Publishing, Printing, or Scam?

- by Laura Resnick

In this post, I talk about “dishonest” businesses, “scams,” and “cons.” Since that’s strong language, it should be clearly understood that these are my own views and that I do not represent Novelists, Inc. in any capacity.

The terms “self-publishing” and “vanity press” are often misunderstood by aspiring writers. This is understandable since publishing has always been a strange, misinterpreted, and often illogical industry. Additionally, it’s now changing so rapidly, in terms of technology developments and new business models, that the industry does indeed look confusing.

However, and particularly with regard to print publishing, certain basic guidelines are still true, and will remain true for the foreseeable future. Let’s examine a few of them.

1. “Self-publishing” and vanity-press scams (oh, sorry, “vanity publishing“) are not forms of publishing. They are two distinct methods of being PRINTED, not PUBLISHED.

“Self-publishing” is a legitimate set of PRINT services and products offered to people with book-length projects that are not suitable for PUBLISHING (ex. family memoir, church-group cookbook, guidebook to your small town, etc.) or whose authors choose not to pursue PUBLISHING.

“Vanity publishing,” by contrast, is the perfect con, preying on the dreams of desperate aspiring writers who are uneducated about how publishing works. A vanity press is “self-publishing” with inflated product prices and false “services” offered at equally inflated fees. Like other well-orchestrated cons, vanity scams have financially ruined people.

“Self-publishing” is an honest business.

Vanity press is a dishonest business, but it’s a completely legal one. However, a number of vanity scams cross the line far enough to wind up in court and get shut down. Watchdog groups like Writer Beware and Preditors and Editors monitor these operations and report on these incidents. You can also keep yourself informed by following the Writer Beware blog.

For detailed explanations of the differences between legitimate “self-publishing” and vanity press, check out the links at the bottom of this article, particularly the Writer Beware “definitions” link.

2. The single greatest difference between the PUBLISHING business model and the PRINT business model is that PUBLISHERS make their money by selling books to consumers, whereas PRINT business models make their money by selling products and services to writers. These are two totally different business models, not permutations of the same business model

In a PUBLISHING business model, the writer is paid; in PRINT models, the writer pays. If your business arrangement with a company calls for you to contribute any money–any money at all–toward the production of your book, then you are dealing with a PRINT model, not a PUBLISHING model

3. The next key difference, and one that is greatly misunderstood by many aspiring writers attracted to PRINT business models, is that PUBLISHERS make their money by selling books to consumers via professional MARKETING, SALES, and DISTRIBUTION mechanisms that are not part of the PRINT business models of “self-publishing,” and which certainly aren’t part of the vanity scams that masquerade as “self-publishers” (though a number of vanity scams aggressively sell so-called marketing, sales, and distribution “services”).

As a paid professional competing commercially in the industry, my PUBLISHERS market and distribute my books throughout the book retail industry nationwide. This is how we both make money—by getting my books into as many consumers’ hands as possible.

By contrast, in a PRINT business model, the author’s books are NOT marketed and distributed. Consequently, the only people likely to buy a “self-published” book are the ones who come into direct contact with the author. Moreover, without a professional marketing and sales mechanism, the book being available at online booksellers like is the distribution equivalent of you dropping it off in the dumpster behind your local bookstore in the dead of night.

When a “self-published” book does get an audience, it’s not because the book is good. It may be brilliant or it may be mediocre; that’s irrelevant (and also in the eye of the beholder). What attracts an audience to a “self-published” book is an author who is a brilliant and tireless salesman. If you are indeed that sort of person (not many writers are), you may eventually make back the money you spent on your “self-published” book. Or  not.

Meanwhile, even if you are indeed an exceptionally gifted and dedicated salesperson, you will not make back your money if your book is PRINTED by a vanity press. This is because a vanity press is set up entirely to empty your pockets. For example, a very common strategy of a vanity scam is to charge you high fees for the “editing,” packaging, and PRINTING of the book, to charge you fees to “market” the book, then to pay you only a percentage of any copy of the book that actually sells even though you have paid all the printing-and-production costs of the book. (By contrast, the reason I only get a percentage of a book’s cover price–my royalty rate–is that my publisher, not I, pays for every single cost associated with publishing my books). Another common ploy is that a vanity scam, which may give you a small number of author’s copies of the book for free, then charges you for any additional copies that you want–again, even though you have already paid for every copy that exists; so the author winds up paying for each copy of the book twice over, and at inflated fees both times. (By contrast, in legitimate “self-publishing,” all the copies belong outright to the author.)

A vanity press is set up to make its money from you; and preying on the desperation of aspiring writers who don’t know anything about the publishing business is a very profitable scam. So a vanity press has no incentive whatsoever to invest the money and the work involved in marketing or selling your book to consumers. This is among the reasons that the best case scenario is that any so-called marketing and sales “services” you pay for are useless (and, in less sunny scenarios, altogether bogus).

For obvious reasons, vanity presses rarely call themselves vanity presses. Instead, they use a variety of obfuscating terms (see the Writer Beware link below). Unfortunately, one that they use often is “self-publishing.” This muddies the waters terribly, with costly (even devastating) results for many aspiring writers.

4. When citing the few rare examples of legitimately “self-published” novels (i.e. not vanity press) that subsequently experienced national distribution and even commercial success, aspiring writers are often unaware of the relevant part of those examples: That only happened after those novels got professionally PUBLISHED.

(First of all, don’t bother citing Virginia Woolf or Irma Rombauer; business models 50-80 years old have no application or practical relevance in today’s publishing world.)

