Books by Melissa Bowersock

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

How Do You Define Vanity?

A recent post at opened up a very interesting discussion on the definition (and merit) of vanity publishing. Vanity publishing in general is paying a publisher to publish your book. It’s the direct opposite of traditional publishing where the publisher pays you, the author, an advance to publish your book, expecting that sales will make up for and then exceed the amount of the advance. (One caveat to this is PublishAmerica, which does not charge to publish your book, but is a vanity scam nonetheless. See At the end of the article, they pose a thought-provoking question:

Is it vanity to write at all? Why doesn’t the musician entertaining the crowd down (at) the pub not get accused of vanity for getting up and playing his music? Why is (it) only writers who are asked to justify their urge to create?

I found that last point extremely interesting; someone who writes their own songs, arranges them and sings them is considered a genius. A writer who does it all is ... ? What? Delusional? Dreaming?

Why is that?

If the process is similar and both are art forms uniquely expressed by the individual, what’s the difference? It occurs to me that there could be two reasons.

1. There is a difference between people who self-express via music and those who self-express via words.

I don’t really see how anyone could think this was true. The processes are very similar: cognitive creation in the brain is set down on paper as notes or words, edited and arranged to form pleasing patterns that inspire and evoke emotion. Writing very often is educational, but music can be used that way, as well, as in teaching songs. The way I see it, the end result is a different flavor, but the process is one and the same. The difference is in degree, not kind.

2. There is a difference in the perception of singer/songwriters vs. writers.

This seems to make more sense to me. Just imagine if a friend of ours came to us and said he’d written a song and had arranged all the music and he was going to record it and then shop it around to the local radio stations. I think for most of us, our reaction would be—great! Good luck, wish you all the best, hope you sell a million copies.

Now imagine another friend came and said he had written a novel, had done all the editing himself, the proofing, had designed his own cover and was going to self-publish it. What’s the reaction going to be then?

Uh, you’re doing what? But …, but that’s hard. You need help with that, don’t you? Professional help? Editing? Don’t you need a publisher to help you polish it? Isn’t it really expensive? How many books do you really think you’re going to sell?

So what’s the difference? I’m guessing most people think that writing a book is much, much harder than writing a song. I guess that’s flattering to those of us who do write books, but the flip side is that it seems to be much harder to garner respect and acknowledgement for our accomplishments, especially from people who have never written or published a book and don’t know anything about the process.

Reminds me of the old saying: Those who say something can’t be done should get out of the way of the people who are already doing it.

So next time you hear about someone doing it all in their literary pursuits, how about just giving them a big ol’ attaboy?


  1. I disagree with your conclusion that the double standard is because writing is seen as much harder. I think a couple of things are going on.

    1) Writing a good book is seen as *easier* than writing a good song. Anyone can write a book, right? Or at least, there are huge numbers of people who think they have a great novel in them.

    2) Reading is seen as less natural than listening to music. You have to *learn* to read. You don't need any kind of education to listen to music (although as a classically-trained musician myself, I believe it certainly expands one's appreciation).

    Just my $0.02. :)

  2. It can take almost as long to write a song as it can take to write a book. Some people can write an 80,000 word novel in six weeks, and some people can write a song between dishing up dinner and putting the baby to bed. It's not how FAST one can do something that determines its value. And value (like quality) is difficult to define anyway.

    Vanity publishing used to have a definite definition! Now it's gone hazy because the concepts have flipped since October 2010. It used to be the norm to approach a trad publisher, and anyone who did not, and published themselves (whether through a paid firm or otherwise) was seen to do it through 'vanity' rather than merit. These days, it is seen as vanity when one approaches a traditional publisher, simply because one is perceived to still value the cachet of having an imprint behind one's effort.

    If authors feel their work needs a known imprint to back it up, or to have the imprimatur of someone else before they show it to the world, it is today seen as vain, because it's so easy to publish anyway.

    Some authors still need to have their perceived merit backed up or endorsed. Others don't ... and there are many, many more of these others. Many think they have a novel in them - and let me tell you - most of them have put it our there... millions, in fact. This does not mean that everyone will want to read that novel, or that it's any good.

    One can be the equivalent of a classically trained musician in the literary sense - although basic reading is not the realm of everyone, informed and intelligent reading is even more narrow. Just as much education is needed to enjoy Prokofiev's Knight's Dance as is needed to understand Dostoevky's The Idiot.

    So yes, parallels can be drawn between reading, writing, playing and listening, but they are tenuous at best. Another parallel is the example of the cellist who could not find a rank and file job with an orchestra so busked in the shopping mall, and was spotted by a conductor. Amazing luck ... right time, right place kind of thing. But if that cellist had a bit less vanity it might never have happened. Or perhaps we can call it pluck.

    Vanity publishing was a term people gave to those who went solo. It is now skewed, so we might reserve this discussion for when it shifts a little more? Or not.

  3. Ladies, thanks much for extending the discussion. The more i think about it, tho, the more I see that the word "vanity" does not get applied to any artistic form except writing. When you think about all the forms of artistic self-expression (writing books, plays, poetry, writing music, songs, playing the cello or violin, painting, sculpture, even architecture and writing software), all those forms of expression and all efforts to promote them do not seem to attract that word like writing does. Why is it vanity for a writer to do what they do, yet not vanity for any other art? I would be glad to see the term dropped from its association with writing. Rosanne, I think you are right--it's still evolving, so we'll see what the future holds.