Vanity Publishing: How to Avoid Scams + 6 Better Publishing Routes

P.J McNulty
December 11, 2023 | 13 mins

Vanity publishing can be a misleading scam for today’s aspiring authors.

Most vanity publishers are operating on a predatory business model, raking in business from misled authors who are sold on a dream to publish their book. 

As important as your book idea is to you, for plenty of predatory organizations like the vanity publishers that riddle the industry, it's nothing more than the chance to make a quick buck at your expense.

Of course, not every publishing company is a vanity press, and there are plenty of legitimate ways to get your writing into the world.

To avoid making the wrong choice, it’s important to understand as much about the vanity publishing practice as possible.

What exactly is a vanity publisher? What’s appealing about vanity publishing? And how can you determine if a publishing company is or isn’t a vanity publisher?

In this guide, we’ll cover everything you need to avoid scammy vanity publishing companies if you want to become an author, and show you better options instead.

What is a vanity publishing company? 

A vanity publishing company uses the publishing model of charging authors to publish their book (either through money or book rights), often with unmet expectations and low-quality publishing services.

While a traditional publisher pays authors for the right to publish their work, a vanity press charges extortionate rates in exchange for a substandard end product that is unlikely to sell. 

So why would anyone succumb to the exploitation of a vanity publisher?

An example of vanity publishing

Here’s a scenario: You’ve finished your book manuscript and now it’s time to publish. 

You pitch your manuscript to editors, and the rejections trickle in.

Just when you’re starting to lose hope, a “publishing company” (read: vanity publisher) reaches out to you and says they are interested in your book, in a similar approach to how a traditional publisher might approach you.

You’re over the moon with the news that you’re manuscript has been accepted by the so-called publishing company. 

As you start the process to sign over the rights to your book, the vanity publisher says you will have to pay $X amount of money to cover the production costs (like editing, and cover design). They assure you that they will handle everything, and your book will be produced by top professionals, peer-reviewed, with quality control. 

You agree and fork over the money – a small price to pay for your book’s success, and to see your dream of being a published author realized, right? 

Except once you give your money to the publisher, the communication suddenly becomes sparse, and you’re given limited insight into your book's publication process and creative direction. 

When you finally get your physical book, you’re embarrassed at the typos, and subpar cover design.

It becomes clear that your book was not carefully edited, formatted, or designed with the quality the vanity publisher promised. 

It also becomes clear that the vanity publisher is not selective with which books they publish, so long as you, the author, can pay the price.

You know the money you gave to the vanity press was more than enough to pay for high-quality book production services. 

And to top it all off, you can’t even re-publish your book with other online book publishers, or on your own via self-publishing, because the vanity publisher now owns the publication rights to your book. 

That, my friend, is a prime example of a vanity publishing experience, and unfortunately, one that many aspiring authors know all too well. 

The psychological power of vanity publishing

If you’re an aspiring author, you probably lack practical experience and understanding of how the publishing world really works. 

Your naivety leaves you seeking information and support, even from people who don’t have your best interests at heart.

This can happen at almost any time and to anyone.

You might be at the earliest phase of your book project, desperate for help finding the way forward.

You might have just finished the marathon of getting your manuscript completed and are eager to publish it ASAP.

Or you might have ambitions related to your book, like making glamorous media appearances, and are grateful for a company that promises to make these happen.

No matter what promise a vanity publishing press makes, they are likely to make it by finding your pain points and targeting them with persuasive marketing.

Here are seven psychological author pain points vanity presses seek to exploit:

  • When you feel like an outsider to the publishing world and are desperate to get a foot in the door
  • When the step-by-step practicalities of releasing your book are unclear
  • When you feel a strong sense of urgency to make your dream happen without delay
  • When the technical side of writing and releasing a book seems too difficult to handle by yourself
  • When you feel under pressure from friends and family to stop talking about being an author and make it happen
  • When you lack the confidence and knowledge to promote your book effectively 
  • When you believe astronomical levels of success are only a payment away

Do any of those situations sound familiar to you?

If so, don’t worry!

It’s not too late. 

