New Definition of Vanity Press

Keith Snyder proposes a new definition of  "vanity press" that reflects the way self-publishing has evolved since the advent of print-on-demand technology:

We need to stop telling people a vanity press is a company that charges fees, and start telling them a vanity press is a
company that makes the bulk of its money from a very large number of
very small print runs that it sells mainly to people the authors know.

That’s a 21st-century vanity press.

He may be on to something here, though the definition may need a little refining to fully cover scams like PublishAmerica and their ilk.

(Thanks to Paul Guyot for the heads-up).

37 thoughts on “New Definition of Vanity Press”

  1. Certainly, because the the main ruse they use. If the books aren’t on shelves it’s doubtful anyone who isn’t notified from a list of friends will ever know of the book’s existance. And again to me self-publishing means the whole ball of wax. That’s not what these outfits are.

  2. Thanks for the link—but typography geek that I am, I just noticed you’ve got inline numerals!
    That’s, like… the coolest blog feature I’ve ever seen.

  3. The litmus test if you’re with a small press: If the publisher is doing zilch to get their books onto store shelves – chain or indie – run, don’t walk, to the nearest exit.
    Scary thing is that one of these was third on my list of places to send my ms before shopping for an agent. (Yeah, I know. Ass backward, but live and learn. I didn’t think I’d get a referral.) The bad news is that I didn’t learn how bad until months after I signed my contract. Had my publisher not picked up my book, and the number 2 small press passed, I could very easily have signed with this other house and been stuck with an unsaleable book. There are enough problems at the low end of the totem pole with distribution as it is without someone with a Lightning Source contract, zero contacts at the chains or with any indies, and no editing skills beyond a token grammar and spell check making things worse.
    The other thing is, and this may be an unfair test, can the publisher get any kind of MWA or PWA nominations? With the number of small presses out there legion, it shouldn’t be a killer, but if an antho has a story or two short listed or a book gets the same, it not only means the publisher has some degree of credibility, but more people (ie – booksellers, consumers, agents, big houses) are looking at that house’s catalogue.
    Granted small presses face an uphill battle as it is. My book can’t get on one chain’s shelves, but does get on another’s, and which indies are able to order it is scattershot, but for an unknown, the book is moving. I seldom see UglyTown on the shelves, but Pacoe and Fassbender bust their humps to promote their authors, and at least two have gone on to big house deals. So there’s two small presses I know are serious about the biz.

  4. I think “Watch out for career-derailing small presses” is a legitimate warning, but it’s a different warning from “Watch out for vanity presses.” The former is about avoiding dishonest or ineffective players in the industry; the latter is about keeping non-industry fingers out of your pockets.
    I wonder how the profits of the publishing industry compare to the profits of the wanna-be-published industry–both its legitimate and dishonest arms.

  5. Jim,
    UGLY TOWN isn’t a POD house…which is a big difference. Their books look great (ie professional) and are actually distributed to bookstores… which can’t be said of most of the POD presses.

  6. Another problem with making “distribution to bookstores” a criterion is that the vanity presses then say “Our books ARE available to bookstores.”
    And it’s true, in theory. In practice, it’s not, but that theoretical truth casts enough doubt that we’re back to arming the enemy. All they have to say (yet again) is “Look at the definition of ‘vanity press’ that the legit publishing industry people have given you. We don’t fit that definition!”
    Any useful definition of “vanity press” must not be easily spun to confuse and defraud new victims.

  7. That’s what’s insidious about it. I don’t know if it ain’t on the shelf or meant to be, that’s a pretty good test;Offset print runs and regular distribution. These POD presses even if done more author friendly still don’t cut it. Mention it though and you will be swarmed by the authors.

  8. That’s true about UglyTown. It wasn’t my intention to say they use POD, but they are indeed small (much smaller than Five Star). My point was that one shouldn’t use the print method as the litmus test but the business ethic.
    Which means one has to do some homework. Which you should be doing anyway, regardless of whether it’s a tiny publisher in Tar Shack, Kansas, or Random House.

