May 23

The Vanity Press Trap: How to Avoid & Recoup the Damage

Watch out for vanity and subsidy presses who lure you in with fancy marketing and promises of literary success. I have spent a lot of time helping authors extricate themselves from a vanity presses who overcharge or fail to deliver, and sometimes we manage to do it without too much of a cash loss.

Promises, Promises

These companies make a lot of promises and their premium packages can be priced well into the five figures. They say they'll help you with all aspects of book development—editing, design, marketing, website, ebook conversion, copyright, returns programs, and distribution. Sometimes they can do this, maybe even competently. But it costs much more than you need to pay and you’ll end up trapped with the company because they own the ISBNs. More on that late.

Where’s the Money?

In general, vanity presses make money from selling services to you, and not from selling your books. They also make a tidy profit by overcharging for printing. The typical novel printed at IngramSpark or Amazon can be printed for a little over $3 a copy, plus postage. With a vanity press, your cost per book will be over $6, maybe even $8 or $10. So they make a lot of money when you print your own book in addition to the cost of your publishing package.

The great majority of self-published authors sell fewer than 200 books, and most of those are to friends and family. The fact that these companies make a profit (Author Solutions, Inc. to the tune of about $100 million a year) speaks to the number of authors they attract with their sophisticated marketing programs and follow-you-everywhere web ads.

An image with the names of many vanity presses.

Vanity Press Hype

Here's how to identify vanity presses: They sell high-priced "packages." They have a large enough marketing budget that their name pops up again and again and again in ads and search engines. They use language like "your book deserves to be published" and urge you to "tell the story that needs to be told.” They want you to "imagine your book on the shelf at your local bookstore." They offer add-ons that claim to get your book in front of literary agents and movie producers. This might occasionally be true, but it’s rare.

Preaching About ISBNs...Again

If you’re a regular reader of my posts and books you know that I strongly believe you need to invest in your own ISBNs. When a company owns the ISBN for your book, your book is effectively trapped with that company.

Vanity presses do not allow you to assign your own ISBNs. Giving up the right to our own ISBNs is okay if you have attracted a partner publisher who is truly invested in your book's success. But a vanity press’ business model is to not to help you create a book that sells. They want to sell you the highest-priced package they offer, and they'll keep selling to you as long as they can.

A Word to the Wise

A legal action against Tate Publishing highlights some of the worst practices of the vanity press industry. Authors who do their due diligence almost always identify these companies and avoid them. But many authors are so anxious to publish that they buy the sales pitch—hook, line, and sinker. All the companies owned by Author Solutions, Inc., fall into this category (iUniverse, Author House, Trafford, Xlibris, Balboa for HayHouse, Archway for Simon & Schuster, Westbow for Thomas Nelson, and more), but there are many others. Do your research and avoid them.

Extricating Yourself

If you need to extricate yourself from the clutches of a vanity press, here’s what to do.

First, call them and obtain all of your original files—the Adobe InDesign files for your interior and cover, the EPUB files. The PDFs, the Photoshop images, the fonts, the graphics…the whole package. You’ve paid for all of this and you have the right to demand these files. They don’t need a reason. Then, after you have all your files, give them another ring and tell them to “retire” your book. If they're managing your website, they're probably hosting it, too, so you'll want to get a web professional to help you move it to a hosting service you have control of. It's not very expensive. 

Meantime, you’ll have bought a set of at least 10 ISBNs from Bowker. In the Bowker record for each new ISBN (print, EPUB, MOBI), indicate that it replaces the old, vanity press ISBN.

In your original files (InDesign or by directly editing the PDF), replace the old ISBNs with your own and make any associated changes to the copyright page regarding the publisher, including the name and logo. If there’s a CIP block for library sales, you’ll need a new one, or just eliminate it altogether.

Can’t figure out how to edit your files? You should be able to outsource this for just a few hundred dollars.

Once You’ve Re-published

Once you’ve re-published your title (uploaded it to IngramSpark, Draft2Digital, Amazon, etc.), create an Amazon Author Central page and claim all of your books—the old editions and the new. Edit the book description so that first line of the old edition lets readers know that it has been replaced and to search for the new ISBN.

