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This question came up on the pros and cons of publishing avenues question; when I tried to look it up, I found the results confusing.

For example, SFWA's explanation of publishing types gives the following distinction:

A vanity publisher prints and binds a book at the author's sole expense. Costs include the publisher's profit and overhead, so vanity publishing is usually a good deal more expensive than self-publishing. The completed books are the property of the author, and the author retains all proceeds from sales. Vanity publishers may exclude objectionable content such as pornography, but otherwise do not screen for quality.

Self-publishing, like vanity publishing, requires the author to bear the entire cost of publication, and also to handle all marketing, distribution, storage, etc. However, rather than paying for a pre-set package of services, the author puts those services together himself. Because every aspect of the process can be out to bid, self-publishing can be much more cost effective than vanity publishing; it can also result in a higher-quality product. Completed books are owned by the author, who keeps all proceeds from sales.

The page also contains a recent amendment to the "vanity" tag:

A vanity publisher relies on its authors as its main source of income–whether by charging fees for publication or other services, or requiring authors to buy or pre-sell their own books. There’s little if any meaningful quality screening, and adjunct services (editing, marketing, and/or distribution) are generally minimal or of dubious value. A vanity publisher claims various rights by contract, and owns the ISBN. Payment to the author is in the form of a royalty or a percentage of profits.

Wikipedia's attempt at distinction is similarly vague:

With vanity publishing, the author will pay to have their book published. Since the author is paying to have the book published the book doesn't go through an approval or editorial process as it would in a traditional setting where the publisher takes a financial risk on the author's ability to write successfully. Editing and formatting services may or may not be offered and they may come with the initial publishing fee (or more correctly, printing fee) or might be offered at an additional cost.

Self-publishers undertake the functions of a publisher for his or her own book. The classic "self-publisher" writes, edits, designs, lays out, 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 distinction between self-publishing and vanity publishing is less obvious than it once was.

What I'm getting from all this is somewhere between:

  1. A vanity publisher offers a combined bundle of services for self-published authors, whereas a "pure" self-publisher might choose services from several different venues,
  2. A vanity publisher is a skeevy self-publishing service.

Both of these seem to me merely particular subsets of self-publishing services, rather than an inherently different mode of publishing. E.g., for the purposes of the pros/cons question, a vanity publisher would be considered by exactly the same guidelines as any other self-publishing service (pertinent questions including "Do I trust them to do good job with my work?" and "Is the price they're offering me fair for the services they're providing?").

Is there a clear-cut distinction, or is "vanity publishing" just a pejorative for the bad end of self-publishing?

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3 Answers

up vote 12 down vote accepted

What you're observing is a sea change in values and perceptions in the publishing industry, which has caused the distinction between "vanity publishing" and "self-publishing" to become very murky. This is important because "vanity publishing" did and does carry a heavy stigma, while "self-publishing" is on the road to respectability.

Until pretty recently, anyone taking your money to publish your book was a vanity publisher. Vanity publishers were all scams, in that they took your money on the (implicit) promise that you had a chance to make it back from book sales, but in practice no one ever did. Furthermore, the vanity publisher had no interest in helping you sell your book, because they got their money from bilking the authors, not from selling books.

Self-publishing, meanwhile, was about equally likely to fail, but as there was no middle-man the people who tried it were merely fools, not victims of a scam.

In the past ~5 years, mostly due to the rise of e-books, self-publishing has become a plausible path to success. Lots of people are making small but respectable sums e-publishing, and a handful of people have made it big. As a result, we're now seeing "self-publishing services" which attempt to help people self-publish by doing some or all of the work that a "pure" self-publisher has to do for themself. And here's where it gets complicated: strictly speaking the business model of the self-publishing services is identical to the business model of the vanity press. But the self-publishing services desperately want to be seen as part of the legitimate self-publishing ecosystem, and not as another scam.

So the terminological conclusion that you're seeing is due to self-publishing services and the people who use them trying to disassociate themselves from the old vanity publishers. However, your basic observation is correct: there is no hard line between self-pub services and vanity presses.

