Avoiding vanity presses

Hybrid Publisher or Vanty Press in disguise?

Simple steps to evaluate the value of a hybrid publisher

The traditional publishing model follows one rule: money always flows to the author. If the author pays for anything, they do not have a traditional publishing contract.

In the past, anything else was considered a vanity press, but with the rise of the indie publishing boom, the traditional/vanity press line has blurred.

Hybrid publishing has emerged as a middle ground, where the publisher/author relationship has changed from employer/employee to a true partnership. Both parties share in the risk of publishing a book, and as a result, share more equally in the profits. Those in hybrid publishing claim this model allows for great manuscripts that didn’t fit current market trends (and were therefore considered too risky) to be published. The model (which emphasizes digital distribution) also allowed for smaller sales numbers while maintaining profitability. Despite the noble philosophy, many so-called hybrid publishers are little more than vanity presses with a new name.

While the business models for these ventures varies, Jane Freidman describes them in four broad categories.

  • Editorially curated. While authors typically subsidize the costs of editing or publication, the publisher doesn’t accept every author who walks through the door. As a result of their selectivity, the publisher usually has better marketing and distribution. Examples include She Writes Press and Greenleaf Book Group.
  • Crowdfunding driven. Publishers such as Inkshares and Unbound require the author to raise a certain amount of money from their readership before they are granted a deal, which then closely adheres to a traditional publishing process.
  • Assisted self-publishing. Authors pay to publish, and there is little or no discernment in what types of authors are accepted.
  • Traditional publishers with a self-publishing arm. Some traditional publishers—usually small presses you haven’t heard of—may offer author services or assisted self-publishing.

She also recommends running from the final category.

How to evaluate a hybrid publisher vanity-publisher-pinterest

Are they selective? At its essence, a hybrid publisher is a business partner. You should expect a business partner to evaluate a potential investment, which means your manuscript. A hybrid publisher that accepts all manuscripts is not a true publisher, they are a self-publishing assistant.

Once you have established whether the publisher is a true hybrid publisher or a self-publishing assistant, now you can begin to evaluate their services and whether they can really help your book succeed.

For a true hybrid publisher you need to know:

  • What is the editing process?
  • Do they have in-house editors, or do they publish the manuscript as is? No manuscript should be published without an editor
  • Do they do a print-run? If so, do they have the ability to get your book into a brick-and-mortar store? This means more than just having a catalog. Make sure they have actually gotten books on the shelf.
  • Does the publisher have a good reputation or loyal readership?
  • Do they have a large mailing list with active readers?
  • What is their marketing plan for your book?
  • Do they have experience with your genre/category? Blasting your book on Twitter isn’t going to generate sales. Book marketing is difficult. Make sure the marketing team is up to the task.

Look through their catalog. How many of these books have you seen in bookstores? Check their sales rankings on Amazon. If they don’t have sales, you will make more money without them.

Evaluating a self-publishing assistant

If you’d rather focus your time on writing and aren’t opposed to parting with some of your royalties, you may want to consider a self-publishing assistant. These companies are not true publishers, they take a writer’s manuscript and produce a professional looking e-book, ready to upload to Nook, Amazon, or the distribution service of your choice.

These can either be a-la-carte services or authors can choose a package.

In this case, you need to evaluate the quality of the product and gauge whether their service is worth the cost. For example, the publisher may charge $100 to turn your plain text document into an ebook, something you could easily do yourself in a program like Vellum.

Before you sign with one of these companies evaluate the quality of their:

  • Editing: Read one of their books and look for mistakes.
  • Covers: Browse through their online catalog. Do the covers look professional? Do they use unique images, or are they all from the first page of Shutterstock?
  • Marketing: Do they have a comprehensive marketing plan? How high have their books been on the Amazon bestseller list? How many have made the top 1000?

Most importantly, could you get similar quality results if you hired freelance editors and designers? Is there something that this company offers that is more than one stop shopping convenience?

Self-publishing vs. Assisted Publishing: the math

Using the Amazon 70% royalties as a base, let’s do the math to see where the break-even point is for the various models.

Hiring freelancers

These are average estimates. You could always pay more or less.

Developmental edit: $750
Line edit: $1000
Cover: $200
ebook conversion: $150

Add in some targeted ads, bookbub campaign, or other marketing, and you could easily spend $2000 or more.

Assuming you charge $3.99 ($2.80 royalty) for your book on Amazon, you will have to sell 715 books to break even. (Keep in mind the average e-book sells 250 copies over its lifetime.)

Hybrid publisher

She Writes Press” will give you the same basic package as above (copy editing and developmental edits are extra) with the additional benefits of a print run, distribution, and the proven ability to get books into brick and mortar stores for $4,900.

Before you choke, remember there are some tangible benefits to going with an established company. She Writes Press has an established readers community, (which is an important distribution channel) It also charges more per novel: $9.99 ($7 net royalty) which you receive 60% or $4.20.

At their royalty rate, you would have to sell 1167 books to make a profit. (This is only ebook sales. This does not include print books.) Considering “She Writes Press” has managed to place print books not only in brick and mortar bookstores like Barnes & Noble and BAM!, but also big box retailers like Target, it seems possible that this company is far more capable of turning a profit for your book than if you went alone.

A cursory investigation revealed their books perform better than the average self-published novel. However, their base price doesn’t include extras such as a developmental or line edits, which means you will have to sell far more books to break even.

Other concerns: While this press doesn’t require you use their editors, it does have a list they “recommend,” which creates a conflict of interest. They also charge a submission fee, which I find deplorable.

The only benefit to this press vs hiring freelancers seems to be the potential for better distribution, meaning the writer spends less time marketing. Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee.

Know what you are paying for

When evaluating your hybrid publishing options, make sure you know what you are paying for. Get everything in writing and verify claims with actual success stories. Look through a potential publisher’s catalog, contact authors who have worked with them, and get their feedback.

Finally, make sure the services you are paying for are better quality than you could have found with a freelancer. There is no need to pay extra for having the convenience of subpar workmanship all under one roof.

The publishing world is more competitive than ever, and there are plenty of people who are willing to part aspiring writers from their money. Do your research and protect yourself from scam artists.

M.L. Keller is a freelance writer and editor. Her blog "The Manuscript Shredder" is focused on helping emerging writers hone their craft.


  • PJ Friel

    This certainly gives me something to think about. I’m still leaning towards self-publishing, but it’s good to know all your options when making an important decision like this. Thanks! 🙂

    • M.L. Keller

      The more I research, the more self-publishing seems like the better option for the debut writer. But only if that writer puts out a top quality product: professional editing, professional cover, etc. And let’s not forget about marketing.

  • Steven Capps

    In my opinion, traditional publishing with a professionally recognized publisher (like one of the 40-some publishers listed on SFWA) is the best way to get a book out there, and if someone has been rejected by every single one of them, then self-publishing is the better option than taking a risk on a very tiny, small press even if that press is not a vanity or hybrid publisher.

    I’ve heard way too many horror stories about a legit small press going out of business, and writers can’t do anything with the rights for their work because they get tied up in bankruptcy court.

    • M.L. Keller

      It’s a tough call. Some small presses have an established loyal readership or access to distribution channels for print books. But authors should be very wary of signing on with new or tiny e-presses. Many have little benefit to the author over paying for the publishing costs. They can have little to no experience marketing books, and, as you mentioned, can become a nightmare if the publisher declares bankruptcy. Every scenario has its risks.

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