Page updated/links checked 12/9/21
Is There a Difference Between Vanity and Subsidy Publishing?
The Pitfalls of Vanity Publishing
Vanity Publishers in Sheep’s Clothing
Traditional publishers, subsidy publishers, vanity publishers, hybrid publishers, self-publishing–what’s the difference? Some loose definitions:
– A traditional publisher (also known as a commercial or trade publisher) purchases the right to publish, distribute, and sell a manuscript (usually together with a bundle of other rights, known as subsidiary rights) on an exclusive basis. Large publishing houses and bigger independents pay an advance on royalties; small presses often don’t. Traditional publishers are highly selective, publishing only a tiny percentage of manuscripts submitted.
There’s no cost to the author with traditional publishing: publishers undertake the entire financial risk, handling every aspect of publication at their own expense. This investment is recouped from the sale of books to the public, and from the use and licensing of subsidiary rights. Traditional publishers are highly incentivized to invest significant resources in marketing and distribution support for the books they publish, in order to drive the sales that are their primary source of profit.
– A vanity (sometimes called a subsidy) publisher charges a fee to produce a book, or requires the author to buy something as a condition of publication (such as finished books). Unlike assisted self-publishing services, which also charge fees, vanities present themselves as real publishers.
As with traditional publishing, a vanity publisher contracts rights on an exclusive basis. There may be some degree of gatekeeping–often just to exclude manuscripts that are too long or too short–but vanities can also be more selective than this, especially if they serve a defined market, such as the Christian market. Fees for vanity publishing can rise into the high five-figure range, and are calculated to ensure a profit for the publisher before the book is ever published. These fees, rather than book sales to the public, are the publisher’s primary profit source, and as a result, vanity publishers have sharply diminished incentive to invest significant resources in high-quality production, marketing, and distribution.
Some vanities claim to offer non-fee contracts alongside their fee-based ones. In some cases this is true (though such contracts will usually be a small percentage of the total, and fees will still be the publisher’s primary profit engine). In others, it’s just a marketing ploy.
– A hybrid publisher also contracts on an exclusive basis and charges a fee, but is selective in what it publishes, and, unlike a vanity publisher, adds significant value in the form of professional-quality editing, design, marketing, and/or distribution. As with vanity publishers, hybrid publishers can be extremely costly, and author fees are a source of profit. But unlike a vanity, a good hybrid will also be committed to getting books into the hands of readers.
Unfortunately, many publishers that call themselves hybrids are actually vanity publishers in disguise.
– Assisted self-publishing services offer comprehensive publishing services for a fee, from formatting to cover design to sales and distribution. These are usually bundled into packages, with differing prices according to the level of service. Assisted self-pub services’ profits derive mostly from author fees and self-purchases, rather than from book sales to the public. Contracts are non-exclusive and terminable at will (if you’re confused about whether the company you’re considering is a vanity publisher or a self-publishing service, that can be one way to tell).
Assisted self-pub services fall somewhere between vanity publishing and DIY self-publishing via a free or low-cost platform like KDP. Because they’re digitally-based and recoup production costs at the point of sale, their fees are often a good deal lower than vanity or hybrid publishers’, so they can be a cost-effective alternative to those more expensive options. But some charge eye-popping amounts, and many aggressively encourage writers to spend even more on expensive and dubiously useful extras, such as marketing. Many are deceptive about the potential benefits of using their services.
– DIY self-publishing requires the author to bear all costs associated with publishing and marketing, and do all the work as well. 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, DIY self-publishing can be more cost effective than vanity or hybrid publishing, and result in a higher-quality product.
Is There a Difference Between Vanity and Subsidy Publishing?
Some fee-charging publishers will try to convince you that there is. They may claim that subsidy publishing is more respectable because subsidy publishers don’t publish everything that’s submitted, or only expect authors to pay part of the cost, or provide “quality” editing and marketing. Others employ a variety of euphemisms intended to suggest that they are partners in the publishing process and contribute significant value to the relationship. “Joint venture”, “co-op”, “partnership”, “equity”, “contributory”, and “hybrid” are all terms you may encounter.
