Monday 19 January 2015

Spotting a Vanity Publisher: Part One

There are two important maxims to remember in relation to publishing. The first is simple:

Money flows from the publisher to the author

If money is flowing from the author to the publisher, that’s commonly referred to as vanity publishing, and that's one of the first ways you can tell whether a publisher is a vanity press: they claim they are not.

Trade publishers don't need to say this: savvy writers (and readers) know who they are. It's simple to work out: just look at the logos on the spines in your bookshelf, or visit your local bookstore and check out who publishes your favourite books.

In contrast, Tate Publishing state "we are not a vanity press". Deep River describe themselves as a "third way" between traditional publishing and vanity publishing. WestBow Press are a "self-publishing company". America Star Books (previously known as Publish America) "adhere to the traditional publishing concept".

But how is an author to tell the difference?

Follow the money. 

Look at how the publisher is making money. How can you tell this? The easiest way is to look at their advertising to determine what the publisher is selling:

1. The Publisher is Advertising Themselves

Look at the publisher's internet site. Is the home page advertising their books ... or their publishing services? Trade publishers don’t advertise their publishing services because they don’t have to. They already receive more submissions than they can cope with (the source of the dreaded slush pile), and most of the large publishers have a policy of only accepting submissions directly from literary agents with whom they have an established relationship.

For example, compare the home page of Bethany House publishers with Tate Publishing (go ahead. I'll wait until you get back).

Bethany House is attracting readers, by advertising books. Tate is attracting writers, by selling a dream.

Trade publishers do advertise: they advertise to retailers they want to stock their books, and they advertise directly to the consumers they want to buy their books (there are conflicting views on how effective publishers are at marketing to consumers, but those are beyond the scope of this post).

The reason trade publishers don’t advertise themselves is simple: most readers don’t care who published a book. They are simply looking for a story, and are likely to be searching by author, genre or topic, not publisher. The main exception to this rule is Harlequin/Mills&Boon, who have built a hugely successful business in category romance, to the point where a romance reader might not know author names, but will be able to tell you whether they prefer Sexy, Sweet or Intrigue, and why.

While vanity publishers do promote the books they’ve published, it’s usually only on their own website, and the purpose of the advertising is to attract authors, not readers. Because that's where they make their money: from authors, not readers.

2. The Publisher Earns Money from Authors, not Readers

A trade publisher earns money in only one way: by selling books to readers. Individual authors may have multiple income streams (e.g. through book sales, speaking opportunities, professional consulting in their area of expertise), but the publisher only earns money when a book is sold, and they only earn profit on a book when sales have been sufficient to cover all the acquisition and production expenses (e.g. contract negotiations, advance payment to the author, editing, proofreading, cover design, copyright registration, formatting, printing and distribution). It is estimated that around 40% of books from trade publishers lose money, in that sales don’t cover all the direct costs associated with producing that title.

A vanity publisher earns money differently—they earn most of their money by providing services to authors, not by selling books to readers. This is because selling books is hard work, with no guarantee of a financial return.

Vanity Presses Target Christian Writers

It would be nice to think that publishers operating in the Christian market would be better than this, that they would be honest, truthful, looking out for the best interests of everyone ... you know, Christian. But there are many organisations specifically targeting the Christian market, perhaps because many Christians are so trusting, especially when the publisher uses language like this:
WestBow Press, a division of Thomas Nelson & Zondervan, understands that an author’s work is more than just a book. It’s a calling. We empower emerging Christian writers to answer their callings and share their messages of faith ...
You should know the people you are choosing as a publishing team. They should be people with extensive publishing experience…people with integrity
Tate Publishing & Enterprises, LLC, is a Christian-based, family-owned, mainline publishing organization with a mission to discover and market unknown authors.
If you feel God has given you a message to put in print, we hope you let fellow believers help you get it published. We want to be your partner in self-publishing and spreading the Christian message through your book.
Sounds good, doesn't it? But these are all expensive vanity publishers. If you've got thousands of dollars to spare, spending the money with one of these organisations isn't good stewardship. I can suggest some charities who will put your dollar to much better use in sharing the gospel.

In looking at the vanity publishers targeting the Christian market, I’ve observed three main ways they earn money from authors:
  • Offering a paid-for publishing package
  • Publishing “free”, but requiring authors to purchase a marketing package
  • Publishing “free”, but requiring authors to purchase copies of the published book

I'll discuss these in more detail tomorrow. Meanwhile, what questions do you have regarding self-publishing?

