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Traditional, Self, Indie, and Vanity Publishing—What’s the Difference?

Traditional Publishing, Self-Publishing, Indie and Vanity Publishing

Traditional publishing, self-publishing, indie-publishing, and vanity-publishing. It’s enough to make your head spin, and with all the constant changes, it’s hard to keep up. It’s even hard to have a conversation sometimes.

The trouble is that the terminology we use in almost any industry, sport, hobby, or even a company is almost always well-known by insiders and gibberish to outsiders. Even if you’ve worked in a certain company department for umpteen years, miscommunication can easily occur with others in another department.

Just last week, a writer I met said publishing her novel had cost thousands of dollars. I was floored. The way she explained it told me her area of knowledge wasn’t something I often think about, but I didn’t realize it at first.

“It shouldn’t cost anything,” I said.

“But it did,” she said.

“No, it reallyseriously?”

I shook my head. She nodded. We stared at each other, and she didn’t offer any other information. So I thought for a moment. Assuming she’s telling the truth, what could she possibly mean?

“Oh, okay,” I finally said, still unsure, but I wanted to figure this out. “Come to think of it, the cost of an editor, a proofreader, a good cover designer… You’re right. I stand corrected.”

All that can definitely add up to $1000s. That wasn’t what she meant, as it turned out, but she nodded. And with a little more information, I was able to figure it out.

What kind of publishing was she referring to?

Traditional publishing

Traditional or trade publishing is the easiest to understand because it’s been around for so long. Here’s the simplified version.

In traditional publishing, an author writes a book and typically submits the manuscript (MS) to literary agents (sometimes directly to a publishing company, also called a “house”). A literary agent accepts or rejects the MS and, if accepted, a contract is drawn up, signed, and the agent presents the MS to publishing houses. When accepted by a publishing house, the MS is edited in collaboration with the author, the title may be modified or changed, and a cover is designed among many other details, all of which are designed to improve potential sales. Finally, the finished book is published, marketed, and advertised.

Note: Upon acceptance by a publishing house, the author is typically paid an advance on estimated future royalties (portion of sales). The publisher receives payment as a percentage of sales, and the literary agent is also paid a commission, often 15% of the advance plus future sales. At no point should a reputable literary agent receive a fee prior to this point, and the publisher does not receive money until the book sells.

Indie and self-publishing

Indie or independent publishing is often used synonymously with self-publishing, but it doesn’t carry the same connotations that self-publishing sometimes does.

Indie publishing can refer to a small publishing house or “press” that’s not owned by a larger company or corporation. It serves any number of authors, and it may specialize in a particular type of book. Think of coffee shops. There’s the ubiquitous coffeehouse chain with the two-tailed mermaid logo, and then you have the indie coffee shops independently owned and operated by one person, a bunch of friends, or a family.

Akashic Books is a good example of an independent publisher.

Among authors, however, indie publishing usually means an author acts as both writer and publisher and performs all necessary work for a book to sell. That can mean the author has published one book or many, and it can also mean the author has established their publishing efforts as a business—or not.

For example, Trevor Smart and Tammy Bold can be called indie publishers simply because they publish their own books independent of any agent or publishing house. But they can also own and legally register an indie publishing company and call it Smart Publishing or Bold Publishers or anything they want.

And like any publisher, an author can pay others to do some or all of the work beyond writing such as editing and proofreading, cover design, and even marketing or PR. Or they can do all the work in house—on their own.

Both indie publishing and self-publishing, when referring to an author, usually mean digital publishing: ebooks made available via online retailers. Physical books can also be made available as print-on-demand (POD); that is, a reader who prefers a printed copy may order the book online through an online retailer. The book is then printed by a POD supplier, which may be the retailer itself or a POD company in partnership with the retailer, such as Createspace and Amazon although Amazon is currently testing its own POD service. The retailer then delivers the printed book to the purchaser: the reader.

While no payment is required up front, the retailer does take a commission from the sales price for each book, whether in ebook format or print. A POD company will also require payment, also as a commission though it varies. The author may receive around 35%-70% of the sale price, depending on the retailer and the arrangement.

