HomeSelf-PublishingSelf-Publishing & Vanity Publishing: Confuse Them and Pay the Price


Self-Publishing & Vanity Publishing: Confuse Them and Pay the Price — 64 Comments

  1. I have gone both routes; traditional and self-publishing. With traditional publishing, you get the validation that “someone in the business” thought your work was good enough to put their time, money and effort into publishing it. In regards to self-publishing, I do all the work myself, or sub parts out. Editing is done by both my wife and my sister who does editing as part of her job. I format the interior myself for the print version, and either do the cover myself, or I sub it out to a graphic artist on Fiveer. For about $25 I can get a professional looking cover. After I’m ready, I use CreateSpace for distribution. For the eBook version, I use First Edition Design Publishing. They do everything; provide ISBN, formatting into EPub, Mobi, etc., provide worldwide distribution, and you keep 100% of royalties. (technically 96.75% as they take a nominal 4.25%) All for only $149.00. So, for basically $175.00 I can self-publish a book. However, what I have found out, is if you don’t have a marketing platform, you will not sell many books either way. Traditional publishers don’t do much marketing after the initial release of your book. So it’s up to you to market your book with a strong online presence. Because I left the marketing up to my traditional publishers, sales fell off drastically after the first year. Actually, I gain more sales from my self-published books than those of traditional publishing, and I earn much more in royalties going the self-publishing route. Either way it’s up to you to do the marketing for your book. Lastly…, to add to the theme of this article, stay away from vanity or subsidy publishers.

    • There’s the cheap way and the excellent way. You can typeset a book yourself if you study book typography. You can get a cheap cover on Fiverr if you have design training and you’re qualified to judge a design contest. Otherwise, you may not recognize cliché approaches or weak type choices. You can even find better and cheaper distribution than CreateSpace. You get free editing, but that isn’t the case for most people – and unless your editor knows your genre, what you;re getting is proofreading, an entirely different thing. As someone qualified to everything myself (except my own editing; nobody can do that), I’ll probably spend $1500 on my forthcoming book. I could do it a lot cheaper, but it wouldn’t meet my standards. By all means, save money – most books don’t sell – but don’t imagine you can produce a high-end book for $175. You get what you pay for.

  2. Great article, Dave… well-written, clear, and to-the-point.
    After much research, I decided to self-publish instead of traditional because I didn’t want a publishing house to “own” my work and perhaps change my title, create a book cover I was unhappy with, tell me to edit 20 pages out of my manuscript, etc. However, I ended up going with AQUABROOK PUBLISHING HOUSE. They accept maybe 20% of submitted manuscripts. With AQUABROOK, you own your ISBN number. However, like self-publishing, the author can choose to pay out-of-pocket for book design, editing, and marketing, or the author can chose to pay AQUABROOK for either editing, design, formatting, and/or marketing. The author opts to pay AQUABROOK for 1, 2, 3, or all 4 of their services. Or none. AQUABROOK pools these services and thus can get a discounted price. But you receive all book profits and you own your book. Is AQUABROOK PUBLISHING HOUSE Vanity publishing?

    • It’s reasonable to charge for editing, design etc. As long as AQUABROOK allows you to set your prices and doesn’t take a piece of each sale, they’re charging for legitimate author services. If they charge for services, but also take a piece of profit from each book, they’re double-dipping and are therefore a vanity press. There are hybrid models where the author services are discounted in exchange for a profit-share on sales. These can be legitimate, though they should be evaluated carefully. I come back to the definition of a publisher as “someone who takes a risk on a book.” Author services companies that assume no risk have no right to charge for services AND share profits.

  3. My name is Johnson Grace Maganja. I live in Kampala-Uganda.
    I am a journalist and book author. I work with Capital radio and write for The Observer newspaper in Kampala.
    I just wanted to thank you in a special way for your educative information i just read today 9th December, 2015 which you posted on 4th February, 2013 titled:
    Self-Publishing & Vanity Publishing: Confuse Them and Pay the Price.

    I have self-published 3 books so far and i can assure you that it’s the best way to go.

    You indeed have control over your ISBN, Book rights and all the other benefits that come along with it. Before i self-published many traditional publishing companies here in Kampala, tossed me up and down. It was too expensive for me to have them publish my books.

