The Hidden Dangers of Vanity Presses: Warnings for New Authors

The publishing world is a minefield with all our dreams waiting for us on the other side. High stakes, tension, and a lot of intricate details mean that there’s a lot to take in, a lot to learn.

And unfortunately, there are people out there who know this… and take advantage.

Vanity presses, I’m looking at you.

I had a run-in with one of these beasts when publishing my first novel, and if I can spare even just one other author from that mess, then this post will have been WELL worth it.

So, for all the writers who don’t know, and thus are at the greatest risk of falling into this very effective (and very legal) scam, let’s talk about what a vanity press even is.

Obviously, it’s a publishing company. They typically offer various packages (watch out for that word on publisher sites) of services they’ll provide in exchange for a set amount of money. Many have additional services you can tack on, at an extra cost.

They’ll print your book, usually print-on-demand, a feature that they’ll be sure to sell you on because it’s less wasteful and doesn’t run the risk of having extra books lying around. (Which is fair. That’s the method legitimate self-publishing companies use, too.)

They’ll list your book and distribute it, then they’ll give you a cut of the profits made off the books.

Which all sounds perfectly fine.

Unless you know that no reputable self-publishing company (and certainly no traditional publishing company) charges the author money.

*Exception: Ingramspark (definitely not a vanity press) charges $50 for “title setup,” a thing they explain as being the cost incurred by placing your book in their wholesale distribution channels. And since those channels are used by the cast majority of bookstores, they can get away with that. But they frequently release coupon codes to waive that fee.

But the point is, vanity/subsidy presses make their money off the author. Not off the books sold.

Legitimate publishing companies, be they indie, traditional, or self, make their money off the books.

The cost of each book sold accounts for the print cost, automatically keeping them out of the red. Then, they get a cut of the profit. How much depends on the publisher and the royalty they offer their authors, but no matter what, self-publishing companies should not lose money on a printed book. (Note: Traditional publishers keep higher amounts of the profit for themselves because they edit, format, design covers, etc.)

There’s absolutely no reason for self-publishing companies to charge an author (who typically has their book edited and their cover designed ahead of time) thousands of dollars to publish it. And yes, vanity presses do indeed charge thousands of dollars. (With convenient monthly payment options and *limited time* deals to pressure you into buying.)

IF covers, formatting, or editing are included in a package offered by these vanity presses, they’re usually done at cut rates and turn out very poorly. That round of editing in the package may even turn out to be that YOU find the typos and grammatical errors and tell them where they’re at so they can “edit” them. (That’s what the one I got fooled by did.)

If they try to say that formatting and file conversion are included, and thus justify thousands of dollars, formatting can be done on any computer with a simple how-to guide online. If you want it fancy and don’t want to mess with it yourself (because it is very tedious and fiddly), there are many graphic designers who do interior design/formatting, some of whom charge only $49 (or less if you find a reputable one on fiverr). Not thousands.

And file conversion to EPUB and MOBI can be done with free programs that you can get off the internet. (I use Calibre.)

Now, of course, vanity presses are not going to miss the opportunity to exploit an uninformed writer when it comes to our (almost) universal weak point: marketing. They will undoubtedly offer marketing packages, as well, but they tend to be underwhelming at best, if not downright rip-offs.

Especially when you consider the exorbitant prices they charge.

Even more so if you consider the paltry royalties they extend to the authors, like crumbs fallen off a loaf of bread. Literal pennies per printed book, maybe a quarter for an ebook.

When I fell prey to one of these beasts 7 years ago, they literally wrote in the press release that I was running a marketing campaign which… is pretty self-explanatory and wastes words in the press release that could’ve been spent on the book or me as an author.

As if that weren’t enough, add the constant phone calls trying to get you to give them more money for things that will garner little to no sales. (That press release wasn’t run by a single newspaper, but they sent it, so obviously that was worth nearly a thousand dollars.)

I was working a weird shift (half overnights and half days) at the time and told them very specific hours that I could be contacted… which were of course disregarded. Their people talked over me constantly, trying to bully me into paying more. If I didn’t answer, they called again. If I blocked the number, they called from a different one.

They called while I was supposed to be asleep for my night shifts. They called while I was at work. They called while normal people would be eating dinner.

They called ALL THE TIME.

My account was shuffled from one person to another when someone failed to get money from me. (One even went so far as to say that his teammate had read my book and thought it had promise, which of course was a lie. No one there read my book.)

After the day that I signed with them, every single person I spoke to had the same hard to pin down accent coupled with an overly-American name (doubtless an attempt to make the dumb American feel more comfortable with them).

And not a single one of them gave a shit about me or my book or the fact that I was broke as fuck working part-time, earning minimum wage, eating $0.12 ramen and $1 canned ravioli to get by.

They didn’t care that I wanted my book (and future books) to be taken seriously.

They wanted my money. That was it.

Shame blossomed within me, growing up alongside years of anger, when I realized that I’d fallen into a carefully contracted scam made especially for new, uninformed writers.

I hid it from friends and family because I didn’t feel like a real author. I shied away from questions about my writing because I didn’t know what to do with the rest of the books I was working on. I stayed quiet in writing groups, unsure how to contribute if I was such a fool.

I even stopped promoting my book, out of spite toward them and out of humiliation for myself.

When I learned that no traditional publisher would take it, even if I could get it back, since it had already been published and (since it had basically no promotion) sold almost no copies, I was heartbroken.

But eventually, I learned about legitimate self-publishing. Then, I learned how to get my book back. I could fix it, edit it properly, and rerelease it.

I cancelled everything with the vanity press and instructed them never to contact me again, though that process in and of itself took a ridiculous amount of time considering their continuous hesitation and obstacles in sending me a copy of the contract to begin with.

The copyright had been registered in my name, thank god, and they didn’t require exclusive publishing. (Why would they, since they already had my money?)

I rereleased The Gem of Meruna with a reputable self-publishing company. But even today, that poor book has been tainted in my memory, because every time I think about it, I think of them and the stress and shame and heartache of dealing with them.

So please, don’t put yourself through the years of torment and disappointment I endured. If a self-proclaimed self-publishing company (or hybrid company) asks for money upfront, run as fast as you can.

They should make their money off the books sold, not off you.

There are reputable self-publishing companies out there, ready and willing to help you publish your books. (I’ll do a post later about Ingramspark and KDP, the two I’ve worked with). There are freelance editors and graphic designers, ready and willing to make your book as beautiful as it should be.

Trust them. Work with them.

Not a vanity press armored with jargon to legalize their scam and sucker in the unsuspecting.

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