The Argh Moment: vanity publishing = mainstream contract?

Argh. It happened again. I received an interesting query that I could be interested in.


The author pubbed it through a vanity press just last year and now feels “confident” enough to start marketing it to mainstream publishers.

This is where I go all head-bangy like because the time to market this to mainstream publishers is when it’s UNPUBLISHED. It’s possible he did query it out and received some rejections.

This is the common formula: I’ll query it out and see if there’s any interest. If there isn’t, then I’ll shell out my hard-earned money and pay to have it pubbed.

So they get it out on the market and promote ’til the cows come home. Yay, they say…I sold 450 units last year! Now I’m a baller…a player…a force to be reckoned with!


Ok, I’ll backtrack a little. Any sales via the vanity route is cause for celebration because the author is the sole sales and marketing force. But selling 450 units in a year is hardly newsworthy to a mainstream publisher. If he had sold 5,000 units, then I’d believe this is a book to be reckoned with.

Folks, I don’t care why anyone makes any particular publishing choice because everyone has different intentions for their careers. But what makes my teeth itch is when author believe vanity publishing will give then any kind of leg up on securing a mainstream contract.

It doesn’t.

First off, the first print rights are gone. That means that you’ve already populated the databases with your book. That means there will be two books appearing on those databases, and there is a lot of room for confusion which drives us insane.

Secondly, all the initial places we would have gone to kick-start the promo/marketing process have already been compromised. We can’t go back to that well. So we need to look for a new initial local market. That’s not easy to do. Yes, we have the advantage in that we are taking care of the national distribution, but one has to start somewhere to create that domino effect, which is your local community.

If your book just came out last year, then it’s wearisome to screech, “Hey, cowabunga! I got me this here book” The reply is going to be, “Dude, didn’t you just do this last year? It’s still sitting only my nightstand waiting to be read. Now you want me to buy the newer version? I don’t think so.”

And this is where the Argh Moment crosses the lines from publisher to author. One of the most popular things I hear – other than, “is the beagle really a drunk?” – is “I had no idea.”

There is nothing that can sink one’s career faster than decisions made in ignorance.

If you want to go the vanity route, that’s fine. But you need to understand exactly what you’re in for and how that will impact your future. First and foremost; you MUST have a clear vision of your expectations. If you have your eye on a mainstream publisher, then query the snot out of your manuscript. If you collect a slew of rejections, maybe that’s the industry’s way of telling you this work isn’t marketable.

Put that under the bed and begin anew. Remember that most first manuscripts aren’t published. Those debut authors have several making merry under the bed.

21 Responses to The Argh Moment: vanity publishing = mainstream contract?

  1. Nicola Morgan says:

    Can’t be said often enough. The “decisions made in ignorance” are the sad ones. Arghhh, indeed!

  2. Kate says:

    A timely post – I just blogged about this – I fell for the sales pitch from an author doing a signing in my local bookstore – when I started reading it I managed three pages before I threw it across the room in dispair! Why oh why do people waste their money – and even more annoying con innocent readers like me into wasting mine! 😦

  3. Sally Zigmond says:

    It’s so sad, Lynn, that you have to say this again and again–and still they keep coming.

  4. NinjaFingers says:

    One born every minute. Or is it second?

  5. catdownunder says:

    I may never get to the Holy Grail of ‘being published’ but I know I am not going to pay to have my neatly arranged cat hairs published. Someone else can pay me for all that hard work thankyou very much.

  6. Pelotard says:

    Blimey, now I’m afraid to look under my bed. What have those ancient MSs been up to? And what sort of offspring might I expect…?

  7. Lauren says:

    May I just quote from Bowker ‘s report earlier this year. It’s a sobering statistic (even for the beagle):

    Based on preliminary figures from U.S. publishers, Bowker is projecting . . . 288,355 [books to be released] in 2009. In contrast, there was another extraordinary year of growth in the number of “non-traditional” books in 2009. These books, marketed almost exclusively on the web, are largely on-demand titles produced by reprint houses specializing in public domain works and by presses catering to self-publishers and ”micro-niche” publications. Bowker projects that 764,448 titles were produced that fall outside Bowker’s traditional publishing and classification definitions. This number is a 181% increase over 2008 — which doubled 2007’s output – driving total book production over 1,000,000 units for the first time.