About Iola Goulton

I am a freelance editor specialising in Christian fiction, and you can find out more about my services at my website, or follow me on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest  or Tsu.

I love reading, and read and review around 150 Christian books each year on my blog. I'm a Top 25 Reviewer at Christian Book, in the Top 1% of reviewers at Goodreads, and have an Amazon Reviewer Rank that floats around 2000.


  1. I agree. Two main things to look for: Focus of the Publisher's website and What's the Publisher's Business model. Both should point toward attracting readers.

    Normally the submission guidelines are hard to find on a publisher interested in selling books. They're too busy highlighting latest releases and such. If it appears that a publisher earns a good share (if not most of it) from its authors, that's a concern. Their focus is on getting $ from the authors and not earning profits from sales of books to a wide readership.

    Okay, I just re-stated basically what was said above, but it's what writers should pay attention to first, before going any further.

    1. You're absolutely right. I have to say, I've been thinking about these articles for a while but even I was surprised by the obvious differences between trade and vanity publishers, and disappointed by the way the vanity publishers specifically appeal to trusting Christian writers.

      Thanks for commenting, Terry.

  2. Iola, great post! Thanks for spelling out how writers can identify if a publisher is a vanity press.

    The concept of financial risk is very interesting when you consider the way vanity publishers market their services to writers. They hit a number of emotional hot buttons.

    The large majority of writers experience self doubt. They may question if their writing is good enough, if people would be willing to pay for their book, if people are actually interested in the content of their book.

    A traditional publisher who pays an advance against future royalties is saying to the writer that we believe we can sell your book. And, because we believe we can sell a large quantity of your book, we can offer you an up front payment before your book is released.

    A traditional, royalty paying publisher is bearing all the financial risk. But, they're not putting all their eggs in one basket because they publish a range of titles. They're factoring in that a few of their books will do really well and cover the costs of the titles that don't sell well. The smaller presses reduce their risk by not paying advances and only paying royalties to their authors after the books have been sold.

    A subsidy/vanity press is really giving an author this message: We don't believe in your book. We don't believe we can sell enough copies of your book to cover the costs of production. As a result, you must share the financial risk, or bear the full financial risk, and pay money to us to ensure we either break even or make a profit on your book. Despite the author bearing all or most of the financial risk, we will only pay you a royalty and keep most of the profit from any book sales.

    The truth is an author can independently publish with Amazon, Smashwords etc. and bear all the financial risk of self publishing by doing it themselves. Indie authors keep all the profit from their book sales, up to 70% depending on the cover price.

    1. Well said Narelle. I think newbie authors often get confused about the difference between vanity publishing and self-publishing. I like your point that with a vanity publisher - "Despite the author bearing all or most of the financial risk, we will only pay you a royalty and keep most of the profit from any book sales." - as well as Iola's point that a vanity publisher makes their profit from authors not readers.

    2. The language publishers use is telling. Word has got out that writers should seek to publish with a "traditional" publisher, not a "vanity" press.

      The vanity presses have adapted their marketing to suit, reinventing themselves as "traditional" and "royalty-paying", by marketing "partnership" and "co-operative" services, which speak well to the Christian market. Yet, underneath, they are still exactly the same.

      Thanks for clarifying the situation with advances and royalties. It's important: real publishers pay authors, not the other way around.

  3. How sad that writers can be so easily scammed. That may be a strong word but I think it suits.

    1. I don't think scam is too strong in this instance. Yes, it's sad to see people being taken advantage of.

  4. Clearly put, Iola. What a shame there is a need to explain Christian vanity presses.

  5. Great article Iola - I think your comparison between the Bethany House website and Tate publishing website is a great visual of the point you are making. It's so said to think that 'Christian' publishers prey on aspiring author's hopes and dreams like this - and even worse, that often they don't bother to produce a quality product despite their exorbitant fees!

    1. Thanks, Jeanette. I really wanted to be able to add screenshots of the two websites, but thought that might make the post too long?

  6. The number of traditional publishers that don't accept unsolicited manuscripts is now so high that it's no wonder authors fall for this. It is presented as they only way to get their book published. And in some cases, it might be, but it's not going to help them in any way. It's only going to get a cheap, trashy version of their book into print and ruin their name. It gives them nothing that will lead to anything satisfactory.

    1. Vanity publishing is never the only way to get published - sites like Amazon and Smashwords provide a way for anyone to publish, free. However, just because someone *can*, doesn't mean they *should* ...


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