Navigating the modern business of book publishing

Self Publishing Part 4: Who’s really publishing your book? The changing face of Vanity Publishing

The confluence of digital technologies such as online retail, eBooks, print-on-demand (POD), desktop publishing and social media has dramatically shifted the balance of book publishing around the world by giving authors access to the tools they need to affordably publish and market their books globally. These same technologies have also led to a virtual renaissance in vanity publishing by opening up more legitimate business models for what was once a marginalised (and sometimes fraudulent) backwater of the industry.

If you’re currently considering self publishing then you will no doubt be investigating one or many different companies offering ‘Self Publishing Services’ such as POD, cover design, digital marketing and online distribution. The question is, do these companies offer value for money or are they simply peddling short-cuts that you would be better off doing yourself?

Up until a few years ago the answer was unequivocally “do it yourself” but now there are certainly situations where this may be a worthwhile option. Just as I stated in my previous post on freelance editors, my advice is to identify the tasks and skills that you will require to publish your book and identify all of those that you can competently do (or learn to do) yourself. In general, the two most important tasks to outsource are the editing and cover design. With a little bit of research and effort you should be able to manage most other tasks yourself (including organise printing at a cheaper rate), but there is no doubt that this is a LOT of work and being able to take advantage of a ready-made publishing production line might suit your purposes perfectly. So, keeping in mind that this is another outsourcing option for a self publishing business, let’s have a look at the history of vanity publishing and how it’s evolved in recent years.

The terms ‘Vanity Publishing’ has been around at least since the middle of the 20th Century and was used to describe publishers that required the author to pay for the production and printing costs of their books. This is compared to traditional publishing houses who cover all the editing, production, print, distribution and marketing costs and pay royalties to the author.

While a number of reputable vanity presses did actually offer a quality service for those who sought to publish for non-commercial reasons, many vanity publishers earned a reputation as scammers for preying on the ego of unpublished authors and misrepresenting the reach and impact of their marketing and distribution. The derision for the author-pays model was summed up by James MacDonald and his often quoted advice to new writers: “Money should flow toward the author” (also known as Yog’s Law*). It’s still a good rule of thumb to follow.

Before POD and online retail, vanity publishers had little incentive to actively market the books they publish because their main income stream came from the authors themselves, who paid for the printing and/or bought the finished books (often at high prices that made it difficult to on sell). Authors were then tainted with the smear of being forced to pay to have their work published and found marketing and distribution to the book trade extremely difficult.

While many vanity publishers promote themselves as being a form of assisted self publishing, they will typically register themselves as the publisher of the book in the industry and government registers and on the spine and copyright page of the book itself. To be a true self publisher your book should be published with an ISBN purchased by you from Thorpe-Bowker’s ISBN Agency and registered in your name (or in the name of your own legal entity).

However, the lines between vanity publishing and true self publishing have become much more blurred as the range of businesses now offering various ‘self publishing services’ has exploded. With modern POD and online retail channels, traditional vanity presses (now often called subsidy publishers) no longer need to charge authors up front for large print runs – although most still charge a set up fee. Some, such as Booklocker, also allow you use your own ISBN and publishing company to register the book, making them more truly a self publishing service rather than a vanity publisher.

By integrating their database of titles with POD printers such as Lightning Source, online retailers like Amazon and book wholesalers such as Ingrams, the new breed of vanity press can make your book available in globally significant distribution channels. Be aware, however, that they nearly all use exactly the channels (i.e. Lightning Source, Amazon and Ingrams) and so no matter which company you go with, the print quality and distribution options are likely to be the same. The difference therefore is largely one of cost and the quality of service.

The fact remains that the vast majority of books published this way can only ever hope to sell a couple of hundred copies to a small pocket of readers. This suits the vanity presses just fine because, while the average book may only sell 200 copies, they have thousands of books on their POD and eBook lists and have automated the book publishing process to such a point that the cost per unit is minimal. Just like the original vanity publishers, their business model still relies on bringing in lots of authors, not selling lots of books by those authors.

Many vanity presses (for example Author Solutions and its myriad subsidiaries) make most of their profit by up-selling Marketing Packages to authors at high prices and dubious value (recall Yog’s Law). These should be avoided at all costs as they are exorbitantly expensive and simply do not work. If you are going to publish this way then you need to go into it with the understanding that vanity publishers are the book equivalent of sausage factories and your success is going to depend entirely on the quality of the content you put into the book before it is published and the level of marketing and publicity you can create once it’s available for sale.

As a former independent bookseller, online retailer and distributor, I have seen a number of vanity press books for sale in the general trade – typically being promoted and distributed by the author themselves. The number of books is still very small but growing and the printed quality of the books is now usually at a commercial standard (a professionally formatted book and cover image is absolutely crucial – I can’t stress this enough).

The biggest problem, however, is always pricing. If you are looking to sell the books yourself into bookshops or use a local distributor such as Brumby Books or Dennis Jones in Australia, then the cost price you pay for each copy from the publisher often pushes your RRP above that of similar books in the market. I have seen this repeatedly with books from companies such as Xlibris, Balboa Press, iUniverse, CreateSpace and others and it is one of the major reasons why I recommend you look for your own printing options and only turn to the vanity presses if you believe they will save you enough time and effort to make the extra costs worthwhile.

Most vanity publishers are based in the USA but there are a large number of Australian authors who have used them to good effect – although their sales are almost exclusively through Amazon. There are a number of excellent printers in Australia with high quality POD, including Griffin Press, McPhersons and a recently opened Australian branch of Lightning Source. Print prices are still much higher than in the USA but even so, it is well worth comparing some printing quotes from these local printers and compare them to the costs of the books you would have to buy from a vanity publisher to see which is your best option.

As you can see, you can get pretty tangled up these days trying to cut through the vanity publishing jungle but if you want to find out more information about vanity publishers and what to be wary of then I highly recommend the Writer Beware site run by Victoria Strauss and A.C. Crispin. Their blog post on Vanity Publishing and the fiery discussion that follows in the comments shows just how complicated and vexed this area has become. This site is worth bookmarking for the excellent advice it give on a whole range of issues for writers.

* A little caveat on Yog’s Law when considering Self Publishing: Remember that as a self publisher you are both author and publisher – sometimes the publisher part of you has to spend money so that money can eventually flow to the author part of you. It’s still very different to a vanity publisher where the author is asked to pay the publisher for services.

Go to:

Self Publishing Part 1
Self Publishing Part 2
Self Publishing Part 3
Self Publishing Part 4
Self Publishing Part 5
Self Publishing Part 6

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Categorised in: All Posts, How to Self Publish Series, Self Publishing

6 Responses »

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About Richard

Richard Bilkey has been selling, marketing and distributing books for over ten years, managing independent bookshops, a major online retailer and, most recently, one of Australia's largest Independent Book Distributors, Brumby Books.

Contact Richard directly at
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