- by Laura Resnick
In this post, I talk about “dishonest” businesses, “scams,” and “cons.” Since that’s strong language, it should be clearly understood that these are my own views and that I do not represent Novelists, Inc. in any capacity.
The terms “self-publishing” and “vanity press” are often misunderstood by aspiring writers. This is understandable since publishing has always been a strange, misinterpreted, and often illogical industry. Additionally, it’s now changing so rapidly, in terms of technology developments and new business models, that the industry does indeed look confusing.
However, and particularly with regard to print publishing, certain basic guidelines are still true, and will remain true for the foreseeable future. Let’s examine a few of them.
1. “Self-publishing” and vanity-press scams (oh, sorry, “vanity publishing“) are not forms of publishing. They are two distinct methods of being PRINTED, not PUBLISHED.
“Self-publishing” is a legitimate set of PRINT services and products offered to people with book-length projects that are not suitable for PUBLISHING (ex. family memoir, church-group cookbook, guidebook to your small town, etc.) or whose authors choose not to pursue PUBLISHING.
“Vanity publishing,” by contrast, is the perfect con, preying on the dreams of desperate aspiring writers who are uneducated about how publishing works. A vanity press is “self-publishing” with inflated product prices and false “services” offered at equally inflated fees. Like other well-orchestrated cons, vanity scams have financially ruined people.
“Self-publishing” is an honest business.
Vanity press is a dishonest business, but it’s a completely legal one. However, a number of vanity scams cross the line far enough to wind up in court and get shut down. Watchdog groups like Writer Beware and Preditors and Editors monitor these operations and report on these incidents. You can also keep yourself informed by following the Writer Beware blog.
For detailed explanations of the differences between legitimate “self-publishing” and vanity press, check out the links at the bottom of this article, particularly the Writer Beware “definitions” link.
2. The single greatest difference between the PUBLISHING business model and the PRINT business model is that PUBLISHERS make their money by selling books to consumers, whereas PRINT business models make their money by selling products and services to writers. These are two totally different business models, not permutations of the same business model
In a PUBLISHING business model, the writer is paid; in PRINT models, the writer pays. If your business arrangement with a company calls for you to contribute any money–any money at all–toward the production of your book, then you are dealing with a PRINT model, not a PUBLISHING model
3. The next key difference, and one that is greatly misunderstood by many aspiring writers attracted to PRINT business models, is that PUBLISHERS make their money by selling books to consumers via professional MARKETING, SALES, and DISTRIBUTION mechanisms that are not part of the PRINT business models of “self-publishing,” and which certainly aren’t part of the vanity scams that masquerade as “self-publishers” (though a number of vanity scams aggressively sell so-called marketing, sales, and distribution “services”).
As a paid professional competing commercially in the industry, my PUBLISHERS market and distribute my books throughout the book retail industry nationwide. This is how we both make money—by getting my books into as many consumers’ hands as possible.
By contrast, in a PRINT business model, the author’s books are NOT marketed and distributed. Consequently, the only people likely to buy a “self-published” book are the ones who come into direct contact with the author. Moreover, without a professional marketing and sales mechanism, the book being available at online booksellers like Amazon.com is the distribution equivalent of you dropping it off in the dumpster behind your local bookstore in the dead of night.
When a “self-published” book does get an audience, it’s not because the book is good. It may be brilliant or it may be mediocre; that’s irrelevant (and also in the eye of the beholder). What attracts an audience to a “self-published” book is an author who is a brilliant and tireless salesman. If you are indeed that sort of person (not many writers are), you may eventually make back the money you spent on your “self-published” book. Or not.
Meanwhile, even if you are indeed an exceptionally gifted and dedicated salesperson, you will not make back your money if your book is PRINTED by a vanity press. This is because a vanity press is set up entirely to empty your pockets. For example, a very common strategy of a vanity scam is to charge you high fees for the “editing,” packaging, and PRINTING of the book, to charge you fees to “market” the book, then to pay you only a percentage of any copy of the book that actually sells even though you have paid all the printing-and-production costs of the book. (By contrast, the reason I only get a percentage of a book’s cover price–my royalty rate–is that my publisher, not I, pays for every single cost associated with publishing my books). Another common ploy is that a vanity scam, which may give you a small number of author’s copies of the book for free, then charges you for any additional copies that you want–again, even though you have already paid for every copy that exists; so the author winds up paying for each copy of the book twice over, and at inflated fees both times. (By contrast, in legitimate “self-publishing,” all the copies belong outright to the author.)
A vanity press is set up to make its money from you; and preying on the desperation of aspiring writers who don’t know anything about the publishing business is a very profitable scam. So a vanity press has no incentive whatsoever to invest the money and the work involved in marketing or selling your book to consumers. This is among the reasons that the best case scenario is that any so-called marketing and sales “services” you pay for are useless (and, in less sunny scenarios, altogether bogus).