“Self-published” novels in the modern world that become commercial successes have something crucial in common: The authors are exceptional salespeople who, by virtue of that effort, eventually attracted the attention of a PUBLISHER; the publisher acquired and professionally PUBLISHED the book, turning the grassroots success into a national commercial success. There are no existing examples of novels that achieved national retail distribution (let alone commercial success) with only a PRINT business model; all the examples include this subsequent transition to a PUBLISHING model.

It’s well worth considering that hundreds of writers every year are pulled of out of slushpiles and offered first-time PUBLISHING contracts. This is far greater than the number of “self-published” novels that attract the attention of a PUBLISHER each year.

Meanwhile, I am unaware of any vanity press book ever having made the transition to a PUBLISHING model. It should also be noted that the absence of vanity press novels from this pattern is in direct contrast to the glowing (and wholly false) promises that vanity presses often make about positioning your book to get noticed by the professional PUBLISHING industry. Promo-copy that attempts to persuade you, the consumer, that a PRINT model will lead you to a PUBLISHING career or attract the attention of professional editors is a sure sign that you’re looking at a vanity scam.

5. Various PRINT business models are mistakenly described by many aspiring writers as being “new business models.” This is understandable, since it’s a self-description emphatically promoted by many of these companies. It is, however, completely erroneous.

“Self-publishing” and “vanity publishing” are prominent these days thanks to new technologies, but the current business models themselves are very old and haven’t really changed in decades. Indeed, I advise you to view any PRINT operation describing itself as a “new publishing business model” with grave suspicion; a legitimate “self-publishing” operation selling honest services and products at fair prices doesn’t need to disguise itself with misleading jargon, but it is the common practice of vanity scams to do so.

6. A common misconception among some aspiring writers is that your paying to have your book PRINTED is the equivalent of a band paying for a demo tape to distribute to record companies, music producers, managers, and agents. This is a myth fostered specifically by businesses trying to convince you to give them your money to PRINT your book. In fact, if you aspire to be professionally PUBLISHED, then your MANUSCRIPT is your demo tape, the thing that you send to agents, editors, and publishers.

Paying to PRINT the manuscript before you send it to editors, agents, and legitimate review venues will not attract their attention, impress them, or make them think your star is on the rise. This because the fact that you paid to have your book PRINTED is irrelevant in terms of the PUBLISHING business model.

7. Another common misconception is that in “self-publishing” your book, you are investing in your work rather than waiting for someone else to invest in it.

This mistaken notion is based on not recognizing the crucial differences between PRINTING a book and PUBLISHING it. If your aspirations are in any way professional as a novelist, then what you have actually “invested” in with a PRINT business model is a garage-full of copies of your book (or an URL for a print-on-demand product) that you have no effective means of marketing and distributing nationally to consumers.

8. There is also an oft-stated belief that a self-published writer has “artistic freedom” which would, by contrast, be sacrificed or compromised in a professional publishing deal.

This is actually a very complicated subject, worthy of a long essay. (Which I may well write eventually, because it’s a good subject.) But the short version, which will suffice for the purposes of today’s blog, is: Rubbish.

The argument that self-publishing offers artistic freedom is most often an excuse used to rationalize the lack of dogged, enduring, committed persistence that is the single most essential ingredient (more so than talent, frankly) needed to break into publishing as a writer and to maintain a career in this highly competitive profession. The phrase “I’m self-publishing because I want artistic freedom” is usually transparent code for: “I’m not willing to deal with the two most basic realities of becoming–and remaining–a professional writer: submitting my work and receiving rejections.”

“Artistic freedom” is also an argument used to evade acknowledging the very real possibility that an aspiring writer’s work simply might not be ready for professional publication yet. Writing a novel is not a natural talent that flows freely from your muse-blessed fingers. It’s a difficult craft that takes years of dedicated practice to develop to a professional level. Not working enough on their craft is one of the two most common mistakes made by aspiring writers.

The other most common mistake of aspiring writers is not educating themselves about the highly competitive, demanding profession that they aspire to enter—which is precisely why so many aspiring writers misunderstand the crucial differences between a PUBLISHING business model and a PRINT business model. And also why a percentage of aspiring writers fall prey to costly vanity scams.

I encourage you to post links to this article. You also have my permission to repost this piece wherever you see fit, and to distribute it electronically or in hardcopy, as long as you don’t change its contents.

–Laura Resnick


“Spotting the Publishing Scam” by attorney Ellen M. Kozak

Laura Resnick’s Writer’s Resources Page

Writer Beware: Definitions

“Is the Publisher Just A Middleman?” by Lucy A. Snyder

“The Price of Vanity” by Moira Allen



  1. While I share your comtempt for the vanity press, I disagree with your statement that ““Self-publishing” is a legitimate set of PRINT services and products offered to people [who]… choose not to pursue PUBLISHING.

    I’ve had books published by large and small traditional publishers starting with Doubleday in 1976. I was never satisfied with the book quality or money, so last year I formed Silver Sands Books with the intention of publishing one book (I’m now working on #6).

    So far I’ve published only books that _I’ve_ written, so it seems like I am certainly a self-publisher.

    I hire editors and designers, purchase photography, choose printers and wholesalers, execute marketing and publicity, join trade associations, own ISBNs, get LCCNs and copyrights, read PW, send out ARCs, and attend Book Expo.

    It certainly seems like my self-publishing is “PUBLISHING.”

    Michael N. Marcus

    author of “Become a Real Self-Publisher,”

    author of “Stories I’d Tell My Children (but maybe not until they’re adults),” coming 4/1/10.

  2. Laura:
    Thank you for all the time and effort you put into this article. It clears up any misunderstandings that any/all unpublished authors could possibly have.

  3. Fabulous blog, Laura. I love the way you call a skunk a skunk.


  4. Thank you for a thoughtful and thought provoking article. I feel like I understand the differences between the publishing and printing models much better.

