What is a vanity press/vanity publisher?
Let's hop in a time machine and go back to the year 1982.
Microsoft Word is still a year away. The first word processor is only three years old.
Email, hotmail, AOL - those were all still over a decade away. Same thing with Amazon. And the idea of downloading an ebook onto your Kindle was still 25 years off in the future.
This meant the only way to be published was through a traditional press. You had to be signed by an agent, they would land the publishing contract, and your book would go into bookstores. The only other alternative was to print out paper copies, staple them together.
There were a lot of people out there - aspiring writers, poets, retired people with a memoir, public speakers - who were receiving rejection letters from agents and publishers. Their books were deemed not ready, not good enough, or didn't have a big enough potential audience. It was a long and frustrating process for writers and a lot of these books never made it out into the world.
So, what started to happen, and this was going on before 1982, is new publishing companies popped up that we now refer to as "vanity publishers." Instead of paying the author to publish their work, they would put together a publishing package that was then sold to the author.
For example, the author would pay a good chunk of change, we're talking as high as $7,500 - $15,000, and then the vanity publisher would take the manuscript, format it into a hardcover or paperback book. They would then require the author to purchase 500 - 1,500 copies as part of the deal.
Now, in theory, this could still work financially. If the author sells 1,500 copies at $30 a piece, that's $45,000. But it turns out, it's really hard to sell even 20 books. And bookstores would turn these books down or, if the author was successful in their pitch, like any retailer the bokstore would ask for a wholesale price; which makes sense - buy for $10, sell for $20.
The result? A ton of authors who used vanity publishers ended up with boxes and boxes full of books collecting dust in their garage.
And what happened when they reached out to the vanity publisher? Bad customer service. There was no incentive for the vanity publisher to help sell the book. They already made their money off the $7,500 - $15,000 deal.
Fear of a negative review? Remember, this is pre-internet. Yelp wasn't even a company until 2004. The author might tell their immediate network of friends and family never to use that service, but it didn't spread very fast.
I mean, they could try to publish the story in a book, but the traditional publishers were turning it down and they'd be right back at a vanity press...
If this sounds like a horror story, it definitely is. And choosing that creepy guy with the mask image for this post was no mistake either. Everything you find online regarding vanity publishers doesn't exactly pain them in a positive light.
But I will say one positive thing on behalf of vanity publishers: at least they were getting work out there.
It's far more tragic to think about all of the manuscripts that have disappeared from the face of the earth, never got out there vs. thinking about a kid discovering their great-grandmother's box of old books in an attic. That second scenario is actually really cool. The stories survived. They can now be passed down to family or, hey, why not release them on a Kindle all of those years later. For hardly any cost.
Vanity publishers stepped in to solve (or, maybe better put, "exploit") a problem in the world of publishing. They made money by publishing books that didn't have another way out to the public.
The real bummer is—even after we head back to our time machine and we arrive back to 2019—vanity publishers still exist. They're still making money.
Feeling a little down after reading this post? Sorry for the doom and gloom outlook, we just take this really seriously and don't want writers to find themselves working with one of these types of places. More posts to come on how the publishing world is evolving, what new exciting options are available to authors, and how to spot a rotten publishing deal. Stay tuned!