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I was recently talking to a friend about my manuscript and all the research I’ve been doing into the world of publishing. I know, my friends are long-suffering, but I’ve promised to buy them all a couple of drinks in celebration if it ever gets published and that seems to be enough to make them put up with me. Anyway, this particular friend was man enough not to break down in tears when I started rambling. In fact, she was very enthusiastic about the whole thing. Apparently, her mother was a very accomplished author in her day and managed to publish over thirty books. I was impressed! But something wasn’t quite right. The more she talked about her mother’s career, the more red flags kept popping up. She told me that I should avoid traditional publishing as her mother had only ever sold a handful of books and that the royalties she got from them were next to nothing. That’s strange, I thought; why would any publishing house release thirty books from an author who wasn’t popular? Next, my friend told me that if I do decide to go for publishing, I should make sure to save up, as the initial cost was huge. Even stranger! No respectable publisher would charge an author for their publication – that’s what sales are for. Well, I didn’t say anything about it, just in case my suspicions were incorrect, but sure enough, when I googled the publisher my friend had mentioned, they turned out to be a vanity press.

Vanity presses, also known as subsidy publishers, are publishing houses who charge an author to be published with them and generally, they will publish anything (or at least almost anything) which is submitted to them. They do not edit or proof read, do not aid distribution and, usually, will do no marketing to promote the book. In essence, they just produce the physical copies of the book and make them available to any vendors who specifically request them. As these presses make their money from the author’s investment, not from the sales, they have no incentive to make the finished product successful and so any author who publishes with them will bear the full responsibility of taking care of the whole process; from editing, to marketing to PR. Even for someone with experience in the industry, this would be more than a one-person job.

A handful of these paid presses are open about their status and what the author can expect from them. If this is the case then they can be useful for some specific purposes. For example, if an author has produced a very specialist book which is not commercially viable enough for a regular publisher to take, but would be of interest for a few individuals in the relevant field, an author might use a vanity press to make the work available to them. Or if an author wants to produce physical copies of their work for promotional purposes, they could hire a vanity press to help them produce the books.

That’s the up-side. The down-side is that most vanity presses will try to pass themselves off as regular publishers and will take advantage of authors by trying to convince them that it is standard practice for them to make a financial contribution. This is simply not the case. If you take nothing else away from this article, just remember this one, huge, billowing red flag;

No good publisher will ask you to pay an investment.

It’s as simple as that. And also, as vanity presses are in no way selective about what they publish, releasing your work through them will not raise your profile with regular agents or publishers.

So now you know what to look for, I hope you can avoid being taken advantage of like my friend’s mother. Speaking of whom, I decided not to mention what I’d learned about the publisher – her mother has long since given up writing in favour of a job as a bingo-caller down near the sea-side and I wouldn’t want to take the wind out of her sails now that it’s too late to do anything about it. But take her story as a cautionary tale and be careful who you trust in he world of publishing!