You can still avoid falling into the vanity publishing trap and instead publish your book the right way.

How to spot a vanity publisher before it’s too late

If you're new to the world of publishing, you might not know the warning signs that a publishing company is a vanity publisher.

It’s not always clear-cut. There are some situations where legitimate done-for-you services resemble those found at vanity publishing companies. 

Here are some things to watch out for with a vanity publishing company:

  • Fees. If you lack experience in dealing with publishing companies, you might not know what is or isn’t a reasonable fee to pay. Traditional publishers pay you upfront to publish your book. Hybrid publishers charge a reasonable fee but then allow you to recoup it through sales. Worst of all, a vanity publisher charges you an excessive amount upfront and also takes a cut of any unlikely future revenue!
  • Services. Some of the services promised by vanity publishers are not things you should be paying for at all, while others are made to sound a lot more complex or valuable than they are. For example, you should never pay a reading fee, and if a company charges you to upload your book to Amazon, they are charging you for something you could do yourself for free.
  • Sales techniques. While all companies use sales techniques, not all companies use them ethically. If you feel like you are being excessively flattered, you might be dealing with a vanity publishing company. Also, an unusually fast response time indicates that something is amiss, as legitimate publishers don't typically give you a sales call within hours of being contacted!
  • Restrictions. Often, the devil truly is in the details when it comes to vanity publishing contracts. Buried in the small print, you will often find restrictive terms that seek to deprive you of your freedom and take away your rights. For example, agreeing to exclusivity is a sacrifice you won’t have to make if you self-publish. Also, many vanity publishing companies seek to unfairly control your foreign rights and adaptation options. 
  • Access. One of the hallmarks of a vanity publisher is the promise that, by paying them to publish your book, you will receive rare and exciting levels of industry access. This can involve promises such as getting your book into major stores, which often turn out to be nothing more than catalog placements with no guaranteed results. Unrealistic promises of access to Hollywood and the mainstream media are other common vanity publishing red flags.

Hopefully, you now have a good understanding of some of the signs that you might be dealing with a vanity publishing company. You also understand this isn’t the route you want to take.

So what are some better ways to publish a book?

6 better ways of publishing your next book

Many paths lead to a published book. It's worth exploring all of them and finding the right fit for your objectives, budget, and skillset.

Let’s take a look at six of the most common publishing paths and consider if they might be right for you.

1. Self-publishing courses

Learning to self-publish is arguably the best way to get your book out there.

By learning the full self-publishing process from successful authors, you come to understand what works. You're not limited to a single, overpriced book from a vanity publisher. Instead, you gain a skill set that enables you to build a lasting platform and career.

A good course will teach you all the steps needed to produce a book. Once you know the tasks that must be carried out, you have the freedom to hire the right collaborators for your project. This freedom is something often missing at hybrid or vanity publishing companies.

So what should you look for when choosing a self-publishing course?

Make sure any course you're looking to invest in covers the information you need to move your author career forward. For example, if you're just starting, opt for a course that covers all the basic steps to get a book published. If you're further down the line, consider a course on book marketing or author platform building. 

2. Uploading directly to retailers

Many vanity presses succeed by making something simple and free sound complex and expensive.

An example is uploading your book to a retailer such as Amazon.

Using a service like Kindle Direct Publishing is straightforward and isn’t something you should be charged for.

If you want to cut out the exploitative vanity publishing middleman, where are some places you can upload your book to directly?

3. Printing on demand

Vanity publishing companies often charge excessive fees for print copies. Authors fall for this because they might not be aware of the ease of using a print-on-demand company

If you opt for POD, you retain direct control over how your print copy will look. You can print as many copies as you need at any point without having to rely on your vanity publishing overlords.

Some of the best print-on-demand companies include:

4. Subsidy publishing

Subsidy publishing is just another name for vanity publishing. 

It’s also the worst possible publishing path to take.

When you opt for a subsidy or vanity publisher, you end up overpaying to have a substandard book created.

Don't be fooled! There is nothing easy or convenient about paying for a shoddy book. You will get far better results by learning how to self-publish and paying separately for book creation services. It's also often a lot cheaper than throwing money at a vanity press.

