There are no easy paths in publishing; writers who find themselves struggling on the traditional route can face equal or worse setbacks in their efforts to self-publish. While agents and agencies have their biases (as we’ve discussed previously), vanity publishers operate heedless of prejudice to prey on struggling authors. Authors that have chosen to go the self-publishing route, or have been rejected too many times to count, are the most vulnerable. Vanity publishing is the most persistent scam within the industry, and their predatory practices must be repeatedly addressed so that writers are not caught unawares.
Vanity publishing is not a modern concept. Since the invention of the printing press, authors have been printing their own books. As the market shifted towards the current trad pub model, printers moved to capitalize on an author’s desire to be published, without the struggle of the querying process. It is these authors that have laid the groundwork for vanity publishing.
Vanity publishers will whisper honeyed words and bold assurances about a book’s marketability and sales, taking any book regardless of quality or their chance of ROI (Return On Investment). If authors are not careful, vanity presses will have them sign away the rights to their book, then dig their claws in deeper – promising writers a package of editing, formatting, cover design, and marketing. The vanity press will then contract these stages of production to the lowest bidder, in order to maximize their own profits. These “publishers” only aim to con an exorbitant amount of money from their clients, before leaving them high and dry. Their methods tend to be aggressive and bordering on harassment, demanding upfront payments and continual deposits for their services.
While some malicious publishers are easy to spot, others are not. The popularity of self-publishing has enabled vanity presses to do well enough that they do not have to trawl the internet for innocent authors, but instead are capable of luring authors into their lair unknowingly. They accomplish this by purchasing ads on trustworthy websites, which helps them to appear respectable. Unfortunately, marketing is fickle and will place ads for anyone willing to pay.
Across the pond, the UK author unions The Society of Authors and Writers’ Guild of Great Britain have initiated an investigation into numerous complaints over exploitative publishers. The grievances are listed as “aggressive marketing tactics and manipulative sales approaches,” as well as having authors “surrender[ing] a wide range of rights and control over their work.” If you are a UK-based writer or know someone who would benefit, these unions are compiling a survey in order to better understand the actions of these publishers, and how to respond on behalf of writers. Quick Fox will keep a keen eye out for the survey results and will update this page as the story develops.
Lawsuits continue to mount within the US, including numerous authors being taken advantage of with high-priced services that bear little to no profits. SFWA keeps a frequently updated list of vanity publishers to avoid, including those who have fortunately been put out of business, and those who are continuing to flourish under new names. One such is Author’s Solutions, a vanity press which has grown to include several imprints abroad. Author’s Solutions has had numerous complaints and lawsuits filed against it. In spite of this litigation, AS has partnered with various Big Five publishing houses. In 2012, Penguin bought AS in a bid to enter the self-publishing market. Since then, they have sold off AS to a marketing firm. Yet Author’s Solutions continues to maintain its partnerships with other traditional houses, including Simon & Schuster, Harper Collins, and even Reader’s Digest.
However, the involvement of these major publications does not make them liable for AS’s actions. These vanity presses continue to primarily run independently—such as Archway Publishing from Simon & Schuster (another imprint of AS)—enabling their traditional publishing counterparts to simply take the profits from having a “self-publisher” in their pocket. Should issues arise, companies can ignore the lawsuits or gaslight the victims, much like then-CEO of AS Andrew Phillips did in 2013. None of these corporations are making these deals with writers in mind, but rather to increase their own shares, further placing a strain on the market and the growing distrust of the industry.
What options are then available to authors to avoid falling into these alluring traps? First and foremost— as a writer and a person—it is important to believe in yourself. Writing is a work of passion and effort. It won’t ever be easy, but it will be gratifying. The best course of action for self-publishing is to do an immense amount of research. There won’t be any agents to query, but it would be a good preliminary test to find a marketing or PR professional to assess your manuscript for marketability. A good professional will be honest if there is an audience for your work. If there is some chance, these companies will try to do their best for you, but they should be upfront about the chances. Moreover, they will supply their own research and statistics about the Return on Investment for their services.
It’s easy to fall victim to the allure of vanity publishing offers, as authors often become despondent when they query only to be repeatedly rejected. It’s even easier when someone rolls up with an offer to print and market their book for a fee, with assurances that the book will sell. Before taking on any such suspicious offers, do research and dig deep. The writing community is vast, and there are a number of resources and forums that will furnish a writer with the right information to ensure your rights are protected and that your funds are invested wisely.
Our team at the Quick Fox suggests the following resources: