Written by Emily Harstone September 21st, 2023

Three Types of Publishing: What You Need to Know

First off, I’m going to be clear, this is not a piece written by someone who is unbiased. I’ve spent the last 10 years reviewing traditional presses, and receiving hundreds of emails a year from authors who’ve worked with vanity presses and traditional presses, and those that have self-published. This has helped shape me as a reviewer and a person, and it’s created a number of biases that I like to think of as informed.

I’ve also spent the last decade reading various articles about how this approach to hybrid publishing is different, or how there is no such thing as a vanity press now, or that the market has changed so much everyone has to pay to publish, or that there are actually 5 different paths towards publishing and they are all wildly different. Regularly, editors of vanity and hybrid presses contact me and try to convince me that they are a traditional press, even though, yes, all of their authors pay them in order for their book to be published.

That isn’t to say that experiences in the future won’t change my mind or that I’m the only person with a definitive perspective out there. I’ve read enough articles along this line to know that’s not the case — so I’m being upfront about it here. This is my take on the situation, and there are many others a quick Google search away.

As far as I’m concerned there are three types of publishing, Vanity, Self-Publishing, and Traditional. In the following article, I’m going to define all three, clarify how they work, and how they operate, in a way that will hopefully help authors move forward towards publishing with greater clarity.

Almost everyone I’ve encountered within the traditional publishing community agrees with these classifications, it’s only editors and writers outside of the traditional sphere that have really pushed back against these classifications.

Vanity Publishing

As far as I’m concerned this term can be used to describe any press that you have to pay money to in order for your book to be published. But there is a little bit of a grey area here for me, around paying just to submit that book for the publisher’s consideration.

While I would never review a press that charged submission fees (that goes against our guiding principles), I come from a poetry background, where many of the most well-regarded presses like Copper Canyon charge authors to submit, regardless of whether I approve of their policy or not.

There are also some prose focused presses, like Two Dollar Radio, that charge a minimal $3 fee, that I have hard time judging (I’m a huge fan of their books and Submittable is expensive). But I’ve started to encounter outliers like The Permanent Press which recently started charging $25 to submit.

Any publisher charging more than a submission fee, and asking for the rights of your work, is a a vanity press. This includes publishers who force authors to buy a certain number of authors’ copies, or presses that charge their writers for covers, or more for promotion, or editing, or anything along those lines.

This means that a very large number of presses are vanity presses, in my opinion anyway.

This includes hybrid publishers, all of which charge.

This also includes, in my opinion, any publisher (we’ve encountered a few over the years) who charge some authors and not others while only having one way to submit. What I mean by this, is that while it is now pretty normal for a small press or even a larger one to have a vanity imprint, that is only ethical if the traditional imprint doesn’t redirect submissions to the vanity press.

There are also some presses where there is only one way to submit to the press as a whole, and the editors get to decide if they are going to publish your book the traditional way, or ask for money in exchange for its publication. This also disqualifies, in my opinion, a publisher from being a reputable traditional press.

A lot of people, particularly the editors of hybrid presses, will argue that what sets hybrid presses apart from traditional vanity publishing is that they don’t accept all the work that is submitted to them, that they have some kind of “filtration system”.

While this is technically true, most hybrid presses won’t say yes to every project, many will say yes to most projects, and because they are getting payment from their authors rather than readers, their time and energy is going into recruiting authors, over recruiting readers, and that is for the most part, with a few exceptions, how they work.

Also, most hybrid presses publish 2 to 3 times the amount of books a small traditional press publishes, because that’s how they get paid. This means they have less time and energy to put into publishing each book.

I’ve heard some good things about a few hybrid presses over the years, but even then, the authors that publish that way aren’t taken as seriously. They are less likely to be hired for teaching gigs or to present at conferences, and it doesn’t particularly help them get an agent, either.

In April 2022, The Society of Authors put out a great PDF about hybrid publishing which includes in-depth research on vanity presses, which you should very much download and read.


A self-publishing company will never ask for the rights to your work. The rights will always remain with you. That is the definitive difference between vanity and self-publishing.

There are lots of companies that call themselves self-publishing companies that still take your rights, which means they are actually vanity presses.

Some self-publishing providers offer editing, cover design, and even marketing for an additional price. This is OK as long as you retain the rights to your work, but it’s still something to be cautious about.

In my experience as a reader, and a teacher, most authors who self-publish are happiest with the end result if they use the self-publishing provider only to print/distribute the book, online and off. Ingram Spark and KDP both have a lot of experience doing this but there are other companies out there.

This means the author has to do the work of finding an editor, cover designer, etc., but they get to make sure they are working with quality individuals. Often the work is much better and it makes a big difference in the long run.

Once you self-publish, it’s very tricky to traditionally publish that work; most agents and publishers will not consider it.

Traditional Publishing

When you publish your work traditionally, you sign a contract which gives the publisher a license to the rights to publish your work, and in exchange you get paid a percentage of royalties (and also sometimes an advance), while the publisher takes care of the editing, printing distribution, and marketing (although the author is expected, at the very least, to contribute time towards marketing).

If the author decides to hire a publicist, which many new authors, even those working with major publishers do, they would have to pay them, but this can’t be a requirement of the press, it has to be a choice made by the author.

That doesn’t mean all traditional publishers are created equal. Many will have far from ideal distribution, or shoddy editing or bad marketing. If you want to know more how to evaluate a publisher, this article is a good starting point

Also, many authors who go through traditional presses, have an agent, and we have a helpful article about that as well.

In Conclusion

Publishing is tricky, but understanding how it works, and not falling for presses trying to convince you that vanity publishing is the same as publishing your work traditionally, is a good place to start.

Emily Harstone is the author of many popular books, including The Authors Publish Guide to Manuscript SubmissionsSubmit, Publish, Repeat, and The 2023 Guide to Manuscript Publishers. She regularly teaches three acclaimed courses on writing and publishing at The Writer’s Workshop at Authors Publish. You can follow her on Facebook here.


We Send You Publishers Seeking Submissions.

Sign up for our free e-magazine and we will send you reviews of publishers seeking short stories, poetry, essays, and books.

Subscribe now and we'll send you a free copy of our book Submit, Publish, Repeat