008


Katharine Weber

You raise all sorts of fascinating points for further discussion and thought this week, Sue. But one important distinction you don't really take up here is that being paid to do work (hosting a radio show, for example, or writing a novel) is pretty much the opposite of paying your own way. It gets very blurry very quickly when we speak of "vanity" publication these days. (Also when we speak of "publication.") Few people are employed as staff bloggers. The tangible reward of money for work doesn't necessarily drive a writer as literally as it might drive a factory worker to put in the hours. But let's not leave money out of the conversation altogether.

Susanne Dunlap

Great essay, Sue, and good point, Katharine. I'm fascinated by the fine line between believing in oneself and fighting for the right to be heard, and self-delusion. I watched about 15 minutes of the American Idol auditions this week and was astounded at the level of self-delusion displayed by many of the aspiring artists. They argued outright with the opinions of the judges, becoming openly hostile in some cases, when these people truly COULD NOT SING. I think that's the underlying fear about "vanity" publishing: that people with no talent and nothing to say can get their books published if they have enough money.

But, I hasten to add, publishing doesn't equal being read, which all writers--even those with several books under their belts--know in some degree or other.


Sue - I am thrilled for you. And I agree - a huge part of going the traditional route has to do with our need for acceptance not the reality of the situation. Dave Eggers, lest we not forget is self published. Seth Godin is often self pubished. There is not a question in the world that their work is questioned. I believe you totally have hit the nail on the head - the reason so many writers care is "acceptance" readers don't care who published the book as long as its good. This could go on and one.

One little other fact - I'd say at leat 85% of popular bloggers do get paid - there are many staff bloggers now plus blogs get advertising money -so they get paid by advertisers for having readers. In essence the readers provide the capital.

There are blogs that get as much as $50,000 and up a week in ad money.


Thanks, Katharine and Susanne. I had started to write about the money aspect but felt I was complicating, rather than clarifying, the issue, so I decided to think it through further and try to address it in a future post.

The thing is, writers who self-publish and market their books well can make much more money than those who publish with small presses or who are "small fish" at a larger house. Some bloggers make more money than "legitimate" journalists, because they sell ads on their sites based on the number of "hits" they get.

The stories I "sell" to literary journals rarely earn me more than $100 and reimbursement is usually in contributors' copies. Assuming that my blogger friend can draw in lots of readers, she could earn significantly more than that by posting her stories, if that is her goal.

I do understand the concern about self-delusion, but I've also read some well-published books that, frankly, made me wonder what the entire house had been smoking. And again, Van Gogh never sold a painting in his life--his work was too weird to appeal to the contemporary mainstream. Emily Dickinson's poems had to be homogenized before they were considered suitable for publication.

Well, there goes the post I was going to write. Send me some questions, please, so I don't have to leave a huge white space where it would have been.


X-posted with MJ--thanks for the clear examples of the idea I was fumbling to express!

Susan M

Great essay, Dr. Sue. Vanity. Self-selection. Self-delusion. Acceptance. Money. It's a complex mix. But acceptance from two lit mags in the same week? That must be some sort of a world record. Plus the chap book. Congratulations on all that. I'm glad you didn't consider it vain to share your success.

Lyn LeJeune

When I finished the last revision of my thriller set in New Orleans (my hometown), I decided to contact the New Orleans Public Library Foundation and donate all the royalties to that organization to help rebuild the public libraries. I knew how long it would take to get published by a large house or even get an agent, so I went and self-published and started my marketing campaign. I've been on radio and a few paper reviews and have garnered 5 stars on from readers I'd never heard of, and what is wonderful is the emails I've received from readers. Like "I devoured your book." I've sold well and feel that I am paying it forward a bit. I am happy; I think if I were sitting here waiting for the response from an agent or publisher, I would be pretty much down for a while. Now I'm on Book II of my New Orleans Trilogy, the first book is The Beatitudes....We take the path that makes us happy and helps others....that is what a beatitudes is. And yes, I do have a blog.
Lyn LeJeune - The Beatitudes Network-Rebuilding the Public Libraries of New Orleans at merci mille fois to all who have helped New Orleans


Lyn, thanks for sharing your story, and what a wonderful project!

And Susan, heh, of course it's vain; I just had to do it anyway.


Well, I would normally agree, but the recent fiasco with Cassie Edwards makes me wonder if getting published by a big house really is a testament to quality, or if it's just about getting lucky, or knowing the right people. I used to think that something that was printed in writing HAD to be more reliable than the internet... now, not so much.

I appreciate the commentary though - it is food for thought. Katharine's comment on self-delusion is very valid but...

As far as vanity - if you're not for yourself - then who's for you?

Anyone trying to get published knows that you have to be willing to promote yourself. Vanity wins out (when combined with talent and determination). =)

Katharine Weber

Susanne Dunlap, not I, commented on self-delusion.

