- The Pitfalls of Vanity Publishing
- Vanity Publishers in Sheep’s Clothing
- Due Diligence
- Warning Signs
Commercial publishers, subsidy publishers, vanity/subsidy publishers, self-publishing–what’s the difference?
A commercial or trade publisher purchases the right to publish a manuscript (usually together with other rights, known as subsidiary rights). Most pay an advance on royalties. Commercial publishers are highly selective, publishing only a tiny percentage of manuscripts submitted. They handle every aspect of editing, publication, distribution, and marketing. There are no costs to the author.
A vanity or subsidy publisher charges a fee to produce a book, yet still presents itself as a publisher. There’s a wide variety of models for vanity/subsidy publishing, from companies that do little more than produce a print run that’s shipped to the author, to companies that provide a menu of design, editing, distribution, and marketing services in addition to book production. Vanity/subsidy publishers may or may not be selective (if they are selective, it’s not likely that their gatekeeping processes are comparable to those of commercial publishers), and may or may not make a claim on authors’ rights. Marketing and distribution, if provided, are usually limited; as a result, most of the burden of promoting and selling falls on the author. Costs for vanity/subsidy publishing can rise into the five-figure range.
(Some fee-based publishers will try to convince you that there’s a difference between vanity and subsidy publishing (with subsidy publishing being more respectable). Others style themselves “joint venture” or “co-op” or “partner” or “equity” publishers in order to suggest that they’re contributing their own resources to the relationship. Don’t be fooled. Fee-based publishing is fee-based publishing, and whatever you’re paying, it covers 100% of the cost and then some.)
Self-publishing services fall somewhere between vanity/subsidy publishing and true self-publishing. Unlike vanity publishers, they don’t present themselves as publishers; unlike true self-publishing, writers are restricted to the packages the service provides. Limited distribution (wholesale only) is usually part of the package. Because self-pub services typically are digitally-based, upfront expense can be low–but most services heavily promote often-costly extras, such as marketing options, and take a hefty cut of sales proceeds in order to recoup their production costs. Most self-publishing services make a non-exclusive claim on authors’ rights. (For more on self-pub services, see the Print on Demand and Electronic Self-Publishing page.)
True self-publishing, like vanity publishing, requires the author to bear the entire cost of publication, and also leaves marketing and promotion to the author. However, rather than paying for a pre-set package of services, the author puts those services together himself. Because every aspect of the process can be out to bid, self-publishing can be much more cost effective than vanity publishing; it can also result in a higher-quality product. All rights, and all profits, remain with the author.
For projects where the number of books required is small, and marketing and profit aren’t a concern (for instance, memoirs or genealogies or recipe compilations, intended for family and friends or to be given as gifts) an honest, straightforward vanity or subsidy publisher can be a reasonable–if often costly–alternative. It can also be an option for writers with niche nonfiction projects, where they’re able to reach their audiences directly, or for people who can exploit “back of the room” situations–for instance, lecturers who can sell books at their appearances. Again, though, with the many self-publishing options available, a vanity publisher is an unduly expensive choice.
If you’re looking to establish a career as a writer, however, or if you actually want people you don’t know to buy and read your book, vanity/subsidy publishing is probably not a good idea.
For one thing, the expense can be enormous. In order to ensure their profit, vanity/subsidy publishers charge far more than the actual production cost of a book.
For another, it’s very difficult for authors to recoup this investment, since vanity/subsidy publishers rarely offer meaningful distribution or marketing. They have no economic incentive to do so–their principal source of income isn’t the sale of books to the public, but the sale of services to authors, and they have little desire to cut into that. If you vanity/subsidy-publish, it’s likely that you’ll lose money.
There’s also a stigma that attaches to vanity/subsidy publishing. This has eroded over the past few years, thanks to the growth of self-publishing services, which blur the line between vanity publishing and self-publishing–but it still exists, and if you try to market your vanity/subsidy-published book you’ll likely run up against it. You may have trouble getting reviewers to look at your book, and difficulty persuading bookstores to order it, even if you’re a local author (especially if your publisher doesn’t offer standard discounts, or doesn’t accept returns, or has shoddy production standards). As for building a writing resume…editors, publishers, and reviewers are unlikely to regard vanity-published books as professional writing credits.
Another important consideration: while there are honest vanity publishers that fulfill contractual promises, there are also many that engage in a wide range of unethical or fraudulent practices, including misrepresenting themselves as commercial publishers, grossly overcharging for their services, reneging on contract obligations, producing shoddy books, failing to print the number of books contracted for, providing kickbacks to agents who refer manuscripts…the list goes on. A few that have been in the news:
- Commonwealth Publications, a Canadian vanity publisher, closed its doors in 1999. Angry authors sued, claiming they didn’t receive the books they paid to have published, were given marketing promises that weren’t fulfilled, and failed to receive royalties from books sold.
