A vanity press is one that caters to the writer's desire to get published at all costs. They take (almost) all comers, with no editorial screening of submissions -- undoubtedly, one of the things that contribute to their appeal. Typically, their services are limited to getting your book laid out, typeset, and printed -- which you pay for. If you want the services of an editor, you pay extra. If you want cover design, you may have to pay extra for that, too. They do not pay you any royalty; they do not market your book; they do not distribute the book; they may not even warehouse your inventory (hope your garage is empty, because you'll need some storage space). The vanity press is just that -- a press, not a publisher.
Now, with ebooks there is no press -- no paper, no ink, no bindery required, no warehouse needed to store printed copies, because there are no printed copies. How on Earth, then, can an electronic vanity press justify its existence? Only by offering big-name recognition in the inventories of online retailers, such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. And yet they still want your money.
This post from the Savvy Writers & eBooks Online blog explains what is wrong with these new ebook publishing ventures:
Now it seems that reputable, traditional publishers step into the foot prints of these “vanity publishers” and go into the business of deceiving authors. Many jumped on the bandwagon of the success of e-books and created imprints for digital books, such as “Hydra” [science fiction], “Flirt” [romance] or “Alibi” [mystery and suspense] an imprint of Random House, or “Blackfriars” an imprint of Little & Brown in the UK.These new digital imprints became the subject of controversy recently since John Scalzi, president of Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA), carried on a public debate with representatives of Random House's new Hydra division, which publishes science fiction ebooks (Random House has also started arms for books in other popular genres). Writers are not eligible to join SFWA, a prestigious organization of science fiction authors, unless they have published at least one title with a "legitimate" publisher -- one that pays advances on royalties from the sales it expects to generate from an author's work. Scalzi has stated that SFWA will not recognize these new electronic publishing arms of Random House as "legitimate" publishers, chiefly because they will not pay royalties, and also because the contracts they offer are massively disadvantageous for the author.
This article on io9.com summarizes Scalzi's objections:
1) They don't pay an advance, which is usually pretty standard, even for most smaller publishers
2) They charge the writer up-front for all sorts of costs that the publisher normally pays for, including editing, sales and marketing, cover art, publicity and so on -- which can pile up, and which are quite possibly whatever Random House says they are.
3) Random House takes the license to your book for the full term of copyright, and the clause allowing you to regain the right to your book after it goes out of print is really problematic.
All in all, this adds up to a situation where authors might never see any money from Random House, and meanwhile they never get to own their own work.By comparison, ebook publishing services such as Book Baby and Book Tango, which help you self-publish your book for a reasonable fee, look quite inviting. Such services help you with formatting, publishing, and listing your book with major online booksellers, and also offer optional paid assistance with editing, cover design, and other tasks that you may wish to contract out. And unlike the new Random House ventures, they do not command the lion's share of your profits on book sales. Even so, make sure you know exactly what you'll be getting, or giving, if you decide to use such a service.
Writers looking forward to publishing their work should become acquainted with the Preditors & Editors website, which offers a wealth of information on publishers and publishing services. The publishing world is suffering a lot of upheaval these days, and the business end of writing is more complicated than ever. Make sure you educate yourself so that you understand all of your options before you decide how, and where, to publish your book. There are some wonderful opportunities that didn't exist a decade ago, but there are also plenty of pitfalls to be avoided. Writers, beware.