    I can see why the vanity publishing retoric could be seductive to someone with a dream of getting published. But it once again reminds us that short cuts usually aren’t and it is those very dreams that make the scams so successful.

    I especially appreciated your explaination of why the vanity publisher is not motivated to do anything to market your book, and are in fact better off not expending any of their money to do so- they already have their profit. On to the next sucker.

  5. “Writing a novel is not a natural talent that flows freely from your muse-blessed fingers. It’s a difficult craft that takes years of dedicated practice to develop to a professional level.”

    As an aspiring writer who is determined to see her book published, how true that statement is. From 2006 (when I began writing) until today, I’ve worked tirelessly learning and perfecting my skills. One thing I’ve learned- my writing has to be the absolute best it can be if I want to succeed in this business.

    It’s a hard lesson to learn after you’ve fallen in love with your words, your story and your characters only to have others tell you this labor of love isn’t ready for publication.

    For me, I want a bonafide publisher to buy my work. It’s the path I’ve chosen for myself and one I’m determined to see to the end. However, there are times in the dark of night when self-doubts creep in and despite all you know, you start asking the “what-if” questions.

    I’m saving this article as a reminder that my path is the right one. Thank you, Laura for taking the time to explain in detail the differences between publishing, self-publishing and vanity. This information is priceless!!

  6. Virginia, hi! Haven’t seen you in person in years! Nice to “see” you here.

    Maggie, yes, the rhetoric is indeed seductive. Vanity press is a very old business model, so the rhetoric used by this business model has been crafted over the course of decades. Always aimed at convincing the aspiring writer that /she can be PUBLISHED by spending money on that business’s services rather than by working hard and competing professionally. Also like any good con, a vanity press makes it APPEAR that the victim’s cash outlay will be “only,” say $5,000, but then keeps escalating the money they collect from you after they’ve got you on the hook. A writer I know was recently at a convention where quiet a few of the vanity victims there (quite UNAWARE that they were victims) had spent $12K to have a book PRINTED and now, selling maybe one copy at each convention they attended (which conventions it typically cost them a few hundred dollars apiece to attention), they were vocally wondering how a writer actually -makes- money at this.

    Obviously, we make money by getting PUBLISHED, which is a completely difference business model.

  7. Rosemary, well said. I think it is indeed a hard lesson, and vanity presses make their money from people unable or unwilling to deal with the lesson that it takes a lot of hard work and time for one’s writing to be competitive at a professional level. Additionally, precisely because it this a HIGHLY competitive profession, even having a writing quality that’s ready isn’t enough, the writer must also have a book that some editor believes readers will want to READ.

    Most professionals have no patience with people not willing to put in the effort it takes to find a market for a book, since -we- put in that effort throughout our careers. I’ve got a book coming out in January it took me over a dozen years to sell (during which time, I was selling other books, since this is my full-time profession). A friend of mine recently sold a book it took her over two years to sell. I’ve got a couple of other books it took me anywhere from 1 year to 8 years to sell. Writing, submitting, getting rejecting, and continuing to submit are part of the profession. In much the way that anyone unwilling to go through auditions as a lifestyle simply isn’t cut out to be professional actor, anyone unwilling to make book submissions as a lifestyle simply isn’t cut out to be a professional writer. This is the lifestyle. Spending a ton of money to print one’s own book and NOT get it into the consumer marketplace to be discovered by thousands of readers does not make one a professional writer; it makes one a hobbyist with an enviable amount of disposable income to spend on that hobby.

  8. Laura, thank you very much for this insightful blog. I will be forwarding a link to this to the writing loops I’m on.



  9. Laura – A fabulous article! So much good info. I’m passing along the link to many of the aspiring writers in groups I belong to. Thanks so much for tackling this subject.


  10. Laura, thank you for this excellent and educational post. I’m passing it on.

  11. Laura,

    First off, excellent article on explaining the differences between the publication methods.

    Now, that said, I am going to disagree strongly with your definition of “publish.” In its basic definition, it means, “to prepare and issue printed material for public distribution. By this definition, self-publishing IS publishing. Even if one publishes a simple local newsletter, it’s still publishing. One might argue, however, that a printed document intended for a restricted audience (such as an internal company newsletter), might not be considered a publication.

    The flaw in your definition seems to be that your equating “publisher” with “publishing house.” That’s simply an untrue equation. The two are distinctly different. In fact, an individual can apply for a business permit or license and self-publish himself or herself as a business. How is this different from a publishing house. What if that individual published one other author? Is it still self-publishing? What about publishing house owners who publish their own books? They’ve self-published.

    I also take slight issue with the business models you enumerate. It makes not one bit of difference where the various services come from for publishing. Larger publishers do everything in-house. However, some of the smaller ones outsource editorial services. The whole idea of publishing a work is for the author to put his work out there and possibly to make money from doing so. Whether all of that money accrues to the author or whether some of it goes to others (i.e. a publishing house) also makes no difference.

    While I acknowledge that Vanity Presses rarely have the author’s interests at heart, the same can be said of the bigger publishing houses whose primary interest is to make money from an author’s work. The ONLY difference is that the author doesn’t have to foot the bill for the expenses of the actual publishing, and in return he gets a nominal royalty for his efforts. In that regard, self-publishing is a better deal for a savvy author because–done properly–he’ll see more return on his investment.

    Let’s not forget that almost all (if not all) early books were self-published, this long before publishers and publishing houses.

    Therefore, respectfully, let’s not denigrate those people who do self-publish good works successfully. The original “Bridges of Madison County” was self-published, and I don’t think you’ll hear anyone claiming it was printed instead of published in that form. The same is true of the novel “Eragon.” Saying that these authors’ works initially were not “published” is an insult to them.

    I am a published (not self-published) author myself, by two different publishing houses. Regardless of how we make our books available to the public, it’s still considered publishing.


