A vanity press, vanity publisher, or subsidy publisher is a publishing house in which authors pay to have their books published. In contrast, mainstream publishers, whether major companies or small presses, derive their profit from sales of the book to the general public. Publishers must therefore try to publish works that will sell well, and typically reject a majority of the books submitted to them.
Because vanity presses are not usually selective, publication by a vanity press is typically not seen as conferring the same recognition or prestige as commercial publication. Vanity presses do offer more independence for the author than does the mainstream publishing industry; however, their fees can be higher than the fees normally charged for similar printing services, and sometimes restrictive contracts are required.
While a commercial publisher's intended market is the general public, a vanity publisher's intended market is the author and a very small number of interested members of the general public. In some cases, authors of a book that is vanity published will buy a substantial number of copies of their book, so that they can give it away as a promotional tool.
The term "vanity press" is considered pejorative, implying that an author who uses such a service is publishing out of vanity and that his or her work would otherwise not be commercially successful. A vanity press may assert control over rights to the published work and provide limited or no editing, cover art, or marketing services in exchange for their fee. Vanity presses may engage in deceptive practices or costly services with limited recourse available to the writer. In the US, these practices may be cited by the Better Business Bureau as unfavorable reports by consumers.
In the traditional publishing model, the publisher assumes the risk of publication and production costs, selects the works to be published, edits the author's text, and provides for marketing and distribution, provides the ISBN, and satisfies whatever legal deposit and copyright registration formalities are required. Such a publisher normally pays the author a fee, called an advance, for the right to publish the author's work; and further payments, called royalties, based on the sales of the work. This led to James D. Macdonald's dictum, "Money should always flow toward the author" (sometimes called Yog's Law).
In a variant of Yog's law for self-publishing, author John Scalzi has proposed this alternate, to distinguish self-publishing from vanity publishing, "While in the process of self-publishing, money and rights are controlled by the writer." Self-publishing is distinguished from vanity publishing by the writer maintaining control of copyright as well as the editorial and publishing process, including marketing and distribution.
With vanity publishing, authors pay to have their books published. Because the author is paying to have the book published, the book does not go through an approval or editorial process as it would in a traditional setting where the publisher takes a financial risk on the author's ability to write successfully. Editing and formatting services may be offered.
Self-publishers undertake the functions of a publisher for their own books. Some "self-publishers" write, edit, design, lay out, market, and promote their books themselves, relying on a printer only for actual printing and binding. Others write the manuscript themselves but hire freelance professionals to provide editing and production services.
More recently,[when?] companies have offered their services to act as a sort of agent between the writer and a small printing operation.
A slightly more sophisticated model of a vanity press is described by Umberto Eco in Foucault's Pendulum. The company that provides initial setting for the novel operates a small yet respectable arts and humanities publishing house as a front. It does not make a profit but it brings a steady flow of substandard authors. They are politely rejected and then referred to another publishing firm in the same office--the vanity press that will print anything for money.
Some companies make use of print on demand technologies based on modern digital printing. These companies are often able to offer their services with little or no upfront cost to the author, but they are still considered vanity presses by writers' advocates. Vanity presses earn their money not from sales of books to readers, as other publishers do, but from sales and services to the books' authors. The author receives the shipment of his or her books and may attempt to resell them through whatever channels are available.
Writers considering self-publishing often also consider directly hiring a printer. According to self-publisher and poet Peter Finch, vanity presses charge higher premiums and create a risk that an author who has published with a vanity press will have more difficulty working with a respectable publisher in the future.
Some vanity presses using print on demand technology act as printers as well as sellers of support services for authors interested in self-publishing. Reputable firms of this type are typically marked by clear contract terms, lack of excessive fees, retail prices comparable to those from commercial printers, lack of pressure to purchase "extra" services, contracts that do not claim exclusive rights to the work being published (though one would be hard pressed to find a legitimate publisher willing to put out a competing edition, making non-exclusivity meaningless), and honest indications of what services they will and will not provide, and what results the author may reasonably expect. However, the distinction between the worst of these firms and vanity presses is essentially trivial, though a source of great confusion as the low fees have attracted tens of thousands of authors who want to avoid the stigma of vanity publishing while doing just that.
The vanity press model has been extended to other media. Some companies produce videos, music, and other works with less perceived commercial potential in exchange for a fee from the creators of those works. In some cases, the company may contribute original content to the works (e.g., supplying lyrics for a melody). A notable example is ARK Music Factory, which produced and released Rebecca Black's 2011 viral video "Friday".
These variants on the vanity press theme are still much less common than the traditional, book-based vanity press.
Vanity academic journals also exist, often called bogus journals, which will publish with little or no editorial oversight (although they may claim to be peer reviewed). For example, one such bogus journal (International Journal of Advanced Computer Technology) accepted for publication a paper called Get me off Your Fucking Mailing List which, apart from a couple of headings and references, consists of the sentence "Get me off your fucking mailing list." repeated many times.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it was common for authors, if they could afford it, to pay the costs of publishing their books. Such writers could expect more control of their work, greater profits, or both. Among such authors were Lewis Carroll, who paid the expenses of publishing Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and most of his subsequent work. Mark Twain, E. Lynn Harris, Zane Grey, Upton Sinclair, Carl Sandburg, Edgar Rice Burroughs, George Bernard Shaw, Edgar Allan Poe, Rudyard Kipling, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman and Anaïs Nin also self-published some or all of their works. Not all of these authors were successful in their ventures; Mark Twain's publishing business, for example, went bankrupt.
The term vanity press itself appeared in mainstream U.S. publications as early as 1941.
Vanity publishing is like T-ball: Everyone gets a chance at bat, gets a hit, and takes home a trophy. But don't expect anyone other than your mom to applaud.