May 25 2013

Assisted Self-Publishing, Vanity or Subsidy Publishing’s Bad Rep


What is Vanity, Subsidy and Assisted Self-Publishing?

The first thing you hear people say when the topic of vanity publishing comes up is “You shouldn’t have to pay to be published.”

Simply put, that is the definition of Assisted, Vanity and Subsidy Publishing, and it goes by many other names (co-op, partner, joint-venture, equity publishing, etc.). When you pay an establishment to publish your book, that establishment is a vanity publisher. You pay them to format, design, edit and distribute your book either as an e-book and/or in print.

The quote above can be rather ambiguous because, technically, you pay to be published even if it’s vanity, traditionally or indie. There’s always a price. Not necessarily monetary. You’re still expected to do most of the marketing, promoting (you need a website, and a little swag to giveaway, etc.). No matter how you choose to publish, it all requires money at one point in the process. The goal is to make back what you put in.

You must invest if you want a return. You have to put money in if you want to get money out. That’s an unwritten rule, I’m sure.

So what’s the big deal?

The problem with vanity publishing isn’t paying to be published. I mean, we say that, but that’s not the core issue. I think the REAL problem is:

  1. Most of the time, vanity presses publish anything. No editing, no polishing, not even a good story is required. Not only will they publish anything, they still get a cut of your earnings while charging crazy fees.
  2. Some vanity presses are misleading and pretend to be traditional publishers.
  3. You don’t go through a slush pile. There’s rarely an editor to reject you, making publishing less selective.

Some of those issues apply to true self-publishing too, but the difference between Vanity Publishing and true Self-Publishing is with Vanity Publishing you pay the vanity publisher (sometimes thousands of dollars), expecting the “publisher’s credible name” to back you and your work, and expecting professional guidance. When what you usually get is; you tell them what you want, you pay, they provide, and hit publish. And off your book goes, out into the world, but not necessarily giving its best first impression and not without leaving you broke.

Sure, you can pay extra (up to thousands of dollars) for a series of edits and a smoking hot custom book cover, and it’s great if in your marketing plan, you estimate a return of your investment within a year or two. Great! Good for you. Really, I’m not knocking vanity published authors, especially if you went into the deal with all your questions answered and a clear head. (Unlike I did.)

However, a lot of writers are sucked in by vanity publishing and have no clue what a decent marketing plan is or even what they should expect to sell in the first year of being published, let alone who they’re aiming to sell to (their target audience). After vanity publishing my first book (many, many years ago), it sat on Amazon and sold an average of 4 e-books a month. Yeah, newbie. Why is this? Because vanity publishers mostly target newbies, amateurs, beginners, who just want to see their book published.

And like I said, there’s no harm if this is something you want to do. By all means, have at it. But there are some things other than “paying to be published” that gives vanity publishing a bad rep.

Why so negative?

Now I’ll state again, most vanity publishers operate a legitimate business, so I am not knocking those who choose this route of publishing. Hey, my first four books were published by a vanity press. Which is where my firsthand knowledge (and the sour taste in my mouth) come from. Still, here are some reasons vanity presses have a stigma attached to them.

  1. A lot of vanity presses disguise themselves as traditional publishers.
  2. Misleading about the deals they offer.
  3. High pressure, spammy emails, unsolicited phone calls, flyers and brochures sent to your physical mailbox, all trying to “sale” you on submitting your manuscript or to publish with them again.
  4. You pay for most of the expenses which are usually “extras” and not included in the main package, including edits, custom book cover design, formatting, addition of interior pictures, edits after a certain stage, (and even other random fees) and they still offer you a low percentage on your book’s earnings.
  5. Hidden fees. Ridiculous charges.
  6. Unfulfilled promises. Broken marketing promises, missing royalty checks, copies of books not received, etc.

Here’s a highly detailed and in-depth article from Science Fiction writers of America on vanity, subsidy, and self-publishing. If you’re looking for more information, check out that link.

Now, in all fairness, some good books, authors and careers have come from the vanity publishing mill. So, once again, this could be the perfect route for you. Just make sure you know all the details before signing by the X.

What’s on your mind? Leave a comment below and share it.


Image credit: Hash Milhan

About the author

Leslie Lee Sanders

Leslie is a publishing Industry blogger, freelance writer and an author of over a dozen erotic romance & thriller titles. She self-published over two dozen works of fiction since 2004. Her blog was a finalist in the first annual Goodreads Independent Book Blogger Awards in 2012, and her story Benefits of Sharing is a finalist for the 2013 EPIC Award in the short story category. Her work has been included in the following Writer’s Market books: 2016 & 2017 Writer’s Market, 2016 & 2017 Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market, and the 2014 & 2015 editions of Guide to Self-Publishing. As well as online blogs like Be a Freelance Blogger. She resides in Arizona with her husband and 3 daughters.


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  1. Jaimi

    I am a “newbie” author as you call it, and am severely technologically challenged. Everything I have read so far is anti-vanity and pro self publishing. However, for me, it is not really an option. Since I do not know what I am doing, and my website is “a work in progress” because I am doing it alone, makes self publishing an almost impossible task for me to phantom. I have tried several times to publish the traditional way, but with no luck. I truly believe in my stories (Children’s Picture Books) and have the perfect audience in mind. I know who I want to market to and where I need to go to get my books sold. Now, it is a matter of where I get them published.

