Publishing, Self-Publishing, and Vanity Presses

Yesterday, a member of one of the Facebook writer groups I belong to asked for some clarification on the matter of vanity presses. I wound up having a bit of back-and-forth with a different member over what exactly constituted a vanity press, so I thought I’d write up a quick post on that very topic for the benefit of authors out there who are ready to release their book, but haven’t figured out what the best approach might be.

You’ve got three basic options:


This refers to any business — be it one of the “Big Five” publishers (Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster) or a small press — that contracts with a writer to produce novels or books, which said business then prepares (edits, formats, prints, etc.) at its own expense for distribution and sale. The publisher takes a cut of the sales revenue and passes along the rest (royalties) to the author. Publishers typically claim certain rights to the work.

One of the things that distinguishes a publisher from a vanity press is whether they require the author to pay money into the process. A legitimate publisher covers all costs of production and does not require the author to pay for anything! The publisher assumes all financial risk, and it recovers its investment through sales, which it shares with the creator of the content. Money flows toward the writer, in the words of author James D. MacDonald.

The individual mentioned above argued that even big publishers require authors to chip in for promotions. That is at best a half truth.

It’s accurate to say publishers do not always invest money in actively promoting authors unless they feel the return on their investment is sound, either because it’s an established creator or that rare hot new author with a potential blockbuster bestseller, but they don’t require authors to pick up the slack.

However, authors are expected to do a lot of legwork themselves via a website and social media, and the publisher isn’t necessarily going to cover any associated costs (they almost certainly won’t), but again, there is no financial obligation on the author’s part toward the publisher.

In summary: with traditional publishing through a reputable publisher, the author pays nothing up front, is not responsible for an aspect of book preparation, and receives royalties through sales, but doesn’t get all the money and must typically relinquish certain rights to their own work.


With self-publishing, everything is ultimately on you — all the responsibilities and all the costs. Sure, you might farm out things like editing and cover art (and you bloody well should be paying professionals to handle those duties) but you’re still the one responsible for paying them, and you are the final arbiter of the quality of their work. You also get to keep every penny from the sales.

Now, there are operations out there that will, for a fee, provide you with everything you need to turn your finished manuscript into a ready-to-sell book — an editor, a cover artist, printing, distribution, etc. These you would call self-publishing platforms or self-publishing services. Yes, they charge you for their work, but they claim no rights to your book, make no money off of your sales (unless you use them for distribution), and are completely up-front about the fact they are not publishers.

Which brings us to…


A lot of people argue about what constitutes a vanity press — many of those arguments come from people who run such operations, by the way — but this is my definition: a vanity press is an operation that behaves like a self-publishing service but presents itself as a publisher.

Let me break that down a bit. A vanity press offers all the services of a self-publishing platform as described above and charges the author a fee for them, and collects a percentage of any sales like a publisher — or, to be fair, a self-publishing platform that offers authors a distribution service.

One of the things that distinguishes a vanity press from a self-publishing platform is that a vanity press will claim rights to the author’s work, like a publisher would. In other words, you’re paying a company to lay legal claim to your creation — a legal claim that could be used to deny you royalties (e.g., foreign sales rights) or control over your own creation.

Imagine wanting to write a sequel to your novel, only to be told you can’t because the characters belong to the alleged publisher, or getting an offer to take the book to a major publisher, only to be denied because you’re locked in an exclusive contract with no escape clause. Imagine the vanity press going out of business and taking the rights with them. These things have happened.

Vanity presses often also require authors to buy a certain number of their own books for direct sales or publicity purposes. They key word here is require. I self-publish through Amazon (the service formerly known as CreateSpace), and if I want books to sell at shows or give away, I have to buy them, but I am not contractually obligated to buy a certain quantity of books as a condition of working with the company.

As mentioned previously, a self-publishing platform will clearly identify itself as such. Vanity presses will refer to themselves as publishers, or give the distinct impression of such: “Would you like to become a published author? We can make your dream happen!”

If you’re ever in doubt about the legitimacy of a publisher or self-publishing platform, your best places to go are Writer Beware and the Absolute Write Water Cooler message boards.

A North American Field Guide to Publishing Options

This comes up from time to time when I’m chatting with aspiring authors, so as a public service, I present a quick-and-dirty overview of publishing options available to writers.

