How To Identify A Vanity Publisher

If you’re a writer, then you’ve almost certainly encountered a vanity press at some point in your career. Of course, being the deceptive animals that they are, vanity publishers rarely call themselves by that name. Instead you may have seen descriptions such as “author service provider”, or “self-publishing consultancy”. The one thing that most of these companies have in common is that they don’t make their money by publishing books; instead they’re more intent on raking it in by taking advantage of unwary writers. A quick glance over some of the testimonies of writers who’ve been rinsed by these scammers shows that it’s no trivial deal. Falling for a vanity publishing scheme can cost you thousands.

Legitimate publishers identify writers who they believe are producing promising work, and then invest in them by producing, printing, marketing and promoting books. They edit and proofread. They use their contacts to secure reviews. They place the book in bookstores and make it available online. They pay their writers an advance or royalties, and do everything they can to ensure that the books they publish are successful.

Vanity publishers, on the other hand, have a different approach. They reel in any and all writers they can reach with false promises and flattery. They charge writers to have their book printed, and then wring them out still further by charging for marketing services, promotion, and even for basic fulfilment. They pressure writers to sell to their family and friends, while doing nothing to help. Sometimes they don’t even bother to print the book, and instead simply disappear with the writer’s money in hand.

The basic difference is this: legitimate publishers make their money by selling books to the general public; vanity publishers claim to do this, but actually make their money by selling publishing services to unwary authors.

Some Things That Aren’t Vanity Publishing…

Let’s be clear: not every publisher operates in the same way, and not every kind of publishing that involves putting in some cash at the beginning is a scam. Here are three types of company that – although they may look a little shady at first glance – aren’t necessarily out to trick you. Indeed, they can be excellent ways to publish for the right author with the right book. Be careful, as always, but don’t automatically lump them in with the vanity publishing crowd…


Print-on-demand (POD) is a method of digital printing whereby single copies of a book can be printed and bound whenever necessary. Tonnes of reputable companies offer this service, and using POD technology can be a great way to self-publish without having to hire a warehouse for your unsold stock. You shouldn’t have to pay a fee to make your book available in this way, but you also shouldn’t expect doing so to lead to many sales. POD is really just a type of fulfilment – you’re still going to have to do the marketing legwork yourself.

Subsidy Publishing

Subsidy publishers ask that the authors they publish chip in towards the costs of publication. Though most are as close to vanity publishers as makes no odds, there are a small handful of legitimate presses which operate in this fashion. If you decide to work with a subsidy press, make sure to do some digging first. Check that they are selective about what they publish, that they produce high-quality books, and that they actually invest some money in promotion and marketing.

Self-Publishing Services

These companies work with self-publishing authors to help them bring their books to completion. They may offer editing, proofreading, printing or marketing services in exchange for a fee. Reputable companies will be honest about their role, and will not pretend to be publishers. If you’ve decided that you want to self-publish, but don’t know where to get started (and don’t want to take the time to learn) these companies could be right for you.

How A Vanity Publisher Typically Works

Vanity publishers make their money in two main ways. The first is by selling publishing services to authors. They might ask prospective authors to pay to have their book printed, pay to have it edited, pay to have it proofread, or pay to make it available in shops (all things that legitimate publishers will provide for free). The costs quickly mount up – and don’t end once the book has been printed. Even when you have a physical book in hand the requests for more money will keep rolling in: for promotion, for corrections, for “review copies”, or for enhanced distribution. Vanity publishes won’t stop badgering you for money until you have none left, and sometimes not even then.

The second way that vanity publishers make money is by selling books. They do not, however, sell to the general public. Vanity publishers rarely expend the money or energy necessary to get their books into brick-and-mortar bookstores, and do so little promotion that the chances of anyone stumbling upon a vanity-published book online are nil. Instead vanity publishers sell almost exclusively to the friends and families of the writers they publish. Poetry anthologies are a particular favourite of publishing scammers. If you don’t care about presentation, then it’s possible to cram thousands of poems into a single cheap book – and if they compel each published poet to buy at least one or two copies (at a vastly-inflated price) there’s some very healthy profit to be made.

For many victims, the nightmare doesn’t end when they finally realise that they’ve mistakenly thrown their lot in with a vanity press. Unethical companies will often refuse to give up the rights to a particular title without payment of a hefty fee – effectively holding the book to ransom. The author cannot simply take their manuscript to another publisher and try again, but equally can’t get their vanity publisher to actually do any work, or even provide copies of the book. Publish with the wrong company and not only might you be out of pocket to the tune of thousands, but all the hard work you put into crafting your book might well be down the drain.

How To Identify A Vanity Publisher

Check P&E And Writer Beware

Until recently Preditors & Editors would have been your first port of call if you had any doubts about a given publisher. This fantastic database kept tabs on a huge number of publishing companies, magazines and agents, tallying reports from writers and flagging up companies that might be operating in a less-then-ethical manner. Unfortunately, despite providing a sterling service to the writing community since 1997, P&E never quite received the level of support it deserved. It’s currently mothballed, awaiting a new caretaker.

In its absence, you can turn to Writer Beware, a service run by Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers Of America. This site is still live and kicking, and maintains a blog which charts the latest literary scams as they make the rounds, as well as lists of publishers and literary agents that you shouldn’t touch with a barge pole. If the name of the company you’re dealing with crops up on any of their listings, run.

Scan The Website

Many vanity publishers will be quick to assure writers of how genuine they are, while at the same time dismissing other methods of publishing. Legitimate publishers do not need to state that they are legitimate, nor do they need to emphasize things like “free cover design” or “reasonable publishing prices”. Most legitimate publishers know (and would expect their writers to know) that the author does not pay for the privilege of having a book published.

