Skip to Content

Vanity Publishing | Inside Publishing


Vanity Publishing

Chris Holifield 2017

It is natural for writers to be eager to get published but it pays to be wary of the vanity publishers who will take your money and give you very little in return. The term ‘vanity’ was coined by campaigner Jonathan Clifford in 1959 to cover this kind of activity where the author is effectively conned into paying over a sometimes quite substantial sum by the publisher’s willingness to publish their book. Once the money is handed over, the publisher produces the book, but often very little is done to market it and the sales can be minuscule.

How can you tell whether a publisher who is enthusiastic about your work is really a vanity publisher or the genuine article? Vanity publishers describe their activities as ‘subsidy’ or ‘partnership’ publishing. They often advertise for manuscripts, which no genuine publisher would do. In fact, publishers are deluged with unsolicited manuscripts and have no shortage of material submitted to them.

There are also hybrid or subsidy publishers, who suffer from the same drawbacks.

The real giveaway though is that you should not be paying a publisher to bring out your work (this is not the same as self-publishing). Genuine publishers make their money from selling books, so they have to select the books they take on to achieve that end. They must be sure they can make money through publishing a book, ie cover the costs of any editorial work, publication, production, sales and distribution, as well as making a contribution to their own overheads, and still make a profit on the individual project.

The simplest way of detecting a vanity publisher is that they will ask you to finance the cost of publishing your own book. Traditionally the sums involved have often been in the region of £3,000 ($4,705), which will usually include undertaking to print a set number of books. It can also be hard to be sure that the publisher actually does print the numbers of books they say they are going to. The real problem though is that it’s even harder to detect whether or not any effort is made to promote and sell your book. It is genuinely difficult to market unknown authors, so the vanity publishers, along with other publishers, certainly would find this hard going. The problem though is that they con you into thinking that they will. They undertake to achieve a certain amount of publicity and sales - and then don’t. By then the author has signed the contract and paid over their money, so even if they are unhappy there is little that can be done about it.


A rather less unpleasant form of vanity publishing is when the author is expected to contribute to having their work placed in an anthology, sometimes through buying books but also possibly through an upfront payment. Although it is unwise to assume that the publisher really is as enthusiastic about your work as they say they are, there’s no real harm in getting involved in one of these projects if you understand what is going on and want to see your work in the anthology – provided of course that the cost is something you are prepared to pay. Don’t forget though that this approach will affect the quality of the book as a whole, and you may not be happy with the other material in the anthology.


A clear distinction should also be drawn between vanity publishing and self-publishing, where the author finances the publishing of their own book. The author needs to understand that it will be down to them as the self-publisher to promote and sell it. The good thing about self-publishing is that it is very much cheaper than vanity publishing, as it generally uses print on demand and books are only produced when they are required. Equally importantly, the author is in charge and keeps all their rights. This means that they continue to control their own destiny and are not at the mercy of a possibly crooked publisher.

There are many ways of self-publishing your own book and this is to be recommended if you really want to see it in print and would prefer not to fall into the clutches of the vanity presses. Self-publishing will also be cheaper.

So, in conclusion, watch out for the vanity presses, who seek to take your money and offer you very little in return. If you want to read up on this subject, Jonathan Clifford is the acknowledged expert and his website has more specific information. His free Advice Pack gives more detail about this and he will send it to you if you simply email him with your address.

Inside Publishing - our 19-part series for writers

Self-publishing, Vanity Publishing and Private Publishing

Jonathan Clifford’s site


Chris Holifield