Vanity Publishing

As if we didn’t have enough reasons already to loathe and despise the Big 6 publishing companies, now they’re dirtying their hands with vanity publishing scams, and to add insult to injury this foray into the even-darker side of the publishing world is being described in press releases as publishing companies getting into “self-publishing.” Both Penguin and Simon & Schuster have bought or partnered with a vanity publishing company to lure writers into giving them their money.

Despite the press releases saying they are, Penguin and Simon & Schuster are not getting into self-publishing. Vanity publishing is not self-publishing. The Big 6 publishers will never support self-publishing in any way; self-publishing (the real thing) dooms their control of distribution, on which their profits depend, and is their death sentence. But they don’t mind fleecing would-be authors that might otherwise genuinely self-publish their work. If this isn’t final proof of just how much contempt the big corporations who control traditional publishing have for authors, what would be?

A review of the history of vanity publishing might be useful here. Vanity publishing is an industry that arose in the old days, before the internet, before real self-publishing existed, when books were marketed almost exclusively in brick-and-mortar bookstores. There was no such thing as an e-book, or print on demand, or even the ability to order books on-line for delivery by mail. Printing a book was expensive. It required a large capital investment. Distribution was limited, and reputable publishing companies had it under lock and key. It was not completely impossible to self-publish in those days, but it was expensive and extremely difficult and hardly any authors succeeded at it. If you were a writer and you wanted your book published, you submitted it to publishing companies because there was no alternative.

Although it was easier in those days to get your book published with a publishing company than it is today (in those days, publishing companies weren’t threatened with extinction, there were more of them*, and they were more willing to take a risk on a new author because they were a growing business not a shrinking one engaged in cannibalism), it still wasn’t easy. Since publication was expensive, publishers could only publish so many titles a year. They were selective. Authors typically piled up rejection notices for years before finally having a book accepted for publication. Naturally, many authors found this frustrating.

Enter vanity publishing, a dubious business model created to take advantage of that frustration. Vanity publishers were not selective the way standard publishing companies were, because they made the authors pay for all the costs involved rather than paying those costs themselves — and then some. And not only that, but once you had ponied up thousands of dollars to see your book in print, you didn’t own the books, the vanity publisher did — you had to buy copies from them, and they paid you “royalties” just like the big boys, taking a hefty share of any proceeds of sale, even though the author had shelled out the capital to produce it and should, by any reasonable judgment, own all of it!

Of course, with no promotion and few to no bookstores willing to carry vanity titles, sales would be meager to nonexistent anyway. Vanity publishers made their money from author payments, not from sales of books. Vanity publishing came with a heavy load of stigma and rightly so, because an author would resort to it only because he could not find a conventional publisher, and usually that meant bad writing, poor editing or none, and poor judgment on the part of the author. (Some of that stigma transferred to real self-publishing, but that’s changing.)

There’s a very simple rule of thumb that can tell you whether you are dealing with a genuine self-publishing platform or a vanity-publishing scam. If they want your money before they will publish you, DON’T!

Now, there are two services that may be offered to an author for which up-front payment is appropriate. These are editing and cover design. To add to the confusion, publishing companies (large and small) normally include these services for any book they accept for publication without charging the author up front. A company that charges for these services isn’t necessarily a scam, but two questions must be asked. First, can you publish with the company without making use of these services, at no charge? And second, is the price involved appropriate given the market rates for freelance editing and cover design? If the answer to the first question is no, my advice is not to consider using that service for a split second. If the answer to the second is no, then obviously you should look elsewhere for these vital services. (There are actually ways to have both without paying a cent — which is not to say that professional editors and designers aren’t worth what you pay them.)

Here’s the baseline. You can publish an e-book or a print-on-demand book with many different on-line retailers directly. Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (for e-books), Amazon CreateSpace (for printed books), Smashwords (e-books only, also acts as a distributor), and Barnes & Noble’s Pubit! are probably the most important ones, but there are others. For all four of these genuine self-publishing outlets, you can upload a book that meets their formatting guidelines and sell it on-line through the platform’s web site at no charge to you whatsoever. Of course, you’re responsible for the quality of your book, and far too many self-published authors cut corners here that they shouldn’t, but the fact remains that as far as making the book available to readers, no genuine self-publishing platform charges for this service. Instead, they each take a share of the proceeds when the book is sold. (A small share. Smashwords takes 15%, Amazon slightly more than 30%, and Barnes & Noble 35%.)

One could go into a lot more detail, but if you follow that one rule you can’t go wrong. If they want you to pay up front to have your book published, that’s vanity publishing. If not, that’s self-publishing. Know the difference, and don’t be fooled.


* Let me qualify this statement. As the advent of self-publishing causes a revolution in the publishing world, a lot of small publishers have begun mushrooming to accommodate the new reality. When I speak of publishers in this article’s context, they’re not the ones I’m talking about; I’m referring to the major corporate-owned publishing companies. Please excuse any confusion that arises as a result. These are confusing times.



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8 responses to “Vanity Publishing

  1. Nice clear analysis, Brian — have had to learn most of this the hard way myself over the last couple of years and I hope that those new to self-publishing will find this post. I also you might might get inspired to address the various schemes, scams and legitimate services offered to authors once they do self publish …. it is a jungle out there 🙂

  2. Pingback: Why Publishers Hate Writers - Be the Publisher | Writer - Publisher - Curator

  3. Pingback: Self-Publishing Goes from ‘Vain’ to Pop « Self Publishing

  4. Pingback: Vanity vs. Self-Publishing: Is There a Difference? « Writing Is Hard Work

  5. Pingback: Vanity Publishing « Bent Pages

  6. Reblogged this on The Bookworm's Fancy and commented:
    Wonderful insight on vanity publishing. A great tool for all would be authors!

  7. Pingback: Robert JR Graham » Publishing Options For Freelance Writers

  8. Pingback: Publishing Options For Freelance Writers — Become a TopSelling Author

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