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Vanity Publishing – What It Is and Why You Shouldn’t Do It

You’ve probably heard the term “vanity publishing”. But what is it exactly? Everyone seems to think it’s bad, but why is it a problem? What’s the difference between vanity publishing and self-publishing?

I’ll probably get a lot of hate mail from vanity publishers, but here’s what they don’t want you to know.

What is Vanity Publishing, Exactly?

I occasionally get a message from an aspiring author that looks something like this:

Dear Graeme,

I’ve written a book and have been submitting it to publishers. Mostly I got rejections, but one company, who I sent my manuscript to after I saw their advert, wrote back saying they loved it and that they want to publish it!

I was hoping they’d buy my book off me, but they said, “in modern publishing, the author contributes to expenses” and then told me I’d have to pay $3,000 if I wanted my book published.

It seems like they’ll be doing a lot of work, and I can see that it costs money to publish a book, but $3,000 is a lot of money to me, and I’m not sure I can afford it. It’s my life’s dream to see my book published, but I’ll have to sell my car to afford it.

And now they say if I don’t sign a contract by the weekend, I’ll miss my chance!

What should I do?

[Mr./Ms. Aspiring Author]

This is how I respond:

Dear [Mr./Ms. Aspiring Author]

Run for the hills! The company you’re dealing with is a vanity publisher!



How to Spot a Vanity Publisher

It’s about who’s taking the risk.

A legitimate publisher buys your book from you (although, sometimes for not very much). They take the financial risk that the book might not sell enough copies to make their money back.

A vanity press sells services to you. You take the financial risk that the book might not sell enough copies to make your money back.

So, it’s quite simple: any publisher that wants money from you to publish your book, whatever reason they give, is a vanity publisher.

What’s the Problem with Vanity Publishing?

Fundamentally, it’s that the vanity-publisher’s source of income is you.

A vanity publisher’s business model is not to make money by publishing books that appeal to readers and so sell lots of copies. Instead, their profits come from charging aspiring authors to turn their manuscript into a book.


As the vanity-publisher’s source of income is you, what incentive do they have to sell your book?

Book marketing is a notoriously arduous and fickle process, and it’s expensive. Maybe they’ll make more money if your book sells, but it’s much easier not to bother with any of that nonsense and to just take money off you instead.


Because the vanity-publisher’s source of income is you, their incentive is to squeeze as much money as possible out of you. This often leads to them asking for ridiculous sums of money to publish your novel. They know that most authors have money put away in savings and rely on the naïve author’s gullibility to extract those savings.

Lack of Distribution

Sending copies of your book to bookshops costs money. Because the vanity-publisher’s source of income is you, this expense would only reduce their profits.

So, your vanity published book will not be in any bookshops.

“But bookshops are old-fashioned. All the action is on Amazon!” I can hear the vanity publisher arguing.

Apart from the fact that this isn’t actually true, you don’t need to pay a penny to publish on Amazon. Self-publishing on Amazon is free. So what’s the vanity publisher charging you for?

Poor Quality

Because the self-publisher’s source of income is you and it costs money to hire professional editors, proofreaders and cover designers, there’s no profit in doing so. So your book won’t be edited, proofread, or have a professional cover.

Do you want to join the millions of badly edited books with amateurish covers that sink without trace on Amazon each year? Even if you’re prepared to take that risk, is that worth paying thousands for?

Vanity Publishing: Common Disguises

These days, many vanity publishers try to pass themselves off as ‘self-publishing services’ because vanity publishing has such a negative reputation. Other terms they use are ‘subsidy’ or ‘partnership’ or ‘joint-venture’ or even ‘next-generation’ publishing. These are not accurate terms, just attempts to confuse you.

A vanity publisher might try to muddy the water by saying the money you have to pay them is:

  • A set-up fee or deposit or guarantee.
  • A fee for editing, or cover art, or publicity.
  • Your share of the costs and they will pay the rest.
  • For your copies of the book.
  • To cover their costs.
  • “How publishing works”.

But all these things are just excuses. If any publisher is asking you for money (rather than offering you money) then they are a vanity publisher.

But I Really, Really Want my Book Published!

I get it. We all want our books to be published, and trying to gain commercial publication is highly frustrating.

Still, there’s just no point that I can see in using a vanity publisher.

Whether to hold out for a commercial publisher or go down the route of self-publishing is a reasonable choice. I know lots of commercially published authors and some self-published authors, and I’ve tried both myself. Neither is any kind of panacea – they both have advantages and disadvantages. But getting involved with a vanity publisher is a pointless waste of money, in my opinion.

Vanity Publishing Alternatives

You have two options: commercial publishing and self-publishing.

Commercial Publishing

Commercial publishing is the classic form of publishing where you sell your book to a publisher, they publish it, it appears in bookshops and people buy it and read it.

The “Big Five” commercial publishers are:

  • Penguin Random House
  • Hachette
  • HarperCollins
  • Simon & Schuster
  • Macmillan

Think of a big-name author you know, and most likely they’re published by one of these five. Being published by these publishers is the dream for most authors. The only trouble is it’s hard. Really, really hard. See my myths and reality of getting published for an explanation of why and some pointers about how to beat the odds.