A “print run” isn’t necessary in indie or self-publishing. That is, a large quantity of printed books need not be published since POD means printing directly from orders as they’re received, whether it’s a single unit or many. The process typically takes only a few days, and no money needs to be spent by the author—usually. However, the author may choose to order printed books (usually at a reduced price) to have on hand or offer at a book sale. It’s not necessary, though.

This article offers some important details: How to Self-Publish Your Book

No matter how the work gets done, indie or self-publishing is very much the same as traditional publishing except the author performs or manages all aspects of writing and publishing. In addition, the focus is generally on ebooks, sometimes exclusively. Print copies are made on demand, if at all, and books aren’t usually available in bookstores.

And that brings us to vanity publishing.

Vanity publishing

Here is where self-publishing can be confusing.

Years ago, self-publishing was also called vanity publishing, and it still is sometimes. I rarely see the term or hear it, but it’s alive and kicking; a quick Google search turns up plenty.

Vanity publishing carries a negative connotation because it’s assumed an author has written something no publisher will accept and therefore must take the self-publishing route and pay for printed books to sell. The assumption is also made that an author must pay a company to handle certain aspects of publishing even if the focus is digital (ebooks). But that’s no longer true.

Vanity publishing, as defined years ago, meant spending a lot of money upfront for things you can do yourself now or a stack of books that may or may not sell. Sometimes only a few dozen are printed for family members, as in the case of a memoir or a family history. I think that’s a lovely idea if that’s the goal. Other times, the supposedly ego-driven author believes they can and will sell their books to a readership hungry for their stories.

But there’s no shame in self-publishing any more than there’s shame in being a painter or pottery maker and selling your own creative work. Being a musician and managing your own recordings or taking payment from a bar or club to play on a Saturday night isn’t shameful, either. Whether an author self-publishes (by any definition) or submits a manuscript to a literary agent doesn’t reflect on vanity, pride, or ego. It simply means the creative person believes in their work and believes or hopes people will enjoy it. Sales—or no sales—are the final judge. 

Famous authors of the 19th century self-published, by the way. You can start here and do some research if you’re curious.

Your choice depends on your personality and skills

Choosing traditional publishing or self/indie publishing isn’t about what you write so much; it’s more about you and your willingness to engage in marketing and self-promotion. Even in traditional publishing, you’ll have to get out there and talk to people. You’ll need to understand and use social media to promote your work. The difference is that you’re not completely on your own.

Remember: If you’re looking for information about self-publishing or indie-publishing, be careful. Anything older than 2-3 years is archaic by Internet standards, and with publishing undergoing rapid changes, you usually want this year’s information, not last year’s.

This article, for example, is probably at least 10 years old or written by someone not up-to-date with current practices. Self-publishing, as used here, refers to the old-fashioned concept of vanity publishing.

Hybrid publishing

Just a quick note on this. Nothing in publishing is black and white. Any number of combinations of self-publishing and traditional publishing exists.

As an example, you can be a self-publisher and also be represented by a literary agent in the case of agent-assisted self-publishingOr certain traditional-style publishing houses may require up-front author payment to cover investment costs in the event the book is not successful. Read more here.


Have you figured out what type of self-publishing I was referring to at the start of this article? If you said “vanity publishing,” you’re right. The writer I mentioned had spent $1000s on “publishing” (printing) physical copies of her novel. I didn’t ask for details nor did I ask how successful she’d been. Judging from her tone of voice and facial expression, however, I suspect it wasn’t a great experience.

Whether you choose traditional or indie/self-publishing, it doesn’t have* to cost anything up front. One is not necessarily better than the other nor does one or the other offer a better chance of success. 

Just make sure your knowledge is current.

*Professional editing and proofreading along with a professional cover is highly recommended. And that can cost money, of course, unless you have qualified friends or relatives who offer help. But as anyone knows, Fifty Shades of Grey was a complete editing and proofreading disaster, but it succeeded anyway. Few of us would have that kind of luck, though, and I don’t recommend trying it.

Questions? Comments? Hit me up in the comment section below.

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