V is for Vanity Publishing

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?

Unreasonable Enthusiasm

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.

Anonymous Contacts

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.

Money Abnormalities

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?

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V is for Vanity Publishing — 7 Comments

  1. It’s not limited to presses, either, these days. I got an email the other day inviting me to pay to have one of my books made into an audio-book (I would love to have this happen, but not if I have to pay $$ for it).

    I repeated to myself Jim Macdonald’s formula: “money flows to the writer,” and deleted the email.

    • Mindy, thank you for this.

      I once met a “book doctor” — someone who took unpublishable manuscripts and (for a large fee) revised them. He said he had never turned an unpublishable book into a publishable one. He gave no indication that this troubled him at all.

      Madeleine — I got one of those solicitations, too. It was remarkably ignorant. Anybody in the publishing business would know that a Star Trek novel was work-made-for-hire, with the rights residing with the publisher or studio, so the book’s author could have no say in whether the book were made into an audiobook.

      In fact the book had *already* been made into an audiobook, which would have taken the new audiobook publisher five seconds to discover. The fact that they didn’t bother indicated to me that the email was just this side of bulk mail. I started to reply, with the information in this post, and then realized that they probably didn’t care and wouldn’t even notice if I maintained a diplomatic silence, which is what I did.

      A good way to vaccinate oneself against iffy propositions and downright scams is to read Writer Beware — http://accrispin.blogspot.com/ — which is a service of SFWA, begun by Victoria Strauss and the late (much missed) Ann Crispin.

      –V.

      • Ann’s efforts are very much missed. As for the “book doctor” — I suspect we’ll see a lot more of their time in days to come, as sales drop and money continues to dry up for authors. Many authors will don the “doctor” hat to stay solvent, making it even more difficult to tell the good guys from the bad!

    • It’s a real challenge these days! There *are* legitimate outfits that are making audiobooks for money — and then the author gets all the profits down the road (if there *are* profits.) But separating the chaff from the wheat… Not trivial.

      (I still haven’t solved the audiobook problem satisfactorily for most of my books…)

  2. Back in the day, Scott Meredith Literary Agency used to charge a reading fee, but they gave solid feedback in return (at least, that’s what I heard from the author who paid the fee and later was represented by them and sold the book, and went on to a notable career — which probably would have happened without the fee, true). I’m not aware of any reputable agency that does this now.

    • Hmm… me either. Agencies are scrambling to figure out their place in the modern publishing world — but reading fees isn’t it!

  3. Be sure to be wary of other services like people who do covers, promote books, and the like. The scams are spreading.

    I note I use Draft2Digital for zero dollars up front.