  8. NinjaFingers says:

    There’s a big difference between a self-publishing service and a vanity press, though.

    The former doesn’t pretend to be a real publisher.

    The problem with vanity presses is they suck you in by telling you your book is good and will sell, take your money, then leave you high and dry. They don’t have any incentive to sell a single unit, after all.

    You’re better off, if you’re that desperate, finding a micro press that specializes highly and hoping they will take it…you won’t make much money that way, but if you really have something that’s well written but not of wide appeal…

  9. Ninjie, it’s important to make the definitions clear:

    Self Publishing: The author is the publisher, and they assume all financial, editorial, packaging, design, marketing, promotion, and distribution of their book.

    Vanity Publishing: Pay to play publishing. This includes the big companies like AuthorHouse and iUniverse. Also includes printers like

    The difference with companies like Lulu is that they make no bones about who and what they are.

    Whichever vanity choice you make, you MUST be aware of what they can and can’t do for you.

  10. Lucie Simone says:

    I am an indie author. I recently published Hollywood Ending under my own imprint, Simon & Fig, after receiving loads of “glowing” rejections. Most agents who read it agreed that my voice was fresh & my story was fun & well written, yet none were willing to take a chance on me. So, unwilling to shove my ms under the bed, I decided to put my money where my mouth was and publish it myself. The greatest expense is publicity. I should be getting a lot more exposure in the next 2 months when reviews start coming in. I have no idea if it will be a success or not, but I can assure you I won’t be looking to sell it to traditional publishers. What would be the point? It’s out there now for anyone who wants to buy it. I don’t think a traditional publisher could do much more to promote it than I already am. I’ve spent thousands of dollars on conferences & workshops over the past 5 years. Now I’m putting that money toward my book. We’ll see what happens.

  11. Good luck Lucie!

    There are so many people out there at every level saying you should do this, no you should do that, that for a new writer it becomes a minefield deciding what in fact should be done.

    I’m sure a lot give up because of peoples opinions.

    We live in a world of independent musicians, filmmakers etc who have been signed because of the exposure gained by going it alone. Isn’t it time the publishing world adapted?

    Besides, self publishing can lead to agents, book contracts, fame etc. One example Chris Kuzneski…

  12. Lucie Simone says:

    You are so right. It seems only in publishing do those who go the indie route get snickered at, many assuming that if no one else is willing to publish your work then it must be terrible. What NY & traditional agents & publishers will soon realize is that we don’t need them anymore. All a writer needs these days is talent, time & money to invest in his/her own career. I’ll let the readers decide if my book is worthy than you very much.

  13. I take exception to this feeling of “we don’t need publishers anymore and all we need is talent, time, and money…” because I hear this all the time, and nothing could be further from the truth.

    Talent, time, and money isn’t enough to guarantee success in the publishing industry. Publishers are ahead of the game because they know exactly how books are sold, they understand the marketplace, what constitutes a marketable book (for them), and have the experience, the distribution, the sales teams, and contacts to get those books into the stores nationally. When you try to compare that to an author who has no backing, little to no experience, and very few contacts, then all the money, time, and talent won’t be worth very much in terms of sales.

    Lucie, you said that your biggest expense was publicity, and I totally agree. However, your biggest worry is distribution. Your marketing and promotion are probably fabulous, but where does it all lead if you still can’t put a dent into getting your book on store shelves? This is where most books are sold, and this is why mainstream publishers remain the most viable means of getting a book out there.

    You said that you’ll let readers decide whether your book is worthy. Well, we all have that worry. It’s just that mainstream publishers have a better chance of getting those books in front of a wider readership.

    I think what bothers me is the attitude that mainstream publishing are the gatekeepers to the industry via some ill-gotten gains, and I simply don’t understand this. Sure, I’ve seen this comment before and figure it’s a sour grapes thing – “I didn’t accepted, so you guys suck.” Would you still say that if a publisher had offered a contract?

    Without some sort of organization whereby bookstores order books, the industry would be utter chaos and nothing would be read for all the white noise. Everyone in the industry understands this, and that’s why it works the way that it does.

    Is there room for self publishers? Heck yah. But they need to know exactly what awaits them and know that their remuneration (for the most part) will never apex the finances they put into it.

    It’s fine if you intend to sell outside the mainstream. But I’ve seen far too many for whom the struggle took its toll.

