What is a Vanity Press? A Guide to Vanity Publishing
Put simply, a vanity press is a publisher that profits not from selling books but from asking authors to pay for publishing expenses. There are, of course, a lot more nuances — this definition makes it easy to mistake legitimate self-publishing companies for scammers.
In this post, we’ll go over vanity presses with a magnifying glass to pinpoint their mechanism and defining features. For the quick version, here’s an infographic on the differences between a traditional publisher and a vanity press.
The author pays to publish
The traditional model of publishing is like this:
- The author submits their manuscript to a publisher.
- The publisher reads and decides whether to acquire the manuscript.
- Once there is an acquisition, the publisher gives the author an advance (usually in the thousands of dollars).
- The publisher’s editors and designers work to get it ready for readers’ eyes.
- The publisher takes care of printing, distribution to bookstores and libraries, gaining publicity through book reviews, store displays, advertisements, and events.
- When the book sells, the author gets between 7% to 25% royalty (depending on the format) of the net sales price after the advance has been covered.
At no point in this process does the author pay the publisher. This is because traditional publishers aren’t service providers — they are producers of books. They buy the rights to publish and sell an author’s creation, and they will take on the financial risk associated with this.
Vanity presses don’t follow this model. They tend not to be selective in terms of which book they publish, because what matters to them isn’t the quality of the book or how it appeals to readers. Their income stream doesn’t come from selling books — it comes from selling authors on the dream of seeing their book in print.
They’ll ask authors to pay for production costs, including editing and designing fees. There is little to no transparency as to what these expenses entail, and whether they are in line with industry standards. So a vanity press may say you’re only footing 20% of the bill, when in fact, you're giving them far more than that. And after that, they’ll still keep a massive chunk of any sales you make — just as a traditional publisher might.
No quality service to accompany the cost
Despite asking you to pay for editing and designing, more often than not, the services that your book will get is going to be subpar. Since quality doesn’t matter to vanity publishers, and they want to save on costs, they’ll be happy to use inexperienced workers and ready-made templates for the sake of ticking tasks off the production to-do list.
The publisher still profits if your book doesn’t sell
Vanity presses require payment for editing, designing, and marketing services because this is how they make money. Like Bialystock & Bloom from Mel Brooks’ The Producers, they don’t care about the commercial success of your book because they’ve already acquired revenue directly from you.
So even if your book doesn’t sell, a vanity publisher will still make a profit. In fact, they may even win more, since they can tell you to invest in one of their marketing packages. Sales, editorial quality, current market trends — none of that is of interest to a vanity publisher.
This is why, if you dive into their book catalog, you’ll likely find that not a single title makes the bestseller lists on Amazon. A lot of their books don’t have a lot of customer reviews on them either, since there are hardly any readers.
'Distribution to major bookstores' isn’t what it sounds like
Though a common promise, distribution to major bookstores isn’t as easy to achieve as it sounds. Traditional publishers have sales representatives with the negotiation skills, reputation, and connections needed to get your book to big chains; the same can’t be said for vanity presses.
Instead, they will probably list your book on a distribution service like Ingram. This listing makes it possible for a wide range of brick-and-mortar shops to order your book, but it doesn’t guarantee actual orders. Whether you get your book into stores depends on the ties you can establish with booksellers and readers. If a lot of readers ask for your book at an independent bookshop, the seller is likely to order the title.
From the Big 5 to small boutique presses, every reputable publisher has a team that has ties with booksellers. A vanity press won’t. They’ll list your book (which you can easily do yourself) and leave the rest to you — all the while making you pay through the nose.
They may own your printing rights for years to come
As mentioned before, when a publisher acquires your book, they are buying the rights to publish and sell your book. You, the author, can negotiate how extensive the publisher’s rights will be as well as how long they get to keep it.
For instance, you may give an American-based publisher first publishing rights, meaning they get to be the first to have a print run for your book in the USA. You may keep the reprint rights to decide whether to continue working with this publisher or not in the future. Foreign publishing rights can be sold to another publisher better suited for the job. This way, you always get to be in control of who publishes your book.
However, a scammer may try to wrestle this control from your hands. Approaching authors who don’t have a literary agent or are unaware of these legalities, they may nestle a term in the contract that gives them the exclusive rights to publish, reprint, and even sell the rights for future editions of your book to other publishers. This allows them to trade your creation while cutting you out of the process altogether.
A vanity press like this can be quite difficult to distinguish, and the scamming occurs via technical details in legal documents that are likely to overwhelm any author. This is why it’s important to find a reliable agent when you’re planning to publish traditionally. Good agents are experienced in this line of work and can help you suss out fine-print details on a contract, negotiating them to benefit you.
Most “hybrid publishers” are actually vanity presses
Now, to complicate matters a little, there are publishers out there who do charge fees for editing, designing, and marketing the book but who also are invested in its commercial success, rather than profit from the fees collected alone. These are legitimate hybrid publishers, but it can be difficult to tell them apart in a sea of vanity presses.
As a rule of thumb, when you see the “hybrid publisher” label, you should immediately be wary. Be sure to carefully research the company — we have a guide to hybrid publishing that can help you stay vigilant.
Know also that the hybrid publishing model, though it isn’t outright predatory, means that you will have to shoulder much of the financial risks of putting your book out there. A hybrid publisher doesn’t have the resources that a traditional publisher has; and those limited resources have to be shared between several authors. Hybrid publishers may not be able to provide you with the best, most tailored services to help you reach your target audience.
If you don’t publish with a traditional publisher, it may be safer to collaborate with qualified professional editors, cover designers, and marketers with experience in your niche to self-publish your book. They will be able to dedicate time and effort specifically to your project and give you the best chance of success.
Some vanity presses are owned by major publishers
To make things even more complicated, some of the world's most prolific vanity presses are actually owned by Big 5 publishers. Xlibris and Author Solutions (which we mentioned in our previous post on shady companies) are both subsidiaries of Penguin Random House.
While their business model is identical to all other vanity presses, these trad-adjacent vanities sometimes suggest to authors that working with them may gain the attention of their legitimate imprints. Print titan Simon & Schuster also has a vanity publishing arm called Archway Publishing, which makes this suggestion explicit on their website: "Select titles published by Archway are reviewed by a board made up of Simon & Schuster editors for possible acquisition by Simon & Schuster." Note that only a selection of books are reviewed for possible acquisition — with no mention of how often this board convenes and how many books are submitted to them.
If you are looking for a traditional publishing deal, landing an agent is significantly easier (and cheaper) than jumping through the hoops at a vanity press.
Hopefully this post has helped you understand the ins and outs of vanity presses and make it easier for you to notice warning signs. Of course, vanity presses aren’t the only potential predators in the industry, so if you want to safeguard yourself from all publishing scams, go on to the next post in this series.