Friday, October 16, 2009

Five defenses of vanity presses




1. “The press did everything they said they would do” or “they did everything specified in the contract.”

This one implies trustworthiness and reliability. Living up to the terms of a contract is a good thing, isn’t it?

The problem is that such contracts are usually written to favor the publisher rather than the writer. For instance, a contract may specify that the writer has to promote the book, whereas the publisher will only market it “at our discretion” – meaning, “if we feel like it”.

Some contracts are set up to ensure that legally, the publisher need only do the bare minimum - turning the book from a Word document to a pdf, assigning a stock image cover, adding an ISBN, and submitting the information to online bookstores (no editing, no reviews, no marketing, no distribution). It’s very easy to live up to a contract which allows so little to be done.

2. “This press will publish your book for free” or “I didn’t have to pay a cent for publication”.

This is like saying, “I didn’t need to pay a cent to borrow money from Manny the Loan Shark.” Well, no, you didn’t. Not upfront, anyway. But that’s hardly an understanding of how the loan shark’s services operate. Or, for that matter, of how loans work in the more… traditional, shall we say… institutions which offer them.

With commercial publishing, writers never pay for publication and so you don’t see them stressing this as a selling point when it comes to their publishers. With the vanity presses that don’t request fees upfront but get the charges in through the back door, it’s a major defense – and a red flag.

3. “I am satisfied with this press’s services.”

I once emailed an author to say that I had completed a manuscript and wanted to get it published; did she have any suggestions? She replied,

“For a first book I suggest Publish America. Also they have a nice discussion board and all of the new authors can share questions and it is helpful.”

Satisfaction, niceness, a pleasant atmosphere – all this is extremely subjective. Some authors are satisfied by the sale of a single book, or by their families’ and friends’ support.

"Success is my mother pitching my book at Barnes and Noble. Success is the six books purchased by my son for his friends."


There’s nothing wrong with this – provided that it’s what you want for your book. The problem comes where there are crossed wires, when writers who want commercial publication (and sales to more than a pocket market) end up with a vanity press because they believe that claims of satisfaction = good sales or publication credits.

The best thing to do, therefore, is not to go by assurances of dream fulfillment or personal definitions of success. Ask about advances, sales and royalties instead, or the relevant experience of the editors. Facts are objective. And they’re better than emotions when it comes to choosing publishers.

The author who recommended PA to me didn’t say anything about marketing, royalties or the numbers of copies sold, so I knew that we had different goals when it came to our manuscripts and publication.

4. “The press works hard to put books on shelves in bookstores.”

I saw this used as a defense of Tate Publishing once. Not only is it clever, it’s one of those statements that are difficult to refute because they may well be true – just like “the publisher did exactly what the contract said it would do”.

But look at exactly what the claim states. That the vanity press actually put books on shelves? Not quite. It says the press “worked hard” to do so.

I could work hard to climb Everest. That doesn’t mean I’m going to succeed. And since there’s no specific definition of “works hard”, I could mean that I do an extra minute on the Stairmaster every day. Accomplishment is what ultimately matters, rather than attempts (or claims of such attempts).

5. “A book is better printed – by anyone – than sitting on your hard drive.”

“Every book I publish is a stepping stone, which is better than hiding my manuscript in my laptop. We all need to start somewhere, and be willing to work for it!”


This is a false dichotomy. The defense assumes that there are only two fates for a book rejected by the major leagues – vanity publication or permanent residence on one’s hard drive. It also assumes that the former is better than the latter.

Other options :

• Submit the manuscript to a small press or even micropress
• Self-publish (not recommended for all books)
• Set the manuscript aside temporarily while you work on another. Time and space always help when it comes to objectively evaluating a manuscript.
• Correct whatever problems the manuscript has that might have caused the rejections

I’ve done three of these, and they’ve helped a great deal. Much more so that sending my manuscript to a vanity press or author mill, which would have eaten the rights of first publication and left me with the bones.

6 comments:

Maria Zannini said...

With few exceptions, vanity press is the road in the wrong direction for most novelists.

I'm rather discriminatory on where I send a manuscript. If I'm submitting to a publisher, I scrutinize their marketing staff, the cover artists and their status on Absolute Write Water Cooler.

The thing that troubles me the most about these defenses is that usually the people uttering these 'facts' truly believe them. There is no convincing them otherwise.

gypsyscarlett said...

When I worked in the bookstore, 95% of the time we could not order such books. They would always come up "Not Available".

I think I mentioned this here before, but people who are considering vanity presses really need to know that it's virtually impossible to get their books in stores.

Marian said...

Thanks for that information, Tasha. Vanity presses can meet the needs of some writers, but IMO what they can never do is be a substitute for commercial publishing.

And that always becomes clear sooner or later - which can be a disappointment to writers who were hoping for profits or a career or recognition within the industry. Or even just for their book to be stocked.

Marian said...

Hi Maria,

Yes, the people making these statements believe them. Maybe time will change that. There are quite a few authors who were die-hard PA loyalists in the past but who have fallen silent now.

Then again, maybe they still believe it, but just don't feel like saying so.

Becky Mushko said...

Vanity presses, as Maria mentioned above, are a bad idea for novels. And a lot of other books, too.

An honest (and reasonably priced) vanity press can work for a very small niche project IF the author already has a readership in place and IF the author realizes he/she is hiring the press to perform specific (and limited) services.

Unfortunately, some naive vanity-pubbed authors believe they were chosen by a vanity publisher. Arrgghh!

If an author expects to sell at least a thousand copies, complete self-publishing is cheaper than vanity. If an author expects to sell several thousand copies, hold out for a commercial publisher.

Anonymous said...

There are many fine online mags that publish my poems. If they put it into book form I usually get at least one free copy. The other day I got an email stating a publisher had put one of my poems in an anthology, but no free copy or reduced price. I would have to pay $20 for the book. Could this be a back door kind of vanity press?