- Northwest Publishing, a vanity publisher located in Utah, cheated authors out of millions of dollars, which its principals gambled away in Reno and Las Vegas. Its assets were seized and the owner, James Van Treese, was sentenced to up to 30 years in prison.
- Sovereign Publications, a vanity publishing firm owned by the fee-charging Deering Literary Agency, took hundreds of thousands of dollars from authors, most of whom never received the books they paid for. The Deerings were convicted of fraud, and sentenced to time in federal prison.
- Press-Tige Publishing, a vanity publisher owned by Martha Ivery (who also operated under an alias as a fee-charging literary agent), took nearly three-quarters of a million dollars from over 200 authors. Delays were common; promised print runs weren’t delivered, books weren’t distributed or marketed. In the last few years of its existence, Press-Tige published no books at all, though it continued to offer contracts and take money from authors. Ivery was ultimately sentenced to five years in federal prison.
- Minerva Press Ltd., a UK vanity publisher with branches in India and the USA, was the subject of two exposes by the BBC. More than 40 authors sought redress from this company, alleging false promises, production of shoddy books, and general failure to fulfill contractual promises. In 2001, 16 of those cases were settled by Minerva in favor of the authors under a blanket non-disclosure agreement. Minerva went bust in 2002, leaving behind over £2 million in debt, as well as unpaid staff and multitudes of unhappy authors.
As writers become more aware of the pitfalls of vanity/subsidy publishing, many less-than-honest pay-to-publish operations are trying dodge the vanity label by omitting to mention their fees on their websites or other public materials, or by shifting their charges to areas other than printing and binding. I often hear from writers who are confused because they’ve been offered a contract by a publisher that describes itself as “traditional” or “small press,” but wants its authors to make some sort of financial commitment in order to be published.
If asked, such publishers vehemently deny that they are vanity/subsidy publishers. After all, they don’t accept everyone who submits! Or they aren’t asking their authors to pay for printing–just to finance their own editing, or to commit to pre-selling a certain number of books. But whether you’re laying down cash for book production, finished books, or adjunct services, the bottom line is the same: you are paying to see your book in print. A publisher that turns its authors into customers has little incentive to get books into the hands of readers, and is not likely to invest much money in marketing and distribution.
Here are some of the “alternative” charges you may encounter from these stealth vanity publishers (for the names and M.O’s of some stealth vanity publishers, see this post from Writer Beware’s blog):
- A setup fee or deposit. Publishers that require a setup fee will tell you that you’re not paying to publish, just contributing to the cost of preparing your book for printing, or making a “good faith investment” in your own success. Some publishers promise to refund the fee under certain circumstances (usually carefully crafted so they’ll almost never be fulfilled). The setup fee often isn’t large by vanity standards–a few hundred dollars–but since such publishers typically use print-on-demand technology to produce their books, it more than covers their expenses.
- A fee for some aspect of the publication process other than printing/binding. Some publishers ask you to pay for editing, or for your book cover art, or for liability insurance, or for a publicity campaign (commercial publishers provide these things as a routine part of the publication process, at their own expense). Services may cost thousands of dollars, and are often minimal and not of professional quality.
- A claim that your fee is only part of the cost, with the publisher paying the rest. The publisher may tell you that it will spend as much or more on your book than you’re being charged, or that the services it provides–warehousing, distribution, publicity–are worth far more than your “investment.” At best, this is an exaggeration; at worst, it’s lie. Since most vanity publishers these days use digital technology (thus eliminating the expense of print runs and warehousing), provide minimal editing and marketing, and use the same wholesale distribution channels employed by self-publishing services, their production and distribution costs are minimal. Most of the time, your fee pays the whole freight, plus the publisher’s overhead and profit.
- A pre-purchase requirement. Some publishers include a clause in their contracts requiring you to buy a specific quantity of finished books–from a few hundred to several thousand copies, often at a minimal discount. This can be more expensive than straightforward vanity/subsidy publishing.
- A pre-sale requirement. A similar contract clause may require you to pre-sell a certain number of books prior to publication, or to “guarantee” a minimum number of sales (usually, exactly as much as is needed to enable the publisher to recoup its investment and make a profit). You don’t have to buy them yourself–but if you don’t deliver the sales, the publishing deal is off. This is an especially tricky variation on the pay-to-publish scheme, because it allows the publisher to claim that it’s not asking you for cash. But it’s not an author’s job to be a salesman for his own books–that’s what the publisher is supposed to do.
