Marsha Canham's Blog

October 20, 2011

Vanity Press vs Self Publishing vs Print Publishing

Filed under: Caesars Through the Fence — marshacanham @ 2:45 pm

Everyone knows it’s hard to break old habits. Ask any smoker. Ask anyone who was raised in the 50’s why they cringe when a six year old comes up and says “Hi Marsha!”.  I was taught that all adults are addressed as Mr. and Mrs. It was a matter of respect, plain and simple. The newer generation thinks of that as being old fashioned, but since when is respect old fashioned? I’ve stayed in touch, over the many years, with neighbours who were good friends with my parents back when I was a kid.  They were always Mr. and Mrs Solarski to me, and to this day, even though they’ve told me a bazillion times to address them by their first names, they are still Mr. and Mrs Solarski to me. My tongue would fall out of my head if I ever said “Hi Stan!”

Okay so how does this relate to Vanity Press? Simple. All the years I was being published in print, there was a distinct trend to turn up ones nose at authors who could not get a contract with a publisher and went the route of having their book printed themselves. There were stories of writers with garages full of unsold books because, of course, book stores and major distributors like K-mart etc wouldn’t take those self published books. It was costly as well, not like the print on demand books we have now. Then you had to commit to the press printing X number of copies and you had to pay up front for the whole lot.  Very very very rarely were these “vanity press” books ever noticed by a publisher who then waved a *real* contract at the author and agreed to publish the book mainstream.  For most, they had to pretty well had to sell the entire inventory in order to make any money, which meant a lot of slogging around visiting bookstores (mostly independent booksellers who, coincidentally, also began vanishing as the Big Boys like Borders and Chapters and Waldenbooks began to flourish), sending out letters (no email back then), making phone calls etc etc etc. The failures far outnumbered the successes and I’m betting there are still garages full of unsold, cheaply printed books out there gathering dust and mites.

These days, it’s all changed. An author who can’t, or doesn’t want to go the traditional route through a publishing house, now has the option of publishing the book herself through distributors like Amazon and Smashwords and Barnes and Noble.  The Ebook has come into its own, shaking up the traditional publishing houses as much as it’s shaken up the huge bookstore chains, (bye bye Borders) the distributors, the industry on a whole. Amazon has emerged as the new Goliath, opening its doors to authors, giving them an alternative to contracts that tie the rights for a book up for decades, to royalties that don’t even meet the bare minimum wage, to the deeply ingrained belief that to be a *real* author, you have to be published in print.


Most self published authors these days have seen the light. They’ve seen the monthly paycheckes that come as regular as clockwork and earn them 70% royalties on every sale. They scoff at the old system of being paid an 8% pittance twice a year and speak boldly of this new revolution. Authors like myself who had books that had gone out of print saw a whole new generation of readers willing and eager to read their backlist…books that were big and bold and lusty that had gone out of style with all the cutbacks and editorial controls imposed by publishers in the past decade. They discovered the freedom to write and publish what they wanted, not what some suit inNew Yorkdeemed to be the next hot trend.

That was why I was so surprised a few weeks back to see a discussion on a chat room board about agents and publishers.  These same new wave indie authors were swarming like flies around an agent I had never heard of, eager to sign with him, eager to give up 15% of their earnings…for what? For the miniscule chance they might be picked up by a publishing house and offered a print contract?

It was apparent to me that old habits die harder than I thought.  Some of these indie authors, who months ago strode boldly into the new world of self-publishing and lauded their bravery and success… still think *real* success means having a book on a store shelf. They still think it *validates* them as an author to have an agent, to sign contracts that will tie up the rights to those books for years into the foreseeable future, and for what? 8% on print, 25% on ebook sales?

Self publishing is no longer considered vanity press.  It’s practical, it’s profitable, it offers complete freedom to writers as well as readers who are tired of the same old same old cookie cutter books that follow the current *trend* dictated by that suit  in New York. It also gives the author total control over everything from the content to the cover, to how long the book can remain in distribution. With a click of a key that book can come down off Amazon or Smashwords or Barnes and Noble. Try that with a print book. *snort* The same wave that brought ebooks and indie publishing surging over the stodgy world of print publishing also woke authors up to the hell and angst of having to fight, beg, plead, and cajole to get the rights back to books that hadn’t been in print for ten years or more. Print contracts come with clauses that grant the publisher exclusive rights to that book for as long as the book is on sale somewhere on the planet.  What that means is that a book that has been languishing in print for years, and is still available through Amazon—and I’ll use myself as an example—such as The Pride of Lions, only has to meet the bare minimum of copies sold required by the contract for Dell to retain the rights. The bare minimum in PoL’s case was 300 copies in a 12 month period.

