The Dark Side of the Publishing Dream
Almost every writer dreams of publishing a book. But unless you get a publisher to underwrite all costs, you’ll have to pay to publish your book.
Unfortunately, the dream of having a published book is so tantalizing that many writers become victims of publishing scams by a “vanity press.” And traps in vanity press contracts to publish a book can turn the dream into a nightmare.
Let me tackle the subject of paying to publish books. What I know is based on information from book marketing professionals, examples from authors, and some personal perspectives. Hopefully, it will help you understand some options for publishing and promoting books.
One perspective about vanity presses comes from Allyson E. Marchate, a LinkedIn connection who is a book marketing strategist. She recently shared an article on LinkedIn with the catchy title “Friends Don’t Let Friends Use Vanity Presses.”
The article is from John Doppler, who heads the Watchdog Desk of the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) and therefore knows his subject very well. His article focused on two visible negative outcomes of using vanity presses, with data to substantiate his findings:
· Amazon sales rankings are often low for vanity press titles
· Many books published by vanity publishers have very few Amazon reviews
Another valuable perspective comes from the folks at Reedsy, who published a three-part series of articles this spring about problems in using vanity presses. The first part identified some specific vanity presses to avoid, and the second part compared vanity presses with other types of book publishing. The third article in the Reedsy series was an author’s guide to avoiding publishing scams.
As Reedsy discloses in the first two articles, vanity publishing is BIG business. Some of the “Big 5” publishers own some of the world's most prolific vanity presses. Xlibris and Author Solutions, both vanity presses with bad reputations, are subsidiaries of Penguin Random House. Simon & Schuster owns Archway Publishing. Who knew?
Perhaps the most important points in the Reedsy articles involve traps vanity presses sometimes hide in the contract language that starry-eyed writers can easily overlook. Here’s part of what Reedsy says:
“…they may nestle a term in the contract that gives them the exclusive rights to publish, reprint, and even sell the rights for future editions of your book to other publishers. This allows them to trade your creation while cutting you out of the process altogether.”
That means you may find it very difficult to regain ownership rights, even if the vanity press fails to publish or market your book. That’s a heartbreaker.
There’s a link in one of the Reedsy articles to a website with a detailed discussion about the reversion of rights. It’s written by Victoria Strauss, co-founder of Writer Beware®. The article by Strauss focuses on legitimate traditional presses and small presses, and the process to get a vanity press to release the rights may not be as successful.
Sometimes, even publishing contracts with legitimate publishers contain legal jargon emerging authors don’t completely understand. ALLi has an article explaining the most common terms in publishing contracts.
Bad things can happen during the reversion process with vanity presses--things that may require lawyers and lawsuits and lots of time and money. That’s my definition of a writer’s nightmare.
Personal perspectives: Scammers at vanity presses market dreams to writers. Period. Paragraph.
They dazzle authors with dreams of a big potential market for a book. Then, they require authors to pay for a minimum press run of hundreds and hundreds of copies to get a "volume discount." They try to con authors into buying a package to “market” and “distribute” the book, and charge even more to warehouse the books while waiting for bookstore orders.
But vanity press book marketing is almost always a scam. One writer I know is an avid collector of foldable hand fans, the type society ladies carry in pocketbooks and open to cool themselves in summer. She bought an expensive turnkey package from a vanity press to publish and market an impressive book with her imprint and 300 photographs and illustrations.
But the Amazon listing shows it has only three ratings in 16 years and has a sales rank lower than #5,500,000. I can’t find her book anywhere else online, even at mega resellers like AbeBooks, Book Depository, and Book Outlet. She showed me stacks of boxes with unsold books that have been sitting in her house for years because the monthly warehouse charges became unaffordable. Ouch.
A highly-popular option for paying to publish is self-publishing. The author is responsible for all costs to produce the book, make it available to online retailers like Amazon, and promote the book. Some indie authors minimize costs by performing most or all tasks by themselves. Other self-published writers, including me, pay freelancers to handle some tasks.
Because self-publishing can be a hassle and detract from writing, some indie writers prefer to hire a company to do everything. Some use “hybrid” publishers that charge for a full package of services and offer modest royalties (see footnote). Some authors pay custom book publishers to produce books to establish subject matter expertise.
Let me say right here that many full-service companies that charge authors to publish books are legitimate and reputable. One example is the Jenkins Group, which is a custom book publisher using the publisher name www.BookPublishing.com. Authors pay all costs of publishing a book, but the Jenkins Group's core business is very different from “vanity presses.”
Many of the books they publish are for authors who want high-quality print books to promote subject matter expertise. An example is The Endangered Customer: 8 Steps to Guarantee Repeat Business by Richard R. Shapiro, head of the Center for Client Retention in New Jersey. The Amazon listing says the book is published by Shapiro’s center and the front matter of the book identifies the Jenkins Group as the project coordinator.
How do you find a reputable company to pay to publish your book? The ALLi website has a searchable list of service providers with ratings ranging from excellent to “watchdog advisory” warnings. (ALLi rates the Jenkins Group as “recommended.”) Doppler has also published a book that is an extensive guide to the best self-publishing providers.
Reedsy offers access to hundreds of reputable freelancers. As an example, the 2021 marketing book written by Reedsy co-founder Ricardo Fayet has the publishing imprint of Reedsy, which did the typesetting, and he credits an editor and cover designer in the front matter. I plan to use some Reedsy services for my next book. (ALLi rates Reedsy as “excellent.”)
Footnote: Hybrid publishing is a different model for paying to publish, and it has become popular in recent years. I’m researching an article discussing the pros and cons for authors, so look for it soon.
I welcome your feedback based on your personal experiences with paying to publish books. Just post a comment or send an email to email@example.com. And I hope you’ll take a minute to join my network and receive regular updates about publishing and promoting books. Thanks, and best regards.