  12. Rick, Eragon was not self-published. Christopher Paolini’s family owned a small press and had been in the book business for years. They had backgrounds in marketing and sales and they put the full might of their knowledge behind selling their son’s book. As a homeschooled kid, he spent huge amounts of time going to schools and libraries and presenting his work. And his book did well and he got some attention…after his book was submitted to a big publisher. He did not become a household name UNTIL his book was traditionally published.

    And Waller did NOT self-publish BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY. His agent, Aaron Priest, sold it to Warner Books. His first books were published small press. But he never, ever paid to be published.

    Check out the truth here:

  13. the same can be said of the bigger publishing houses whose primary interest is to make money from an author’s work.

    Yes, but the difference is, when the publisher makes money, SO DOES THE AUTHOR. And I wouldn’t call it nominal, either.

    Say I get a really low advance…$5000 for instance. If that book does well, I could end up making much, much more very quickly with the might of the publisher behind it. Or, the book could tank and make nothing for the publisher…but I’ve still got my $5000. And I didn’t have to sell books out of the back of my car.

  14. Rick,

    You’re expressing a lot of the common misconceptions of aspiring writers who are attracted to PRINT models, and those are already addressed in this article (as well as by Julie Leto’s replies).


  15. Thank you so much for writing this Laura. I was taken by a vanity company a few years ago. A lesson learned that I’ve starting to share with others now that I’m published with Lyrical Press and see the difference.
    I’ll pass this article on to other authors so they can be educated too.


  16. Brava, Laura!

    Excellent analysis. I’m sharing this link.

  17. Rick said: ‘Let’s not forget that almost all (if not all) early books were self-published, this long before publishers and publishing houses.’

    I don’t understand where you got this idea. Not one of my early books was self-published and I’ve been published in several difference genres: school textbooks, historical romance, SF/F, historical sagas and modern novels. I know scores of authors and not one of them was self-published first, either.

    Laura, excellent article, which explains vanity printing extremely clearly.

    Rosemary, you show a good understanding of novel writing as a profession. It is, indeed, complex, and usually takes a lot of practice to get to a professional standard. I sometimes compare it to the difference between a home-baked cake and a professionally-baked wedding cake. I wish you well in your efforts.

    All the best from Australia

  18. Brilliant, as usual, Laura. Thank you for calling it like it is….


  19. Great article, Laura- thank you. I would only add that most of us are not persistant and knowledgable enough to properly market our work and ourselves in the traditional publishing arena, let alone trying to sell the same work to the general public. There is a lot to be learned by rejection- like what sells and what doesn’t.

  20. Laura, thanks for a great article that succinctly (as much as one can be for a complicated topic) explains the differences between publishing, legitimate self-publishing, and vanity presses.

    Rick, you say, “Let’s not forget that almost all (if not all) early books were self-published, this long before publishers and publishing houses.” What early books are you talking about? Jane Austin, who was published by T. Egerton? Or James Joyce, who was published by Grant Richards, Ltd.? Or current authors? My observation of current writers matches what Laura has articulated–commercial success (by whatever subjective measure you want) comes after being published by a publisher as defined in this blog.

    … Sharon

  21. I’ll apologize if I got some of my facts wrong about Waller, but I have heard the Waller story from a number of sources. Interestingly, though (contrary to the David Isaak blog), I hear the story from a bookstore owner in the Mid-West where Waller DID stop in as part of his door-to-door campaign. I don’t know how much more reliable a source can be than someone who was involved. It may not have been self-published, but at least part of the story is not urban legend.

    As for “Eragon,” how is that different from an author friend of mine who registered himself as a publisher to self-publish his work so he could use Lightning Source as his POD printer? Would it be any different if he chose to use his business name to publish another author? Would he now suddenly be a small press or micro press, now publishing whereas before he was simply “printing” his book?

    I never said either Waller or Paolini paid to have their books published. But it really doesn’t matter which examples I chose. There are enough other authors, now famous ones, who originally did self-publish, who did so successfully, and who had their works later picked up by traditional presses (e.g. “The Celestine Prophecy”–or did I get that one wrong as well?). I stand behind my words that self-publishing is still publishing, not “printing.”

    To answer Pati Nagle’s comment, I believe she misread my words. By “early books” I referred to those published before publishers and publishing houses existed, some of the books published a couple of centuries or more ago.

    Paying someone to publish your book where the quality of that book is basically ignored in the interest of the publisher making money from the author is indeed vanity publishing. As authors, it’s good that we warn others against these vanity presses. But I don’t think it serves us well to decry self-publishing. Publishing through the “traditional” model–no payment from the author to publisher and the payment of royalties to the author–and self-publishing, where the author takes on the role of a publisher, is still publishing in every sense of the word. It’s not the same as vanity publishing.

    With POD it’s easier than ever for anyone to publish a book and easier or poor to mediocre books to find their way into the market. We can all cite examples of mediocre books turned out by publishing houses and excellent books initially ignored by them.

    If self-publishing is not true publishing, then why does “Writer’s Digest” have annual self-published book awards? Are we saying that a ninety-year-old publication is misleading authors into believing their books are published instead of simply “printed”?

    While we might not agree on some of these points, it’s a fact that the face of publishing is changing. We need to accept that and to recognize that, down the road, some or all of us authors may need to self-publish one or more of our works simply because the publishing houses aren’t interested, for whatever their reasons may be. In the end, the validation comes not from the publishers but from our readers, who ultimately don’t care who published the book or what route it took to get into their hands.


  22. “validation comes not from the publishers but from our readers,”

    Rick, you’re again missing the point. Without a competitive professional, marketing, sales, and distribution mechanism, how is a self-published writer going to GET readers?

