Blog Post

Smashwords: Vanity Publishing or Innovative Content Delivery?

swlogoNot too long ago, I posted about BookGlutton, a service which allowed for online collaborative reading. You could also upload your own work, but that wasn’t the main focus of the site. Smashwords, on the other hand, is a web site devoted to self-publishing. It doesn’t lend itself to collaboration, necessarily, but it does present another possible method of content delivery, and for web workers looking for another revenue stream, it may provide an avenue for monetizing your content.

For me, it also raises the age-old question: is self-publishing really just a form of vanity publishing, along with all the negative connotations that implies?

It’s a thorny question, and one that takes on new significance as we slowly but surely move away from print media towards online publishing. I went to school for writing, and had it drilled into me pretty much every day that unless it was someone else’s name on the masthead of the journal or press I was publishing with, I wasn’t accomplishing anything.

Online, however, many of the most successful professionals are self-published, and self-made. Darren Rowse, Guy Kawasaki and Om Malik Richard MacManus come to mind. They are dealing primarily in the medium of the blog, however. The stigma associated with self-publishing doesn’t seem to have entirely disappeared when it comes to books.

Smashwords is a service for self-publishing your own eBook. Once you’ve signed up for an account you can upload your original work and offer it for sale at a price of your own choosing. Your book will also be available for purchase via Stanza for the iPhone, the most popular and fastest-growing eReader available. Authors make a royalty of 85% of the net proceeds from the sale of their work. Readers using the service get free samples of all the books available on the site, and get access to search and library-building services.

It’s a good system, but will it work? Even if you already have a built-in readership from a successful blogging career, will users be willing to take the extra step and pay for your content in eBook form? The answer probably depends on what kind of content you’re offering. If you’re just repackaging your blog as paid content, it probably won’t pay off. But if you’re offering valuable content that extends, rather than mirrors, your blog-based content, Smashwords may be a useful platform.

To me, the benefit of a service like Smashwords, and self-publishing in general, is the same benefit that consulting firms get from preparing free research reports for distribution to clients. It’s a proof of competency, a means to show you can and will deliver the type of results they’re looking for. And with distribution via Stanza, there’s also the possibility that you could reach potential clients where you otherwise wouldn’t have, even if you do end up just reformatting your blog content for alternative distribution.

What do you think about self-publishing? Is it a good means to increase your revenue or profile as a web worker?

15 Responses to “Smashwords: Vanity Publishing or Innovative Content Delivery?”

  1. John R. Hernandez

    Vanity publishers are similar to traditional publishers, but, without much of the structured roadblocks set before an author. However, like any other profit seeking entity it has to have some form of content access mechanisms in order to control what is being offered by the untold millions worldwide; in contrast to what the average reader can get access to via the traditional realm of book publishing. Traditional publishing is like what major league baseball is to the grapefruit leagues. In that the exposure and the access of the player is controlled by this giant industry; which refuses to open up its doors to the millions of author/players out there. Because, only the few noteworthy ones are chosen by editors/coaches/scouts and or committees behind closed doors and or via marketing schemes, that purport to tell them which author has a greater likelihood of bringing in a greater return for their buck. The average author like any other struggling artist has had no choice but pay to get the exposure, while living a life wrought with impoverishment or eventual insanity.
    Let’s face it, the main reason why writers choose the ebook format is, because, access through traditional publishing avenues is a maze of complicated rules and regulations; that appear to favor the few handpicked authors. While, the majority of promising writers often find themselves struggling to get their ideas and content out into the hands of the buying public. It’s no wonder why in the era of the 90’s, 80’s and 2000’s we saw the growth and appeal of vanity and self pub entities; which has, given rise to today’s ebook publishing mania. Gone are the days, where, one had to hire and agent, send out countless query letters, and or come up with hundreds if not thousands of dollars to pay to get ones book into the mass market industry; where, readers could get a taste of ones work. Gone are the days where we had to spend hundreds of dollars to enter contests and become members to sites, where, one would get exposure and if lucky enough win some prize and eventual noteworthiness. It seemed like wherever one turned there was some entity willing to offer you the promise of grandeur if only you dolled out money or placed your work into the hands of its editors and or committees; in order to find the promise of exposure, which ultimately favored the few over the thousands. The out of pocket expenditures and tough competition via vanity houses created much the same eventual roadblocks -like we have been accustomed to encountering- through the traditional venues. Enter the new age of publishing via ebook format compilers, where, internet access and a willingness to spend a few hours a day, if that, can make an author out of almost anybody with some creativity. Gone are the shackles of traditional and or vanity publishers. The question asked by many of today’s pundits is how will ebook format fair compared to the well established traditional and vanity houses? And the answer can only be that ebook publishing has taken off; the genie is out of the box. So, without strict government rules and or regulations the limit to the growth and or expansion of the internet ebook publishing format can only be interpreted as a limitless access to the millions of hungry authors and readers out there. In terms of revenue or market share, the percentages in comparison to traditional and or vanity versus ebook formatting can best be estimated by the growing number of traditional houses -who have chosen- to embrace this new publishing format; and venture into the new era of ebook publishing with open arms. So, in ending, the fact still remains that you have to pay something to be in the game; but, you can now go it solo and with far less restrictions and or the occasional snub of the nose from editors and or smug faced publishers.

