Thursday, June 4, 2015

Writers, Don't Be Vain

by J. Lea López

One of the questions and concerns I see most often over at Agent Query Connect is that of vanity publishing. An author is excited that they found PayMe Publisher online, and this is finally their chance at publication! So they ask the AQC community for any personal advice or recommendations regarding this publisher. Usually it takes only a quick look at the publisher's website for another member or moderator to realize that PayMe Publisher is a vanity press. If you've been reading my posts for any length of time, you know that I'm not usually one to make always or never statements, but here's where I make an exception. When it comes to vanity publishers, don't do it.

Money flows to the author

This is a basic tenet of publishing. In traditional publishing, the publishing house may or may not pay an advance, but they pay the author royalties on book sales. They do not charge the author upfront fees for editing or marketing or anything like that. They are invested in the success of your book, and they take a cut of your royalties to pay for those services and hopefully make a profit upon publication.

Vanity publishing operates in the exact opposite way. The fictional PayMe Publisher mentioned above will have publishing packages that include a lot of official, fancy, and impressive sounding things that might sound, to a writer, like everything you could ever ask for from a publisher. Those packages also come with a hefty price tag, and they're couched in the typical sales language where you can upgrade to an elite or gold level package for even more stuff! You end up paying the publisher to publish your book. There is no submission process usually. They will take any book given to them and publish it. Once you pay for your package up front and your book is published, PayMe Publisher will continue to take a percentage of your royalties, and that percentage is often the same as if you'd been traditionally published. So you're getting the same percentage of sales as with a traditional publisher, but you've also paid a nice chunk of change to the vanity publisher up front. So what exactly have you gotten for that money? Nothing that you couldn't have gotten for free with a traditional publisher.

This doesn't even begin to touch on the sometimes terrible contracts you have to sign with vanity publishers, or the predatory practices of some vanity publishers like Author Solutions. I highly recommend David Gaughran's blog for a ton more info on Author Solutions and why you should steer clear.

Self-publishing "services"

With the rise of self-publishing, there has also been a rise in companies offering self-publishing service packages to assist authors who want to go that route. Unfortunately, many of these are simply vanity presses in disguise. You still pay a big chunk of money for the same types of services (book formatting and cover design, mostly, but they'll break that out into all the small individual parts so it sounds like you're getting more for your money), and your ISBN will still be branded with that publisher's name, you may not get editing services for what you're paying (such as with Writers Digest's Abbott Press), and many of them will still take a portion of your royalties for the length of your contract.

I've heard some people try to equate self-publishing with vanity publishing simply because the author is paying out of pocket for the necessary services. I'd like to give those people a swift kick where it hurts, because it's not the same thing. If you want to self-publish, you are going to pay out of pocket for editing, proofreading, cover art, and so on. But when you truly self-publish, you are your own publisher, and you are not obligated to those service providers once the transaction is complete. A publisher pays their cover designers and editorial staff and others up front, too, without waiting for royalties on the book. The lines may be a bit blurry since you and the publisher are the same person when you self-publish, but that is the same function you are performing when you pay for services. Once those services are complete, you, as the self-publisher, receive all profits from the sale of your books (minus and percentages withheld from distributors or retailers).

So let's recap.

Traditional publishing = Publisher covers all upfront production costs, then takes a percentage of royalties for the length of your contract to cover those costs and make a profit. You may get an advance, and then you earn a percentage of royalties after the amount of that advance. You pay nothing out of pocket.

Self-publishing = You act as your own publisher. You pay one-time fees to contractors for your editing, cover art, and other production costs. You retain all monies paid to you by retailers. You pay contractors once for the same services a traditional publisher pays their employees to perform. After that, you pay nothing out of pocket.

Vanity publishing (and many self-pub service companies) = You pay them for production costs, like book formatting and design. You may or may not receive editing as part of your package, so you pay for editing. Once they have done everything they said they would do for their fee, you continue to pay them a percentage of royalties for the life of your contract.

Vanity publishers are counting on you to be uneducated about the way publishing works, or impatient to wait for traditional publicaiton, or too scared/unwilling/busy to learn how to shop for quality contractors to do the work needed to help you self-publish. Then they present their pretty packages and say, "Here, we'll do it all for you.. for a price." But for the most part, that price is not worth it.

I know that as authors, seeing your name right there on your book, which is for sale at all major retailers is an intoxicating thought. But don't rush. Don't be vain. Don't fall prey to vanity publishing.

J. Lea López is an author who strives to make you laugh at, fall in love with, cry over, and lust after the characters she writes. She also provides freelance copyediting focused on romance and erotica as The Mistress With the Red Pen. She welcomes online stalkers as long as they're witty and/or adulatory. Kidding. Maybe. Check for yourself: Twitter, Facebook, Blog.


Gleason J. Boyce said...

Ah, but what if you can't land an agent or publisher and still believe in your work? That's where I found myself three years ago. I would have preferred to work with a mainstream publisher but found no takers. In part, I think because I wrote about a fairly obscure period in history. After a lot of handwringing, I decided to take the plunge. And the funny thing is, the editing services I found at iUniverse were excellent and helped make my book tighter and a better read.

I wouldn't go so far as to say I had a wonderful experience with them, but they did help my book get ready for prime time. I did have to pay for all the services you describe and they do take a percentage, but Anvil of God (my novel) won best historical fiction at the IPPY's last year (Independent Publishers Awards) and received a starred review from Publishers Weekly. Hopefully, that will help me attract a mainstream publisher for my next book.

At least that's the plan... So I guess I agree with you in theory, unless all else fails.


J. Lea Lopez said...

Gleason, my apologies for not responding sooner! I don't get notified of comments until after I've already commented. :-)

My concern in a case like yours would be whether you could have gotten the same services for less than (or even the same as) what you paid by hiring reputable freelancers, and then been able to self-publish and keep all of your profits. I don't know the terms of your contract, but I would personally be concerned with which rights you had to sign away, for how long, and how well they're being utilized. And then lastly, agents and editors know what vanity presses are and will not necessarily look favorably upon a vanity published book without stellar sales. You have your positive reviews going for you, but I don't know how much that will factor. If you're hoping to garner interest from an agent or traditional publisher for the second book in your series, you may have a difficult time because you've already sold the rights to the first book in the series. A new publisher will not be able to control branding through cover art, pricing techniques to draw readers into the series and create follow through from the first book to the next, or pretty much anything dependent on manipulating the first book, which seriously limits their ability to properly package and market the series as a whole.

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