V is for vanity publishing.
Once upon a time, it was easy to spot the vanity publishers (also known as vanity presses or subsidized publishers.) They were the ones who advertised in magazines, promising to turn an author’s brilliant prose into printed books. They hinted at magnificent fame and fortune, all there for the asking—if only an author paid a large sum of money up front.
As frustrating as vanity publishing was, it was easy to warn off new authors. More experienced folks could explain, “Money flows to the author.” If a publisher asked for money up front, then they weren’t legitimate.
But the development of self-publishing has blurred that bright line. Self-published authors do pay for services up front. They hire editors and designers and formatters and marketing experts. So how can an author determine whether a potential business partner is legitimate in the modern publishing world?
Vanity publishers typically guarantee bestsellers. They promise they can get books on the New York Times or USA Today lists. Those assurances are typically bolstered by claims that an author’s manuscript is so well-written that it doesn’t need editing. The plot is perfect, and each individual sentence is crafted flawlessly. In fact, copyediting and proofreading are often (allegedly) superfluous.
Legitimate publishers cannot guarantee that any book will be a bestseller. The market is too complex, distribution is too complicated, and reader tastes cannot be measured with absolute certainty.
Moreover, every manuscript—especially the manuscripts of new authors—have some flaws. Publishing is a collaborative enterprise, with editors bringing tremendous value to the table. Authors who believes their prose is perfect cheat themselves out of the opportunity to become better at their craft.
Vanity publishers typically limit contact between their authors and professionals within the publishing house. An author may not even have an editor; rather, there’s a single contact (a salesperson) who handles all requests, guiding the project from acquisition to distribution.
By contrast, legitimate publishers have dozens of people who are associated with each book they publish. Editors are different from copyeditors, and both are different from proofreaders. While an author’s editor may be a liaison to the art department, the marketing department and others, that editor is not working in a vacuum.
Perhaps because they have so few staff, vanity presses typically have very small physical and online footprints. They may not have a street address or a phone number. They might not allow direct communication through their website until an author hands over valuable contact information.
Legitimate publishers occupy entire buildings in New York City. Even small presses have updated websites and extensive presences on social media.
Vanity presses are structured to be efficient money-earning businesses. They typically break their services into tiers, providing additional (promised) services for additional payments up front. They demand reading fees before they’ll accept a manuscript for publication. At the same time that they charge for those services, they demand a royalty on all books sold. They charge for each sales venue where a book is released — one fee for Amazon, another for Barnes & Noble, etc.
No legitimate agent or publisher will charge a reading fee. Ever. Traditional publishers provide their services for free, taking a financial risk on new books. Self publishing service providers require payment, but they don’t have a royalty interest in the resulting books.
Before you arrange to work with any publishing professional — a potential publisher, an editor, a formatter, anyone — do some basic research. Type their name into a search engine and see if people have complained (or complimented) their services. Visit some websites that track writing scams — Preditors and Editors is one of the most famous — and see if your potential business partner is listed. Check with writing organizations like the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America to see if members have ever had negative experiences with the business.
Most of all, use your common sense. If a company is offering too good a deal — guaranteed bestseller status! published books in less than a month! — ask yourself what secret formula they’re using that no one else in the business is able to access.
So? What steps do you take when you consider working with a new business partner? Have you ever been burned? Did you report the offender to a writers organization or other authority?