Even More Adventures in Self-Publishing

by Janis Patterson

As promised (threatened?) last month, today I’m going to talk about the traditional Vanity Press and the less well-known and more ambiguous hybrid ‘Assisted Publishing Organizations’, both denizens of the swamp known as publishing and which writers – especially newbies – need to know.

We all know – or we should! – about the traditional vanity press – they have been advertising in writers’ magazines for what seems like forever with lead lines like ‘Manuscripts Wanted – Let Us Publish Your Book’ or some such nonsense. Remember, it seems everyone wants to have written a book and is determined to get it published, swamping legitimate publishers in their attempts. No legitimate or reputable publisher has to advertise for submissions! Most of them don’t even accept unsolicited/unagented books. Many of them are using literary agents as an unpaid first reader, which makes it harder to get a decent agent.

So does that make the traditional vanity press useless? Not if you want it for the right purpose. The traditional vanity press is usually very upfront about what they offer – for a certain amount of money (usually quite a bit) they will produce a decent (most of them, at least) product. They will edit, design the interior, create a cover and print a pre-approved agreed upon number of copies, which they will deliver to your house. The books are your responsibility from there on.

That is, if you are dealing with a decent vanity press – and there are some – but there are many more who are not. As you go down the dependability scale books aren’t given any quality edits – or any edits at all! The design and formatting are strictly word-processing basic. Covers are either totally plain or… well, I don’t use that kind of language.
So why would anyone use a vanity press? Actually there are some appropriate uses for vanity press – a GOOD vanity press. You want to print out your mother’s recipes as a gift for your family and friends. Or your Great-Uncle Fred’s family history that he has spent years writing. Or a collection of poems written by the congregation for a church fundraiser – that sort of thing – intimate, personal and with a limited and basically non-commercial distribution. In the vast majority of – if not all – cases, fiction and most of non-fiction do not belong with a vanity press.

The secret to selling a book (and not having a couple of hundred permanently stacked in your garage) is distribution. In these days distribution of ebooks can be easy – just upload for customers to download and publicize. Paperbacks done through distributors (and this is truly so very easy) like Amazon and Draft2Digital can be done electronically. If you’re willing to learn the basics and do a little work you really don’t need a vanity press at all. See last month’s post on WriterYou and PublisherYou.

One of the newer and more invidious wrinkles on this vanity scheme is the monthly contract. I heard of a poor woman who, so anxious to get her (probably unpublishable) book into the hands of readers, signed a contract with a ‘publishing company’ (and no, I don’t know its name or I would publish it as a public service) where they would deliver X number of books (either 25 or 50, I think) to her every month – at a somewhat discounted price. However, the cover price was horrendously high, which the poor writer was told was quite flattering, as people will happily pay for first quality. (Poor writer? Stupid writer!)

The first month or two she sold a few, but then she ran out of friends and relatives and the books kept coming… along with the bill. Every month. Her garage filled up with books. Her house filled up with books. Her bank accounts all emptied. The only advice she could be given was to consult a lawyer, as she had been told if she didn’t accept and pay for the books the company would sue her for a huge amount for being in breach of contract. I don’t see how any of them could sleep at night – the ‘publishing company’ for being so dishonest and dishonorable and the writer for being so stupidly gullible and not doing her due diligence. What is worst of all is that unfortunately this is not a singular example.

‘Assisted Publishing Organizations’ are at heart the same as a vanity press, though some do offer publicity services. Apparently for those writers who do not value control they provide a partnership arrangement where the writer pays them to do what a traditional publisher would, albeit apparently on an a-la-carte basis.
I am hesitant to talk much about Assisted Publishing Organizations because I am not interested in one and therefore have done no research in depth. I can only beg anyone who is considering using one of these services to do your due diligence and then some. Know exactly what you are getting yourself in to.

Some APOs are honest and deliver what they say they will; some are not. Some are little more than smoke and mirrors. And just because they bear the name or are an offshoot of a well-known big-name publishing house is no guarantee of their honesty or their ability. I heard of one APO which promised the writer a best-seller for a mere $50,000! My personal belief is that anyone stupid enough to spend $50,000 to basically self-publish a book deserves to be taken. First of all, no one, no organization, no company can guarantee a best-seller, unless they control the list and that would make the list meaningless.

So if there is a lesson to be learned from this somewhat bad-tempered little screed of mine, it is to be careful. Investigate everything, then do it again more deeply. Talk to other writers. Join a writing group, preferably one with a long-standing respectable and professional track record like RWA, MWA, Authors Guild, and ask there; the Upper Indian Creek Poetry and Prose Literary Society probably won’t be able to cut it. Every writer needs a little bit of PublisherYou in their make-up, even if they never self-publish a word.

Remember : Money should always flow to the writer, not away from the writer but if you are willing to pay to be sure your book is published you do deserve the best service you can get for your money, and your duty is to make sure the company you choose can deliver it to you.

4 thoughts on “Even More Adventures in Self-Publishing

  1. I use Amazon because a person can keep track of the sales and the payments come in a timely fashion. Self-publishing is a lot of work, but at least you don’t have to wait for a publisher to decide whether or not they want your book.


  2. The BAD publishers started way back before there was Amazon etc. I had my first book published by an outfit that started out honest–but became greedy. My book was great, but I only got a few copies never any royalties. When royalties started rolling in to the company, the owner went to Vegas to gamble. He did some jail time. Another publisher started out good, got mass-market paperbacks, he had a good reputation for a while and then disappeared. I heard of a bunch of others. Went with some small publishers after that, but they had issues too–one just decided being a publisher wasn’t for her, two died (not their fault, of course), another had too many authors, was an author too–and was way too slow for me.
    Now self-publishing with a lot of help from a friend. I know lots of similar stories.


  3. I’ve met several writers who used vanity presses and realized later that the books hadn’t been edited and they paid a lot of money.


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