Publishing your first book is exciting, but it also makes you vulnerable to scammers and predatory companies. New indie authors have a lot of questions as they work to understand the ins and outs of the industry. Who can I trust? What is the best publishing option for my goals? And importantly, what is a vanity press?
The short version: A vanity press is a pay-to-play “publisher” that preys on authors.
There are many facets to this topic, and to make matters worse, many vanity presses obscure their nature to trick authors. This is one of the reasons it is so important for authors to be informed before entering into any agreement.
Vanity presses aren’t the only dangers in the industry though. Predatory service providers also use the industry as their hunting ground.
In this article, we’ll answer the question, What is a vanity press? We’ll also explore ways to distinguish legitimate, high-quality service providers from poor-quality, predatory companies.
As a primer, let’s go over some quick definitions.
- Key Terms
- Responsibilities of an Indie Author
- What Is a Vanity Press and Why Are They Bad?
- What Does a Self-Pub Services Company Do?
- Why Vanity Presses Look Good to Indie Authors
- Red Flags for Self-Publishing Service Providers
- What Is the Difference Between Self-Publishing and Vanity Publishing?
- How can I Spot a Vanity Press?
- What is a Vanity Press? Know the Answer to Protect Yourself from Scams
- Self-Publishing (aka independent publishing): The author is also the publisher and is responsible for all aspects of the process. The independent author does not share royalties.
- Self-Publishing Platform: Platforms like KDP and IngramSpark provide printing and distribution services for independent authors. These platforms are not publishers. Aggregators like Draft2Digital work by sending your book to multiple platforms simultaneously. Learn more about the differences between KDP and IngramSpark.
- Traditional Publishing: A publisher takes all financial responsibility for the publishing process and has the final say in publishing decisions. Legitimate publishers do not charge up-front fees. They take a percentage of the profits from book sales and provide support during and after publication.
- Literary Agent: An agent submits clients’ manuscripts to publishers (many of which only accept manuscripts from agents) and represents clients in negotiations with publishers. Agents do not charge up front but take a percentage of the author’s royalties.
- Self-Publishing Services Provider: This encompasses companies offering many services, freelance editors, freelance cover designers, and other industry professionals. These providers charge up-front fees and take no royalties. The author has no obligations to the company after the completion of services.
It’s important to understand the difference between self-publishing and traditional publishing. Check out our article on the major types of publishing for a detailed breakdown of self-publishing vs. traditional publishing, with the pros and cons of each.
Responsibilities of an Indie Author
To understand why vanity presses and predatory self-publishing companies are so dangerous, we have to first understand the alternatives to these scams and why vanity presses can look so appealing.
The first alternative is traditional publishing, during which the publisher takes full control of and responsibility for the publishing process. That means the author relinquishes much of the control over the final product, including decisions about editing and book design. The author also sacrifices a percentage of the profits.
One of the biggest deterrents to traditional publishing is the time commitment. No matter how you spin it, traditional publishing is a lengthy process, often requiring years of work with no guarantee of success at any point along the way.
The second alternative is independent publishing (self-publishing). This route requires authors to act as their own publisher, which means they have all the control and all the responsibility. Independent authors pay for their own editing and book design services, and they are responsible for all marketing efforts.
The main barrier to entry with self-publishing is the financial investment. Of course, authors can try to handle the editing and book design themselves, but this is going to result in a subpar final book. (Don’t believe me? Try to design your own book cover, and then compare the result to the covers in our portfolio.)
Another obstacle for first-time indie authors is simply that they don’t have experience with the process. It’s complicated and varies significantly for each book. Trying to figure everything out on the fly can be a challenge, to say the least.
What Is a Vanity Press and Why Are They Bad?
Set against these two legitimate alternatives, we have vanity presses, who say, “Wait, we’ll publish your book. All you have to do is kick in some money up front. No waiting for a yes that may never come from a legitimate publisher or agent. And it’ll be cheaper than hiring editors and designers yourself. Plus we’ll support you through the process.”
It sounds like a good deal, especially for an author who’s been out there searching for a legitimate publisher. Someone wants to invest in your book. They believe in it, or else they wouldn’t invest their resources.
But here’s the rub: They don’t actually care whether your book succeeds, and they won’t invest in the marketing of your book. Vanity presses don’t make money by selling your book to readers. They make money off you, the author. That may come in the form of money paid up front or in required purchases of author copies.
Okay, you say, but Blue Pen makes money off authors. Are you a vanity press?
No, for these two important reasons:
- We do not represent ourselves as a publisher. We are a service provider, and our support ends when the services are completed. Authors understand that they are only contracting our team for services.
- We do not take any copyright ownership or profits from book sales. Authors retain 100% of their rights and royalties.
If someone tells you to pay up front and sacrifice royalties, that is a scam, my friend.
These vanity presses may also maintain rights to the book, meaning that authors may be legally prohibited from re-publishing their book, distributing their work in other forms, selling film rights, etc.