That said, I think there is a significant difference between the presentation and implicit promises made to the author between these two groups. A classic vanity publisher pretends to actually be a publisher, as in an entity that actually makes its money from selling books. There existed the impression--disavowed in the fine print, of course--that your book would be professionally edited, that the publisher could actually get your book into stores, that your book would be "published" in the usual sense. Honest self-pub services do not claim to be publishers, and are very forthright about the set of services they're offering (cover design, typesetting, etc.) and more importantly what they're not offering (marketing, placement in brick-and-mortar stores, etc.)

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I think Vanity Publishing has gotten a bad reputation because so many of the companies involved in it use really nasty business practices, up to and including outright lying. I have no personal experience, but Absolute Write has some horror stories about Publish America and, with a slight twist, Writers' Literary, which seems to call itself an agency but also includes a vanity publishing aspect in many of its apparent scams. Maybe there are some legit vanity publishers out there, people who make sure their clients understand what they're getting, but the field is definitely muddied.

So, I guess you're right, in that the services provided don't really vary between vanity presses and self-publishing. The difference is that some/many/most vanity publishers promise something more. Which makes sense, kind of. They need to justify the fees they charge somehow. So they'll say they do a lot of promotion, or that they can get books into the big distribution systems. They'll pretend the books they publish have been 'selected', when in fact they accept and print everything. They'll promise editing, and not deliver. Etc.

So, as far as I can see, vanity presses do no more than self-publishing, but they promise more, and they charge writers for the privilege of being lied to.

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So what would a "legit vanity publisher" be, and would such an entity be distinct from self-publishing? –  Standback Aug 21 '11 at 13:23
I think they'd just do what they promise. They couldn't have much of a selection process, because that would just make them regular publishers, but they could provide quality editing and cover art, good promotion and as much distribution as is possible. So, to make an analogy to renovating a house - the homeowners (writer) can do a lot of the work themselves, and can contact tradespeople independently for the specialty jobs. Or the homeowners can hire a general contractor to take care of all that for them. The general contractor will take a significant fee for the service, but that's fair. –  Kate Sherwood Aug 21 '11 at 13:37
So, if legitimate vanity publishers exist (apparently $4 000 is the standard price for a lot of these places, and it's hard to imagine that being a legitimate price for what they are able to provide), they're just coordinating things. But possibly the term is too value-laden. I'm not sure any publishers call themselves Vanity Publishers. It may just be a term used by others as a way to criticize their work/ethics. –  Kate Sherwood Aug 21 '11 at 13:41
OK, that makes sense. What about the other way? If I offer authors a package deal of, say, copyediting, cover design, e-distribution and POD+delivery - does that mean I'm a vanity publisher? –  Standback Aug 21 '11 at 13:56
I don't know. Like I said, it's a value-laden term. So I don't think you'd call yourself that -- maybe you'd say you were a self-publishing service, or something? But I can see other people calling you that. I'm really not sure if they'd be right to do it, though, if you were being honest with your authors. –  Kate Sherwood Aug 21 '11 at 14:21
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I think JSBᾶngs’s last paragraph nailed it, but to add to the confusion let me show a German perspective:

People in the whole world "love" German for its ability to construct long names. A vanity publisher is a Druckkostenzuschussverlag (Druck-Kosten-Zuschuss-Verlag).

That’s a print-cost-subsidy-publisher. The writer subsidizes the publisher to print his book and sell it in stores (what will never happen; book stores don't take vanity press books).

The fraud here is obvious if you know where the German word "Verlag" (publisher) comes from. It is derived from "vorlegen" which means "advancing money".

So by definition the Verlag advances the money. The Verlag pays the cost. The publisher takes the risk, not the writer. So a vanity publisher is lying to the writer, because he tells him, that the writer has to pay money. He does not.

If you self-publish, the writer still does not pay the money. The publisher does. The difference is, that the publisher and the writer are the same person. That's not true for vanity publishing.

Most self-publishers need help to publish their books. So they ask publishing service providers. Are these different from vanity publishers? Are security companies different from Mafia families? There are black sheep all over the place.

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It's derived from "vorlegen"? I always thought it was derived from "verlegen". Which has nothing to do with money. To quote Wikipedia: citation needed. –  Jürgen A. Erhard Aug 21 '11 at 21:50
@Jürgen A. Erhard - I can't speak for German, but the Swedish word "förlag" (cognate to "Verlag") does indeed have a connotation of advancing money (or, rather, pay for the initial publishing run). –  Vatine Aug 22 '11 at 7:39
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