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Indie Publishing: Vanity Presses

The publishing industry is hard even without all the scams out there. New or discouraged authors are particularly vulnerable to those who would take advantage of them. Today, we'll discuss vanity presses and how to know who you're dealing with.

Self-Publishing: Vanity Presses (Scams)

A vanity press, also known as a subsidy publisher, operates on a business model where the author pays to have their book published. This model stands in stark contrast to traditional and indie publishing industry, where publishers pay for all the up-front costs of editing, designing, marketing, and distributing a book. They usually pay an advance and will pay the author royalties from the sales if they earn out. Vanity presses stick you with all the financial risk and burden. They offer packages and/or ranges of services, including production and sometimes promotion of the book, but the effectiveness and value of these services can vary widely.



WHY THEY EXIST

The appeal of vanity presses to some authors lies in the promise of seeing their work published without navigating the often challenging and competitive traditional publishing landscape. This route can be particularly enticing for authors who have faced repeated rejections from traditional/indie publishers or agents. Some authors who are trying to publish book for a niche audience, for their own personal fulfillment, or as a legacy project may actually find a good fit with this type of press. These pay-to-play services capitalize on an author's desire to be a professionally published for prestige or to reach a personal goal.



THE CONCERN

The vanity press model garners criticism for being predatory and misleading. Authors might be wooed with the promise of professional quality services, broad distribution, and the potential for wild success, only to find themselves facing high costs, limited editorial support, poor-quality production, and minimal distribution with little-to-no marketing. The financial arrangement in vanity publishing—where the press profits from the author's payment rather than book sales—creates a scenario in which the publisher's incentive to sell books is almost zero. As a result, authors considering this route should carefully weigh the costs, scrutinize the services offered, and realistically manage their expectations about the outcomes.


Suggestion: Check the Authors Guild Scam Page for the latest on predatory services.


THOROUGH RESEARCH

As with any publishing deal, you want to do your own research and rely on the research of your network. You wouldn’t enter into an agreement with an agent without understanding the deal and vetting their credibility. (BTW - if an agent asks you to pay for their services, back away, then report them.) 

Background Check: Look into the publisher's history, how long they've been in business, and their track record with other authors. Websites like the Better Business Bureau can offer insights into complaints and resolutions.

Author Testimonials: Search online for feedback from authors who have previously worked with the publisher. Be mindful of overly positive or generic testimonials on the publisher’s own site, and seek out independent forums and review sites for honest opinions.

Red Flags: Pay attention to repeated issues mentioned by other authors, such as hidden fees, poor communication, lack of distribution, or subpar quality of published works.



READ UP

Educate Yourself: Learn the differences between traditional publishing, indie publishing, vanity presses, and hybrid publishing. This knowledge will help you identify which model is being offered to you.

FYI: Hybrid publishing combines professional publishing services and shared financial burden, offering high royalties and creative control while "ensuring quality and distribution support."

Service Costs: Familiarize yourself with the typical costs of publishing services like editing, cover design, and marketing so you can recognize when you're being overcharged.

Breakdown: Here’s my blog on the subject: Unveiling the Costs.

Understand Your Rights: Be aware of the rights you should retain and what it means to sign them away. Knowing the standard practices will help you spot unusual or unfair terms in contracts.



LEGAL

I am not a lawyer. This is not legal advice, some practical concepts I've considered.

Attorney: Consider consulting\ a lawyer who specializes in literary or intellectual property law. This might be more expensive than you want, but it might save you money if you're concerned about a contract.

Hint: Ask a lawyer friend for some advice.

Contract Terms: Make sure you fully understand what the contract says, including who owns the rights, what the royalties are, if there is an earn-out clause, hidden costs, obligations, and termination clauses. Don't be afraid to ask for clarifications or modifications.

Hint: Ask your author community if the terms sound right. They'll happily answer.

Red Flags: Be cautious of contracts that transfer rights indefinitely, lack clear definitions of services provided, or include clauses that make it difficult for you to leave the agreement.

Common Sense: If a deal seems too good to be true, it might be.



UPFRONT FEES

What’s Covered: Ask for a detailed breakdown of services and what each fee entails. This transparency will help you understand where your money is going.

Compare Costs: Research and compare the costs of similar services from other publishers or independent service providers. This can help you gauge if the fees are reasonable.

Indie Publishing Costs: This is my breakdown of what it costs to publish.

Consider Other Routes: If the costs seem exorbitant, explore other publishing options that may be more economical or offer better value.

IMO: Self-publishing and coop-publishing are the present and future of publishing.



DEMAND TRANSPARENCY

I said this above, but it warrants repeating. If things aren't crystal clear, then ask for clarification until you understand the ins and outs of the deal.

Portfolio: Ask for examples of books they've published, especially those within your genre. This can give you an idea of the quality and style of their work. Look up the books and check their sales statistics.

  • How many reviews do they have?

  • What is their sales rank in their genres?

  • Have any of their books hit it big?

