Vanity Presses in Sheep’s Clothing

Dog Dressed as a "Woof in Sheep's Clothin...
Some of these publishers are trying to stealthily get you to pay money, but don’t do it!(Photo credit:

I’ve self-published a few books (some more successful than others) and even though I may not have a best seller out there I’m pretty happy selling a few hundred books or so, building a following, and if it takes me years to build toward that best seller, then so be it.

If I don’t become a best seller, then I’m not really that put out either.

Once in a while I will receive an e-mail from a “publisher” or an “agent” saying that they would love to publish something that I write in the future, always mentioning their publishing house and always touting the awesomeness of my work.

Be careful here.

A naive novelist might get all giddy and nearly have a back spasm at a letter such as that, but let me be the first to warn you: they may be a vanity press masquerading as a publisher.

Remember these rules:

  1. Real publishers/agents never ask for money, they pay you royalties or an advance and agents get paid only if you do.
  2. Check them out before you do anything.  If their website (if they have one) has anything to say about a “service” or a program that will publish you no matter what, then you are looking at a vanity press.  Also, Google the name of their “publishing house” with the words “writer beware” or “complaints” and you will usually figure them out pretty quick.
  3. Ask for references.  If they are a major house or even a minor one, they will have published authors that you can check out, and a track record for success with their books.
  4. They should explain themselves courteously and not with vagaries and mixed words.  If they are afraid to give the names of people they work with, then they probably are not real.

And why not self-publish?  I absolutely love it.  I get to control what I do, publish what I want, focus on the fan base that I want to, be my own boss, and see most of the profits from that enterprise…plus I own everything.

Does this mean that I scrimp on quality?  By all means, no!  I strain my work through the sieve of many experts, hone it down to something that is worthy of my readers and do all the social media I can.  It’s a lot of work, but it is absolutely worth it.

One day I’ll get a letter (maybe) from a legit publisher or agent, but until then I’m cheerfully cranking out novels (one a year) and it is what I live for.  My small fan base is pleased with it as well, and that fan base grows a little each day.

So don’t lose heart if you get one of those letters.  Consider it, be smart about it, and don’t get suckered into paying thousands of dollars for a profit that you should be having rather than some group of strangers.

Published by Roger Colby, Novelist, Editor

Roger Colby is a novelist and teacher who has taught English for nearly two decades. He is also an avid reader of science fiction who feels, like many other sci-fi readers, that he has read everything. He writes science fiction for the reader who is looking for the next best thing, something to excite them into reading again. This blog is his journey as a writer and his musings about writing. He also edits manuscripts for a fee and is an expert at helping you reach your full potential as a writer.

18 thoughts on “Vanity Presses in Sheep’s Clothing

    1. Sending out 80 queries to agents at the same time: That’s the easy way to end up with a lot of pre-printed rejection slips if you get a rejection at all.

      Mailing a rejection costs money and/or sending out an e-mail rejection takes time and time is valuable for most people—even agents.

      If you do go this route, do your homework first and find out who the agents are for your favorite authors in the same genre as your book and focus just on them. If you go to a used bookstore and buy an old copy of Writers Digest’s “Guide to Literary Agents” (or buy a new copy hot off the press), you will discover that all agents are not interested in every genre out there and most of them look for what floats their boat.

      Most agents and editors are just like readers. That means they tend to look for books that fit their reading tastes.

      However, if you want to learn the hard way and plan to send out a flood of queries to every agent possible and do it on the same day, I think it wise to mention in that guery letter that you are sending out multilevel queries. If, on the off chance, that an agent actually becomes interested and contacts you, they might not be all that pleased to find out after the fact that you sent out a ton of gueries to every agent in the world.

      I think it is a good idea to know how the publishing world has changed since the indie revolution. These days agents tend to be on the lookout for indie authors who have already made it on their own that already have followers and a vast internet platform. Even publishers are doing this.

      Indie publishing has now become the slush pile for traditional agents and publishers to find the next Amanda Hocking. If you haven’t heard of Amanda Hocking, I suggest you use Google and discover her story.

      And for indie authors that make it big, reports say they pretty much are in charge when the agent and/or publisher that wants to publish their next book comes knocking (and calls them) to offer a contract. For instance, Hocking retained her right to publish indie books at the same time she was writing books under contract for a traditional publisher. For Hocking that contract was for a couple of million $.

      1. Excellent advice, Lloyd! I’ve learned so much since I wrote this article nearly two years ago. All of your advice is absolutely true. The indie revolution has definitely changed the publishing game.

