Publishing’s Hard Knocks

- by Vonna Harper

Like most who see writing as a business, a career, and a passion, I’ve been closely following the backlash to Harlequin’s recent decision to associate with a vanity press.  I don’t need to get more detailed than that because I believe everyone reading this blog knows what I’m talking about.

What I want to spend some time on is my personal experience with vanity/self publishing.  No, I didn’t nor would I ever go that route.  IMO that would be akin to buying a diploma that says I’m a brain surgeon.  I could flash that diploma around, but hopefully everyone is too smart to let me anywhere near their brain with a scalpel.  If I haven’t dedicated myself to learning how to make words work, if I haven’t educated myself about how this business works, and repeatedly knocked on publishers’ doors, why would I assume that paying to put my words in a book makes me a WRITER?

Okay, I feel better now.  Unfortunately I’m not going to for long because I’ve been thinking a lot about two people I care a lot about.  One signed with one of those piranhas.  The other in essence went to Kinkos.  The piranha victim is a man in his late thirties, married with two children.  He belonged to a critique group and was working on a sweeping historical.  Week after week he’d bring his work to the group.  Each week the other members would tell him his action scenes moved but characterization was nonexistent.  Instead of revising, he’d jump into the next battle.  Then, despite warnings from the members, he signed with a vanity press.  In order to bring his book out, he borrowed thousands from his in-laws.  Soon after he lost his job, his wife had to leave a preschooler and an infant at home and go to work, and his in-laws haven’t seen a penny of repayment.  The unsold books fill too much of his bedroom.

The Kinko woman was a teacher with a terminally ill husband.  She had a dream of writing a book that would appeal to reluctant boy students.  Although family members warned her that she was a babe in the publishing woods, she took a night class on auto repairs to research her topic and wrote her book on a typewriter.  She paid to have 300 copies bound and began making the rounds of school districts and educational materials shows.  That’s where she encountered the big education publishers and learned of their lock on districts’ budgets.  Her books are in her closet and under her bed.  Her husband is dead.  That woman is my mother.

As a incredibly grateful member of Ninc, the wisdom and friendships that have evolved from that membership are what keeps me sane in a sometimes insane business.  Hopefully I bring what I’ve learned from the world of hard knocks to this organization.  Undoubtedly other Ninc members have done so.  We have each others’ backs.

In contrast, that young man and my mother swam alone in shark-filled waters.  They’ve both been diminished by their failures.  They’re out the money their ignorance cost them, but that’s only part of the story.  Their self confidence has been shaken.  And their joy of writing destroyed.

If an unpublished writer contemplating opening their wallets reads this, please, please heed the warnings from those who live in the trenches.  Believe me, we understand your dream of becoming a published writer.  We’ve been there and in many respects we’re still there.  But vanity presses aren’t the path to that dream.  Instead, they can become the nightmare.

Vella Munn


  1. Vonna, thank you for a most moving and well spoken piece of advice. Anyone who reads it must know comes from your heart. Your words should be read to and posted on the walls, writ large, on every English Composition Class (assuming such still exists) from grade school, to high school, to college. University professors of literature should be forced to memorize it and repeat it daily to their students.

  2. THANK YOU, Vonna! You shared this in a way that gets right to the point. We can only hope that all this flap-doodle in the publishing biz makes would-be vanity press customers (you can’t call them writers) more aware…even if we can’t get *some* of them past that old “oh, but MY story will earn a million bucks” mindset! You can lead the horse to water… but you can’t make him THINK!


  3. An excellent post making excelling points quicky into the heart of the matter. There is no easy way to become a professionally published writer. The road is long, hard and filled with potholes. Work, work, work! Craft! Craft! Craft! Thank you, Vonna, for sharing your thoughts and some painful experiences.

  4. I totally concur about the vanity press. If you’re published by a vanity press you’re NOT a real writer. I know it’s a harsh stance but I stand by it.

  5. Great post, Vonna! Wonderfully said.

  6. Thanks for sharing, Vonna.
    Great post.

  7. Vonna,
    Excellent points.

    There’s one exception IMHO. An acquaintance of mine self-published (so it wasn’t the piranha) because he knew that his topic was too limited for a large market AND his co-author was dying of cancer and he wanted the book in hand before that friend died.

    The man researched printers, artists, editors etc and spent nearly $20,000 to produce the HC books.

    He then marketed these nonfiction works at specific events related to his specialized topic and made back his money and more — in a little less than a year.

    His dying friend got to go to some of those events, be a “star” and have that fulfillment.

    A happy ending.

    A very, very rare one too.

  8. Thank you for the common sense info and for sharing your experience. Bless you for being a voice in the wilderness. I tweeted this article. I hope more people pay attention.