Chat with Clients: You can usually find authors' websites and social media handles. Cyberstalking is perfectly fine. Most authors are happy to give you the thumbs up or thumbs down.

Courtesy: If approaching another author on social media, it is courteous to ask openly if you can DM them.

Clear Communication: Again, I might sound like a broken record, but if they aren't great at communications, you'll end up with communication problems down the line. This is true for any industry, and publishing is based on words, so it's even more important.



RETAIN RIGHTS

Rights Transfer: Avoid agreements that require you to transfer your copyright to the publisher. Retaining your rights means you maintain control over how your work is used and published in the future.

Negotiate Terms: If any rights, like international or audiobook rights, are to be licensed, ensure the terms are favorable to you, such as limited terms, specific territories, and the ability to reclaim rights if certain conditions aren’t met.


WATCHDOGS

Organizations like the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) and Writer Beware track and report on predatory practices within the publishing industry. They can be a valuable resource for checking the legitimacy of a publisher. These online resources offer guides, checklists, and databases to help authors avoid scams. Utilize their tools as part of your research process.



RESOURCES

By utilizing available resources, authors can significantly reduce the risk of falling victim to vanity press scams and ensure a safer, more informed path to publishing their work.

Legal: Websites like LegalZoom or the Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts can provide access to legal advice and resources.

Publishing Guides: Books like "The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published" by Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry offer comprehensive insights into the publishing industry.

Online Courses: Consider enrolling in online courses that cover indie publishing and marketing, offered by platforms like Udemy or Coursera, to build your knowledge and skills.

Author Associations: Joining an author association in your genre can provide networking opportunities and access to industry insights and resources.

Online Communities: If you aren’t on a social network, interacting with other authors, jump on board now. We love to help each other.



ALTERNATIVES

Indie Publishing: Taking control of the publishing process yourself, using platforms like Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing or IngramSpark for print-on-demand services.

Traditional Publishing: Submitting your work to publishers that do not charge fees and pay authors a royalty on book sales.

Hybrid Publishing: Working with publishers that offer a middle ground, where costs are shared, but the author retains more control and a higher royalty rate.

Caution: There have been reports of abusive hybrid publishers that end up operating more like vanity presses.

Professional Services: Individually hiring professionals for editing, design, and marketing services, allowing you to maintain control over your book’s publication.



SPOTTING THEM

Identifying a vanity press scam can be challenging, especially for new or inexperienced authors. However, here are some signs to watch out for:

Upfront Fees: Legitimate publishers typically pay authors for their work, not the other way around. If a publisher requires you to pay significant upfront fees for services such as editing, cover design, or distribution, it could be a sign of a vanity press scam.

Lack of Editorial Standards: Vanity presses may claim to provide editing services, but the quality of editing is often subpar or nonexistent. If the publisher doesn't have a clear process for editing manuscripts or doesn't employ professional editors, it could indicate a scam.

Promises: Be wary of publishers that promise guaranteed sales or bestseller status. Success in the publishing industry is unpredictable, and no publisher can guarantee sales or popularity for a book.

Rights Grab: Some vanity presses require authors to sign over the rights to their work, often without clearly explaining the terms or implications. If a publisher insists on obtaining exclusive rights to your work or includes vague language in the contract, it could be a red flag.

Lack of Transparency: Legit publishers are transparent about their services, fees, and contract terms. If a publisher is evasive or unwilling to provide clear answers to your questions about the publishing process or contract terms, it could mean they are hiding something.

Pressure Tactics: Beware of publishers who use high-pressure sales tactics or try to rush you into signing a contract without giving you time to review it carefully. Legitimate publishers understand that authors need time to make informed decisions and should respect your right to do so.

Poor Reputation: Research the publisher and look for reviews or testimonials from other authors who have worked with them. If the publisher has a history of complaints or negative reviews, proceed with caution.

Unprofessional: Pay attention to the professionalism of the publisher's website, communication, and overall presentation. Spelling errors, grammatical mistakes, and unprofessional design could indicate that the publisher is not reputable.

By being vigilant and doing thorough research before signing any contracts or paying any fees, authors can avoid falling victim to vanity press scams.



DO THEY PAY OFF?

While it's possible for authors to make money by publishing through a vanity press, it's typically much more challenging compared to traditional publishing or self-publishing through reputable platforms. Here's why:

Vanity presses often require authors to pay significant upfront fees for publishing services such as editing, cover design, and distribution. These costs can eat into any potential profits from book sales, making it difficult for authors to recoup their investment.

Usually, they lack the distribution channels and marketing skills that traditional publishers have. Without widespread distribution to bookstores, libraries, and online retailers, it's harder to generate sales and royalties. Poor marketing makes it almost impossible to attract online readers to generate sales.

Even if you do manage to sell copies of your book, vanity presses often offer lower royalties compared to traditional publishers. After deducting the publisher's fees and expenses, authors may receive only a small percentage of the sales revenue.

While it's technically possible to make money with a vanity press, the odds are stacked against authors. If you’re serious about earning income from your writing, pursue traditional publishing or indie publishing through reputable platforms.



