Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
– Ecclesiastes, I:2
Writers like myself who self-publish their own books are often derided by the use of the term “vanity publishing”. The implication being, I suppose, that our books can’t cut it in the real world of traditional publishing, and that we’ve allowed our vanity to trump all else just so we can see a copy of our precious book sitting on a bookshelf, most likely unread by anyone other than ourselves.
The traditional image of the vanity publisher, at least while I was growing up and becoming middle-aged, was of someone who spent a fortune with some opportunistic printer to have their book printed, typically with a minimum print-run of a thousand copies, nine-hundred and ninety-five of which ended up stored in boxes in the garage or under the house of the author.
I am convinced that both this image and the very concept of “vanity publishing” is now well out of date. Technology has changed everything over the last twenty years or so. The growth of the Internet, the development of ebooks and the technology of high-speed print-on-demand printing have changed the landscape of publishing entirely.
My rule of thumb about this is that if you can turn a profit—that is, more than cover your set-up and publishing costs—then your project can hardly be seen as an act of vanity. Doing that, reaching break-even point, has become easier and easier over the last couple of decades. The Internet provides us with a system to create and distribute digital goods like ebooks and audiobooks with essentially no marginal cost: that is, each additional unit sold incurs very little or no cost to the producer. Print-on-demand (POD) printers mean that although the marginal costs are still there in that physical goods still have to be manufactured and shipped, a single copy can be printed only once it is sold. In other words, those marginal costs are already paid for before manufacturing and shipping. This changes everything: for one thing, no more garages full of boxes of unsold books!
(As an aside, this POD technology is just amazing. After uploading a draft of my novel to CreateSpace earlier this year, a proof copy of this 400-page book was printed, bound and despatched to me within two hours.)
The term “vanity” still rankles a bit, however. It’s true that if my only aim in self-publishing was to be able to hold a nice physical copy of my novel in my hands, then there would definitely be an element of vanity involved. The fact is, however, that my prime focus is on the ebook version, and my aim is that I really want as many people as possible to read my story, get engaged with the characters and enjoy the plot. Based on the early reviews of my book, I think I’ve made a good start on that.
There is ample historical precedent for self-publishing in the literary world. No less a luminary than Charles Dickens self-published many of his novels in serial form in his own magazine, along with those of his protege Wilkie Collins. I’m currently reading Struggles and Triumphs, the autobiography of P. T. Barnum, and he begins the “Author’s Edition” of that book by explaining how he purchased the electrotype plates of the original (very expensive) edition, as well as buying back the copyright, so that he could self-publish a popular, low-priced edition for the general public. So self-publishing is nothing new.
What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.
— Ecclesiastes I:9
Which is not to say, of course, that a self-published book is going to be any good. For that, you’ll have to read it and decide for yourself.