Here’s the bad news: there are plenty of vanity press scams and self-publishing companies to avoid. They are looking to dip their hands into your pockets, steal your money, and make their own little empires.
Here’s the good news: If you are an aspiring author, self-publishing your book has never been easier. You have more options than ever, and with a little bit of education and research, you don’t have to fall prey to those scammers.
With a quick Google search, you’ll come across dozens of self-publishing companies offering publishing services for authors.
Then it’s your job to quickly evaluate if the company is legitimate, or if it’s a vanity press scam.
Before making a rash decision, we encourage you to check out all your options carefully. If not, you could find yourself the victim of a self-publishing scam, forking thousands of bucks over to a shady publishing company with nothing to show for it.
In this post, you’ll learn how to recognize the self-publishing scams when they cold call you…and the companies you can really trust to get your book published!
Here’s what we’ll cover in this post on self-publishing scams:
- Why authors fall for vanity press scams
- Early warning signs of self-publishing scams
- Your self-publishing options
- Taking down the scammers
- Red flag list: Self-publishing companies to avoid
- Writers beware and watchdog groups
- Educate yourself in self-publishing
- Are you ready to self-publish your book?
As with any lucrative industry, there is a wide range of self-publishing scams in business for one reason: To take your money.
A Vanity press publisher charges sky-high prices for author services that include editing, formatting, cover design, and marketing. And let’s be honest, those services do cost money. But with a vanity press, all of this work is outsourced to the lowest bidder and in the end, the author is left with a poor quality book and no way to market it.
“You get what you pay for” doesn’t equate when it comes to vanity press and the publishing scams they represent. You do pay top dollar, often tens of thousands, and what you get back for your investment lacks anything of value.
So, how can you avoid these self-publishing scams?
Let’s take a look.
Why Authors Fall for Vanity Press Scams
There could be many reasons why someone would sign up with a scammy publishing company that wants you to pay big money upfront.
The biggest reason authors fall into these scams is because… well, they don’t know what they should know to avoid being scammed in the first place.
Most authors who fall into this trap are not published authors yet. They’re aspiring, ignorant, and innocent.
If you’re thinking of writing a book, if you’ve started writing it, or if you’re done and can’t wait to get it out there, pay attention and educate yourself.
Vanity presses and publishers will come along offering to get your “just finished” manuscript into the hands of thousands of readers and sell millions of books worldwide. If I was new to the publishing space, I would bite that hook, too. Who wouldn’t want that?!
But here’s the cold hard truth: as a first-time author, you are most likely not going to write a book that sells thousands of copies. And if you do, it will not be through a predatory company that you just paid tens of thousands of dollars, who in turn outsourced all of your stuff to third-world countries. This is not the recipe for success.
As a first-time author, you need help and you need someone to show you the ropes. You may even need help with book production services and marketing plan. Thankfully, our team can help you with that. Whether you decide to work with us or not, we just want to help you make an educated and informed decision on next steps for your book.
Here are several reasons why you might fall for the vanity press trap:
- You are desperate for the know-how of book publishing.
- The publishing process is too complex.
- You are scared of “not publishing” and want it done right now.
- Your passion to publish is so strong that it overrides the sudden impulse to take the first offer on the table.
- You are not tech-savvy and would rather pay someone to overcome the hurdles.
- Your friends keep asking you “When is your book coming out?”
- You know nothing about book marketing and need to hire the experts. Guess what: Vanity publishers don’t know much about it either and you’ll have to market no matter the avenue of publishing you choose.
- You watched a video of a self-published author who just signed a 6-figure deal with a large publisher…and you think that is what usually happens.
Before you make any hasty decisions, stop and breathe. If you need help with publishing your book [and everyone does] there is a right way and…
The other way that steals all your hard-earned dollars.
My hope is that you finish reading this post before signing anything. If you can know the danger signs to watch for, you’ll pull yourself back from making a decision that costs you tens of thousands of dollars, not to mention the heavy burden of regret later.
Early Warning Signs: The Lies of Vanity Press
Vanity presses are generally a bad idea all around, but we’ll cover some specific ways they can scam you and why they’re often on the list of self-publishing companies to avoid.
How Vanity Press Publishers Scam You
It is actually easy to spot a predatory publisher. Here are some of the biggest signs you are at risk of being scammed.
