All you want for Christmas is… to be an author. Yes, what you really want isn’t socks or smellies but a publishing deal. The question is: do you want it so badly that you would pay to get published? That’s what vanity publishers are banking on, literally. They are renowned for tricking aspiring authors into parting with their hard-earned cash in exchange for a publishing deal. But what are vanity publishers—and how do you spot them so you don’t end up with a Christmas nightmare? 

What is a vanity publisher?

Vanity publishers are companies that strive to look like legitimate, traditional publishers (think Penguin, Macmillan, etc.). But while genuine publishers make their money from readers via book sales, vanity publishers make their money from authors. They make authors pay for the pleasure of getting published, and they care very little for whether the book makes sales. The name “vanity publishing” comes from such companies preying on authors’ “vanity” i.e. desire to get published. (Note that this name is often considered derogatory as writing books isn’t about vanity, but the most important thing is that you know how to avoid them.)

What is a traditional publisher?

A legitimate, traditional publisher never makes an author pay to get published. Nor do they approach authors offering to publish their book. On the contrary, aspiring authors need a literary agent to land a deal with most traditional publishers, and they have to convince them that the book is worth publishing, noting that approximately 99% of submissions are rejected. If the publisher is interested, they offer the author a “deal” that includes royalties (the percentage of sales that the author keeps) and often an “advance” against the royalties. The publisher covers their costs and makes a profit when the book starts making sales.

How to spot a vanity publisher

These companies try their hardest to look like reputable, genuine publishers, but there are a few tell-tale signs. Firstly, their “publishing deals” involve the author paying to get published—often thousands of dollars or pounds. This means that every book is a money-maker for them, so they aren’t discerning about what they publish and don’t reject anything. As such, you can spot vanity publishers from their lack of a stringent submission process. If it’s too easy to get a deal with them or they approach you with a lot of flattery and an offer to publish your book, then (sorry but…) they’re most likely a vanity publisher. 

What do they offer?

On the surface, vanity publishers seem to offer a lot of things to authors (such as editing, design, and marketing), but they are typically vague in what they will actually deliver. They may say they provide “editing” but won’t specify what kind, and if you dig deeper, it’s often a very brief editorial review or a light grammatical edit. Not the kind of comprehensive content editing and line editing that you’d get from a legitimate publisher. What’s more, they generally don’t break the contract down into individual services, which makes it difficult for authors to determine whether it’s good value for money or not—and even if they do, the services are heavily marked up compared to the market.

Vanity publishers vs. self-publishing companies

Sound like vanity publishers are easy to spot? Not so fast. There are lots of self-publishing companies that offer similar services, and they also charge hundreds or thousands of pounds. However, self-publishing companies are not vanity publishers. Self-publishing companies make it very clear that you are self-publishing, whereas vanity publishers make it seem like you’re getting a book deal with a legitimate publisher when you’re really not. Also, the self-publishing company has nothing to do with the rights or sales, while a vanity publisher takes control of the rights and sales.

To avoid or not to avoid?

Vanity publishers such as Austin Macauley and Author House can seem like they’re offering a good deal on the surface, especially if they seem super eager to publish your book. However, it’s worth doing some digging before signing a contract with them. Ask them questions, have a lawyer look over the paperwork, and read plenty of reviews online. Finally, compare their prices and offerings to self-publishing companies so you can determine whether their deal is genuinely good value or whether you’re simply buying into the illusion of “getting published”.

If you decide to self-publish instead, you can find our guide to self-publishing here.

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