Book publishing Self-publishing Writing advice

Writers sound off on vanity publishing

We asked writers on our social media platforms what they thought of vanity press publishing. The answers were overwhelmingly negative

Recently we asked this question on Now Novel’s social media platforms: Some say vanity presses exploit writers’ dreams by charging excessive fees. Others argue they provide an alternative path in a tough industry. What’s your take?

There were a lot of responses to this hot button topic. Vanity presses are not known to publish quality work, for the most part, and take your money, and your author’s rights in one fell swoop, or as so many of the responses indicated. But before we get to some of these fascinating and informative responses, let’s briefly define what vanity publishing is.

What is vanity publishing?

A vanity publisher or press (sometimes called a subsidy publisher) is a publishing company that asks authors to both pay to have their work published, and to sign a restrictive contract which involves surrendering rights to the work. The author takes on all the risks associated with publishing. With mainstream publishing, a publisher never asks authors to pay for publication, and they bear the costs of editing, cover design, distribution and so on. Authors will also receive royalties, and sometimes advances.

There is also self-publishing, where the author does bear all the costs, but also retains full rights to their work.

In the newer hybrid publishing model both publisher and author share the costs of publishing and distributing a novel. The publisher produces and distributes the book however, the author pays a fee to cover the cost of some of the component services. 

You won’t get an advance with a hybrid publisher but may get a higher share of royalties (sometimes this will be higher than a traditional publisher).

So, let’s hear what our Now Novel respondents had to say about the process!

Steven J Pemberton says that he thought they might be “all-inclusive” self-publishing packages, but an important caveat here:

In a sense, yes, but I would never recommend anybody use one. Their services and products are invariably overpriced and of poor quality. Their advertising is usually deceptive and often misrepresents other publishers. (They like to claim that other publishers aren’t interested in new writers, or that other publishers require you to sign over your copyright, neither of which are true.) Once you’ve realised that you’ve been scammed, they often make it difficult and expensive to get out of your contract with them.

Vanity publishers are scammers. They don’t care about you or your story. They wanna make money off you and gain money from “helping” you publish. – Cate Blanchson

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Commenting on Steven’s post, Lori Nelson adds:

Vanity presses mean you’ll be able to brag that you published a book, but you’ll not recoup your investment for doing so. You’ll have boxes of books that you bought and they’ll sit there until you sell them. Profit: zero. The only thing keeping those presses from being called scammers is that authors believe their bullfeathers and sign on the line. As Steven said, all services will be bare minimum. Self-publish at KDP [Kindle Direct Publishing] instead. Less pain, more gain.

Bob Cubitt takes the view that vanity presses are providing a service, but that they are exploitative:

Anyone who provides a service is entitled to charge for it. if I asked someone to design me a book cover, I would expect to pay for it and wouldn’t regard them as exploiting me just because I can’t design my own covers. There’ is nothing wrong with vanity publishing if they actually act as publishers and not as glorified printers. Publishing includes editing, proof reading and, most importantly of all, marketing.

So many vanity publishers just deliver you a minimum quantity of books and leave you to get on with it. That isn’t publishing. Some also charge way over the top for what they do and that is exploitation.

Sharon Maas takes issue with Bob’s view:

Bob Cubitt you’re conflating self-publishing with vanity presses. They are very different. The moment they charge you, it’s vanity. SP is you paying for your publishing services. You are the publisher.

Lynne Connolly spells it out:

Bob Cubitt self-publishing is where you employ the services needed to make a book publishable, cover art, formatting, editing, and then publish it under your own name with an ISBN you bought yourself. Vanity/hybrid publishing is where you pay all those services and pay for them to publish it, thus giving up publication rights. Not only do they make you pay for the services, they take a slice of your royalties too!

And Leila Kirkconnell says it plainly, that vanity presses have ‘zero interest’ in writers.

Vanity press has zero vested interest in you, the author. Once they pocket your money, they are done with you. They slam your book on Amazon and other platforms (which you can do for free), you don’t have access to the book to upload an updated cover or manuscript, and they do zero, zip, zilch nada for promoting your book… as I said, they have zero interest in you once your hard-earned $$s is safely tucked in their bank account.

Meanwhile, Chantal Rosset Hyde points out that vanity publishing does have a role to play. Hyde says that it’s ‘not for everyone’. She makes some important points about how vanity publishing can be useful, too.

Not everybody wants their book to be a bestseller. Not everybody wants their book to be on Amazon and/or brick and mortar stores. Some people just want to gift their friends and family a hook of their poems, short stories, their memoir or autobiography. Others need a companion book for their conferences… Vanity publishers are made to cater to this market. They offer a service (basic editing, formating, cover, and a certain amount of printed books), and you get what you paid for. If your goal is fame and fortune, they are not for you. While some might have questionable sales tactics, that doesn’t mean they are all scammers. Even Brandon Sanderson mentions them in the publishing portion of his BYU lectures (on YouTube).

Diana Lee also agrees that there is a role for vanity publishers.

People publish for different reasons. They have different goals. If you are wanting to produce books for your homeschool group or private school, or for a group or club, vanity press lets someone who doesn’t want to be bothered produce a professional product all in one shop. The issue is with the deception. Don’t go on about “accepting” authors when the criteria is only that their check clears. Don’t deceptively name your business to try to look like a real and respected publisher.

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Differences between a self-publishing package and vanity publishing

Kessily Lewel clearly shows us what the difference is with her succinct explanation:

An all-inclusive self-publishing package is when you pay someone to build your book for you. You are paying them to put your book together, cover, editing, formatting, etc. for a flat rate. They then hand over the book to you finished and complete to do with what you will. You should get not only e-books ready to go (mobi, pdf) but also an edited document that you can update as needed, and if you pay for other formats like paperback you should get everything you need for that too. You pay for their services, and they give you a product. They take nothing further from you and you can do what you will with it. It’s often expensive but nothing really wrong with it.

