Vanity publishers are companies that will essentially publish almost anything a would-be author has written, regardless of quality or potential market. Obviously, most of these books never sell, but some people just really want to see their name in print (hence the name "vanity" press).
When a traditional publisher accepts a book for publication, it pays all the expenses related to publication in return for a certain percentage of the proceeds. The publisher is betting that the book will earn them more than it costs them to produce, which is why they're only interested in books that are likely to sell well. A vanity press, on the other hand, has the author foot the bill, which allows them to publish practically anything and still make a profit. This will often lead to fairly large expenses on the part of the writer, and is why many vanity presses tend to be dishonest about sales possibilities in order to get people to pay.
Unfortunately, the actual books produced by vanity presses are often all but impossible to sell for a number of reasons.
- The writing quality is often terrible. For every competent author out there, there are dozens of terrible authors convinced they're God's gift to the literary world, and vanity presses are how a lot of them get published. It also provides Protection from Editors, seeing as there are few if any.
- Most stores won't carry them. Bookstores prefer to deal with legitimate publishers, as vanity presses have a terrible reputation for stiffing bookstores.
- Vanity publishers (and self-publishing) doesn't provide any professional marketing like a traditional publisher does, so even if your book actually is good, you're still on your own in getting interested readers to hear about it.
- The topic being written about may be controversial, or appeal only to a certain niche group. While this happens with some traditional publishers, a book with an Audience-Alienating Premise is more likely to be published by a vanity publisher (or self-published), because most traditional publishers would rather not take the risk of publishing something that will most likely not sell well (or at all). Not to mention, vanity publishers tend to have fewer Creativity Leashes, and little or no editing.
- Book reviewers and bloggers, often influential in getting a new work to the public's attention, may be likely to turn up their noses at vanity published books, assuming (not unfairly) that books that weren't good enough to be accepted by traditional publishers are likely to be a waste of time.
Interestingly, many vanity presses support Amazon.com's "Search Inside the Book" feature and other book searching sites. While this can help readers find the rare gem in the rough, it also allows them to easily see why so many vanity published books just plain suck.
Vanity publishing is also present in the academic world, with some journals publishing anything— even a paper that was actually produced by a random text generator (note: said paper opens automatically as a PDF if you click this link) for a fee.
It's worth noting that there are differences between a vanity press and a self-publisher, and the two are mutually exclusive. In self-publishing, the writer takes on the duties of editor and formatter himself, simply contracting with a printing firm to produce the physical book. Naturally, for similar reasons, many (but not all) self-published books also suck. Some do not, and some have to be self-published even though they're high quality and well written, because the book's appeal is inherently narrow. (Would you be interested in the corporate history of BB&T Bank? Well, that bank has a history of itself, well-written and professionally produced, in the lobby of every branch for customers to read. Even though the book is well done, seriously, not many in the general public would be interested in buying it.)
Self-publishing may also be used for master's and doctoral dissertations, if the university expects them to be bound, and for writers whose texts are not in the dominant language of the country they're publishing in. Self-publishing is also very common in the developing world, where in some countries (India, most notably) more books are self-published than are published by commercial publishers. Online self-publishing has also been taking off as well, with sites such as Lulu letting any aspiring author submit his manuscript, choose the printing and binding options, and printing and delivering them on demand to anyone who buys the book.
The website Writer Beware contains lots of useful warnings about Con Artist vanity publishers and their sketchy business practices. Suffice to say, if a "publisher" is asking you to give them money for things that should be their job, odds are very good it's a scam of some kind, even if only to part a fool and his money.
Don't add examples that are self-published, just terrible, or self-published and terrible. If you don't know why, scroll up and read what "vanity publisher" means again.
Since vanity published books are almost by definition obscure, pretty much all examples will be obscure as well (see further down for in-universe examples)
- Another Hope is a Star Wars Fan Fic by Lori Jareo in which all the main characters die in the first episode and the author's Mary Sue Author Avatar takes over. Also, the Star Wars Galaxy now apparently possess a Starfleet. When Jareo, in a move that must have taken balls of steel, had the story vanity-published and put it up for sale via mainstream channels like Amazon.com (claiming that it was okay do so because only her family knew it was there), George Lucas' lawyers wept tears of burning sulfur.