    I then decided to take control of my dream and destiny by taking the risk. It has really worked for me. The 3 books i have written are: 100 QUOTES THROUGH LIFE(Inspiration book), PASSAGE TO DESTINY(Fiction Novel) and THE ADVENTURES OF MAGANJO (A story book for children)

    I encourage everybody out there with a passion for writing not to be discouraged by the expensive Traditional Publishing houses. Follow your dream and passion. And indeed the way to go is SELF-PUBLISHING.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Johnson. You’re (mostly) right, but be aware that traditional publishers are quite different from vanity publishers. A traditional publisher pays you up-front for your work, assumes all the risk, and takes a loss if your book doesn’t sell. Traditional publishing houses charge nothing. Though I work primarily with self-publishers, I wouldn’t hesitate to encourage an author to find an agent and pursue a publishing contract if I thought a book was a potential mass-market product. However, I would always advise an author to steer clear of vanity presses. Especially as a journalist, be careful not to conflate trad publishing and vanity publishing; they’re as different as can be and the “expensive” ones you speak were not traditional publishers by definition.

      • True there’s a difference between Vanity press and Traditional publishing houses. But i am speaking through experience i know of a leading Traditional publishing House here in Kampala-Uganda that asked me to pay them money in order to get my book published by them. That was way back in 2011.

        • They may call themselves “traditional,” but publishing is a very old tradition. Traditionally, publishers pay authors to license their works. Subsidy publishers like to masquerade as traditional publishers, but that doesn’t make the wolf a sheep. I only give you pushback on this because I wouldn’t want readers of this blog to think of traditional publishers as either expensive or dishonest. Your operating concerns are 100% valid, but traditional publishing is not the problem.

  4. This article is a real bonus for me as I nearly parted with £700+ in my first instalment to one of the top three vanity self publishers, and literally had to fight my way out to withdraw from the conversation in order to take time out to think about it. When I made the 0800 call I was certain I knew what I was doing, but the more the senior publishing consultant spoke(from the Philippines) the more I realised that getting my money was his top priority before I put the phone down. Since I emailed to inform them I was not committing their response has been quite nasty and unrelenting in getting me to commit. They now want me to sleep on my decision. As a complete ‘newbie’ to publishing and writing my own book this has been a steep learning curve.

    • So sorry you got stuck in this tar pit. The good news is it just isn’t that difficult to learn what you need to know. You’ll find plenty of resources on this blog and others like it. Don’t get discouraged. You can publish exceptional books on your own without getting burned.

  5. How would you define a Print On Demand outfit that also distributes the books through their online store and can assist with obtaining the relevant resources required to get a book the book produced but does not take over ownership rights? (eg. They can assist with ISBN numbers, editors, artists, writers if it’s an artist looking to illustrate a story etc.) What do they come under?

    • It’s hard to tell – and I’m not sure the categorization is what’s important. You mention they can “assist with” ISBN numbers. Who owns the ISBN? The number owner is the publisher of record. Most vanity presses do not take “ownership rights” strictly speaking. They assure you that you can leave at any time. But they do own the cover art and the digital assets used to produce the book. If you leave, you get to start over with your manuscript in Word. Do you publish under their imprint or your own? Do you control seller commissions and prices or does the “publisher?” Does the “publisher” take a royalty on every book sold without taking any risk? There’s nothing wrong with selling books for people and there’s nothing wrong with charging for production services. There aren’t many worthwhile POD options out there so choose wisely. (I previously wrote “many” instead of “any.” Thanks for the correction, Joel.)

  6. I am totally confused – self publish, assist publish, vanity publishing – I am not sure which way to turn. Has anyone dealt with the Australian Self Publishing Group?

    • The article is quite clear about the differences but if you self-publish, be sure to get a good artist, editor, and typesetter. Your local self-publishing group may have good advice to offer, too.

  7. Wow! What a blog! Really good stuff – thank you……I have published my novel “Soulmate” on Kindle but will follow this for any hard copy publishing.

  8. Excellent article! I have published 4 books through the vanity publishing, no more! I’ll republish all of them myself as well as the other 15 or 20 that I have waiting.

