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 writer's part, and many vanity presses tend to be dishonest about sales potential in order to get people to pay. The website Writer Beware has a detailed list of warning signs for a possible scam from a vanity publisher.
Unfortunately, the actual books produced by vanity presses are often all but impossible to sell for a number of reasons:
- The writing is usually terrible. Sturgeon's Law applies here as it does everywhere else; for every competent author, there are many many more terrible authors who are nevertheless convinced they're God's gift to the literary world. Naturally, bad authors can only be published by a vanity press (because the reputable ones won't bother). The problem is exacerbated by vanity presses' lack of editors, meaning that authors get Protection from Editors.
- Most bookstores won't carry them. They prefer to deal with legitimate publishers, as vanity presses have a terrible reputation for stiffing bookstores.
- Vanity publishers don't provide any professional marketing. A traditional publisher will know how to promote a book and have the resources to do it. With a vanity press, even actually good authors are on their own in promoting their work. Some vanity presses will support book searching sites' free preview functions (like Amazon's "Search Inside the Book"), but again, Sturgeon's Law applies, so the vast majority of the time it provides all the proof the reader needs that it's crap.
- Topics tend to be controversial or appeal only to a certain niche group. A book with an Audience-Alienating Premise is more likely to be published by a vanity press (or self-published), as most traditional publishers don't want to take the risk that people will be turned off and not buy the book, regardless of its quality. And without any Creativity Leash, authors who have a particular bugbear will go on and on about it long after everyone else has lost interest.
- They don't get any reviews. Book reviewers and bloggers are often very influential in getting a new work to the public's attention, but they tend to turn up their noses at vanity-published books, assuming (for all the above reasons) that they must not be very good.
Vanity publishing is also present in the academic world; some journals will publish anything if you pay them enough. Even a paper that was produced by a random text generator.
There's an important distinction between vanity publishing and self-publishing, which are very much not the same thing. Self-publishing requires the writer to do everything himself, including the editing, formatting, and sometimes even the printing. Self-publishing is also subject to Sturgeon's Law, but its success rate tends to be a little better, because that's how you publish very specialized stuff that traditional publishers wouldn't be able to sell (e.g. master's and doctoral dissertations, corporate publications, foreign-language works) or where there aren't any traditional publishers (e.g. much of the developing world). It's easier to do nowadays thanks to the Internet, and some companies span a middle ground between vanity publishing and self-publishing, essentially printing on demand any PDF you send them (i.e. once you've written, edited, and formatted it yourself). But this trope is about vanity publishing, so all the examples on this page are works published by someone who does everything but the writing. In other words, please do not add examples of self-published works.
Real Life examples are obscure almost by definition; a few have pages, but not always for the reasons they'd like. There are also a few In-Universe examples as well. And please remember: the point of these examples is that they're vanity published, not that they're bad, so please write examples to emphasize how they came to be rather than something that fits more on Darth Wiki.
Real Life 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 has a Starfleet. An undeterred Jareo boldly had the story vanity-published and put it up for sale via mainstream channels like Amazon, claiming it was okay because only her family knew it was there. George Lucas's lawyers found out about it pretty quickly and were not particularly merciful.
- The Adventures of Archie Reynolds is a supposed children's book that suffers from horrible dialogue, Beige Prose, very repetitive writing (several times a character thinks about doing something, says what they're going to do, and then does it), nonsensical plot elements (like a Gang of Bullies who talk like pirates), and weird Contemplate Our Navels moments. The author attempted to promote his book by using multiple accounts on Amazon and elsewhere to write nearly identical glowing reviews.
- The Shadow Mouse of Everjade is known for having some of the worst prose of all time.
- Wild Animus was originally vanity-published, but there was so little interest in it that the author eventually tried to give it away for free. Most readers thought that even then, they overpaid for it.
- The Great American Parade is an attempted political satire by retired English professor Robert Burrows, who had it vanity-published in 2002. It's about a plucky band of college students who set out to stop a huge parade by George W. Bush to thank all the evil corporate robber barons who got him elected; in the process, they also 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 unimaginable tragedy! It will take a great deal of unity and hard work to recover from this crippling blow!" A Washington Post review called it "the worst novel ever published in the English language".
- 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 overdoses on 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, this is probably not what the author was going for.
- Night Travels of the Elven Vampire by LaVern Ross is one of the most notorious examples, such that it was originally thought to have been a parody of vanity publishing (à la Atlanta Nights). Once it was 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. Amazon eventually dropped the book, only for Ross to vanity-publish a nearly identical "re-imagined" version, Eternity of Blood, under the pen name Valena Graham.
- How to Good-bye Depression: If you constrict anus 100 times everyday. Malarkey? or Effective Way? by Hiroyuki Nishigaki is a hilarious English translation of a vanity-published Japanese self-help book. Once you get past its dubious premise on how to cure depression, based mostly on theories the author expounded on Internet newsgroups in 1999 and 2000, you can enjoy some of the best Engrish this side of Zero Wing. Representative sentence: "Besides shooting out a big blank from your buttock, you can feel as if your root chakra leaked sweet hot mucus." At least the author is relatively humble (by the standards of this page, anyway), even taking the time to thank the reader and apologize for his English at the end of the book.
