Vanity, Predatory, Indie, Trad: What Does that Mean Again?

publishing types type-1161953_960_720The assignment I volunteered for seemed simple at first. Take four terms to describe different publishing entities and explain the differences.

1)      Vanity Press

2)      Predatory Publisher

3)      Small Indie Press

4)      Traditional (or Trad) Publisher

Let’s strike the Small from Small Indie Press. It’s kind of redundant. Indie Press is good enough.

The reason for the article is primarily to have something to point to when someone asks certain kinds of questions to at least establish a foundation for further discussion. Five or six years ago, this conversation would have gone something like this:

An indie press is a traditional publisher that is not owned by one of the Big 6 (now 5) publishing conglomerates. Other than being smaller which is different in ways both good and bad, there isn’t that much difference for our discussion. The key is that the rule at the time was that money should flow from the publisher to the author and never the other way. If money flowed from the author to the publisher at any point, then you were dealing with a vanity press or a predatory publisher.

The difference between those two, if there is one, is one of degree. A vanity press was a company that would print your book along with providing other services to you to publish your book, but you paid them. Potentially someone could go into this situation with eyes wide open and be happy with the result. Most often, people ended up with a garage full of books gathering dust after racking up a bunch of charges, the actual printing of the books being just a fraction of what they’d spent. At some point, those charges crossed a line, taking the company from vanity press into predatory publisher. These publishers are in the business of making money from authors, not readers.

Then the world changed. Print-on-demand, the technology to print books one copy at a time, meant that it was possible to publish a book on your own without filling up the garage or investing thousands of dollars. Even better, eBooks not only meant no paper, but multiple online venues gave access to potential customers. It still wasn’t easy, but it was practical to be your own publisher and self-publish. Authors who did that started calling themselves indie authors, which some confused with indie publishers. Really, indie authors are indie publishers, just extremely small publishers with a single author.

This is where things start to get confusing. Those indie authors don’t have all the skills in-house, so they hire outside people and companies to do what they can’t. If the author/publisher is lacking in artistic chops, they’ll pay someone with those skills to design their book covers. They’ll get someone to edit and proofread their book. Possibly they’ll get help in formatting the book. They may spend a bit to get a proof copy of the print version from Createspace or spend money for websites, mailing lists, or whatever they think their business needs to thrive.

I think the key here is for the indie author to pay attention to when they’re wearing their author hat and when they are wearing their publisher hat. Money should still flow the same way, from publisher to author. If a company calls themselves a publisher and money flows the wrong way, do a double-take. There are companies out there in business to provide services for indie authors. Just as in most businesses, some are reasonable, and others overcharge. But that’s a subject for another post. If you’re giving up publishing rights to a company that also expects you to pay them, think about that situation twice as hard.

To simplify, let’s do a quick recap:

  1. Vanity Press – They take your money to publish your book – BAD
  2. Predatory Publisher – They take your money to publish your book – BAD
  3. Small Indie Press – Pays you a royalty; keeps some for themselves
  4. Traditional (or Trad) Publisher – Pays you a royalty; keeps some for themselves

With what we know today about self-publishing, I kind of have to question why anyone would want to split their royalties with a publisher. Just saying.

Lastly, when you’re acting as both publisher and author, don’t argue too loudly with yourself during negotiations. It makes people wonder about you.

Author: Big Al

Big Al (who insists he only has one name, like Cher, Sting, and Madonna) spends his days writing computer programs that are full of typos, homonym errors, and incorrect verb usage. During his evenings, he writes reviews of indie books for BigAl’s Books and Pals and has recently taken over The IndieView, a website founded by indie author Simon Royle as a resource for indie authors, indie reviewers, and those who read either.

27 thoughts on “Vanity, Predatory, Indie, Trad: What Does that Mean Again?”

  1. I think there’s one more term we might consider, and that’s a “service publisher.” These are the ones who offer all the services in the publishing process (editing, formatting, cover design, etc) for a price, but may–I’m not sure–still pay royalties. I have a friend who uses one of these, so I will investigate further.

    1. That kind of situation is what got me questioning things, Melissa. The line between a service provider and a publisher can be a very fine line in some situations.

    2. Good differentiation, Melissa. I use Feedaread in Britain to self-publish my books. They have an online portal for selling paperbacks. I kindle the books. Both formats are available through Amazon worldwide. I pay a (to me) ridiculously small sum to them for my print on demand paperbacks to be set up. They would do me a cover, but I prefer to source my own. They occasionally offer me marketing, which I have taken them up on in the past, but which they’re not very good at. The quality of the paperback product is very good. They pay royalties on the paperbacks. (Royalties on the Kinde version comes direct from Amazon.)

