Anyone in the word-slinging game knows at least a handful of aspiring writers who would gladly saw off their own arm for a publishing deal. At least one of them would saw off their grandmother’s arm. They might be furtively eying your appendages right now just for suggesting the possibility. The point is, no matter how much we all love writing, publication is the ultimate goal. Who doesn’t dream of getting paid to do what you love? Most of us know that self-sufficiency in writing, particularly fiction writing, is unlikely. Tony Stark-level wealth is even more unlikely. But the truth is, for a lot of us, it’s not just about the money. It’s about recognition. It’s about touching other people’s lives. It’s about prestige. It’s about showing that bitch Tiffany from sophomore PE that you and your hand-me-down, counterfeit Nikes are in fact not a “walking waste of Pakistani child labor.”
Still, there are those who get just a little too desperate to be published. Who do things much worse – and much more mentally unhinged – than forcible amputation. They turn to vanity publishers. In a world where self-publishing has gained enough respectability to finally be ranked higher than telemarketing, these insidious “literary” entities also known as “joint venture” or “subsidy” presses should in no way be conflated with true self-publishing. Vanity publishers are the literary version of vanity recording studios like the one responsible for that audible violation of the Geneva Convention, “Friday.” My friend, Kelly, turned to one such publisher after trying and failing for years to sell her manuscript the traditional way. She spent $7,000 up front getting her book published. Go ahead and wipe the Diet Mt. Dew off your computer screen. I’ll wait.
Now, for those unclear on the nuances between self-publishing and vanity publishing, let me first provide an overview of a novel (or novella) writer’s publishing options. The gold medal in publishing (for now) still belongs to traditional publishing houses. This route is highly competitive and the difficulty is commensurate with trying to play 36 hours of Halo 4 on Xbox Live without receiving any unflattering remarks about your parentage. There are several excellent blogs which can give you the finer points of the process, but in a nutshell, the process requires approaching literary agents via query letter (or email) in the hopes that they will take your manuscript on and try to sell it to a publishing house (never, ever pay an agent up front). If a publishing house buys it, they may or may not give you a cash advance against future sales, and if the book sells enough copies to pay back your advance, you start earning royalties on every copy sold. Because your manuscript must run a gauntlet of “experts,” this method carries with it the most prestige.
Self-publishing, on the other hand, is rather self-explanatory. When you self-publish a book, no third-party publishing house has a hand in it. You must edit it yourself (or hire an editor), design the cover yourself (or hire a graphic designer), format it yourself (or hire a – you get the idea), pay to print it yourself (hopefully at a quality printer; or, yaknow, Kinkos, if your soul is completely dead at this point), and market it yourself. Once upon a time, this required a decent amount of cash up-front because professional printers often have a minimum batch limit. Nowadays, there are numerous Print on Demand services that have the ability to print one book at a time and your customers (or you, if you want a stock of copies on-hand) order from the POD company. What’s more, the option exists to keep your book digital and publish it in the nearly universal ePub format (and/or, if you prefer, in the borderline-fascist, proprietary Kindle format).
Vanity publishing, however, is a deceptively similar, yet infinitely more predatory option. A vanity publisher attempts to marry the traditional publishing world with the self-publishing world, and the resulting offspring is enough to make anyone start believing in eugenics. A vanity publisher doesn’t just charge you to print your book, they charge you for their expert “services,” such as consulting on the cover design, marketing, or distribution. Take special care to note the word “consulting.” You see, these are the types of services a traditional publisher would provide, for free, because their neck is on the line and they want the book to sell. They may listen to your input, but, in the end, they know the industry, they are professionals, and they will do whatever will sell the book. A vanity press has no dog in the hunt. You’re putting all the money down, and they’re offering their advice, which you don’t have to take, for a price. They usually offer several levels of “packages” to give you the illusion of having control over how much involvement they have, and they make you feel like you’ve finally succeeded in being recognized by a “real” publisher when in fact they’ll publish any manuscript by any author who can pay them.
The end result, at least in Kelly’s case, is a book that looks more or less professional on the outside but has glaring errors and laughable quality on the inside. Her book has decent cover art and good binding, but the page formatting looks like it was done with a 1997 version of Corel WordPerfect, and it reads like it was edited by a seven year-old. The book is available on Amazon, but no “brick-and-mortar” bookstores (though I have seen dozens of copies on the shelf of a popular used book store; they eventually stopped accepting them). As far as their “marketing” services, they did schedule her for regular book signings to help her sell copies. At Costco. They advised her to make a Facebook page specifically for her writing (if that’s all consulting requires, I’m in the wrong career field) and make a website. She has the technical proficiency of an elderly goat, so she had to pay a web designer.
The moral of the story, kids, is that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Vanity publishers prey on the hopes and dreams of aspiring writers hungry for a little validation. They may not outright lie to you about how many copies you’re likely to sell, but they present themselves as “one-stop shopping” for self-publishers while simultaneously doing their best to maintain a façade of traditional publishing and to appear more competent than they really are. True self-publishing is an incredibly difficult venture, and may well cost as much as vanity publishing if you hire professionals to design your cover, edit your work, and properly format everything, but at least you get to interview professional graphics artists, editors, and formatters to make sure you’re getting a quality product. You don’t just get a generic stable of “professionals” whose qualifications are mysterious at best, and no matter which option you take, it’ll be you whose money is on the line trying to sell those bad boys one-by-one.
Now, some of you may wonder why I didn’t warn my dear friend about all this, and I have two very good reasons. First, by the time I heard about any of this, the contract had already been signed and the book was at the printer. In fact, I only learned about the $7,000 because she owed me money and thought this was a legitimate excuse for not paying me back. Second, at that time I was nowhere near ready to publish anything and was entirely clueless about the publishing industry. All I knew was that $7,000 down sounded like bad mojo. Now, do I feel sorry for her? No, and I mean this with love, but she had it coming. You see, a few years earlier, through a convoluted hierarchy of friends-of-friends, she was able to have her manuscript read by a gentlemen who formerly served as editor in chief for a prestigious east-coast newspaper which shall remain nameless. When he returned the marked-up manuscript to her, he told her that it was in need of heavy editing and a lot of fleshing out before it would be ready to shop around. When she relayed all this to me, she huffily declared, “Well, everyone else who read it (read: family and friends) liked it. I’m not going to let one opinion by some sour old man stop me.”
She threw away (literally) an opportunity you or I would have willingly sacrificed a few nonessential organs to have. If I smack the crap out of her one day, you’ll all testify on my behalf at the assault hearing, right?