What is a Vanity Press?
‘Publishing house in which authors pay to have their books published.’ (Alan A. Glatthorn)
‘A printing house that specializes in publishing books for which the authors pay all or most of the costs.’ (Dictionary.com)
Most used terms: Vanity Press; Vanity Publisher; Subsidy Publisher.
Some, rather than identify themselves as ‘Vanity’ or ‘Subsidy’ publishers, adopt the term ‘self-publisher’, which they are not.
- Other than the terminology, there is no difference between ‘Vanity’ and ‘Subsidy’.
- Vanity Presses should not be confused with Small Publishers. More about that latter.
- Vanity publishing should not be confused with self-publishing.
How Publishers Operate
To fully understand the nature of vanity presses, it will help to examine how each type of publisher operates: traditional/small; self; vanity.
First, to clarify, traditional and small publishers are not that different from each other: they adopt similar processes. The primary difference is small publishers publish fewer books and frequently in genres for which there is a limited customer base.
Note: Where the term ‘Traditional publishers’ is subsequently used it should be read as also including ‘Small publishers’.
Traditional publishers (includes the big four: Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, Harper Collins but by no means limited to them) take a risk with every book they publish. Before accepting a manuscript, they need to ensure it is of good quality e.g. how written and how tale told/information conveyed. Decide whether there is a viable market for it. Decide if it is worth investing in. Consequently, each one has to go through an initial approval process. After all they usually give authors an advance and invest in the: editing; formatting; cover design; some marketing; administration; etc. all of which they need to be sure they can recover.
Unlike self-publishers and vanity publishers, traditional publishers never advertise for manuscripts. They have no need to. Neither do they ask authors for any money.
Traditional publishers make their money from book sales only. The author is paid a royalty but, due to the amount the publisher has invested, it is usually only a small percentage e.g. 10% – 15%. Actual amount payable depends upon whether the percentage is of the gross or net income. The contract will define.
There are several self-publishing companies, platforms and systems available to authors e.g. Amazon’s CreateSpace and Kindle (both have been utilized by the writer), Smashwords (utilized by the writer), Draft2Digitial (recently utilized by the writer), etc.
Though there is no actual approval process manuscripts do have to meet certain formatting and system requirements, usually fairly basic. Most systems provide good, clear guides though the author does not always have to take note of them but would be foolish not to. The actual content is never checked (editing, grammar, etc.) though some systems will occasionally pick up on a serious misspelling. As a result, some people have a poor opinion of self-publishing. In fairness, it has to be acknowledged the advent of self-publishing has allowed some poor quality books to be published. However, at the same time it would be unfair not to recognise there are many very good, high quality, self-published books in existence. Also, despite all the processes and investments, some traditionally published books have noticeable errors in them.
Most self-publishing systems are free to use, not requiring any payments from the author. Many do offer, for a fee, editing, proof-reading, formatting, marketing, etc., packages but it is the authors choice whether to avail themselves of these. Independent (indie) authors frequently do not have the means to pay for additional services which is why these free systems are popular. Though no actual publicity or marketing is undertaken, without the author purchasing a package, new books are shown on retail website page(s) which act as a publicity facility, even it is minimal and short lived.
Those who provide self-publishing services, as with traditional publishers, take a risk upon the saleability of a book. However, their systems are primarily automated and therefore they do not have the up-front costs of a traditional publisher. They make their money in two primary ways. First, from fees, where authors chose to purchase some of the optional additional services available. ‘Chose’ is the feature; there is no pressure upon authors to buy. Second, by taking a small proton of the royalty payable to authors. It has to be acknowledge most are very generous in that, on average, they only take between 25% – 35% after the deduction of tax. Naturally, royalties are reliant upon book sales. In essence authors do sign up to a contract but these can be terminated at will.
- There is absolutely no approval process.
- There are no checks of any sort: editorial, format, cover design, etc.
- Anyone may submit a manuscript (same as for self-publishing).
- Usually require a substantial fee up-front.
- Require authors to enter into a contact that is often restrictive.
- Undertake no publicity or marketing (same as for self-publishing without the purchase of a package).
- Simply format a basic digital file.
In an attempt to be fair the comparisons with self-publishing have been included though the resulting quality of vanity publishing is frequently debatable.
Vanity presses make their money from the author; from the substantial fee usually payable up-front. They will not undertake any processing until the fee is paid. They have no interest in book purchasers and therefore no incentive to undertake any action to promote a book and gain sales.
It is usually the requirement for a substantial, up-front, fee that defines a vanity press. Something authors need to be aware of. However, to avoid detection some vanity presses will describes themselves as ‘self-publishers’. Note: Genuine self-publishing companies or those that provide self-publishing systems, do NOT require author’s pay toward the actual publication of a book. Some vanity presses will attempt to avoid detection by not requesting up-front fees but:
- Will demand fees for such things as: the set-up process; editing; cover art; publicity; etc. Authors should note, if additional services are offered, they tend to be of poor quality and though the fee is payed, may not actually occur e.g. editing, publicity, etc.
- Though additional facilities may be offered as ‘optional’ they put considerable pressure on the author to purchase them.
- Include a contract clause requiring authors to purchase a set number of their book, frequently ranging into the hundreds or sometimes thousands.
- Withhold royalties until ‘their’ excessive, self-determined, ‘costs’ are recovered.
Of course, there are multiple ways these companies may extract money, the above are just some examples the writer has heard of. It should also be noted, many complain about the poor quality of the end product (book) and of poor customer service (if it exists at all).
Unlike traditional publishers (who have no need to) Vanity Presses advertise for authors. This fact and the demand for a fee, no matter how worded, should alert any author to the possibility of them being a vanity press and for them to be guarded and aware.
As mentioned above, contracts are usually restrictive and it is very hard for an author to get out of them.
Vanity publishing has, understandably from the above information, a bad reputation. Bookstores will usually refuse to carry any so published book and many reviewers and book bloggers will ignore them.
Though there are a few reputable Vanity Presses in existence MOST appear to be rogue and simply out to take advantage of inexperienced, naive authors.
They have been described as often being deceptive, exploitive and predatory.
Most authors will acknowledge how difficult it is to get a traditional publisher interested in their book(s). Nevertheless, the advent of self-publishing systems enables them to get their manuscript published at little or no cost. Yes, they need to invest time and energy, and perhaps, if they have it, resources, into the proof-reading and editing of the manuscript but they do not need to pay anyone a substantial fee unless they chose to.
If an author really does require someone else to undertake all the publication work for them, they should, must, carefully research and check who they are. In principle, considering all the poor experiences reported over recent years, they should avoid Vanity Presses. If despite this, they are tempted, they should try and locate someone who has previously used the service and find out what their opinion is.
Disclaimer: Neither T. R. Robinson nor T. R. Robinson Publications have ever utilized a vanity press. The above information is simply a combination of research and notes made from the observations of authors who have either published with one or who have some knowledge of them.