Why are vanity presses still the deadly sin of publishing?

Written by Evie Jamison

Evie is an award-winning writer of Regency Romance. She sets her stories in the fictional town of Edenbrooke, England, where the heroines are sassy and the heroes are swoonworthy. Evie is currently working on her series, Bluestockings Behaving Badly. www.eviejamison.com
April 2, 2021

Twenty or more years ago, vanity presses were easier to spot. Almost anything that was not a traditional publisher was a vanity press. If you paid to have your book published, it was considered vanity publishing. But, as with all things in publishing in the last twenty years, the definition of vanity publishing has had to adapt to the changing times. 

Let’s review the basics. There are many types of publishers these days: traditional, small press, self-publishing or independent, hybrid, and vanity. With traditional and small press, the publisher pays the costs associated with publication–editing, cover design, typesetting, some marketing, etc.–and recoups its loss by taking a percentage of the royalties from sales. With self-publishing, the author pays for all those costs but reaps the rewards of any earnings. Hybrid, which is difficult to define, falls somewhere between traditional and self-publishing. Jane Friedman gives an excellent summary of the various types of hybrid publishers. But what to bear in mind is that it can be very difficult to determine the difference between hybrid and vanity publishing.

The main difference seems to be one of intent and scruples. A good hybrid publisher will reflect the criteria outlined by the International Book Publishers Association. A reputable hybrid publisher cares about its writers’ success. It doesn’t charge outlandish fees. The best vet their submissions because this gives them the ability to market and distribute their books better. They provide decent services for the price they are actually worth. Vanity publishers do none of these things.

What does vanity publishing mean today? The Alliance of Independent Authors defines a vanity press as “a publishing service that engages in misleading or, in the worst cases, outright deceptive practices, with the intention not of bringing books to readers but of extracting as much money as possible from the authors.” (Emphasis added). That’s a helpful definition, but let’s explore what that actually means.

When it comes to exploitive vanity publishing, here are some warning signs you should look for:

1) If the publisher accepts every manuscript it receives, regardless of content or quality, it may be a symptom of vanity publishing. But again, there are reputable services providers out there who offer editing, cover design, distribution, etc., without regard to content, too.

2) Poor quality isn’t a definitive indication of a vanity press, either. But it’s definitely something writers should check into regardless. How is the editing on other books that used this service or publisher? The cover design? The overall product? Does the product meet market standards?

3) Low quality and no curation become a bigger problem when you take into account the value of what you’re getting. How much are you paying for this service? Then figure out how many books you would need to sell to pay for it. 

As stated in a Watchdog Report by ALLi: “One hallmark of a vanity press is charging wildly inflated prices for services. Editorial reviews that sell for $425 from Kirkus are resold for $3,000.00. Worthless press releases are peddled for hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Copyright registration available for $35 online is sold at a 400% markup.” Frequently, what vanity publishers do is charge a set amount for certain services, and then outsource that service for pennies of what they charged. For instance, the vanity service may charge a writer $2000 for copywrite editing, but they then send it to someone who does it for $50. Not only is that exploitive, the quality is definitely going to be reflected in the price the publisher (and not the writer) paid.

Oof. No need to explain how those practices are exploitive.

Furthermore, there are some services that a writer should never pay for. For instance a “reading fee” is nonsense–you should never pay a publisher to read your book. If a publishing service charges to upload your book to Amazon, that’s nonsense. That’s something you could have done yourself for free.

The scam gets more dicey when you take into account some hybrid publishers will take a percentage of royalties and not pay the writer one cent until the publisher claims it has recouped whatever productions costs it footed. And the publisher can name any sum it wants without having to prove the actual value of those costs. 

4) How a vanity publisher markets its services to you is another big flashing neon sign of “writer beware.” Among the many, many tactics a vanity press may use are hiding costs, making unrealistic promises (ie., “You will recoup your costs through sales” or “You can be a New York Times bestseller”), flattering the author’s ego, preying upon an author’s fears, and pushing unnecessary services.

This is how they frequently hook their writers. They tend to play towards inexperienced writers who are uncertain of how the publishing industry works. They find the writers who want to publish as soon as possible, today not being soon enough. They will scour social media to find writers and call them, the publisher never having seen a single word of the manuscript.

5) Does the publisher have an active interest in selling your book? With good publishers, they do. If the author makes money, the publisher makes money. With a vanity publisher, it doesn’t matter if the author makes money because the vanity publisher profits regardless.

Here’s a tip: Go to a publishing service website, be it hybrid or something else. Start looking for red flags. A good publishing service will showcase its clients, providing galleries of examples of the publishing service’s work. If there is limited information on who the publisher’s clients are, that’s a red flag. Does the publisher make vague references to their “award winning authors” or that their authors have been seen on certain networks, in magazines, etc.? If that’s the case, then the publisher should be shouting from the rooftops who those award-winning authors are and precisely which authors were featured by what specific media company. Does the publisher promise specialized inside knowledge or that it knows how to “game the system”? Chances are it’s a scam. Do they promise they know how to make you a New York Times bestseller? They don’t. They’re lying. Do they promote having specialized “how to write and publish a book” classes that costs thousands of dollars? Those classes are generally a ripoff. You can find most of that information on the Internet for free. Is it clear who the owner of the publisher is? How about the team? You have every right to know who is going to be handling your book from start to finish. If the staff isn’t clear on the website, this raises the alarm that the publisher may be farming out their services to the lowest bidder while charging the writer a premium price.

And those were examples of red flags I could think of off the top of my head. My bottom line advice is to scrutinize, scrutinize, scrutinize.

How do you find a reputable publishing service? First, ask other writers who they use. ALLi has a list of reputable publishing services, though the list is nowhere near exhaustive. Google is your friend when it comes to trying to find scams.

And also, if you come across a publishing service you are unfamiliar with, feel free to ask other KRW members what they think! It’s one way our meetings and forums are invaluable.

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