Vanity publishing: a word (or several) of warning.

Hello, lovely reader. You look nice. You do something with your hair? I like it.

You may remember that, when last we spoke, I told you that there were two kinds of publishing: traditional publishing and indie publishing. I then went on to explain the differences between them, and probably talk about pizza too much.

Well, there’s something I haven’t told you. Something I have kept from you, to preserve your precious innocence. But I can shield you from the truth no longer: there is a third kind of publishing. And while there are good and bad points to weigh up when considering traditional or indie publishing, this one just plain suuuuuucks.

a row of seven peacocks under spotlights

What is a vanity publisher?

A vanity publisher is a publishing company, in the sense that they make money by publishing books. However, whereas a traditional publisher makes its money by selling books to readers, a vanity publisher makes its money by selling services to authors. In some cases, this means that the author will be required to buy x copies of their own book, where x equals “a really, honkingly huge number”. Others will charge for services like editing or marketing. They are, essentially, scams.

“But wait!” I hear you cry. “Didn’t your last post say that indie publishing is all about authors paying for stuff? And didn’t you also say that indie publishing was one of my two excellent options? And now you’re saying that vanity publishing is bad because it involves paying for stuff? I’m confused!”

My love, I’m sorry. Here, take a seat. Have this slice of pizza I was saving for later. No, no, I insist.

You’re right, of course, this is confusing—and vanity publishers rely on that confusion to keep reeling people in. Vanity publishers have historically masqueraded as traditional publishers but, now that self-publishing has become a viable alternative, you’ll find plenty that market themselves as “self-publishing companies”, too. They want you to be confused.

I don’t, though. And, fortunately, vanities are actually quite easy to spot if you know what you’re looking for.

The difference between vanity publishing and traditional publishing

If a company asks you for money, they’re not a traditional publisher. It really is that simple.

Traditional publishing houses invest money in books for the same reason any other company invests in their products: because they believe they can sell enough of them to their customers to make a profit.

Most of us have a general idea of how this works with other products. A company that makes clothes buys fabric from their suppliers, pays people to turn the fabric into clothes, and then sells those clothes to customers.

A publisher’s customers are readers. (Well, actually they’re often wholesalers and bookshops, but we won’t get into that now!) The author supplies the words and gets paid for them. They’re not charged for the pleasure of supplying them, any more than the editor pays for the privilege of editing them, or fabric suppliers pay clothing manufacturers to use their fabric. That’s just not how it works!

Of course, not being a traditional publishing house doesn’t necessarily mean that something is a scam. But, if a company is representing themselves as one and asking you for money, they’re lying to you, and that should raise some red flags.

The difference between vanity publishing and self-publishing

If a company publishes your book for you, you’re not self-publishing.

Self-publishing, is exactly what it sounds like. The author is the publisher, and will invest time and money in creating a book in the hope of selling enough copies to make a profit.

Given that, there shouldn’t really be any such thing as a “self-publishing company” or a “self-publishing service”. Self-publishing means publishing yourself, so, by definition, a company or service can’t do it for you.

This sounds like it’s just semantics, but it’s actually quite important. When an author signs a contract with a traditional publisher, they’re signing over the publication rights in return for payment. If you sign a contract with a company that charges you to publish your book, you’re signing over your rights, which have monetary value, and also giving them money. Imagine running a shop where you paid customers to walk out with your goods.

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t be paying for services at all. Self-publishers can (and should, if possible) pay other people to edit their work, design their covers and so on. But those people won’t get your publication rights. In fact, with the designer, you’re buying the rights to the image they make for you. The editor works on your text and suggests ways to make it better, but the text still belongs to you. When you publish, all the royalties will come to you, and you’ll still own, for instance, your audiobook rights, which means you can either commission an audiobook or sell the rights to an audiobook publisher. Again, the rights to your work have value, and you should receive something in return if you sign them away.

The rights thing is the biggest reason to avoid vanity publishing, but there’s another one: the price. Remember, a vanity publisher’s customer is the author, not the reader—and their customers often don’t come back, so they need to take as much money from each one as they can. You’ll therefore be looking at a pretty hefty markup on those services. For instance, I paid a cover artist $200 (USD) each for these beauties:

the covers for

Shoutout to the very talented Arel at BZN Design Studios!

A glance at one vanity’s website shows me that they’re charging $600 for custom cover design, and their existing covers are distinctly sub-awesome. And that’s if you can get the services à la carte—it’s common for vanities to sell publishing “packages” containing an impressive-sounding list of services and products. Some of these are completely bogus, like making your ebook available for sale on Amazon, which you can do yourself, easily and for free, using Kindle Direct Publishing. Some will presumably get you something, but it’ll be useless, like marketing materials to encourage bookshops to stock your books (not how that works).

The rest will just be overpriced, costing upwards of $800 for a basic package (of things you could probably do yourself for next to nothing). I’m looking at a “deluxe” package right now that costs over $15,000, which is just… I mean… no. ɴᴏ. ⁿᵒᴼᵒᵒᵒᴼᵒᵒᵒ

As for those author copies, print-on-demand means that there’s actually no need for self-published authors to buy bulk quantities of their books in order to make them available in print. If an author does want a supply of them (usually for an event), they can buy the exact number they want from the POD company at a reasonable price. A vanity publisher making most of their money from these author copies is likely to force you to take a garage-load of them (by putting that in your contract), and they won’t be cheap.