  2. Paul Harker

    Yes vanity press has a bad name. Seems that it is popular to say that the commercial publishers are uncaring monsters. Not true. They care: about money.

    And for that reason they pay folks to read the books that are submitted and toss out the chaff and keep the grain. Yes, it is a somewhat arbitrary process, no one man or woman can judge the entire literary world. Yes, some pure garbage still makes it to press.

    Then, once the book makes it past the acceptance gates, it goes on to the editor for further massaging. (Yes, there are also some horrible editors, and yes, I am sure I’ve made grammar errors in this post.)

    But at least they try, because putting a poor or bad book on the shelves is going to lose money. (Unless of course the author has a huge name, and that is a different story.) So by the time a book hits the shelves, we the readers hope that the worst of it has hit the circular file.

    Last month I had the pleasure (if you define pleasure similar to the feeling you get the morning after over-indulging) of reading a vanity/Smashwords book written by a co-worker. Ouch. Double-ouch.

    Nothing is stopping a great author from publishing on Smashwords. Unfortunately, nothing is stopping my co-worker either.

  3. Great to see this thread is still alive nine months later. In the last night months, a lot has happened at Smashwords. We’re now publishing almost 5,000 ebooks. Self publishing is gaining more respect than ever, especially thanks to authors like Janice above who are either currently or formerly published by large traditional NY publishers.

    In the last three months, we’ve announced distribution agreements with several of the major ebook retailers, including Barnes & Noble, Shortcovers, Sony and, (this week), Amazon. This means any author, anywhere in world, can publish and distribute their books to potentially millions of readers.

    But to Anon’s question above, just because it’s free and easy to publish and distribute an ebook doesn’t mean it’s easy to sell one. Authors still need to get out there and market their books.

  4. I am the author of 7 print novels and 2 collections of short stories, most published by a major publishing company in NY. I’m on my 9th agent–I think–who recently dropped my latest novel, “A Righteous Wind,” for “political” reasons. I knew this was my biggest and most dramatic novel, so I was devastated when I had no way to get it “out there.” Then, I discovered Smashwords and published it, with several of my other “better” novels, which had likewise been rejected along the way (yes, I’m a writing machine, for sure). I am so happy to be independent and able to have a bit of control over my work. I’m fairly new at this form of publishing and so far I’ve not found a way to promote my ebooks at Smashwords. One of my novels, “Earl in the Yellow Shirt,” has just come out in ebook format from HarperCollins. I’m eager to see how my Smashwords books compare in sales. Thank you, Mark Coker, for this friendly, magical publishing post. Janice Daugharty

  5. This is a wonderful article, and I agree with Mark’s statement regarding the retirement of the “V” word. I think for a long time, I allowed myself to become discouraged with writing because I viewed the traditional publishing route to be somewhat elitist, and the term vanity publishing held such a negative connotation. My writing suffered for it.

    I recently joined and love it. I find I’m writing more, I’m writing better, and I’m paying more attention to my own editing and formatting. I currently have three short stories on my profile, and two of them are for free. I am encouraged to write more because I feel I have a place to share my work. I figure the chances of being published to the point where I can quit my day job are slim, so I look at any money received as a bonus, and consider it a compliment that someone is willing to pay a little bit to see how the story ends.

  6. Umm – where have you been? Leaving aside the confusion between self-publishing and vanity publishing, which is huge, were you aware that all of the following started out self published? Chicken Soup For The Soul, What Color Is My Parachute?, The Celestine Prophecy.

    Most people on the cutting edge of publishing are on the side of why would you NOT self publish? Especially since a) bookstores are (totally sadly and tragically) increasingly irrelevant to book sales and b) Amazon takes a higher share of the money than any other form of distribution.