Let me say that again.  300 copies sold over a 12 month period. Royalties on that? Less than a thousand dollars, from which I still had to deduct the agent’s 15%.

The book was originally printed in 1988 by a company that went bankrupt, so not much of a ripple made there. The advance was 10 thousand, which was never earned out…meaning I never saw another penny over and above the 10K. The second issue was through Dell in 1997—to the mathematically challenged, like myself, that was 14 years ago.  I made that sale on my own, without going through my agent, who had told me “it’s an old book, no publisher is going to print an old book”.  Okay. Right. He didn’t take into account the brazen hussy part of my character that badgered my editor until she crumbled and said yes, okay, we’ll reprint POL and Blood of Roses! The advance was 25K, because it was a reissue, and it did earn out within about 6 years and sold consistently for another few years but after that it fell off to just a trickle, and in the last two years, barely met the 300 minimum.

Along came the Kindle, the  iPad, the Nook, and the ebook revolution. A few of us were quick to climb on the wave and quicker to see where it was heading. Quick enough to dash off letters to publishers asking innocently for the return of rights to our backlist books. When I attempted to get my agent to do the dirty work for me, thinking it might expedite the process, the answer I got was:  “Why would you want the rights back? Even selling a few copies a year is better than nothing.”


End of agent.

So I had to do it myself. One of my books was selling an abysmal 35 copies in a 12 month period, but the publisher still held the rights because…hello…they don’t voluntarily give them back. The author has to put the request in writing, the request has to go through the proper channels which could take upwards of nine months.  All for a book that sold 35 copies in 12 months.

I dashed off letters to Dell and to NAL, the two publishers who held the rights to my backlist. The Dell letter was aimed at two of the lowest selling books, but at the last minute, I added the titles of all but the three Scotland books which had shown a slight increase in sales for the 6 months prior to my request (due to ebook sales, I would later discover) so I didn’t think I had a chance of getting those rights back.  I was lucky. I got back the rights to all the books I asked for, including the two from NAL and one from Harlequin—which, as any Harlequin author knows is like pulling teeth from an alligator.

Within a few weeks of getting those rights back, I had done some light revisions (another benefit of self-pubbing) made covers, formatted them and reissued them myself as ebooks on Amazon and Smashwords, joining dozens of other authors who had backlist books and were discovering this exciting new venue to reach a whole new generation of readers.

The past year, since I first dipped a toe in the water with the ebook edition of China Rose, those dozens have become hundreds. The old adage  “if it looks too good to be true it probably isn’t”  doesn’t hold true, for once. Amazon promises 70% royalties and it delivers. Amazon lets the author set the price, lets the author design the cover, lets the author decide if the book stays up for sale or comes down, thus giving us complete control of content and rights.

So why do some of these indie authors…ones who have already seen a measure of success selling through Amazon (and I’m talking thousands of copies) why would they actively seek out an agent (who will deduct 15% from all sales) or a contract with a print publisher (who, if they’re lucky, will offer a 5K advance against 8% royalties on print editions and 25% on ebooks, and tie up the rights for years into the future)?

Beats the hell out of me.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to see your book in print, nothing wrong with aiming for the NY Times Bestseller list, nothing wrong with wanting to walk into a bookstore and see the shelves loaded down with your books.

The chances of that happening for an unknown, untried author is slim to none. Selling five thousand ebooks at $2.99 does not translate into selling five thousand paperbacks at $10.99 or five thousand hardcover books at $25.99. I broke down the royalty numbers in another blog so I won’t do it here again, but you can easily do the math. 5K at 70% of $2.99 vs 5K at 8% of $10.99 minus 15% for the agent.

Self publishing is NOT vanity press. Self publishing is smart, clever, practical, and profitable. I suspect it’s the publishers and out of work agents who are trying to maintain the appearance of offering *validation* for an author.

Dear readers, I was *validated* 25 years ago and I would not go back to print publishing. The book I am working on now—happily so, having been told by a print publisher that it was unsellable because no one buys high seas adventure stories anymore—will be going directly to ebook, as will anything and everything I write in the future.

I validate myself.



  1. “I validate myself.” YESSSSS!!! Tell it, Marsha!!

    Excellent post. I agree with every word – and I thank you for helping to blaze the ebook trail for the rest of us. I don’t know what I would have done if you (and eventually others) hadn’t been kind enough to answer my completely ignorant questions when I first showed up and said “What the heck?” I had no clue. I remember I didn’t even know about stock photos for covers and you graciously pointed me toward some websites. That’s the beauty of this new world. We authors can help each other – we don’t need agents or editors to hold our hands (while also holding all the power).

    I’m with you. I’ve been there, done that, and ended up with what sometimes feels like PTSD. It’s exhilarating to make my own decisions and to see my books out in the world again and know that readers are enjoying them.