  9. This information was invaluable. I just self-published on Lulu and although I don’t have huge inventory to worry about I do all the marketing. Marketing can be daunting and I find myself doing more of that then the creative process of writing books and blogs. I plug it on FB. But I also spend a lot of time listening to marketing webinars online that are often free. I can’t afford to hire a marketer but I really enjoyed all of the information here on this site.

  10. Loved the post, Dave. I agree we should be wary of vanity presses. At one stage in my writing life, I considered paying a VP to print a few hundred copies of my first novel and selling them myself at flea markets from the back of a van. Now I self-publish enovels on Amazon KDP and Smashwords and play the long game.

  11. I have used Google AdWords, Facebook, and Microsoft Bing advertising to good effect to promote my books, along with an aggressive social networking regimen. In the last 5 years, I estimate I have sold over 20,000 books (5 titles in paperback and Ebook versions). The cost of advertising during that period amounted to roughly $35,000, yielding about $25,000 in net profit (royalties).

  12. Good survey, but I consider myself self-published even though I accepted the offer of free IBSN from CreateSpace. If I had any reason to be dissatisfied, I could simply buy another ISBN and re-issue a new edition and print with another POD outfit. A friend of mine at first went with a published which made him pay so much per copy that he found even book signings unprofitable; he switched to CreateSpace and doesn’t care if they make a buck: after all, they invested in the printing equipment and allow him to but a copy for under $4. Amazon gets a cut for its store the way all other booksellers would.

  13. A fantastic and informative article that I will pass on to folks who ask me for advice. But fairy tales do come true, so here’s my story. With the help of a “book shepherd,” I started my own small press, Banot Press, to publish Volume 1 of my “Rashi’s Daughters” trilogy in 2005. In order to get distribution, I prepared a thorough marketing plan, a task that is even more important today. I started with a website and Yahoo group, but now I’ve added Google+, Facebook, Linked-In, Goodreads, and Amazon author pages. But those are passive efforts. I also actively sought out my target audience, Jewish women.

    To reach them, I joined every Jewish women’s organization I could find so I could: 1. get their magazines so I could send them review copies and take ads, and 2. approach their chapters and regions to speak at their meetings. Believe me, Hadassah and the like are much more likely to invite you to speak if you’re a life member. I offered to speak without a fee if I could sell books myself afterwards. Considering all the Jewish women’s groups, including synagogue Sisterhoods, who have monthly meetings and are desperate for free speakers, I had no shortage of invitations. In my first 18 months, I spoke at over 150 venues and sold over 25,ooo copies, all while still working at my day job.

    The big publishers keep track of such things, and when it came time for me to publish the second volume, there was a bidding war between Penguin, Harper Collins, and Crown for the trilogy. I sold out to Plume, a division of Penguin, for a six-figure advance and the rest is history. But I haven’t stopped promoting, and I have spoken at over 600 venues since I began my author career. Now that the first volume of my new series, “Rav Hisda’s Daughter,” is out, I have over 50 speaking gigs lined up for the first 6 months of 2013 and will soon be scheduling fall events. I invite folks to visit my website,, and check it out.

      • Magic is right! 25,000 books sold in 18 months at 150 speaking venues! Wow! That’s an average of 167 books per appearance and 8.3 speaking gigs per month!

        What is the estimated market size for these historical fiction books? And what in the world did those daughters of an 11th century Talmud scholar do that is so captivating to 21st century Jewish women? Also, what is the cost of the speaking tour? Finally, what is the book price?

  14. I have published two books with a vanity publisher (before I knew better). They did a good job in terms of cover and printing although the editing was left to me. They distributed the book to the usual range of distributors but did no marketing whatsoever. It cost me nearly £3000 for the first book and just over £2000 for the second. At the time I felt it was the worth the money to get started but I was wrong. I will never recoup that outlay, neither directly nor indirectly. Since then I have self-published three more books using Createspace at first (completely free) and then Lightning Source (a very modest fee £75-£100). If you have to do all the marketing yourself then you may as well go for the cheaper option. The quality of the books produced by Createspace and Lightning Source is excellent. It is not difficult to self-publish but it does entail some work. At least you then have control over the marketing, pricing and royalties. I would sooner pay £300 for a professional editor to look over my work before I publish it than pay out money to a vanity publisher who gives you very little in return and whose editing input is minimal.

