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How to Avoid Vanity Publishers

There appears to be some confusion about what a vanity publisher is, as traditionally understood. Some associate vanity publishing with self-publishing or indie-publishing. Others with anything that isn’t traditionally published. Others regard any scam type of publisher as falling into the vanity category. So, what’s the real story? How do you know if the publisher or press you are considering is a vanity publisher and whether it is a good deal or not?

Cally Phillips in her article, “What is indie publishing,” takes a valiant stab at how to determine what vanity publishing is. Her basic premise is that whoever has the publishing rights, outside of traditional publishers, determines when someone seeking publication is dealing with a vanity press. Traditional publishers get the publishing rights from authors in exchange for services, marketing, and distribution. “Indie publishers” retain the publishing rights for themselves. While “self-publishers” give the publishing rights to a vanity press while paying for services, thus getting the bad end of both deals. That is a bit of simplification, but that is the essence of her presentation. My only disagreement is in her division between self-publisher and indie-publisher. I treat the two as synonymous, except “indie-publisher” can often refer to a small press as well. But that is what a self-publisher is, a small publisher of one.

I felt we could define this a little better. Because to really identify the “vanity publisher” that is out to rip people off, we need two more measurements: risk and reward. In every business, someone is taking a risk. When a traditional publisher signs an author up, they are taking a risk by investing money in the author’s book, publishing it, distributing it, in the expectations they can make a profit from that venture. Likewise, when someone self-publishes their book, or indie-publishes if you prefer, they are taking the full risk. Spending their money and time to handle the cover, formatting, editing, marketing, and all that goes with being a publisher.

When an author signs a contract with a traditional publisher, they are in effect exchanging the right to publish that book for the duration of the contract for a reduced amount of the rewards. The publisher takes a risk on your book in the hopes of profiting from a successful outcome. They can only do that if they share in the reward of its sales. Which means the author gives up money they could have make per book in exchange for the services and expertise and bigger distribution of the publisher. Obviously in the hopes that a higher number of sales through a publisher would in the end, net them more money, or at least as much than if they had done it themselves.

So we have three measuring sticks. Publishing rights, risk, and rewards. With those three, we can more clearly identify what vanity publishing is, at least, that type that tends to rip off authors, in comparison to the others.

Traditional Publishers take the risk, share in the author’s rewards, and are given publishing rights to a book. We could also include many smaller publishers in this list, in that they operate much like one of the big publishers as regards to these three areas. But note, risk and reward are together. That is key. And rights and rewards are together. All three need to be together for a fair business relationship.

Self-publisher/indie-publisher also takes all the risk and all the rewards. They do this by retaining all their publishing rights, and they are the publisher. They may outsource some of the tasks, like cover art, editing, formatting, cover design, etc. Or they may do it all themselves. And some of them can get taken by bad companies who sell them over-priced services that sometimes do little. But the key here is the self-publisher doesn’t give away part of his royalty to anyone other than perhaps a distributor or printer. There is no other entity labeled “publisher” that takes a percentage of the reward in exchange for the right to publish the book. You’ll also notice, the risk and reward are together based upon that control of the publishing rights.

A vanity publisher is a business entity that pretends to be a self-publisher’s outsourcing of tasks, but acquires some publishing rights. Practically, that means the author cannot self-publish it elsewhere, is paying up front for services, cannot cancel the contract when they want to, and are giving part of their royalty in exchange for the service of getting the book printed and distributed. The vanity publishers end up acting like a publisher in that they take rights and they also take reward by retaining part of the money earned and send you a “royalty” amount. However, and this is key, vanity publishers take none of the risk.

It might help to understand this in light of the days before POD (Print On Demand) and ebooks came into the picture. If an author wanted to self-publish, he had to pay a press to do a run on his book. Since the printing press wasn’t a publisher, they just wanted their money for however many books were printed, usually with a minimum run that enabled them to pay all the people required to do an offset print run on a book. The problem for the author is this could cost thousands. But the distinction still applied then as it does today. A valid self-publisher could hire a press to print a book, just like the big publishers, if they could get the money. And they still retained the publishing rights to their books, took all the risk (a lot more than today), and enjoyed the rewards if the book sold well. The people who could afford to do this were usually people who were well-sought after speakers, and could sell a good number at each engagement, or simply had the expendable cash and time to travel to bookstores and conventions to sell their books.

But certain companies rose up in the days before POD and ebooks who could allow a self-publisher to get their books printed for much cheaper, usually around one thousand dollars. These were the original vanity publishers. They didn’t vet manuscripts like a publisher, but they did offer services for a fee, and had the ability to get a smaller print run done on a book as they could combine to give a printing press more volume of business and therefore less overall cost per book via economies of scale. Smaller print runs meant the author didn’t need to lay out as much money. Some of these companies were on the up and up, but as in any industry, wolves entered the picture, not only providing that service, but becoming the publisher in exchange for retaining part of the sale of each book (reward) and taking none of the risk (the author takes all the financial risk as s/he pays all the costs).

The vanity publishers to avoid have these characteristics: they acquire publishing rights, participate in the reward, but take none of the risks. In essence, the author signs them up as a publisher, but gets none of the benefits of having a publisher, and all the risk of a self-publishing.

Need an easy way to know? Ask yourself this one question. “Do I have the ability to see my sales in real time or near real time and how much I’m earning, or do I have to wait for a royalty check and statement from someone other than a printing press or distributor to have a clue?” If you answer yes to the first, you are a self-publisher/indie-publisher. If you answer yes to the second half but you are taking all the financial risks, they are a vanity publisher who is preying on writer’s dreams. Break that contract as soon as it is legally feasible to do so.

Next time you look at a contract for services to a writer, ask yourself whether or not you are giving them publishing rights, and if so, are they taking the risk as well as the rewards for doing so, or are you giving it to them for free by giving them part of the reward while you take all the risk? A real publisher, traditional or small, will take all the financial risk while also getting some of the reward. For obvious reasons, you will want to avoid taking all the financial risk while giving away any of your rights and/or rewards of your work.