Are Vanity Presses a Reliable Option for Authors?

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Authors today have a lot of options when it comes to publishing their books. While the old process of writing query letters to literary agents and trying to land a contract with one of the Big Five publishing houses (Simon & Schuster, Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Hachette Book Group, and Macmillan) is still a viable way to publish, more and more authors are opting to maintain creative control over their work and consider self publishing.

In the past, I’ve written about the pros and cons of traditional versus self publishing. But one topic I didn’t cover was the third option of publishing through a vanity press.

Between the release of the first and third novels in my award-winning fantasy series, I’ve talked to a lot of aspiring authors at events. Many of them ask for advice when it comes to publishing.

I’m always upfront and honest about my experiences. The truth is, the publishing route that I took isn’t necessarily the best route for other authors. It all depends on their genre, release schedule, distribution model, marketing plan, networking connections, experience, platform, expectations for creative control, et cetera.

My answer when it comes to vanity presses: AVOID THEM. In this article, I’ll explain why.

What Is a Vanity Press?

A vanity press can also be known as a subsidy publisher or vanity publisher. If you’re wondering how it got the name, it’s because vanity presses target author’s egos and prey on people who are so desperate to see their book in print that they’ll pay just about anything to make it happen.

That sounds harsh, but the truth is, vanity presses are known scammers. Later in this article, I’ll share some of the insights I received from an author who used to work for a vanity press. But before we start diving into personal testimonies, let’s establish exactly what vanity presses are and how they differ from true self publishing.

Vanity presses are a pay-to-publish scheme. But just because you’re paying thousands of dollars for their services doesn’t mean the publisher adheres to the same standards as a traditional publishing house.

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Traditional Publishing vs. Self Publishing vs. Vanity Publishing

Vanity presses take advantage of aspiring authors who aren’t familiar with how book publishing is supposed to work. In a nutshell, here are the three methods of publishing:

TRADITIONAL PUBLISHING is when the author sells the publishing rights of their book to a publishing house. The publisher pay the author an advance, which means that the publishing house assumes all of the upfront costs to produce the book… and also the risk. They pay for the cover design, editing, et cetera. If the book flops, it’s the publisher, not the author, who loses the investment. The author doesn’t start earning royalties from book sales until the advance is paid back in book sales.

There are a lot of hoops an author has to jump through if they want to land a lucrative contract with a major publishing house. Nowadays, you need to have a literary agent if you want your manuscript to even be seen. The chances of escaping the “slush pile” (the unsolicited manuscripts sent to a publisher) are pretty much nonexistent. That means before you can hope to impress a publisher with your book, you first have to impress an agent, who will take a percentage of your royalties if you successfully land a book-publishing deal… which is very, very difficult in today’s market. You have to pitch the right book idea to the right person at exactly the right time.

SELF PUBLISHING has become popular over the last decade thanks to companies like Amazon making it easier than ever for authors to upload their books and send them to the presses. However… it often comes with a bad reputation because (again, thanks to Amazon), a lot of indie authors cut corners and flood the market with low-quality books.

The self-publishing method places all of the costs and risks on the author. Indie authors (aka independent authors) generally don’t have to pay to publish their books. IngramSpark was one of the few self-publishing companies that charged a fee to upload your book, but in 2023, they finally eliminated their setup fees.

A lot of people think that self publishing is as easy as writing a book and uploading the digital file. However, for the serious indie authors who prioritize quality, it actually takes a lot of time, hard work, and investments. They are responsible for hiring a professional editor and, if necessary, paying for a good book cover, interior layout, ebook formatting, et cetera. Those costs can add up quickly. However, these are service-based costs, not contracts. Indie authors who self publish are able to hire freelancers and/or utilize self-publishing services while maintaining complete creative control over their work, not to mention keeping 100% of the royalties (minus the print cost of each book).

VANITY PUBLISHING portrays itself as a hybrid option. At face value, it seems to have all of the perks of a traditional publishing house since it handles the tedious tasks of book publishing such as ISBNs, editing, cover design, layout, marketing, et cetera that an author might not want to deal with, and there isn’t the roadblock of having to find a literary agent and pitch your book (while risking rejection). If you can pay, you can publish.

In most cases, it’s a scam dressed up as a legitimate publishing option. Authors shell out thousands of dollars to have their book produced as cheaply as possible while the vanity press pockets most of the money. In the end, many books published through a vanity press are as low quality as unedited self-published books with a bad stock image cover.

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Personal Testimonies: Why I Don’t Recommend Vanity Publishing

To be clear, I do not have any personal experience using a vanity press. Early in my career when I was researching the various publishing options, I saw way too many red flags with vanity presses and made sure to steer clear.

My original goal was to publish traditionally, but over time, I realized that keeping creative control and having the freedom to design my own covers (I’m an artist as well as an author) was important enough for me to pursue self publishing instead.

