What Price Vanity? By Sally Quilford


Note: The following article is aimed mainly at poets, though I gather that some companies are now offering short story writers the chance to see their work anthologised. The article will hopefully act as a warning to all writers. If your work is good enough, you do not have to pay to have it published. Publishers will pay YOU.

Britain is a nation of writers. We all put our feelings down on paper at some time in our lives. The subject matter varies; Lost love; bereavement; the state of the world. Some keep their verses locked away in a secret place. Others like the idea of sharing their thoughts with the world. Many of the latter find that this dream ends up costing them dearly. If you are one of those writers who have submitted work to a publisher you saw advertised in the Sunday paper, then received a letter hailing you as a ‘literary genius’ and been asked to pay anything up to £12,000 to see your work published, then the chances are that you have been a victim of the ‘Vanity Press’. So how do you recognise a vanity publisher when you see one? Read on, and if any of this sounds familiar then I am afraid you have been duped. If it helps, you are not alone. It happens to the best of us.

Anthologisers The vanity press take many different forms. Firstly, there are the ‘anthologisers’. They are perhaps the worst of the presses, as they aim their campaigns at the working classes and ‘hobby’ writers by advertising in local, free newspapers. Once you are on their books, you will never get off. The advert generally takes the form of: ‘Local writers wanted for regional anthology. Poems on the subject of ‘World Peace’. No more than 30 lines. Send up to 3 poems to…’. So you send your three poems and a few weeks later you receive a letter saying;

Dear Ms X,

Your poem, “Let’s Bomb Iraq’, has been judged by our editors as being of outstanding quality. We are happy to announce that we would like to feature you in our East Midlands Anthology. As one of the contributors, you can buy this anthology at the special price of £9.99. Your family and friends, who are sure to want copies can also take advantage of this offer. Otherwise they may have to pay the normal price of £14.99, when the books are sold nationwide.

Best Wishes, Debbie [Editor in Chief]

The catch is that the books never reach bookshops [and if you wait long enough, you'll be able to buy the book for the 'sale price' of £8.99]. The only people to read them will be the other contributors. A little detective work among book distributors revealed to me that they do not deal with such publishers, and in most cases have never heard of them.

When your book arrives, it will be a paperback, packed with over a hundred other poems, some of dubious quality. You may then find yourself offered framed copies of your ‘best’ poem, Cost; £29.99, or a set of 10 postcards; £20. You will also be ‘pleased’ to learn that your other two poems also show outstanding ability, and have been chosen for further anthologies [in fact, if you had sent six, they would not be turned down!]. You will probably receive letters at regular intervals, asking you to submit poems on any subject that the publishers can pull out of a hat.


These can generally be found in the Sunday supplements. ‘International poetry competition. £1,000s in prizes. Send in up to three poems, any subject, no more than 20 lines.’

We are now getting into the realms of ‘Big’ money. Your poem will: “unfortunately not win the prize on this occasion. But, as a work showing true literary merit, has been chosen to appear in our forthcoming anthology ‘Look into my Soul’. This work will be of outstanding quality and be available internationally. We are a highly respected publisher, and your work will be seen by the whole world. You can buy this work for £39.99 [it will cost twice that when we sell it internationally.] Plus we are offering you the chance to tell us a little about you. Readers will want to know where this outstanding work came from. For and extra £20, you can include a personal profile. Do not hesitate, we expect demand for this outstanding volume to be high.”

This kind of publisher will also publish anything. Johnathon Clifford, of the National Poetry Foundation – and a vigorous campaigner against the vanity press – once sent a poem which he had thrown together from extracts of the Yellow Pages. Needless, to say, he received a letter hailing his ‘outstanding literary ability’.

When this book arrives, you are likely to be highly impressed by the cover, usually royal blue, with gold lettering. Closer inspection will reveal that production values are minimal. Spelling and punctuation mistakes – made by the contributors – will be repeated ad verbatim. Even if the writer spelled everything correctly, some details are likely to get lost in translation. One lady I know, who described herself as a mature student [correctly spelled] and was mortified to discover that she had become a nature student. This decent English lady was made to appear as though she walked around in the buff all day.

