Monday 16 January 2017

What is Vanity Publishing? (Part One)

By Iola Goulton

Last week I briefly covered the main paths to publishing. This week, I'm covering how to spot a vanity publisher, and looking at the (sometimes) fuzzy area of author services.

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.

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.

So vanity publishing is publishers making money directly from authors (in the form of a payment from the author to the publisher) as opposed to making money indirectly from authors (in the form of a payment from the reader to the bookstore, who remits part of this payment to the publisher, who remits part of this payment to the author and/or their literary agent).

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.

About Iola Goulton

I am a freelance editor specialising in Christian fiction. Visit my website at to download a comprehensive list of publishers of Christian fiction. 

I also write contemporary Christian romance with a Kiwi twist—find out more at

You can also find me on:
Facebook (Author)
Facebook (Editing)


  1. Good outline of Vanity publishing, Iola. I was offered such a contract having submitted Angelguard to the then speculative fiction arm of a multi-armed publisher & surprisingly received an offer from their vanity pub arm. I wasn't too put off by the investment but declined the offer because they made no commitment to print more copies than those I was receiving in return for my investment.

    But it was through receiving this offer that I got an opening into Lion Fiction so I'm not unhappy about the experience at all. It was all a good education for me.

    1. Thanks for sharing, Ian.

      I have to say, your experience sounds ethically dubious. I know many publishers have both traditional and vanity publishing arms, but my personal viewpoint is that the two should operate separately, i.e. if you submit to the traditional publisher, they shouldn't refer you to the vanity.

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  3. Iola, excellent post! Thanks for your detailed explanations on why vanity publishing isn't a good deal for authors.

    Interestingly, Jane Friedman wrote in a recent post that in 2015 the only division of Author Solutions that grew was Westbow - who publish Christian books. Westbow was previously a traditional publishing imprint of Thomas Nelson.


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