Vanity publishing is dead. Crappy publishing isn’t.

30 years ago, there were only two ways to get your book published: one, by a trade publisher like Random House or Penguin and two, by a vanity publisher. Books in those days could only be produced in printed form and could only be sold in bookshops or, in the case of a vanity published book, by the author direct.

vanity publishing versus professional self publishing

It’s not hard to tell the difference between a professionally produced book, and a crappy one

Many people today believe that anything other than traditional trade publishing is vanity publishing.

But it’s not. Truthfully.

The internet and digital technology have turned the entire book publishing world upside down and opened up a number of new options not only in how to produce a book, but also in how and where to sell it.

The old days: vanity publishing cost a lot, trade publishing cost you nothing (in theory at least)

The basic difference between vanity publishing and trade publishing was that with the former you paid thousands of pounds/dollars/etc and got a shoddy, amateurish book, but with trade publishing you paid nothing apart from your time and got a good quality, professionally produced book.

Now though, with all these different options available to authors, the picture is very blurred compared to 30 years ago.

Needless to say there are many individuals and corporations who have an interest in dismissing new publishing options as “vanity publishing” or even “glorified vanity publishing.” After all, how else can the traditional wallahs cast aspersions on this new stream of competition that isn’t vanity publishing? Think about it.

Today’s book publishing options: sooo different

Why? Because with modern technology it’s possible to produce printed books (and of course digital books) to a very high quality, at a reasonable cost, by yourself. Beyond that, you don’t need to have hundreds or thousands of books printed up front; in the past that was the only way to keep printing costs reasonable per copy. Today, digital “print on demand” printing means it’s just as cost-effective (per copy) to order one copy of a book as it is to order 100 or 1,000.

Authors now can choose to:
1) try to get a book proposal accepted by a large trade or small publisher
2) learn how to DIY a self-published book which isn’t impossible if you’re good at that sort of thing, so getting your book out on the digital platforms (and especially for business/self-help books, that’s where potential readers look mainly)
3) use a professional assisted publishing service where you pay all the costs and keep all the royalties – technically “self-publishing”
4) use a crappy publishing service who will charge you a lot of money for a poor quality book: these are the descendants of the old vanity publishers.

Traditional trade publishing
Essentially with this route to market with a book, you’re looking at potentially months – many months – going through the application and submission process with no guarantee of a deal. I have been down this road several times and took up chewing the wallpaper with frustration at the time it takes for things to happen…

Even if you get a deal, you are unlikely to be offered an advance on royalties so must subsist on your job at McDonalds until the book is published and takes off. And when it does, you’ll only get 7.5 percent of cover price in royalties to start with, if you’re lucky. NB: if you’re famous and/or can guarantee many thousands of book sales, this picture changes dramatically. But not for most of us…

The advantage of trade publishers is that they have a good relationship with the main bricks-and-mortar bookshop chains so your book should get into most of them. These bookshop chains historically have been rather snotty about “self-published” books (even when produced by professional assisted services, see below.) But with commerce being commerce and more and more books becoming huge sellers successful via “self-publishing,” the bookshops are beginning to weaken and let some in.

Small publishers
They are great – I have had several books published by these and provided that your book fits into their niche, things should work well. But because they are small they don’t normally have the grunt commercially or in marketing/distribution terms to get your book out there as successfully.

Their business models are pretty much the same as those put forward by the big trade publishers, which could be why they struggle sometimes. If you get a deal with them the chance of being paid an advance on royalties is remote if not impossible.

Where they work well? If your book falls into the niche for which they have become well known.

Professional assisted publishing services
There are many, many variants of this but basically what they do is to help you, and you pay them to help you, produce a book which is up to professional standards in terms of content, editing, proofreading, layout design, typographical design, cover design, all the necessary attributes like ISBN numbers and so-on and so-on.

NB: some assisted publishing services offer hybrid arrangements i.e. a deal, dependent on what they think of your book, whereby you and the company split the costs and royalties proportionately.

The trouble with these outfits is that although many are truly professional and worth working with, some aren’t.

Some just take your money and produce a book which isn’t any better than the unedited, undesigned, unproofread and un-everything that was the typical result of the old “vanity publishing.” We go the full circle.

How to tell the difference between good professional assisted publishers and crappy ones

Although true vanity publishers don’t exist anymore because of the change in the technology of deliverables, there are few if any changes in the crappy quality offered by the bottom-feeders of the “professional assisted” services who think they can rip authors off in the same old way.

Amazingly, and sadly, there are still wannabee authors who fall for their BS whether it’s presented in that old-fashioned way, or in the style of modern-day language. The predators are still out there.

Simple solution: just ask to see examples of their work.

To check if a book of theirs is professionally produced, here 10 things to look for, in no particular order:

1. Is the cover designed so when it’s shrunk down to a small size as it would be on Amazon or other sites, you can still see the key points?
2.Is the back cover “blurb” (as it’s so patronisingly called) enticing, accurate in spelling and grammar?
3.Inside the book, are the first few pages devoted to the traditional requisites of publishing data, copyright information, etc.?
4.Beyond that is there an introduction, a table of contents, a foreword (perhaps)?
5.Are these initial pages numbered in Roman numerals, so are not included in numbering of the overall text?
6.In the body of the book, do you see “widows and orphans” … the odd word or two carried over to a next page?
7.Are there spelling, grammar, syntax and other mistakes in the text? (poor or little proofreading)
8.Is the text repetitive, disordered, lacking flow and continuity? (poor structural and line editing)
9.Do the cover and inner pages lie flat when the book’s down on a surface? (if cover/pages curl up this can signify poor quality printing)
10.In the digital/Kindle version, is the text laid out in a good design – or does it just look like an uploaded Word document?

If any of the above issues ring a bell with you, move on. Remember your caveat emptor …. and good luck!

If you have any questions about this article or book publishing in general, please note it down in the comments and I’ll get back to you with an answer. Sz