Monday 25 January 2016

Paths to Publishing 4: Vanity Publishing and Author Services

By Iola Goulton

The most important maxim to remember in relation to publishing 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. Instead, they say they are a co-operative publisher, a partner publisher, a subsidy publisher, a hybrid publisher, a self-publisher or even a traditional royalty-paying publisher, appropriating the language of legitimate publishing in order to squeeze money from the uninformed.

The key way to distinguish a genuine publisher from a vanity press is to consider how the publisher makes money. A trade publisher (large, small or micropress) or a self-published author make their money the same way: by selling books to readers.

A vanity publisher makes money differently: by selling paid publishing and marketing packages to hopeful authors.

These publishing packages vary in cost and quality, but start at $999 and go up into the thousands. Packages don’t routinely include editing, even when it is obviously needed. The author is encouraged to pay extra for marketing opportunities, which can be anything from blog tour to expensive print advertising at prices that would make your eyes waters (and which can be double the price of working directly with the newspaper or magazine).

The most common vanity publishing business model is pay-to-publish, which I discussed in a previous post (click here to read the post). Other vanity publishing models offered by vanity presses include: publishing “free”, but requiring most authors to purchase a marketing package (costing approximately $4,000), or publishing “free” but requiring authors to purchase a minimum of 1,000 copies of the published book (an estimated minimum cost of $10,000). In both cases, this is more than enough to cover the direct production costs (click here to read more).

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 vanity presses specifically targeting the Christian market, perhaps because Christians tend to trust other people who say they are Christians.

Author Services

Some publishers offer author services, and it can be difficult at first to tell whether it is a vanity publisher, or a printer specialising in book printing who has expanded their services into areas like cover design, editing, ebook creation, and distribution. This is especially the case when the publisher offers both traditional publishing and services for authors intending to self-publish.

An author services company may offer some or all of the following services:

  • Developmental editing
  • Line editing
  • Copyediting
  • Proofreading
  • Cover design
  • Interior design
  • Interior formatting
  • Ebook coversion
  • Printing

An author services company may also be able to assist with uploading electronic ebook files to online retail sites such as Amazon and iBooks, and with uploading the files for the paper books to sites such as CreateSpace and IngramSpark (the self-publishing imprint of LightningSource).

Where marketing services are offered, these should be useful (e.g. design of an author website) not aspirational (e.g. pitching to a Hollywood agent). Above all, services should represent good value for money, and authors should remember they can almost always find better value services from freelancers who have less overhead to cover.

Author Services . . .  or Vanity Press?

There is nothing to say a reputable traditional publisher can't offer self-publishing services: several do. However, the two businesses should be kept completely separate. This means:

  • The self-published books should be published under a different imprint (brand) to the trade published books, and the two businesses should operate separately.
  • The self-publishing imprint should have a different website to the trade publishing imprint/s.
  • Submissions to the self-publishing imprint should be via a different website and email address than submissions to the trade imprint/s.
  • The trade imprint/s should not advertise the self-publishing imprint on their main website, or on their social media profiles.

While it’s acceptable for the self-publishing imprint to say they may offer trade contracts to books submitted for self-publishing, the reverse is not true. Such “bait-and-switch” tactics are not appropriate. If you submit to the trade imprint, they should either accept or reject your manuscript, not offer you a paid vanity alternative.

A traditional publisher advertising their "co-operative publishing" services on their website home page could be merely naive. But they could be an unprofessional vanity press.

My advice: don't take the risk. 

As Christians, we are called to be wise stewards of our time, talents and resources. That means understanding the different publishing models, and not getting caught in the snare of a vanity press.

This is the final article in this series. If you’d like to know more about any of the topics raised over the last four weeks, please leave a comment below.

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 (@IolaGoulton) or Pinterest (


  1. Thank you, Iola for making this so clear to uninitiated writers. Who knew there were so many traps lying in wait for the unwary?

    There is no easy way to publication.

    1. Thank you, Rita.

      I think you're right, that there is no easy way to publication. But surely that makes the achievement all the sweeter?

  2. Iola, great post! I’ve been thinking about a letter that was recently written by the Authors Guild. The letter addresses the issue of author earnings and how they’ve been decreasing in recent years. AG are lobbying publishers to give authors a better financial deal.

    One problem that groups like AG face when trying to address the issue of authors earning a living wage is the massive oversupply of authors who are competing for a limited number of traditional publishing slots. And, some of those authors are prepared to pay vanity presses thousands of dollar to publish. You have less bargaining power when a segment of your workforce is prepared to pay for the privilege of working for free (assuming the authors who vanity publish earn no royalty income, which is often the case). In contrast, authors who indie publish are setting up a small business - the indie author invests in their publishing business and keeps the profits.

    1. I've read several articles recently encouraging writers not to work for nothing, and I obviously don't support vanity publishing. I hadn't thought of it as paying for the privilege of working, but you're right.

      And writers who are prepared to pay to publish are going to make things harder for the Authors Guild, especially when some of the traditional publishers also operate pay-to-publish vanity presses. This misleads authors into believing they are publishing with a "real" publisher, which isn't exactly the truth.

    2. Yes, it's confusing for new authors who are trying to understand how publishing works.

      Being an author and getting paid to write is considered desirable work. Authors and publishers who give away free or low-priced books as loss leaders are operating in a similar way to food companies who give away free in-store samples. It's a marketing strategy.

      Paying to work, and then working for free, is a whole different concept. It's also a consequence of writing being a highly sought after job. You're unlikely to read a news story about an employee offering to pay their employer thousands of dollars to work for free. It just doesn't happen in other lines of work outside the arts. Our society recognises that people need to have the opportunity to earn a living wage to support themselves and their families.

      Each author offers a publisher a different return on investment (ROI) depending on a range of factors. Authors aren't necessarily interchangeable and the best selling authors aren't easy to either create or replace if they leave the publishing company. That's why the best selling authors have bargaining power with their contracts.

      The Authors Guild are concerned about the authors who write full-time and depend on advances to pay their bills. With advances shrinking, it has become harder for authors to earn a living from the traditional publishing model.


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