Don’t be fooled. Pay-to-play publishers may employ some degree of gatekeeping, but their quality-control processes are minimal compared to those of traditional publishers (if author fees are your main income source, you can’t afford to be too picky). Those “quality” services may contribute to a staggering cost–or not be quality at all, to avoid cutting into profits. As for the publisher investing its resources alongside yours…it’s a lot more likely that your money will cover not only the whole expense of publication, but the publisher’s overhead and profit as well.
The Pitfalls of Vanity Publishing
For projects where the audience is small, the author’s preference is print, 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 publisher can be an acceptable–if unduly expensive–alternative.
It can also be an option for writers with niche nonfiction projects who can reach their audiences directly, or for people who can exploit “back of the room” situations–for instance, lecturers who sell books at their appearances. Again, though, with the many self-publishing options available, a vanity publisher is an excessively costly 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 books, vanity publishing is a bad idea.
For one thing, as I’ve noted, the expense can be enormous. Even if they claim otherwise (and many do), vanity publishers typically charge far more than the actual production cost of a book.
For another, it’s very difficult for authors to recoup this investment. Vanity publishers rarely offer meaningful distribution or marketing; they have no economic incentive to do so, since the bulk of their profit is made up-front, from author fees. For the same reason, poor-quality production may also be a handicap. Bottom line: if you vanity-publish, you will probably lose money.
There’s also a stigma that attaches to vanity publishing. This has dwindled in recent years, with the rise of self-publishing options and the blurring of the once-bright lines between traditional and author-sponsored publication–but the prejudice still exists, and if you try to market your vanity-published book you may well run up against it. Reviewers and book bloggers may turn up their noses. Bookstores may refuse to carry your book even if you offer it on consignment or agree to buy back unsold copies. As for building a writing resume…editors, publishers, and reviewers are unlikely to regard vanity-published books as professional writing credits.
Also worth considering: because vanity publishers’ contracts are exclusive, and often can’t be terminated at will, you will be stuck with your vanity publisher if things go bad.
And things do go bad. Honest vanity publishers that fulfill contractual promises do exist–but many more engage in a wide range of unethical or fraudulent practices, including misrepresenting themselves as traditional 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 scamming vanities 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 a woman named 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. When Minerva finally went bust, it left 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.
Tate Publishing & Enterprises, a self-styled Christian publisher based in Oklahoma, charged four-figure fees–but you’d never have known that from its website, in which it presented itself as a “mainline” publisher with thousands of happy authors. Reports of problems–including non-payment of royalties, non-payment of staff, book orders not filled, and marketing services not delivered–began to mount in 2015. By January 2017, when Tate finally closed its doors, hundreds of author complaints had been posted online and sent to the Oklahoma Attorney General; and two multi-million dollar default judgments had been entered against Tate by creditors who, like authors, went unpaid. Shortly afterward, Tate’s founder and CEO were charged by the Oklahoma AG with multiple felony counts of embezzlement and fraud.
PublishAmerica was a rare vanity publisher that didn’t charge upfront fees, enabling it to claim it was “traditional”. But it imposed a huge range of fees for various “extras”, such as expedited processing, changes in proof, and marketing “opportunities”, and heavily pressured its authors to buy their own books (for which they were charged exorbitant shipping fees). PublishAmerica held authors’ rights for ransom by charging fees to terminate contracts. It was lucrative for its owners for as long as it lasted–but there’s little honor among thieves, and in 2017 the company fell apart amid internal strife and lawsuits. No official announcement of its closing was ever made; authors received no release of rights or payment of outstanding royalties.
Vanity Publishers in Sheep’s Clothing
As writers become more aware of the pitfalls of vanity publishing, many less-than-honest pay-to-play operations are trying dodge the vanity label by stripping mention of their fees from their websites, shifting their charges to areas other than printing and binding, or calling themselves “independent” or “hybrid” publishers.
