Vanity press

From Academic Kids

A vanity press or vanity publisher is a book printer who acts like a publisher and charges writers a fee in return for publishing their books. Johnathon Clifford claims to have coined the term in 1959. In its very simpliest terms, while a commercial publisher's intended market is the general public, a vanity publisher's intended market it the author him/herself. Many authorities consider an author mill to be a kind of vanity publisher.

These companies often call themselves joint-venture or subsidy publishers, because the author "subsidises" (or finances) the publication. Unlike other book publishers, who usually pursue a specific fiction genre, nonfiction specialty, or a more loosely defined philosophy towards publishing, a vanity press will generally agree to print and bind any author's work if the author is willing to pay for the service. Vanity presses may offer a print on demand service.

Because vanity presses rarely take the same commercial risks as conventional publishers, (such as offering an advance payment, royalties, promotion, marketing, advertising or editorial guidance) they are typically not seen as confering the same recognition or prestige as being published by a traditional publisher. Vanity presses, however, do often guarantee much more independence for the author than does the mainstream publishing industry.


Differences from traditional publishers

The term “vanity press” is generally derogatory, and is often used to imply that an author using such a service is only publishing out of vanity, and that his or her work could not be commercially successful. Some vanity presses are in fact scams, including those identified at the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) website ( In general, any publisher that expects the author to pay a large fee upfront (while promising or hinting at fame and fortune), is most likely dishonest, and certainly should be approached warily.

On the other hand, many reputable companies offer printing (and perhaps limited distribution) for a fee. If honest, such companies will explain their fees, what they do offer and do not offer, and how their service differs from that of a traditional commercial publisher. Such services can be a viable way for an author to self-publish without owning printing equipment. This is particularly attractive to an author of a work with a limited, specialized appeal which may not interest traditional mainstream publishers, or to the author who intends to promote his or her work personally.

A mainstream publisher traditionally assumes the risk of publication and production costs, selects the works to be published, edits the author's text, and provides for marketing and distribution, provides the ISBN and satisfies whatever legal deposit and copyright registration formalities are required. Such a publisher normally pays the author a fee, called an advance, for the right to publish the author's work; and further payments, called royalties, based on the sales of the work.

A vanity publisher typically fails to provide any useful editing service, and is not selective, printing works by anyone willing to pay a fee. This lack of selectivity is the main reason for the low esteem in which most of the literary world holds vanity publishers. Many vanity publishers charge excessive fees, which are never likely to be recouped from sales of the books involved. Vanity publishers typically do little or no effective marketing. Formerly they did little or no distribution. Now vanity publishers may offer web-based sales, or make a book available via online booksellers, but they generally do no marketing. Furthermore, many bookstores -- especially large chain stores -- avoid self-published books.

Business model

Vanity publishers typically offer contracts that strongly favor the publisher, charging high fees while providing low-quality books. They often sell worthless add-on services related to editing and marketing, and are frequently charged with outright scams.

A self-publisher is an author who also undertakes the functions of a publisher for his or her own book. The classic "self-publisher" writes, edits, markets and promotes the book themselves, relying on a printer only for actual printing and binding. More recently, companies have offered their services to act as a sort of agent between the writer and a small printing operation. In these cases, the distiction between self-publishing and vanity publishing is less obvious than it once was.

Many PODs (print on demand companies) using modern digital copy machines are the most recent incarnations of vanity presses. Some have turned to scamming authors in order to keep their machines busy and to help pay for them. During the first years of the 21st century the mainstream printing business went into a slump and the gross oversupply of digital printing machines (like big Xerography machines with add-on units to bind books) forced traditional printers as well as the new print on demand companies to seek new sources of revenue.

Vanity presses earn their money, not from sales of books to readers like other publishers, but from sales of books to the authors. The author receives the shipment of books and may attempt to resell them through whatever channels are available. In some cases, the copies are not even bound.

Alternatives to vanity publishing

Writers considering self-publishing often also consider directly hiring a printer. According to self-publisher and poet Peter Finch, vanity presses charge higher premiums and create a risk that an author who has published with a vanity press will have more difficulty working with a respectable publisher in the future.

Some PODs (print on demand companies) using modern digital copy machines have chosen to act as printers and sellers of support services for authors interested in self-publishing. Such firms are typically marked by clear contract terms, lack of excessive fees, retail prices comparable to those from traditional printers, lack of pressure to purchase "extra" services, contracts which to not claim exclusive rights to the work being published, and honest indications of what services they will and won't provide, and what results the author may reasonably expect. The distinction between these firms and vanity presses is important, but hard to make.


The typical library avoids stocking self-published books, since most vanity publications have not gone through selection, revision, copyediting and other critical steps which are normal for traditional for-profit publishers. Most libraries will not accept such vanity publications, even when they are offered free of charge, since even then there are costs involved: all library books have to be described in a catalogue, and require classification stickers and other elements. The total cost of cataloguing and general processing in 2002 was about $50 per book in the United States regardless of the size or original cost of the book. Then, the cost of keeping the book on the shelves has to be added, each year. In any case, it is usual for books to be chosen for a library by the application of a collection development policy designed to meet the needs of a particular user community, and vanity publications only rarely meet those needs.

On the rare occasions when libraries accept the product of a vanity press, they usually require the donor to sign a form giving to the library the right to do what it pleases with the item. More likely than not the item will then be disposed of in a yearly book sale or by some other process for the distribution of unwanted items.

Many libraries and reviewers do not clearly distinguish between vanity publications and self-publications, and are apt to decline or resist any book that does not come from a traditional press. Indeed in some cases any book produced using POD technology encounters such resistance, even if it is from a small traditional publisher.


It should be noted that in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century it was common for legitimate authors, if they could afford to, to pay the costs of publishing their books. Such writers could expect more control of their work, greater profits, or both. Self-publishing was not judged negatively as it is today. Among the authors taking this route to publication was Lewis Carroll, who paid the expenses of publishing Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and most of his subsequent work.

Vanity Presses in Fiction

Umberto Eco's humorous novel Foucault's Pendulum discusses the inside workings of a vanity press publishing company.

Some vanity presses

  • Abecedarian Books, Inc.
  • AuthorHouse (formerly 1st Books Library)
  • Booksurge (formerly
  • Dorrance
  • iUniverse
  • PublishAmerica
  • Trafford
  • Vantage
  • Xlibris

See also

External links


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