Why We Need To Challenge The Phrase ‘Vanity Publishing’


I’m becoming increasingly frustrated on behalf of my self-published friends as people continue to use the term ‘vanity publishing’ as an insult. A term directed at authors who pay to publish their book (as opposed to self-publishing alone, or publishing traditionally) it upsets me to see a minority of authors — and even some publishing professionals — using this unsavoury phrase to devalue other authors’ work.

So I think it’s about time we talked about this phrase and debunked it once and for all.

What is ‘vanity publishing’?

For those of you new to the phrase, ‘vanity presses’ or ‘vanity publishing’ was a derogatory phrase coined in the 1950’s to ridicule presses who made their income by charging authors for traditional publishing services.

Despite the growing popularity of self-publishing and success of self-publishing services and their authors, the phrase ‘vanity publishing’ remains attached to authors who pay for publishing services, and the presses who charge for them.

Is ‘vanity publishing’ the same as self-publishing?

No. Authors can self-publish without spending a penny nowadays, and it is the transaction of money for a published product that originally defined ‘vanity publishing’, and is what differentiates it from other forms of ‘self-publishing’.

Are self-publishing presses the same as ‘vanity presses’?

Historically, they were.

But as self-publishing services have become more popular, some have attempted to redefine what a ‘vanity publisher’ is and how it differs from self-publishing.

In this fabulous blog, Jo Herbert discusses her take on the difference between ‘vanity pressed’ and self-publishing services:

Vanity publishers are cunning […] They know the elation authors will feel to finally receive a glowing report about their manuscript. However […] the vanity publisher will take your manuscript, take your money and print several (usually poor quality) copies of your book. Proper self-publishing companies offer the author a whole range of services from editing to jacket design to distribution. The author has complete control over every stage of production […]’

To Jo, it seems, vanity publishing is an unethical business model, and true self-publishing services an ethical one.

Unfortunately though, many continue to use ‘vanity publishing’ and ‘self-publishing’ as interchangeable terms. The label has remains hard to shake; but I want to illustrate why we need to work towards omitting the phrase from the publishing psyche once and for all, rather than redefining it.

Here’s why I oppose the phrase ‘vanity publishing’ altogether

The first issue I have with the phrase is: whatever its definition, ‘vanity publishing’ is inherently derogatory towards the author, not the publisher or the consumer.

If we are to believe that ‘vanity publishers’ refers to an insincere business model (as Jo’s definition implies), why are authors being belittled by the phrase, and not the unethical companies exploiting hard working people’s achievements and dreams? And why not all a spade a spade and rename these unethical presses to reflect what they are: scam publishers?

Secondly, the phrase not only implies that it is ‘vanity’ that drives an author’s desire to be published, but it’s instilled into our social response to react to the notion of vanity with a sense of shame and disgust.

Thirdly, due to their association throughout history, the phrase ‘vanity publishing’ refers exclusively to methods self-publishing. To me, this is not only ridiculous, but blinkered.

If we reduce the phrase ‘vanity publishing’ to its linguistic core, could you not argue that all publishing is, in a sense, ‘vanity publishing’? Couldn’t we view books commissioned by traditional publishers as ‘vanity’ projects, too?

Authors seeking a traditional publishing deal want to share their work, and naturally, want to receive the compensation and recognition they deserve. Are these not the same motives that drive and condemn those who choose to ‘vanity publish’ or ‘self-publish’? Yet I’ve never heard a traditionally published authors decision to publish their book referred to as ‘vain’.

Finally, despite the growing popularity of self-publishing, there remains a prejudice surrounding the quality of self-published works: the implications being that those who self-publish have produced inferior work, and those who have been fortunate enough to secure traditional publishing deal are superior writers.

THIS IS NOT TRUE; and the danger of promoting this belief is that it establishes a hierarchy of worth that doesn’t even judge a book by its cover, but by its insignia.

What we need to do

Perhaps I’m overreacting. Or perhaps we need to make a better collective effort as an industry to check our own prejudices.

It’s time to reassess our notions of ‘vanity publishing/self-publishing’ not only as a publishing route, but as a business model. It’s time that the hardworking, ethical ‘self-publishing services’, and the exceptional authors some of them are publishing, are given the credit and respect they deserve.

Redefining ‘vanity’

As well as reassessing our opinions of self-publishing services, we need to re-calibrate our attitudes towards the authors who choose to use them. And the first step we need to take as writers and professionals is to put the ‘vanity’ insults behind us and rise above them.

There’s nothing wrong with an author putting their money where their mouth is. It’s time we established the difference between ‘vanity’ and ‘pride’, and accepted that the two are not the same; pride in moderation is a thing to be celebrated, so do!

What I’d like to say to those who are ‘vanity/self-published’ or are considering it

Having your book non-traditionally published does not mean that your work is less worthy of success than a traditionally published book, nor does it mean it lacks quality.

It is your right as an author to pursue the publishing route you believe is best for you and your book. No one has the right to imply that your chosen method of publication is inferior; if you feel pulled to a particular method rather than pushed, then go for it!

Just be careful to research and beware of unethical organisations. Take your time to find the publisher who is right for you; scam publishers can be cunning, but they’re easy to spot if you keep your wits about you.

You have written a book, and that is no mean feat. You deserve to be proud, and if wanting to see your book published is vain, then I fully endorse your vanity!

Just remember to always talk to an editor before you push the ‘self-publish’ button! I’ve got plenty of resources on my website to help you find the right editor for your self-publishing journey, so be sure to check them out before making any hard and fast decisions.

I work with authors interested in self-publishing AND traditional publishing, and just as every author needs their own unique publishing route, every writer needs their own unique editing service. If you’re looking for an effective and affordable book editor to help you and your manuscript, please get in touch today.

Chloe Murphy