You may also have troubled finding your poem among the 3,000+ others. When you translate that into money, it means that the publishers have made £120,000 on the poems alone, not counting the personal profiles. You can perhaps guess, now, why the line limit is so strict.

Shared Publishing

This is perhaps the most confusing arm of the vanity press. The costs of publishing are mind boggling. Generally, one finds that the writer is doing all the ‘sharing’. It is an option open to writers who wish to publish a complete volume of their own poetry. Apparently this method has worked for some writers. I would hazard a guess that their poetry was of outstanding quality and/or they had enough money and energy to see the project through to the end. The real expert on ‘shared publishing’ [and the vanity press in general] is Johnathon Clifford. His book ‘Vanity Press and the Proper Poetry Publishers’ [available from the author, 27 Mill Road, Fareham, Hants PO16 OTH] is an expose of the various companies offering this ‘service’. The publishers offer to review the work to check it is saleable. According to Johnathon, no work is ever pronounced unfit to sell.

Johnathon sent a collection of poems to a selection of publishers. Each time he asked his own printer to give an estimated cost of the various samples sent to him by the publishers [1993-94 prices]. One publisher offered to publish the poems ‘in hardback with dust jacket for £2,400, or £2,000 with semi-stiff laminated cover..’ Johnathon’s printer, leaving a ‘good profit margin for himself’ could print a 48 page book; ’200 copies..[for] £661 and 500 copies [for] £892.’

Authors may also find that they are left to handle all the publicity and marketing for the books themselves. Most find that once thy have exhausted the goodwill of family and friends they are left with a pile of books gathering dust in the attic. There is certainly not much in the way of ‘sharing’ going on.

So how do you get published legitimately? I cannot guarantee that it will ever happen, but I can give a few words of advice which have been passed on to me.

First and foremost, get yourself an up-to-date ‘Writers and Artists Yearbook’ or ‘The Writer’s Handbook’ They cost about £11.99 each [you know, the same as you paid for that anthology 'Trample my Dreams']. Both books are a definite investment for any would-be writer and writer. If you cannot afford to buy them – and being serious for a minute, I know from personal experience that it is not always easy to justify such outlay when you have family to raise – you can find copies in your local library [take a pen and notebook, they are sometimes reference only] . They contain information about all the different markets for articles, short stories and poetry. They also have a section on genuine competitions. There is usually a small entry fee for these but it is nowhere near the cost of an ‘anthology’. Michael Legat has also written two books of interest to writers; Writing for Pleasure and Profit and An Author’s Guide to Publishing.

Another excellent source of information for writers is The Poetry Library, Royal Festival Hall, Level 5, London SE1 8XX. If you send them a large S.A.E. they will send you information about the various competitions, small poetry magazines, groups and workshops. It is updated regularly.

Since I first wrote this article, the internet has opened up even more opportunities for writers. There are hundreds of sites out there offering advice to writers, including Author Network.

If after reading this you realise that you have been a victim of the vanity press then remember this little piece of wisdom that my English tutor told me when I told her of my experience. I was not ready to hear it then, but it has stuck with me these last ten years; “Just because they print anything, it does not mean that your poems are rubbish.”

If you worry about ever being taken seriously just think about Gerard Manley Hopkins. Only a select few read his poems until they were published twenty-seven years after his death.

In the end I think that, like Hopkins, we must be true to ourselves, and write for ourselves. And just hope that one day our particular style of writing becomes fashionable. Believe me, it will! At least our grandchildren will be able to live off the profits.


Vanity Press and the Proper Poetry Publishers by Johnathon Clifford [available from Author, 27 Mill Road, Fareham, Hants PO16 OTH Tel/fax 01329 822218]

Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook published by A & C Black

The Writer’s Handbook Ed. Barry Turner, Published by Macmillan

Writing for Pleasure and Profit and An Author’s Guide to Publishing, both by Michael Legat, Published by Hale

Sally has her own website at: mysite.freeserve.com/sallyquilford.

© Copyright 2003 Sally Quilford


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