    If you’re answer is that you’ll spend the bulk of your time working as your own marketing, sales, and distribution mechansim, that’s fine–but this article is aimed at people who want professional writing careers, not professional careers that minimalize writing time in favor of working sales, marketing, and distribution.

    “why does “Writer’s Digest” have annual self-published book awards”

    Presumably for the same reasons the Writers Digest carries ads from vanity presses. Their magazine is aimed as aspiring writers and carries a variety of content aimed at making that profitable for them.

  23. Rick, Waller’s stoping at a a bookstore it not surprising, and it again indicates a misunderstanding of the business to think it suggests he was self-published. Professional writers stop in at bookstores often, either in their hometown or when they’re passing through, to offer to sign stock. We also do publish autographings and talks at bookstores.

    Publishers have existed for several centuries, so I don’t see the relevance in this particular discussion of talking about a time before there were publishers–which was also a time when few people could read and VERY few could afford to buy a book.

  24. Er, PUBLIC autographings.

    Hurt a finger last night. Typing very badly today.

  25. Laura,

    Thank you for the time & care you put into this post. I do believe that, when considering the traditional publishing model, it is possible to apply this either/or argument. Where we part ways, however, is the underlying assumption that being PUBLISHED in this manner is the aspiration of all writers and that success as a writer is predicated upon it.

    I’m not at all convinced that the models constructed around paper copies of books will remain relevant, even in the short term. It is the electronic markets that will soon define success. In that realm, international distribution is a level playing field, giving the self-published or small press author ample opportunity to compete with those published by a major house.

    As for the vanity presses, I concur. They ARE scams that prey on hope. However, I predict that they too will lose relevance as the paper-based models fade.

    Again, thank you for your post. Happiest of holidays to you & yours.

    peace & passion,

    ~ Alessia

  26. Alessia, I omitted electronic publishing from this article for a number of reasons–the main one being that e-publishing is not a venue that vanity scams have actively pursued so far, whereas vanity press is not not only well-established but actively -growing- in print models. And the dangers of vanity press, the seductive promises, and the misleading obfuscations and sobriquets it uses, were the impetus for this post.

    Another reason is that electronic publishing is a new business model in many ways, due to all the different opportunities and challenges involved in producing and distributing books via electronic media; and new business models are beyond the scope of this article, which deals specifically with three very old business models.

    Finally, I think one reason vanity scams are so aggressive in print format while largely inert in electronic format is that there is so much emotional import attached to having one’s book printed and bound in hardcopy. I think that emotional focus on the printed copy is a significant part of what affects someone judgment enough to become a victim of a vanity scam. An electronic format doesn’t seem to have the same level of emotionalism and desire associated with it, which may make it less fruitful ground–always, let’s hope–for vanity scams.

  27. Michael, I’m curious about the distribution limitations and the costs/profit ratio of a publishing company so small it only has one author and two releases.

    In any case, I see that your October “self-published” novel was NONfiction. Nonfiction has a different marketing model than fiction and a better chance of earning back the author’s investment in a PRINT business model if the author is a good salesman and has a strong platform to tie the book into (ex. selling the book at popular seminars, or including the cost of a copy of the book in seminar fees).

    I stuck specifically to talking about novels in this article, partly to keep the piece from getting WAY too long, partly because novels are my area of professional expertise (I’ve only released two nonfiction books, and I only really count one of those as a standard professional sale), and partly because aspiring -novelists- are where vanity scams make most of their money.

  28. Hi Laura

    Fantastic post. I just cannot understand why some aspiring authors “can’t get” what vanity publishing really is, but hopefully your post might help to clear that up. I am the editor of the Romance Writers of New Zealand newsletter, and I would love to reprint this article in our next newsletter. I see you don’t mind the entire piece being printed/distributed, but just wanted to check.

    Thanks, Soraya.

  29. Hi Soraya (what a beautiful name!),

    Yes, please feel free to reprint the article in your newsletter. (Just don’t change any of its contents; and I encourage you to include the “for more information” links at the bottom of the piece, too–particularly the Writer Beware link).

    Laura Resnick

  30. I think it’s noteworthy, btw, that although we’re seeing some disagreement here about self-publishing and arguing that subject, we’re not seeing any disagreement here about VANITY press.

    And I hope that the posts we’ve seen here from a few passionate believers in “self-publishing” who condemn the practices of vanity press every bit as much as I do with further support the argument, for anyone reading this blog, that legitimate “self-publishing” and vanity press are NOT the same thing, and that it’s very important to research a company and examine its practices (and its hype) so that you don’t fall prey to the con of a vanity pres erroneously =calling= itself a “self-publisher.” These are indeed WHOLLY DIFFERENT types of businesses.

    They are confusinglly similar in that both business models make their profits by selling products and services to writers, rather than by selling books to readers; but if you are at all interested in a “self-publishing” business model for yourself, whatever your reasons, it is CRUCIAL to learn the differences between a legitimate “self-publishing” model and a vanity scam.

  31. Laura,
    Great article!! And exactly what I’ve been preaching for yeaaaaars at my bookstore. The money should flow one way…into the author’s pocket. It is disheartening to tell someone standing on the other side of the Customer Service Desk, that even though they just shelled out $4K to “publish” their book, I won’t buy a box of them out of the trunk of their car. And one other point that I’ve seen year after year in my capacity at my bookstore(s) is the lack of professional editorial assistance.
    Merry Christmas to you and stop in to see me!!

  32. Hi, Linda! Good to “see” you! And great to get a bookseller’s perspective here. I’d love to see more booksellers weigh in about the realistic hurdles of a a PRINT business model book getting into the national book retail market.