    From all that I read thus far, there are no rules. Everything article contradicts another, sometimes in the same article. So, my head is spinning and my stomach is in knots. You say in your article that you should “know the details”. What are the details? What should be the red flags and how would I know. I have read that self publishing can also be pricey. Since I am not computer savvy formatting and scanning illustrations are way over my head. This would mean I would have to hire someone for that too. All that being said, I would like to know what questions do I need to ask a vanity publisher to ensure that I will not be taken to the bank? I look forward to hearing from you, and appreciate your time in this matter.


    Jaimi Ilama

    1. Leslie Lee Sanders

      Hello Jaimi. First, thanks for visiting my website and for commenting. I would love to help you get on the right track with publishing, no matter which direction you choose to take.

      To answer your question. In general, the questions you should ask a subsidy publisher depends on what your goals are. The right answers should help you get closer to accomplishing those goals.

      More specifically, make sure you know what is required of you to get published, and the role they’ll play in helping you reach your goals. What are you paying for? How much does everything cost (everything as in; edits, book formatting, cover art, and even if they will charge you to make changes after the final stage of editing)? How many “free” images are included in the book? Is there a price difference for color photos or grey scale? Ask what you should expect throughout the entire process? Turnaround time? Royalties? What rights will they require and for how long? Most of these questions should be addressed in the contract. Ask for a sample contract if they don’t provide one online. If you don’t like the looks of something in the contract, see if you can negotiate. If something seems fishy, too good to be true, or if you’re not getting the answers you need, move on.

      Bottom line? Know what you are going to get before handing over your money.

      True. Self-publishing can be expensive because you have to pay for cover art, editing, and invest in marketing and promo for your book. Keep in mind, subsidy publishing can be just as expensive (or more) because you are paying for the exact same thing but with limited control, and there are often additional fees (charging extra for more than 50 interior photos), and not much marketing included.

      Some red flags? Things to look out for? Inconsistencies in contract terms, existing products (As in quality. Are their covers professional or stock covers?), or vague answers to your questions. Look out for the fancy wording in the contract or in email correspondences and clarify, clarify, clarify. Or if they constantly try to sell you on things you don’t need or interested in, like special author programs, competitions, and in-house reward programs, etc.

      Most importantly, do your research. Look up other authors who’ve published through that company and ask them about their experience working with that publisher. Check out some of the books they release, purchase them, read them, and see for yourself if they are top quality and in line with what you want. Make sure their books are available in “major bookstores worldwide” if that’s their claim. They should be able to back up their claims.

      I hope I answered your question, Jaimi. If you have any other questions about publishing or anything related to the writing industry please feel free to ask.
      Leslie Lee Sanders recently posted…How to Be a Great Guest Blogger

  2. DT Anon

    I entered into a contract with a subsidy publisher. As a newbie, I didn’t know that they were a subsidy publisher because they call themselves a traditional publisher. Regardless, I have paid a portion of their up-front “publicity” fee but have since decided that I do not want to pursue this subsidy route after all.

    How can I get out of the contract? There is a termination clause in the contract but it focuses on production and post-production, distribution, promotion, etc. I’m in none of those stages, as I have not yet submitted my manuscript to the publisher to begin the production process.

    I sent them an email and they were sorry to hear my decision to terminate–I didn’t go into specifics, but they said they don’t issue refunds. Can they keep my money even thought a “transaction” has not taken place?

    Thanks for your help.

    1. Leslie Lee Sanders

      Hi, Anonymous.

      Before I get to your questions, I want to remind anyone who reads this that true traditional publishers never ask for your money or charges upfront fees or any fees that I’m aware of. They pay YOU instead of the other way around. Also, a true traditional publisher requires a manuscript upfront to be read by an in-house acquisitions editor FIRST, then judged on its merit and salability before offering you a contract.

      Because subsidy publishers make their money primarily from authors through “insert great-sounding deal” fees and publishing packages, and only secondarily from their readers through sales, it doesn’t surprise me that they want to hold on to whatever fees you’ve already paid. Still, this doesn’t make it right. Personally, I feel if you’ve paid for a product or service and haven’t yet received that product or service, you should be granted a full refund, if asked.

      However, we’re talking contracts, and unfortunately, if you’ve signed a contract that states their refund policy, that signature says you agree to and will comply with the terms.

      But I wouldn’t give up. Obviously, I don’t have knowledge of your contract (and this seems like the perfect place to state that I am no expert at contracts or publishing legalities), but I would continue communication with your editor, the consultant you were assigned, or someone in an above position, and explain your concerns regarding the refund. Whip out that fine tooth comb and highlighter, and go back over your contract. Maybe there’s room for a little negotiation. See if there are any other options. Will waiting until the book starts the production process then garner you a refund? If the publisher truly cares about their authors’ satisfaction, they should be willing to work with you.

      Sorry for your troubles with subsidy publishing. If you have any other questions feel free to ask. :)

      Best of luck.
      Leslie Lee Sanders recently posted…My Top 5 Most Helpful Blog Posts for Writers: Part 2

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