Note: This advice is given by the CAP Executive about non-broadcast advertising. It does not constitute legal advice. It does not bind CAP, CAP advisory panels or the Advertising Standards Authority.
Vanity publishing, also described (often inaccurately) as "subsidy", "joint-venture", "shared responsibility" or even "self" publishing, is a service whereby authors are charged to have their work published. Vanity publishers generally offer to publish a book for a specific fee, or to include short stories, poems or other literary or artistic material in an anthology, which the authors are then invited to buy. This service is less common than it has been in previous years but the underlying principles remain relevant.
The CAP Code prohibits advertisers from materially misleading consumers and requires that evidence is held to substantiate claims made in marketing communications (rules 3.1 and 3.7). Broadly, there are four areas where ads for vanity publishers have the potential to run into trouble: merit; costs; financial gain; and marketing and promotion.
Unlike publishing houses, which reject many more manuscripts than they publish, some vanity publishers print work regardless of quality. They should not give the impression that they, or an independent reviewer, will judge whether an author’s work warrants publication if no such vetting process or evaluation occurs. In order to claim that work is considered on merit, marketers should be able to provide documentary evidence that shows they reject a significant number of the manuscripts submitted to them. They should also provide a list of the contact details of all the people who have submitted manuscripts over a reasonable period. If the marketers' responses show that all, or most, manuscripts were rejected they will have proved that there is an element of selection.
Vanity publishers rarely share production costs with the author. If they wish to claim that they do, marketers should be able to provide invoices, or similar, showing that they contribute to authors’ costs. The nature and extent of all costs to be borne by the author should be transparent in follow-up material.
It is rarely possible for authors to recoup their costs or gain financially from book sales. Before making such claims, marketers should be able to provide documentary evidence to show that a reasonable number of authors have benefited as claimed. If referring to specific examples of financial success, ads should make clear that this is exceptional and explain that few authors recoup the cost of their outlay.
Marketing and promotion
If vanity publishers want to claim that they, or an associated marketing organisation, market an author's books in a way that increases sales, they should supply a list of those retailers, wholesalers, mail order companies and library suppliers who carry their titles. They may also be required to provide documentary evidence, such as invoices, showing that a reasonable number of authors have benefited from increased book sales as a result of their marketing programme. Holding evidence to show that a book’s publication has been registered with Whitaker’s Almanack; encouraging the author’s local library to buy a copy; or getting a book reviewed in the local or regional press, may be taken into account as evidence that a vanity publisher has promoted a book, but would not be considered sufficient evidence of an actual increase in sales. In 2014, the ASA upheld a complaint about an ad for a vanity publisher which referred to radio ads “that have recently aired”, because they were simply examples of work the advertiser believed they were capable of producing, rather than genuine ads (Green Shore Publishing, 8 October 2014).