    (For those who don’t know who “Linda K” is, I’m outing her. She’s a longtime Community Relations Manager for Barnes& Noble in my region. The CRM’s job is to get the community into the store through special events, including author signings, author talks and workshops, reading clubs, etc. She was also recognized by the Romance Writers of America several years ago as Bookseller of the Year.)

  33. I’m in agreement with Michael. Just because you’re self-pubbed doesn’t mean you aren’t a publisher. We managed our company exactly like a NY press, albeit on a tinier scale. We distributed our books through Baker & Taylor and Brodart, attended regional bookseller conventions, contracted cover artists and production personnel. We handled returns, sent out ARC’s and sought cover quotes. Everything a bigger press would do.

    Though the overall purpose of the company was to build my author platform, in the process we were learning the industry from the ground up. It was an expensive exercise, but I don’t regret it. I’ve taken that knowledge with me as I’ve progressed up the publishing ladder. (Note: my books were works of fiction).

  34. Appreciate the warning thank you


  35. Laura,

    This was an excellent piece providing clarification sorely needed in the writing community. I’ve already posted the links to two RWA chapters and my own personal loop of published author friends. Thanks for doing the hard work!

  36. So, Linda K disingenuously alludes to “a box of them out of the trunk of their car”, yet it doesn’t appear that she’s even in a position to purchase them in the first place?

    This entire article smacks of smarmy egotistical in-crowd nonsense – and I’m not even a writer or “aspiring” writer, just a reader.

  37. Er, that should read “alludes to not buying ‘a box of them…’”

  38. (First of all, don’t bother citing Virginia Woolf or Irma Rombauer; business models 50-80 years old have no application or practical relevance in today’s publishing world.)

    Good point. Also, and the thing people forget, or don’t know about Virginia, is that her brother founded Harcourt Brace, and they had a hefty circle of friends to push Virginia’s work. Something not many self-published authors have these days.

  39. Very clear and good points but a bit unrealistic. A noted author suggested I read this blog since I’ve been considering self-publishing or a vanity press. Now, having received several minor awards, honorable mentions for major awards, and offers by three well-known authors to blurb my recent novels, I do consider these novels of professional quality for traditional publishing. And having sent each, with carefully crafted and professionally edited query letters to dozens of carefully selected agents and literary publishers, I cannot fault my own commitment and willingness to endure rejection slips. Yet, whereas my second novel had a major agent (and a publisher until the company underwent sudden change), the most recent–and far better–novels, despite fine blurbs, so far have got nowhere. I believe that, at this point, the industry’s shrinkage and risk of collapse in fact makes nearly impossible any but self-publishing for most of us. So, put differently, just what exactly would you suggest that those of us whose writing is recognized by other writing professionals, but rejected by the commercial-model world of publsishing, do?

  40. Although I’d say it is indeed harder to get a literary agent than it used to be, I’m skeptical that it’s any harder to break into commercial publishing now than it was at any other time. Some markets have shrunk, others have appeared. When I broke in 20 years ago, there were virtually no viable mid-size or small press markets in popular fiction, whereas now there are many, and certainly no electronic publishing.

    Similarly, year I started submitting, category-romance was a MUCH bigger market than it is now and much easier to break into; by contrast, though, there were virtually no markets at ALL for urban fantasy or contemporary single-title romance–both very big markets now. Horror was a very hot market when I started writing, and it virtually disappeared as a market a couple of years after that. And so on.

    So the horizon of opportunities in publishing continually changes, but it doesn’t go away, and it hasn’t gone away. Although this is a very tight market, it’s not the first time in modern publishing–nor even the first time during my own career of 20 years–that publishing markets have collapsed, programs have substantially downsized, and advances have dropped. The wheel never stops turning in publishing, and markets also survive, rebound, and expand. It’s a cycle. Formatting and distribution methods are changing in commercial publishing, but the industry isn’t disappearing.

    Nor does the quantity of rejection that most writers have to endure change if they want to be career professionals. NYT bestseller Kevin Anderson had a pile of 800 rejection slips before making his first sale, and his rejection pile continued growing thereafter. A friend of mine with a dozen published novels recently sold a book after 2.5 years of submitting.

    Since making my first book sale, I’ve collected well over 100 rejections for books (and have written nearly 2,000 pages I never sold). My most recent round of book rejections was 2 years ago. After having a contract canceled due to weak sales figures, my next submission was rejected by a bunch of agents and editors before I made a sale that has so far kept me too busy to submit in the US since then–though I’ve had short fiction and articles rejected since then, and have also received book rejections from foreign markets. Rejection is part of the lifestyle.

    The book I’ve got coming out in three weeks from DAW/Penguin took me, all told, about 15 years to get from proposal to publication, despite making other book sales in the meantime. Judith McNaught has often said it took four years to find a market for her first NYT bestseller, and that was after she’d already sold several books and in the supposedly “easier” market of the 1980s. HARRY POTTER was rejected many times.

    And every week or month, publishing trade journals are full of news of first-time book sales to major and mid-size houses.

    The steady struggle to sell books is just part of the profession. And the “prize” that makes it worth doing, depending on one’s goals, is a paying contract with a major house that can get the book into the hands of tens of thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of readers nationwide (and internationally, depending on the rights licensing) while meanwhile paying me to write the NEXT book. My choice to write full-time for my self-supporting income and my desire to see each of my titles get into the hands of tens of thousands of readers (my goal being hundreds of thousands of readers per title) is why commercial publishing is the choice I make as a writer.

    If another writer’s goals are different, that writer’s choices may well bne different. (Though, as always, and for the reasons stated in my article, I strongly advise anyone against working with a vanity press, because no matter -what- the goal, a vanity press is a terrible option for it.)

    So, in answer to your question–rejected by the commercial-model world of publishing, exactly what I suggest you do is keep writing and submitting, which is what those of us who have professional writing careers do.