    • Right niche, right time, and a lot of careful thought, planning, hard work and dedication. What entity printed your book on your first run? What one(s) would you suggest now for someone trying to do the same? I have a non-fiction work of art, poetry and prose niched to a certain target market. Am already associated with organizations around this. I have already paid for layout, design and editing. Will soon employ promotion and marketing help. My question is – who do I have print this for me to best retain my control and allow me to garner the most income – (proceeds from book will benefit a particular well-known organization)?

      Thank you

      • I personally use LightningSource. Others prefer Amazon’s CreateSpace. But explore your options carefully; publishing is a rapidly-changing field.

  15. Hello Dave,

    Awesome information.

    My contract for some of my books published with “Self-Publishing Companies” are up. I would like to now re-publish my own books without the services of those companies. I would like to redesign the covers, layouts, and get new ISBN numbers.

    How do I go about this and maintain distribution via amazon, B&N, Lighting Source, ebook ….?


    • I could pitch my services or offer excellent recommendations but before you spend any money, see what assets you can recover from your current publisher: image files, indesign files, etc. Then read this blog and buy a book or two on self-publishing. I’m partial to mine, but see what’s out there and buy a few. Also read Joel Friedlander’s blog. Get educated. Make informed decisions. Contact me offline if I can advise or assist.

  16. You missed the whole class of what is generally considered self publishing. Smashwords, Amazon KDP, B&N, iTunes, Lulu, and Createspace do not fit cleanly into your categories. Amazon, for instance, does not require an ISBN. Smashwords provides one for you, either for free or at a small charge. Lulu and Createspace deal in POD self-publishing, but the rights, price, and distribution are entirely selected by the author. True self-publishing as you label it, is an almost unknown thing. I am quite capable of turning any book into an ebook, but I don’t have to go to that effort thanks to the automated process these various distributors offer. For that is what they all are, distribution outlets for self published writers. They are not vanity publishers, which your definition would seem to partially fit.

    • You’re right. None of the booksellers and distributors you mention present themselves as PUBLISHERS—which is why they are not mentioned. True self-publishing is actually an increasingly common thing; hundreds of thousands of books are self-published every year. Service providers who sell editing packages and offer bundled ISBN numbers rip off thousands of authors every year. Read again. The article is quite clear about who vanity publishers are—companies that represent themselves as your publisher and then take a publisher’s royalty out of sales profits even though they take no risk. Smashwords, Amazon, et al take seller commissions—an entirely different thing than profit-skimming or rights-grabbing. Distributors and self-proclaimed “self-publishing companies” are entirely different entities.

  17. Sometimes there is a mixture of self and subsidized publishing as I have with my non-fiction book, which is coming out in paperback, March 1, 2013. I actually own the copyright because I self published the original manuscript as an e-book prior to getting a contract and then withdrew it from circulation following the start of the editing process with another company. The book has two ISBN numbers because the paper back edition is extensively revised with footnotes and new text that only appeared as in-text notes in the e-book. The 12 months of detailed editing easily used up any subsidy, but by then the publisher knew I was committed to completing a very difficult research level book. I am doing much of my own sales PR although the book is listed in the key spots for it to be noticed, as well as being in 4 formats of e-book by the publisher. I certainly agree that the system is hard to understand and has so many in’s and out’s that for those of us publishing once every 10 – 15 years, the changes in the game are mind boggling. I certainly appreciate your views and all the comments the other responders have made. You just have to keep following that star…. provided you can figure out what star it really is.

    • Thanks for checking in Richard. The eBook should have a separate ISBN from the paperback anyway; that’s standard protocol. If you got an editing package and held the contractor to it for a year, you’re a tough customer, good for you. Nice to see the players getting played.

  18. Dear Dave, what about marketing and Ads for self-publishing and publications in general? You did not touch this critical point. If you are a new author, How do you make your first book known? Social nets and other available tools are not creative and the return is low with a high cost.

