Vanity publishing: mirror, mirror, on the wall…

Nearly everyone has heard about – and laughed at – “vanity publishing,” but amazingly enough these companies are still around, osmosing money from unwitting wannabee authors, like the bottom-feeding pond life they are.

Vanity publishing: mirror, mirror, on the wallEssentially they flatter you into parting with a large sum of money in exchange for which they “publish” your book. Because usually they’re glorified jobbing printers they put your text straight out as it comes in with no editing or checking, print it up, bind the books and deliver them to you in boxes, leaving you to do whatever you want with them. Promises of marketing and distribution are seldom fulfilled. Needless to say this is an expensive and usually disappointing way to publish your book, unless you’re not short of cash and want an ego-trip.

The latest incarnation of vanity publishing is particularly clever, and downright cruel to newbie authors who have a treasured novel in a drawer. Just for fun I investigated one of these publishers and to all intents and purposes, the initial phases of negotiation were just as you would expect from a conventional publisher. I had to submit proposals with three sample chapters; after several weeks I received an email from them saying that they were now passing my proposals on to their chief editor.

Another few weeks and I got a letter saying that the chief editor believed my stuff showed promise although I would have to do more work on the book, that I would be expected to make a “small contribution” towards the cost of the book’s production, and please would I telephone her to discuss this in more detail.

Aha, here we go, harsh truth coming up…

I had smelled a rat some time before, but the “small contribution” really set the alarm off. I dialed the number and the phone was answered by a woman with a growling voice like an 80-year-old pipe smoker … “yes, this is she.” We skittered around the subject for a few minutes and eventually I thought, let’s not waste any more time here, so asked what she meant by the “small contribution.”

Well of course, as publishers we invest at least £10,000 pounds in producing a new book and getting it out to the markets,” she rumbled, “and all we would ask from you is just £2,600.

(Nearly $4,000 US.) That was for a print run of a few hundred paperback copies…

What really irked me about this obvious vanity publishing scam was the way that they used conventional publishing techniques at first, to get me on the hook. Less cynical authors could well find the early part of the process really gratifying – “oh, at long last someone thinks my book is good enough to publish” – and once they eventually get to the crunch point where money changes hands, they’re too emotionally committed to the project to back out.

Needless to say I had no hesitation in backing out, and took pleasure in telling the old foghorn what I thought of her business practice.

So be warned. Even in our current era of massive opportunities for low-cost self-publishing in book print and eBook formats, these vultures are still lurking and I’m sure are thinking up new ways to scam gullible authors even as I write this.

Have you come across these scamsters? How did they try to get you “on the hook?” Please share your experiences with us in the comments below.

Turn your writing from “vanity” into “sanity” …

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  1. I didn’t realize these slimy folks were still plying their trade . . . had assumed they’d gone away with the advent of inexpensive print-on-demand services like Lulu.

    • Thanks for that Mary – unfortunately they are still around, preying on vulnerable people who would do almost anything to get a “proper” publishing deal. It’s very sad.

  2. It’s really sad that so many people are taken in by the so called professional publisher.

    • I know, Lynn. They’re like hawks cruising around waiting to pounce on a mouse. It’s strange that they haven’t been squeezed out of business yet by self-publishing, but of course they play on the “vanity” element of people who still believe that self-publishing is only for second-class authors.

  3. I can see why people might be taken in – especially if they’ve had a number of rejections from “proper” publishers. It should be made illegal.

    • I agree Jane, but as it’s a free market out there it’s a case of “buyer beware,” I’m afraid. What really angers me is the way they play it in exactly the same way that a proper publisher would … keeping the author waiting for weeks, then drip feeding them a bit more at a time over ensuing weeks … psychologically it’s a very well studied con.

  4. Like Mary, I didn’t realize they were still around but I guess they “hide” under the umbrella of self publishing. I always tell my clients who write non-fiction and want to self publish to perform due diligence beforehand. Is there a “how to” article or booklet about what to ask/ know when you self publish?

    • Hi Trudy! I don’t know of any articles of booklets that you describe, but I cover all those issues in one of my books – “How To Write Winning Non-fiction” which is available in print and Kindle on all the Amazons.

  5. You are absolutely right, Suze, there are some unscrupulous vanity publishers and rip-off merchants out there. Depressingly, some of the biggest, and most complained-about of these have recently been bought up by big traditional publishers – presumably to cash in on the market and adding to authors’ vain hopes that if they pay these companies in the first instance, they might get “properly” published in due course. Highly unlikely.
    I also absolutely agree that anyone who doesn’t mention, or show complete transparency about their fees upfront is a disgrace to the publishing industry.
    And that self-publishing is an excellent way forward for those with the time and technical proficiency to edit, typeset, design their own inner and cover and deal with uploading their work to online booksellers.
    However, there is a perfectly legitimate middle way between traditional and self-publishing for those who want to outsource the publishing work and have professionals take care of the ongoing admin of managing online distribution, finances and offering listings with wholesalers which individual authors don’t have access to.
    At Rethink Press, we offer Author Services – from appraisals, coaching, editing, typesetting, e-book conversion to cover design – at very reasonable costs, and with which authors can then self-publish their work with a professional look. We do also, though, offer these same services in a range of publishing packages where authors pay these basic costs upfront but also ask us to represent and handle their work as a publisher. For this additional and ongoing work (which includes free ISBNs and enhanced listings with major international wholesalers), we either take a share of the author’s sales royalties, or they can pay a small monthly fee and get 100% of their sales royalties.
    This is known variously as co-publishing, supported publishing, subsidy publishing…. the industry doesn’t seem to have settled on a name yet. Whichever you call it, though, it should not be a rip off, provides a useful service to authors who want this sort of support and can be good value for money.
    Those, like Rethink Press, who are open, upfront and reasonable about costs, have personalised relationships with authors and provide them with high quality professional services, really don’t deserve to be tarred with the “Vanity Press” brush. Ask our very satisfied authors if you don’t believe me.

    • Wow, Lucy, I didn’t realize that some of the big so-called traditional publishers have been buying up the disgraceful vanity types. That’s just so cynical and cruel to people who erroneously entertain hopes of publication.

      I do know that companies like Rethink offer an excellent, transparent service to writers and thank Heavens for it. The days of the traditional publisher are numbered, I suspect, for a variety of commercial reasons, so the “co-operative” publishing business model such as that practised by Rethink and others may well be the most fair and cost-effective way forward for many writers.

      Thanks for sharing this with us and explaining how it all works.

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