Vanity vs. Professional Publishing in the New ebook Era

This post will explore a simple question: has the definition of ‘professional author’ changed since the beginning of the ebook era?

I’ve been waylaid by a nasty virus the last few weeks, and in my weakened state, I’ve had time to ponder my place in the publishing world.  I’ve been a published indie author for about 15 months.  Even though I’ve had short fiction published for cold hard cash since 2001, I’ve still considered myself a newbie.  And at the very beginning of my publishing journey in this new ebook era, I considered myself a vanity-published author.   Swallowing my pride, I’d labeled myself this derogatory term mainly for reasons of insecurity.  I’d chosen to bypass the system that I’d been seriously trying to crack for a decade.  On top of that, I’d been writing for ten years before I sold my first story.  After two decades, I found myself with my tail between my legs, sidestepping the gatekeepers who thought my work unworthy of public consumption.

Twenty years of rejection can have a negative impact on an author’s self-esteem.  But twenty years of rejection also has a way of shaping an author.  If an author can still keep plugging along after so long of so little recognition, his or her craft will undoubtedly grow and evolve.  This author will develop the proverbial ‘authorial voice.’

After twenty years, I also finally fully understand that the existence of professionalism in publishing far preceded the existence of the Big 6 or the pricey small press market that has developed over the last 30 years.  For decades, authors worked hard to crack these professional markets.  And once they achieved this goal, they received a small piece of the pie, a pittance in comparison to the whole of the publishing bounty.  In hindsight, authors made a living long before the so-called traditional system of professional publishing.  Before the Big 6 became the Big 6, many authors were able to carve out a living, sometimes solely by selling short stories to magazines and newspapers.  In other words, publishing undergoes change over time.  And now, as technology encroaches on our lives in sometimes insidious ways, publishing has undergone perhaps the most dramatic change since Gutenberg.

This change, the advent of the ebook revolution, has altered the definition of a professional author.  A professional author is no longer confined to the Big 6 and the upper echelon of small press publishers.  I haven’t thought it through long enough to come up with a new definition of professionalism, but I know that there is a new distinction between vanity and independent professional publishing.  Vanity publishing is indie publishing that doesn’t pass the eye test.  The books look like they are vanity published.  They are poorly formatted, have low-quality covers, and if they are lucky enough to garner reviews from readers, these reviews are riddled with references to shoddy editing and inane plots.  These books are pretenders, pale imitations of the high-quality products that readers so eager seek.

But there is a new layer of professional authors who are carving out their own territory in this new Wild West era of publishing.  I now consider myself one of these new professionals.  If you don’t know me from the next indie author, you might be asking yourself why I believe I can state such a claim.  Well, first of all, my books pass the eye test.  My covers are solid, professional-looking covers.  My reviews have been almost unanimously glowing, with few if any comments about formatting or editing issues.   But most importantly, I’m finally starting to make some real money with my stories.  February was the first month in which I earned more money with my writing than at my day job.  March won’t be as robust, but it’s really starting to add up over time.

So, you might be asking yourself, “How does money make you a professional author?”

Well, on the one hand, I could say that in most cases, earning money defines professionalism.

To put it in perspective, I’ve far exceeded the advances I would’ve gotten if I would’ve sold my novels to either the small press or lower-tier paperback publishers.  And I’ve accomplished this within 15 months of my first indie release.   Paperback advances are for contracts that last from 5-7 years.  Most books never earn the author more than the advance.  As I see it, I have 3-5 more years of earnings per book before those supposed professional contracts would’ve expired.  My titles would’ve been relegated to limbo for years, most likely already pulled from bookstore shelves.  I’m no longer insecure about my place in the publishing world; I travel a path of my own creation.

So, in conclusion, in this new era of publishing, an author can set his or her own trajectory, and professionalism is now defined by the author, not a publisher.  In this new era, authors are no longer bound to the constraints of a system rigged to syphon money away from the story’s creator.  I’ve set my own trajectory, and while I’m not saying I will never take a traditional publishing deal, I would have to think long and hard about it.

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About glenkrisch

Writer, freelance editor, runner, family man, wanna-be farmer, neo-luddite
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8 Responses to Vanity vs. Professional Publishing in the New ebook Era

  1. Glen: You are a professional. Authors now have a choice as the distinctions become more blurred. I look at Poe and Orwell and the many other top-tier authors who self published along the way. No one takes them to task. Keep writing and enjoy the journey!

  2. glenkrisch says:

    Thanks for the comments, Michael. I actually had Poe in mind when I wrote this post. I believe he often sold stories at $.03/word, which is still the pro rate, isn’t it? Orwell is another favorite of mine. His essays are brilliant.

    • Ed Robertson says:

      $.03/word is WAY outdated. These days, pro rates are sitting pretty at $.05!

      I didn’t think much of them at the time, but these days I’m glad for those years of rejection. They’re sneakily educational. If nothing else, they sure teach patience.

      • glenkrisch says:

        Before I decided to self-publish Brother’s Keeper, I was debating if I should let a very well-resepcted small press buy it for $100. I’m so glad I didn’t agree to that! It’s only been a few months since its release, and I’ve already made 10x that amount. Much better than the $.00625/word that I had a hard time turning down.

  3. Couldn’t agree more. If you do the work, it’s just another form of being published. And your covers and work are definitely on the level.

    I’m hoping the business model inverts. So far as I can tell, authors are the creators, which means they should have control, rather than publishers. Seems like maybe eventually authors could be the ones hiring editors and artists and marketing teams, further blurring the line in terms of overall quality.

    I also like independent publishing, because I feel it works out better for the reader’s wallet, as well. As soon as you go with a larger company, the prices of the books double or triple.

    • glenkrisch says:

      And I think the indie press allows an author to not be limited by genre, which is often the case when dealing with the Big 6. I’m soon going to embark on a dystopian time travel story that will be partially epistolary in content. How would I market that to a traditional publisher?

  4. Thanks for the great post. I think you draw an important distinction here. Most of the flak that self-published authors get in the community come from unprofessional, vanity press types. As far as I’m concerned, any indie author who treats his career as a business and conducts him or herself accordingly has a place at the table. Of course, part of earning your seat is about making sure your product can stand toe to toe with the big boys. Indie authors should expect to pay between $500-1000 per novel to ensure it meets those standards (for things like editing, formatting and cover design). I think it’s when indie authors take short cuts, or resort to shenanigans that we all get a bad name.

    • glenkrisch says:

      Hmm… I don’t want to admit what I’ve spent to self-publish my titles. Definitely not $1000. But if it took spending that kind of money to produce a professional title, I would. I don’t resort to shenanigans, just hard work and OCD.

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