For obvious reasons, vanity presses rarely call themselves vanity presses. Instead, they use a variety of obfuscating terms (see the Writer Beware link below). Unfortunately, one that they use often is “self-publishing.” This muddies the waters terribly, with costly (even devastating) results for many aspiring writers.
4. When citing the few rare examples of legitimately “self-published” novels (i.e. not vanity press) that subsequently experienced national distribution and even commercial success, aspiring writers are often unaware of the relevant part of those examples: That only happened after those novels got professionally PUBLISHED.
(First of all, don’t bother citing Virginia Woolf or Irma Rombauer; business models 50-80 years old have no application or practical relevance in today’s publishing world.)
“Self-published” novels in the modern world that become commercial successes have something crucial in common: The authors are exceptional salespeople who, by virtue of that effort, eventually attracted the attention of a PUBLISHER; the publisher acquired and professionally PUBLISHED the book, turning the grassroots success into a national commercial success. There are no existing examples of novels that achieved national retail distribution (let alone commercial success) with only a PRINT business model; all the examples include this subsequent transition to a PUBLISHING model.
It’s well worth considering that hundreds of writers every year are pulled of out of slushpiles and offered first-time PUBLISHING contracts. This is far greater than the number of “self-published” novels that attract the attention of a PUBLISHER each year.
Meanwhile, I am unaware of any vanity press book ever having made the transition to a PUBLISHING model. It should also be noted that the absence of vanity press novels from this pattern is in direct contrast to the glowing (and wholly false) promises that vanity presses often make about positioning your book to get noticed by the professional PUBLISHING industry. Promo-copy that attempts to persuade you, the consumer, that a PRINT model will lead you to a PUBLISHING career or attract the attention of professional editors is a sure sign that you’re looking at a vanity scam.
5. Various PRINT business models are mistakenly described by many aspiring writers as being “new business models.” This is understandable, since it’s a self-description emphatically promoted by many of these companies. It is, however, completely erroneous.
“Self-publishing” and “vanity publishing” are prominent these days thanks to new technologies, but the current business models themselves are very old and haven’t really changed in decades. Indeed, I advise you to view any PRINT operation describing itself as a “new publishing business model” with grave suspicion; a legitimate “self-publishing” operation selling honest services and products at fair prices doesn’t need to disguise itself with misleading jargon, but it is the common practice of vanity scams to do so.
6. A common misconception among some aspiring writers is that your paying to have your book PRINTED is the equivalent of a band paying for a demo tape to distribute to record companies, music producers, managers, and agents. This is a myth fostered specifically by businesses trying to convince you to give them your money to PRINT your book. In fact, if you aspire to be professionally PUBLISHED, then your MANUSCRIPT is your demo tape, the thing that you send to agents, editors, and publishers.
Paying to PRINT the manuscript before you send it to editors, agents, and legitimate review venues will not attract their attention, impress them, or make them think your star is on the rise. This because the fact that you paid to have your book PRINTED is irrelevant in terms of the PUBLISHING business model.
7. Another common misconception is that in “self-publishing” your book, you are investing in your work rather than waiting for someone else to invest in it.
This mistaken notion is based on not recognizing the crucial differences between PRINTING a book and PUBLISHING it. If your aspirations are in any way professional as a novelist, then what you have actually “invested” in with a PRINT business model is a garage-full of copies of your book (or an URL for a print-on-demand product) that you have no effective means of marketing and distributing nationally to consumers.
8. There is also an oft-stated belief that a self-published writer has “artistic freedom” which would, by contrast, be sacrificed or compromised in a professional publishing deal.
This is actually a very complicated subject, worthy of a long essay. (Which I may well write eventually, because it’s a good subject.) But the short version, which will suffice for the purposes of today’s blog, is: Rubbish.
The argument that self-publishing offers artistic freedom is most often an excuse used to rationalize the lack of dogged, enduring, committed persistence that is the single most essential ingredient (more so than talent, frankly) needed to break into publishing as a writer and to maintain a career in this highly competitive profession. The phrase “I’m self-publishing because I want artistic freedom” is usually transparent code for: “I’m not willing to deal with the two most basic realities of becoming–and remaining–a professional writer: submitting my work and receiving rejections.”
“Artistic freedom” is also an argument used to evade acknowledging the very real possibility that an aspiring writer’s work simply might not be ready for professional publication yet. Writing a novel is not a natural talent that flows freely from your muse-blessed fingers. It’s a difficult craft that takes years of dedicated practice to develop to a professional level. Not working enough on their craft is one of the two most common mistakes made by aspiring writers.
The other most common mistake of aspiring writers is not educating themselves about the highly competitive, demanding profession that they aspire to enter—which is precisely why so many aspiring writers misunderstand the crucial differences between a PUBLISHING business model and a PRINT business model. And also why a percentage of aspiring writers fall prey to costly vanity scams.
I encourage you to post links to this article. You also have my permission to repost this piece wherever you see fit, and to distribute it electronically or in hardcopy, as long as you don’t change its contents.
Laura Resnick’s Writer’s Resources Page
Writer Beware: Definitions