As I was learning more about book publishing, I spoke directly with several authors to ask them about their experiences and recommendations. Some of them were indie authors who had self published through Amazon’s company. (At the time, it was CreateSpace, but it’s now called Kindle Direct Publishing, or KDP.) A couple of local authors I knew had gone the traditional route and were able to share a different perspective. I also had the opportunity to meet one of my favorite authors, Alexandra Bracken, and ask her about her experience publishing traditionally.

But the stories I’m going to share with you today came from three authors who had direct experience with vanity presses.

Case #1: Editing, Marketing, & Costs

A local author I knew personally invited me to her home to talk to me about her journey. We had lunch while admiring the beautiful view of Lake Michigan, and I ended up spending several hours chatting with her about book publishing. She was over the moon that her first book had been published, and she excitedly told me about the process.

But the longer we talked, the more I was certain that she had been scammed. Based the research I’d already done, I knew that what she was telling me didn’t seem right.

I had read a few chapters of her book prior to our meeting, and I had been shocked by how poorly it had been edited. The pages were riddled with grammatical and punctuation errors that any English teacher, let alone a professional book editor, should have caught.

According to the author, the vanity press she’d used had “editing packages” that allowed her to make up to fifty corrections, and then she had to buy another batch of fifty if she wanted additional changes. Supposedly, the publisher had an in-house editor who had worked on the book. I was stunned to hear that an editor had let all of those mistakes slide.

I asked the author basic questions such as “How many books have you sold so far?” and “What is the publisher doing to market your book?” She couldn’t give me an answer. She had no idea how many books had been sold and said she wouldn’t know until she received a royalty check. And she was just happy that the publisher had sent her bookmarks and postcards with her book cover on them; she didn’t seem to be concerned about what they were doing to market her book even though marketing services were supposedly part of the publishing package that cost over $4,000.

This was an author who wasn’t interested in mass marketing or making a career out of her books. She was just happy to have her novel in print so she could share it with her friends and family. Money wasn’t an issue for her, so she felt that the vanity press was worth the thousands of dollars since she didn’t have to worry about all of the tedious work that self-published authors have to do.

But I was a serious author on a tight budget. I wanted to build a career with a widespread distribution plan, and I knew that none of what she said sounded right. How could she spend thousands of dollars and not know how her book was being marketed or even how many copies she’d sold months after publishing?

Now, years after this meeting, I’ve had experience publishing through Barnes & Noble Press, IngramSpark, KDP, and Findaway Voices. Every single one of those platforms has provided me with a dashboard to monitor sales and royalties. At any given time, I can generate a custom report for any time frame. You should NOT be left in the dark when it comes to sales and marketing.

Case #2: Litigation

A few years ago, I met a local author who had published a children’s book through a small Christian publishing company. When we first spoke, he seemed happy with his experience. We discussed the possibility of me illustrating his next book.

After some time passed and I hadn’t heard any updates about the upcoming book, I reached out to him. To my surprise, I learned that the book was on hold because he was tied up in litigation with the publisher, who had apparently violated terms in the contract for his first book. The author had sued the vanity press. I wish I could say that I knew what the outcome was, but I don’t know if it was ever resolved.

I’ve seen ads for Christian publishing companies… and to be perfectly honest, I think those vanity presses tend to be particularly sleazy because they prey on the notion that the religious aspect makes them more trustworthy. Surely a good Christian company wouldn’t be a scam, right? (That’s exactly what they want you to think.) It’s still a vanity press regardless of how they brand themselves.

Case #3: Upselling Services

A couple of years ago, I went to a conference for creative entrepreneurs. One of the guest speakers was an author who, like me, wrote in the sci-fi/fantasy genre. I seized the opportunity to introduce myself afterward and talk to him about publishing and marketing.

As we talked, I learned that he used to work for a vanity press, and he had nothing good to say about it. He openly admitted that it was a scam. His job was to upsell services to customers, and he hated it. He knew that it was a rip-off. Desperate authors would pay thousands of dollars for editing, graphic design, and marketing packages, only to have the press cut every corner possible and produce their book as cheaply as they could.

The marketing was a joke. Unlike a traditional publishing house, the vanity press didn’t make its money from readers buying the books; they made it from the authors shelling out money to publish, and then they skimmed off the top by taking a royalty percentage in addition to the upfront payments.

This author confirmed what I already knew about vanity presses. They operate on predatory business practices that target people who are desperate to see their hard work finally pay off in the form of a published book… no matter how much they have to pay to make that happen.

Red Flags to Watch Out For When Publishing Your Book

Unfortunately, there are countless scammers preying on authors who desperately want to be published. If you’re considering working with a publishing company to bring your book to life, keep an eye out for these warning signs:

Double Dipping

A publisher should NEVER charge you an upfront publishing cost AND take a percentage of your royalties. Essentially, this translates to, “I don’t want to assume the risk of publishing your book in case it flops, but if it does well, I want to reap the benefits of your success.”

