Disclaimer: I work for a hybrid publisher.
There is a common sentiment among writers that ‘Vanity Press’ publishers are scammers that prey on the uninformed and desperate because they require authors to pay for their services. The sentiment appears to be that there is no value in ‘being published’ in and of itself—that what really matters is the book gets attention from professional editors and meets sales targets, which is the service a traditional publisher offers.
The name comes from the idea that authors are publishing ‘for [their] vanity’, which is a rather curious argument given that most authors write something on the basis it will be read.
The situation is a little complicated, so let’s examine the relevant issues one-by-one.
Selling Your Rights
A traditional publisher will not charge you if they agree to publish your book. This is because you are providing a product to them; you are bringing them an interesting manuscript that can be moulded into something that meets the publishing house’s (and hopefully their readers’) expectations. You are selling your rights to publish, distribute, or alter the book, which could be worth a lot of money. The publisher needs these rights because they don’t want to compete with other publishers you might consider asking to publish your book as well. The contract may be more complicated in reality, but this is the gist of what being published by a traditional publisher means.
It should be noted that most traditional publishers don’t publish books under a Creative Commons license as this undermines their ability to make more sales. One notable exception is TOR Books, which has published several of Cory Doctorow’s books under a Creative Commons license. While not a concern for many, if you want to offer your readers more freedom in what they can do with your work, you might have a hard time convincing traditional publishers to do this.
When you pay a ‘Vanity Press’ publisher for the service of publishing your book, you typically retain these rights. While there are publishers who ask you to pay for this service while also requiring you to surrender the rights to your book, this is an awful deal. It is also very abnormal. Many other publishers will provide this service without demanding these rights. Publishers that demand your rights put themselves at a competitive disadvantage.
Distinguishing Between 'Publishable' and 'Unpublishable' Works
When you deal with a traditional publisher, you are selling your manuscript to them. They may not want to purchase it if they believe it lacks appeal to their audience, or requires too much work to beat it into shape.
When you deal with a ‘Vanity Press’ publisher, you are paying them for a service. Unless you ask them to publish a work that violates their ethical standards, they don’t tend to refuse customers, and certainly not on the basis of appeal or quality. This is a decision for the author to make; not the publisher. If they don't want to be associated with the book, the publisher might still offer their publishing services but remove their name from it. In fact, they may not publish any of their customer's books under their own imprint, instead offering to do it under the customer's imprint.
Editing, Marketing, and Publishing Are Distinct Services
A traditional publisher, after acquiring a new work, will want it to meet their standards before publishing it, so they will generally pay for the work to be edited. They will also want to run a marketing campaign to recoup their investment. However, take note that the publisher isn't only investing in your book; they invest in a whole catalogue of books, and only some of them need to achieve high sales for them to turn a profit. The publisher doesn't know if your book will be a bestseller, but they are hoping it will. If it isn't...there is little point in continuing to push a book few readers will buy—it's a failed investment, so they stop sending it to bookstores, relegate it to a lonely corner of their catalogue, and move on.
A ‘Vanity Press’ publisher may provide editing and marketing services, but they will be an additional fee. Some ‘Vanity Press’ publishers will shoulder the costs of editing or marketing, though some might say this is a distinguishing trait between ‘Hybrid Publishers’ and ‘Vanity Press’ publishers. However, ‘Vanity Press’ publishers may do some degree of marketing as they get a share of the royalties every time a sale is made.
Vanity Press or Hybrid Publisher?
‘Hybrid Publisher’ might be viewed as a ‘weasel term’ by some, as it is more neutral. The only practical difference between the two terms appears to be that ‘hybrid publishers’ may refuse customers on the basis of appeal or quality, and they might offer additional services for free.
‘Vanity Press’ publishers derive revenue from the initial cost of the publishing service and from royalties for every book sale. This is in the author’s best interest, as a ‘Vanity Press’ publisher then has a vested interest in ensuring that the book makes more sales.
Traditional publishers will pay royalties every time a sale is made after the royalties balance out the initial amount the publisher paid you for the rights to the work, and the royalties tend to be much lower than from a ‘Vanity Press’ publisher or from self-publishing the work. In much the same way, this creates motivation for the publisher to make more sales.
What About Self-Publishing?
If an author had the time and know-how to publish their own book, there would be no market for ‘Vanity Press’ publishers. Nonetheless, self-publishing is an avenue worth considering. You will retain all of the rights you wish to retain, get all of the royalties barring what the platform (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, etc.) collects, and you get the final say on everything—the cover, the prose, what platforms it gets published to, and whether it is encumbered by DRM. You can pay an editor to go over your work and accept as many or as few of the changes as you want. If you want to make sweeping changes, you can unpublish the book and publish a new edition.
Naturally, that is a lot more work and difficult to get right, so it isn’t hard to see why authors turn to businesses that can provide this service for them.
So…'Vanity Press' Publishers Aren’t Bad?
That very much depends on what you’re looking for. Rather than branding any publishing service that doesn't resemble traditional publishing a scam and warning the uninformed to steer clear, it’s far more important for authors to understand the industry and their rights. Unless you are being compensated well, there are few scenarios where surrending your rights is a good idea. Surrendering some of your rights to readers through a Creative Commons license as authors like Cory Doctorow have done might be a good idea.
It costs money to publish books, and businesses bear this cost in different ways. Traditional publishing requires a lot of capital many small publishers don’t have, so these smaller publishers charge for publishing as a service. The business model is very different. Traditional publishers need more book sales to turn a profit; hybrid book publishers make money from authors up-front when they publish their book, but have the same incentive to make book sales to earn more revenue through royalties.
The traditional publishing business model is much riskier, but many authors prefer it because it means the publisher has a very good motivation to make the book a commercial success. Unfortunately, most authors have unrealistic expectations of how far a traditional publisher will go to drive sales for your book. Your book is one investment of many in a catalogue. Traditional publishers are looking for one big hit—and nobody knows if it will be yours. If readers aren't interested in your book, the publisher will lose interest as well. The onus then falls on the author to market their book with their own capital if they want more royalties. In reality, most of your revenue will come from selling your rights.
On the other hand, most good hybrid publishers don't demand rights to the work and provide little beyond a publishing service. They may or may not ask for royalties. However much of a commercial success the book becomes depends largely on how much the author is willing to invest in marketing it, beyond what marketing the publisher might invest in to earn some royalties. An author might consider a hybrid publisher if they want to retain the rights, don't want to self-publish, believe they can earn more from royalties than an up-front payment, or can't get their book published with a traditional publisher.
Many authors expect small hybrid publishers to provide all the auxiliary services a traditional publisher provides for free and are subsequently disappointed to find there is a cost attached. If you are expecting these services from a publisher for free and are willing to sell your rights, you should submit your work to a traditional publisher. If you only want your book published, self-publishing makes a lot of sense, but a hybrid publisher is another option for authors looking for some assistance.