Basically, you just paid the vanity press to take control of your work and put it up on a shelf.
What Does a Self-Pub Services Company Do?
Because independent authors are also the publisher, they have all of the responsibility. That means they have to take care of editing, cover design, interior layout, and marketing.
To publish a professional-quality book, independent authors need to hire professionals to take care of at least editing and book design, just like traditional publishers have professionals handle these tasks. It’s simply not feasible for independent authors to be experts at every specialized part of the process.
That’s where service providers come in. Authors can hire independent freelancers, or they can contract with a company like Blue Pen that has a team of vetted professionals. Check out the pros and cons of using freelancers vs. self-publishing services companies in this article.
Spoiler: Folks often choose a company because it’s easier and doesn’t require authors to find and vet individual freelancers, which can be a Herculean task. Some companies, like Blue Pen, also handle authors’ project management and coordinate all of their services, making sure everything goes smoothly during what can be a complex process.
Self-publishing services providers are not publishers. They do not provide support beyond the services the author purchases. They do not take a percentage of your royalties, and neither the company nor the author has any continuing obligation to the other.
Why Vanity Presses Look Good to Indie Authors
When you’re considering shelling out money for editing and design services and taking on the responsibility of publishing your own book, a vanity press can look like a good deal. They’re willing to pay part of the costs.
But remember, they don’t care about quality. And they’re roping you into long-term losses by taking part of your profits.
A reputable self-publishing services provider, like Blue Pen, is going to offer higher quality services because their business is tied to their name—and ideally because they actually care about supporting authors and the industry, rather than preying on them.
That said, self-publishing services companies can be just as predatory as vanity presses, and it’s important to choose a service provider who is legitimate, experienced, and in it for the right reasons.
Red Flags for Self-Publishing Service Providers
There is a legitimate need for companies that offer editing, book design, and marketing services. It’s much easier for indie authors to get all of these services from one place and to have a dedicated project manager.
Unfortunately, that need creates an opening for money-making schemes—self-publishing companies that don’t actually care about authors, readers, or the writing community.
If you notice any of the following when researching companies that provide editing, book design, or self-publishing services, be sure you’re dealing with a reputable company and that you are completely comfortable before moving forward.
Self-Representation as a Publisher
Does the self-publishing services company in any way indicate that they are a publishing house? Doing so is dishonest and indicates that the company intends to trick first-time authors into believing they provide more support than they do.
Understand the company’s model and how they make money. Do they make money directly off authors? If so, they are not a traditional publisher.
Transparency of Deliverables
Does the company fail to specify exactly what each service entails? Do descriptions of packages leave you wondering what you receive in exchange for the fee? You should have a clear understanding of exactly what you get for your money.
Of course, you may want to contact the company before reaching a conclusion on that front. Sometimes representatives can give you more information than you’re able to find online. However, more transparency is always better.
Typos and Grammatical Mistakes
Do you notice more than a stray typo in the web copy or emails? During your communication with the company’s representatives, you should feel as though you’re speaking to someone who is familiar with book publishing and the English language.
A reputable company will be selective about their team members and will make sure everyone is knowledgeable and experienced.
Lack of Industry Roots
Was the company founded by a businessperson with no publishing experience? The self-publishing services sector is a perfect opportunity for money-making schemes that prey on inexperienced authors. Make sure you’re working with someone with industry roots. For example, Blue Pen is owned and operated by a professional editor.
What Is the Difference Between Self-Publishing and Vanity Publishing?
Self-publishing is a legitimate publishing route in which the author acts as their own publisher, thus publishing independently.
Vanity publishing involves paying a “publisher” to publish your book. The author often pays up front as well as sacrificing a portion of their long-term profits. This is a pay-to-play model that is not a legitimate form of publishing.
Vanity publishing harms authors and the industry by putting out low-quality books. These companies benefit financially from using the cheapest editing and design services and putting no resources into marketing, instead urging the author to buy their own book.
How can I Spot a Vanity Press?
Aside from knowing the red flags outlined above, I urge everyone to use Writer Beware from SFWA. This wonderful resource maintains lists of known vanity presses and posts articles about potential scams to help writers steer clear.
One of the easiest ways to utilize this resource is to Google “Writer Beware” plus the name of the company you’re considering. If no articles come up, that’s a good sign.
Also use the wealth of resources the organization provides to help authors understand vanity presses and other potential scams.
What is a Vanity Press? Know the Answer to Protect Yourself from Scams
Knowledge is the best resource you have to protect yourself in this increasingly complex industry. First of all, make sure you understand the difference between self-publishing and traditional publishing. Know the expectations for publishers so you can spot when something is amiss.
The more you understand the industry, the better you can evaluate individuals and companies you plan to hire. Knowledge is power; vanity presses and predatory companies can’t stand up to authors wielding that particular weapon.