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'Vanity' presses -- boon or bane to writers who can't get published?

By Bruce ManuelBook editor of The Christian Science Monitor / August 11, 1982


Several months ago, when the campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment was in full swing, Marjorie Childs decided it was high time to become a writer. This Utah housewife and former teacher believed that the anti-ERA arguments she was hearing demanded clear, forceful refutation.

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Mrs. Childs submitted articles to newspapers all over the United States and then collected her writings in a book that appeared this spring. Since the amendment died in June, she now hopes ''The Fabric of the ERA'' will help build momentum for a second ERA drive in the near future.

Unlike most would-be authors, however, Mrs. Childs didn't go through the common ritual of submitting her manuscript to several publishers and having it rejected by some or all. She didn't have time for that. Instead, she circumvented the process by investing not only hard work in the project but cash as well. She paid $8,000 to have her 129-page volume produced in hard cover, with a dust jacket.

Mrs. Childs is one of about 1,000 writers who this year will sink from $4,000 to $20,000 into getting their books copy edited, designed, printed, bound, and publicized by America's three large ''subsidy'' publishers, Vantage Press of New York City, Exposition Press of Smithtown, N.Y., and Dorrance & Co. of Bryn Mawr, Pa.

Subsidy houses reject hardly a manuscript on literary grounds, though they don't publish libelous material, hate literature, or pornography. ''Subsidy'' refers to the fee these publishers charge their authors, but detractors have come up with a pejorative label of their own -- ''vanity'' presses.

In normal trade, university, and small-press publishing there is no fee. The publisher provides the financial backing to launch the book, and the author's advances or royalties are compensation for their labor.

In general, the literary world looks down on the need for a fee as a signal that the subsidized book isn't good enough to make it on its own. Few bookstores will stock it; not many review media will give it attention; and some papers and magazines will refuse to accept ads for it.

Yet, despite the stigma, subsidy publishers seem to be doing better than ever. Slow trade sales and heavy dependence on mass-marketable ''blockbusters,'' as well as tight budgets at university presses make it hard for books of limited appeal to find acceptance. Today, previously published authors, as well as scholars and diplomats who might have published commercially a few years ago, are turning to subsidy houses. The list of prominent people who have published recently with subsidy presses is long. It includes:

* Benjamin E. Mays, former president of Morehouse College and head of the Atlanta school board, who published an earlier book with Scribner's.

* Wallace H. Fuller, a biochemist and professor at the University of Arizona, who previously published two books with a university press.

* Frank J. Devine, US ambassador to El Salvador under the Carter administration.

* Joseph Guannu, the current Liberian ambassador to the United States.

While Expositon, Dorrance, and Vantage dare not hope this distinguished clientele will completely erase the subsidy stigma, there are signs of some mellowing.

Karen Kennerly, executive director of PEN-America, the US branch of the international writers' organization, says, ''Right now I don't think that PEN or anybody else can afford to have a restrictive attitude about vanity presses.'' The financial limitations that keep pushing the break-even point on trade books higher and higher now mean that ''if a book can't sell 12,000 copies and can't break even, (it won't be published, and) one can't buy it,'' she adds. ''Some of the most brilliant books in our literature have sold only 4,000 to 5,000 copies the first year. . . . It's very, very important to consider what the vanity press is and what it could do in these times of great difficulty for authors who write serious but not necessarily popular books.''

Ms. Kennerly, however, seems to speak for a minority.

Theodore Vrettos, whose newest novel, ''Lord Elgin's Lady,'' was published this spring by Houghton Mifflin (a trade publisher) and who teaches creative writing at Simmons College in Boston, gives each of his classes a lecture on the hazards of vanity publishers. ''A lot of first-time writers, unaware of how costly such a project can become, have been duped and disappointed,'' he comments.