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The Scam of Vanity Presses

Updated: Jun 16, 2023

Vanity presses have been around for decades, but you might never have heard of them. What does 'vanity publishing' mean, exactly?

For the uninitiated, this is going to sound harsh, possibly even a little unkind, but it's something you need to hear.

Vanity publishing refers to the industry of printing firms that will publish a writer's book for payment from that writer, rather than a bona fide publisher who sees merit in the work and is prepared to invest money in it to bring it to market. The vanity press works on the writer's ego - their vanity - to sell editing and marketing packages to the author, along with copies of the book. They target unsuspecting new writers who know little about how the publishing industry works. Their best targets are those who are so determined - or desperate - to see their work published and who have no objective judgement on the quality of the project nor any industry level savvy on how it might sell.

There is a multitude of eds and slush readers out there who have read many-a-cover-letter declaring the submission to be a genius piece of work only to find it is quite the opposite - convoluted, overwritten, in love with itself, poorly executed, etc., etc. When rejected, the author can't understand why their baby has not gone directly into the arms of a loving commissioning editor toute suite. You know what they say: books are like babies, sometimes with faces only a parent can love? This is the vanity press' perfect mark - writers who are unable to recognise - or are willing to overlook - the flaws in the work and whose egotistical need to be published far surpasses the need to smelt, hammer, chisel and polish their manuscripts into a penmanship of sleek beauty.

With the explosion of the internet, these scammers' claws are far more wide-reaching than ever.

It still amazes me how and who gets sucked into their webs of deceit (and why it's still deemed legal). I've known writers with MAs in creative writing who do not know the difference between a vanity press and a bona fide publishing house, wondering why the company wants three grand upfront to pay for their 'editing, marketing and sales' packages. Isn't this one of the more obvious subjects universities would teach their students about the very industry they wish to stake their careers upon? Yeah, you'd think!

The lack of guidance from any government or official body on this subject is astounding and naive newbies are still being duped to part with their hard-earned money on the back of their dreams. You might think this is how many companies make sales, by selling 'the dream' to unsuspecting romanticists thinking they can get a quick fix to their life problems, and to some extent you'd be right. *Sell a good night's sleep, not the mattress* is a common mantra among marketers. However, there is a distinct difference between those who use this marketing strategy because they have a genuine product that will solve the customer's problem and those who use it to sell a get-rich-quick scheme that does nothing of the sort. And that is what vanity publishing effectively is: get published quick.

Except that, it's not publishing in the way most aspiring writers dream of and, instead of solving the author's problems, it only adds to them, causing mass headaches and tattered dreams. Because it's a scam.

Now, let's be clear (and how they get away with it): when I say 'scam' I don't mean they take your money and you never see or hear from them again. No, they are way more clever than that.

The mark (i.e.writer) pays a few thousand for editing, marketing, distribution and sales, plus a certain amount of copies for themselves to sell and hand out to reviewers. The 'publisher' promises all this and contracts are signed.

When they offer editing, what they mean is you will be assigned an editor - one specific editor - who may or may not double up as your marketing and distribution manager. This editor will do some work on your book, but it will be minimal. Especially if the author hasn't got the experience and savvy of how to make effective revisions. Or maybe even the editor hasn't the savvy. Whichever, any editor can only do so much with a writer who just doesn't 'get' what has been suggested to them. In a vanity press, the budget will limit how many rounds of edits the book will get in terms of substantive, copyediting and proofreading. In traditional publishing, these rounds usually involve a different editor for each (depending), but in vanity presses, it's likely these roles are one and the same.

Once the author is happy enough with the book (because newbies have no perspective on the quality of their work to make an industry-level judgement), and/or once they have exhausted the editing budget in the package they purchased from the 'publisher' - unless they want to fork out even more money on further edits that could possibly stretch into another +thousands - it will go to the printer, or the template will be prepared for p.o.d. (print on demand).

At this stage, they may ask how many more copies the author wants outside of the ones already included in the initial package. This is actually their sales model - selling the product back to the person who created the product in the first place! They often also get commission on how many editing services they sell to that customer.

The author is then responsible for selling those copies to would-be readers, but they usually end up with friends and family. Or they break their backs going to every market and lit-fest they can to try and sell their own book, organise their own blog tours and maybe bookshop signings, plus send out copies to influential reviewers here and there - all out of their own pocket.

Unfortunately, because of the lack of proper, professional editing, the quality of work often means these review copies are left on the floor or the shelf of the reviewer. Unless the author puts in even more of their precious time into building a relationship with these contacts in the hope they will read the book and give a sterling review. Oh, and let's not forget the huge mark-up authors must often spend when stocking their own book. A mark-up to which they must then add even more mark-up in order to make the slightest bit of profit, effectively pricing themselves out of the market. Even the most polished, best-edited books from celebrity authors have a limit on how much they will sell for.

Alternative marketing efforts made by the vanity press might consist of sending out a couple of social media posts, possibly getting the book listed on some review sites and on their website sales page. What they won't be doing is a continued campaign over a period of time to keep pushing the book towards reviewers and into the market. They won't be organising a book launch and presales, bookshop tours or blog tours or press releases nor will they organise interviews with journals or local radio stations. They won't be getting the book into supermarkets nor negotiating to get it translated. The author could always upgrade their package for extra marketing, but that means paying more money out to a company that is already performing the job poorly.

