Vanity Presses and Self-Publishing Today

Technology has changed the publishing landscape

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"Vanity publishing" or "subsidy publishing" describes an arrangement by which a publisher (a "vanity press" or "subsidy publisher") creates bound copies of books for authors for a fee. There is generally no promise of sales assistance and the subsidy publisher does not keep a percentage of sales.

While there are many similarities, "self-publishing" (also known as "DIY publishing" or "indie publishing") is a more recent term that refers to the process by which an author publishes his or her own work into the trade book marketplace, hoping to sell it to a wide audience. While financial arrangements differ widely, in most cases, the distributor of the work does keep some of the proceeds.

Vanity Publishing: Some Context

Vanity presses have long existed to allow any author to have his or her desired content bound between two covers. Vanity presses have typically been engaged to produce copies of books with a limited audience, such as family genealogies, corporate histories, or sometimes personal collections of poems or community cookbooks used for fundraising.

In earlier times, before ebooks and print-on-demand technologies, vanity presses required the author to purchase a substantial number of copies of his or her book upfront. Technological limitations of traditional book printing and binding processes, as well as the economic realities of book production, made small-scale vanity publishing an expensive proposition. And because the publishers traditionally didn't offer much in the way of book distribution, book marketing, or publicity support, naive or uninformed authors who had expectations of sales beyond a small circle of friends and family were sometimes faced with a basement or garage full of leftover vanity press books.

Vanity presses still exist to provide editorial-to-book binding service to those who are willing to pay for the publishing service. Traditional vanity publishers may still be the choice for companies and individuals who want the full-service publishing experience; who want to give away a physical, hardcover print book to their audience; and who have the means to pay a premium for the service. There is some crossover between vanity presses and full-service self-publishing services.

Vanity Publishing vs. Self-Publishing

In the 21st century, technologies have made it possible to distribute your work into the same marketplace as trade books from traditional publishers. 

Print-on-demand machines (often available in bookstores) allow authors to print and bind small quantities of printed self-published books. Now an author only needs to produce what he or she wants to keep, allowing even a single reader to buy a single book "on demand."

Digital technologies have made it easy and inexpensive to upload and widely distribute ebooks, so writers can publish into the hands of readers without any printing expense. This has also changed the way books—both ebooks and print books—are distributed and marketed:

  • Internet book sales and distribution channelsInternet sales and distribution channels, begun by, dramatically changed the way print books were sold to consumers. Online retailers have created sales channels for ebooks uploaded through selected services, as well. For example, Barnes & Noble Press offers an ebook and print self-publishing service. Print-on-demand services (such as Blurb) make it easy for anyone to order a printed book from their websites and have created alternative, easy-to-access online sales channels for print-on-demand books, as well.
  • Online book marketing and publicityOther digital forces, such as the proliferation of blogs-as-periodicals and social media, have made it possible for a savvy author to promote his or her book through internet channels at low cost. An example of a successfully self-published and self-promoted ebook author is Amanda Hocking, who writes in the paranormal genre. These factors have changed the vanity publishing landscape and made self-publishing a viable option for many writers and other creative people who want to sell their work, but who have not been successful at finding a literary agent to represent them or a traditional trade house to publish their book.

As a result, there's been a proliferation of self-publishing companies—many of which, like iUniverse, offer a comprehensive range of services to rival any trade publishing house. But successful self-publishing takes as much research, work and knowledge as one presumably (and should have!) spent writing a book—especially if intending to sell it to strangers on the strength of the book's content.