Thomas Nelson Opens Vanity Press

A publishing company that charges writers to publish their books is a vanity press. In today's world, it's more polite to call them self-publishers. Now, I'm the first to admit that some books, my mom's memoir Memory Lane, for example, are suited for self-publishing because they're books that fit a very narrow niche.


The real news is that Thomas Nelson has found a new profit center according to the newsletter from Shelf Awareness a couple of days ago. I suffered a severe eye-rolling attack of Duh! when I read about Thomas Nelson Inc. launching West Bow Press, "an imprint whose books will be designed, published and distributed by Author Solutions Inc., the country's largest self-publisher."

The piece went on to say that Thomas Nelson wouldn't be editing manuscripts, but that they would monitor sales to identify potential big sellers. Michael Hyatt, Thomas Nelson's CEO, said: "There's no question we think this will generate revenue."

That last statement brought out the DUH and more eye rolling so I had to take to the keyboard.

New Profit Center

So a respected publishing house is going to launch a vanity press because they've figured out that people will pay big bucks to get their book published? This is just another profit center for a corporation, not a public service designed to bring legitimacy to vanity, or self, publishing as Kevin Weiss, CEO of Author Solutions, suggests in his statement about the partnership: "What this will do is to put the stamp of approval on self-publishing."

Soapbox Time

There is no stamp of approval needed for self-publishing if one uses this publishing process to publish a book that simply won't get picked up by a royalty paying publisher no matter how well-written it is. Again, my mom's memoir is an example. It's well-written, I saw to that, and packaged well, but I didn't think any publisher would be interested in the reflections of small town life during the Roaring Twenties and Great Depression by a non-famous person.

Narrow niche nonfiction books fit the self-publishing model well. At CreateSpace, the self-publisher I used, books like computer programming guides, vegan guides, and other esoteric content books do quite well. Even my mom's book has sold nearly 100 copies with no promotion. (I suspect popular history buffs have found it a treasure.)


Vanity publishing gets the sneer when writers whose manuscripts, usually fiction, are so mundane, boring, and/or poorly written that no publisher will plunk down money to publish it. It amounts to a question of quality. I've seen a lot of self-published books, and I'm forced to say that most of them are mediocre at best and embarrassing at worst.

Takeaway Truth

Mastering the narrative skills and writing thousands of words in an effort to get good enough to write something worth publishing has far more to do with claiming the title author than possessing the money to pay a publisher to print your manuscript.

There are no short cuts on the road to success, regardless of the career involved.


Dan Poynter, author of The Self-Publishing Manual, pointed out in Comments that my terminology was mistated (sic). He said: A publisher that takes money to publish your book is a vanity press. An author who invests in typesetting and printing is a self-publisher. A vanity press is not a "self". (sic) Please do not use the terms interchangably (sic).

He's correct. In some parts above, I do use vanity press and self-publisher in a shorthand way to mean that which is opposite a traditional royalty-paying publisher. For that, I apologize. Where you see me use the terms, as if a printing company and a person who is self publishing are identical entities, instead think vanity press and one who self-publishes.

You may find yourself wondering what the difference is between a writer who pays a vanity press to produce a book and a writer who self-publishes a book by paying a company for various editorial tasks and for printing the end result. Is there a difference? I guess that's a blog post for another day.

(If this is now as clear as mud, my job here is done I suppose. *g*)


  1. This post is good, the terminology is mistated.
    A publisher that takes money to publish your book is a vanity press.
    An author who invests in typesetting and printing is a self-publisher.
    A vanity press is not a "self".
    Please do not use the terms interchangably.
    --Dan Poynter, author of The Self-Publishing Manual.

  2. I could not disagree more with this assessment. This is a perpetuation that self-publishing and vanity presses equal lack of quality or talent on the writers behalf. There are dozens of examples of self-published AND vanity authors who have successfully sold their books to traditional publishers -- mostly after having exhibited significant sales. The bulk of these authors were "rejected" by agents and publishers initially. With the current state of the publishing industry, I am confident that vanity presses and self-publishing will continue their trend upward. As demand grows, so will the physical quality of the product. Thomas Nelson will not be the last major publisher to enter this space.
    --David Ratner, President, Newman Communications

  3. Dan, thank you for pointing that out. Of course you are correct. However, a writer who publishes with a vanity press and a writer who self publishes are engaging in the same undertaking in that it is opposite publishing with a royalty-paying publisher which was the point I was trying to make.