  1. Hi Lloyd, I want to challenge you a bit on the “real publishers” never asking for money bit. As you know, the She Writes Press model is an author-subsidized model, but our authors get 70% of their net sales, as opposed to 15%, which is what they’d get for traditionally publishing. What do you make of this? Some would argue that our model and models like this are vanity, but I’m making a case that they are not, and that author-subsidized does not equal vanity. You of course have to be careful and weigh what you are getting when you work with a press that charges. But these models are popping up all over the place, and a lot of them (our model included I think) are offering a lot of services with good dividends on the tail end. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

    1. I must have missed this. I have no problem with author-subsidized publishers who are legitimate, and I think She Writes Press is legit, because they don’t just take an author’s money and do nothing else. She Writes Press goes the entire nine yards just like an old-fashioned out-of-date traditional publishers does.

      In fact, I think She Writes press is an example of the new paradigm. When a publisher is the author’s partner, then the publisher has a stake in the author’s success too. Too often the old-fashioned publishers are too busy moving on to the next book and forgetting about those authors who were released a few weeks earlier.

      But for a publisher like She Writes Press to succeed, the authors they publish become their best advocates through word of mouth, and that means every author is always equal all the time even a few months after the publication date.

  2. One way to avoid this trap—and it is a trap that may cost an unsuspecting author thousands of dollars—is to become an indie publisher-and-author with your own imprint by going through Lightening Source Ingram [LSI]; Create Space; Draft2Digital; Smashwords, and Amazon Kindle—always using your own ISBN numbers and your own imprint where the royalties paid are automatically deposited into your account monthly.

    Ingram owns LSI and Ingram is the largest wholesaler of books in the world. They are not a publisher. LSI is a printer who will print and ship your books with your imprint on them. When you sign up for an LSI account, you sign up the publisher and it doesn’t matter if you only publish your own work.

    If you need help—editors, cover artists, people who promote books for a fee—there are plenty of independent contractors out there. Create Space, for instance, has links on the pages where indie authors publish their work that leads to these indie contractors.

    LSI charges a small set up fee and then annual fee [I’ve been paying $12] for each title that is listed in the Ingram digital catalog.

    Create Space offers in-house services—therefore Create Spacey can become one of these sheep in wolfs clothing but only if you buy the expensive services they offer—but Create Space also offers links to indie contractors and you don’t have to use any of those services if you want to do it all or find your own editors and artists. Amazon owns Create Space.

    I’ve published several titles through all of these companies and I haven’t paid a penny to Create Space. That way they only get paid when Amazon sells a paperback, prints the copy through Create Space and ships it for me.

    Here are the links and you can use all five for the same book but use one ISBN for all paperbacks:

    And this is where you buy your own ISBNs:

    Hint: If you buy ten at a time [or more], the cost of each ISBN is much lower than buying them one at a time.

  3. As a noob (and one who’s not sure about when to correctly use that term…) this is really useful advice – especially with the hint of experience that tinges it. Totally agree with your attitude: Self Publishing (or Self-Authoring as it feels more like at the moment) seems more and more like the most fulfilling way to build a career in this challenging game.

    Not that I’ll say no if someone wants to offer me a seven figure deal of course. My principles only go so far 😉

    1. I do everything myself. I have many tutorials on my blog that show you how. If you just want to pay, the best is CreateSpace because they are pretty good about not cheating you.

  4. It’s sad that writers fall for vanity press advertising. It’s far less costly to find a local book printer for the task–a business that does not entice with false advertising. Or, one might keep trying to interest a mainline publishing company, which will pay you, rather than requiring you to pay for publication.

  5. Reblogged this on CKBooks Publishing and commented:
    Good things to think about when looking for help publishing. If it seems to good to be true, it probably is. Also, make sure the agent you are looking at works in the genre you are trying to pitch and that they are accepting clients. Find their website ( is a helpful site when you have a name you want to look up) for the details plus how they want to be queried. Each agent is different. A good site to check on predators is
    Brian Grove has a list of traditional publishers that are accepting submissions but my guess is these are small or mid-size companies. The “Big” companies (simon and shuster, harper-row…) don’t accept direct submissions, you have to have an agent to in with those folks.

    My recommendation is self-publish then start looking for an agent or publisher. If your book is selling well, they will be happy to take a look at it.

    Happy hunting!

  6. Another point is to not rely on a publisher’s past record and reputation. During the recession, many well-known small publishers switched from being traditional royalty-paying publishers to being vanity publishers. They now call themselves “cooperative” publishers, but the cooperation they seek is for you to pay them up front. A vanity press by any other name. One of these converts wanted me to pay them $4,000 up front, and another wanted $1,500. They used to be respected traditional publishers.

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