      Lulu (in the States) and Matador (in Britain) do the same sort of thing There may be others. They, I know, charge much more than I pay Feedaread. None of these outfits are vanity or predatory publishers. They aren’t actually publishers at all in the traditional sense in that they don’t (automatically) deal with cover design and I don’t think any of them offer editing (which is hugely expensive). They are more printers than publishers.

      A lot of self-published authors must use this sort of system. I’ll be very interested to hear about the system your friend uses.

      1. Thanks for the comment, Judi.

        Lulu is an interesting example. They offer a lot of services and I see them as a service provider, like Melissa discussed. However, I thought I heard something about them adding a relationship or service of some kind with one of the vanity or predatory publishers and it changed my perception of them them from okay-ish to questionable. But I couldn’t remember the specifics, so I went looking. All I found was this ( ) which still keeps them in the service provider arena, I think. It’s not without concerns though. If nothing else I would hate anyone at Author Solutions to have my name and address. 🙂

    1. I would change that to “if they want your money AND they are acting as the publisher,” it is probably bad. If you are the publisher and you’re hiring someone to do a publisher kind of thing (say format your ebook) that’s not bad, is it? (At least not assuming they charge a reasonable price which is something you need to consider when paying anyone to do anything in all aspects of your life.)

      I was going to say that if you’re paying a person or an organization AND giving up any right to do as you please with your book in the process, that is when the line gets crossed. That might be a reasonable rule. I can imagine the possibility of exceptions to this (maybe involving foreign rights and hiring a translator for a book), but as a general rule I think it works.

  2. There’s a lot of gray area these days, but I tend to draw the line at handing money to an entity that calls itself a publisher. If a company offers services – formatting, cover design, editing – but doesn’t also publish the book, I see that as a good resource for authors (still, authors should always compare prices before purchasing a service like that, because in my experience those one-stop shopping entities are usually WAY overpriced).

    But if a company offers those services at a price and ALSO publishes, that’s a bad thing – a vanity/predatory publisher. The job of the publisher is to format, do cover design, edits, etc. A publisher doesn’t charge for those things, they keep a portion of the royalties to pay for those costs. If you’re already (over)paying for those services, what possible argument does the “publisher” have for also keeping a percentage of the royalties?

    1. I like the way you put that, Melinda. If you (as in the author) are acting as the publisher and chose to hire someone to provide a service normally provided by the publisher that you can’t do yourself (editing and proofreading are the most common and obvious examples) then those editors and proofreaders are, at least in my mind, clearly service providers and not a problem if all they do is provide those services. But if you pay a company for those services, cover design, marketing, and a bunch of other stuff they insist you need AND they’re listed as the publisher at the retailers AND they take a percentage of the money Amazon would be paying if you had published it there yourself AND to work with them you have to do it that way, then they’re one of the bad categories above (vanity or predatory).

      In short it’s doing what you said, acting as publisher, but expecting the author to foot the bill for all the expenses.

  3. Vanity presses have been around for a long time and refer to companies that will publish your work for a price. Not all vanity press companies are predatory but I and other authors have had experiences with some that are. A predatory company will call you time after time with a hard sell on services that are supposed to spread the word about your book and bring it into the eye of the buying public. These include pitch fairs, book fairs, free give-aways, etc. The services are set at an exorbitant rate and can soon amount to tens of thousands of dollars, while the royalties remain chump change. I have described my experience and those of others in a book titled The Author House Scam which is available on Amazon.

  4. Well, Big Al, there are definite advantages to using a small press, or Small Indie Press if you prefer. 1) The publisher underwrites all costs of editing, formatting, cover design, producing a print version and an eBook version. 2) The publisher handles all the prep for LCCN in the Library of Congress. 3) The publisher arranges distribution using relationships with worldwide distributors such as Ingram, Baker&Taylor, Overdrive, and GOBI to reach bookstores, libraries, universities, schools, museums, and much more waaaaaay beyond the reach of CreateSpace or Smashwords or similar outfits. 4) The publisher is valuable partner in developing marketing strategy, because the publisher doesn’t make any money unless people buy the book. 5) Last, but not least, the small press publisher continues to make the book available and to market it if the author becomes incapacitated or dies — who else is going to do that?

    Of course, many DIY self-published authors don’t need this kind of help. But many others find it opens doors to larger markets.

    1. Mikel, you’re right, at least if the author goes in to the relationship with eyes wide open and an accurate understand of what they’re giving up as well as what they’re gaining in return. In fact, I can think of two small publishers off the top of my head that, assuming a friend asked me “should I sign with them” I’d tell them yes. Or at least yes with the provisions above.

      However, not all publishers do all of the things you list. (One of our IU contributors had multiple books published by a fairly larger publisher that didn’t provide any editing on at least one of those books, for example.)

