When I first began writing for children, my critique group invited an author to speak to us about the publishing process. But we hadn’t realized this author paid to be published with a vanity press. Was she an author? Technically, yes. But after listening to her story, we realized that she might have her name on a book, but she was definitely not an author.

Disclaimer: I am not suggesting everyone who publishes with a vanity press is not an author. Some are excellent authors who are commercially and critically successful. They have taken charge of their career and I applaud them.

But this is the story of the kind of person vanity presses take advantage of—or perhaps the kind of person who takes advantage of vanity presses. At the end, I’ll ask you—do you think she fits the definition of an author?

She began by touting how quickly she wrote her book. She admitted she didn’t think a traditional publisher would acquire it. “Random House? Simon & Schuster? I knew they wouldn’t want it.” So after a few Googles, she found a vanity press that claimed to screen submissions.

The week she submitted, they sent an enthusiastic message offering to publish her book. For a fee, of course. While she wouldn’t tell us exactly how much she paid, she admitted it was between $5,000 and $10,000, although she only had to pay that fee once. Each subsequent book she published would not cost her as much (although it would elicit other fees). More on the sequel later.

She handed out her book, a holiday title, and let us read it. The first few lines were a monologue—single words emphasized with exclamations—but no explanation. She intended those words to be said in disgust, but they were words that conjure excitement in children, so without any other clues, we interpreted them as positive statements. On the third page when the character finally elaborated on his hatred of the holiday, our group was thoroughly confused.

Could the story have benefitted from a critique or two? A revision or two? Certainly. But she didn’t belong to a writing group. She didn’t have the time. Her adult daughter corrected the story for grammar but those were the only changes.

She was very pleased with how “flexible” this publisher was and how much they listened to her illustrative input. (Well, if you’re paying thousands of dollars, you shouldn’t expect anything less.) She made the artist redraw her animal characters several times so they would exactly resemble her real-life pets, the stars of the story.

However, insistence on getting the drawings “just right” delayed the book and severely limited her sales window. The book released just 2-3 weeks prior to the holiday for which it was written. Her vanity press arranged a signing for her at a bookstore and she was thrilled when she heard herself referred to as “the author”.

But is she really an author, with all those missteps and instant gratification? In my opinion, no. One of my dear friends, whom I can hear in my head, is saying, “So if a book is what she wanted, why is that so bad? Be happy for her.”

OK, I can see that the book made this woman very happy. But honestly, her flippant attitude toward our craft irritated me. It’s so very different from what I’ve been taught about working hard for something, being professional, and the satisfaction of a job well done.

In a day when self-esteem is so highly regarded and protected, when we’re giving every kid on the team a trophy just for showing up, when party games like “pin the tail on the donkey” don’t have winners or losers, and “good job” is a common parent refrain even when the job is not good, vanity presses have slipped into the culture quite easily.

But the final part of her story is the most baffling. The vanity press expressed interest in releasing a series of books based upon her characters, and as mentioned previously, she would not have to pay the hefty initial publishing fee. Her response floored us.

“Well, I’m really busy right now, but maybe in a year or two.”

Huh? You mean you have a chance to actually sell more books and make back some of your money but you are “too busy”?

Five years later, a search for her name turns up just one book. No series ever materialized.

So my next question is—was she even a writer? I don’t know writers who are “too busy”—because we must write. It is what we do. We can’t NOT write.

We write for many reasons. Some are writing with the goal of publication. Some are writing for the sheer pleasure of creation. Why do you think this woman wrote? And is she an author?