Writing a book is complicated enough. Now authors also have to navigate tens of thousands of websites to find a solution to getting their book published. Where do you start, and who do you trust? Which services do you need, and in what order?

Publishing used to be a relatively simple process. Online publishing and bookselling should have made getting your book published easier – but has it?

There are literally millions of books for sale online. However, how many of them are actually worth reading? Honestly, several of the books I've bought online were not worth the money I paid for them. The plots and storylines were good. But often, issues with the structure and the writing itself made the books challenging to follow, which affected my ability to relate to the story.

Great books are easily buried under the thousands of poorly written books published yearly. One of the causes of this has been unscrupulous publishers, or, as they are known in the industry, vanity publishers.

What is a vanity publisher, and what do you get for your money?

Most people don't undertake the book publishing process themselves because they don't know where to start or who to trust. A vanity publisher is a project manager who charges a fee to do what you could actually do yourself in order to publish your book. Some vanity publishers hide under the guise of being a writing cooperative or an association. However, if you look closely at what they offer, they are still vanity publishers. 
A vanity publisher is motivated to charge you as much money as possible because you are their primary income source. As a result, some vanity publishers demand exorbitant sums of money to publish your book. They count on new authors’ lack of experience in the industry to attract clients who are willing to spend a lot of money to publish their books.

The business model of a vanity publisher is not to make money by publishing books that are popular with readers and sell many copies. Instead, they make money simply by charging authors to turn their manuscripts into books.

A vanity publisher’s process

Let's look at the process involved and investigate where your money goes. Some vanity publishers rarely do any of the work themselves. They use specialists to complete each stage of your book and then add a project management fee to each of the services along the way. The markup can sometimes be as high as 100%.

Editorial services

The first contact will usually be to discuss how the publisher will do all the work for you. All you need to do is supply them with a Word file so they can begin the process. In many instances, however, the publisher will never even read your manuscript. So how will they know if a structural edit or another form of editing service needs to be undertaken?

Most vanity publishers will not suggest a more in-depth editing service because the costs are higher, and they don't want to frighten you. But in reality, genuine editing services are one of the most important aspects of publishing a book.

Generally, a vanity publisher will simply ask you whether you would like to engage an editor to check the spelling and grammar in your book. The cost of employing an editor to do this is quite reasonable. However, the markup charged can be as high as 200%.

Book and cover design

The next step is the cover and internal design of your book. Again, this is sent out to a third party, and again a fee is charged by the vanity publisher. 

Book printing

The next stage is the printing of your book. Once again, you will be charged a fee for the project management of sourcing a printing company. However, this is where your costs can be hugely inflated. 

Most vanity publishers will mention print-on-demand (POD) systems and the cost of digital printing. Then they will say they can reduce your per-unit book printing costs if you order more copies and get your books printed offset. This is a red flag!

Technically, what they’ve said is true. However, this advice is flawed. To make offset printing affordable, you must print at least 1,000 copies. In most instances, an author will never sell 1,000 copies of their book in two years (books can deteriorate if not stored properly, so two years is a good benchmark to use).

The actual cost per unit for a book is the total cost of printing divided by the number of copies you sell, not by the number of copies you get printed. If you spend $10,000 getting 1,000 books manufactured, the argument could be that it costs $10 per book. But what if you only sell 100 copies? Then the actual cost to print is $100 per book. 

It is easier to hide a higher project management fee when $10,000 is charged than in a $700 printing job. 

Marketing and distributing your book

Given that you have paid upfront for their services, what incentive do vanity publishers have to sell your book? They might make more money if your book sells, but it's much simpler for them to take money from you upfront.

Vanity publishers often say bookshops are difficult and costly to get into, and that online is the way to go. It costs money to send copies of your book to bookshops, and this expense would only lower the vanity publisher's profits. As a result, many bookstores will never know about your book.
Going back to the online marketing approach: some vanity publishers charge thousands of dollars to register your book on various online portals. Amazon is one of those avenues. But you don't have to pay anything to publish on Amazon – it is free. So what is the vanity publisher requesting payment for? Their time.
Correct book marketing is time-consuming and, at times, costly. However, given the right advice, it can be done by the author. 

Do you want to join the millions of amateurishly designed, poorly edited books sold yearly by online booksellers? Is it worth spending thousands of dollars with a vanity publisher – or could your money be better spent developing your manuscript through legitimate editorial services?