A vanity publisher (also known as a subsidy press, vanity press, or self-publisher) is a publishing house that specializes in producing books entirely at the author's risk and expense. Because books published by vanity publishers are usually not reviewed, they are rarely purchased by libraries. Compare with private press.
Traditional Vanity Presses
Self-publishing in the form of traditional vanity presses took hold in North America in the first half of the twentieth century. Dorrance Publishing, founded in 1920, and Vantage Press, founded in 1949, represent the major publishers to emerge from this period and both remain active today. These presses typically publish around 300 to 600 titles a year, and, although the occasional title may receive critical acclaim or market success, they are generally considered to occupy a place at the margins of the publishing world (Dilevko and Dali 2006, 209).
The reluctance of book publishers and libraries to purchase self-published books stems from the lack of editorial review. Anyone who can afford the cost (generally in the thousands for traditional vanity presses) can publish a book. This reluctance heightened in the early years of the twenty-first century when controversy erupted concerning the fast-growing PublishAmerica, a company started by friends Larry Clopper and Willem Meiners in 1999 (Dilevko and Dali, 2006 and Italie 2005). The controversy surrounded PublishAmerica’s claim to be what it called a “traditional publishing company,” not a vanity press (Italie 2005). While traditional vanity presses like Dorrance and Vantage are generally up front about their fees and services, in this case, many authors believed PublishAmerica’s claims to be misleading, saying the publisher took “advantage of writers unaware of the industry by labeling itself a traditional company without offering the kind of editing, marketing and retail access expected from a mainstream publisher” (Italie 2005). One PublishAmerica author, Rebecca Easton, organized a petition signed by 100 PublishAmerica authors demanding full disclosure of company practices, and, in 2005, A.C. Crispin, head of the group, Writer Beware, called PublishAmerica an “author mill” (Italie 2005).
“Author Services” or POD Publishers
However, despite the lack of editorial review and other controversial aspects of the industry, the trend toward self-publishing is growing. Dilevko and Dali point to “the consolidation of mainstream publishing houses into corporate behemoths in the late 1990s” as part of the reason (Dilevko and Dali 2006, 209). During this period, many independent publishers merged with major houses, and, according to Epstein, the retail book market came to be dominated by a handful of large bookstore chains who “demand[ed] high rates of turnover and therefore a constant supply of bestsellers” (Epstein 2001). The disappearance of many independent presses, who formerly catered to lesser known authors or authors writing about narrow topics, and the trend of conglomerates to purchase only books guaranteed to make money have led or forced many authors to move to self-publishing.
This atmosphere and the perfection of print-on-demand or POD technologies paved the way for the new wave of vanity publishers, what Dilevko and Dali call “author services” publishers (Dilevko and Dali 2006, 210 and Rollins 2003). POD here is referred to as a service model using any number of technologies in which a publisher does not produce a book until after an order is received. Three major “author services” publishers are AuthorHouse, iUniverse and Xlibris. This new breed of vanity publisher has grown quickly. According to Dilevko and Dali, from 1997, the year it began, through 2003, AuthorHouse sold around 2 million titles. In addition, it’s not only first-time authors who are using the new “author services” publishers. Established authors such as Piers Anthony and Kathryn Harvey have turned to this type of publishing to explore a new genre, or, in Harvey’s case, publish a book that didn’t fit neatly into any one accepted genre (Dilevko and Dali 2006, 210-11).
Vanity Press and Libraries
Although it is true that libraries do not generally acquire self-published titles, Dilevko and Dali, in their study, The self-publishing phenomenon and libraries, note that libraries should not automatically rule out self-published books. Their study considered three traditional subsidy publishers: Dorrance Publishing, Vantage Press and Ivy House and four “author services” publishers: AuthorHouse, iUniverse, Xlibris and PublishAmerica (although, as the authors note, PublishAmerica does not categorize itself using these terms, but prefers to be known as a traditional press). The study found that for the years 2000 to 2004, OCLC-member libraries held 14,061 titles from the seven presses studied. Over ninety percent of these titles came from the four “author services” publishers (Dilevko and Dali 2006, 216). The study further revealed that public libraries “hold 2.56 times the total number of self-publisher titles than OCLC-member university libraries” (Dilevko and Dali 2006, 224). They also postulate, based on their findings, that “the better quality self-published titles may have migrated away from Dorrance and Vantage Press” and other traditional vanity presses, and that, in general, if inclusion in library collections is considered a measure of quality, AuthorHouse, iUniverse and Xlibris produce the best quality titles (Dilevko and Dali 2006, 232). The authors conclude with a reminder to librarians that although stigmas surrounding vanity presses persist today and often for good reason, in a publishing world dominated by conglomerates, “self-publishers may be one of the last frontiers of true independent publishing” (Dilevko and Dali 2006, 233). For this reason alone, libraries may want to take another look at vanity presses.
- Dilevko, Juris, and Keren Dali. 2006. The self-publishing phenomenon and libraries. Library & Information Science Research 28 (May): 208-234.
- Epstein, J. 2001. Book business: Publishing past, present and future. New York: W.W. Norton. Quoted in Dilevko, Juris, and Keren Dali. 2006. The self-publishing phenomenon and libraries. Library & Information Science Research 28 (May): 208-234.
- Italie, Hillel. 2005. Critics and supporters debate success of fast-rising PublishAmerica. Post Gazette http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/05022/446283.stm (accessed 20 October, 2006).
- Rollins, Brenda. 2003. The POD quandary print on demand. Writer 116 (Feb): 33-37.
- AuthorHouse: http://www.authorhouse.com
- Dorrance Publishing: http://www.dorrancepublishing.com
- iUniverse: http://www.iuniverse.com
- Ivy House: http://www.ivyhousebooks.com
- PublishAmerica: http://www.publishamerica.com
- Schiel & Denver Book Publishers: http://www.schieldenver.com
- Vantage Press: http://www.vantagepress.com
- Xlibris: http://www.xlibris.com