    • Anyone who has a magic answer for those questions will be out yachting and probably won’t have time to keep up a blog like this. I’ve found plenty of ways NOT to do it—and I share those hoping they’ll spare my readers some grief. The fact remains that the secret formula—if there even is one—is different for every book. Many books were inspired by artistic impulses rather than business strategy. How much time do you want to spend trying to sell those? Probably not zero but it might be worth it to enter the casino with a fixed amount of money in your left pocket. Put winnings in your right pocket and then leave when the left pocket is empty. See Reality Checklist for Self-Publishers.

      By the way, my lousy Facebook advertising results are posted on this site.

    • Fernando, when you’re starting a new business, and you’re invisible, the impulse is to spend. The correct action is to serve. Generosity is the difference between continued anonymity and emergence.

      I wrote a post a while ago about the 6 stages every business goes through:

      It applies to the business of being an author, too.

      Another great tool to escape anonymity: write another book. And another one. Keep writing while you’re marketing.

  19. thank you for the explanation. I have decided to go for self-publishing and look around for the best price on printing. The marketing is the most challenging at this point any suggestions? Ebooks seem to be the way of the future.

    Some companies that offer all services end up cheating the writers, do you have a list of unethical companies to help people not fall into a publishing nightmare like my friend did. She ended up paying 100 for each book that she could sell of30.00 their price, then to re-print they took 75% then an additional fee for their company, she was left with less than 10% per book as they promised to issue checks.She paid for all the services.

  20. A very clear analysis, and guidelines for analysis of any hybrid likely to be encountered. Having entirely self published a genre book ( Purchased ISBNs, set up imprint and logo, and all the design elements contracted) I now face the yawning abyss of anonymity and marketing. One thing nobody mentioned was that as a one or two book publisher you cannot get ‘enhanced listing’ with Nielsen’s (the UK equivalent of Bowkers, which displays the blurb, author bio, reviews and cover picture)) unless you pay a minimum ( equivalent to 15 books)! This could be an additional argument for co-publishing with an established publisher and, as an author, financing or helping to finance the possible risk. You also cannot get listed at the principal distribution wholesaler. In short the odds remain stacked against the new and genuine self publishing author. POD may make books available but never found, and more expensive than short run digital, so yes no longer books to pulp…but probably a beautifully designed book unlikely to be printed too.

    I looked at every alternative: one very ‘reputable’ publisher ‘grades’ books according to likely market and asks the author to subsidize set up costs but holds the ISBNs and the copyright anyway, and decides whether to ebook but retains the rights whether used or not! Another claims to ‘select’ but to get any ‘marketing help demands the printing and storage of 500. Yet the marketing is undefined!

    I am sure the gap must be filled by some kind of co-publishing arrangement, which will mean selective independent publishers taking less risk and matching the author’s input with their marketing input. That would seem a fair distribution of energy.

    • I don’t believe big publishing houses have any need for self-publishers other than to sponge money by selling them false prestige. If Penguin wanted my book, they’d represent me. The whole co-publishing things smacks of euphemism. The “gap” is filled by those few writers who find alternative income sources, direct exposure to niche audiences, and clever marketing strategies. Most of the rest will sell very few books, even if they can get “deluxe” Nielsen listings.

      See my recent post Reality Checklist for Self-Publishers. Don’t buy tons of extras or special marketing packages. Do what you can to get a great book out without getting fleeced. Spend time and money on marketing if it makes sense. Congratulate yourself on having joined the ranks of the extraordinary people who have written a book. Then follow through on a rock solid business plan or move on.

  21. Thanks for these valuable insights. I am working on getting my first self published book out into the world and have looked at some ‘do it all for you’ services. I will ask about any additional commission they may take.

  22. Dave, I have a question about this sentence:

    “In true self-publishing, the ISBN number may belong to the author or to the author’s imprint; it certainly does not belong to a third party.”

    Is this more than semantics? Obviously, “self” means self, so if someone else owns part of the process, it’s not “true self-publishing.” But are there tangible benefits to owning the ISBN rather than using a free ISBN from a POD service?

    • Semantics? Partially. My ISBN numbers belong to Essential Absurdities Press—which is wholly owned by me. If you deal with a 3rd party, the ISBN Number will define them as the “official” publisher. If that 3rd party is reputable and doesn’t skim profits without assuming risk, the difference will be just that—semantics. But if you contract someone to be your publisher, a number of potential traps are possible regarding copyright, ownership of files, etc.