    Comment by Cynthia Wright — October 20, 2011 @ 3:48 pm | Reply

  2. Very good article and i am with you all the way. The only thing I would add is a word to all new indie authors. “Please have you work proofread and edited before publishing. The vultures are circling and looking for any way in to break the self-publishing trend.”
    Thanks again for a really good article and looking forward to more authors like you to step up and tell it like it is.

    Comment by Tracy James Jones — October 20, 2011 @ 5:11 pm | Reply

    • Tracy, as I said on the FB post…good point. Excellent point. Indie publishing does not mean skipping any of the steps. If anything, it means taking those extra steps to make sure the product you put up yourself is the best you can make it.

      Comment by marshacanham — October 20, 2011 @ 5:48 pm | Reply

  3. Marsha, I’m with you all the way! I’m a NYTimes bestselling author & have no intention of going back to TradPub. Been there, done that, & now see something better, faster, eventually more profitable.

    Comment by Ruth Harris — October 20, 2011 @ 5:42 pm | Reply

  4. Go Marsha!!!!!!!!

    Comment by Bren — October 20, 2011 @ 5:52 pm | Reply

  5. Excellent article. I agree completely. Let the market validate your work, but don’t let anyone else validate you.

    Comment by R. K. MacPherson — October 20, 2011 @ 6:06 pm | Reply

  6. Marsha:

    THANKS! We new authors need to hear this. After having put you on my Best Romance Authors and Best Scottish/Highland Historicals Lists on Amazon–and then running a feature on your WONDERFUL 5-star romances on my blog (, I hope I’ve contributed to your sales. You are my all time favorite writer of romance, simply superb at your craft. Having said that, I have to add that I’d love to see my first book in print. There’s something about seeing the hard copy on the shelf that appeals to me. Call me old fashioned. I have a Kindle but I only take it with me on travel. (I like the hard copy and many romances I read are not available as e-books.)

    I have the blog, Twitter and Facebook and I’m trying to gain the social media following necessary, but I do think it’s harder to sell e-books if you are an unknown author, even WITH all the social media. A publisher presumably can help with that though your stories will give me nightmares in that department. If they can’t sell your books, they can’t sell any in my view. Still, if I don’t get a good response from the publishers, I’ll be publishing mine on Amazon by myself (so scary to hang your book out there and hope for the best, but I’ll do it).

    so, with the idea I might just self-pub, can you do a future post on designing your own cover?


    Comment by Regan — October 20, 2011 @ 6:21 pm | Reply

  7. Excellent post and comments. I think indie publishing is becoming more and more respected as authors like you and other NYT best-sellers, step into this brave new world. And I like the term indie author as opposed to self-pubbed. Partially because of all that negative connotation the term has, but also because lots of people respect indie filmmakers for bringing innovative and creative product to the screen. Readers will begin to realize that indie authors are doing the same thing. ,

    Comment by Maryann Miller — October 20, 2011 @ 6:47 pm | Reply

  8. Marsha always tells it like it is. I’m lucky to be her friend. I too have started to put some of my books up as ebooks and without Marsha’s generous help in formatting and cover designs, I’d be lost.

    Comment by Virginia Henley — October 20, 2011 @ 7:40 pm | Reply

  9. Marsha,
    have you followed Seth Godin’s blog at all? He’s very much against publishers and agents– cut out nearly all the middle people to do direct publishing starting last year (if I recall correctly). You want to talk about someone who’s as vehement about getting their work directly to the people who want it, it’s him. If you haven’t checked him out yet, you may find some inspiration for your “crusade”. (He’s a business writer by nature, but he is pretty blunt about the publishing world).

    Comment by Karen — October 20, 2011 @ 8:01 pm | Reply

    • I don’t follow Seth Godin’s blog, no. I blush to say I’ve never heard of him, though I’m sure he’s never heard of me LOL. And, um…I don’t crusade. I merely speak from my past experiences in this business and let the readers and writers make up their own minds.

      Comment by marshacanham — October 20, 2011 @ 8:42 pm | Reply

  10. Ms. Canham,

    I truly enjoy your books and find them refreshing compared to the others out there. Your stories are exciting and full of action and adventure. Please keep up the great work!

    Comment by Can — October 20, 2011 @ 9:07 pm | Reply

  11. What a great article!

    As a reader, I had no idea of what went on behind the scenes until I first read your experiences with your former publisher. I was appalled.

    As a Kindle owner and avid reader of both e-books and print books, I’m am happily benefiting from the new self-publishing phenom. Smart marketing by some of these very authors (yourself included) includes putting a book out there on Amazon or Smashwords in an e-book format at a very low price, albeit for a limited time, which catches the attention of readers. This works on so many levels. I have discovered and thoroughly enjoyed many wonderful books, from authors I have never heard of, but now am a dedicated fan, because of this very smart marketing. Also, when I have discovered an author through this process and have enjoyed their ebook, I generally end up purchasing all their ebooks. So, it’s a win/win situation for both the reader and the author.