If asked, such publishers vehemently deny that they are vanity publishers. After all, they don’t accept everyone who submits! They aren’t asking authors to pay for printing, just to buy hundreds of their own books–and wouldn’t they want to do that anyway? They’re contributing the lion’s share of production costs! (This last is usually a lie.)
But whether you’re handing over money for book production or for the purchase of finished books, the bottom line is the same: you must lay out cash as a condition of publication. A publisher that realizes a profit from its authors before the book is even published has seriously reduced incentive to cut into that profit by investing in quality editing, marketing, and distribution. As for book sales, they’re gravy.
Here are some of the ways in which vanity publishers attempt to hide or sanitize their true nature:
– A claim to be a hybrid publisher. A few publishers that say they’re hybrids really are hybrids. But, as detailed above, many so-called hybrids are just regular vanities by a different name. Always give extra scrutiny to a publisher that labels itself a hybrid.
– A setup fee or deposit. Publishers that require a setup fee may 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 many not be large by vanity standards–a few hundred dollars–but since such publishers don’t waste cash on professional staff and use free or low-cost platforms like KDP or IngramSpark to produce their books, it more than covers the cost of production.
– A fee for some aspect of the publication process other than book production. Some publishers ask you to chip in for editing, or for cover art, or for publicity (real publishers provide these things as part of the publication process, at their 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 doesn’t charge you an upfront fee, but does 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 pull out their credit cards become second-class citizens.
– A book 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 paltry discount. This can be more expensive than straightforward vanity publishing.
– 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 idea 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.
– 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.
– Withheld royalties. You get no royalty income until the publisher’s out-of-pocket costs have been recouped. In this version of vanity publishing, you don’t have to actually hand over any cash–but money that should be yours is kept by the publisher, which amounts to the same thing.
– A claim that your fee is only part of the cost, with the publisher fronting the rest. This extremely common claim–whose sole purpose is to make you feel better about handing over a large amount of money–is, at best, an exaggeration. At worst, it’s a lie. Vanity publishers’ profit comes from the fees authors pay and the books authors buy, rather than from book sales to the public; they have little incentive to cut into that by investing resources in high-quality editing, design, production, and marketing. Most of the time, your fee will pay the whole freight, plus the publisher’s overhead and profit.
– A claim that fee-based contracts are only part of the business, with traditional contracts making up the rest. Some vanities really do offer a limited number of no-fee contracts–but this claim is as apt to be a lie as to be true. And even if the publisher isn’t lying, its reliance on pay-to-play contracts as a primary profit source means that it won’t be set up to provide traditional-quality services or distribution, even for those authors who aren’t required to pay.
– 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 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 primary income source, 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 techniques. Some examples from Writer Beware’s complaint files: requiring authors to pay for publisher-sponsored conferences or workshops or publicity opportunities or “author universities”; requiring authors to sell ads that are included in 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 adjunct services. The permutations are endless.
When is a fee-based publisher not a vanity publisher? When it’s a hybrid publisher. Sometimes.
When the term is used honestly, “hybrid publisher” indicates a publisher that straddles the divide between traditional and self-publishing: charging a fee and possibly having a lower gate-keeping threshold than highly-selective trade publishers, but offering more value in terms of editing, design, marketing, and/or distribution than a vanity publisher or self-publishing platform.
Unfortunately, a growing number of unscrupulous vanity publishers are calling themselves hybrids in an effort to make themselves seem more respectable. How to tell the difference? Author and editor Jane Friedman provides this advice:
- A good hybrid will have some method of curating or selecting what projects to take on. In other words: They consider the market potential of your work and its ability to succeed. If they appear to take anyone and everyone, then you’re better off evaluating the best self-publishing service to use. Don’t kid yourself about leveling up to a hybrid. (So-called hybrids aren’t averse to playing to your ego to get your business.)
