On July 21, I attended the Writers Rendezvous in Ludington, Michigan. Then, on August 4, I attended the Michigan Authors on the Lakeshore event in Holland, Michigan. Both festivities featured 30 or so authors promoting their books to the general public. Both were admirably well-managed by the hosts.

As a representative of Caffeinated Press, I attend these events mostly for the public intel: We rarely sell enough to make the commitment of an entire Saturday “worth it” financially (plus, I tend to buy a three to five new books myself), but the networking and the chance to ask interested readers about the genres and types they enjoy consuming usually make for a pleasant day.

At both events, though, a chorus of lamentations renewed my fury at pay-to-publish outfits: That well-meaning authors who didn’t understand much about publishing have been taken advantage of by low-repute vanity presses. Cases in point from the last two author events:

  • One gentleman in Ludington told me that he only recently returned to print publishing because a decade ago, a vanity-press contract had been written to assign copyright (and not merely a license to publish) to the vanity press. Basically, the author signed away his intellectual-property rights in perpetuity because he didn’t understand publishing contracts well enough to know better.
  • An author in Holland expressed frustration that his vanity press charged him a pretty penny to develop and release his book. He’s a retired pastor on a limited income. Then, the publisher asked him to pony up another $800 for “marketing.” It’s not clear what marketing you can buy with $800, let alone in a direct-to-consumer pipeline wherein the author gets a box of books and is sent, uneducated, upon his merry way. He kept telling me that he felt like the “Fuller Brush Man” for selling books one copy at a time.
  • Two different authors in Holland approached me to ask how much it’d cost for us to publish them. When I embarked upon my mini-spiel about the difference between traditional, vanity and self publishing, they were amazed that there was more than one option.
  • An author-colleague of mine told me that at a different event, she chatted with a man who was upset he had to pay more than $750 for another box of books because the publisher didn’t fix typos in the first one.

Let’s begin with the core concept: What’s a vanity press?

The nutshell version is that a vanity press is the less-than-honorable nickname for a form of publishing called subsidy publishing. In traditional publishing, the press assumes all financial risk for a book. If the book bombs, the publisher loses money, but not the author — which is why it’s hard to get a book into a traditional press. In traditional publishing, authors sign checks on the back, not on the front.

In subsidy publishing, by contrast, the press accepts money from the author. That payment immunizes the company from the financial loss of publishing the work. As such, vanity presses have no qualms taking in garbage material, or material with no clear upside market potential, because the author is defraying all costs (i.e., subisidizing the press’s financial risk) and ensuring a sliver of profit besides.

The problem with pay-to-publish outfits is that, overwhelming, they’re scams. Don’t believe me? Ask Chuck Wendig. Or David Gaughran. Or Joe Konrath. They’re scams because regardless of whether any individual vanity press operates in above-board fashion, the end result is the same: You’re effectively paying someone a shit-ton of money to self-publish you.

Don’t be misled: A vanity press isn’t going to get you into bookstores or make you a bestseller. At best, they’ll give you a box of books with an ISBN slapped on it and get you into Ingram’s catalog. (Or they’ll charge you for a host of superfluous upsell services, like paid inserts into the New York Review of Books for many times the actual price of an ad.)

You can self-publish your own book and exercise full control over the editing and design costs you elect to invest in your book, with no inflated mark-up.

Our advice: There’s never any circumstance where it’s okay to pay someone to publish your book. Ever.

Fancy Yourself a Writer? Then Never Pay to be Published!
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