You’re So Vain: Vanity Presses Versus Self-Publishing

writers paying for publishing euro-317927_960_720Over the years we’ve have several posts regarding companies that some call vanity presses or vanity publishers. About three years ago we had an entire series of posts about these companies, called #PublishingFoul. Five years ago there were two major players in this arena: PublishAmerica and Author Solutions with a few other smaller companies using the same business model.

The two biggies operated under a myriad of different names with foreign subsidiaries and multiple imprint names. Keeping track of them was tough. But a rule of thumb that is attributed to author James D. Macdonald that “money should always flow toward the author” was all a wannabe-published author needed to know to avoid becoming the victim of those who would prey on the less informed. But the only thing constant in the world is change, and over the last several years a lot has changed, both in this portion of the publishing industry and in how authors can protect themselves.

PublishAmerica changed its name in 2014 to America Star Books. In 2017 they changed their name again to ASB Promotions and are reported to have stopped accepting new authors, apparently going another direction as a company. One down.

Author Solutions has had better luck, first being acquired by the Penguin Group, one of the “Big 6” publishers which then became the “Big 5” when Penguin Group was acquired by Random House. Then in 2015, Author Solutions was sold to another company but they continue to operate as they have in the past under a bunch of different names (see those listed in the Wikipedia article linked above if you’re curious what those are) and they have relationships with traditional publishers (Simon & Schuster) and companies you’d expect to be pro-author (Writer’s Digest).

In addition to the big vanity presses with their different imprints, there are smaller players popping up all the time as others, such as Tate Publishing that specialized in the Christian book niche, go out of business. How does an author protect himself in the current environment?

The short answer to this is that it’s tough. Predatory companies are calling themselves “self-publishing companies” when they’re just the same old wolf as before, masquerading as a sheep. The old rule, that money should flow to authors, still applies. The problem is that a self-publishing author is now wearing two hats, that of the author and that as the publisher. The money from his left hand (the publisher) flows to his right (the author), but the potential for the author’s publisher persona to need to pay out money for legitimate reasons exists. Editors, proofreaders, and cover designers don’t work for free. If you can’t do that yourself, unless you’ve got some amazingly talented friends lined up to volunteer, you’ve got to hire someone to do it for you. (And NO, you can’t do all those things yourself, although maybe you can figure out how to get them without paying.) Then there is the question of what is a reasonable price to pay for the services you do need. (Those predatory vanity publishers have always been willing to sell you editing and cover design services although the service might have fallen short and the price might have been way too high.)

There aren’t any clear-cut answers to these questions. One place to start might be to look at what the majority of self-published authors do, both the things they have done and what they’ve paid for those services. In 2015 we did a survey on that to get a handle on the process of self-publishing. You can find the first post of the five-part series here.  You can find the entire series here. This should give you a good handle on the things others are actually hiring to have done and an idea of what a reasonable price was a few years ago. Talking to a few author friends, and checking out this article by our admin, K. S. Brooks, might help to determine what others are paying now. I’ll bet some of the more experienced authors have some ideas as well. Tell us in the comments how a newbie can avoid being taken advantage of while still hiring the help they need to publish a quality book.

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.

14 thoughts on “You’re So Vain: Vanity Presses Versus Self-Publishing”

  1. Yes, it’s a jungle out there. It’s tough for a naive newbie to recognize the predators and to understand that they are the prey. I have lost count of the number of proud authors who tell me, “I’m with”, or “my publisher is”. The names they give me make me shudder. Thank goodness we, and a few others, are here to help navigate that territory.

    1. How true, Yvonne. Maybe they know they were taken advantage of, but they think it is worth it to be able to say “I’m published by PreyOnU Publishing.” Most people would know any name they throw out, legit or not, just the same.

  2. Basically, there are 3 areas a newbie author should probably pay for. A professional cover design – a first class editor and, if not too techie, formatting the mss for print and ebook. Everything else eg beta readers, setting up a web page, blog, social media can be done by the author with friendly help from one or more of the helpful Facebook groups, blog posts from experts and other authors. We are a brilliant community, always happy to help others.

    1. I agree, Lucinda, that *if* there is a rule that would be correct more often than not then it would be just what you said although I’d point out that there are different kinds of editing (content, line or copy editing, and proofreading). What a particular author needs and what a particular editor brings to the table may not be the same. (I tend to think that a good set of beta readers can deal with content or big picture editing if the book is reasonably solid and potentially help get the worst issues in the other areas, but line editing and proofreading most people will need to hire someone.)