- The Adventures of Archie Reynolds. Horrible dialog, Beige Prose galore, and very repetitive writing. There's dozens of examples of Archie thinking that he's going to do so something, then saying out loud that he's going to do something, and then actually doing it; all in the exact same words. (e.g. Archie wants to get back at a girl who cracked an egg over his head. He sees her swimming pool and thinks to throw her in there. He then says out loud that he should throw her in the pool. He then throws her in the pool.) There's also a Gang of Bullies who talk like pirates for no reason, and a scene in which the characters speculate on the purpose of a ladder and come to the conclusion that it is for climbing up or down. Gee, who would have guessed. The author attempted to promote his book by using multiple accounts on Amazon.com to write nearly identical glowing reviews. It was obvious from clicking each screenname that the accounts were created just to praise that book. He'd even tried the same stunt in other places as well.
- The Fairy Chronicles was originally vanity published by PublishAmerica, but its author was able to promote it well enough that a legitimate publisher picked it up and gave it much better treatment, adding vibrant color illustrations, a beautiful cover, and many overall improvements. The fact that the books are decently written helped, but the author's own ability to actually market her (originally overpriced) work is probably what pushed it into the mainstream.
- In the same mold (vanity published book gets picked up by conventional publisher and it achieves mainstream success): James Redfield's The Celestine Prophecy. Redfield sold over 100,000 copies of the book out of the trunk of his car before Warner Books picked it up. The rest, as they say, is history.
- For the curious, you can find a list of other well known books which were self-published and became prominent here. The list does contain flaws, however.
- Some of the worst prose of all time is in The Shadow Mouse of Everjade. If you look it up on Amazon and read an excerpt, you will get some idea of the quality.
- Wild Animus was vanity published, and then, for a time, sent to anyone who wanted it, free of charge. The book itself was generally considered to be worth less than the $0 most readers spent on it.
- The Great American Parade, a novel which attempts at political satire by retired English professor Robert Burrows, was vanity published in 2002. Since then it's been called "the worst novel ever published in the English language" by a Washington post review. The story deals with George W. Bush organizing a huge parade to thank all the evil corporate robber barons who helped him get into office; somehow hardly anyone in America notices, except for a plucky band of college students who set out to single-handedly stop the parade, end the war in Iraq, and undo the Bush tax cuts. It features such brilliant dialog as this gem (spoken by a character immediately after witnessing the events of 9/11): "What an almost unimaginable tragedy! It will take a great deal of unity and hard work to recover from this crippling blow!"
- On a positive note, Marcel Proust had to pay for the publication of the first book of In Search of Lost Time - which is now considered one of the greatest novels ever written.
- Latawnya, the Naughty Horse, Learns to Say "No" to Drugs is a hilarious piece of vanity-published gold. It's the only children's book in which a non-anthropomorphic horse OD's from marijuana, with an illustration of his family (of horses) crying over him. The surreal illustrations and repetitive, Anvilicious writing seal the deal. While marijuana is toxic to horses, applying this to people may be an example of Fantastic Aesop.
- One of the most notorious examples of vanity publishing is Night Travels of the Elven Vampire by LaVern Ross; originally thought to have been a parody of vanity publishing, a la Atlanta Nights. Once discovered to have been a serious attempt at writing, it became the subject of multiple scathing reviews, some of them brilliantly hilarious. Notorious for its over-the-top Mary Sue lead, laughably bad language, and bizarre graphic sex scenes; it generated at least two Internet memes. Eventually dropped by Amazon.com, a nearly identical "re-imagined" version, Eternity of Blood, was subsequently vanity-published, written by Ross under the pen name Valena Graham.
