Wednesday, September 28, 2016

5 Warning Signs You're Dealing With A Vanity Publisher

I first decided I was going to become an author around the age of 13 or 14. I took classes in high school, won a few contests (and did a lot of extra credit), and when I turned 18 I decided to submit a book of poetry to a publisher. I wasn't expecting much, because despite the colossal size of my ego, I was well aware that I'd only been honing my skills for a few years. However, my book was accepted. Not only was it accepted, but it was praised.

That's where I should have gotten suspicious.

I was young and stupid. Learn from my mistake.
I, like many starting authors, fell victim to a vanity publisher. And today I'd like to show you a few warning signs that should send up red flags.

#1: The Name

I fell victim to Publish America. If I had not been 18 and convinced of my own genius, I would have taken one look at that name and laughed out loud. While not every vanity publisher has a name that screams, "I'm here to bilk you out of your money," a lot of them still do. And with all the publishing tools we have available today, they can pop up like dandelions.

Before you even consider talking with a publisher, run a search on their name. Find out how long they've been around, and what other authors have to say about them. Check to see who they've published, and if they're names you know and respect. See if you can find anyone who's been rejected by them, and keep an eye out for fluff pieces written to bolster their image.

#2: Thick, But Impersonal, Praise

One of the big things that suckered me in, and which is a baited hook to a lot of newer authors, was the praise. Even if you believe your writing is good, the idea that someone in the industry agrees with you can shoot you into the stratosphere if you haven't built up the proper amount of cynicism. Before you get too satisfied with yourself, though, it's important to take a good look at the acceptance letter. Does it mention any specifics about your book? Does it give the sender's personal opinion? Sometimes an editor will, indeed, offer praise. When that happens, it will never be generic.

#3: Asking You For Money

I covered this one in Questions Beginning Writers Ask (That Experienced Writers Are Tired of Hearing), but it bears repeating. Authors do not pay to be published. Period. End of story.

The publisher pays you, not the other way around.
Now, it should be mentioned that if you want copies of your book to sell at shows or fairs, you still have to buy those. A publisher will typically sell them to you at, or near, cost. However, real publishers don't pitch you the opportunity to be in a "special, collector's edition" volume, or try to get you to pay for an upgrade to your book.

This applies to marketing your book, as well. If you get published, your publisher will want to sell as many copies of your book as possible. That means they're going to give you an attractive layout, a noticeable cover, and they're going to promote your book. While smaller presses will have a shorter reach than bigger ones, every company is going to have a marketing plan that they'll discuss with their authors. If at any point in time they lay out a marketing plan, and then tell you that you'll have to cover these "expenses," you should run the other way.

The publisher is the company investing in you. They are the ones making the lion's share of the profits. If they want you to foot the bill, but are still taking the bulk of the earnings, that is a scam in progress, my friends.

#4: The Publisher Dodges Your Questions

Publishers and their authors need to be on the same team. If a publisher doesn't give you specific answers to your questions, especially for basic things like what percentage you get, how long the editorial process should take, and where your book will be available for purchase (and in what formats), that should put up some serious red flags. Those are things every publisher knows, and they should be in your contract. If they aren't, then you are looking at a shoddy publisher at worst, and a scam at best.

#5: The Publisher Takes Your Rights

Most publishers ask for first-time rights from their authors. They want to be the first ones to publish your book, both physically and digitally. A contract will specify when rights return to the author, and it will typically avoid acquiring things like audio rights, film rights, and other rights considered more minor.

Vanity presses, on the other hand, will usually try to keep your publishing rights indefinitely. That way not only did you fall into their trap, but if your book is actually good, then you can't wait for your contract to run out, and then take it elsewhere. They keep the rights for years, and in some cases they may have the rights permanently if you don't read the fine print.

Always read the fine print.
If there's anything in your contract you don't understand, ask about it. If you don't get a clear answer, walk away, and walk away quickly. A publisher should be transparent with you when it comes to the terms of any legal agreement, and if they're trying to hide something, it is not in your best interests.

Well, those are the five warning signs that come to my mind, though I'm sure there are others. Hopefully this week's Business of Writing post saves a few folks from the pitfalls of vanity publishing. If you'd like to help support me and my blog, then stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to leave a little bread in my jar. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, then why not start now?


  1. I’m certain you’ve heard of the “Preditors & Editors” site. It’s a great online reference for aspiring (or even established) authors.