Effectively, the author is in the same position as a self-publisher who uses KDP or Ingram spark or any other p.o.d. arrangement. However, the problem with vanity press is that once you've signed that contract and you put that book into print it's no longer yours to control. By adhering to what they promised by way of editing, marketing, etc., the vanity press can say that they have adhered to their contractual obligations. Even if you only sold 20 copies to friends or maybe a small literary festival and they sold none. Their sales model is not based on how many they sell to a readership, but on how many copies and services they can convince the author to purchase.

So, if they are only doing basic editing and marketing/sales and you are the one slogging your guts out trying to sell copies at markets, small fests, to friends, writing groups, etc., what is the point of them?

Then the real nightmare begins. The author now sees the light – this company is not working in the author's best interests in a way that fits with what they perceived when the vanity press sold them their services. Their dream - all those thousands and thousands and thousands of words, those characters they loved so much and that intricate world they constructed - is now hidden from the real world. In frustration, the author seeks to go it alone and publish it themselves because they've just realised they might as well have done that from the beginning.

But, they signed a contract. That might be for five years, three years -indefinitely! They can't do anything until that contract comes to its end. They gave away first publishing rights to that vanity press. No traditional publisher will touch it now. As for self-publishing, the author would be in legal hot water to press ahead with this. Their novel is now in publishing limbo.

And yes, the sad thing is, these companies operate just within the legal limits to get away with it and the only people to lose out are the writers.

So how do you recognise a vanity press?

First thing, they'll ask you for money! And lots of it. The sales model will be about sending you copies and selling you services, so look for any clauses in their sales pitch that talks about how many copies are included in the deal and if any wording refers to discount pricing for the author when buying future copies. Grades of editing and marketing packages are also a sign.

There are other types of vanity press out there now who don't work so much on this model. Some of these places are even owned by big publishing houses. Yep, the big guns realise they could get in on the scam legally and help their own profit margins.

The form these guys take is an online publisher. The key difference here is that they don't ask you to pay money for services upfront, which is at least better than the other model. You upload your novel to their website and their members read the novels online for free. The most voted popular stories get bumped to the top and once they pass a certain number of votes the publisher considers if it's a book that they can take to market. So, in one sense it is a publishing contract, but the percentage of books that make it through to that stage will be tiny. For the rest of the dreamers pinning their hopes on this system, they'll find themselves in the same situation as the traditional vanity press model whereby they have handed over their baby to people who are never going to do anything significant with it and couldn't care less what happens to it. Because it's been published on the publisher's website, first publishing rights have been given away and, unless the manuscript is so significantly changed it no longer resembles the manuscript published online, no other publisher will go near it. For those who think they would just self-publish it on their own, well, they probably first want to wrestle back the manuscript from these companies. Otherwise, it will be available for free on the web while the author slogs their guts out trying to get to the top of Amazon's ranking list with a paid version. Reclaiming work doesn't always meet with success.

Another form is, again, no money upfront but the author is expected to 'earn out' the initial investment the publisher made on the book which paid for editing, design, marketing, etc. You might be thinking that this is normal practice in publishing - everyone's heard of authors earning out, right? Well, yes. And no.

Authors with traditional contracts are usually paid an advance on their book based on estimated sales and only earn more money in royalties once that advance has been surpassed in book sales. The initial outlay of marketing, etc., is shouldered by the publishing company, not the author. Any company telling its authors to 'earn out' on marketing, editing, etc., without giving the author an advance, and before the author sees a penny in royalties, is asking for money upfront. Ergo: vanity press. Plus, some of these operators might not even provide a regular breakdown of how much of that outlay has been paid off. The author just has to hope they will be honest about it when that happens - if it ever does.

I'm sure there will be other forms of vanity press in the making that I haven't mentioned - scammers are always thinking up new ways to con people once their old tricks become recognised for what they are. But it does sadly seem there is a never-ending queue of unsuspecting newbies ready to follow the big, fat carrot these organisations dangle before them. Just remember: if they are asking for money upfront in one form or another, it's more than likely a vanity press.

It's worth mentioning before I finish off today's post that there is a difference between paying for vanity publishing and paying for self-publishing services because you wish to make it under your own steam as an indy author where you are in control. Investing in a decent, freelance editor and investing in a separate freelance book marketer/PR pro, a book designer and whoever else you need to realise your project is exactly as I say: an investment. You put together a team to help you bring it to market. But, if any one of those freelancing entities that you handpicked mess up (and, I hope, you tested them out before committing), you have just *one* bent spoke in the wheel that you can replace while retaining ownership of your work. With vanity press, it gives all the appearances of offering a traditional publishing contract on the surface. If you are not happy with any of the services they are supposed to provide it'll be tough tits - all the spokes in the wheels will be damaged and the author's dream will be rendered immobile, held hostage in the shopping basket.

Be alert!

Do you know of any other types of publishing scams? Please share in the comments!

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