- A great hybrid offers the potential of bricks-and-mortar distribution—whether to bookstores or other retail channels. They might not be able to promise it, but if they’re actively working with a distributor or retailer—and they have a catalog of titles for marketing purposes—that’s a good sign. A self-publishing author can easily get distribution through online retail, via Amazon and Ingram (distribution fees are zero or little for online retail), so the more the hybrid invests in marketing and distributing print editions, the more they’re offering something you may not be able to accomplish yourself.
- A good hybrid works with you both pre-publication and post-publication. The relationship doesn’t end once the book is done. (However, you may have to pay fees to continue the relationship.)
Jane also advises that a good hybrid should “pay better royalties than a traditional publishing deal. (Fifty percent is common.)”
Similar guidelines are provided by the Independent Book Publishers Association in its Hybrid Publisher Criteria, a 9-point set of standards intended to differentiate true hybrid publishers from other author-subsidized models (i.e., vanity publishers). “Hybrid publishing companies behave just like traditional publishing companies in all respects, except that they publish books using an author-subsidized business model, as opposed to financing all costs themselves, and in exchange return a higher-than-industry-standard share of sales proceeds to the author. In other words, a hybrid publisher makes income from a combination of publishing services and book sales.”
Unfortunately, it’s pretty easy for less-than-scrupulous vanity publishers to game these criteria and pose as hybrid publishers by misrepresenting their business model or just plain lying…as indeed many do. It’s a good idea, therefore, not to take a hybrid publisher’s claims at face value. Always investigate on your own.
- Does the hybrid claim to screen for quality and publish to professional standards? Assess those claims for credibility–buy a few of its books, and use Amazon’s Look Inside feature to sample more.
- Make sure that the hybrid is offering more than just a self-publishing-style suite of services, or pretending that the basic elements of digital publishing (such as “worldwide distribution” via online retailers) are premium extras. What will it do for you that you can’t do for yourself, or buy for less from another service?
- Check the hybrid’s other claims (don’t just take their word for it). Does it really work with a distributor (as opposed to a wholesaler like Ingram)? Can it really get its books into brick-and-mortar stores? Does it really do the marketing it promises?
- Search for complaints. Absolute Write’s Bewares, Recommendations, & Background Check forum is a good place to start. Contact Writer Beware; we may have heard something.
- Ask yourself whether it’s worth it. Hybrids can be seriously expensive–mid- to high five figures is not uncommon–and some hybrids don’t even include everything you might want in their basic packages. You may have to pay extra for editing, for instance. That makes it even more important to determine that you’re not being rooked by a vanity publisher in disguise.
There are a number of alternatives to vanity publishing that will cost you less, give you more control, and very possibly yield a superior product.
If you want to print-publish, there are many assisted 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 cost-effective, 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: platforms like Amazon’s KDP or ebook distributors such as Smashwords and Draft2Digital that make your ebook available across a variety of platforms. Some self-published authors are realizing significant success via this route. Again, there’s more info on the Self-Publishing page.
Or you can choose to 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 or a digital fulfiller such as IngramSpark. This kind of self-publishing is not for the faint of heart. It will eat up not just money, but time, and requires a huge amount of energy, creativity, and determination to carry off successfully. It’s best for entrepreneurial authors who are willing to treat their books as a business.
One last comment: if you’re thinking of turning to vanity publishing because you can’t find an agent, or have tried submitting to larger traditional publishers without success, or don’t want the DIY experience of self-publishing, consider approaching reputable small presses instead. Small presses 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 is a reasonable way to begin a writing career.
For more information, see the Small Presses page.
Writer Beware never recommends that writers use vanity publishers. The risk of scams is great, and even if the vanity is not a scam, whether you’re getting good value for money is an open question. With all the small presses and self-publishing options that are available these days, there’s just no reason to pay an arm and a leg to a vanity publisher, even if you can find 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 (at least) 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. 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. Writer Beware will also look at contracts and provide non-legal (we aren’t lawyers) commentary and advice.
– Make sure the publisher distributes through at least one wholesaler, such as Ingram. That way, the books will be available online, and bookstores will be able to special-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 examples of marketing materials. Never rely on verbal promises that aren’t included in the contract.