- A book exists called How to Good-bye Depression: If you constrict anus 100 times everyday. Malarkey? or Effective Way? by Hiroyuki Nishigaki and can be found on Amazon. Once you've finished snickering; it is published by "Writers Club" and iUniverse.com, and is largely made up of the author explaining his theories relating to how depression can be cured on newsgroups in 1999 and 2000, along with people reacting in various ways. The book is perhaps the best example since Zero Wing of the results of making literal translations of Japanese to English, with sentences like: "Besides shooting out a big blank from your buttock, you can feel as if your root chakra leaked sweet hot mucus" (we'll give you another five minutes to stop snickering again). At the end of the book, the author thanks the reader for taking the time to read his book in spite of his English being so bad. Well, at least he's humble, which is more than we can say in regards to most of the authors who wrote the pieces of nonsense listed on this page.
- BIRTH CONTROL IS SINFUL IN THE CHRISTIAN MARRIAGES AND ALSO ROBBING GOD OF PRIESTHOOD CHILDREN!! Not only is the title of the book capitalized just as shown, but the entire book is! The book consists exactly of what the title suggests it does; some insane fundamentalist Christian woman under the impression she is God's Chosen One ranting about birth control and abortion being evil and how she's going to convert all the Jews, Muslims and atheists to Christianity. Did we mention she charges $135 for a copy? Greed is a sin too, you know... Also, it's objectively funny that the top rating on Amazon gives 5 stars, reasoning "STILL A BETTER LOVESTORY THAN TWILIGHT"
- Kenneth Eng is proof-positive that white supremacists aren't the only insane racist bunch around. A self-proclaimed Asian supremacist who claimed credit for inciting the Virginia Tech massacre, Kenneth Eng published obvious Flame Bait articles in the California newspaper Asian Week titled "Why I Hate Black People" and "Why I Hate White People." Once word of this got out to the mainstream media, he used the exposure to plug his vanity-published science-fiction book! Said book, Dragons: Lexicon Triumvirate, is pretty much awful, but he's written glowing five-star reviews of it on Amazon, while pretending to be someone else. He even writes reviews of other books just to mention it. His review of The War of the Worlds amounted to: "This book is good, go read Dragons: Lexicon Triumvirate." He's also stooped to sock-puppet antics on various literary fora, bringing up a topic and then using it to plug his book. It now has a spork!
- Paul Arthur Trainer (variously known as Paul Trainer, Arthur Trainer, and Paul Arthur Trainer), author of Clown (in which the author's Mary Sue spends entire chapters plugging his other books, and Bill Gates is killed by the titular psychopath whilst living in a house "made entirely of brick"), Witch (in which the titular Big Bad is actually aided by a flying monkey), and Life Flash (in which a woman threatens to divorce her husband if he has ever seen a bear) has developed something of a cult following among small-press horror writers and fans, who have been known to read his books aloud at conventions, to maximum comedic effect.
- "Visit the dark bowels of death as one victim after another will lead you to believe there is a reason for revenge; cold, hard, blood-curdling revenge. Who is the killer? And are you sure? It could be someone you least expect. Old Tavern No. Nine, set deep in the Santa Cruz hills, will never be the same and neither will you?"
- John Harrigan's The Professor and the Dominatrix, published by PublishAmerica, was apparently sent out by the author to some atheist groups at its release. It was a murder mystery featuring sex and violence, which was hoped to draw the reader in and then lead them to question their religious beliefs more closely. One member of a receiving group decided to review it and put her review online. Unfortunately, she did not particularly care for the book. According to the review, much of it was basically a long Author Tract, and the main character was a blatant Mary Sue, to the point that he wasn't just an outspoken atheist like the author, but even had the exact same day job too (professor of psychology), and a mustache. The author responded to the criticisms by, among other things, pointing out the favorable review the writer of the foreword gave it, similar to what the one non-deleted Amazon review did (the remaining review mentions other, critical reviews that were presumably deleted; it is implied they were sock puppets). It left many readers on the Pharyngula blog thinking or hoping the book was an elaborate joke. (Note, the remaining Amazon review is not from a sock puppet; it is a "real name" account for someone other than the author or foreword writer. It was the reviewer's only review though, so it seems to be purpose built).