Also be on the lookout for signs that a publisher accepts anything and everything. Look out for any indication that you might be expected to hand over some money at some point during the process. Look out for assurances that it will be quick and easy to publish with them. If they offer a “free publishing guide” in exchange for your email, avoid them like the plague.

Be Wary Of Over-Eager Publishers

Flattery is a tactic often used by vanity publishers in order to convince authors to hand over their money. Be wary of any response to a submission that heaps non-specific praise on your work, or any publisher that seems pushy or overly-insistent about getting their hands on you. It is in the interests of legitimate publishers to be careful and selective, in order to put out the best books they can. It is in the interests of vanity publishers to cast as wide a net as possible, to publish anything, and to convince the people they are publishing that each and every one of them has penned a work of unique genius.

Judge Books By Their Covers

Take a look at the covers of some of the books the company has already published (which you should be able to find with ease wherever you normally purchase books). Legitimate publishers hire competent designers who know what they’re doing to produce high-quality covers. Some scam publishers will try to save money by doing the cover design themselves – and the results usually show. If a publisher has a catalogue full of books with appalling or amateur-looking covers, avoid them! After all, would you want your own book packaged in such a shoddy way?

Be Wary Of A Lack Of Editing

You should be immediately wary of any publisher who wishes to print your book without editing or proofreading it. The profits of legitimate publishers rest on the quality of the books they publish, and so they will do everything they can to ensure that they are the best they can be. Vanity publishers don’t care about the quality of the books they publish, as the only people to whom they will sell are the family and friends of the author. Vanity publishers will, therefore, rarely bother with thorough editing or proofreading.

Don’t Part With Any Money!

Not all publishers can afford to pay an advance, but at the very minimum the publisher should bear the cost of editing, cover design, printing and distribution. The author should not pay for the publishing process. Think of it like this: legitimate publishers take risks on your behalf. Publishing a book is a risk – it costs a great deal of money and takes a lot of time and energy. Publishers will take on that risk when they are confident that they can sell enough copies of a book to recoup their investment. If a publisher asks YOU to take some of the risk by paying to publish, it may well mean that they don’t plan to sell a single copy of your book for you – and why would they? They’ve already made a profit by fleecing you!

There are some exceptions to this rule. Post-publication, for example, you may be expected to pay for transport and accommodation costs for your book tour. And agents will sometimes ask to be reimbursed for photocopying or other reasonable expenses. Bear this in mind, but still be wary if you find yourself out of pocket while seeking to publish a book.

Are They Aimed At Writers Not Readers?

Have a look at the website, books and promotional materials of the publisher you’re considering working with. Does it look as though they are trying to sell books? Or does it look as though they are trying to solicit authors to send in their work? An advert which reads: “Got A Book? Publish Today Quickly And Easily With Simple Author Press”, should be very worrying. Why is this publisher spending money soliciting submissions, rather than promoting the books they have already produced? Most legitimate publishers already have more submissions than they can handle – would they really need to place a general advert to get even more? No legitimate publisher is starving for manuscripts. Trust me.

Read The Contract

Better yet, get a lawyer or agent to read it for you. Keep an eye out for any clause that compels you to purchase a certain number of copies of your own book. Have a look and see what happens if you are unhappy with the publisher and wish to terminate the contract. Make sure you know what you’re getting and what you’ll be expected to do. And if you have any questions – ask! Most legitimate publishers will be happy to elaborate, and won’t pressure you to sign.

Google Them!

If a vanity publisher has been scamming authors for any length of time at all, it is generally possible to find accounts of their dodgy behaviour on the internet. Search for the name of the publishing company in combination with words like “scam” or “vanity”. This, more than anything else, is one of the easiest ways to make sure you don’t get taken in by a dodgy publisher.

Big Publishers Too

Sadly, many large and well-respected publishers have seen the potential for profit in vanity publishing. A number of them have now founded imprints based on “pay to publish” models. Have a look at this article for more details, and bear in mind that even if a given company is connected with a major or reputable publisher, there is no guarantee that they are in any way legitimate.

Sundry Other Scams

Editing Scams

Another favourite tactic of unscrupulous publishers is to fire off letters overflowing with praise for your work, but also saying that the manuscript just isn’t quite ready for publication. Luckily all it needs is a little light editing. If they don’t offer to arrange this for you for a modest fee, they’ll likely instead offer you a referral to one of their favourite editorial agencies (who will, of course, be paying said publisher a healthy commission for each mark sent their way). As you might imagine this can be a very profitable enterprise – with the possibility of publication just out of reach, many authors will hand over money they otherwise would not.

Dodgy Agents

Getting an agent can be such an impossible task that your instinct – when one replies to you brimming over with enthusiasm and praise for your work – might be to jump at the opportunity. But be careful: hidden fees could be just over the horizon. Legitimate agents usually make their money by taking a reasonable chunk out of any money that they make by selling your work. If they want paying up front, consider the possibility that they don’t plan on actually selling your work at all.

Writing Competitions

There are plenty of writing competitions out there, and most are safe to enter. Watch out, however, for contests that have an unusually high entry fee. A couple of dollars is all well and good, but if you’re paying twenty-five dollars for a chance to win a hundred, the numbers really don’t add up. And if you’re lucky enough to win a prize, make sure to read the congratulatory message carefully. If they expect you to shell out for a copy of the prize anthology, or pay a fee to be included in the first place… well, you can be sure that you’re not the only “winner”.