  9. Someone would have to define a successful commercial use of the POD print method. The statement concerning print method is cliche. “It’s a technology.” That method always goes with the business plan in question: selling books online only.

  10. Even if Publisher X only sells their books online, that would not in and of itself indicate they were illegitimate or not worthy. The criteria has to be more precise that that. The crucial factor is which way does the money flow? Unfortunately, that’s nearly impossible to know from the outside.

  11. Well it may be perfectly legal as is Publishamerica. However it’s completely unethical and nonstandard to the publishing industry. How can we not know this about any publisher? With a POD money always flows to the publisher. They own the books as they come off the press, but unlike a traditional press the books rarely go anywhere to be actually sold, and a trickle goes back to the hapless author.

  12. Publishers always own the books as they come off the press, so that’s a useless criteria as well. You also continue to conflate POD with vanity or other illegitimate presses, which also isn’t true. Point Blank is one huge, glaring exception and I suspect there are others. This discussion seems to be going in circles, though.

  13. Tell it to the lawyer. It’s outlined clearly there. The self-publisher owns his own books as they come off the press and gets all of the proceeds. POD presses are still illegitimate in the marketplace compared to the standard. I don’t make the rules.

  14. I see there is an affimity for Wildside and spin-offs, just a year old and already an exception to the POD mystique. To me it just looks like a POD-press selling online only books that by virtue of the method don’t sell. This is not enough of a history to be an exception to anything. I’m sure anyone affiliated with them in any way, like the other instant publishers will defend them to their death. That much is clear.

  15. I’ll take that as a defense. Pointblank is a year old. I think the appropriate item is it is a POD. I’ve read the article on POD from the founder who recognizes the plethora of problems and then defends them. Why wouldn’t he? It just doesn’t cut it.

  16. I have no affiliation whatsoever with PointBlank. From what I can see, though, they’re doing good work and have some very talented writers in their stable (including several people who also publish elsewhere, with traditional presses).
    I don’t know if they’re making any money from it, but they’re doing some good books. Really, the latter is all I care about anyway.

  17. How do readers get them though? That’s what the fuss is about. The idea that POD books are a below the standard level. Hell, we know that the odds of a Publishamerica or iUniverse author being worthy, maybe long but still likely nonetheless, but with a POD effort no one will ever know it.

  18. People buy ’em online, same as books from small presses, which you’re not going to find in stores either. (As far as that goes, you can’t find most books on the shelves, unless they’re bestsellers.)
    With PointBlank, at least, they are getting good attention for their books. They seem to do an okay job of publicity and are getting some reviews. Having a catalog with respected names in it helps, too, of course.
    As I said before, I’m mostly concerned about the quality of the books, and I’ve seen some good ones from PointBlank.

  19. “As far as that goes, you can’t find most books on the shelves, unless they’re bestsellers”
    I can’t agree with that and online sales are a small part of the book market. 11 percent I believe.

  20. Pick any random mid-list novel, then go to the local Barnes & Noble and see if they have it in stock. What are the chances?
    An interesting new trend that I was reading about recently in the Times is the growing number of book sales made by grocery stores. (Mary Higgins Clark recently did a signing at a Wegmans near here!) This will only accelerate the trend towards eliminating the mid-list and pushing more buyers towards the top 20 titles.

  21. Mid-list is in trouble there’s mo question but I find quite a number of low sellers in a number of categories present in the book stores. Prominence is another matter, but in the store nonetheless.

  22. Let me respond to a few statements here. It is as Michael Bracken said, that Wildside Press has been around since 1989, publishing authors like Anne McCaffrey, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and many others, until one of our distributors went belly-up in the early nineties, which slowed us down a bit. We’ve been coming back strongly, however.
    These days we use a variety of printing technologies, dependent on the project, and we’ve had titles on Borders / B&N bookshelves in the past (We’ll have much more, with our new Diamond distribution deal). Diamond doesn’t particularly care how the books are printed, so long as they’re priced properly and packaged properly.
    From what I recall a few of the PointBlank titles have been selling quite well, in its first year, compared to more established imprints, like my own Prime Books, where I’ve sold thousands of units of titles, _regardless_ of printing technology.
    It’s all in how you present and package yourself, more than anything else.