A vanity publisher, on the other hand, takes your money for the same thing, creates a shoddy product which they then publish it on their own account, giving you only a share of whatever the book makes for sales, while they continue to suck up most of the profits. You pay for their services and then keep paying every time you sell a book. In return, after the initial creation of the book, they really do nothing but sit back and collect money.

What’s the cost?

While costs will vary, Gary Markman gives a heads-up on some of the amounts he has seen being charged:

I’ve contacted a number of vanity presses and all were legit BUT they all promised to do things that I can do myself and their charges to take my book to Amazon (Kindle & paper, cover design, interior formatting, and proofing) ranged from $1,300 to (believe it or not) $38,000 (that one tried to sell me on their great marketing ability)

How to tell if you’re dealing with a vanity press?

Steven J Pemberton weighs in with some pertinent advice on some warning signs you should pay attention to:

How to tell a vanity press from a genuine company that helps you with self-publishing? There are many warning signs, but these are the most certain that I know of:

If they contact you first, they’re probably a vanity press, unless you’ve already sold a lot of books or you’re famous enough that people who don’t know you might buy a book just because it has your name on the cover.

If they call themselves a publisher, or they talk about paying royalties to you, but they want you to pay them first, or do something that will cost you money, they’re probably a vanity press.

Publishers invest in the books that they publish, to increase their chances of success. I say “do something that will cost you money” because vanity presses sometimes try to trick you with statements like, “It’s free to publish with us, but we expect you to buy 500 copies of your book to cover our costs.” You can bet that the cost of those 500 copies includes a big profit for them. – This one is difficult to detect before it’s too late, but if they want to upload the book to retailers themselves, instead of letting you do it, they’re probably a vanity press. If they upload it, you can’t see the retailer’s dashboard, so you can’t tell how many sales you’re making, you can’t update the book without going through them, and if you realise they’ve scammed you and want to take the book down and republish it yourself, you can’t do that without their agreement (which usually involves paying them even more money).

What to do instead?

Leila Kirkconnell’s advice is to:

Hire a professional editor you have vetted. Hire a cover designer if not within your skill set, upload to KDP [Kindle Direct Publishing] or whatever platform you desire, and have full control over your manuscript.

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Cate Blanchson says:

Vanity publishers are scammers. They don’t care about you or your story. They wanna make money off you and gain money from “helping” you publish. It’s best to do it yourself. Pay an editor to edit. Pay someone to do a cover. And self-publish on Amazon.

Carmen Baca suggests that writers consider approaching small and indie publishers with their work, rather than going the vanity route:

I would never consider a vanity press when there are so many small and indie presses out there willing to take a chance on us writers without asking us for exorbitant amounts of money. In 7 years, I’ve published 6 books with 3 small and indie presses–for free.

Kimberly Carlisle Coghlan suggests that writers try hybrid publishing instead:

Personally, I don’t understand why anyone would sign with a vanity press, when an author can self-publish for free with sites like Lulu, KDP, or Ingram Spark. However, I do understand that there’s a learning curve to self-publishing, which is why hybrid publishers are gaining popularity. Hybrid publishers do all the “work” of self-publishing, usually for a flat fee, which allows the author to retain rights, royalty percentages, and creative choices. Still, finding a reputable hybrid publisher is also precarious, as many scams exist in the publishing industry.

Points to consider when thinking of using a vanity press

Vanity publishing isn’t the path to writing success

Lynne Connolly explains it well, why using vanity presses isn’t the path to success:

You are giving up control AND paying for the privilege.

The proof is in the results. How many writers have found REAL success by paying a vanity press like Austin Macauley and Pegasus and Olympia, etc… None. I suspect people who claim these provide an alternate path…are not bothering to look hard enough and just take the one that looks the easiest. And then they pay the price…and regret it. You don’t hear about writers who have successfully sold a ton of books through these vanity presses for a reason. Because they are NOT meant to help writers. They are meant to exploit them.

REAL self-publishing companies help self-motivated writers to find success because they offer valuable input and quality services. Reedsy offers a list of self-publishing companies that can help the self-motivated writer find success. There are also independent publishers like Braddock Avenue Books, Brash Books, Dorothy Project, and many more. A writer can contact these indie pubs as well. Bottom line: If someone wants to not go the traditional publishing route with literary agents etc… They can still be successful with plenty of hard work and the right connection to a REPUTABLE publishing company.

So, the results are in. The vast majority agreed that vanity publishing is not the route to take if you want your book to be taken seriously, marketed well, and polished to perfection. Options to traditional publishing exist – from using hybrid publishers, approaching traditional and small publishers, and self-publishing.

If self-publishing is the route to take, have a look at Now Novel’s self-publishing package, where we provide expert help. You will get top-class editing, proofreading and a professional look to your ebook.

The fog never lifts, so far as I’m concerned. Recruiting an expert who knows the shoals and rocks and other perils, is allowing me to progress much more quickly than I had planned. Now Novel is the first and only writing/editing service that seemed promising to me, and so far Hedi has fulfilled that promise. Let’s see whether my goof fortune as a filmmaking craftsman will repeat itself now that I’m writing a novel. It is not nearly as expensive, but it is more challenging, and I’m up at 4am every day because in Hedi Lampert, I have a compadre from Now Novel watching over my material. She guides me and I can’t ask for more. Persuading a publisher is another matter altogether. Let’s see. – Michael

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By Arja Salafranca

Arja Salafranca has published a collection of short stories, three collections of poetry and has edited anthologies of prose. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg

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