PUBLISHING (also known as “traditional publishing”)

  • Can be a large corporation or a small, independently owned company
  • May or may not require author to have representation through an agent
  • Covers all book production costs for the author, i.e., they do not charge the author for editing, formatting, cover art, distribution, promotion/marketing, etc.
  • Will actively facilitate getting author’s books into bookstores and libraries
  • May or may not pay an advance; author makes money through book sales, a portion of which goes to the retailer, the publisher, and the author’s agent (when applicable)
  • May or may not actively market the author’s book
  • May or may not provide support in setting up author’s website and social media presence
  • May retain certain rights to the author’s work

SELF-PUBLISHING (also known as “independent authorship”)

  • No representation by an agent necessary
  • Author covers all costs associated with the production of the book and directly pays any contractors (editor, cover artist, publicist, etc.)
  • Author is responsible for books’ distribution through online platforms and brick-and-mortar venues; self-published status may make it harder to get books into bookstores and libraries
  • No advance; author makes money through sales, a portion of which typically goes to the retailer
  • Author is responsible for all marketing, either directly or through a paid contractor
  • Author is responsible for establishing website and social media presence, either directly or through a paid contractor
  • Author retains all rights to his/her work, unless the chosen publishing platform specifies otherwise


  • Can be a large corporation or small, independently owned business
  • Generally does not require representation by an agent
  • Sometimes presents itself as a traditional publisher when it is in fact a self-publishing platform; does so for the express purpose of enticing authors into doing business with them
  • May or may not cover costs associated with a book’s production and distribution; may require author to cover costs in full or in part
  • May or may not facilitate distribution to bookstores and libraries; may charge a fee for certain distribution services
  • Unlikely to pay advance; author makes money through book sales, a portion of which is often collected by the vanity press
  • May or may not take an active role in marketing; may charge a fee for marketing services
  • May or may not assist author in establishing website and social media presence; may charge a fee for web/social media services
  • May retain certain rights to the author’s work

Which Way Do I Go?

I’ve been trying to think of ways to shake off my ever-increasing creative standstill, and I’ve been going round and round on one possible but, to be honest, undesirable option: self-publishing.

I’ve said here on many an occasion I wasn’t a fan. There are many, many aspects of the vanity press industry that has exploded over the past few years I don’t like at all, which I won’t rehash here, but lately it’s been feeling like not just a viable option, but my only option.

I set out to become a writer at age 20. I’m now 43. I am a working writer — mostly as a reporter for a local newspaper, with some odd freelance jobs here and there — and have been since I was 28, but I’m still not the kind of writer I truly want to be, i.e., not a reporter.

The thing that has been standing in my way is the giant hurdle of getting someone, anyone, in the “traditional” publishing industry to give me a shot. A look through my massive collection of rejection letters and e-mails tells me that 99 percent of my submissions never made it past some low-level first-line editor working the slush piles. I’ve had maybe a half-dozen people in the course of 23 years actually read my stuff and reject it, and the only one who hasn’t simply said, “This isn’t for us” is the one that last year read Action Figures and loved it…right up until the point she didn’t.

In short: my batting average on the traditional publishing front is shit.

So what do I do? Keep at it and hope I don’t spend another 23 years banging my head against this massive wall? Or try something different and embrace the option that I have long avoided?

I admit readily I cannot rationally defend some of my reasons for resisting self-publishing. Some of my reasons are plain stupid. I cringe every time someone declares him- or herself a novelist or author because they paid cash money to have some Internet outfit print copies of a book and act like they have accomplished something special. Call yourself a writer, that’s fine, I argue to myself, but don’t grant yourself a professional title you haven’t earned. It’s like calling yourself a rock star because you posted a video of yourself at Friday night karaoke on YouTube.

Then there is the fear factor, which locks me up whenever I tell myself such “reasoning” is petty and stupid. I have read work self- (vanity-) published by friends or friends of friends that were truly awful, and I don’t want to be in that same company…and yet, maybe I am. I wonder and worry if I’m not as good as I think, and putting myself out there will reveal the delusion that has driven my entire adult life. It may not be as crushing as, say, a terrible singer having his dreams dashed to bits before a national television audience on American Idol, but having a dream destroyed privately is no less devastating.

On the more optimistic, and perhaps more rational side or the debate, the publishing industry is changing because on online platforms such as Amazon’s CreateSpace (the venue I am currently contemplating). There is still a lot of crap out there, but some works of quality are popping up, bringing with it various levels of honest success and, in a few relatively rare cases, a springboard for breaking into traditional publishing.

As I’ve gone back and forth on this, I’ve re-read Neil Gaiman’s excellent keynote address at the 2012 University of the Arts commencement ceremony, the so-called “Make Good Art” speech. It touches on many of my concerns (fears) and puts them into a grounded Gaimanesque perspective that puts me at ease…I’m not wholly convinced venturing into self-publishing would be the best idea, but it’s an idea. It’s something I haven’t tried. It might not work, but then again, it might.

I guess an attempt to move forward that fails is better than standing still.

I still haven’t made up my mind on this, but I’ve promised myself that if I go for it, I will be realistic with myself. I won’t expect to become the next E.L. James-like “discovery.” I won’t pretend this is anything other than what it is (meaning I will not call myself a “published author” and convince people what I’ve done is somehow remarkable). I will treat it seriously and try to get myself out there and not expect that any measure of success will simply materialize like magic.

I know this blog has its modest share of readers, including a few fellow writers. If anyone feels like offering some opinions, pro or con, please do.