  41. Paula– I’m not a big fan of rejection, either– but rejected by the commercial world of publishing? Rejection or acceptance is one editors opinion at one moment in time. A rejection may not have a thing to do with the quality or commercial value of the work. Editorial needs and policy, finances, and individual taste are also huge factors. 100 individual rejections do not mean your work is rejected by an entire industry. (One of my own short stories garnered almost 100 rejections before publication.)

    I see little value in self-publishing or even publishing to the small press, if a system of distribution and promotion is not in place. Even with those advantages, the odds are poor- in the final analysis, no one knows what will sell and what won’t. And the vanity press- as Laura pointed out time and again- is a con and a scam.

  42. “A rejection may not have a thing to do with the quality or commercial value of the work. ”

    Paul, I’m glad you pointed that out. It’s such a basic assumption in my life (after all, I’d ever believed editors and agents were right all those many, many, many, many, many, many time they rejected my work, I wouldn’t have kept submitting and wouldn’t have sold any of it) that I always forget that it’s a point worth specifying.

  43. And, agh, I’m sorry, your name isn’t “Paul,” it’s William Brock.

    (Hot water heater disaster here this week. WAiting for more workman to come collect heavy equipment filling my bedroom. A tad distracted.)

  44. Another thing worth specifying (and this will certainly play into the hands of the poster who called me smarmy and egotistical yesterday) is, as a friend of mine who’s the author of 30+ novels published by major houses often reminds me, when I’m struggling with the craft or struggling with the industry, “If this were easy, EVERYONE would be doing for a living.” Especially since everyone evidently WANTS to–according to a national survey, more people in the US believe they can -write- a publishable book than actually -read- books.

  45. I posted this at Dean Smith’s site, but I wanted to post it here too.

    I think it’s worth noting that just about anyone who is successful with a self-published book, swaps over to traditional publishing at the earliest opportunity.

    Consider Larry Correia. He went to self-publishing after having his book, Monster Hunter International, rejected umpteen times. Thanks to his visibility among gun geeks and gun culture, he had enough traction in that readership pool to sell a couple of thousand copies of MHI via word of mouth, eventually earning praise from a substantial bookseller back east, which in turn reached the ears of Toni at Baen Books.

    Now, this next part is key.

    The moment Baen Books showed interest, Larry abandoned self-publishing. I state again, he abandoned self-publishing. Why? Because traditional publishing was Larry’s goal, and he now enjoys far more financial and commercial succes — writing an entire line of Monster Hunter books — for Baen, than was ever possible under his word-of-mouth, self-publishing model.

    Larry always tells everybody, “Don’t do it the way I did it!” He’s happy to be with a real publisher now, doing it the ‘normal’ way. Self-publishing, for him, was a last resort. And it just happened to pay off, as a route back into the standard publishing world, where he’s now one of Baen’s hot, rising authors.

    What I take away from that is, if the people who are “successful” at self-publishing novels, jump to traditional publishing with such predictable regularity, there’s probably some very pragmatic reasons for that.

    Me, if I am paying money instead of making money, then my business “model” isn’t much of a model at all. Right

    Vanity publishing seems designed entirely to dupe and take advantage of the desperation of the aspirant — preying on the aspirant’s struggle and desire for publication. Alas, it’s a smokescreen, because nobody ever seems to actually ‘make it’ via Vanity. The lure of making it is there, with big gaudy baubles all over it, but it’s just costume jewelry.

  46. The waters are getting murky lately. Traditional publishers like Harlequin are dipping their toes into the vanity press waters. I wouldn’t recommend it for a serious writer.

    As for self-publishing, I self-published my latest romantic suspense, Killer Career, as an experiment. It was a great learning experience finding the ins and outs of how a novel gets published through Lightning Source.

    What I enjoyed was deciding the cover, front and back, the page color, the font, and other such things I had no control over before.

    It’s too early to tell whether or not this book will do better than the other two which were published by a small publisher. I do like the feeling of being in control.

    Morgan Mandel

  47. “Traditional publishers like Harlequin are dipping their toes into the vanity press waters.”

    The business jargon for this is “monetizing the slushpile.”

  48. Laura, Your exceptional article explained the difference between traditional, self and vanity publishing better than anything else I have read. Being a new, inexperienced and egar writer, this part of publishing is the most difficult to navaigate. It is very easy to become impatient, frightened that in all the competition your work will be overlooked, or desperate enough to believe the flattery offered by vanity publishers. (Yes, I had a few call.) New writers are often “babes in the woods” and easy prey. If I came way with one conclusion after reading your article, it is this: If your book is not doing well in traditional publishing competition perhaps it still needs work. Spend your money wisely by taking writing calss, join writing groups lead by traditionally published writers. Spend your time and money perfecting your craft. When something sounds too good to be true it usually is. “Vanity Publishing” sounds too good to be true…and it is. It’s a real nightmare.

  49. Kathleen, your post makes having written the article worthwhile. You’re exactly the sort of writer I was thinking of when I decided to write it. Thanks for commenting!

  50. hi! it’s really nice reading what you’ve written on your site,i am a student journalist,may i know the books you’ve published?

  51. Kathleen,

    My books are all listed on my website at A printable booklist is on this page:

    Laura Resnick

  52. Where can I locate further information about this please? This has made my day. Good stuff

  53. I’m a little late to this bru ha ha, but holy crap on a cracker. Laura, I highly respect your views and opinions with regards to agents, but when it comes to self-publishing, since you clearly seem to have never done it, please refrain.

    I don’t think I could throw a rock at this article and hit a fact, just a bunch of tired stereotypes. While Dean kills a bunch of sacred cows of publishing over on his blog, perhaps the sacred cows related to self-publishing, should be revisited if that isn’t too uncomfortable for people.

