A shake down or the real deal?
It’s a dream come true. You’ve been contacted by a publishing house – perhaps out of the blue – they’ve seen your manuscript and think it’s fabulous. Here’s a contract. Sign it. We want to publish you!
Honestly, even in this age of technology, when it’s so easy to pop online and do a bit of research, authors are still getting caught out by shonky operators. And by shonky, I mean businesses who purport to be what they are not – legitimate publishing houses who pay their authors an advance plus royalties on their sales.
The reason is, these operators are clever at disguising themselves as traditional publishers, when they are in fact vanity publishers (aka vanity presses).
Vanity or self-publishing?
Now, while I would quite happily throw thunderbolts and lightning at vanity publishers, I have nothing against self-publishing companies; they provide a terrific service for authors who aren’t tech savvy or authors who would prefer to spend their energy on writing their next book instead of figuring out complex publishing systems like IngramSpark and Amazon. I’ve been through this tricky route myself with my two books, and though I’m not afraid of tech, I made a few blunders first time round.
What I do object to is the underhanded methods of vanity publishers who raise an author’s expectations, then go in for the financial kill.
So how to tell the difference between a vanity press and a self-publishing assistance business?
The first red flag is that a vanity press will often masquerade as a traditional publisher. They tell you they love your manuscript, you’re a perfect fit for their publishing house and want to offer you a publishing contract. What they don’t tell you outright is it’s going to cost you – that’s in the fine print. Then, the bad news: you’re now legally bound to ‘contribute’ (pay for in full) editing and production costs and/or buy a certain number of your own books (a lot) to cover those costs. Some contracts may even require you to sign over your author copyright. Often, you’re promised a fabulous marketing package that ends up being just a simple e-book upload to Amazon, which you could have done yourself for free. Have a read of this Books and Publishing article about a survey of these types of businesses.
Whereas, a self-publishing company doesn’t pretend to be a publisher. They are up front about costs, what they will provide for those costs, and you retain copyright of your work.
Yet, year after year, authors get caught in the drag nets of vanity presses.
So how to avoid it?
Tips: Do your own research
- A Google search on the publisher’s name with the word ‘reviews’ added, is an easy way to see what is being said about the publisher online, and whether other unsuspecting authors have been caught out. Be wary of blogs raving about a personal experience with a vanity publisher, as this is often advertising in disguise.
- Visit the Writers Beware website to see if the publisher (or agent) has been listed on their ‘Thumbs Down’ page, and to read up on other ways to determine if you’re about to be taken for a disappointing ride.
- Visit the Preditors and Editors site (yes, that’s how they spell it) to keep up to date with warnings and advice for authors.
- Contact the ASA for advice – they will be aware of scammy vanity presses. They also have a great write up on what to look out for.
- Visit author community groups on social media and ask questions.
- Be aware that traditional publishers don’t need to advertise their publishing services and never approach authors directly. (Okay, yes, there are extremely rare circumstances where a self-published author has been offered a Big 5 contract, but these are books that are already successful in their own right and the authors have a big following.)
- If you’re asked to pay a ‘reading fee’ for your manuscript, run. No legitimate publisher will ever ask you for money upfront or otherwise.
Don't sign that contract
Never, never, never – I can’t say it enough – never sign a contract without having it reviewed by a legal professional – even if the contract is from a legitimate publishing house. Besides checking if the contract is valid and not disadvantageous to you as an author, you can also obtain advice on whether to sign over all publishing rights, including print, digital, film and audio, or whether you should hold back separate rights. You should always, no matter the contract, retain your copyright of the work.