What Is the Vanity Press?
Just what the name implies – though vanity publishers don't call themselves that. They use the term "subsidy publishers," which is misleading because there are many non-vanity arrangements by which authors partially or completely subsidize the publication of their work. For example, that is how many scholarly works, with a limited audience of specialists, have been and continue to be published. University presses are often "subsidy publishers." Since their primary function is not to make a profit, many of their books are subsidized – sometimes by the university itself, sometimes by organizations, sometimes by authors. Indeed, the commercial publishers of high repute are open to subsidy contracts – for instance, to publish the findings of a study funded by a foundation, when the foundation may also pay part or all of printing costs.
What people call the vanity press is a high-cost printing business which parasitically imitates the conventional publishers. It takes many forms. For example, you will often see poetry "contests" advertised in magazines which, if you enter, you will find to be disguised vanity publication arrangements. They tell you you won some "prize," and have the honor of being included in some anthology – for a fee, minimally for the purchase price of a copy. The anthology, when you get it, consists entirely of poems by dupes like yourself who paid to have their work included. Whenever you see words to the effect "Poems Wanted" in an ad, beware. No one wants poems. What they want is your money, and they will ply your vanity to find a way to get it.
Most commonly, though, the vanity press consists of book publishers who contract to print your book for you if you way the costs. In the first place, the prices these publishers charge are excessive, simply for printing – which you can check by getting an estimate on the same manuscript from your local printer. In the second place, in many vanity contracts you don't own the books you pay for: you get a few "author's copies," then may buy more at "author's discount." True, they send out review copies by the bale – and they go straight into the wastebasket in almost every newspaper or magazine office at which they arrive. The other "services" they offer can be done much more easily and economically by the poet.
They have thousands of perfectly satisfied customers. Their correspondence oozes flattery, and the publishers do everything they can to make publication "feel" like an auspicious occasion. (Some even send out "news releases," flattering the poet, to local newspapers.) Their literature is filled with noble-sounding justification which makes it seem as though they were the last bastions of freedom of the press. But the simple truth is that if what you want is your book in print – in a handsome edition – so you can have copies to give away or sell, you can achieve this much more economically by going straight to a printer. You stand a much better chance of getting your book reviewed, if that is important to you (though, if it is a book of poetry, the chance is till slight) by mailing out review copies yourself than by having them sent by a vanity publisher. Whether fairly or not, a reviewer will almost certainly ignore a book with the name of a well-known vanity house on the spine, but he just might take notice of a self-published book or one from a small press that is not a vanity house. Bookstores never stock vanity press publications (except, perhaps, in the immediate community where the author may be well known). I know no good answers to the question of how to get a book of poetry published, but I am fairly certain that the vanity press is the worst.