I am a published author. Many of my poems and essays have been published in periodicals and anthologies. But by traditional standards my books have been vanity/subsidy/self published. I have no illusion that those facts give me the street-cred or status of a John Grisham or Elizabeth Gilbert. However, in addition to my writing, I have worked in the wholesale and retail end of the publishing business at street and executive levels for more than twenty years.

Here is my perspective:

The traditional publishing process: Writer to Agent to Publisher to Printer to Distributor to Retailer to Consumer

Traditional vanity/self/subsidy publishing: You pay a company to print your books.

Today there may be nothing vain about Vanity Publishing. In the past it was a dismissive term justifiably used by the publishing community to describe small print run books that circumvented the traditional publishing process. In fact, Vanity Publishing is only half of the designation. The word vanity is by implication contrasted to the word merit; when vanity publishing is used, a lack of merit publishing is suggested. The inference is that vanity published books have no merit; while not required, a degree of snobbery was often attached to the valuation equation.

In the past, vanity publishers charged a significant fee and handed you a box of books which you gave to your mother or sold to your friends. They also served specialty markets for trade publications or in-house books. One of my uncles pioneered the business of fund raising cookbooks. It might be more accurate to describe them as book manufacturers; they did little or nothing to get a book to the public. Today what are often called vanity publishers list your book at international distributors like Ingram or Baker and Taylor who make it available to online and brick and mortar sellers around the globe. That does not mean anyone is going to buy your book, but you have extended the limits on possibilities. Do something that gets you on the national news and you will be an overnight success. Your book may also have an ISBN number and possibly even be included in the Library of Congress, which were previously the benchmarks of so called real books.

With POD (print on demand) options, no one is required to layout huge printing and distribution costs, all of that is subtracted from the retail price. Nothing happens until the consumer forks over the cash; the entire process is prepaid. There are no guarantees of success, but there also are few risks. As mentioned above, I worked more than twenty years in the wholesale/distribution end of the business; we shredded 50% to 70% of mass market books sent to stores and then returned from retail as unsold. Hardcover books are often pulled from sale and remainders are sold on bargain book tables for pennies on the dollar of the cover price. How’s that for the final resting place of your dream?

The emerging model is fiscally responsible and saves a lot of trees. There are still many vanity publishers that extract large sums of money from naive authors, but there is also a new breed that doesn’t. Depending on your skill level at writing, proofreading, editing, formatting and graphic design, and/or the talent of friends, you are able to publish a high quality book in print and/or electronic formats with no upfront expense.

In the old world paradigm the publisher bankrolled and therefore controlled the process. The publishing community set the standards and also fought the first amendment battles that shaped the book world we have today. We must all be eternally grateful for those accomplishments. However in a change that parallels digital music, online news feeds and social networking the access point for the writer to reach a retailer and/or consumer has shifted and been simplified. At Amazon.com or the Apple Store there is nothing that distinguishes a self/vanity/Indy published book from a mainline publisher one. Sadly that means a lot of crap gets ink. We truly do need to establish an independent rating standard for self published books before we will gain the respect of the traditional publishing community. On the upside, free speech has never been more accessible.

Most of the best and largest selling books are still and for the foreseeable future will be done by major publishing houses. Let’s be real here, there is nothing that says a self/vanity published book is equal in sales or impact on society… for now. Though, the average consumer does not care about the publishing, printing or distribution of a book. Where, how and for what price they consume are their highest priorities; all of which are affected by the medium and social acceptance and peer pressure.

The combined effect of millions of small authors may dwarf the influence of the few major ones in the very near future. If you have not already done so, read Chris Anderson’s book – The Long Tail.

If an ebook or POD book can find a market it has merit. If it has merit, perhaps it is no longer fair to call it vanity.