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Well, we have ambulance chasers in the publishing industry too - in fact, they're worse than dodgy lawyers. Because these aren't just dodgy publishers, they're conmen pretending to be publishers. They often call themselves 'self-publishing imprints' (which is a huge misnomer, since an 'imprint' is a division of a publisher, while self publishing means going it alone without a publisher) but the rest of the industry knows them better as 'vanity presses'.
A vanity press is a 'publishing' company that appeals to the vanity of newbie writers. Aspirant writers send in their manuscripts and receive glowing praise back telling them their books are wonderful, and that the publisher most definitely wants to publish their books - for a price.
The aspirant writer, basking in the glow of the praise, and under pressure from the publisher, doesn't think to go to Google and double check the publisher's credibility (or if they do, they don't look beyond the first few hits on Google, which are usually the publisher's own website) and so they sign up and hand over their credit card details to publish their book.
At this stage, you're probably thinking "Where's the con in that? The author paid for a service, and got it." The answer is: yes and no.
Sure, the author paid and got a service. But it probably wasn't the service they were expecting. Because instead of their wonderful, "sure to be a bestseller" book rocketing up the charts, the only copies sold are the ones the author buys. Why?
Because the customers of these types of publishers are not readers. Their customers are the authors. Remember that hefty fee you paid up front - why would they need to sell books to readers when they already have your money in the bank? They are in the business of selling your own books to you. And if that isn't already bad enough, they won't stop there.
Once you've signed up with them, they will continue to contact you to sell you new products and 'top up packages'. Your first ebook cover goes up on Amazon, and while you're still going "squee! I have a real book!" they invite you to order print books. Still basking in the glow, you agree. Another payment goes off your account. The box of books arrives, and you're so excited to see your name on a real cover. Within hours you get the phone call inviting you to now buy their 'marketing' package. It's not accidental. They track the courier package, know when you signed for the parcel, and catch you while you're still riding the high of opening that parcel of books. And that's why they call it vanity publishing - they are master manipulators at playing to an author's vanity.
Before you know it, you've shelled out thousands and thousands of Rands - and sadly, only then do most of their authors finally start to ask "but what am I getting in return for my money?" Chances are: very little. Aside from being able to say to friends and family "look, my book is available on Amazon" and apart from that box of books you've paid for which are taking up space in your garage, you are unlikely to sell a single copy.
Most books published by these vanity publishers are poorly edited, if at all. Most are not yet ready for publication, as any legit publisher would tell you. Most have atrocious covers which are not professionally designed to attract the right kind of readers. And that 'marketing' you paid for was probably limited to a press release to newspapers and reviewers who didn't even read it.
Instead, for a fraction of the price, you could have bought a pre-made cover, hired an editor, and sent out your own targeted review requests (for free), and you'd have a far more saleable product.
But you know what the real tragedy is? The real tragedy is that aspiring authors fall for these scams every single day. It amazes me how easily people spends thousands of Rands without even doing the simplest of Google searches. An internet search would reveal articles such as this one on MyeBook.co.za, this article by respected indie author David Gaughran, this link to Independent Publishing Magazine, and the entire Writers Beware blog.
So how, aside from doing a Google search, can you sniff out which publishers are legit and which are scams? Here are a few questions to ask yourself before handing over your credit card details:
- Did you find this publisher by clicking on an advert? Real publishers don't take out Google ads - they don't need to.
- Were you referred to this publisher by a well known publishing house that wasn't itself prepared to publish your book? The bad news is that the biggest vanity publisher on the block, Author Solutions, is in partnership with big, well known publishers. Books that aren't yet publishable get passed on to vanity publishers so they can still make money off your book without actually having to put the reputable publisher's name on your book.
- Is this publisher a specialist in your genre? Even if they are a legit publishing company, if they don't represent your types of books, they're probably not a good fit for your book.
- Did they ask you to do edits before offering you a contract? Legit publishers will always ask for revisions before agreeing to buy an unagented debut book. Apart from the fact that all debut books require edits, this is also a test to see if the author is prepared to work with the editor or if they are divas. However, vanity publishers don't care about the quality of your book. They'll tell you it's great and they really want to publish it - without even reading your manuscript.
- What are their previous and current authors saying about them? Most authors don't mind being contacted for referrals. Finding out if their existing authors are happy with the publisher is as important as asking your Audi-driving friend for their opinion on Audi servicing before you walk into a dealership and sign to buy the latest A4.
- How do the books they've published rank on Amazon? (Note: books that rank over 1 million are not selling well)
- They make elaborate claims that your book will be a bestseller, will be made into a movie, or promise a guaranteed number of reviews. No legitimate publisher will make these sorts of promises, since these things cannot be guaranteed.
- Are they asking you to pay to be published? Legitimate publishing companies cover the costs of editors, cover designers etc and do not ask you for a cent. If you are truly self-publishing, the you would be able to select your choice of cover designer, editor, publicist, formatter and you would negotiate individually with each of these service providers.
- Are they charging rates that are exorbitant in comparison with what you would pay individual service providers? If you're not sure what reasonable rates are for editing, covers, book formatting etc, then check out this page on our ROSA website.
- Are they keeping part of your royalties for themselves, even after charging you an up front payment? True self publishing service providers (such as editors and cover designers) get a flat, negotiated rate - they do not get a share of the royalties.
- Finally, are they linked in any way to Author Solutions? This is the parent company which owns a vast array of vanity publishers, including local Partridge Africa. But there are others too.
Yes, we understand how desperately you want to be published, how demoralising it is to receive form rejection after form rejection, and how tempting it is to be seduced by the claims of these vanity publishers. But I beg that before you let yourself be seduced, please read all the articles linked in this post.
Even if you don't want to wade through all those articles, read this very short one. It not only gives an overview of the issues faced by customers of vanity publishers, but gives some very handy tips on how to ensure your book is good enough to attract the right kind of attention from the right kind of publishers.
Have you been approached by a vanity publisher, or fallen for one of their scams? Do you have a story to tell? Share your experiences in the comments below to help other writers avoid making the same mistakes.