It’s natural for Authors to be excited about publishing their book.
But I’ll warn you right now: some companies will prey on that excitement.
Don’t fall for it.
Some first-time Authors end up paying thousands of dollars to vanity publishers—and all they get to show for it is a low-quality book and a lot of frustration.
In reality, they’re usually no better than print-on-demand services. They’re just a lot more expensive.
It’s easy to be drawn in by these scams because most Authors aren’t experts in book publishing. They know a lot about their area of expertise, but they have no idea how publishing works.
Vanity presses exploit that confusion.
The good news is that you can avoid publishing scams with some basic knowledge about vanity publishing.
This article will explain what a vanity press is, what the risks are, and how to spot and avoid publishing scams. We’ll also talk about why people fall for those scams, which publishers to avoid, and how you should publish your book instead.
What Is a Vanity Press?
A vanity press, also referred to as a vanity publisher or subsidy publisher is a company that will publish anything for anyone who pays them. There are no editorial or creative standards. It’s simply a company that prints books for people.
They’re called vanity presses because they target people’s egos. They look for people so desperate to publish a book that they’ll pay anything to do it.
But honestly, vanity publishers are worse than that. Even people without huge egos can get sucked in simply because they don’t know how the publishing process works.
Vanity presses sell you the appearance of something you’re not actually getting.
They peddle the idea that if you pay them, you’ll end up with a quality book, fancy marketing services, and great cover design (or many other perks).
Once they have your money, they produce the book as cheaply and quickly as possible—and then they pocket all the profit.
Their business model is predatory.
If you’re wondering why these companies can get away with it so easily, here’s some background:
In the publishing industry, there are two main publishing options: traditional publishing and self-publishing.
With traditional publishing, an Author sells the publishing rights for their book to a publishing house. In return, the publisher pays the Author an advance.
Paying the Author upfront means the traditional publishing house assumes all the risk. If the book flops, the Author still keeps the advance, and the publisher loses that money.
Once the advance is paid back through sales, the Author can start collecting royalties. But the publishing company still gets most of the royalties and maintains some control over the book’s contents.
Most Authors who work with traditional publishers need to jump through some hoops first. They have to write a book proposal and get a literary agent before a major publisher will look at their manuscript.
Self-published Authors don’t have to jump through those hoops. They also don’t sell their rights, which means they keep all the money from their book.
Vanity presses fall in a deceptive middle ground between traditional publishing and self-publishing.
You pay them to do things for you, and they take some of your royalties. That’s a red flag.
There’s a third publishing option, but it’s much less common. It’s called hybrid publishing.
Hybrid publishing refers to publishers who don’t assume risk like traditional publishers. But they also don’t accept every Author who walks in the door like vanity publishers.
Sometimes they work based on a crowdfunded model.
Be aware that some vanity presses call themselves “hybrid publishers” to make themselves look better. But they aren’t really hybrid if they aren’t offering you some of the value you’d get from a traditional publisher, like editorial guidance, distribution, etc.
Vanity Publishing vs. Self-Publishing (And Getting Reputable Help)
There’s a clear distinction between vanity publishing and getting legitimate self-publishing help.
These aren’t the same thing.
Many people think self-publishing is as simple as writing a book and putting it on the internet.
It can be that simple if you want to put out a low-quality book. But if you want to do it right, self-publishing is hard.
You won’t start out knowing how to do everything. Publishing is a huge industry, and there’s a lot to it.
It may be easy to self-publish, but it’s not easy to self-publish well.
Go to Amazon and see for yourself just how bad some books look.
It’s okay to get help along the way.
Many self-published Authors work with self-publishing services to design, print, or package their book. But at the end of the day, those self-publishing companies don’t claim any royalties or rights to your book.
It’s a service-based business model. You pay for specific services, and that’s the end of the relationship.
That’s how Scribe works. And that’s a major reason we won’t take Author royalties.
Of course, not everyone who claims they can help you really will. There are some terrible self-publishing services. They promise you the moon and deliver you crap.
Those places suck. But they aren’t the same as vanity presses because they aren’t trying to double-dip into your wallet.
The first step to getting reputable help is to weed out all the vanity publishers from self-publishing service providers.
From there, you’ll have to assess the quality of the services those companies provide. But at least you won’t fall victim to the many vanity publishing scams out there.
Why Do People Fall for Vanity Publishing Scams?
Writing and publishing a book is a hard and complicated process. This is part of what makes writing a book so valuable: it is hard to do, and not everyone succeeds at it.
This is why a lot of people often fall for vanity publication scams. They want to have a book but don’t want to actually put in the work. Or, they want to get big sales, but not do what’s necessary to get them. Or even worse, they might be so excited about the results promised, they don’t pay attention to the fine print.
Here’s the sad fact: in the book writing and publishing space, there are a LOT of scammy companies.
At Scribe, probably 10%+ of our Authors have had bad experiences with other companies before working with us.
How do vanity presses scam Authors?
A vanity press might tell you, “Authors who work with us sell an average of 20,000 books.”
No, that’s a lie.
They might tell you, “We’re a small press that really cares about our Authors. All you’re paying are the production costs.”
If that were true, how are they keeping the lights on? A business that doesn’t make money isn’t a business for long.
