It's widely accepted that vanity publishing is bad for authors. But what, exactly, is “vanity publishing”? Where do we draw the line between a reputable publisher and a vanity press?
An Outdated Definition
From the start, the term “vanity press” had negative connotations. A vanity press was a last resort for authors whose books were not deemed commercially viable by traditional publishers. Vanity publishers would publish any work for the right price. The assumption was that if an author was forced to seek out this kind of uncurated, pay-to-play publisher, they were doing so purely out of vanity. It was a clear binary: the perceived prestige of traditional publishing on one side, and across a vast gulf, the less-than-reputable realm of vanity publishing.
But in recent decades the industry has evolved dramatically — exponentially in the last ten years. The debut of Amazon's self-publishing platforms opened the door to a tremendously diverse range of independent authors, from one-off authors publishing their memoirs; to hobbyists; to professional authorpreneurs. With the rise of professionally self-published authors, self-publishing is leaving behind the stigma of “less-than-traditional publishing”. At the same time, it has introduced new business models for both publishers and authors.
And that's where the existing definition of “vanity press” departs from current usage.
Dictionary.com defines the term as “a printing house that specializes in publishing books for which the authors pay all or most of the costs”. Merriam-Webster defines it as “a publishing house that publishes books at the author's expense”.
But the old binary of traditional or vanity has given way to a spectrum of publishing options, and in that new, broader context, the reductionist definitions that entered our lexicon nearly eighty years ago are no longer meaningful or appropriate. All hybrid publishing arrangements fall under that definition. Independent author collectives where each member is responsible for their own production would land squarely inside that definition, too. When viewed through that distorted lens, even trusted printer-distributors like Ingram Spark and KDP could be incorrectly roped into the same category as exploitative operations like Author Solutions.
So how can we better define a vanity press? Let's look at some possible criteria.
In an independent publishing environment, a focus on whether the author or the publisher is paying for services isn't particularly helpful. There are many ethical and trustworthy companies that provide great value for the author's dollar, and many more that do not. The mere act of paying for professional services is not a meaningful distinction.
Author John Scalzi pins the distinction on control. He proposes a corollary to the law that dictates that money should flow towards the author: “While in the process of self-publishing, money and rights are controlled by the author.”
That criterion comes closer to the litmus test we seek, but it's still insufficient to distinguish a predatory vanity press from a legitimate service. Many exploitative services are all too happy to yield control of the manuscript back to the author, having already extracted their money from the author's pockets. There is no value in the book itself, because the vanity press never had any vested interest in selling it, and hence there is little interest in retaining control of it. (This is a notable shift from past years when vanity press contracts nearly always contained lengthy, exclusive terms. Those contracts still exist, but many of the biggest offenders have abandoned the tactic.)
Vanity presses do not vet submissions, and will publish nearly anything if you're willing to pay. But that's also true of many companies that provide publishing services without entering into a full publishing arrangement. Reputable self-publishing companies may provide reasonably priced editing, formatting, cover design, upload, distribution, and marketing without ever passing judgement on the content of the book.
Curation is often one factor in identifying a vanity press, but it cannot by itself distinguish a vanity press from a legitimate service.
Some vanity presses provide abysmal quality, while others provide competent results. At the same time, honest and well-meaning companies may turn out substandard work, either through inexperience, taking on more work than they can handle, or incorrectly assessing their skills. At ALLi's Watchdog Desk, we identify unqualified service providers as well as vanity presses, but even though both should be avoided, it's important not to conflate them. A service can be low-quality without being malicious, and a service can be malicious while still putting out good quality.
Quality is an important attribute to assess when selecting a service provider, but good or bad, it can't identify a vanity press.
However, it does impact our next metric: value.
Value is sometimes difficult to assess, especially for services like marketing where the impact may be hard to quantify. (That fact often gives cover to companies that provide worthless, overpriced, and overhyped marketing services.) For most services, though, it's a simple calculation.
How many books will I need to sell to pay for this service?
Divide the cost of the service by the royalties you get on one book. That's the number of books you will need to sell just to break even, let alone turn a profit. If that number would make you a New York Times Best Seller, thank the salesperson for their time and walk away. Despite any promises or hype, you are extremely unlikely to make the Best Seller list, and no service in existence will singlehandedly catapult you into those stratospheric heights.
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.
A company that exploits its clients in this way is a vanity press. And now we're zeroing in on the crux of the matter, as selling these overpriced services colors every aspect of the company's behavior.
Vanity presses engage in aggressive, misleading, and deceptive tactics to sell their services. The tricks they use are too numerous to list here, but some of the more common ones are:
- unrealistic promises
- stoking the author's ego
- preying on insecurities; negging
- pushing unnecessary or worthless services
- high-pressure sales
- aggressive upselling
- hiding costs
- misrepresenting costs
- bait-and-switch tactics
A reputable company empowers clients with the information they need to choose the right service for their needs. That's in stark contrast to the deceitful and manipulative tactics used by vanity presses, where the goal is to sell the authors as many services as possible.
A good publisher profits by selling books to readers. It's a win-win partnership: when the publisher profits, the author profits.
A vanity press perverts that relationship by turning it into a zero-sum game. When the vanity press profits, the author loses, because that money comes directly out of the author's pockets. In many cases, the vanity press profits by forcing the author to buy their own books through mandatory purchase clauses in the contract.
And this, above all others, is the criterion that separates a vanity press from a legitimate publisher or service provider. One seeks to help authors sell books to readers, and the other seeks to empty the author's pockets.
Putting It All Together
In the course of analyzing hundreds of service providers, ALLi's Watchdog Desk identified three consistent indicators of a vanity press: poor value, unethical marketing practices, and exploitative intent. We then arrived at the following definition:
ALLi's definition of a vanity press is 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.
This is a definition which firmly identifies vanity presses while excluding the true publishers and reputable service providers.
Over To You
How do you define a vanity press? Let us know in the comments below.#IndieAuthors know that vanity presses are awful, but they don't agree on what a vanity press is. — @johndopp Click To Tweet