An introduction to Vanity Presses: what they are and how to avoid them

“Mirrors” by Mark Santa Ana/Flickr. Playing off of the word vanity, of course.

The promise of publication is one of the most enticing promises to an aspiring author (beaten only, perhaps, by the promise of fame and riches). But the promise of publication can also be one of the most dangerous promises for an author to stumble upon — a verifiable sirens call — because it is ofttimes a promise offered by the prostitutes of the publishing world: or, as the rest of the world calls them, vanity presses.

A vanity press is a press that preys upon the author struggling to make his dream of being published a reality. Vanity presses usually present themselves as a company that would like to help you make your dreams come true: they tell you that they see merit in your work, that you deserve to be published, and that they can make that happen. There is a catch, though: they can’t do it for free.

While they can come in a variety of forms, there are two common business models behind these presses. The first deals with single-author books: the author must pay for the entire editing process — editing, printing, distributing, marketing, and any of a slew of other “services” that they claim to offer. This is the primary way that the press will make their money — not by selling your book to any audience, but by selling you their services. The second model involves anthologies of multiple authors, where there is usually no charge for editing and printing. This model almost seems legitimate, until you realize that the primary way that the press makes money off of these books is by selling copies of them to the authors themselves (or, as an added profit, to the friends and families of the authors) at an extremely marked up price.

Hence, the term vanity press: they are presses that cash in on the vanity of aspiring authors who just want to see their names in print, and who will gladly jump at the opportunity, even if it involves shelling out cold hard cash for a book that they will never see any profits from.

But the worst part of it is, in my mind, that these presses will publish anything. In the case of an anthology, you can find some pretty decent poetry paired up with poetry reminiscent of the limericks scrawled on the bathroom stall at the local A&P. That is, perhaps, the biggest ego crusher the unsuspecting author who is thrilled with his first publication will face when he receives his $30 copy — while his work might have been good enough to place in an actual publication, he finds it next to poetry that looks and sounds like something a cat threw up.

Believe me, I know the feeling. My first publication was at the hands of a vanity press.

Under the premise of “scouring the internet for the best new online poetry,” this particular press told me that they wanted to publish one of my poems that I had posted on a poetry forum. As a twelve year old, I was thrilled, and I gladly signed the contract and ordered two copies (one for my grandmother, of course). And when my copy arrived only a month later, I was virtually ecstatic — they chose my poem to be the first poem in the book. My poem was the introduction to a wonderful literary endeavor.

And then I found out that my uncle had also had a poem accepted for the same book, and when I flipped through his pages I was dismayed to find that his poem opened the book, and that mine was actually nowhere to be found. That was when I realized that I had been gypped. It was a crushing blow that left me unable to send any of my work out for years (which is actually fine by me, because the angst-ridden poetry from my tween years was — I do not exaggerate — god-awful).

But I do have to say that I’m (sort of) thankful for the experience, because it has made me a more careful writer. Because of my experience with a vanity press, I now don’t send anything out as a submission to a press that looks anything other than professional. I no longer let my eagerness to have work published overwhelm my own sense of common sense.

I do want to say, as a quick aside, that for some people a vanity press is a perfectly legitimate business endeavor. If you truly only want to be able to say that you have had a book published, and don’t mind the fact that you will never receive any money or real gratification from the endeavor, then by all means go for it. For some, that’s enough.  Most writers, though, would benefit from some quick rules that help them differentiate a vanity press from the more legitimate presses.

  1. They Charge a Fee: A vanity press will generally require the author to pay for the cost of reading, editing, and producing the book, and will then charge exorbitant prices for copies of it.
  2. Lack of Scrutiny: A vanity press will publish truly anything. They’ll gladly publish the novel that you slaved over for years, that is actually almost ready to be published by a bigger name publisher, and in the same fell swoop publish a photobook of various piles of dog feces.
  3. Lack of Profit: As you are the press’s primary source of income, you can pretty much say goodbye to any thoughts of receiving an advance or royalties for your book. If the press does sell to people apart from you, they’re generally going to keep any of that extra profit for themselves.

I do want to draw some distinctions between vanity presses and do it yourself publishing, though, because they can be very similar. While DIY publishing is completely paid for by the author, the author also keeps all of the profits (apart from printing costs). And while some DIY publishing projects have been astronomically horrendous, there have actually been a good number of very successful books published and printed entirely by the authors — no publishing house involved. While DIY publishing isn’t for everyone, it is a viable option, and it is certainly a better choice than a vanity press if an author ever wants to potential to earn profits from their work.

Here is a handy chart from The Open Publishing Guide illustrating the differences between a vanity press and the DIY publishing model:

Self-Publishing vs. Vanity Publishing
Image credit to The Open Publishing Guide

What about you? Have you ever had any experience with a vanity press? Have you ever been swayed to sign away your rights and the potential of future profit just to have something published in your name? How did you recover from the blow of knowing that you were duped (or have you yet to recover)?

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