- BIRTH CONTROL IS SINFUL IN THE CHRISTIAN MARRIAGES AND ALSO ROBBING GOD OF PRIESTHOOD CHILDREN!! (sic) — in fact, not only is the title of the book in all caps, but so is practically the entire book. It's Exactly What It Says on the Tin: some insane fundamentalist Christian ranting about how birth control and abortion are evil, while also claiming to be the Chosen One who will convert all non-Christians to Christianity. She also charges $135 per copy (isn't greed a sin too?). Its top rating on Amazon is a five-star review that reads "STILL A BETTER LOVESTORY THAN TWILIGHT"
- Dragons: Lexicon Triumvirate is a science-fiction book by Kenneth Eng, a self-proclaimed Asian supremacistnote who was able to promote the book because of the outrage and backlash at his articles "Why I Hate Black People" and "Why I Hate White People". The book is pretty 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 plug his own, and also spams it on literary fora. Here's a sporking.
- Paul Arthur Trainer has vanity-published Clown (in which the author's Mary Sue spends entire chapters plugging his other books, and Bill Gates is killed by the eponymous psychopath whilst living in a house "made entirely of brick"), Witch (in which the eponymous 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). Trainer 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, is a sort of Bait-and-Switch; it starts out as a sexy and violent murder mystery, only to turn out to be an atheist Author Tract looking to de-convert readers. The protagonist was a blatant Mary Sue who resembled the author in every way possible. Harrigan tried to drum up interest by sending copies to various atheist groups on its release. It got scathing reviews, on Amazon and elsewhere, including from said atheist groups, many of whom were hoping that it was an elaborate joke.
- The National Library of Poetry is a vanity publisher with the added twist that they don't charge for publishing your poem in an anthology book (which often borrows its title from a classic Rock album, particularly albums by The Moody Blues) — but they do expect you to buy the book, and pay to travel to the conference where your poem will allegedly be read. Many writers, including Dave Barry, have tried to send them something that's actually bad enough that they'll refuse to publish it; so far, no dice. They were parodied in Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Double Down, where Greg's mother falls for it at first.
- A couple of books were originally vanity-published but picked up enough steam (often through the author's publicity efforts) to actually be picked up by a commercial publisher:
- 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.
- The Fairy Chronicles series was originally published by notorious vanity publisher PublishAmerica, but its author was able to promote it well enough that a legitimate publisher picked them up, gave them vibrant covers and illustrations, and otherwise touched them up. It helped that the books were decently written.
- "Song-poem" companies (also known as "song sharks") were the musical equivalent to vanity presses. Adverts placed in various mass-market magazines would entice readers to send their poems for evaluation. Those who did so would receive in return a glowing appraisal of their work and pamphlets that would entice them to shell out a lot of money to set the poem to music, have it published as sheet music and/or get it "professionally recorded". If they took the bait, the poem would then be set to a quickly dashed off melody (or even one of a bunch of dusty old stock melodies) and either get a small print run as sheet music or be recorded very cheaply and pressed on a bunch of records, tapes or CDs. The finished products would be sent to the sucker, er, client for them to distribute while the company cashed their check. Since their quality can range from just plain bad to So Bad, It's Good to Narm Charm, a cult following has developed around song-poems and artists associated with them (such as singer/musician Rodd Keith, poem writers Norridge Mayhams and Thomas J. Guygax Sr., and John Trubee, who trolled a song-poem company by having them record his composition "Peace and Love", better known as "Blind Man's Penis").
- Patsy Cline's 1957 hit "Walkin' After Midnight" was supposedly co-written by Donn Hecht, whose only songwriting credit was this. However, according to this webpage, Hecht - who was employed at a song shark, 4 Star Music (Cline's studio) - actually took a song-poet's submission, doctored it and claimed it as his own. He also did more song-poem scams, using his (potentially illegitimate) credit as a lure for more songwriters.
- "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 called "Fuxom and Snickers".
- In Cyrano de Bergerac, Cyrano discuss this trope with Le Bret, claiming that he will defy it. The play is Very Loosely Based on a True Story about a real poet called Cyrano de Bergerac, and Sercy was his real editor, implying the very thing the fictional Cyrano vehemently denies.
Cyrano: Get kindly editor SercyTo print my verses at proper expense? No thank you!
- Atlanta Nights was a famous attempt to discredit notorious vanity publisher PublishAmerica, who vehemently denied that they were a vanity publisher. After they made a couple of remarks critical of the science fiction and fantasy market, a group of authors from both genres put together 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 its face 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 Bull write an autobiography and get 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".
- 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 who play it.
- The Flintstones episode "The Hit Songwriters" sees Fred and Barney write a song lyric which they then bring to song shark Scat Von Rocktoven, who writes a melody for it. They then bring it to the legitimate Rockwell Music Publishers, where they discover the melody Von Rocktoven gave to the song was actually plagiarized from "Stardust" (its composer, Hoagy Carmichael, guest-stars in the episode and also composed "Yabba Dabba Dabba Dabba Doo" for it, which in-universe was based on an earlier lyric Barney wrote which Fred rejected).