  9. Thanks for sharing this story, Vonna. And, well said!


  10. What a wonderful take on vanity publishing. It really highlights the human cost. And it’s a great piece of writing, too.

  11. This is so moving. It bought a few tears to my eyes.

    I agree with everyword you say about vanity publishing. I do hope aspiring writers pay attention.

    Thank you for sharing.


  12. Okay so I can’t spell. lol brought.

    I imagine all the typo’s and grammar mistakes in vanity published novels. The author wouldn’t make a cent. lol

  13. Oh Vonna, so very sad. And exactly what I’m always afraid of when people tell me they are self-publishing.

    The truth is, self publishing can only work if you’ve researched the market thoroughly and have the time, energy and know-how to sell the book yourself. And even then it’s a big gamble, as your mother found.

    Thank you for setting out the issues so clearly.

  14. Well, this is the common misunderstanding about self-publishing, isn’t it?

    Whether you can move copies of your self-published novel, make back your money, or achieve any sort of success with it has nothing to do with whether or not it’s a good book, or whether or not you’re a good writer.

    It has EVERYTHING to do with whether you’re a terrific marketer, promoter, and salesperson.

    In much the same way that, for example, the ability to bear a child has nothing whatsoever to do with whether or not you’re a good person or would be a good parent; it has EVERYTHING to do with whether or not you’re female, fertile, and sexually active.

  15. Vonna,

    This was a very well done article that just told a story of two writer’s plight without taking sides other than to caution. I like that.

    I don’t think that all people who use a vanity press are not writers (no I haven’t used one) I do believe that a lot of good writers may go that route because of their dreams of being published. I don’t judge their work by the method they chose to use to get there but by the quality they produce.

    I will agree that from everything I’ve heard vanity publishers prey on those dreams. That’s a shame. I will not however further diminish those writers who out of desperation made really bad financial choices.

    I believe your article will serve the most good because it’s coming from a place of love and experience.


  16. Thank you for an enlightening article. Reminds me of a friend of mine whose father spent many thousands trying to get her songs bought. A man bilked him for well over three thousand dollars, not a small amount in the middle fifties, but nothing ever came of it. My friend passed away with her songs tucked in a closet. Heaven only knows where those wonderful, touching, romantic songs are now. I don’t think her children thought much of them and probably threw them away. Sad all the way around. There are piranhas everywhere you look. Those whose sole existence is to live off others hard earnings. They have no souls, no compassion, no conscience. Let Ms. Harper’s words move you to do what you want to do by going through the right channels. There are no short cuts.


  17. Yes it’s important to get the word out to writers who are too anxious to get published. Yet there are others who want a few copies for their families and there needs to be “printers” who can help them.

    Some days I think all publishers are vanity publishers.

  18. When my kids were little I wrote a story and submitted it to Harlequin. The story was rejected. If I had received an offer at that time to have the story published with their vanity press I might have in all ignorance agreed to have them print my story. At the time I didn’t even know what a critique group was. There wouldn’t have been anyone to tell me I was making a mistake. Who knows what would have happened to my future as a writer if that offer had been extended to me. I just hope the eager young writers who submitt to Harlequin and receive a rejection are savvy enough to listen to other writers and heed all the advice offered through blogs and yahoo groups. Thanks for sharing your stories. I hope they dissuade a few people away from the scheme.

  19. Thanks for a great post. Now let’s start seeing more posts from bloggers about just how much waiting to be published the right way has been worth the wait.

  20. When people used to ask me how many times I was rejected before a publisher made me an offer, I used to say 43 times. That was a joke. It was far, far more. I had a dozen projects in the works, only 3 of which were finished novels, but it was the beginning of the romance explosion and desperate editors bought on partial. Still, it took me five years to make that first sale. Selling didn’t end rejection. Though I’ve sold 86 novels, there are a dozen more that slipped through the cracks. Some recently. Rejection is a part of the process. It may mean the writing needs work. And for a polished writer, it may mean that particular story isn’t right for the market. But those of us who are career writers keep writing and keep submitting.

  21. Thank you, Vella. That’s a very profound and informative blog. I appreciate it.


  22. Vella, thank you. The whole situation becomes more real when we hear about real people who have been affected.

  23. Vella–great post. A friend of mine, an elderly woman, lost thousands on such a scam, and it was heartbreaking.

    The best decision I ever made where writing is concerned (and I’ve made some stupid ones, too) was to set the bar higher when I started submitting work. I decided I would submit only to paying markets that paid on submission (for short stuff) and paid advances (for long stuff.) There were plenty of rejections along the way, but in the end…when something sold, I got paid and got useful credits. Friends who published in non-paying markets (or worse, paid for publication of their work) got nowhere.