- A sales guarantee. If your book doesn’t sell X number of copies within X amount of time, you must agree to buy the difference. Most authors have an over-optimistic vision of the sales they can achieve, and figure they’ll never have to pay up, but vanity publishers’ nonexistent marketing and distribution ensures that they’re usually wrong. In an especially sneaky version of this ploy, the publisher pressures authors to buy their own books for re-sale, but doesn’t allow author purchases to count toward the guarantee total–so authors are snagged twice, once during the honeymoon period (the six months or so before the first royalty statement arrives), and again at the expiration of the guarantee period.
- Withheld royalties. You get no royalty income until the cost of production has been recouped. In this manifestation of vanity publishing, you don’t have to physically lay out any cash–but money that should be yours is kept by the publisher, which amounts to the same thing.
- A requirement that you find “investors” to finance your book, or organizations to agree to buy it. You don’t have to front the money yourself–but if you don’t deliver the financial backing, you won’t be published.
- Pressure to buy your book yourself. The publisher may not contractually require you to purchase your own book–indeed, it may make a big deal of telling you that you don’t have to buy anything. Even so, it will put you under heavy buying pressure–for instance, providing an Author Guide that extols the financial benefit of buying your own book for resale, or bombarding you with special incentives designed to spur author purchases, such as extra discounts or contests for the month’s top seller. These are all signs of a publisher that relies on its authors as its main customer base, and therefore has little interest in selling books to the public. Unfortunately, if the publisher employs such tactics, you usually don’t find out about them until you’ve already signed the contract.
- A variety of other sneaky tactics. Some examples from Writer Beware’s complaint files: requiring authors to pay for publisher-sponsored conferences or lectures or “publicity opportunities”; requiring authors to sell ads that are bound into the company’s books; hawking company stock to authors, despite the lack of an appropriate license; requiring authors to hire the publisher’s staff to perform various services. The permutations are endless.
True self-publishing–where the author him/herself handles every aspect of publication, from editing to cover art to interior design to printing and binding–is a more reputable alternative to vanity/subsidy publishing. You have far greater control over the process (which can result in a superior product), and retain full ownership of your rights. Authors can function as their own distributors, offering standard discounts and returnability to bookstores, which may make stores more willing to stock a self-published book. Literary agents and commercial publishers may be interested in self-published books that sell a large number of copies relatively quickly–say, 5,000 or more within the first year of release.
Self-publishing is not for the faint of heart, however. You must be prepared to shoulder the entire burden of publishing, distributing, and promoting your book, a process that will eat up not just time but money, and requires a huge amount of energy, creativity, and determination to carry off successfully. (Lessons for Self-Publishers, from Writer Beware’s blog, takes a closer look at this issue, as well as what can go wrong.)
Also, self-publishing works best for particular kinds of projects–niche nonfiction where the author has direct access to his/her target audience, or books whose authors are able to exploit “back-of-the-room” situations (for instance, a restauranteur who can sell his self-published cookbook in his restaurant, or a speaker who can make her books available at her lectures). For general nonfiction, and for nearly all fiction, self-publishing works much less well.
Be skeptical of the many self-publishing cheerleaders who are eager to tell you about amazing self-publishing success stories (some of them apocryphal, such as the claim that John Grisham self-published his first novel, or irrelevant, such as the fact that Virginia Woolf was her own publisher–you can’t compare the publishing environment of the 1920′s to today). There are indeed some impressive successes, but they represent a tiny fraction of all self-published authors. Your odds of success with a self-published book are much steeper than with a commercially published book.
Another option to consider: the many digital self-publishing services, which offer a straightforward and often much cheaper version of vanity publishing. Such services have their own problems (for a rundown on these, see the Print on Demand and Electronic Self-Publishing page), but there are services that are very cost-effective, and you’re much less likely to run into operations that want to rip you off.
You can also self-publish electronically, with no upfront costs at all, via one of the several free options available: either direct-to-ebook-reading-device (such as Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing program) or via an aggregator such as Smashwords that makes your ebook avialable across a variety of platforms. Ebooks are currently the fastest growth market in publishing, and some self-published authors are realizing significant success, primarily via the Kindle. Again, there’s more info on the Print on Demand and Electronic Self-Publishing page.
One last comment: if you’re thinking of turning to vanity/subsidy publishing because you can’t find a good agent, or are fed up with receiving rejections from large publishing houses, consider approaching reputable independent publishers instead. These publishers often don’t require authors to be agented. They can produce excellent-quality books, and may give you personal attention you wouldn’t get from the majors. The tradeoff is less distribution clout and smaller marketing budgets–but a book published by an established commercial independent can be as credible a writing credit as a book published by one of the big houses, and a reasonable way to begin a writing career.
