Commercial publishers, subsidy publishers, vanity publishers, self-publishing–what’s the difference?
- A commercial or trade publisher (a.k.a. a traditional publisher) purchases the right to publish a manuscript (usually together with other rights, known as subsidiary rights). Big houses and larger independents pay an advance on royalties; small presses often don’t. Commercial publishers are highly selective, publishing only a tiny percentage of manuscripts submitted. They handle every aspect of editing, publication, distribution, and marketing. There are no costs to the author.
- A vanity or subsidy publisher charges a fee to produce a book, or requires the author to buy something as a condition of publication (usually, finished books, but sometimes editing or other services). There’s a wide variety of models for vanity/subsidy publishing, from companies that do little more than produce a print run that’s shipped to the author, to companies that provide a menu of design, editing, distribution, and marketing services in addition to print and digital book production.
Vanity/subsidy publishers may or may not be selective (if they are selective, it’s not likely that their gatekeeping processes are comparable to those of commercial publishers), and may or may not make an exclusive claim on authors’ rights. Marketing and distribution, if provided, are usually extremely limited; as a result, most or all of the burden of promoting and selling falls on the author. Costs for vanity/subsidy publishing can rise into the five-figure range.
Some fee-based publishers will try to convince you that there’s a difference between vanity and subsidy publishing (with subsidy publishing being more respectable). Others employ a variety of euphemisms in order to suggest that they’re contributing their own resources to the relationship: “joint venture”, “co-op”, “partner”, “equity”, and the newest, “hybrid”. Don’t be fooled. Fee-based publishing is fee-based publishing, and whatever you’re paying, it covers 100% of the cost and then some–no matter what the publisher claims.
- Self-publishing services fall somewhere between vanity publishing and true self-publishing. Unlike true self-publishing, writers are restricted to whatever publishing packages the service provides. However, self-publishing services are generally cheaper than vanity publishers, and more transparent about who they are and what they do (i.e., they don’t pretend to be publishers, as vanity publishers often do). They also don’t make an exclusive claim on writers’ rights. Limited distribution (wholesale/online only) is usually part of the package.
Because self-pub services typically are digitally-based, upfront expense can be low–but most services heavily promote often-costly extras, such as marketing options, and take a hefty cut of sales proceeds in order to recoup their production costs. (For more on self-pub services, see the Self-Publishing page.)
- True self-publishing, like vanity publishing, requires the author to bear the entire cost of publication, and also leaves marketing and promotion to the author. However, rather than paying for a pre-set package of services, the author puts those services together him/herself, hiring editors, cover designers, publicists, etc. Because every aspect of the process can be put out to bid, self-publishing can be much more cost effective than vanity publishing or using a self-publishing service; it can also result in a higher-quality product.
For projects where the number of books required is small, and marketing and profit aren’t a concern (for instance, memoirs or genealogies or recipe compilations, intended for family and friends or to be given as gifts) an honest, straightforward vanity or subsidy publisher can be an acceptable–if costly–alternative. It can also be an option for writers with niche nonfiction projects, where they’re able to reach their audiences directly, or for people who can exploit “back of the room” situations–for instance, lecturers who can sell books at their appearances. Again, though, with the many self-publishing options available these days, a vanity publisher is an unduly expensive choice.
If you’re looking to establish a career as a writer, however, or if you actually want people you don’t know to buy and read your book, vanity/subsidy publishing is a bad idea. For one thing, the expense can be enormous. In order to ensure their profit, vanity/subsidy publishers charge far more than the actual production cost of a book.
For another, it’s very difficult for authors to recoup this investment, since vanity/subsidy publishers rarely offer meaningful distribution or marketing. They have no economic incentive to do so–their principal source of income isn’t the sale of books to the public, but the sale of services to authors, and they have little desire to cut into that. If you vanity/subsidy-publish, it’s likely that you’ll lose money.
There’s also a stigma that attaches to vanity/subsidy publishing. This has eroded over the past few years, thanks to the growth of self-publishing options–but it still exists, and if you try to market your vanity/subsidy-published book you’ll likely run up against it. You may have trouble getting reviewers to consider your book, and, if you publish in print, difficulty persuading bookstores to order it (especially if your publisher doesn’t offer standard discounts, or doesn’t accept returns, or has shoddy production standards). As for building a writing resume…editors, publishers, and reviewers are unlikely to regard vanity-published books as professional writing credits.