As well as the big five, there are lots of independent publishers — smaller presses who range in size from ‘mom and pop’ operations to long-established, substantial companies. You might have more luck with them, but they’re not likely to buy your novel for as much money. Often, you won’t get any money at all up front. They are though legitimate publishers and won’t charge you anything. They take the financial risk that the book might not sell enough copies to make their money back.


Self-publishing is where you, the author, edit, print, and distribute your book yourself. You’re taking the financial risk when you self-publish, but the costs are minimal, so it isn’t much of a risk.

If you have a book that you want to get published but you can’t, or don’t want to, publish it commercially, then it’s actually pretty easy to self-publish and you don’t need a ‘self-publishing service’.

My advice is, if you’ve sent out your manuscript and had it rejected dozens of times by agents or commercial publishers, then get it out there by self-publishing it instead.

Self-publishing literally costs nothing, if you use Kindle Direct Publishing and do all the work to format the book and design the cover yourself. See How to Self-publish for Free.

However, if you don’t want to edit and format your book and design a cover yourself, then you might need to pay people to do those jobs for you. But remember:

But What About…

I’ve been asked about a few other related things. Here are my thoughts on them:

Reading Fees

Literary agents sometimes charge reading fees. The problem with reading fees is the same problem as vanity publishing. If an agent can make a living by reading peoples’ manuscripts, what motive do they have to sell them?

The Association of Authors’ Agents has prohibited reading fees in its official code of practice, so if you find an agent asking you for a reading fee, think twice.

Creative Writing Courses

Don’t creative writing courses sell you a dream of publication in exchange for money? Is there a difference, really?

Well, it’s true that many universities, publishers, literary agencies, etc. etc. run courses to help you improve your writing skills. Their marketing often mentions their published students and plays up their relationship with the publishing industry.

But they aren’t pretending to be something that they aren’t, so they’re legitimate.

For example, a university may claim their Creative Writing MA will improve your chances of getting published. That’s likely true, but it’s because they’ll teach you how to improve your writing, not because they have a direct line to Random House’s commissioning editors.

Personally, I think creative writing courses are worth doing, and my research into the reality of getting published backs that up. Still, my advice is to do courses to improve your writing, not on the assumption that you’ll gain an inside track to the publishing industry.

Book Doctors, Etc.

Some people call themselves “book doctors” or “development editors” or even just “editors”. They read your novel and give you feedback on it, aiming to make it better and hence more saleable. They often mention their track record helping people get published and their relationship with literary agents or publishers in their marketing.

Be careful here, because this can shade into the “paying a fee for editing” excuse for vanity publishing. I have heard of ‘literary agents’ who approach would-be authors, ask them to ‘submit’ their novel, pretend to consider it, and then return saying how they “loved it but it needs editing”. And, of course, the author must hand over thousands for that privilege.

A book doctor should clearly be selling you their services, not disguising an attempt to sell their services behind an offer to publish your book. If they are honest about being an editor, not a publisher, then you are getting what you pay for: advice.

What’s the Difference Between Selling Services and Vanity Publishing?

There’s no question that you can self-publish for free. However, that means doing all the work yourself. There are lots of people, including myself, who’ll charge you money to do some of the work for you, and it can seem like a fine line between paying someone to help you whip your novel into shape and paying a vanity publisher for a ‘publication package’.

Really though, the things that are wrong with vanity publishing are first, the deception involved, and second, their services don’t tend to be very good, for the reasons already explained.

There are legitimate reasons to seek professional help. For example, if you have limited visual-art ability then it might be worth hiring someone to produce a professional book cover for you, or you might want to hire an experienced pitch writer to punch up your elevator pitch before trying it on literary agents.

I make a living myself helping people with their novels and screenplays, so it’s not that I disparage people seeking professional help with their work. I and lots of other people do a quality job, and your book will almost certainly be better if it has input from an editor, a proofreader, a book-cover designer, etc, etc.

An experienced professional can give you good advice, but what they’re offering is helpful because it will improve your novel, it’s not any kind of guarantee of publication. Whether that help is worth it to you is your decision. I can’t tell you what the appropriate balance between paying for help and doing stuff yourself for free is, as it really depends on your financial situation and how much time you have. The points I always make are, there’s no requirement to pay, and if you do pay then go into it with your eyes open and with people who are honest.


Legitimate competitions do sometimes charge an entry fee and competitions can be a way of breaking in to the literary world. So don’t write off any competition with a fee. But think about how much the fee is, how prestigious the prize is, and whether it’s really a good use of your money.

I’d also be suspicious of any competition where the entry fee is high, and the winners of the competition win the ‘prize’ of being published in an anthology. These kinds of competitions are a disguise for vanity publishing. There are usually further fees after you ‘win’, and all the disadvantages of vanity publishing apply.

They’re sneaky, aren’t they?


Crowd-funding is a distinct thing to vanity publishing. I’m not going to get into that in this article.

Vanity Publishing: Things to Do

Vanity Publishing: Disclaimer

This page gives general advice on vanity publishing as I understand it. I haven’t (and won’t) comment on whether individual companies are vanity publishers. You’ll have to work it out for yourself using this complex and sophisticated one-item questionnaire: “Are they asking me for money?”

Book to Read

If you decide to self-publish, you’ll need to edit your own work. The book I recommend about editing is Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, which is available on Amazon US here and Amazon UK here.


If you’d like my help with anything to do with your writing, please email me. Otherwise, please feel free to share the article using the buttons below.