I feel as if we are speaking in about six different dialects in this conversation. Starting with what we mean when we use the word "vanity." Is there no distinction to be made among the different ways writers/bloggers can earn money? Do we, for example, make no distinction between commercial sponsorship of a blog and being commissioned to write for publication, or being paid advances by publishers? Simply calling Dave Eggers self-published omits consideration of the way his cred as a writer was established, which was with the publication of his book A Heartbreaking Work etc by S&S. And from there -- is McSweeney's the same thing as iuniverse? Yes, no?

And of course "acceptance" is in play here. But we don't seem to be speaking the same lanugage exactly when we discuss any of this, which is certaily indicative of how tricky and potentially fraught this topic really is.


I agree, Katharine; it's all very complicated. That was why I'd originally intended to save the money question for another time. Maybe that's still a good idea.

Shanna Swendson

I think the term "vanity" as used around the publishing world isn't so much about self-delusion as it is about delusion by others that feeds into self-delusion.

When you blog, you're well aware that you get that posted on the Internet because you put it there. When you self-publish through a legitimate self-publisher that's open about being a self-publishing firm, you're aware that your book is being printed and bound because you're paying this company to do so. What vanity presses and other vanity-like operations do is give the illusion of selection. The vanity press makes it sound like your book has been selected for publication, when in fact the only criteria you have to meet is having the money for it. This vanity media "opportunity" makes it sound like your career or credentials led to this offer being made, when it was really just a paid placement.

I got the same e-mail, and since my degree was in broadcast news and I have a bit of a reputation as a good panel moderator at conventions, for a split second I almost believed that someone really might have asked me to do something like this -- until I compared notes with my writer friends and found out that every author with a web site got the same e-mail.

If this were a legitimate opportunity on a par with other kinds of paid placement, like advertising or an infomercial, then they'd have been up-front about it instead of giving the illusion of selection. I'm sure the Ad Man would agree that if they're asking for payment, they should be willing to provide audience numbers, demographics, and the like. Then you'd have to wonder at the company you'd be in -- if every host was chosen for their willingness to pay to participate, what does that mean for the quality, and then what does that mean about the audience?

The sad thing about "vanity" in the publishing world is that it usually means preying on someone's dreams while giving them the illusion that they've been chosen for quality.

Art Edwards

Thanks so much for this, and for the "gotcha" moment at the end. I've been waiting for someone to make this connection between what the word "vanity" means and which mode of publishing it might better describe in this new century. Your article does so wonderfully.



Excellent article - that why MJ's blog is so invigorating and challenging -

Great insight


Jane Doe

iUniverse is no McSweeney's especially now. What iUniverse is now is AuthorHouse. What AuthorHouse is is mud.

Many may have heard that iUniverse is closing its Lincoln office and moving to Authorhouse headquarters in Bloomington, IN. The purchase of iU by AuthorHouse sullied the former's reputation and the move is the final nail in the coffin. iU will continue in name only. As one poster on the Lincoln Journal-Star website put it:

"The real losers in this ploy will be the authors. Employees of iUniverse in the Lincoln office will recover. They are talented, exceptional people who do not deserve the insults they have received this past week. To a person each one is dedicated to serving their authors. This won’t be true once the office closes. ASI will institute major changes in procedures. Forget about having a single person to talk to. AuthorHouse is a call-center business. The label ‘iUniverse’ may be on the product, but it will be AuthorHouse processes doing the work. AH pays less, provides less service and is less customer service oriented. There is no sign this will change, since the talent who know how to do this are not going to Bloomington. All I can say is, “Bloomington watch out! You’re next when ASI has sucked out all they can from you.”

iUniverse is dead, sold out by its CEO.

Paul Squires

As you point out, this "To be published by a company, a writer has to pass through a multi-tiered filtration system designed to trap and discard impurities such as lack of imagination or writing talent; fact fudging (or outright lying); plagiarism; and ignorance of the topic under discussion." That is supposed to be true but a browse of most bookstores indicates that the filtration system doesn't work very well, they are full of books which demonstrate a lack of creative imagination, memoires with fudged facts and so on. Being published by a money making publisher these days usually just means they can think they can make money from it rather than that it's any good as writing. Just as we admire the independant filmmaker, independant control in the music business where artists take pride in creating their own labels is commonplace. I think this whole stigmatising of 'vanity publishing' and 'blogging' is just a bunch of entrenched professionals protecting their elitist turf, but that's just my opinion. The world of publishing is changing so fast the lingo just hasn't caught up yet.

Phil Lanuto

The old publishing system is crumbling. You only need to look at the teen-agers today to know that the control exerted by the old publishers is at an end. Generation Y and younger will not tolerate septuagenarians as gatekeepers when they are used to publishing at will. The younger generation have no need for this kind of "validation."

I've been self-publishing my novel online and have more readers than half of the books published by the large houses. Others on the site I use are developing enormous fan-bases. I receive feedback which I incorporate into my story.

When I'm ready I'll add advertising or some form of commerce and make even more money. Or self-publish in hardcopy and give readers the choice of reading online or buying the book. I'll make money either way. All of it will be profit for me.

I don't need the vanity of being chosen by some faceless editor. The only validation I seek it being embraced by my readers and reaching the top of the Top 20 list.


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