    This must be what it would have been like to read something written by a Dinosaur about how swimmingly great things were going, right before the ice age.

    I am an indie author, to those who don’t like that term cause it makes me sound like more than a bottom feeding reject, “self-published.” Or, excuse me… self-PRINTED.

    The truth of the matter is that I think trad publishing is fairly stupid. You’ve pointed out yourself it’s an illogical business model, yet you’re like “whoo hoo let’s keep doing it.” Having been raised by a family of entrepreneurs (which is probably rather similar to being raised by wolves), I really can’t participate in an illogical business model.

    I want creative control.

    I’m sure you’re aware of indie musicians and indie filmmakers. No one denigrates what they are doing to the level you have attempted to denigrate the indie author in this post.

    Why is it SO important that everyone agree that self-publishing is what “fake writers” do? You’ve claimed yourself to be independently minded and so you went against the grain with regards to agents. Well some of us are opting out of the entire convoluted system.

    And because there seems to not have been much of a strong attempt to name some self-publishing success stories:

    Jeremy Robinson

    Pamela Aidan, who self-published her fiction as a business decision and turned down Simon and Schuster three times before finally accepting an offer. I’m assuming they finally pulled their heads out of their posterior regions and made her a decent offer befitting of the work she’d already done.

    Raul Ramos Y Sanchez

    Jeff Rivera

    Still Alice was self-published by Lisa Genova

    Diary of a Wimpy Kid was originally self-published online before it was picked up by a major publisher and became a best-seller.

    Connie Shelton has been self-publishing her Charlie Parker mystery series for years under her own self-created imprint, Intrigue Press. She later branched out to publish other authors.

    The well known Ellora’s Cave romance e-publishing house was originally an expanded self-publishing enterprise, as the founder was publishing her own work at the site as well.

    I could go on for ages here. These kinds of stories used to be pretty rare but they are becoming less rare.

    Having said all that, *I* am not interested in a mainstream publishing contract for my own work. I *like* self-publishing. The Internet is big. I will never run out of people to reach on the internet, and if I write good enough books, with systems in place like Amazon’s amazing filtering system that helps readers find other similar books, I will slowly rise in the ranks.

    My first release, a paranormal romance novella called Kept, has at one point been number 592 in the Kindle store, and number 9 in vampire romance books (on the whole of Amazon.) I am a no name. Unless you’ve seen my loud mouth ranting and raving somewhere else on this topic on the Internet, it’s likely you’ve never heard of me.

    I’ve sold over 4,000 copies of Kept in the Kindle store. My second book under this pen name is coming out next month in E and in May in print using Lightning Source for printing and distribution. (Yes I self-publish under more than one pen name and imprint, “Zoe Winters” is the most vocal of my writing identities). Now this may not be a number that makes your jaw drop on the floor but I’m just getting started.

    I fully expect to have built a strong audience, directly interfacing with my readers online and with a backlist within 10 years. We’re in year two. I expect to start to hit critical mass by year five or six.

    And while I don’t want to disabuse anyone of their stereotypes (actually, that’s a lie. I take great pleasure in disabusing people of their stereotypes), I have no intention of selling primary rights to anything to a traditional publisher. Unless doing so would make me ludicrously rich, I don’t see a reason to give up the two things I love doing most, which is writing AND publishing.

    Please consider interacting with and learning more about the vibrant and growing indie author community before trotting out an understanding of self-publishing that is more than a decade old and even then, quite flawed. Stick to what you know.

  54. Xlibris is a fraudulent, dishonest and incompetent, disaster zone. Xlibris is nothing more than a quick-buck scam printer, posing as a “print-on-demand publisher”, and it has one of the highest complaints percentages for a small business of it’s type – with numerous civil legal proceedings for fraud and libel – including one major one that is currently in the Indiana courts and when the judgement is made public in Spring 2011, will likely make the Rebecca Brandewyne/Authorhouse saga look like a walk in the park. (Word is they’re going to need to remortgage a few houses to cover the damages on this latest libel case) Xlibris was started in the late 1990s in a parents’ basement, and was previously run out of a garage/home office in Philadelphia, but in the last year moved to the Author Solutions call-center with partner frauds, AuthorHouse (which has a long legal history – just Google “Authorhouse Scam” to find out) and – the quintessential Author trap. As of December 2010, Xlibris owes huge back taxes to the IRS and is currently carrying huge liabilities that Mr Princeton CEO Kevin Weiss has strategized to rescue with disturbingly dubious “publish 2 for 1″ / “publish for a buck” coupon deals which any writer, however good or bad, should stay well clear. Their book production is dogshit like their customer service. Piers Anthony, one of the website’s English owners, one of the swarming flies who still fronts this scam, is a failed British “published author” and part time con-man who lives in Florida, and has a few skeletons of his own – including a 20-year old criminal record in the UK for serious sexual misconduct, fraud and theft. Yes, Random House does still own a percentage – but let’s be clear folks, Random House has a sleeping stake much the same way that Microsoft partially owns the adult services site, Ingenio/Niteflirt and don’t they keep that very quiet. RH makes VERY CLEAR that Xlibris books have nothing to do with RH. The Xlibris website contains inept, vague material which is more confusing than helpful, and makes wild inconsistent boasts about how the company has “600 staff” on one page, yet, on another page mysteriously has “300 employees”. The company actually has 3 full time employees, (including Mr Ivy League Kevin Weiss), and at any one time up to 10 part time workers, most of whom are part-time college students who know virtually nothing about publishing except high school english and how to make a greasy $10/hour. The problems with printing at Xlibris are as long as Authorhouse’s scam history, they are a disgusting company and I’m sorry they ever crossed paths with my work.

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  57. i found both comments helpful thank you

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