Tuesday 10 November 2015

How to identify a vanity press publisher and avoid being ripped off

By Narelle Atkins

Vanity Publishing

Vanity Presses make their money from authors rather than from selling books. They charge authors a fee, either directly or indirectly, to publish their book. They often try to up-sell additional publishing services eg. marketing packages. These publishing packages, sometimes marketed as self-publishing solutions, may cost authors many thousands of dollars.

Vanity Press books sometimes have a high cover price, which makes the vanity press book less attractive to readers. The vanity publisher has already made their money from the author, and they don’t have an incentive to set a competitive price and sell a high volume of books. The author has no control over the pricing of their book or the distribution of their book.

Vanity Presses often don’t invest time and money in providing professional cover art and editing is typically an add-on, with an additional fee. They have no incentive to produce high quality books because they make their money from selling publishing packages to authors instead of making money from selling books.

Vanity Presses will advertise their publishing services and actively seek to recruit authors.

Traditional, royalty paying publishers are inundated with submissions from authors. Many of the larger traditional publishers will only accept agented queries because there is an oversupply of potential manuscripts and a very limited number of traditional publishing slots. Traditional publishers have budget limitations that will dictate the number of books they can publish each year. They are selective because they are bearing all the financial risk. Vanity presses, by charging authors a fee to publish, are shifting the financial risk to the author. If the vanity press book has poor sales, it's the author who will suffer the financial pain, not the vanity press.

Vanity Presses may operate like telemarketers who are selling a product. They may want to know a prospective author’s contact details, including email addresses and phone numbers, to enable them to follow up and contact authors. They may make numerous international phone calls to prospective authors and use aggressive marketing tactics to try and sell their expensive publishing packages.

Differences between Traditional Publishers and Vanity Publishers

Traditional publishers pay a competitive royalty on every book sold.

Traditional publishers don’t ask authors to contribute money to finance the book production process.

Traditional publishers may pay authors an advance against future royalties. The money flows from the publisher to the author because traditional publishers make their money from book sales.

Traditional publishers don’t require authors to purchase a minimum number of books.

Publishing Contracts

A publishing contract is a legally binding document. It spells out the rights and obligations of both parties who sign the publishing contract. A publisher may claim to be a traditional publisher, but it’s the contract that will define whether or not their claims are valid.

All authors should seek professional advice and do their research before signing a publishing contract. Intellectual property lawyers, Australian Society of Authors, Australian state and territory Writer Centres, and professional writing organisations can provide services and resources to assist authors in making financially savvy decisions.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch has written a number of helpful articles on publishing contracts. 

The Passive Voice blog also has archived posts that provide helpful information for authors on publishing contracts. 

Do not rely on general advice and hearsay from writing friends to determine if a publishing contract is a good deal for you

Once upon a time it was reasonable for writers to assume that most traditional publishers used a single boiler plate contract as the foundation for their contract negotiations with authors. The larger writing organisations eg. Romance Writers of America, ACFW, used to provide their members with a recognised publisher list. 

The writing organisations looked at the boiler plate contract of each publisher who wanted to be included on their recognised publisher list. To make the list, the publishing contract needed to meet certain minimum standards. A publisher would be excluded from the recognised publisher list if their boiler plate contract contained any vanity publishing clauses. 

But times have changed. It’s now becoming more commonplace for publishers to offer contracts to their authors with vastly different terms. The writing organisations no longer have recognised publisher lists. Indie publishing opportunities can potentially offer authors a better deal than a traditional publishing contract. 

Why can't you rely on advice from your author friends? Your friend may have signed a traditional contract with Publisher A and be very happy with their deal. But, that doesn’t mean Publisher A will offer you exactly the same publishing contract deal with the same terms. 

Authors can't afford to bury their heads in the sand and assume that a publishing contract will be a good deal. It's essential for all authors to take responsibility for their writing careers and understand all the clauses in their publishing contract before they sign the contract.   

The term ‘self-publishing’ has been hijacked by vanity presses

Self-publishing should mean DIY (doing it yourself). This is a very different concept to paying a publisher to partner with you to produce your book. If you are giving the publisher specific rights to publish your book, and if the publishing contract includes terms that specify the payment of royalties to the author, then you are signing a publishing contract. This is a very different proposition to self-publishing by DIY.

Indie (independent) publishing

Indie publishing is the term that is commonly used to describe authors who independently publish their books. Indie authors retain control of their copyright. Indie authors produce their own books independently and they don’t sign a contract with a publishing house. Indie authors are self-publishing because they are doing it themselves (DIY). They may choose to contract service providers for a set fee eg. editing, cover design, formatting, to produce their book.

How can you avoid being ripped off?

Education is key. Do your research and connect with other writers before you sign a publishing contract. Ask questions and seek advice from industry professionals. Book selling is a tough business and it’s very unusual for an author to recoup the money they have invested in vanity publishing via book sale royalties.

Online resources for writers

Preditors and Editors 

Writer Beware 

David Gaughran 

The Book Designer 

Iola Goulton has written a number of posts for Australasian Christian Writers that address the topic of vanity presses

I Wanted to Cry 

Spotting a Vanity Publisher - Part One and Two 

Deception in our writing

Jeanette O’Hagan has written two posts for Christian Writers Downunder that outline the different publishing models available for writers

Publish or Perish – Part One and Two


This post is being shared on the Australasian Christian Writers blog and the Christian Writers Downunder blog today because we are united in our mission to inform and educate writers on the pitfalls from signing with vanity publishers. This was a topic of conversation at the recent Christian Writers Conference held in Victoria, Australia.

Please share this post with your writing friends on social media and bookmark it for future reference.

If you’re looking to connect with writing groups online, you can join the Australasian Christian Writers Facebook Group and the Christian Writers Downunder Facebook Group.

Omega Writers Inc. provides helpful resources and membership benefits for writers who live in the Australasian region.

A fun loving Aussie girl at heart, Narelle Atkins was born and raised on the beautiful northern beaches in Sydney, Australia. She has settled in Canberra with her husband and children. A lifelong romance reader, she found the perfect genre to write when she discovered inspirational romance. Narelle's contemporary stories of faith and romance are set in Australia. In 2013 she sold her debut book to Harlequin's Love Inspired Heartsong Presents line in a 6-book contract. Her first independently released novella, His Perfect Catch, is available from Amazon for 99 cents. 

Twitter: @NarelleAtkins


  1. Thanks Narelle. Great info to bookmark for future reference.

    1. Nola, you're very welcome :) Bookmarking is a good idea, and there's hours of reading to do if you visit all the links in my post.

  2. Very well explained. Much appreciated.

    1. Thanks, Andrea :) I tried to keep the post as short and concise as possible.

  3. Thank you Narelle. We writers can never have too much information on 'pitfalls to avoid'! Very helpful

    1. Hi Pam, I'm glad you found my post helpful. :)

  4. Excellent. I've shared it in the FW forums. Very glad to see it posted in both blogs today, too. The more people who are educated, the better.

    1. Thanks, Deb :) I agree, we need to spread the word and hopefully reach new writers before they get caught up in these scams.

  5. Excellent post on this very important topic for all writers. I'd like to emphasize the point made about thinking a publisher will send you the same contract a writer friend signed. Have known of too many occasions where this has happened! Also be wary of any confidentiality clause.

  6. Hi Mary, I agree, and you bring up an important point about confidentially clauses. That's why we need to seek professional advice. Rights reversion and non-compete clauses are also tricky. If we're not lawyers, we're going to struggle to fully understand the legal terminology in the contract clauses.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.