If you are paying the upfront costs to publish your book, whether that’s in setup fees, freelance work, self-publishing services, et cetera, then you should be getting all of the royalties because you are taking the initial risk.

If a publishing house is assuming the risk instead, then they must have enough confidence in your work to pay YOU in advance. Under no circumstance should you be paying THEM while also sacrificing your royalties. That’s double dipping, and it’s an immediate red flag that you’re being scammed.

Reading Fees

A reputable publisher will never EVER demand that you pay them just to read your book. Traditional publishers aren’t looking to make money in reading fees; they’re looking for authors who can make them money by becoming a bestseller.

You might see reading fees associated with literary contests, and that’s normal. Many of those competitions are run by nonprofits who need to collect those fees to function. But that’s not how publishers make their revenue. They earn their profits from readers buying books, not from authors who want to get their books published.

Editing Packages

If a publishing house offers you a “package” for editing like the one my friend paid for, RUN! That is not how editing works!!

Authors do not buy x amount of edits at a time. The professional line editor I work with charges me based on the word count of my manuscript. The word count, not the number of errors/changes, should determine what you pay.

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Overselling Promises

The most a publisher can promise is to get your book on the market. If someone guarantees anything more than that, like a Netflix deal, Oprah feature, or spot on the New York Times bestseller list, it’s a scam. Nobody—not even one of the Big Five traditional publishing houses—can promise over-the-top perks and follow through with that claim. They can’t even promise that your book sales will break even with the investment you put into publishing the novel.

Informational Add-Ons

Vanity presses also make money by selling informational resources to unsuspecting authors. But here’s a secret: you can usually find all of this information for free online. There are TONS of free ebooks, blogs (like mine), articles, and other resources available at your fingertips.

Even if you don’t want to self publish, you can still access resources through self-publishing websites such as IngramSpark and KDP, which both have help centers with a lot of useful articles. If a publishing company is trying to charge you hundreds or even thousands of dollars for informational courses about how to write and/or publish a book, it’s a scam.

Unclear Leadership / Ownership

Just like with any company you’re considering working with, you should know who is in charge. If a publishing house doesn’t have a clear roster of who is on their team and who’s running the business, that’s not a good sign. You should be able to figure out who is at the helm without having to do a deep internet search.

Even if the publisher does post its owners, editors, and other employees, it’s still important to do your own research. Are they legit? What books have they published?

It’s easy to label yourself as a “bestselling Amazon author” in your bio for extra clout. But that can be misleading; some people target an obscure niche on purpose just so they can avoid competition and snag that #1 rank. If the owner of a publishing company claims to be a bestselling author, but the only book they’ve ever published is a history of puppetry in North America during the 1800s, are they really an expert you should be trusting? Do you think they can get your romance or fantasy novel to the top of a mainstream bestseller list?

They’re not technically lying about being a bestseller, but they cheated the system so they could pose as an expert. Make sure you know exactly who you’re working with.


There are many, many reasons why I steer aspiring authors away from vanity presses. I’m fortunate enough to say that I’ve never been scammed by one, but I’ve met people who have fallen victim to their shady practices… even if the author didn’t realize it.

I recommend crossing a vanity press off your list of publication options. Your best bet is to focus on traditional or self publishing. Neither is going to be an easy road if you’re a serious author intent on producing a quality book and becoming a competitor in the marketplace. But it’s a much safer bet, and the reward can be amazing if you stick with it.

Best of luck!

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I'm an award-winning fantasy author, artist, and photographer from La Porte, Indiana. My poetry, short fiction, and memoir works have been featured in various anthologies and journals since 2005, and several of my poems are available in the Indiana Poetry Archives. The first three novels in my Chronicles of Avilésor: War of the Realms series have received awards from Literary Titan.

After some time working as a freelance writer, I was shocked by how many website articles are actually written by paid "ghost writers" but published under the byline of a different author. It was a jolt seeing my articles presented as if they were written by a high-profile CEO or an industry expert with decades of experience. I'll be honest; it felt slimy and dishonest. I had none of the credentials readers assumed the author of the article actually had. Ghost writing is a perfectly legal, astonishingly common practice, and now, AI has entered the playing field to further muddy the waters. It's hard to trust who (or what) actually wrote the content you'll read online these days.

That's not the case here at On The Cobblestone Road. I do not and never will pay a ghost writer, then slap my name on their work as if I'd written it. This website is 100% authentic. No outsourcing. No ghost writing. No AI-generated content. It's just me... as it should be.

If you would like to support my work, check out the Support The Creator page for more information. Thank you for finding my website! 🖤