Publishing Spectrum: The difference between a vanity press, a self-pub coach, indie publisher, etc?

Before I dive into what vanity presses are, I’m going to quickly remind everyone what a traditional publisher does, what a self-publisher does, and that there are a lot of grey areas in the middle. In traditional publishing, an author sells the rights to their book to a large publishing house. They get an advance and royalties on the sales of the book. The traditional publisher fronts the costs for editing, design, offset printing, some marketing, and publicity, and they tend to pick books that they think will sell so that they will not only earn back their investment but will continue to earn money on each sale.

Self-publishers do all the editing, design, printing, distribution, marketing, and publicity themselves. They can outsource different parts of this process, but they front the bill and reap all the financial benefits down the line.

In the middle between giving full control and rights over to a traditional publishing house and doing it all by yourself are a lot of services out there for aspiring authors.

Independent publishing houses are smaller and do the same things that a traditional publishing house does, but they operate on a smaller budget and sometimes they work directly with the author, not an agent. In this case, they may still provide an advance to the author and then a royalty split. Some may just do a royalty split, but the author doesn’t pay anything upfront.

Then there are those closer to the self-publishing side who act as project managers or coaches. That is what I do. I work with those who want to self-publish to retain full control of their work, reap all the financial benefits, but simply don’t have the time or bandwidth to learn all of the details involved and make the decisions required to get their book across the finish line. These project managers and coaches usually charge a fee, either one lump sum or an hourly rate to get it all done. Think of them as the ghost publisher to a ghostwriter. They are doing the work behind the scenes, but the author is still the ultimate owner and will reap the financial rewards. No rights are signed over.

Then there are vanity presses. They get a bad name and for good reason. People who want to publish their books are dreamers, they have a vision and a lofty goal. Vanity presses prey on that. They charge authors a large fee for the author to sign over the exclusive right to distribute their work. Usually, these contracts come with a defined amount of books printed. They may provide some additional services to support the author. They are pretty much just a print house, but they are asking to own the rights to the book.

I have talked with aspiring authors and prospective clients who tell me that they have offers from “publishing houses.” When I ask for a few details, because at this point I am excited for them, and hear that they are being asked to pay money I tell them to run for the hills. Do not pass go. Do not send them your manuscript or your money. Just run.

So for you as an aspiring author, what should you look for? Well, that depends on what you want. If you know you want to be traditionally published, put your efforts into writing a great book or pitch, and finding the right agent. Alexa Donne has a lot of great videos about how to query, red flags with agents, and much more on the topic. (

If you know you want to self-publish, start doing your research. There are a lot of decisions to make and you will inevitably have moments where you are less than inspired to write. Use that time to do your research.

If you are planning to self-publish and realize that you are overwhelmed or need help, this is where you want to ask around. Have your guard up for negative actors in the space like a vanity press. There are great people out there who charge reasonable rates for coaching or formatting or just handling all the back-end work. Get to know that person before you send over anything. I always prefer to work with a client who asks me more questions than not. Because it shows that they are taking this seriously, they are just as committed to the success of their book as I am.

So, have you decided what your route to publication will be? Are you currently weighing options and think you might be dealing with a vanity press? Let’s keep the conversation going in the comments.

iWriterly recent video on the topic:

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