ARE THEY ALL BAD?

Not all vanity presses are scams per se, but almost all of them operate in against the authors' interests and rarely provide value. If you simply want a book published and aren’t concerned with the costs or success of your book, then they can be the perfect end-to-end solution for you. Otherwise…



LEGIT PUBLISHERS

It's important to differentiate legitimate indie publishers and service providers from vanity presses that exploit authors. Expert services typically charge authors for specific services, such as editing, cover design, and distribution, but they do so transparently and without making false promises of success. Authors retain full control over the work and still receive royalties from book sales.



INDIE PUBLISHERS

Many vanity publishers come across like indie-publishers at first. So, you should know what an indie publisher looks like. The key difference is that vanity publishers charge you and indie-publishers pay you. It's challenging to provide precise average figures for indie book deals since they can vary widely based on numerous factors. That said, here are some general ranges.

Royalties: Indie publishers typically offer authors higher royalty rates compared to traditional publishers. Royalties can range from 10% to 70% of net sales revenue, depending on the publisher's business model and the specifics of the contract. For example, an indie publisher might offer a royalty rate of 40% of net sales for e-books and 20% of net sales for print books.

Note: In publishing, “Net Sales” means the total income from sales minus the costs, including things like paying consultants for editing, cover-art, or book formatting. If sales don’t rise above costs, you won’t receive royalties.

Advances: Advance payments from indie publishers tend to be smaller than those offered by traditional publishers. Advance payments can range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, depending on factors such as the author's platform, the genre of the book, and the projected sales potential. For instance, an indie publisher might offer an advance of $500 to $2,000 for a debut novel.

Note: Advances can be included as “costs,” meaning you often don’t start earning until the publisher recoops your advance. (It’s only fair.)

Marketing and Promotion: Indie publishers vary in the level of marketing and promotional support they provide. Some publishers may offer limited marketing assistance, such as inclusion in their catalog, press releases, and social media promotion. Others may offer more comprehensive marketing campaigns, including advertising, book tours, and author events. The value of these services can range from a few hundred to several thousand dollars, depending on the publisher's resources and the specific marketing plan.

Hint: Look at the publisher's marketing & publishing efforts for other authors. Ask the authors to see how they feel about it. Authors like helping each other out.

Rights: Indie publishers may offer authors more favorable terms regarding rights retention compared to traditional publishers. Authors may retain rights such as e-book rights, audiobook rights, foreign language rights, and adaptation rights. The value of these rights can vary widely depending on the potential for additional revenue streams. For example, the author might retain the rights to create and sell audiobook versions of their work, potentially earning additional royalties.

Note: If they don’t provide services for a book format, they shouldn’t get rights for that format. 

Services: Indie publishers typically provide editing, cover design, formatting, and other production services as part of the publishing package. The value of these services can vary depending on the publisher's rates and the scope of the project. For example, they may do their own editing (free for them) or contract it out at $500 to $2,000. It could cost them $200 to $800 for cover design. These costs subtract from net revenue, meaning it takes longer to earn out.


Q. How do vanity presses make money?

A. Vanity presses primarily generate revenue by charging authors upfront fees for publishing services. They take a sizable cut from services like editing, formatting, cover design, and marketing. They often hire low-quality consultants so they can take a larger cut.


Q. Can I pay for my vanity press services with Monopoly money?

A. If only… But I appreciate the creativity. It’s that kind of outside the box thinking that makes you a great author.


Q. What are the signs of a vanity press scam?

A. I’ll answer in three ways: upfront costs, upfront costs, and upfront costs.


Q. Why do authors use vanity presses?

A. Authors might turn to vanity presses due to rejection from traditional publishers, a desire for a faster publishing process, or a lack of understanding of the publishing industry. Some may like the end-to-end service or simply want the prestige of being published.


Q. Can you make money with a vanity press?

A. It's challenging to make money with a vanity press due to high upfront costs and typically low sales figures. The lack of effective distribution and marketing support means that recovering the initial investment, let alone making a profit, is difficult.


Q. Do they offer "Buy One, Get One Free" deals?

A. Ask them. They’ll probably say yes and charge you twice as much.


Q. How can I tell if a publishing offer is from a vanity press?

A. If the publisher asks for payment to publish your book, it's a clear sign of a vanity press. Legitimate traditional and most hybrid publishers do not require payment from authors for publication.


Q. What should I do if approached by a vanity press?

A. Decline politely. If contacted on social media, block them and post your experience with them so others know.


Q. Are all vanity presses scams?

A. Not all vanity presses are outright scams, but most operate on a business model that benefits the publisher more than the author.


Q. Can I trade my firstborn child for a publishing deal? (Asking for a friend.)

A. Probably. The ethics of those running vanity presses is seriously in question.


Q. How can I avoid vanity press scams?

A. Be frank about needing to know their standard advance, royalty, and references from past/present authors.


 

As always, I appreciate your support of indie authors. In the name of putting myself out there, here are a few of my works.




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