There are a lot of traps and pitfalls in the self-publishing world. Poor covers. Bad editing. Publishing first drafts as final products. Most of those mistakes are made due to inexperience and are learning experiences that don’t really hurt the author that makes them. Books that fall prey to these traps generally don’t get any attention, leaving the author free to take them down and try again.
But there’s one trap that doesn’t just cost the author a blow to their pride.
Those are vanity presses.
A vanity press, if you aren’t familiar with the concept, is a holdover from the days before the internet revolutionized self-publishing. Back then, they served a purpose – if you had written a book that you couldn’t sell to a publisher, but still wanted to have physical copies off with professional binding, you could pay them to provide you with exactly that. Many of them were still scummy back then, charging absurd prices, but they didn’t bill themselves as anything other than what they were.
Then the creation of services like CreateSpace and Amazon Direct Publishing rendered that obsolete. If you have a book you want physical copies off and don’t care about selling, you can publish it on Amazon and order copies at cost. I have some things I’ve written that I don’t think are good enough to be worth cleaning up to sell, but if I wanted a physical copy of it I could go to Amazon, publish it under a pen name so no one finds it, and order author copies before de-listing it. It would cost about 10 bucks if I photoshopped a cover using stock images. I could pay an artist for a better cover and still spend only about a hundred dollars.
The dubious ‘service’ vanity presses offered wasn’t needed anymore, so vanity presses had to get creative to survive. And by creative, I mean predatory as hell.
Now they don’t charge hundreds of dollars, they charge thousands of dollars and bill themselves as a middle ground between traditional publishing and self-publishing. Most of them don’t admit they are vanity presses, or actively deny that they are.
So, here’s what to look for to spot a vanity press, and why you should avoid them:
What Do They Offer, and What Do They Want?
If you’re looking at a publisher, the first thing you should ask yourself is what they do for you, and what they get out of it.
Vanity presses offer many of the same services legitimate publishers do. They tout editing services, cover design, and an author webpage, the three most expensive parts of publishing a book. It can absolutely be tempting to get a one-stop shop for those things. However, they usually have a price tag of five thousand dollars or more. I covered how much a book could cost you in this post, and at the high end you could spend about three thousand dollars – which would give you two thousand dollars (compared to a vanity press) left over to spend on marketing your book, editing on a second book, or little things like food and bills and life. At the low end, if you’re willing to spend the time, you can publish without spending a dime.
See, a real publisher won’t charge you for those things. A real publisher won’t charge you a single dime. Why? Because they are planning on making their money off the sale of your book. They have a vested interest in your success, so they’re not going to charge you extra to make your book as good as they possibly can. A top tier publisher will give you an advance to publish your book. They pay you. Mid-tier or independent publishers often won’t do that but will instead offer a high percentage royalty split and some help with the marketing process.
Vanity presses might offer help with the marketing, although it’s usually just sharing to their Facebook group. They have no reason to care how well you sell, because they already got their money. You paid them thousands of dollars. They don’t care what happens next.
And that’s the thing you should always look for. No matter how much a publisher wants, even if it’s a single dime, you should never pay to have your book published. Instead, they should be making their money off royalties of your book, same as you. That’s the number one way to spot a scam and should always be avoided.
They will attack both self-publishing and traditional publishing.
This is another sign that you’re dealing with a shady source. Traditional publishing sources don’t need to take the time to bash self-publishing, because they don’t really view the self-published world as competition. Self-published authors might talk about their personal gripes with traditional publishers, but those aren’t the people who are trying to publish other people’s books – they’re trying to publish their own.
If someone’s offering to publish your book but takes time to only talk about the downsides of self-publishing and traditional publishing. Don’t get me wrong, there are downsides to both routes, but they also both have their upsides. At some point, I might do a whole post about that, but that’s not what’s important here.
What’s important here is that vanity presses know that both options are superior to their scams, so insecurely attack both to try and lure people into giving money to them.
It’s always better to hire for yourself
If you’re not going with a publisher, editors and cover artists don’t come cheap, especially for quality ones. It’s a lot of work and research to find one that’s reliable, good, and charges a fair rate.
However, it will always be better than a vanity press. The vanity press versions of these services will always either be overpriced or poor quality – probably both.
Why? Well, because a vanity press is trying to make money. So, they must pay an editor and a cover artist to do that stuff for them, and then charge you enough to make money on top of that. If they’re paying for a quality editor and artist, they’re probably paying 2-3 thousand dollars. So, by charging you five or six thousand dollars, they are going to be able to spend part of the different advertising to other authors and pocket the rest.
In other words, they’re charging you thousands to perpetuate their own existence. That’s it.
If you’re struggling to find a good editor or cover artist, find some indie authors you like and ask them who they use. Most of us are happy to send business in the direction of the people they work with and will be flattered that someone even bothered to ask. Even if our own artist or editor is booked solid, we probably know other people we can recommend or who you could ask for suggestions.
The self-publishing world is a community. For the most part, we all understand that book sales are not a zero-sum game, and strongly believe that quality books being self-published only helps all of us. If you don’t feel comfortable asking individuals, ask for recommendations in communities. Reddit’s self-publishing subreddit and the k-boards are two of my favorite places to get information and advice – but there are so many communities out there, you should look for what offers what you need.
Publishing a book, either through traditional means or on your own, is a difficult process and will be expensive, either in terms of money or time spent. Don’t make it cost more than it needs to by falling for a predatory company that wants to leech money from you in exchange for things you could do yourself.
I don’t have a clever transition here. I just got angry about something and had to write about it. Here’s a sample of my book!.