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:
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?
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’ 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 What About…
I’ve been asked about a few other related things. Here are my thoughts on them:
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 creative-writing. Sometimes their marketing mentions their published students and maybe they’ll play 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 mostly because they’ll teach you how to improve your writing.
Personally, I think creative writing courses are worth doing, but my advice is to do them to improve your writing, not hoping that you’ll gain an inside track to the publishing industry.
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. Maybe a book doctor will mention their relationship with literary agents in their marketing, but they are selling you their services, not offering to publish your book. You are getting what you pay for: advice.
If an editor is experienced, then their advice is likely to be good, but what they’re offering is helpful mostly because it will improve your novel. Whether their advice is worth it to you is your decision.
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.
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 is the classic form of publishing, where you sell your book to a publisher and they publish it, it appears in bookshops and people buy it and read it.
The “Big Five” commercial publishers are:
- Penguin Random House
- Simon & Schuster
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:
- Professional editors and cover artists are expensive (their fees will almost certainly be more than you’ll ever make from the book)
- You can edit your work yourself (to an extent at least). You don’t need to pay people to do it.
- If you have some artistic ability, you can create your own book cover
Vanity Publishing: Things to Do
- Know how to spot a vanity publisher.
- Know the common excuses and disguises that vanity publishers use.
- If you want to try for commercial publishing, read How to get your book published.
- If you think you’d prefer self-publishing, then read How to Self-publish for Free.
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
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