Vanity press vs. subsidy: What’s the difference?

question answer

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Q: Earlier you talked about the difference between royalty publishing and a subsidy press. I’ve heard other writers complain about “vanity presses.” Is there a difference between a subsidy press and a vanity press?

A: Depends on who you ask.

Some people think so-called “traditional publishing” is the only true publishing, and that any author who pays to publish their book is getting ripped off. Those folks will tell you that subsidy publishing is just a new name for the ol’ vanity press scam.

I disagree.

Subsidy publishing involves you hiring a company to print your book for you. Subsidy presses are generally very up front about this arrangement. They may provide the ISBN, which makes them your publisher as far as the record-keepers at Bowker are concerned. This may also be the case if you self-publish through Amazon or Smashwords. But the important thing is that you retain all rights to the book.

Vanity publishing also involves you hiring a company to print your book for you, but a scam press will be vague about this arrangement. They often advertise in writers’ magazines that they are “accepting submissions” and will, after “reviewing” your manuscript, tell you that your book has been “accepted for publication.” The main thing, though, that separates the scam press from the legitimate press is that the scammer will take your rights from you and ask you to pay them for doing so.

When you enter into a contract with a royalty publisher, you sell the publication rights to them, and they pay you for them.

So this is an important distinction for authors to understand:

  • Royalty press: pays the author for publication rights.
  • Subsidy press: paid by the author for book production; author retains rights.
  • Vanity press: paid by the author for book production and press retains rights.

There is no earthly reason why an author should pay a press to take their rights away. Whether any vanity presses actually remain in business, I don’t know. I suspect there are a few, because so many people don’t understand how the business works.

Which is why I’m here, trying to explain it all.

There’s a case to be made that all publishing is vanity. We must be vain to believe that the story we have to tell or the information we have to share will be important to readers. There’s nothing wrong with that. As Orna Ross said recently in a blog post,

Why doesn’t the musician entertaining the crowd down the pub not get accused of vanity for getting up and playing his music? Why is only writers who are asked to justify their urge to create?

You don’t have to justify your urge to create. Your story and your knowledge deserve to be shared. How you share them is up to you. Educate yourself about your options, and pick the one that works for you.

About Kristen Stieffel

Kristen Stieffel is a writer and freelance editor specializing in speculative fiction. She's a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association, Christian Editor Connection, and American Christian Fiction Writers.

6 thoughts on “Vanity press vs. subsidy: What’s the difference?

  1. jennifer says:

    What a publisher calls itself does not matter.

    What matters are the terms of the contract.

    Any time a writer is paying to be published, there is potential for being ripped off.

    “Subsidy” presses use many of the same tactics you ascribe only to “vanity” presses. A subsidy press does not make money by selling books; they make money by charging author fees. All their costs are covered by the fees they charge the author. I’d recommend that your readers look here for a more detailed explanation of the variety of options available to them. http://www.sfwa.org/for-authors/writer-beware/vanity/ And beware.

    • Jennifer — You are right, the contract is what matters. I do have a problem with so many author services firms calling themselves “publishers” or “presses.” They are printers.

      Yes, all the costs at a subsidy house are covered by author fees. That’s what it means to sell something. Subsidy presses are really service companies, and as long as you get what you pay for, it’s not a scam. “Buyer beware” is a millennia-old piece of advice that applies in all businesses, not just publishing.

      You say “‘Subsidy’ presses use many of the same tactics you ascribe only to ‘vanity’ presses.” My point is that the companies that engage in those practices are vanity presses, regardless of how they self-identify. (Because both types usually self-identify as publishers.)

      I agree, Writer Beware is a great resource. Educating writers is critical to preventing fraud.

  2. […] Last week, I wrote about the differences, slim though they are, between vanity presses and subsidy presses. […]

  3. Jennifer says:

    But you seem to be making the argument that subsidy presses are better than vanity presses or that subsidy presses are not vanity presses. Truly there is no difference between them. You won’t see many “subsidy presses” actually using the term “subsidy press in their advertising. ” And I don’t think there are any subsidy presses that are upfront about their costs. Their whole schtick is to deceive naive writers as they reel them in. I think you ought to be more careful about what you’re advising authors.

    How much of your advice is based on actual experience and how much is based in the wishful thinking of yet another naive author with limited experience?

    • Jennifer — I apologize for giving the impression that I support one business model over another. I don’t. But I am very much a fan of the free-market economy, and that means vendors have a right to charge others to provide services. And authors who’d rather hire the work out than do it themselves have a right to pay vendors. I agree with you that deceitful marketing has no place in anyone’s business model. But honestly, we are arguing about semantics here, when all that really matters is ensuring that writers understand their options and their rights.

      My advice is based on years of experience as a freelance editor. I’ve worked with self-publishing authors and those who used vendors, as well as those published by royalty-paying publishers. My own book contract is with a royalty-paying publisher. Before I turned full-time freelance, I was a journalist. That alone would beat the naivety out of a person.

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