5. Traditional publishing

When most people dream of becoming an author, they dream of traditional publishing.

The prestige of getting picked up by a major publisher might seem appealing, but there are a lot of downsides to this publishing path. 

If you have a romanticized view of traditional publishing, please be aware that:

  • You will have to go through elitist and sometimes prejudiced gatekeepers
  • The process of working with a traditional publisher is slow and drawn out
  • Although you will receive an advance, the publishing company must recoup it before you see any further income from your book
  • Your creative freedom is greatly diminished, as you are required to work to the publishing company’s schedule and demands
  • The odds of success are low, and often lower than if you self-publish. After all, no company is as motivated to see your book succeed as you are.

For a small number of authors, traditional publishing might be the right path to take. For almost all others, self-publishing provides a better chance of success as well as more freedom to do things the way you want. Read this article for a deeper comparison of self-publishing vs traditional publishing.

6. Hybrid publishing 

Hybrid publishing is often confused with vanity publishing, as they look very similar on the surface.

Both hybrid and vanity publishers charge authors upfront to produce their book.

So what’s the difference between a hybrid and a vanity publisher?

  • Hybrid publishers are required to be selective. While a vanity publisher will work with anything, a hybrid publisher has standards and criteria about the manuscripts they are willing to accept.
  • A hybrid publisher must pay better royalty rates than a traditional publisher. These rates compensate for the upfront fee you pay at the beginning of the process, as well as the lack of advance you would get with a traditional publisher.
  • The quality standards are expected to be better at a hybrid publisher than at a vanity publisher, including insistence on best practice guidelines and wider industry standards.

If you’re worried that a company might be more of a vanity publisher than a hybrid publisher, check out the full guidance from the Independent Book Publishers Association

Vanity publishers to avoid [LIST]

Are you worried that a self-publishing company might be a vanity publishing company or other organization to steer clear of?

You can check out a full guide to different companies at the Alliance of Independent Authors but some of its current red-flagged organizations include:

Self-publishing vs vanity publishing

If you're confused about self-publishing versus vanity publishing, and want to know what the difference is, we'll break it down for you.

Self-publishing is a type of publishing where the author oversees the entire book publishing process. With self-publishing, the author keeps the rights to their book, earns most book royalties, and has full creative direction to hire the professional editors and cover designers of their choosing.

Vanity publishing is a type of publishing where the author pays a company to publish a book for them and take over their book rights, often with underdelivered quality and unmet expectations.

Where to research a publishing company 

If you’re interested in learning more about a publishing company before you invest your money, here are some worthwhile places to look. 

Writer beware

Writer Beware not only helps to protect authors from vanity publishers and other scammers. It also provides information on how to take legal action as well as case studies on ongoing and existing scams. 

The Alliance of Independent Authors

The Alliance of Independent Authors is well-known for its meticulous rating of different publishing service organizations. To get a convenient, color-coded guide on the reputation of any organization, check out the searchable Watchdog table. 

Learn how to self-publish the right way

What’s the best defense against falling victim to a vanity press or other publishing scam?

Nothing is better than equipping yourself with information and knowledge about how writing and book publishing works. 

Aside from psychological manipulation, the main weapon in the vanity press arsenal is exploiting gaps in an author’s knowledge. When you know the truth about how difficult or expensive a publishing service is, you’re no longer vulnerable to being exploited. 

So where should you go to learn?

Take your first step towards self-publishing

If you’re ready to make your book a reality, it’s time to take action.

If you ask a room full of people if they want to write a book, a large number will say that they do.

But how many actually will? Almost none.

Thankfully, you have the power right now to be the exception.

You don’t have to feel frustrated that your dream of becoming an author hasn’t yet happened. You don’t have to wait around for a vanity publishing company to try and sell you a pipe dream.

Take control of the reigns and start your journey towards becoming a self-published author. 

Vanity presses can only succeed if we allow them to.

It’s time to fight back. Make a stand and publish your book the right way. 

Are there any other vanity publishers that should be on this list?

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