Given the prevalence and relative inexpensiveness of self-publishing services, there’s little reason, in my opinion, ever to use a vanity or subsidy publisher–especially one that presents itself misleadingly. But if, after all of the above, you still want to consider a vanity/subsidy publisher, take these precautions:
- Order a couple of the publisher’s books, so you can assess quality. Does the interior formatting look professional? Are all the pages in order? Is the cover art attractive? Are the books sturdy? Did the order process go off without a hitch?
- Request references. And use them.
- Contact writers who’ve used the publisher’s services (other than those you’ve been given as references). Are they happy with the quality of the books? Did they receive the services they paid for? Do buyers have any trouble getting hold of the books? Have there been any broken promises?
- Research the publisher. Have there been complaints? Is it in financial trouble? If there are problems, a thorough Internet search can often turn them up. And you can always contact Writer Beware.
- Have a knowledgeable person look over the contract. Vanity publishers’ contracts, which usually aren’t negotiable, can include unpleasant clauses and hidden fees. (Note: if you use a lawyer, be sure to find one who has experience with publishing contracts, which include terms and clauses not found in other kinds of contracts.)
- Make sure the publisher that distributes through at least one wholesaler such as Ingram or Baker & Taylor. That way, the books will be available through online booksellers, and even if your books aren’t stocked in bookstores, people will at least be able to order them.
- Don’t take the publisher’s promises at face value. If the publisher says it has an arrangement with a distributor, make sure it’s telling the truth. If there are promises of marketing, ask for sample catalogues, ads, publicity releases and so on, so you check their quality (vanity publishers often produce very unprofessional marketing materials). Never rely on verbal promises that aren’t included in the contract.
Always approach vanity/subsidy publishers with caution. If you encounter any of the following, be suspicious:
- A vanity/subsidy publisher that poses as a small press or traditional publisher. A publisher that doesn’t present itself honestly at the outset is probably not a publisher that will treat you honestly in the long run.
- Terms like “co-op”, “joint venture”, or “partner”, or any other phrase that suggests the publisher will be matching your investment with its own. A vanity/subsidy publisher’s profit comes from the fees its authors pay. It’s unlikely to cut into that by investing its own resources.
- A claim to share costs. See above. As noted in the “Definitions” section, this is usually exaggeration at best and a lie at worst.
- A referral from a literary agency or freelance editor. Reputable literary agents and freelance editors don’t work with fee-based publishers. Period. Those who do are either receiving a kickback from the publisher, own the publisher themselves (possibly under another name), or are incompetent. Whatever the reason, it’s bad news for you.
- A promise (stated or implied) of a profit. Some vanity/subsidy publishers provide nicely-formatted “Sample Sales Projection” sheets showing how you can make thousands of dollars if your first printing sells out. In fact, for the reasons outlined above, it’s extremely difficult even to break even on a vanity-published book. An ethical vanity/subsidy publisher won’t promise profits; in fact, it will warn you at the outset that vanity-published books rarely recoup authors’ investments.
- Obfuscation or refusal of reasonable requests for information. You’re paying for the service, so you have the right to have all your questions answered fully, honestly, and promptly. If a vanity/subsidy publisher refuses to provide you with references, or hedges about details such as contract arrangements, production schedules, marketing, and so on, be suspicious.
- Refusal to provide a firm price. The exact amount you are expected to pay should be stated at the outset (and included in the contract), including any extras such as warehousing or marketing. Don’t deal with a publisher that is vague about money–for instance, a publisher that tells you that the final price can’t be quoted until the books are printed (in which case you might wind up paying a substantial “differential”), or that warehousing will be charged “at the publisher’s discretion” (in which case you could be hit with enormous additional fees).
- Verbal promises that aren’t duplicated in the contract. Some dishonest vanity/subsidy publishers try to soothe nervous writers by promising various perks, such as a full or partial reimbursement of their costs if the book doesn’t sell out within a specified period of time. However, if such promises aren’t included in the contract, you’ll have little recourse if they aren’t fulfilled (which is exactly why unethical publishers don’t write them down). If the publisher is willing to promise something, it should also be willing to add it to the contract.
- Extravagant praise and/or promises. Extravagant praise is a sales ploy: a vanity/subsidy publisher has little reason to care whether your work is good or bad, since you’re paying them to publish it. And if a vanity/subsidy publisher says it can get you on national talk shows, or tells you its publicity department will organize a 30-city speaking tour or a national booksigning campaign, be extremely skeptical. Even big advance-and-royalty-paying publishers don’t provide these perks for most of their authors.