They might tell you, “We promote new Authors with our special marketing service, and you’re guaranteed to make it on Oprah and be a major bestseller.”
You are never guaranteed to make it on any mainstream media, much less Oprah or bestseller lists.
These kinds of companies are scammers. They are selling you a result they cannot promise, or they are framing the result in a way that is dishonest and not real. And many of them are good at that—they know what first-time Authors want to hear, and they say whatever they need to say to get the sale.
I wrote this piece to help you see the red flags to avoid. If a publishing company employs any of these methods, writer beware. Avoid them and find another company to work with.
Publishing Company Red Flags to Avoid
1. They Want Money AND Royalties
No reputable publishing house will ever ask an Author to pay thousands of dollars and pay royalties.
If a legitimate publisher thinks the rights to your book are lucrative, they’ll pay you for them.
That’s what happens with real publishers. As I explained, they only collect royalties because you sold them your rights and assumed all your publishing risk.
When a vanity press charges an upfront fee and wants to take royalties, they’re basically saying, “We don’t want to assume any risk for your book, but if it happens to do well, we want to reap the benefits.”
Don’t fall for that. That’s the worst of all possible worlds. You’re signing your rights away and paying to do it.
Let me put it this way: does it make sense to pay someone to take your rights? No. That’s like someone saying, “You can give me a birthday gift—but only if you also pay me a fee.”
It’s fine to pay for services you need help with, like your book’s layout or editing. But you should never pay and stake your future earnings on those services.
2. Their Book Examples Are Limited
Before you pay a publishing service, you should see examples of the books they’ve published.
The obvious reason is that you want to make sure they publish quality products.
Many vanity presses outsource work to the cheapest freelancers possible. You’ll pay thousands of dollars for work that cost them $50.
Why would you pay for services like typesetting if you could pay for a better job on your own?
The second reason you want to see examples is that a lot of vanity presses like to brag about the great books they’ve published—but they are lying. Don’t believe it until you see it.
If they keep showing you the same 3 or 4 books, it might mean that’s all they’ve ever published.
Or, maybe those are their high-quality samples, and the books they really publish every day are rushed and full of mistakes.
Also, walk away if you can’t verify that the company actually published the books they say they did.
If they tell you, “We worked with such-and-such high-profile Author,” they better be able to prove it with actual books and actual testimonials.
3. Reading Fees
No reputable publisher will make you pay for them to read your book. Ever.
Some literary contests charge submission fees because they’re run by nonprofits that need to survive. But that’s where legitimate reading fees start and end in the publishing world.
If a publishing sales rep tells you that they’ll read your book for a certain fee, they’re a scam.
Traditional publishers want to find Authors whose books will earn money. They aren’t looking for Authors willing to pay to have their work read.
No traditional publishing house makes money until a book sells. They make money from readers, not directly from Authors.
4. Big Promises
Beware if a publisher tries to sell you big promises. If they say, “You’re going to make it to Netflix or have your book optioned for a Hollywood movie,” that’s an obvious oversell.
It’s just as much an oversell to tell an Author, “You’re going to have a New York Times Bestseller.” Those kinds of successes are the rare exception, not the norm.
Plus, the way NYT bestsellers are determined is so complicated, you can’t plan it.
Even if they tell you they can make you an Amazon bestseller, don’t buy it.
Many writers brag about being a “bestselling Author” on Amazon, but it’s not really true. They’ve learned to game the system and sell a handful of copies in an obscure category.
But how meaningful is it to be the #1 bestseller in books about toenail fungus?
I’m not kidding.
To make a point, Brent Underwood self-published a “book” called Putting My Foot Down and categorized it under “Freemasonry and Secret Societies.”
I say “book” because it was just a cover image featuring a picture of Brent’s foot. He had a couple of friends buy it, and it shot to the #1 position in that fringe category.
Promoting your book that way is pointless. So are big promises. Beware of them.
5. You’ll Make Your Money on Book Sales
If you need a lot of help writing your first book, you may end up spending thousands. Making a quality book takes money.
Vanity publishers often tell Authors not to worry about paying thousands of dollars upfront because they’ll recoup their money through sales.
You should never bank on making that money back by selling copies of your book. If you do end up selling that many books, great. Just don’t count on it.
Most Authors don’t make a lot of money from book sales.
They make money from the opportunities the book brings them — more clients, more visibility, contact with investors, etc.
Any money you spend on a book should be viewed as an investment. When you calculate your ROI, leave sales out of the equation.
That way, you’ll have an accurate gauge of your objectives, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised if you end up with a bestselling book.
6. The Ownership Is Unclear
You should be wary of any publishing house where the ownership and team are unclear.
You should know who you’re getting in business with. If they don’t have a transparent owner, leadership structure, or process, don’t trust them.
Even if you know who the owner is, you should still be wary. Make sure they have experience as a writer, editor, or publisher. Don’t work with anyone who’s just put up a shingle and called themselves an Author. What have they published? Why should you listen to them?
Many vanity presses also make money by selling expensive informational courses about how to write and publish a book.
Remember, book publishers want to make money from books or book services. Not from exploiting the hopes of first-time Authors.
Do your due diligence. Make sure that you’re working with reputable people who know the industry and who can help you write a great book.