Another important consideration: while there are honest vanity publishers that fulfill contractual promises, there are also many that engage in a wide range of unethical or fraudulent practices, including misrepresenting themselves as commercial publishers, grossly overcharging for their services, reneging on contract obligations, producing shoddy books, providing kickbacks to agents who refer manuscripts…the list goes on. A few that have been in the news:
- Commonwealth Publications, a Canadian vanity publisher, closed its doors in 1999. Angry authors sued, claiming they didn’t receive the books they paid to have published, were given marketing promises that weren’t fulfilled, and failed to receive royalties from books sold.
- Northwest Publishing, a vanity publisher located in Utah, cheated authors out of millions of dollars, which its principals gambled away in Reno and Las Vegas. Its assets were seized and the owner, James Van Treese, was sentenced to up to 30 years in prison.
- Sovereign Publications, a vanity publishing firm owned by the fee-charging Deering Literary Agency, took hundreds of thousands of dollars from authors, most of whom never received the books they paid for. The Deerings were convicted of fraud, and sentenced to time in federal prison.
- Press-Tige Publishing, a vanity publisher owned by Martha Ivery (who also operated under an alias as a fee-charging literary agent), took nearly three-quarters of a million dollars from over 200 authors. Delays were common; promised print runs weren’t delivered, books weren’t distributed or marketed. In the last few years of its existence, Press-Tige published no books at all, though it continued to offer contracts and take money from authors. Ivery was ultimately sentenced to five years in federal prison.
- Minerva Press Ltd., a UK vanity publisher with branches in India and the USA, was the subject of two exposes by the BBC. More than 40 authors sought redress from this company, alleging false promises, production of shoddy books, and general failure to fulfill contractual promises. In 2001, 16 of those cases were settled by Minerva in favor of the authors under a blanket non-disclosure agreement. Minerva went bust in 2002, leaving behind over £2 million in debt, as well as unpaid staff and multitudes of unhappy authors.
- Vantage Press, a vanity publisher founded in 1949 that was once sued by its authors for deceptive advertising and broken contractual promises, vanished abruptly in 2013. Most authors weren’t informed of the closure, and found out only when the company contacted them to offer a release of rights in exchange for waiving all debts, damages, and their right to sue. An accounting of money due was promised, along with a return of unsold printed books, but to date, most authors haven’t received either one.
As writers become more aware of the pitfalls of vanity/subsidy publishing, many less-than-honest pay-to-publish operations are trying dodge the vanity label by omitting to mention their fees on their websites or other public materials, or by shifting their charges to areas other than printing and binding. I often hear from writers who are confused because they’ve been offered a contract by a publisher that describes itself as “traditional” or “small press,” but wants its authors to make some sort of financial commitment in order to be published.
If asked, such publishers vehemently deny that they are vanity/subsidy publishers. After all, they don’t accept everyone who submits! Or they aren’t asking their authors to pay for printing–just to finance their own editing, or to commit to pre-selling a certain number of books.
But whether you’re shelling out cash for book production, finished books, or adjunct services, the bottom line is the same: you are paying to see your book in print. A publisher that turns its authors into customers has little incentive to get books into the hands of readers, and is not likely to invest its resources in marketing and distribution.
Here are some of the “alternative” charges you may encounter from these vanity publishers in disguise (for the names and M.O’s of some particularly stealthy vanity publishers, see this post from Writer Beware’s blog):
- A setup fee or deposit. Publishers that require a setup fee will tell you that you’re not paying to publish–just contributing to the cost of preparing your book for printing, or making a “good faith investment” in your own success. Some publishers promise to refund the fee under certain circumstances (usually carefully crafted so they’ll almost never be fulfilled).
The setup fee often isn’t large by vanity standards–a few hundred dollars–but since such publishers typically use print-on-demand technology or a service such as Lightning Source to produce their books, it more than covers their expenses.
- A fee for some aspect of the publication process other than printing/binding. Some publishers ask you to chip in for editing, or for your book cover art, or for publicity (commercial publishers provide these things as a routine part of the publication process, at their own expense). Services may cost thousands of dollars, and are often minimal and not of professional quality.
- Fees for “extra” services over and above the basics of publication. The publisher may offer you the opportunity to pay for expedited editing, or special website placement, or inclusion in book fair catalogs, or enhanced marketing. These services are optional–so the publisher can claim it’s not making authors to pay to publish–but there’s often heavy pressure to buy them, and authors who don’t are treated like dirt. One especially reprehensible vanity-in-disguise deliberately inserts errors into its proof copies, and then charges authors an arm and a leg to correct them.