- A double standard. Dishonest vanity/subsidy publishers sometimes entice writers by saying that they can’t risk a regular contract for someone who hasn’t yet published anything, but would be willing to split the costs and profits of the book. Or they may tell you that they’ve used up all their advance money for the year, but would be glad to work on a “co-op” basis. Or they may promise to publish your second book without charge if the first book does well. In all these cases, the implication is that the publisher is primarily a commercial publisher, and is offering the fee-based contract as a special circumstance. But though there are a few fee-based publishers that have a non-vanity branch, most don’t, and imply its existence solely for the purpose of acquiring customers.
- Pressure. A disreputable vanity/subsidy publisher wants to hook you quick, before you change your mind. Beware, therefore, if a publisher tells you that its offer is “limited time only,” or that (unexplained) circumstances require you to “act immediately.” Like the permanent going-out-of-business sale, this is just another marketing ploy.
- E-mail Writer Beware. SFWA has assembled a large archive of documentation on vanity publishers that engage in questionable practices. Send us the names of any publisher you’d like to know about, and we’ll summarize for you any data that’s in our files. If we have no information, we’ll let you know that too.
- Preditors and Editors provides lists of agents and publishers, with “not recommended” notations to indicate those that engage in questionable practices.
- Writer Beware’s Thumbs Down Publisher List: the publishers about which Writer Beware has received the greatest number of advisories and complaints over the past several years. A number of them are vanity publishers. (Despite the date, this list is current.)
- The Bewares and Background Check area of the Absolute Write Water Cooler is an excellent place to check for information on any kind of publisher. Check the index to see if the publisher you’re interested in has already been discussed.
- Google Groups is a searchable database of Usenet newsgroups, with message archives dating back to 1981. Writers often post publisher questions or complaints to Usenet. If you’re uncertain about a publisher, do a search on its name here to see what you find.
- Vanity or Subsidy Publishing: warnings from the USA’s Better Business Bureau.
- Help Note on Vanity Publishing from the UK-based Committee of Advertising Practice.
- Vanity publishing warnings for Australian writers from the New South Wales Office of Fair Trading.
- Subsidy Publishing vs. Self-Publishing: What’s the Difference? An excellent article by Moira Allen of Writing-World.com.
- The Price of Vanity: Moira Allen tells it like it is.
- More on why vanity publishing is a bad idea, from UK author Barry Turner: An Easy Way to Lose Money.
- Vanity Publishing–Advice and Warning is the webpage of Johnathon Clifford, a UK-based crusader against dishonest vanity publishers. He can be contacted directly with questions about UK vanity publishers, fraudulent and otherwise.
- Is the Publisher Just a Middleman? Another sharp article on the questions would-be self-publishers should ask themselves before they take the leap, by author Lucy Snyder.
- Parapublishing, by Dan Poynter: considered by many to be the definitive self-publishing handbook.
- Self-Publishing FAQ from Writing-World.com, with links to lots of useful articles and resources.
- Self-Publication Without Pretense, an article by editor Teresa Nielsen Hayden, offers sensible advice on how to self-publish without getting scammed (plus some links to helpful resources).
Vanity Publishers Gone Bad
- Writer Robert Wassell’s experience with dishonest UK vanity publisher Minerva Press (now defunct).
- More about Minerva: When exposed as a scam by the UK’s Mirror, Minerva responded with lawsuit threats.
- This article is old, but the M.O. of the vanity publisher described (Excalibur Press, one of the many, many crooked vanities that infest the UK) is typical of the breed.
- Literary Dreams End in Litigation: An article by Penni Crabtree of the San Diego Union-Tribune on the exploits of serial vanity publisher Ed Johnson, who has been the focus of numerous author complaints and court judgments.
- Another UK vanity, Pentland Press, collapsed in 2002, with more than 260,000 in debt and hundreds of defrauded authors.
- Yet another UK vanity, Serendipity, went bust in the fall of 2008, with authors alleging breach of contract.
- Sovereign Publications, or what happens when a scam literary agency owns a vanity publisher.
- Press-Tige Publishing was a vanity publisher owned by a fee-charging literary agent with a mania for aliases.
- The Empty Canoe, a crooked “ghostwriting studio” brought down by its defrauded authors.
- Airleaf LLC, an Indiana-based vanity publisher, was sued by the Indiana Attorney General after more than 400 authors paid money for books that were never published and publicity services that were never rendered.
- Carol Van Drie’s experience with vanity publisher American Book Publishing (the comments thread contains many additional complaints).
- More case studies of dishonest vanity publishers: Commonwealth Publications and Northwest Publishing.