  7. I’m with Mark on this one (and I am a happy Smashwords user!).
    Vanity press is a publishing house that charges authors for printing their books.
    Smashwords does not charge authors for publishing – but they take a small % of sales.
    They are therefore a self-publishing platform, for authors who are out there and using Web 2.0 in the way it is intended – write, produce, consume, interact, promote…yourself.
    These are fun times for authors – and Smashwords is an easy way to get your book onto the iphone and your words out there.

    The Creative Penn – Writing, self-publishing, print-on-demand, internet sales and marketing…for your book

  8. Darrell, thank you for this story.

    You raise an important issue. For many years, self-publishing has been associated with “vanity” publishing. I think it’s time we retire the “V” word as it relates to self-publishing and indie authorship because it minimizes the great work of so many talented and professional writers.

    The prejudice against self-publishing is deep seated in the industry. This prejudice is especially strong among authors themselves. Most authors were trained from the beginning that they should aspire to become traditionally published, because the big publishers were viewed as the ultimate arbiters of quality and talent. There was also the tacit assumption traditional publishing was the best route to commercial success (this may be true today, but it will become less true in the future).

    Authors who could not break into these favored ranks of commercially published authors were considered failures.

    I think that’s sad and unfair.

    I created Smashwords because I believe every author has a right to publish and have a shot at reaching their audience.

    I fully respect the right of commercial publishers to publish only the authors they choose, though I also recognize that the traditional publishing industry faces some wrenching change ahead as it adapts to new business models and stronger competition from alternative media sources (this blog among them). In the next couple years, it’s quite likely we’ll see fewer big publishers, fewer brick and mortar bookstores, and fewer publishers taking big chances on unknown authors. In other words, there will be fewer opportunities for talented authors to rise to what was previously considered the highest caste of authordom.

    It also means many talented authors will either be orphaned by their publishers, or will compete for the scarcer number of spots and resources gifted to the favored few.

    Either way, all authors, both indie and commercially published, will need to take more personal responsibility for their own publishing success.

    Authors today now have the tools (Smashwords among them) to publish, promote and sell their works on their own. It’s tough work, and the number of commercially successful indie authors will be rare (just as a traditionally published “best seller” is rare), but at least they’ll have a shot at authorship and a chance to prove their worth, as opposed to relying upon some publishing gatekeeper to make the decision for them.

    It’s also worth noting that authors write for many reasons. I would argue that most artists and authors are driven more by the desire for self expression and personal discovery than by the expectation of commercial success. Chris Baty, founder of Nanowrimo, said as much earlier this week during his keynote address at the Tools of Change conference in New York, when he was describing why over 100,000 ordinary people devoted the entire month of November to write a novel from scratch. I blogged about it today at

  9. I have done a little on SmashWords. Where else can a person “be published” with a few short stories? There are the college-based journals of short stories, but wait six months between acceptance and publication and get paid $25. Oh, and by the way, the college professor that taught us that someone else had to publish our work probably edited one of these college-based publications.

  10. I work in publishing — for I don’t see anything “vain” about self publishing your ebook or print book, if you do it for the right reasons.

    As with any product, the right reasons to develop it are because there is a demand / need that you can satisfy. If you’re doing it to just see your name [or photo ;-) ] on a cover, or to show off about “my latest ebook” then yes it is vanity publishing.

    Publishers are no longer necessary for the mechanics of distribution, but they do still do a lot of important work. Many authors who write books would not produce the results they do (in terms of quality and in terms of sales) if they didn’t work with a publisher.

  11. I recently read John T. Reed’s “How To Write, Publish, and Sell Your Own How-To Book”. He explains the differences between the traditional published author and the self-publisher, as well as the difference between self-distribution and using traditional methods. He has nothing against eBooks, but considers the technology too immature to take a chance on it.

    Self publishing is definitely a way to get into the market. I’ve considered writing a couple of books on a variety of topics, but my odds of getting them past a traditional publisher (much less an agent). A service like this could help me to product information that might be helpful to a few people. I’m sure the market might be small, but if my work is useful to a few people and a small charge for the eBook is agreeable, I think it would be a good thing.

  12. I think a more important question is whether “traditional” book publishers will continue to be required in the future. With digital distribution, publishers are no longer a necessary part of the chain: self-publishing (whether through a service like Smashwords or independently) is becoming more commonplace. Devices like the Kindle and the iPhone will only accelerate this trend.