I am going to preface this blog by saying firstly, I am no expert. And secondly, I know people who have used vanity publishers. Writing a book is a huge achievement and I am not taking anything away from people who may have used vanity publishers (either knowingly or unknowingly). For me, after learning about them (and hearing first hand stories), it was something I wanted to avoid. As with everything in life, there are better and worse vanity publishers.
When I first started venturing into the idea of publishing my vision, I kept coming across a term - vanity publishing. But I wasn't sure what it was and how it was different to self publishing.
Vanity publishers (and there are many!) ultimately charge you to publish. Now you may think that this is no different to self publishing - there are a lot of costs involved. However, there are some key differences.
The thrill of writing a book and getting it published is brilliant. But wouldn't it be nice to get money for our labours?
As well as charging a fee for publishing, vanity publishers will take a cut of your sales so ultimately, you'll make less per book and have forked out a large sum to start with.
⭐Quality Of Product
When self publishing, you have creative control - size, paper quality, finish, binding. You would think that after you've given them a sum of money to a publisher, you'd get a quality product back - after all they are publishers and know the industry... right?
Unfortunately, this is often not the case. Many of the books I have seen from vanity publishers just don't match up to other books. There are two major issues I have seen:
Quality of materials: they can be flimsy, poorly made and look cheap.
Size of the books: although there is a lot of variation in picture book size, there is definitely a too small mark. The books I've seen often fall into this category.
So why are these things issue? Well, selling at events and face to face, you'll likely be charging the same amount as other picture books (the price set by the publisher) but readers (parents!) might be reluctant to part with money for a book that looks and feels so different than other picture books. Also, if you want to get your book into shops, bookshops will be reluctant to stock books that don't sit well with other books on their shelf (and look like they might get lost!).
One advantage of having a publisher, as opposed to self publishing, is having that champion for your book. With traditional publishing, someone else has invested in your book (and you!) so they want it to be a success to make their money. This means they will work hard to your book to a wider audience.
With vanity publishing, they have already made their money with the upfront fees so you'll find they have very limited interest in helping with the marketing and after sales. Frustrating when you are already a few grand down and need to sell books to make it back!
You may think that is is no different to self publishing, and you're right but the big difference is you've known about that from the start (and have hopefully planned for it!), have a superior product and earn more per book for each sale.
✅Owning The Rights
Do check any contracts carefully. With self publishing, you own the rights to your book and can print as many as you like when you like. With vanity publishers, they may own the rights to the book but they may also limit the print runs - meaning if you want some author copies, you could have a minimum order with a hefty price tag. If you do manage to get an author event, you don't want to find that you aren't able to get hold of books from the publisher to sell!
How Can You Spot Them?
It can be a minefield looking to publish but fear not! There are some things you can do to avoid being caught out.
I'd highly recommend buying the Writers Yearbook which has a huge list of reputable publishers. (However, not all publishers are listed here).
If a publisher comes up on a Google search as a sponsored ad, alarm bells should be ringing. Publishers are inundated with manuscripts - the don't need to advertise on Google to receive submissions!
If you do send off a story somewhere and do hear back, look out for tell-tale languages in the email. Words like 'hybrid', 'collaboration' and 'fees' should make you wary. (note: there are companies that you can pay to help you self publish. These are not vanity publishers. Vanity publishers require money to be the publishers, not help you self publish (with you as the publisher)).
I fell foul of sending off a story to a vanity publisher few years ago. Here's the emails I received from them:
Notice how they haven't used the title of my manuscript in this email. It is also unusual to enquire about sourcing own illustrations. As I've joined more groups and spoken to others, this is actually a generic email that is sent out to almost everyone - even people who have presented their story in spreads with illustration notes!
This email answered none of the questions I had posed and the language they used made it feel like they didn't really care which route I chose. A publisher should work with you and answer an questions or queries you have. I was also alarmed that I could source my own illustrator and pay them then not be offered a 'traditional' contract. Ultimately, I left this without much further interaction. Once I voiced my concerns, I was ghosted.
Writing a book is a huge achievement. You should be really proud. I was elated to receive my first email that wasn't a rejection and it would have been easy to be swept up into the thrill of it all. You want to give your book (and you!) the best chance of succeeding so we need to get a bit savvy to make sure we are not taken advantage of.