    There are also three websites that send out notifications to readers who subscribe about these low cost and/or free ebooks promotions. In addition, Goodreads has several groups dedicated to all kinds of book genres. Believe me, I hear of lots of great ebooks by authors who have self-published amazing books on Goodreads.

    It is also a great way to read books that are out of print and that readers have been trying to get their hands on for years!

    So, all around, the self-publishing craze benefits the reader AND the authors. I’m thrilled it is going full speed ahead.

    One big gripe I have is that many publishers are selling ebooks for the same price as a print book. I think that is ludicrous. How much profit are they making with an ebook when they don’t have the cost of paper, shipping to stores or any of the other myriad expenses related to print books? If one of the big publishing companies is putting out one of my favorite author’s books in an ebook version, I buy print. I think it is ridiculous that they are charging the same for an ebook version as the print version.

    Thanks, again, for your insightful and thoughtful article.

    Comment by caseykelly3 — October 21, 2011 @ 4:00 am | Reply

  12. If you want some insight into the urge for validation I can provide it. I’m a pure indie author – never been traditionally published in any way. When my first romance became popular enough it was mentioned by readers who liked it on a forum which shall remain nameless, the “old timers” on that forum went berserk. All indie books are crap. Anyone who started a thread on an indie book had to be a lying shill. Lying shills are agents of the author. Therefore it’s all the author’s fault and the author is behaving unethically. I got badmouthed and had lies told about me all over the internet. So when a traditional publisher contacted me about reissuing the 2 romances I had put out myself and a contract for the next one, in spite of the fact it would be financially disadvantageous, I found myself considering it. Yes, for validation. For a chance to shove being “vetted” by the gatekeepers in the faces of those who had defamed me.

    Nothing came of it, and I think I’d have said no in the end. Even so, I’m tougher minded and more independent than average, and my own experience makes me understand the siren song of validation. As time passes I think it will become less and less powerful for all of us but just recently I saw posts to the effect that authors like you, Marsha, are acceptable indies – because you have previous validation. So while we may think those who sign with traditional publishers after a good start as indies aren’t acting in their own best financial interests, IMO it’s not that hard to understand what drives them.

    Comment by Ellen O'Connell — October 21, 2011 @ 5:24 am | Reply

  13. “I validate myself.” I love that. Very insightful article. Thanks! I wish more authors thought this way when it comes to publishing their work.

    Comment by victoria — October 21, 2011 @ 5:25 am | Reply

  14. Thank you for your great blog. As an unpubbed I am at that point where I am ready to send my first story out. It is polished and ready for the world. I have been learning all I can about publishing on Amazon but it is scary for someone who is not the literate on computer. After reading your post, I think I have nothing to lose. I shall probably stick my toe in the water… it really is an exciting time.

    ps I was raised in the same time period as you and also don’t understand the new ways. We also never spoke unless we were spoken to. 🙂

    Comment by Paisley Kirkpatrick — October 21, 2011 @ 4:27 pm | Reply

  15. Self-publishing is an excellent option; however, there are down sides.

    The first is obvious: anyone can publish anything. That means there are probably thousands of books out there which have never been edited. If a reader picks one of those up and is turned off by that, they won’t want to pick up any more by that author, and may actually get turned off the entire self-publishing concept. Authors need to get editors. Really. It’s more than just punctuation and spelling, though that’s obviously important.

    The other is that while already successful authors are doing well at selling their backlisted books, and well-known authors all over the place are choosing to self-publish, those with no reputation are left with the fulltime job of trying to self-promote. This works great for many people. For others it’s exhausting and may ultimately crush the author.

    I wish everyone the best of luck, but I do recommend editors before you self-publish.

    Comment by Genevieve Graham — October 23, 2011 @ 1:32 pm | Reply

    • I think that advice has been going around strongly for several months now. The indies who were quick to jump onto the wave and perhaps didn’t take the care they should with editing, are now realizing their mistake and taking steps to insure better quality. A lot of the discussion boards drum this in, and now with Amazon having a “quality control” group, they can and will pull a book if the editing and formatting is sloppy. Speaking for myself, I would never put a new book up that hasn’t been vetted by an editor, nor would any of the authors I know. It’s a profession. People should know enough to act professional *s*

      Comment by marshacanham — October 23, 2011 @ 2:48 pm | Reply

  16. […] Vanity Press Blog  and […]

    Pingback by Samples Please! | Publishing in the 21st Century — March 22, 2012 @ 9:23 pm | Reply

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