#1 — The company asks for publishing fees. This should be enough right here. Although Hybrid Publishers require authors to pay for all the publishing services upfront, they usually split the fees later.
A vanity press publisher will charge thousands for a publishing package, but offer no education, no coaching, no marketing assistance, and no community. Don’t listen to the so-called “reviews and testimonials” on the vanity press websites. These are rigged, of course.
#2 — “We will publish your book for you on Amazon.” Let me be clear about this: Publishing on Amazon is super easy, even if you have limited tech skills. Amazon has an excellent support system in place. The response time to inquiries is less than 24 hours and they are very detailed when it comes to responses.
If you don’t want to mess with the technical side of things, that’s fine. But make sure of this: You need to have access to the Amazon account where the book is uploaded. It should be your account, not their company’s account. Otherwise, you can kiss that book goodbye.
A vanity publisher will make this uploading process sound more complicated than it really is. If they will upload the book for you in their account, this means you’ll lose control over making any future changes to the book.
#3 — Charges for a reading fee. Never. This just isn’t done. A traditional publishing house never asks for this. If you are told by the sales rep they will read your book for a certain fee, red flag this. The “reading fee” scam is less common today, but just in case you do run up against a company that tries this old scam.
With a real publisher, nobody makes money until the book is selling. Actually, this practice has fallen by the wayside these days and it would be rare to come across. But there is always someone willing to try…
#4 — The publisher will buy you an ISBN [because they are so hard to get]. You can buy an ISBN through Bowker.com if you reside within the USA. The cost is $125.00. In the U.K. you go through Nielsen. In Canada, ISBNs are free through ISBN Canada. If you buy this through IngramSpark they offer a slight discount. Again, this is just another ploy to make you think it is a difficult process that is better off left to the “professionals.”
At Self-Publishing School, we will provide the ISBN for you, but we also just told you how you can get it yourself (above). It’s not a big secret.
#5 — “We will take care of all the marketing, because we know how difficult it is.” Yes, marketing is difficult, especially for authors. But a vanity press company won’t market the book to sell, they will do the bare minimum required so it appears as if the book is being placed in the proper channels.
My advice: Grab a book on marketing for authors or enroll in a program like Self-Publishing School so that you can learn it. You can even outsource it so that you do sell more books. But in the end, nobody is better at marketing your own book than you, the author.
#6 — Excessive use of flattery. The first time I spoke to a vanity press sales rep I remember the praise she gave me for my book. I felt as if I had written a book that was going to sell thousands of copies in the first week.
The rep was quoting passages from the book and referencing everything from the first page. Mind you, I later realized, everything she was quoting was from the first few pages. So did she read it? Of course not.
#7 — Make “over the mountain promises” to get you endorsed by Hollywood. It is not unusual for these companies to tell you that your book has a shot of being featured in Oprah’s book club, or that they will send your manuscript to one of their agents in Hollywood for review.
I can promise you one thing—your book will never see the inside of a movie studio. Not unless you are a well-established author who has already proven themselves, and even then, it will not be through a vanity press company that you get there.
#8 — Promises to get your book into Barnes and Noble and other bookstores. In this case what happens is, they put your book into a large catalog where bookstores and libraries can order it. But realistically, you’ll be hard pressed to sell a single book in any bookstore if you publish through a vanity press company. Libraries and bookstores won’t even consider it in most cases.
#9 — Insists you sign a contract handing over exclusivity. If this final dose doesn’t make you run the other way, I don’t know what will. By any and all means, as a self-published author, you do not sign over your material rights to anyone. This gives the vanity publisher the right to further exploit your work and profit from all sales. The author, in this case, gets a lower end percentage.
Now that you’ve seen the red flags, you are well-informed to make a decision if you come across what appears to be a shady publisher. You don’t need to sign anything or pay huge amounts of money for the publisher to “publish you to Amazon” or set you up with a movie deal.
Now, let’s take a look at…
Your Self-Publishing Options
We are not living in the 1990s anymore. Back then, choices to self-publish were limited. You either paid a company—like a vanity press—a lot of money. Or, you went on your own and hired a printing company to run off tons of copies that were not cheap.
Today, you will see that you have many good choices these days that make it easier for you to get your book published.
#1 — Self-Publishing Courses
There are quite a few reputable self-publishing courses out there. You buy the course, and work through the modules to write and ultimately publish your own book.