  5. I am a traditionally published author with an agent who has followed and learned from IU for several years. I sold my first book with a proposal in the mid-90’s and got a $2000 advance without an agent. It sold more than 10,000 copies. I used that success to get an agent who sold my next book on a proposal for a $5000 advance. While it is a beautiful book that breaks new ground in a traditional art form, it has a limited audience and has only earned the publisher back half of my advance in 2 years. The publisher is about to put it on sale at a much reduced price to reduce their inventory. I probably am coming out ahead on that advance. My newest book will be released next year and my agent got me a $5500 advance. This book will have a large audience with the ability to market it to hundreds if not thousands of retail outlets besides bookstores. I’ve already been informed I will be sent on a national book signing tour.

    I am nearly finished writing what is essentially a memoir of deeply philosophical nonfiction essays that I consider to be my most important work which based on feedback from my readers and fans will have great appeal. My agent suggested I self publish as she doesn’t believe she can sell it unless I become famous first or demonstrate large sales through self publishing. Thanks to everything I’ve learned here, I feel ready to jump into self publishing. It should be ready before the end of the year.
    I’ve built an author platform with more than 50,000 social media connections and started a blog. I’ve connected with many people here and want to thank everyone for their friendship and everything I’ve learned about self publishing.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Richard. I think what your story shows is that there is no “one right way”(although I’ll claim otherwise sometimes). What you’re describing, a hybrid approach, with some projects self-published and some traditionally published, is one that a lot more authors are taking.

  6. Great article and comments! Al, I’m curious where you (or others here) would put She Writes Press? There’s a lot of positive stuff being written about how they have broadened their scope over the last few years.

    I know someone who has recently published through them and she paid $3,500 for that privilege. Would they be considered “hybrid” and would that likely to be a function of making sure the author has some skin in the game, or something else??

    Thanks in advance!

    1. Thanks for the comment, Karen.

      Hmm. I’m not familiar with them and not knowing the specifics of your friend’s deal (and being too lazy to go dig up details on this company), I’m not sure I can give a definitive answer. But will throw out a few random thoughts that might be on point.

      An author can be hybrid, I’m not sure how a publisher can be. An author is, but any one particular book is either self-published or traditionally published. That an author has some books each way is what makes them hybrid. Maybe I’m missing something and there are definitely some twists and grey areas in the world of publishers. For example I’m aware of one organization (publisher?) that does a crowdfunding deal that not only provides funding for publishing of a book, but also the success or failure of the fund raising determines which books they end up publishing. This might fall in the hybrid realm.

      As a rule, if the author is paying a publisher to publish then it falls in the vanity or predator category. That hasn’t changed. What has changed is that it is possible for a self-publishing author to be wearing their publisher hat and need to invest money in doing publisher things. Which applies depends on what they’re giving up. If it is strictly fee for a service (pay someone to edit or proofread, pay a company to print X books) and you aren’t committed to anything else, that’s not in the problem area. But if the author is paying for the company to publish the book (even if the company says they are a “self-publishing company”) and by doing so they are giving up rights to their own work, then it has probably crossed the line.

    2. Real publishing companies underwrite all costs. She Writes Press caters to authors looking for package deals, but if an author pays to have a book published that publisher is a vanity press publisher regardless of what they or the authors say. Actually, the She Writes Press website says they offer only one package, for $5,200

      Some other vanity press publishers don’t charge fees upfront, but the fine print in the contract binds authors to buy enough copies from the publisher to pay the costs. Ouch. Either way, the author has to sell HUGE numbers of books to break even.

    3. Hey Karen – what Mikel said is right on the money, but again, if a press makes money off of AUTHORS – it’s a predatory press (there’s a thin line between vanity and predatory). Publishers should make money off of READERS not AUTHORS. If an author has to pay, they need to run away. (rhyming was unintentional, but a great mnemonic.) Indies Unlimited ran a series called #PublishingFoul for an entire month – as many as 3 articles a day – detailing different situations where authors were preyed upon by presses. You should send this link to your friend – so hopefully it won’t happen to her again.

      1. Right on target, K.S. Brooks, and thanks for the link to another perspective. BTW, Brooke Warner, CEO of She Writes Press, is now a board member at IBPA. I remember several years ago when IBPA focused on serving independent publishers that underwrote publishing costs. They had a clear line separating vanity press publishers, but that line has disappeared. The bylaws now allow almost ANYbody to portray themselves a independent publisher (as long as they pay dues). Sad, because it allows vanity presses and service providers to use IBPA membership to market themselves as a publisher.

        Section 5.1 Qualifications
        There shall be one class of membership. A person admitted as a member may join in any one of four categories as follows:
        5.1.1 Publisher: Persons or organizations involved in publishing other people’s work and/or preparing to publish other people’s work;
        5.1.2 Author Publisher: Persons publishing their own work and/or preparing to publish their own work;
        5.1.3 Publisher Friend: Persons not directly involved in publishing, but who support independent publishing; and
        5.1.4 Publisher Partner: Persons or organizations involved with supplying services or products to the field of publishing.

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