    Besides, self publishing can lead to agents, book contracts, fame etc. One example Chris Kuzneski…

    Of course there are exceptions to every rule. For every Chris Kuzneski, there are literally thousands of authors who fail in that struggle.

  14. Maggie Dana says:

    Thank you, Lynn, for helping educate the bewildered about publishing. It’s a tough field to understand, and especially tough now that the word publish has been attached to modifiers such as vanity, self, mainstream, and traditional.

    Whatever happened to the singularly glorious and very special word publish that meant you had honed your craft and attracted the attention of industry professionals? That you’d earned a place on a bookshop’s shelves?

    Back in the 1980s when my childrens’ books were published, I never felt the need to tell those who asked about them that they were published by Weekly Reader or Dell, but having had my first (grownup) novel published in 2009, I now feel compelled to qualify that it was published by Macmillan.

    I hate having to do this, but we’re back to the definition of publish here, because there are times that if you don’t explain your publication history you can be sure that somebody will pipe up and ask if you self-published or went with iUniverse or Lulu, and ‘hey, can you help me with this?’

  15. Whatever happened to the singularly glorious and very special word publish that meant you had honed your craft and attracted the attention of industry professionals? That you’d earned a place on a bookshop’s shelves?

    Hi Maggie. What happened is that the industry evolved – just like everything else. I admit that there are frustrations, but I think change is good for the soul, and we need to accept the good with the bad.

    Had things not changed, where would small presses be? We wouldn’t have near the impact on the publishing industry that we do nowadays. We’re able to publish books that Dell and Macmillan may not touch because it’s a numbers game. Conglomerates own the big houses and decisions are made in boardrooms across the ocean.

    I know it’s tempting to remember the “good ol’ days,” but that time no longer exists. We have never had more people writing – and that’s wonderful. Yes, much of it is very green because technology allows for anyone with a pulse to publish a book. But I love the idea that we’re able to have options – even if I do have to explain every now and then that, no, we’re not a vanity or POD press. It’s a trade off I’m willing to make because I adore my authors.

  16. Lucie Simone says:

    I’m not concerned about getting my book into brick & mortar bookshelves – they are dropping like flies these days. My book is available online at several retailers. I’m also not trying to hit the NYT Bestsellers list. All I hope is to break even. If so, I will consider it a success. My publicity is highly targeted toward readers of my genre, all using online publicity efforts. Had an agent offered me a contract, I would have been thrilled. Of course I would have a much greater chance at success if a big publisher had picked it up. But that didn’t happen. Not every book that gets rejected by NY is actually unpublishable. Sometimes, you have to be willing to fail in order to succeed. Anyone considering self-publishing should do their homework to make sure it is the right path for them. I’m not a novice. I researched the industry & made an informed decision. Just because it isn’t traditional, doesn’t mean my choice should be discredited as foolish or an act of whimsy. I’m proud of my work and I am willing to put up my own funding to see that it gets an opportunity to be read. That said, self-publishing should never be anyone’s first option.

  17. Lucie, you make my case for me. As I always say, know what you’re getting into. Only then can you make wise decisions that won’t adversely affect your writing career. Best of luck to you!

  18. Anita Revel says:

    Good luck Lucie! I wish I’d done your legwork before I pubbed my 1st book. It took me 5 goes to get it vaguely right, but now I’m up to book 17 and love love love the self-publishing route. I love it so much I now teach others how to do it, but deeply anchored in the golden rule – MARKETING. I am also relentless in pointing out the harsh reality – go in half-cocked / ignorant then as Lynn suggests, it’s itchy teeth time. Preparation, planning, promotion and marketing marketing marketing.

  19. NinjaFingers says:

    Only last night I spent quite a bit of time explaining to somebody who is writing a romance novel that she doesn’t HAVE to pay to get published. She honestly thought that was the way to do it!

    (She was, however, very mad to find out that no GOOD publisher would let her use her own cover art…)

  20. Ninjie, that is one of the most common complaints with new authors – cover art. They have a vision for their book and it can be quite a shock to see what the publisher comes up with. The problem is that there is a real psychology to cover art the author isn’t aware of, and their choice for cover art may not be the appropriate choice.

  21. NinjaFingers says:

    I also sent her the link to this blog. And I understand. I think having zero graphic art talent helps me on that front…I KNOW it would suck if I tried to do it myself ;).

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