(I do this very same thing when I put out a new edition of my Self-Publishing Boot Camp Guide for Authors. If you look at my Amazon Author Central page, you’ll see that previous editions of this guide refer to the new edition.)

It will take a while for the book systems to stop referring readers to your old book. Eventually, it will show up as out of print and customers will also see your new one. However, your old book will be available from resellers forever. This is frustrating but there’s nothing to be done about it. Just be patient, do your marketing, and be happy that you’ve reclaimed your book!

Writer Beware

The awesome Victoria Strauss keeps a running tab of predatory publishing companies on her Writer Beware pages sponsored by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (with additional support from the Mystery Writers of America, the Horror Writers Association, and the American Society of Journalists and Authors). Thank you!

These pages are beloved by all authors as it includes alerts on current scams, thumbs down agencies and publishers lists, a list of vanity/subsidy publishers, and much sensible advice for writers looking for services and freelancers.

Check these lists before you contractually engage with a self-publishing service, marketing and promotion services, a literary agency or a small press. Scammy vanity presses know how to look like real publishers, and many authors are fooled to the cost of tens of thousands of wasted dollars.

Do Your Homework

Not all services with book “packages” are in the predatory category. Use your spidey senses and ninja Google search skills to identify possible too-good-to-be-true claims. Again, the first test is to ask if you can apply your own ISBNs. If no—then move on. If you’ve already been had, now you know how to start to reverse the damage. Good luck!

Have you had an experience with a vanity press? Got your book away from them? Trying to? I'd love to hear about your experiences below in the comments. Thanks!


buy your own ISBNs, how to identify vanity presses, self-publishing advice, subsidy presses, subsidy publishers, Vanity Press, vanity publlishing, Victoria Strauss, Writer Beware

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  • Carla, can’t think you enough for this helpful info. I was about to pull the trigger on signing with one of the publishing services companies, such as Xlibris, Authorhouse. The more I spoke via phone to “publication consultants,” the more skeptical I became. This post by you brought me to the conclusion that I should continue to research ways to self-pub.
    A few years back, I went with Amazon & Amazon, did very little marketing (my bad). Instead of promoting that novel, I immediately began focusing on writing my next book.
    In any event, I definitely will be marketing the heck out of my novel that’s ready for publication.
    ** I’m seriously considering Outskirts Press. 100 percent of the royalties go to the author. What’s your opinion of Outskirts?
    I will purchase your Boot Camp book as soon as I send this along….

    • John, my impression of Outskirts is of skepticism b/c of their bundles as if the more you want, the more you pay, when other places include needed stuff in their pkg. and where are the prices for these bundles–I don’t see prices on their website. But, yes, Carla, what do you think?

  • Great advice! Echoes many of the warnings found in my recently self-published book, SELF-PUBLISH A BOOK: A Cautionary Tale. Be careful out there. Lots of wolves in the literary woods today masquerading as helpful sheep.

  • Yep–beware of “packages” and I’m going to point you to Writer Beware who cautions: “Outskirts Press (one of the larger self-publishing services) charges over $15,000 for its “Book Your Trip to Hollywood” service. AuthorHouse charges nearly $7,000 to produce a TV infomercial and book video.”

    Listen–if you going indie all the way, do it yourself with IngramSpark, Amazon Amazon, KDP, Smashwords, Pronoun, combos of above… but if you really need handholding I can heartily recommend both BookBaby and Gatekeeper Press, both of whom are reputable and don’t upsell you all the time for other ridiculous stuff like movie packages.

    Do be sure to always check a company’s royalty calculators to figure how much you’ll be paying per book and making per book. BookBaby, for example, provides very high-quality printing, which costs more. Some people love that, others don’t need it.

    Please let me know how it goes!

  • I would have thought that when cancelling it is advisable to confirm cancellation via email and/or registered post as (unfortunately) phone conversations can be denied. However, if you do proceed purely by telephone, then taking a note of the conversation, date etc is important. Kevin

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