There are costs to publish your book, including creating it, cover design, editing, and launching your book. You still have to pay for these services, but at least you get to choose who is working on your book.
It is up to each individual author to outsource his or her own book. Most publishing courses provide the content you need to get it all done, but you do all the work and take on additional costs outside the cost of the course. Self-Publishing School is a unique hybrid that provides education and services and coaching to help you.
If you decide to go alone, you will have to pay for the basics that any self-published author pays for: A good cover design, hiring an editor and formatting, and maybe a budget for marketing services such as book promo sites or a media package.
The production cost for the average book varies based on a number of factors, but let’s say the average is around $2000. If you pay $1000-5000 for a course + $2000 for the book production, you are still under $10,000. If you continue to write more books, you’ve already paid for the course that usually gives you access for a lifetime. And if the company takes care of a lot of these book production services for you (like Self-Publishing School), you’re in even better shape!
But many new authors don’t consider book production costs, and instead think it costs money to upload to Amazon. Vanity presses and other scammy publishing companies say getting your book on Amazon is a complex ordeal. It isn’t. I have been coaching authors for years and, nowadays, the system is built in that all you have to do is plug your book info into the Kindle Direct Publishing Bookshelf and away you go. The cost for actually uploading your self-published book is 0.
So how should you handle this?
We recommend investing in your own knowledge, learning what it takes to publish, and always making sure you retain the rights to your book, with maximum royalties. Taking a self-publishing course is the best option to do this. You learn how to do so much of the process yourself, get some help with services, and can rinse and repeat for future books. You still pay, but you’re paying for high quality and individualized support. The creative decisions are all yours, and we don’t dip our hands into your pockets to take your royalties. You keep all royalties and all rights!
#2 — KDP [Kindle Direct Publishing]
You no longer need to go through painstaking efforts to land a book deal which locks you into unrealistic deadlines and cuts you out of most of the earnings. You don’t have to sign up and fork over tens of thousands to a vanity press company.
You can now have complete control of your book – and its revenues – by publishing directly through Amazon self-publishing.
Setting up your KDP account is easy, and should be the first step you complete.
Here’s how to set up your Kindle Direct Publishing account:
- Go to https://kdp.amazon.com and register with either your Amazon account or with your email address.
- Next, click “Update” in your account information and fill in your tax information. It’s important to note that you need to complete your tax information BEFORE you can publish your first book. So don’t skip this step!
- Once your tax information is complete, click “Finished” and return to the main page.
- Your profile is complete!
#3 — Print On Demand
If you are a new author reading this, with the print on demand services offered by Kindle Direct Publishing and Ingramspark, you can order your own author copies and pay print costs plus shipping to your location. Buy your own ISBN, copyright your book, and own what you create.
To start printing your own books with IngramSpark, visit their website and set up an account. Do the same with Amazons’ Kindle Direct Publishing platform. Do it yourself. It’s not the difficult process many would have you believe, and there is lots of support on these sites ready to help you right away.
How much is the cost to print a book?
It depends on the book size but, for a book that is 30k in length with little to no photos or graphs and text only, expect to pay less than $4 per copy. The average scammy publisher will charge new authors $15-20 dollars per copy.
But for them, they print the books at the same cost as an author who sets this up through KDP or IngramSpark.
In fact, many vanity press publishers use IngramSpark for the print-on-demand service only just to sell the books back to the author at 5x the print cost.
#4 — Vanity Press Publisher
Vanity press publishing, also called subsidy publishing, differs from self–publishing in that the author assumes all the risk and pays the publisher for everything.
The editing, formatting, cover design, and even marketing the book are paid for by the author through the various packages offered when an author signs up.
But, there is a trap here: The costs are more than you initially pay for, and they don’t tell you this until later when you’re mired deeper into the project. Once invested, most authors are compelled to publish the book no matter the costs.
The emotional investment is what these companies prey on. Knowing how you feel about your book, they are ready to help you do anything to get it to market… And that means offering more expensive services.
By the time you are done and the book is published, potentially you have just spent upwards of $20k and you haven’t sold a single book.
Vanity publishers make money, not from selling books for you, but from the author buying their own books back from the publisher. It is a scam where the author always loses.
#5 — Traditional Publishers
This is not a self-publishing route, but if you want to take the traditional path, you can begin by querying your manuscript with agents. Keep in mind, you may not see your book in print for a couple of years due to the lengthy process of first finding an agent, and then having them submit it to publishers to buy.