“What if I don’t mind paying?”

Okay, look, I’m 27 and my retirement plan is “try not to live too long”, so the fact that vanity publishers charge a lot of money without providing much in return seems like a big deal to me. This obviously isn’t the case for everyone, or the vanities would go out of business. But maybe you just want to get your book published, money no object. Doesn’t a publishing “package” make sense for you?

Well, it depends what your goals are for publishing. If you literally just want to get a bunch of your books printed so you can be a published author and you don’t care what that costs, then sure! I actually wouldn’t have a problem with vanity publishers if they presented themselves as a way to pay for a kind of “author experience”. My partner once spent a very impressive amount of money so that he and I could be zookeepers for a day and it was one of the best things I’ve ever done. A lemur put its tail up my nose. But the zoo never pretended that the experience would actually make us professional zookeepers—we knew we were paying to pretend.

But that’s not what most vanities promise, nor is it what most authors want. Aspiring professional authors want to be read, and they want to be paid. They might want one of those things more than the other, but they want both—and pretty badly, because you can get readers by posting your work for free online, and earn money more reliably by doing pretty much anything else.

A vanity publisher won’t get you either. We’ve already established that they’re taking money from you, not passing it to you. As for getting your book in front of readers? Well, they may not even try. Why would they? They already have your money. Unlike a traditional publisher, which will have invested significantly in editing and designing a book by the time it’s ready to market and be keen to recoup that money, a vanity publisher is already in profit by that point, because they charged the author for the services. (Unless it’s the kind that forces you to buy books, in which case they do need to sell them—to you!)

If they do try—because they sold you a marketing service, for example—they probably won’t succeed. Again, many of the marketing services will be overpriced or useless, like a PDF guide to setting up your social media (there are plenty of free guides online) or a paid review with a service you’ve never heard of. The fact is that selling books is immensely complicated and just plain hard. For instance, it’s not enough for a cover to be nice to look at, it also has to stand out against a shelf or webpage full of other covers and immediately appeal to exactly the type of reader who will enjoy the book. That means that the person commissioning the cover needs to know exactly what genre the book fits into and who it appeals to, which requires research.

That work is worth doing if you’re relying on making a profit from a book, the way traditional publishers and self-publishers are. For a vanity publisher? Not so much. If your contract with them says they’ll supply you with a cover, you’ll get a cover, but that’s as far as their obligation goes. They don’t care if it helps to sell your book to readers, because selling your book to readers isn’t their problem.

How to spot a vanity publisher

If you’ve read this far, you’ll know that vanities are bad news. Fortunately, as I said, they’re pretty easy to identify if you know what to look for.

  1. They’re a publisher that asks authors for money, or a “self-publishing service” that publishes your book for you. Once more for the people in the cheap seats.
  2. They’re a publisher that markets to authors. Traditional publishers don’t need to do this, because they’re already overwhelmed with submissions—their websites and other marketing will be aimed at readers because that’s who their customers are. A publisher that spends money on a website or adverts designed to appeal to authors is making its money from authors.
  3. They want to make your dreams come true. A lot of the “marketing to authors” I just mentioned is selling the fantasy of being a published author, of seeing your name in print, inviting your friends to your book launches and reacting modestly to their praise, entertaining offers from Hollywood producers, using your royalties to hire a team of ferocious attack ostriches to be your personal bodyguards, whatever your dream is. (Just me on that ostrich thing?) Legitimate publishers and service providers don’t need to do that, because their work speaks for itself. Which brings me to…
  4. You can’t find evidence of their good work. A reputable cover designer will have a portfolio you can look at. An editor should be able to put you in touch with their other clients for a reference, or offer you a sample edit on a few pages of your work. For a publisher, you should be able to find books they’ve already published. Do they look appealing and well-presented? Can you find independent evidence that people are buying and reading them? (Start by looking at their sales rank on Amazon, or ratings on Goodreads, and compare that with other books of a similar age and in the same genre.)

These aren’t the only red flags, but they should get you asking the right questions.

Be careful out there

I’ll be honest, vanity publishing really gets under my skin—hence the 2000-word blog post. Writing is a very special, very weird profession, especially writing fiction. People ache to be professional authors. They yearn for it. I’m not saying that people don’t also yearn to be, say, chartered accountants, but there’s a name for those people. They’re chartered accountants. They studied chartered accountancy and now they’re out there, accounting for charters like nobody’s business. (Note to self: find out what a chartered accountant is.)

But writing is different. There’s no recognised training programme or career path. You can’t get hired as a novelist, can’t start out as an intern and write your way up to CEO of Making Crap Up. All you can do is keep writing books and trying to sell them, which requires a lot of talent and luck—both of which are out of your control and impossible to measure. You can try your whole life to “make it” as a author and never get there, and that makes people desperate. Vanity publishers prey on that desperation, sometimes to the point of driving people into debt, and that disgusts me.

It’s tough out there, dear reader. If you’re an author, or an aspiring author, I hope this has given you an idea of what to look out for as you venture into the world of publishing. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask them in the comments. I’m by no means an expert, but I read a lot and I have a lot of opinions!

Peacock image credit: GregMontani on Pixabay. It came up under a search for “vanity” but I actually think the peacocks’ startlingly judgemental stares are what makes it so appropriate.