- A claim that your fee is only part of the cost, with the publisher fronting the rest. The publisher may tell you that it will spend as much or more on your book than you’re being charged, or that the services it provides–warehousing, distribution, publicity–are worth far more than your “investment.”
At best, this is an exaggeration; at worst, it’s lie. Since most vanity publishers these days use digital technology, provide minimal editing and marketing, and access the same wholesale distribution channels employed by self-publishing services, their production and distribution costs are minimal. Most of the time, your fee pays the whole freight, plus the publisher’s overhead and profit.
- A pre-purchase requirement. Some publishers include a clause in their contracts requiring you to buy a specific quantity of finished books–from a few hundred to several thousand copies, often at a minimal discount. This can be more expensive than straightforward vanity/subsidy publishing.
- A pre-sale requirement. A similar contract clause may require you to pre-sell a certain number of books prior to publication, or to “guarantee” a minimum number of sales (usually, exactly as much as is needed to enable the publisher to recoup its investment and make a profit). You don’t have to buy them yourself–you may be asked to find “investors” or organizations to commit to purchases–but if you don’t deliver the sales, the publishing deal is off.
This is an especially tricky variation on the pay-to-publish scheme, because it allows the publisher to claim that it’s not asking you for cash. But it’s not an author’s job to be a salesperson for his or her own books–that’s what the publisher is supposed to do.
- A sales guarantee. If your book doesn’t sell X number of copies within X amount of time, you must agree to buy the difference. Most authors have an over-optimistic vision of the sales they can achieve, and figure they’ll never have to pay up–but vanity publishers’ nonexistent marketing and distribution ensures that they’re usually wrong.
In an especially sneaky version of this ploy, the publisher pressures authors to buy their own books for re-sale, but doesn’t allow author purchases to count toward the guarantee total–so authors are snagged twice, once during the honeymoon period (the six months or so before the first royalty statement arrives), and again at the expiration of the guarantee period.
- Withheld royalties. You get no royalty income until the cost of production has been recouped. In this manifestation of vanity publishing, you don’t have to physically lay out any cash–but money that should be yours is kept by the publisher, which amounts to the same thing.
- Pressure to buy your book yourself. The publisher may not contractually require you to purchase your own book–indeed, it may make a big deal of telling you that you don’t have to buy anything. Even so, it will put you under heavy buying pressure–for instance, providing an Author Guide that extols the financial benefit of buying your own book for resale, or bombarding you with special incentives designed to spur author purchases, such as extra discounts or contests for the month’s top seller.
These are all signs of a publisher that relies on its authors as its main customer base, and therefore has little interest in selling books to the public. Unfortunately, if the publisher employs such tactics, you usually don’t find out about them until you’ve already signed the contract.
- A variety of other sneaky tactics. Some examples from Writer Beware’s complaint files: requiring authors to pay for publisher-sponsored conferences or lectures or “publicity opportunities”; requiring authors to sell ads that are bound into the company’s books; hawking company stock to authors, despite the lack of an appropriate license; requiring authors to hire the publisher’s staff to perform various services. The permutations are endless.
There are a number of alternatives to vanity publishing that will cost you less, give you more control, and/or yield a superior product.
If you want to print-publish, there are many digital self-publishing services that offer a straightforward and often much cheaper version of vanity publishing. Such services have their own problems (for a rundown on these, see the Self-Publishing page), but there are services that are very cost-effective–or even free–and you’re much less likely to run into operations that want to rip you off.
You can also self-publish electronically, with no upfront costs at all, via one of the several free options available: either direct-to-ebook-reading-device (such as Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing program) or via an aggregator such as Smashwords that makes your ebook available across a variety of platforms. Ebooks are currently the fastest growth market in publishing, and some self-published authors are realizing significant success, primarily via the Kindle. Again, there’s more info on the Self-Publishing page.
Or you can go it totally alone, handling every aspect of publication yourself, from editing to cover art to interior design to production via a short-run printer (for print) or a digital fulfiller such as Lightning Source (for ebooks). This kind of self-publishing is not for the faint of heart, however. It will eat up not just your time, but your money, and requires a huge amount of energy, creativity, and determination to carry off successfully. This kind of self-publishing is best for entrepreneurial authors, who are willing to treat their books as a business.
One last comment: if your goal is traditional publication, and you’re thinking of turning to vanity/subsidy publishing because you can’t find an agent or have tried larger publishers without success, consider approaching reputable small presses first. These publishers often don’t require authors to be agented; they can produce excellent-quality books, and may give you personal attention you wouldn’t get from the majors. The tradeoff is less distribution clout and smaller marketing budgets–but a book published by a good small press can be as credible a writing credit as a book published by one of the big houses, and a reasonable way to begin a writing career.