What is a traditional publisher?
“A traditional book publishing company buys the rights to an author’s manuscript. Buying rights from the author is how book publishers have traditionally acquired books. …The advance is deducted by the book publisher from any royalties the author receives from the sale of the book.”
That’s right, they pay you an advance for the book. You don’t pay them anything.
The editing, cover design and formatting is taken care of by the publisher [in most cases]. It depends on the publisher’s contract but they will pay for [some] marketing as well.
This sounds great so far, right?
But then, if you don’t sell enough copies to cover that advance you received for the book, in many cases you have to pay back the difference to the publisher. And worse, all those books that you were so excited about end up in a mound of waste, eventually going to the trash. Talk about demoralizing!
There are a lot of nightmare stories of authors signing on with traditional publishers, only to realize the publisher expected the author to do all the work marketing the books and they got pennies on the dollar for their efforts.
Authors can end the contract if they realize they’re in a messy debacle. After that, many authors take up with self-publishing and find better success. After all, why not be in charge of building your own book business?
For a case study on this, check out Ruth Soukup’s interview.
#6 — Hybrid Publishers
A hybrid publisher is what you will find between a traditional publisher [pay nothing upfront but get paid an advance] or a vanity press publisher [pay for everything upfront and they keep all royalties].
The hybrid publishers model is simple: An author pays for everything upfront but gets a bigger cut of the royalties after book sales, upwards of 50%. The initial cost means that the author assumes all the financial risk in order to get the book to market.
One other difference between traditional and hybrid publishing is, the hybrid has to pay the author a higher percentage of royalties than a traditional publishing house.
- In order to not be classified as a vanity press, ALL book submissions must be reviewed. This means if your book does not meet the criteria, it should be rejected. A vanity press doesn’t care. Anything and anybody will do.
- Hybrid publishers must clearly define a vision to follow for their company.
- Must report reputable sales on all titles they publish.
- Authors who sign with hybrid publishers must be paid a higher royalty than that of standard traditional publisher rates.
- The quality of the production—cover design, editing and formatting—must meet industry standards.
- The publisher must publish as its own defined imprint and request its own ISBNs.
- Manage all distribution services for the works.
- Hybrid publisher must manage the rights of the works they publish as well as any subsequent rights acquired.
- Hybrid publishers must meet the standards and best practices set out by the publishing industry.
But…the vanity press publishers are bad seeds. Lately, they are disguising their services as “hybrid publishers” but still operate with the same scammy tactics.
Take caution here that, while a hybrid publisher might look legit on the surface, there is a possibility you could get ripped off if you are not 100% sure.
Taking Down the Scammers
As a coach and self-publishing authority, I have worked with at least a dozen authors who’ve come away from a vanity press publisher broke, not just financially, but emotionally as well.
Like most authors, they just wanted to fulfill a dream and publish a book. But as soon as you sign up with a self-publishing scam company, your dreams are ripped apart and so is your bank account. By the time the not-yet-published author realizes it, they’ve invested their life savings and are bound by a contract.
Over the years several class-action suits have been launched against scammy publishers for bad business practice. The worst of these publishers is Author Solutions, a company with a bad rap and a long history of complaints targeted against it by authors who have been exploited.
This company boasts on its website “300,000 authors published.” I would be hard-pressed to believe this and to go a step further, the percentage of those authors who would use Author Solution service again?
Chances are if you have been down this road, you realized before you were halfway there that you’d taken a bad path.
Author Solutions is at the top of the chain of seedy publishing houses promising to get your book to market because the world needs to hear your story.
Author Solutions is the parent company of several subsidiaries that operate, not only in the US but now have an International reach as they have set up in countries worldwide.
How do they make their money?
It isn’t from helping authors to sell books.
The authors usually end up selling nothing. Instead, they are made to buy the books they want from the publishers at a high cost just so they can have their own copies to sell or giveaway.
Recently, several companies have been shut down in class action lawsuits, and this is still continuing today, with authors taking a stand and fighting back against the book publishing thieves.
Fortunately, authors are better educated these days on the publishing options available. Vanity publishers are disappearing. But do return “wearing different clothing”, disguised as the next best company to get you that bestselling book.