  23. The problem is that if you continue to break down the argument in terms of printing technology you risk losing sight of the real issues, I suspect.

  24. I agree. Basing any part of the definition of “vanity press” on printing technology is just another way of ensuring the good guys are always behind the curve.

  25. “From what I recall a few of the PointBlank titles have been selling quite well, in its first year, compared to more established imprints, like my own Prime Books, where I’ve sold thousands of units of titles, _regardless_ of printing technology.”
    Why would expensive POD titles wind up on shelves when by definition the reason they are POD is not to be found on shelves with even small print runs? I don’t get the defense.

  26. I don’t get your statement. We’ve had no issues getting our books on the shelves, when we were putting them into Borders or Barnes and Noble. Nor do I doubt we’ll have any issue getting the books we’re putting into Diamond, either (which is a mix of pod- and offset-printed titles, including Anne McCaffrey, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Robert E. Howard). You probably are adopting a different definition of pod than we might, so perhaps that’s where the confusion is? I much prefer the “short-run” term. POD does not necessarily mean that you don’t have inventory, by any means. We carry quite a lot of inventory, because we happen to sell them on a daily basis.
    But, in any case our trade paperbacks are priced pretty much with the market, without much price resistance. I’ve had no issue selling thousands of units (with the warning that most of that is driven by library sales, however).
    Let me stress this again, it doesn’t _matter_ how the book was printed, which is what you seem hung up on. It’s how you package, market, and sell the book that makes the difference.
    It’s what you do with it that matters.

  27. Sure if that’s what you’re doing. As it generally is applied as a business model that isn’t the case. You’d be stone cold alone in using POD in this way since they are higher priced to produce this way. Who would put out a book without expecting to out at least sell 3000 copies?

  28. Since the original business model of Wildside Press, beginning around 1997 (several years after our main distributor crashed and horribly burned), was to put titles back into print, particularly science fiction and fantasy, where the backlist constantly sells, in very small numbers, why would you expect them to sell 3,000 units? If you expected every small press title to work on that premise, then the small press scene would not really exist! 🙂
    The problem with handling original titles didn’t become a real issue until much later, but within reason it’s moving in the right direction. But we are taking about a small press here, currently. You seem to be talking about something else entirely.
    Would you like to expand?

  29. “If you expected every small press title to work on that premise, then the small press scene would not really exist! :-)”
    For me they don’t exist. I only deal with actual publishers that use offset print runs and stock stores with them. I went down the other road. Never again.

  30. Ah. I don’t follow your logic or argumentative statements, really, which appears to be largely colored by your personal experiences with two vanity publishing companies. (Correct me if I’m wrong, of course.) The real world, the publishing world, doesn’t quite work like that.
    The science fiction / fantasy (and mystery) fields have enjoyed a very rich and fruitful history with the small press, going back to the thirties (if you want to go back to Arkham House). Right now the small press in science fiction / fantasy is entertaining a nice resurgence, between the titles being put out by Golden Gryphon, Night Shade, NESFA, Small Beer Press, and many more, all of which that pay cash advances and that put more than three thousand copies out on the bookshelves. I’m pretty sure there is an equivalent in the mystery field, but I’ll leave that to others to answer and expand. (Perhaps Five Star, but they sell quite a lot of their print run to libraries, actually).
    Most people start somewhere and it’s usually the small press.

  31. Oh, by the way, from what I recall, when I talked to the founders of Uglytown many years ago, they were printing their books in very large quantities to the trade. (I actually saw several of their titles in a Borders a long time ago . . . ) By no means are they a POD publisher, not when they have distribution with Publishers Group West.

  32. I’ve never seen a Wildside book anywhere. Make of that what you will. On the other hand I can walk straight to Lee’s books. Tor/Forge is a low as I’d go, and that of course isn’t low at all. Below that is.

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