Writers beware the vanity publishing glare

Not all of you reading this have necessarily heard the warnings about the vanity publishing companies who lure potential writers in with the promise of publishing glory; those companies who may even go so far as to advertise ‘no fees’ or even allude to payment for acceptable manuscripts. Legitimate publishers need not even mention such things as they are synonymous with legitimate publishing avenues. With the vanity publishing firms, these promises almost always fall under very strict criteria that can never be met for first-time writers and are quickly replaced with alternative offers so that publishing dreams can come to fruition. Over the years, I have slowly, and painfully, become much more aware of the tell-tale signs that would indicate whether a vanity press is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow or if a legitimate publisher is actually going to be involved. Where a publisher is advertising itself, its submission guidelines and the actual contract being offered often hold the key criteria for safe publishing endeavors; and yet there is something about getting published that may blind some to the obvious pitfalls that almost always come with vanity publishing. I was once blind, but now I see.

Those of you writers who are rich and have no problem paying for your work to be professionally published, you can stop reading now. The product that you pay for will look beautiful and it will be placed on Amazon and potentially other book-selling sites; although one soon discovers that this does not guarantee even meager sales. In many cases, however, your work, through vanity publishing, does not receive the proper editing that should come with the rigid process being offered by real publishing houses. As a direct result, sales will never become a reality based on the quality of the unedited work itself. Vanity publishers make their money on the sheer volume of people paying to get their work into print. Whether your book sells or not is often of no concern to the vanity publisher since they have already made their money on the front end. That said, marketing will then become the sole-responsibility of the author since the vanity publisher has fulfilled its contractual obligations once the book is in print and listed on Amazon. Offers to help market may follow, in some cases, but there are always fees attached to these offers. Although self-marketing can produce results, and some do find success and eventually get their initial investment back, many can not really afford to reach into their own pocket or dedicate too much time for marketing. If you fall into this category, please keep reading. The following may help you avoid being put into a position in which vanity clouds your budget-sense or your judgment regarding your ability to truly market your book.

Where a publisher advertises is the first most obvious indicator of its legitimacy. We have all googled publishing and were pleasantly surprised by how many publishers were actually being advertised. This may also have fallen under the category of ‘contest’ with promises of your work being published should your entry reach a certain level of success in the contest. Advertisements asking for submissions on the spot, as well as those disguising themselves with a query form that is later followed up with an enthusiastic call for your manuscript, should be avoided since they will end up costing you, the writer, in the long-run. Well, we have all heard the saying: “If it seems too good to be true, then it probably is too good to be true!” This is what should come to mind if you are asked to e-mail your manuscript to a publisher through an advertising page. Most legitimate publishers do not accept unsolicited manuscripts, and even queries are often not a possibility. Legitimate publishers will also not advertise and will have home pages where one may be able to send queries. Therefore, when presented with the opportunity to send publishing ideas or even manuscripts via an online advertisement, realize that this is in all likelihood a vanity press and they will accept your work regardless of its quality or marketability. If you are rich and do not mind paying through your teeth, you should have stopped reading by now anyway. However, if you are not rich and do not have the means to pay a lot of money to get your work out there, it means staying on the hard path of sending queries through difficult channels that often produce rejection. You may never become a published author, but at least you can also tell yourself that you were never taken advantage of, like me, by the lure of an advertisement in the process of following your dream.

Submission guidelines are a big part of the process of getting a publisher to eventually have you send a finished manuscript. The legitimate publishing opportunities will require a lot of information about your project such as:

i) a brief synopsis
ii) similarities between your work and other published works
iii) its marketability
iv) information about yourself
v) and some samples are usually requested.

As shown above, in the very brief and incomplete list of possible submission requirements, if you are asked to send a manuscript without having gone through some sort of procedure before hand, then it is probably not a legitimate publisher with a specific publishing mandate. Again, if you have to work for it, and in this case ‘it’ refers to being given the opportunity to send a manuscript, then you can perhaps feel more assured that it is a legitimate publishing opportunity. If it is too easy, then you will most likely be facing hidden fees and an ill-advised method by which your book is going to be sold or even marketed.

No advice offered, thus far, is foolproof of course since the vanity publishers are getting smarter and know what writers are looking for. Sites like “Editors & Preditors” list the known vanity publishers out there, but these companies are changing their names all the time and suffice it to say my rant may not be equated to what some of the craftier vanity presses out there are presenting. Maybe you have gone through a rigorous process before being offered a contract, but you may still need to be wary of certain red flags. A legitimate contract will not have a writer pay to see a work become published. Sometimes these fees are in the form of a minimum requirement of books being purchased by the writers themselves. These companies usually price the book at a much higher price than what would be deemed normal market-value based on printing costs. Sure the writer gets the books and can get the money back if they are sold, but believe me when I say that this is no easy task. Royalties often come into play when deciding if a contract is attractive or not, and vanity publishers can be tricky here too. Often royalties are not paid on the books sold to the author. Often, royalties will be very high as a hook to get writers to sign a contract, but without good marketing your sales will not be significant anyway. Royalties, through legitimate publishing channels, will be modest and very rarely be in the double digits. Marketing strategies will be specified in the contract clauses and this process should include much more than just listing the book on book-selling sites. Again, there will be no fees for marketing with a good publishing contract.

Unfortunately, these fees may not be a consideration weighed by a writer since they are more interested in the perfection that is their book and how it should become the publishers main focus based on its genius. This was my perspective anyway, and perhaps I should not project this on to you. I guess that I am saying that a first-time publishing writer may assume certain things that are not present in a contract. Fees may come to the surface with vanity publishing contracts since the writer didn’t really think about all that goes into marketing a book. Listing a book on Amazon will not guarantee even the sale of one book. Also, there may not be mention in the contract that Amazon takes 50% of the retail value of the book, therefore cutting into the profit from each sale. This, in turn, may affect the ability to reach an agreed-upon profit whereby the vanity publisher will contractually be forced to reimburse the writer with the fees paid. Keep on the lookout for that clause. Promises of free publishing for following works may fall under this profit margin clause as well and Amazon doesn’t really help with optimum profits. Other marketing strategies, in getting a book reach certain heights in sales, is where a legitimate publisher really comes into play. The vanity publisher with either do ‘zero’ marketing outside of listing it on their site or on book-selling sites, or they will present marketing opportunities with fees for the writer. If a contract has some of these red flags, or if the free marketing plan is not specified, then you are probably working with a vanity publisher. I have only scratched the surface of some potential issues that may arise, but perhaps these are some of the key factors to keep in mind.

Writers beware the lure of seeing your work in print at the cost of your financial comfort-zone and time management issues. Upfront fees, when there is zero-risk to the publisher taking your money, is simply unacceptable unless of course you can not live without seeing your book in print. Still, there are other options! Self-publishing is a viable option to those who really dream of getting their work in print. The work really lies in getting the published work out to as many readers as possible. This will still mean self-marketing, but at least you haven’t paid too much up front to get things moving in your favor. Self-publishing or “print-on-demand” publishing will cost money, but it will be a very small fraction of what a vanity publisher might require with almost the same result in the scenario as I’ve described. I wish all of you writers the best of luck in getting your work in the hands of as many readers as possible, but do so on terms that fit your true self and your true agenda. The best way to do this is to get an agent that doesn’t charge fees and, admittedly, this is often just as hard as getting a publisher at times. That is another short essay altogether. Happy writing!

Peter Cassidy