Self-publishing vs vanity publishing. Confused?

27th July 2012
4 min read
11th December 2020

I often get letters or phone calls from confused and sometimes worried authors, unsure whether or not to sign a contract with a publisher who's raved about their book idea but is asking for a 'contribution towards the cost of publishing the book'. The amount varies, but frequently it runs into the thousands.

Jo - Yearbook

Authors owe it to themselves to be very clear on one point - traditional publishers never ask the author for 'a contribution'. Traditional publishers only take on work they believe is worth investing their own money in, confident it'll make a return when the book hits the shelves. Indeed, this is precisely the reason (or one of) it's so difficult for new authors to get published. The publisher has to be sure that the book will sell

Vanity publishers are cunning. They know many authors will be worn down by rejection. They know the elation authors will feel to finally receive a glowing report about their manuscript. However, once you've signed your name on the dotted line, the vanity publisher will take your manuscript, take your money and print several (usually poor quality) copies of your book. They won't consult you and they won't offer any help marketing or distributing the book. The vanity publisher isn't interested in selling copies of the book, it doesn't need to - they've already made their profit from the hefty 'contribution' fee they charged the author.

Consequently, vanity publishers have no relationships with bookshops, in fact some bookshops plain refuse to stock the books they produce. So, more often that not, the author ends up several thousand pounds down with a pile of books they cannot sell. Of course these companies don't advertise themselves as vanity publishers, most refer to themselves as 'self publishers'. But there is a vast difference between the way they operate and the way a reputable self-publisher operates.

Proper self-publishing companies offer the author a whole range of services from editing to jacket design to distribution. The author has complete control over every stage of production - how the book will look, how many copies are printed and how it'll be promoted. Many self-publishers now offer a professional finished product and as their sophistication grows so does their influence to sell their books to the bookshops. 

All this costs money, but reputable self-publishers make it clear how much each individual service costs and exactly where the money is being spent. And what will be clear, is that the costs involved are nothing like the amounts vanity publishers charge for their lousy products. 

Self-publishing has been around for years (Virginia Woolf did it, as did Mark Twain and James Joyce. William Blake did nothing else) and is considered to be a perfectly respectable way to get your book into the marketplace. In fact, because getting published by mainstream publishers is so tricky, many authors are choosing to self-publish in the first instance by way of a stepping stone. A high-quality self-published book shows the author is ambitious, organised and serious.

Even better, if the book has decent enough sales figures to prove a market exists, traditional publishers are quite likely to sit up and take notice. So the bottom line is, if you receive a glowing report from a publisher who can't wait to publish your book, don't get carried away in the drama. Not until you know what they want from you in return. If it's your hard earned cash - don't do it.

Jo has 13 years’ experience of the publishing industry. She has worked for three mainstream publishers in various editorial roles, most recently at A&C Black for seven years as Editor of the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook and the Children’s Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook. She has written articles for Publishing News and runs writers’ workshops at UK literary festivals on the subject of getting published. She lives in London but is originally from Wales.


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