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My obsession with learning everything there is to know about publishing continues! Last month I looked at Freelancers — which raised a lot of questions about vanity publishers. So, I found someone who knows a lot about the subject to clear it all up for us.

This post is part of the February #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop, hosted by Raimey Gallant. My name is Iola Goulton, and I’m a regular participant in the Blog Hop from my own website, Christian Editing Services (www.christianediting.co.nz). Ronel has invited me to share with you today about the perils of vanity publishing. Ronel, thank you for the opportunity!

As a reader, writer, reviewer, and editor, I am passionate about seeing authors write and publish books. I don’t mind whether the books I read and review are self-published or published through a traditional publisher. What I don’t like is books that are vanity published—because vanity publishers are expensive, and don’t deliver good value for money.

What is Vanity Publishing?

Vanity publishing is the common term for when an author pays a publisher to publish their book.

(No, vanity publishing is not books by semi-famous sportspeople and politicians, and not-so-famous reality TV, even though publishing a book of your own selfies has to be the ultimate expression of vanity.)

Of course, no one ever calls their company a vanity publisher—many authors are wise to the term, and know not to publish with a vanity press. But vanity publishers are masters of slick marketing, and call themselves co-operative publishers, hybrid publishers, indie publishers, partner publishers, subsidy publishers, self-publishing imprints of Big 5 publishers, even traditional publishers. Often they are selling a “new publishing model”.

But their business model is what gives them away: vanity publishers make money by selling publishing packages to authors. The cheap ebook-only packages start at $999 (excluding editing). The paperback and combination packages can go for $19,999 and more, once they’ve added in a bundle of overpriced and unnecessary marketing services.

Real publishers make money by selling books (and associated products) to consumers. They follow the first rule of publishing: Money flows from the publisher to the author, in the form of advances and royalties.

Yet doesn’t a self-published author pay to be published?

Yes, a self-published author does pay to publish. The difference is who they pay, and who is the publisher.

A self-published author pays individual contractors or service providers for essential services, and the book is published by the author (perhaps under their own name, or perhaps under the name of their publishing imprint).

An author with a vanity publisher pays the publisher, and the book is published by the publisher. They own the ISBN, and they are the publisher of record. (There are exceptions, such as publishing through CreateSpace and using a CreateSpace ISBN, which makes CreateSpace the publisher of record.)

What does a self-published author pay for?

There are some things a professional self-published author will always pay for. The most obvious of these is editing: no one can edit their own work, not even a freelance editor. I can’t tell you how many of my own old blog posts I’ve read over only to find silly mistakes: typos, missing words, punctuation mistakes. Savvy self-published authors get the best they can afford.

Most self-published authors also pay for a professional cover. Readers judge books by their covers, so a professional cover is essential—even more than professional editing—because the best writing and editing is useless if no one buys the book because of the cover.

Other services a savvy self-published author might pay for include:

  • International Standard Book Number (ISBN)
  • Digital and print formatting
  • Book description copywriting
  • Website design
  • Promotional materials
  • Blog tour or other marketing services
  • Help with website or social media

They key is that all these expenses are optional, and the author is choosing the service provider.  They are not paying a company for a service (such as cover design or editing) with no say in who does the work.

Vanity Publishing vs. Author Services

There are also a range of individuals and companies offering paid services to authors. I’m one of them: a freelance editor who works mostly with authors planning to self-publish. There are many people offering services to authors. Most offer a narrow range of services: a cover designer may also offer to design promotional materials. An editor may offer copywriting services. But most specialise in one or two key areas.

There are also larger companies which serve self-published authors. Some are printing companies offering design, formatting, and printing services (both offset and print-on-demand) for products including business cards, advertising material, office stationery, magazines … and books.

Others offer a wider ranges of services, including graphic design (including cover design, and the design of bookmarks and other promotional materials), formatting, and printing. Some even offer editing.

My view: if you are paying for editing, you should choose the editor yourself. Why?

You get better quality.

You can approach several editors and request a sample edit and quotation. This means you can choose an editor who demonstrates they know your genre and will be a good fit for your manuscript. You’re not assigned a nameless editor who (for all you know) has never edited a novel before.

You get better value for money.

If you pay $1,000 to a freelance editor, they earn $1,000 less tax and expenses. If you pay $1,000 to a vanity publishing company, the editor will only earn a portion of that (and still has to pay tax and expenses). The vanity publisher keeps the rest as overhead or a referral fee.

The challenge for any author is knowing good from less good: it can be difficult to tell the difference between a printer offering a full range of publishing services, and a vanity press. A good printer will have a professional and polished website—it’s how they convince customers they have a solid knowledge of current graphic design trends.

A vanity press will also have a professional and polished website—but it’s to convince authors to buy overpriced publishing and marketing packages.

My view is it comes back to investigating how the publisher makes their money: are they offering design and printing services to a range of customers including authors?

Or are they targeting authors selling dreams of their book being sold in Barnes & Noble and over 60,000 other booksellers? (The book will be available for sale, but that’s not the same as being sold. And it simply means they’ve listed the book with Ingram … which any savvy self-publisher can do free through CreateSpace Extended Distribution).

I understand that not everyone has the time or the knowledge to self-publish, and that there is a place for professional author services providers. But don’t get caught out by a predatory vanity press.

Do you have any comments or questions? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll do my best to answer.

Also, if you write Christian fiction, stop by my website and request a copy of Christian Publishing: A List of Publishers Specializing in Christian Fiction.

About Iola Goulton


Iola Goulton is a New Zealand book reviewer, freelance editor, and author, writing contemporary Christian romance with a Kiwi twist. She is a member of the Sisterhood of Unpronounceable Names (Iola is pronounced yo-la, not eye-ola and definitely not Lola).

Iola holds a degree in marketing, has a background in human resource consulting, and currently works as a freelance editor. When she’s not working, Iola is usually reading or writing her next book review. Iola lives in the beautiful Bay of Plenty in New Zealand (not far from Hobbiton) with her husband, two teenagers and one cat. She is currently working on her first novel.

Wow! That totally cleared up the issue for me. How about you? Do you have any questions for Iola?