Writer Beware never recommends that writers use vanity/subsidy publishers. With all the small presses out there, as well as the growing number of self-publishing options, there’s just no reason to pay an arm and a leg to a vanity publisher, even one that won’t rip you off.
But if, after all of the above, you still want to consider going this route, take these precautions:
- Order a couple of the publisher’s books, so you can assess quality. Does the interior formatting look professional? Are all the pages in order? Is the cover art attractive? Are the books sturdy? Did the order process go off without a hitch?
- Contact writers who’ve used the publisher’s services. Are they happy with the quality of the books? Did they receive the services they paid for? Do buyers have any trouble getting hold of the books? Have there been any broken promises?
- Research the publisher. Have there been complaints? If there are problems, a thorough Internet search can often turn them up. A good place to check is the Bewares, Recommendations, and Background Check forum of the Absolute Write Water Cooler. And you can always contact Writer Beware.
- Have a knowledgeable person look over the contract. Vanity publishers’ contracts, which usually aren’t negotiable, can include unpleasant clauses and hidden fees. (Note: if you use a lawyer, be sure to find one who has experience with publishing contracts, which include terms and clauses not found in other kinds of contracts.)
- Make sure the publisher distributes through at least one wholesaler, such as Ingram or Baker & Taylor. That way, the books will be available through online booksellers, and even if your books aren’t carried in bookstores, people will at least be able to order them.
- Don’t take the publisher’s promises at face value. If the publisher says it has an arrangement with a distributor, make sure it’s telling the truth. If there are marketing promises, ask for samples (vanity publishers often produce very unprofessional marketing materials). Never rely on verbal promises that aren’t included in the contract.
Always approach vanity/subsidy publishers with caution. If you encounter any of the following, be suspicious:
- A vanity/subsidy publisher that poses as a real publisher. Many vanity publishers don’t mention their fees on their websites or in their publicity materials; authors find out that money is due only after submitting. The idea is to entice authors who wouldn’t normally submit to a fee-charging publisher, and may find an actual publication offer hard to refuse, even if a fee is attached. But a publisher that doesn’t present itself honestly at the outset is probably not a publisher that will treat you honestly in the long run.
- Terms like “co-op”, “joint venture”, “partner”, “hybrid,” or any other phrase that suggests the publisher will be matching your investment with its own. A vanity/subsidy publisher’s profit comes from the fees its authors pay. It’s unlikely to cut into that by investing its own resources.
- A claim to share costs. See above. As noted in the “Definitions” section, this is an exaggeration at best and a lie at worst.
- A referral from a literary agency or freelance editor. Reputable literary agents and freelance editors don’t work with fee-based publishers. Period. Those who do are either receiving a kickback from the publisher, own the publisher themselves (possibly under another name), or are incompetent. Whatever the reason, it’s bad news for you.
- A promise (stated or implied) of a profit. Some vanity/subsidy publishers provide nicely-formatted sample sales projections showing how you can make thousands of dollars by selling X number of books. In fact, for the reasons outlined above, it’s extremely difficult even to break even on a vanity-published book. An ethical vanity/subsidy publisher won’t promise profits; in fact, it will warn you at the outset that vanity-published books rarely recoup authors’ investments.
- Obfuscation or refusal of reasonable requests for information. You’re paying for the service, so you have the right to have all your questions answered fully, honestly, and promptly. If a vanity/subsidy publisher refuses to provide you with references, or hedges about details such as contract arrangements, production schedules, marketing, and so on, be suspicious.
- Refusal to provide a firm price. The exact amount you are expected to pay should be stated at the outset (and included in the contract), including any extras such as warehousing or marketing. Don’t deal with a publisher that is vague about money–for instance, a publisher that tells you that the final price can’t be quoted until the books are printed (in which case you might wind up paying a substantial “differential”), or that warehousing will be charged “at the publisher’s discretion” (in which case you could be hit with enormous additional fees).
- Verbal promises that aren’t duplicated in the contract. Some dishonest vanity/subsidy publishers try to soothe nervous writers by promising various perks, such as a full or partial reimbursement of their costs if the book doesn’t sell out within a specified period of time. However, if such promises aren’t included in the contract, you’ll have little recourse if they aren’t fulfilled (which is exactly why unethical publishers don’t write them down). If the publisher is willing to promise something, it should also be willing to add it to the contract.