      After posting this article, I was contacted by one subsidy publisher who claimed that her book clients publish under her imprint, but only to facilitate her management of the printing and distribution. She takes no additional royalties. So here’s an instance where paying someone to be your publisher may work out fine. I have to admit that’s a valid service—even one worth charging a small fee for. I have one book client who published under my LSI account. Separating her book sales from mine every quarter is a RFPIA (pain in the butt) and I have to send PayPal payments, etc. But that did save her from having to establish a business entity so she could open an account.

      I’m also wary of too much religious adherence to “self” in self-publishing. Let self be the primary decision maker and risk taker, but avoid self-designing and typesetting unless you have design experience. Avoid self-editing at all costs.

      Joel, thanks for your always-excellent questions and participation on this site. You’re always welcome here.

      • Clear and complete answer; thanks, Dave. Sounds like we’re on the same page. I’m looking for the decider, the bit that helps me advise my publishing clients who are trying to balance a limited budget with producing the best quality book they can. For most of them, I recommend using the free ISBNs because in their big picture, they’re losing almost nothing.

        But I’ve always been honest that, for myself, I’m a bit obsessive about the “self” part (often to an unhealthy degree) so I’ll keep buying blocks of 10 from Bowker.

        • Bowker’s money printing scheme is another topic altogether. ISBN numbers are free in many countries but Bowker has control of a product that every U.S. writer needs. It costs them zip to manufacture it, yet they sell it for a pretty piece of change.

          • But at least they’re unfriendly and slow.

            Okay, maybe just my contact there. But the tools and service are enough to signal “monopoly” just like the phone service in the small town in Texas where I lived (and, in fact, the giant town in California where I lived.)

            I haven’t checked to see if ISBNs are free in Ireland. Another good reason for me to move there.

  23. Author leave out co-publishing the up and happening approach that is helping authors and publishers, both. It has always been difficult to make a profit in publishing because the cost is high and most books don’t sell through – sell out the print run, i.e., don’t break even!!! And these days it si even harder to make a buck in books – and book selling is moving OUT of the bookstore.

    Co-publishing is good for authors because the author partners with a “real” established publisher – and participates in every step of the process – hands-on. And yes, the author turned publisher also participates in the cost – and get more of the pie from each book sales.

    What is MOST important in co-publishing is the publisher’s distribution – how will the publisher get your book to the marketplace – and where is that marketplace. Do they have a LIVE personal Sales Team that goes into the stores and pitches your book? Or do they just list it is the usual place – passively list it and tell you that that is distribution – you, the naive author, becoming naive publisher.

    There are more and more traditonal publishers offering co-publishing contracts.

    • “Co-publishing” sounds like other new terms—like “assisted self-publishing.” The assumption is that the “established partner” is “real,” and the author, alone, is not “real.” Big publishers don’t need self-publishers; they have no incentive to lend their credibility to authors of books they don’t actually represent. If Penguin books isn’t interested in publishing my work, why would they be interested in co-publishing it? The endeavor creates a legion of “second chance,” “consolation prize” books that won’t get bookstore distribution.

      Any partner who takes a piece of the sales pie will, by mathematical definition, diminish the author’s take. You suggest that because the author finances production, the “co-publisher” takes less risk and therefore less of a royalty; that may be true in some cases but it isn’t the norm. Writers get hosed by vanity presses every day. As for the marketplace, any POD publisher will get you passive distribution (as you say). Bookstores are a highly competitive arena even for big publishers—and bookstores are closing everywhere; I’d be impressed with any small publisher who could get you bookstore space without having you finance the graft up-front.

      Certainly, there are services that will assist with production and also handle the distribution and financial management chores that normally fall to a publisher. Technically, this is subsidy publishing, but then again, technically, it’s not. The article specifically does not name names—even for popular and reputable providers. Honest and dishonest publishing services exist of every stripe; authors are advised to understand the publishing ecosystem, read the small print, ask their peers, do their research, read the small print again, and make informed decisions on a case-by-case basis.