- The National Library of Poetry. Sure, you don't have to pay anything to get published... but you know they expect you to buy the book, and pay to travel to the conference where your poem will allegedly be read, and so on and so forth. People, including Dave Barry, have gotten in on the attempts to send something that's actually bad enough that they'll refuse to publish it; so far, no dice.
- The 1939 novel Gadsby by Ernest Vincent Wright is one of the few (known, at least) vanity published books that is actually good. The reason it was vanity published is that Wright wrote it as a lipogram i.e. he didn't use words with a specific letter, in this case, the letter e.
- Vanity pressings are the audio counterpart to vanity publishing. With all the recent advancements in audio technology and software like Apple GarageBand, recording a decently-sounding album is easier and cheaper than ever and many people will take advantage of it. These could be something as benign as an unsigned band making a vinyl recording (essentially self-publishing with sales at shows) on up to companies that would write and record songs using the finest in talent and audio equipment around the authors lyrics for a fee. Some of these have become cult favorites thanks to blogs like WFMU's 365 Days Project.
- "Friday" by Rebecca Black was the product of Ark Music Factory, a vanity record label and production company who will compose a song and produce an accompanying music video for anyone who pays a fee. However, her video didn't exactly fall into obscurity.
Meta-examples (in-universe, self-aware, discussed etc.)
- In-universe example in Foucault's Pendulum: The three main characters, who all work at a vanity press that's been getting a lot of manuscripts from occultists and conspiracy crackpots, decide to one-up them all by creating the Ultimate Conspiracy Theory. Things then go horribly right.
- In a twist, the not-terribly-obscure, not-at-all vanity published How Not To Write A Novel is a how-to guide for writers taking the form of how to remain completely unpublishable. In addition to providing tips on how to make your protagonist insufferable, your plot horrid, and how to make sure no editor talks to an unprofessional boor such as yourself, it contains a truly sincere and serious warning about this business practice. The vanity publisher in the book is even called Fuxom and Snickers.
- In the play Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand, there is an In-Universe example. At Act II Scene VII, Cyrano discuss this trope with Le Bret, claiming that he will defy it.note .
Cyrano: Get kindly editor SercyTo print my verses at proper expense? No thank you!
- After PublishAmerica, already under fire for accusations of vanity publishing, made a couple of remarks critical of the science fiction and fantasy market, a group of authors from both genres put together Atlanta Nights, an intentionally low-quality manuscript, written under the name "Travis Tea". The "novel" was accepted by PublishAmerica (which purports to hold high standards), despite the fact that it contained numerous deliberate plot holes and inconsistencies, a missing chapter, a duplicate chapter, a chapter written by a computer text-generating program, and other flaws that should have rendered it unpublishable on face value (at least by any "traditional publisher"). After the hoax was revealed (by the authors themselves, on recommendation from their legal team), the acceptance was swiftly withdrawn.
- One episode of Night Court has an in-universe example when Bull writes an autobiography and gets it published this way.
- On My Name Is Earl, Randy decides to write a book called The Curious Tongue, a book of one-sentence reviews of various non-food items he has licked or tasted. (In spite of the fact that he is uneducated, not exactly street-smart either, and according to Earl, uses a 17-letter alphabet.) In order to make him happy, Earl gets the "manuscript" published, presumably through one of these types of publishers. No one ever buys the book, and it's never mentioned again, but Randy is happy to be published.
- In Girl Genius the Wulfenbach spymaster and torturer Oglavia Spüdna describes an apparently horrifying book titled Everybody Wants to Talk as a vanity project from her youth, it was even published by "Vanity Press".
- An in-universe example happens in one episode of SpongeBob SquarePants. Patrick writes a song and sends it to a music company, who has to make the song since they already used the money that came with it. The song ends up killing the musicians that had to play it.