  3. No matter who I warn about Vanity Presses, most writers do not care to listen to me. Even those who were taken advantage of by Vanity Presses will not drop their pride and admit that they were taken advantage of by shysters and conmen. Sadly, they are too stubborn or stupid for their own good to admit they made a mistake. Hopefully, you will get through to them. I strongly suggest you do not include links to any of the offending vanity presses in your articles because there are always desperate writers, who will follow the links thinking they know better and then get entrapped by the lure of vanity leeches and then get sucked dry.

    Fortunately, I am not one of them and I took the time to read your past articles and other book blogs to learn about book marketing scammers and vanity leeches in the industry. I am self-publishing my first novel directly to KDP and CreateSpace in April/May.

    1. Good luck, Allen, and thanks for the comment. I like that name. 🙂 Spelled correctly too. I don’t think we linked directly to any of the vanity presses, just to their wikipedia page.

  4. I absolutely endorse your exposure of these scam artists. However, I’m always a bit disappointed that articles like this tend to ignore the 4th option. Besides the Big Five, and the scam artists, and self-publishing, there is the option of going with a legitimate independent press. (I won’t mention the name of the one that I’m 1/2 of, because this is not intended as an ad.) At this time, we mostly do anthologies.
    We pay for professionally-done covers, we read all submissions without charging a reading fee or a submission fee, we reply to all those who submit, we don’t merely aggregate what we get… all stories are edited, all anthologies are formatted consistently throughout each title, and we publicize and market the titles. And yes, we pay the authors. We pay them a flat fee… which, frankly, amounts to more than what royalties would be for the first year or two. We also try to keep an eye on authors who’ve appeared in our anthologies, and share their FB posts and re-tweet them on Twitter, when they mention other writing accomplishments.
    And we’re not the only independent press out there operating like this.

    We just want people to know that there is a 4th option.

    1. Good point. The problem is that it is so hard to know who to trust. It takes a lot of research to find that out. And recommendations from friends are often coloured by the same lack of information as those who proudly use predatory publishers. I wish it were easier because honest small presses deserve the chance to make it.

    2. Thanks for pointing that out, Laurie. You’re right, that is a viable option and it might be the right one for some authors or some projects for some authors. That goes for the Big Howevermanythereareleft publishers as well. Some small, independent publishers do an excellent job and provide much more support for their authors than the big publishers would for all but the most famous authors. There are a few I can think of off the top of my head that I’d recommend without reservation. However, there have also been a few recently that have pulled some tricks and cheated their authors when business went south. But if an author does their homework and gets with the right indie publisher it can be the best of both worlds.

    3. I agreed. There are decent and respectable alternatives. A shared risk-and-reward model seems reasonable, for example, where someone who has the battle scars of self-publishing can help others get on to the ladder.

  5. Thanks for this helpful info. I’ll share it with others.

    Laurie and Big Al, I hope to publish within the next month and you’ve made me curious–I’d like to get info about those independent publishers you’d “recommend without reservation.”


  6. Lyn –
    I don’t mean to split hairs.. but my earlier comments were not focused on hybrid publishers, but rather small, independent publishers… So I suppose the problem was that I suggested there were 4 options, when in fact there are 5 – namely, Big Five (or whatever #), Small Indie, Hybrid, Vanity, and Self.
    As a small indie, we do NOT charge the author for cover, editing, formatting, marketing, or anything else. We hold to the idea that the money flows FROM the publisher TO the author. For the moment, nearly all our titles are short story anthologies… for a variety of reasons. The authors pay nothing — no submission fee, no reading fee. We issue a Call for Submissions, we read all submissions, we reply to all who submit, we issue contracts to accepted authors, we edit all stories (working with the authors of course), we hire a cover designer, we format, we publish, and we pay all authors a flat fee. Most of our sales are digital, but we do make the titles available in print. We do offer authors a discounted price on print copies.. but we don’t put any pressure on any authors to buy any copies.. and we began to offer this only after we had a number of authors ask if they could get print copies.
    Nearly all small indies we know of, are doing something similar… including focusing on short story anthologies. We plan to expand into novels over time.. and for novels, compensation would be royalty in nature, rather than flat fee, but everything else is the same. It may be more difficult for a novelist to find a small indie, but I do believe they are out there.
    Yes, vanity presses — including vanities that call themselves hybrids — are evil.* And big publishers are hard to get into. And self-pubbing can actually be expensive if one is hiring a decent editor and cover designer. And small indies? They are typically limited on time and resources… which means that submission options are limited, things take longer, and book tours are unlikely.
    None of the options are ideal; authors need to weigh the options.
    One more comment on vanities and vanity/hybrids…. IF the author’s goal is to have a book that looks professionally edited and formatted, with a professional cover, and all they want is to have copies to hand out to family/friends/colleagues.. then a quality vanity IS what they want. The big problem is that many going to a vanity press want something different than the vanity is offering.

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