Understanding Vanity Publishing

Avoid losing thousands when getting your book published.

Photo by Sarah Kilian on Unsplash

“Today I had an email from a publisher. They want my book!” my Dad messaged me last week.

“Some publishers charge. Did they talk about costs?” I asked.

“They’re sending me the details,” he said.

“Okay, look through it carefully.”

A few days later he came back to me.

“Hi Kelly, you were right — $4000–6000 all up. They wanted me to start the process straight away, without even mentioning the price. I had to ask them specifically. It’s way too expensive.”

Why are publishers charging?

It’s so exciting when you get an acceptance email as my dad did. But when you find out they’re charging you — the author — it can be a huge letdown. Don’t publishers pay authors, not the other way around? Has traditional publishing changed?

No. It hasn’t.

Traditional publishers don’t charge authors — they pay them. The publisher absorbs the full cost of publishing. They make their money from the sales of the book. The author gets a cut of the sales (royalties) and sometimes a bulk payment upfront (an advance).

Vanity publishers, on the other hand, make their money from publishing.

Who are vanity publishers?

Vanity publishers are businesses who help authors publish their books and charge them for it.

Their contracts can include help with:

  • designing the cover.

  • formatting the book.

  • editing.

  • printing a run.

  • giving you an ISBN number.

  • doing some sort of marketing. This marketing is often in the form of placing your book in a catalogue that is sent to bookstores or something similar.

Vanity publishers is an off-putting name (you will never see it used on the publisher’s website) but it doesn’t necessarily mean the business is a scam. There are many valid publishing houses that “assist” authors with their books. They may offer to include your story in an anthology for a fee (these can be scams) or say they want to “collaborate with you” to publish your book.

They can be Christian publishers, romance publishers, general fiction publishers…..whatever they call themselves. If they charge you a fee, they are vanity publishers. Vanity press or subsidy publishers are other names for these types of businesses.

Is it ever okay for an author to use a vanity publisher?

That’s up to you, but make sure you do your research first. The costs charged by vanity publishers are usually so high that it’s unlikely a new author will make any profit from their book.

Vanity publishers play on a new author’s strong drive to see their work in print. I know how exciting it is! I remember how it felt ten years ago when I say my first piece of work in print.

But first books hardly ever sell as well as you think they will.

One printer told me the average sales for a first book is 200 copies. That will vary, of course, depending on where you live and your own network available for marketing. If you have a huge email list then perhaps your sales will be in the thousands. But many of us don’t have that.

Vanity publishing may be a good choice for people with a large audience. Travelling storytellers, comedians, speakers or people with large followings on social media may find it a worthwhile pathway to take.

Traditional or vanity publisher?

It’s not always obvious whether a publisher is a traditional publisher or a vanity press. Here are some ways to tell:

  • Go to a big book store that stocks similar books to yours. Look at who published the books. They will probably be traditional publishers.

  • Look on the publisher’s website and find their manuscript submission page. It will be detailed. Traditional publishers often hide submission pages pretty well! Look down the bottom where the contact button is, sometimes there is a link to submissions there, or it can be hidden as an answer in the FAQ link as Penguin Random House has done (They do not accept unsolicited manuscripts). Other sites have a FOR AUTHORS tab with manuscript submissions such as in HarperCollins ABOUT dropdown menu (They accept certain types of unsolicited manuscript).

  • Find the right department for your book. Traditional publishing houses are often quite large and have different independent imprints and lines to send different types of book to. Penguin Random House, for example, has hundreds of imprints. Sometimes traditional houses partner with self-publishers or vanity publishers too, so read the details carefully.

  • Look for phrases such as “we collaborate with authors” or “we assist you.” They are most likely vanity publishers. Also, be wary of companies that advertise on search engines with “We are accepting submissions”.

  • Check their About and Submission pages. Vanity publishers will say things such as, “we will not pay for your book to be printed” or “we use a hybrid model” or “we offer a partnership agreement”. Another phrase used by vanity publishers is: “We offer traditional or inclusive contracts”. Inclusive contracts are ones where you pay for your book to be published. They state that you will “share the cost”.

  • Do a search for the publisher’s name and “scam”. Type “Publisher (name) scam” and see what comes up. Or read reviews of other authors’ experiences with that publisher. Type “Publisher (name) review” into your search engine. (Not all publishers will have been reviewed or listed as scams but that doesn’t guarantee their quality. They may just be too new, too small, or no-one felt like reviewing them.)

There are many approaches to getting your book out there, but it pays to be patient. I’m guessing your book took a long time to write. Give it the launch it deserves — as error-free and beautiful as you can make it, and published in a way that suits you and your book.

Whichever path you choose for publishing — traditional, vanity press, or self-publishing — research it well, and make sure to read the fine print!

Find my comprehensive guide to career pathways for writers here on Medium