- Extravagant praise and/or promises. Extravagant praise is a sales ploy: a vanity/subsidy publisher has little reason to care whether your work is good or bad, since you’re paying them to publish it. And if a vanity/subsidy publisher says it can get you on national talk shows, or tells you its publicity department will organize a 30-city speaking tour or a national booksigning campaign, be extremely skeptical. Even big advance-paying publishers don’t provide these perks for most of their authors.
- A double standard. Dishonest vanity/subsidy publishers sometimes entice writers by saying that they can’t risk a regular contract for someone who hasn’t yet published anything, but would be willing to split the costs and profits of the book. Or they may tell you that they’ve used up their traditional publishing budget for the year, but would be glad to work on a “co-op” basis. Or they may promise to publish your second book without charge if the first book does well.
In all these cases, the implication is that the publisher is primarily a commercial publisher, and is offering the fee-based contract as a special circumstance. But though there are a few fee-based publishers that have a non-vanity branch, most don’t, and imply its existence solely for the purpose of acquiring customers.
- Pressure. A disreputable vanity/subsidy publisher wants to hook you quick, before you change your mind. Beware, therefore, if a publisher tells you that its offer is “limited time only,” or that (unexplained) circumstances require you to “act immediately.” Like the permanent going-out-of-business sale, this is just another marketing ploy.
- E-mail Writer Beware. SFWA has assembled a large archive of documentation on vanity publishers that engage in questionable practices. Send us the names of any publisher you’d like to know about, and we’ll summarize for you any data that’s in our files. If we have no information, we’ll let you know that too.
- Preditors and Editors provides lists of agents and publishers, with “not recommended” notations to indicate those that engage in questionable practices.
- Writer Beware’s Thumbs Down Publisher List: the publishers about which Writer Beware has received the greatest number of advisories and complaints over the past several years. A number of them are vanity publishers. (Despite the date, this list is current.)
- The Bewares, Recommendations, and Background Check area of the Absolute Write Water Cooler is an excellent place to check for information on any kind of publisher. Check the index to see if the publisher you’re interested in has already been discussed.
- Google Groups is a searchable database of Usenet newsgroups, with message archives dating back to 1981. Writers often post publisher questions or complaints to Usenet. If you’re uncertain about a publisher, do a search on its name here to see what you find.
- Vanity or Subsidy Publishing: warnings from the USA’s Better Business Bureau.
- Help Note on Vanity Publishing from the UK-based Committee of Advertising Practice.
- Advice on vanity publishing, from the UK Society of Authors.
- Vanity publishing warnings for Australian writers from the New South Wales Office of Fair Trading.
- The Price of Vanity: Moira Allen of Writing-World.com tells it like it is.
- Vanity Publishing–Advice and Warning is the webpage of Johnathon Clifford, a UK-based crusader against dishonest vanity publishers. He can be contacted directly with questions about UK vanity publishers, fraudulent and otherwise.
Vanity Publishers Gone Bad
- Writer Robert Wassell’s experience with dishonest UK vanity publisher Minerva Press (now defunct).
- Historical Pages, a vanity publisher owned by Peter Campbell-Copp, was shut down by police in 2011. It owed authors and creditors at least $170,000.
- Literary Dreams End in Litigation: An article by Penni Crabtree of the San Diego Union-Tribune on the exploits of serial vanity publisher Ed Johnson, who has been the focus of numerous author complaints and court judgments.
- Indiana-based New Century Publishing, run by professional fraudster David Caswell, closed its doors in 2010, owing thousands of dollars to authors whose money it had taken and whose books it had never produced.
- A UK vanity, Pentland Press, collapsed in 2002, with more than £260,000 in debt and hundreds of defrauded authors.
- Another UK vanity, Serendipity, went bust in the fall of 2008, with authors alleging breach of contract.
- Sovereign Publications, or what happens when a scam literary agency owns a vanity publisher.
- Press-Tige Publishing was a vanity publisher owned by a fee-charging literary agent with a mania for aliases.
- The Empty Canoe, a crooked “ghostwriting studio” brought down by its defrauded authors.
- Airleaf LLC, an Indiana-based vanity publisher, was sued by the Indiana Attorney General after more than 400 authors paid money for books that were never published and publicity services that were never rendered.
- Carol Van Drie’s experience with vanity publisher American Book Publishing (the comments thread contains many additional complaints). American Book Publishing is the subject of an Alert at Writer Beware.
- More case studies of dishonest vanity publishers: Commonwealth Publications and Northwest Publishing.
Links checked/Page updated: 12/30/13
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