Always approach vanity publishers with caution. If you encounter any of the following, be especially suspicious:
– A vanity publisher that poses as a traditional publisher. Many vanity publishers don’t mention their fees on their websites or in their publicity materials; authors may only find out that money is due 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.
– Any of the stealth techniques described in the Vanity Publishers in Sheep’s Clothing section, above. These are all designed to encourage you to believe that you’re not dealing with a vanity publisher…but if your publisher requires you to pay something or buy something as a condition of publication, you are dealing with a vanity, no matter what the publisher tells you. And if the publisher isn’t honest about what it is and what it does, you can’t count on it to be honest in other areas, either.
– A fee that isn’t included in the contract. For instance, the publisher may contact you to offer a contract, and tell you in the offer email that you must buy a certain number of your own books. The purchase requirement doesn’t appear anywhere in the contract, but if you don’t pay up, you won’t get published. Required book purchases are one of many techniques by which vanity publishers attempt to disguise or sanitize their fees; this iteration of that technique is extra stealthy because it’s “unofficial.”
– Terms like “co-op”, “joint venture”, “partner”, “contributory”, or any other phrase that suggests the publisher will be contributing resources or matching your investment with its own. A vanity publisher’s profit comes from the fees its authors pay and the books or other services they buy. It’s unlikely to cut into that by investing significant resources of its own.
– An explicit claim to share expenses, or that your fee is only “part” of the expense of publishing your book. 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 vanity publishers. 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 publishers provide nicely-formatted sample sales projections supposedly showing that 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 publisher 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 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 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 include it to the contract.
– A double standard. Dishonest vanity 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 traditional publisher, and is offering the fee-based contract as a special circumstance. But though some vanity publishers do occasionally offer non-fee contracts, such promises are far more likely to be marketing ploys intended to make writers feel better about handing over large sums of cash.
– Pressure. A disreputable vanity 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 marketing.
- 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.
- 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.
- Vanity Publishing: cautions from the UK-based Committee of Advertising Practice.
- Advice on vanity publishing, from the UK Society of Authors.
- From the Alliance of Independent Authors: What is Vanity Publishing?
- This insightful article from John Doppler of the Alliance of Independent Authors examines the vulnerabilities vanity publishers exploit in order to hook their victims: 5 Reasons Authors Fall For Vanity Presses.
- Also by John Doppler: Fool Me Twice: How Victims of Vanity Presses Become Repeat Victims (Writer Beware has files full of similar stories).
- 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.
- Not All Hybrid Publishers Are Created Equal: advice and warning from Jane Friedman.
- From Writer Beware’s blog: a look at seven prolific vanity publishers, and why they should be avoided.
- Tricks and tactics of vanity publishers, from Writer Beware’s blog:
- Europe Books solicits authors with submission invitations; later on, they discover they must buy 250 of their own books.
- Book Publishers London, a vanity that has had at least two other names, takes the money and runs.
- A look at how UK-based vanity publisher Austin Macauley abuses Google ads (never trust a publisher that advertises).
- A look at Novum Publishing/United PC Publisher, an Austrian vanity with dubious tactics and a terrible contract.
- Troubled Texas-based vanity Waldorf Publishing has employed two stealth vanity tactics: letting authors choose their fees by offering a sliding scale of royalties (the bigger the royalty, the larger the fee), and a book purchase requirement.
Vanity Publishers Gone Bad Go Bust
- The slow-motion collapse of vanity publisher Tate Publishing & Enterprises, beset by lawsuits and money troubles. Two of Tate’s owners were later convicted of multiple felonies.
- The implosion of one of the most notorious stealth vanities ever, PublishAmerica a.k.a. America Star Books, under the weight of lawsuits and liens.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- When C. Lee Nunn of notorious vanity publisher American Book Publishing decided to close down her company, she held writers’ rights for ransom.
- More case studies of dishonest vanity publishers: Commonwealth Publications and Northwest Publishing.
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