Simply put, a vanity press, also known as a vanity publisher or subsidy publisher, is a publishing house in which authors are required to pay to have their books published.
A traditional press typically pays the author an advance and covers publishing costs.
The Difference Between a Vanity Press and Traditional Press
There are a few distinct differences that set these two forms of publication apart:
- Traditional presses typically cover all the costs of publication (editing, design, marketing, printing, etc.). Vanity presses require the author to cover all or most of the publication costs.
- Traditional presses are highly selective with the projects they take on, as they expect books to sell enough copies to cover their costs and still make a profit. Vanity presses publish most or all of the books submitted to them, as long as the author is willing to pay.
Which Form of Publication is Better?
This depends on what you’re looking to get from publication. Do you want a book to share with your friends and family? Are you trying to win awards? Do you want to sell your book in stores? Do you just want to get your art out into the world? There are many questions to consider.
Pros and Cons of Vanity Presses
- Shorter publishing process: From submitting your manuscript to the book’s release, publishing with a vanity press generally moves far more quickly than it does with a traditional press. You can see your finished product within months, whereas with a traditional press, it could be years before the book ends up in your hands.
- More author control over the project: Vanity presses are usually more willing to listen to your input than a traditional press, since you’re a paying customer. Don’t like the font? They’ll change it. Hate the cover design? They’ll make a new one. Vanity presses put the author first and the book second.
- Tons of help: Navigating the publishing process is tricky. There are so many things to keep track of and learn (formatting, proofreading, editing, cover design, book promotion, etc.) Publishing isn’t as simple as slapping a bunch of pages together and stapling them together, if it was, vanity presses wouldn’t exist, because everyone would just self-publish.
On the other hand, getting a manuscript accepted by a traditional publisher is even more difficult. Traditional presses receive hundreds or even thousands of manuscripts a year and are usually only able to publish a handful.
Vanity presses offer the same services as traditional presses without the added difficulty of competing for acceptance.
- Too much author control: This is a con as much as it is a pro. If your goal is to have a New York Times bestseller, you should probably put more trust into a traditional press than a vanity press. A traditional press puts the book first rather than the author’s opinions.
- Less prestige and lower reputation: If you want respect in the literary world (translation: if you want respect from old men in stuffy suits) avoid vanity presses at all costs!
To be clear, I think it’s absolutely silly that the literary community looks down on vanity publishing and self-publishing. I think every form of publication has value, however, the literary community hasn’t caught up. If you want your book to be eligible for awards or sold in mainstream brick-and-mortar stores, you will almost certainly have to use a traditional press.
- Low-quality product: Now, this point is hit-and-miss. Some vanity publishers put their all into making your book the best it can be. Unfortunately, some rotten apples tarnish the overall reputation of vanity presses by churning out bad-quality products (books falling apart after one reading, cover images smudging off, typos galore, etc). It’s imperative that you do thorough research when it comes to selecting a press.
- High costs: You must be prepared to shell out some cash when it comes to publishing with a vanity press. These costs can range anywhere from a few hundred to tens of thousands of dollars. Although it may be expensive, it’s important to note that vanity presses will generally help you market and promote your book, which you wouldn’t get if you decided to just self-publish your book on the cheap.
Pros and Cons of Traditional Presses
- More prestige: Remember the old men in stuffy suits I mentioned earlier? They hold a lot of influence in the literary community. If you want to be the next Pulitzer Prize winner, you have to pay attention to what the literary community wants. Unfortunately, they don’t want vanity press or self-published books. They demand traditionally published books.
If you want to make a career of creative writing, you should always aim for traditional publishing, as it will garner you far more respect than alternative publishing methods.
- Free: With traditional publishing, you can expect to be paid an advance, a portion of royalties, and several free copies of your book, or some combination of these things. You don’t have to pay the publisher anything. If a press asks you to pay them, than it is not a traditional press. However, if a press asks you to pre-sell a certain number of copies as a condition for publication, it can still be considered traditional, as they’re not asking you to spend money.
- Specialized care: Traditional presses have reputations to uphold. They don’t just accept anything that comes through their doors, and when they’ve found something worth publishing, they dedicate a lot of time and care to ensure the finished product impresses readers, critics, and the author. Staff members are often published authors themselves, and have extensive knowledge about writing, marketing, and business, whereas vanity press teams may be more focused on just the business aspect of publishing.
- Long process: When you submit your manuscript to a traditional press, expect several months for a response. On the tiny chance that your manuscript is accepted, expect the publishing process to take several months. Once the book is ready to be published, expect to wait several more months for the book release. The entire process can take more than a year.
- Less author control: Traditional presses want to please the author, but they also want to ensure the book sells as many copies as possible. So, be prepared for some of your thoughts to be vetoed. You may not end up with the cover you really wanted. One of your favorite poems or chapters might end up being removed from the book or so heavily edited that it doesn’t feel like you even wrote it. But it’s also important to trust that the press will do the right things to give your book the best chance to survive out in the world.
- Highly selective: Have you heard Harry Potter was rejected 12 times before a publisher picked it up? This is the norm. One of the bestselling book series of all time was rejected by 12 publishers. Your book might have bestselling potential too, but presses have very picky editors.
When you submit your book to a traditional press, your manuscript competes with hundreds or thousands of other manuscripts. In the end, only a few will be chosen for publication. It can end up being a time-consuming, frustrating, sometimes downright devastating process to face rejection over and over again.
Think about what you want to gain from publication. Is it just a book? Or the potential fame and fortune that can come with it? Or, perhaps, respect from the English professor who gave you a C- in college?
Your reasons for wanting publication should determine the form of publishing you decide on. If it’s just a book you want, self-publishing can accomplish that. If you want a book to share with your loved ones and maybe make a few bucks online, vanity publishing may be the way to go. If you want to become the next Stephen King, traditional publishing is probably the right path.
I’m not here to tell you to pick one form over the other. Your reasons are your own. Whatever route you take, if it feels right, it’s right!