Vanity publishing is a slippery industry which, over its history, has given itself a number of different names. You might have come across “author service providers”, or “self-publishing consultancies”, or companies which refer to themselves as “subsidy” or “co-operative” presses. The one thing that many of these companies have in common is that they make their money by taking advantage of authors. Because they are in the business of deception, you’ll rarely find a vanity press that calls itself a vanity press – which is why that is the term that we’ll use in this guide.
Before explaining exactly how a vanity publisher operates, it might be useful to look at what a legitimate publisher does. A legitimate publisher identifies authors who it believes are producing promising work. It works with authors to produce books, which it will then market and promote, distribute to bookstores and sell online. It will edit. It will proofread. It will do everything it can to make its writers successful.
Vanity publishers will do very few of the same things that legitimate publishers do. Vanity publishers will accept the work of anyone. They will charge authors to have their book printed, and then make no effort to promote the finished product. They will sell copies of the book to the author, and pressure the author to sell to their family and friends.
- Legitimate publishers make money by selling books to the general public.
- Vanity publishers make their money by selling publishing services to unwary authors.
There are – now more than ever before – a huge number of different ways to publish a book. The three types of company listed below operate in ways that can appear unusual and shady. Indeed, they are worth being wary of… but they can also be excellent ways to publish for the right author with the right book. If you wish to work with any of the below, the important thing is to make sure that they are open and honest about what they do, and that you enter the process with realistic expectations.
Print-on-demand (POD) is a method of digital printing whereby single copies of a book can be printed and bound whenever necessary. There are many companies which offer this service, and using print-on-demand technology can be an great way to publish a book without any initial outlay, and without having to deal with distribution yourself.
You should not have to pay a fee in order to make your book available via print-on-demand technology (although you may wish to order a copy for yourself to check the finished product before making it generally available). You should also not expect to sell a single copy just because you’ve made your book available through POD. In order to be successful using print-on-demand technology, you will have to promote your book, or pay someone to promote it for you.
Subsidy publishers ask that the authors they publish make some contribution towards the costs of publication. Though most are as close to vanity publishers as makes no difference, there are a small number of legitimate presses which operate in this fashion. If you decide to work with a subsidy press, be sure that it is an honest and trustworthy one. Be very cautious about handing over money, and make sure you know what you will get in return. Make sure that they are selective about what they publish, that they produce high-quality books, and that they actually invest some money themselves in promotion and marketing.
These companies will work with self-publishing authors to help them bring their book to completion. They may offer editing, proofreading, printing or marketing services in exchange for a fee. Good companies will be honest about their role, and will not pretend to be publishers, or guarantee any form of success. Good companies will offer high-quality services at reasonable prices.
However, it is worth noting that most services offered by these companies can be found elsewhere at a much-reduced price. Often they charge hefty amounts for relatively simple tasks which any author could do for themselves given the right knowledge and time. If self-publishing, it is up to you whether or not to work with a self-publishing company. Ask yourself if the fee they quote is reasonable, and if they are being honest and transparent about what they do. Ask yourself if you could do some of the things they are charging for yourself. Consider also that some of these companies have a bad reputation – and so being marketed or promoted by them may do you little good.
How Vanity Publishers Typically Work
Vanity publishers make their money in one of 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. There may be requests for money for promotion, for corrections, for review copies, or for enhanced distribution. Vanity publishers will wring every penny that they can out of their authors.
The second way that vanity publishers make money is by selling books. They do not, however, sell to the general public. Vanity publishers will not expend the money or energy necessary to get their books into brick-and-mortar bookstores, and will do so little promotion that the chances of anyone finding a vanity-published book online are nil. Instead vanity publishers sell to the authors they publish, and to the friends and family of the same.
It is particularly common for vanity publishers to put together poetry anthologies. This is because it is possible to cram thousands of poems into a single book – and if they compel each published poet to buy at least one copy (at a vastly-inflated price) there’s some very healthy profit to be made.
An Extra Reason Not To Vanity Publish
The poor reputation of some vanity presses precedes them. If you do end up working with a vanity publisher, you may be able to make some headway by doing all of the promotion, marketing and distribution (which they should be handling) by yourself. However, you’ll be hobbled by the fact that many store owners, magazine editors and book reviewers already know the names of popular vanity publishers, and know to avoid them at all costs. Working with a vanity publisher will harm your chances of getting reviews, or getting your book into stores.
There is a great deal of money to be made by exploiting authors, and you don’t have to look far to find horror stories from the exploited. In some cases it doesn’t even end when the victimized author realizes that they’ve mistakenly thrown their lot in with a vanity publisher. Often unethical companies will refuse to give up the rights to an author’s work without payment of a hefty fee, meaning that an author who is unhappy with what’s happening can’t always just go elsewhere. It is very possible for authors to end up trapped with a vanity press, unable to take their book elsewhere, and unable also to get their errant publisher to actually do any promotion, or provide any copies of the book.
To give you an idea of how bad it can get, here are some accounts from authors who have been scammed. They’re sobering reading – but should serve to convince you that it’s worth taking some pains to avoid vanity presses and scam publishers.
Sadly, many large and well-respected publishers have seen the potential for profit in vanity publishing. A number of publishing companies have now founded publishing houses 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.
How To Identify A Vanity Publisher
Your first port of call when trying to decide if a publisher is legitmate or not should be the website directory Preditors & Editors. This fantastic resource keeps tabs on a huge number of publishing companies, magazines and agents. The site tallies reports from writers, and posts warnings about publishers who might be operating in a less-than-ethical manner. Run a search on the company you’re thinking of working with and pay close attention to the results. A publisher that is “not recommended” by Preditors & Editors is a company that is worth avoiding.
Scan Their 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.
Is Their Business More Geared Towards Writers Than 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 XXXX”, should be very worrying. Why is this publisher spending money soliciting submissions, rather than promoting the books they have already produced?
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 explain things to you.
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.
A Final Note On Editor / Agent Scams
Although vanity publishing is the main focus of this article, there’s another common scam that’s worth looking out for. Sometimes a publisher might write back to you, saying that they liked your work, but that it wasn’t quite ready for publication. All it needs though is a little editing – which they can arrange for you, for a fee. 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.
You should be as careful about handing over money to a company recommended by a publisher as you would be with that publisher. As it happens, it’s not uncommon for publishers and editorial agencies to work together to relieve prospective authors of their money.