“We’re not vanity…we’re a co-op”

I visited several writers sites yesterday during my coffee break and kept seeing this line pop up. Someone would write in about a vanity press, and someone else (sometimes the publisher) would jump in to “clarify” things. “No, no, we’re not vanity, we’re a co-op publisher.”



First off, co-op is the shortened version of cooperative, and is defined as working or acting together willingly for a common purpose or benefit.

In the loosest of terms, this gives the impression that both parties are equally invested toward reaching a common goal.


That isn’t the case with this form of publishing – and that’s why the proper term is vanity publishing, which is defined as the practice of the author of a book paying all or most of the costs of its publication.

Now here’s where things get muddy. Vanity publishers tell their potential victims authors that both parties share equally in the goal of publishing a book. However, all one need do is check out the pricing packages to know the author is not only shouldering the entire cost of production, but they’re also making the vanity publisher very cushy happy.

“We don’t accept just anyone”

Sure they do. Vanity publishers make their money from selling publishing packages…just like carpet cleaning salesman. The customer pays, and the company provides a service by cleaning the carpet.  And just like the carpet cleaning company, there is no litmus for accepting a client other than their ability to pay.


I remember when I took a silk blouse to my dry cleaner. I pointed out the stain – I’d glorped mayonnaise on it – and asked if they could get it out. Sure, sure, they said. No problem. I went to pick up my blouse a few days later and nearly fainted. My beautiful silk blouse (formerly a dusty rose) had been washed out to a pale pink. In place of the stain was a giant white blotch.


I give the guy credit for sporting a confident grin and puffy chest. “Looks good, yah? No more mayo stain.” Then he presented me with a bill of $14. My jaw dropped. He actually thought I was going to pay for the honor of him ruining my blouse. After much haggling that would have made any street peddler proud, I walked out of the cleaner with $50 to replace my blouse.

And this is exactly what happens with vanity publishing. You enter into an agreement, hopeful they will turn your manuscript into a thing of beauty. Instead, you paid a couple grand for a cover so ugly that the beagle would bury it in the backyard. The layout is so horrible, a third grader could have done it. And the editing? Well…what editing?

But where I got satisfaction in buying a new blouse, the author is stuck. They can’t complain about the appearance of their book and get their money back. They’re screwed. Oh sure, the publisher will happily make fixes, but it’ll cost the author extra.

There is nothing cooperative about it. The author pays for everything, and the “publisher” provides an inferior service that will ensure the author will never get a return on their money.

So the next time you hear the word co-op, take the time to enlighten the person who said it because it’s gobbleycock.

6 Responses to “We’re not vanity…we’re a co-op”

  1. danholloway says:

    Excellent. I’m not part of a cooperative but I am part of a collective at Year Zero and I get sick of people misusing both terms. A cooperative is when independent people get together and use their newfound size to get exposure/bargaining that they couldn’t get separately – it’s great for farmers, for example. And it can be great for artists who want to put on an exhibition, say.
    A collective is where you all share a common artistic goal and does two things (often as well as the cooperative stuff – for us, it’s putting on shows – one spoken word performer is only ever part of the night’s entertainment, but we put together a whole programme that we can offer venues, all with a common theme so the audience aren’t totally discombobulated – we’ve been lucky enough to have several sell-out shows at literary festivals this year, and that gets the whole show written about, and everyone further benefits from that). First it gives mutual support artistically – you all see the world the same way, so you can bounce ideas around. You “get” each other. Second, it’s like an independent Amazon algorithm – if people like one person’s work, they have a whole pool of stuff to dip into they’ll probably like – so when you’re all doing your individual stuff, everyone else benefits.

    Most groups that call themselves collecties have nothing to do with that.

  2. The long and short of this is that vanity presses work very hard to look like anything other than what they are. It would be laughable, except so many good people sink a ton of money into a black hole – and there’s nothing humorous about that at all.

  3. Digital Dame says:

    I just wanna know how you got the dry cleaners to cough up for a new blouse. That’s a handy talent you got there.

  4. Hah…I wore the guy down by showing him photos of the blouse before he massacred it, and a receipt – I’d bought the blouse two weeks prior to the mayo incident. And then I finished up by telling him I’d haul him off to Small Claims. He said some naughty things in Arabic and forked over the money just to shut me up.

  5. Becky Mushko says:

    If you have to pay a “publishing” company, it’s vanity. Simple as that.

    If you pay a printer and you get your books directly from that printer, you’ve self-published. If you don’t pay the publisher and you get a big box of free author copies as well as royalties (and maybe an advance), you’ve been commercially published. I’ve done all three, so I know the difference.

  6. Are there any actual publishing cooperatives?

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