  4. David Ratner, thank you for visiting and for commenting. I'm sorry, but we'll probably have to agree to disagree on some aspects.

    I did not make the blanket statement that all books that are self-published or vanity published are lacking in quality or talent. I said most of them are.

    You may not like it, but that's what I've seen. For every well-written book published by a vanity press or self-published by a writer, you'll find 10 that are at best mundane and boring; at worst, grammatically incorrect and poorly written.

    Yes, there are several examples of writers who have gone on to sound sales and then royalty contracts with traditional publishers, but that doesn't make all products of those venues worthy of the same.

    Yes, I agree that vanity presses and self-publishing ventures will trend upward. As long as people have money and want to see their name on a book cover, there will be companies delighted to accommodate them for a price.

    As far as growing demand creating a better product, that's simply not true unless the book is given the same editorial treatment afforded books published by traditional publishers as well as excellent production qualities.

    Yes, I agree that Thomas Nelson won't be the only publisher to start milking this cash cow. But that doesn't mean these books will be any better than the typical book published by any of the existing vanity presses or companies that cater to writers who want to self-publish.

    Best wishes,
    Joan Reeves

  5. Vanity presses used to be called "subsidy presses", and they themselves came up with the new name to hide the fact that a vanity press gets most of its money from authors, not from book buyers.

    There's a fat vigorish charged by both the vanity presses and the conventional presses. It's not likely, though, that you'll find your book in every Costco unless you use a conventional publisher, so paying that vig makes sense for a Stephen King or a Tom Clancey.

    Niche books can be profitable, and they're more profitable with self-publishing, because the author can use personal salesmanship to get his "First Settlers of XYZ" in all the gift shops, convenience stores, and supermarkets of XYZ, and possibly get some local organization to sell it as a fund-raiser. If XYZ is in Michigan, what's the point of having it in Idaho bookstores?

    Doyle Brunson sold his original poker book around 1970 for $100 by advertising in men's magazines. The exorbitant price added to the appeal. No conventional publisher would have come up with that. They'd have offered the book in bookstores for $5.95 - and it would have flopped.

    But I'm unaware of ANY book that did better because the author chose a subsidy press. Thomas Nelson seems to be setting up money-changing tables in the temple to fleece the flock. They'll probably make a bundle.

  6. Thanks, Harl. Well said, especially your last paragraph. *g*

  7. When I became an aspiring writer several months ago I did a fairly intensive course of Internet based self-education. One site, which I unfortunately did not bookmark, had a clear and straightforward delineation between self-publishing and subsidy publishing. When the ISBN is issued in a self-publishing arrangement, it is issued to the author. If it is subsidy published it is issued to the publishing house.

    I understand there are several highly regarded actual self-publishing companies out there, such as Lulu. It disturbs me to see a subsidy press using the incorrect term to try to ride the coattails of these genuinely innovative companies.


  8. Steve, thanks for visiting and for commenting. However, I must gently correct you on your assumptions.

    Blocks of ISBN's are purchased by publishing houses and are then assigned to the book, not the author.

    This is true for royalty-paying publishers and for publishers like Lulu and CreateSpace who offer DIY publishing to writers.

    Most TofS to which you agree state that you cannot use the ISBN a DIY company assigned your book to publish the book with another company. This is pretty much the way it is with traditional publishing.

    All my books, published under royalty contracts by traditional publishers, when resold to other publishers were issued a new ISBN.

    The ISBN would be issued to an author if the author is also the one publishing the book. Anyone can purchase a set of ISBN's from Bowker.

    So Thomas Nelson, a well-established respected traditional publisher, in starting a vanity press, which is pretty much the same as a subsidy press, isn't really riding any DIY publishing "innovative" company coattails.

    They're just adopting a business model that appears to be a good bet for increased revenue.

    Best wishes,
    Joan Reeves