Red Flag List: Self-Publishing Companies to Avoid
I have compiled a list of publishing companies you should avoid at all costs. This is not a complete list but includes names of the major companies flagged by Writer Beware and Alliance of Independent Authors.
For a very thorough listing, I would recommend you check with the Alliance of Independent Authors. ALLi stays up-to-date on the scammy reports, warnings and lawsuits taken against bad publishers.
Here are some self-publishing companies that have made the list of those to watch out for:
- Author Solutions
- AuthorHouse UK
- Archway Publishing [Simon and Schuster]
- LifeRich Publishing [Reader’s Digest]
- Palibrio [for the Spanish-speaking community]
- Dorrance Publishing
- Christian Faith Publishing
- Westbow Press
- Balboa Press [a Division of Hay House]
- Newman Springs Publishing
- Partridge Publishing
- Tate Publishing
- Trafford Publishing
- Xlibris [UK, AU, and NZ]
- Outskirts Press
- Dog Ear Publishing
Writers Beware and Watchdog Groups
Remember: Always do your homework. To make sure if you are buying into a legit business you should check in with these sites listed below.
“Shining a bright light into the dark corners of the shadow-world of literary scams, schemes, and pitfalls. Also providing advice for writers, industry news, and commentary. Writer Beware is sponsored by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Inc.”
ALLi [Alliance of Independent Authors] / Watchdog Posts
“Each month on the ALLi blog, the excellent Watchdog John Doppler explores key issues regarding the provision of self-publishing services around the world.”
The Independent Publishing Magazine / Publishing Service Index
A detailed breakdown of self-publishing companies and their ranking based on service and reliability.
What is the difference between a vanity press and self-publishing?
A vanity press charges authors upfront to carry out a range of (usually shoddy) publishing services, whereas self-publishing involves authors taking full control over their book project and reaping the rewards accordingly.
Publishing scams will always be around as long as authors are paying for their services.
How do you, as an author, avoid falling into this trap?
The self-publishing arena is like a vast oasis of information and a never-ending learning process. Vanity press publishers are banking on you having no idea what to do, which is why you might consider turning to a publishing company in the first place.
Our advice at Self Publishing School is this: Educate yourself on how to publish a book. You’d be surprised the things you actually don’t have to pay for.
Take control of your self-publishing career today.
Are you ready to self-publish your book?
Enroll in an online self-publishing course
You can check out this list of best self-publishing courses. I highly recommend joining an online self-publishing course for achieving all your publishing goals.
You will learn how to write and market your book your way and all of it within your control. You won’t have to give up anything or sign your book rights over to a publisher that will exploit your creativity.
If you are uncertain as to whether you should spend money on a course or not, but you want to know the ins and outs of self-publishing, grab Chandler’s book, Published. and start here.
Meanwhile, the scammy publishers are on the phone right now with a future author that isn’t doing these things.
Read Books on “How to Write” and Self-Publishing
Reading is a cheap way to educate yourself on writing. Make it a habit to read for 30 minutes a day. Educate yourself on the publishing industry.
Top 10 Book Recommendations on Writing and Self-Publishing:
#1-Published by Chandler Bolt
#2-The Miracle Morning for Writers: How to Build a Writing Ritual That Increases Your Impact and Your Income by Hal Elrod and Steve Scott
#3-Write. Publish. Repeat. (The No-Luck-Required Guide to Self-Publishing Success) by Sean Platt and Johnny B. Truant
#4-Why Authors Fail: 17 Mistakes Self Publishing Authors Make That Sabotage Their Success (And How To Fix Them) by Derek Doepker
#5-The Successful Author Mindset: A Handbook for Surviving the Writer’s Journey by Joanna Penn
#6-You Must Write a Book: Boost Your Brand, Get More Business, and Become the Go-To Expert by Honoree Corder
#7-Let’s Get Digital: How To Self-Publish, And Why You Should by David Gaughran
#8-You Are a Writer (So Start Acting Like One) by Jeff Goins
#9-On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
#10-Six Figure Author: Using Data to Sell Books: Write Faster, Write Smarter by Chris Fox
Are vanity publishers worth it?
No, vanity publishers are not worth it because they exploit authors while offering nothing worthwhile in return.
Now that you are totally aware of what to watch out for, it’s time to take control of your own author career!
Disclosure: Some of the links above may contain affiliate partnerships, meaning, at no additional cost to you, Self-Publishing School may earn a commission if you click through to make a purchase.