Every month or so, I check my Gmail to clear out my hatemail and respond to anyone who’s written to me. This mainly involves me blankly hitting delete on subject lines that say ‘you suck” or more frequently (for my reading comprehension challenged readers) ‘u suk’.
But occasionally I get an email from a hopeful or curious writer who is looking to break into the novel world. As you all know, I like to brag that I can support my affluent lifestyle of having a shitty car and an apartment in the ghetto on book sales alone. It only took me two years, two pen names and eight books to get there. As a result, sometimes I feel the need to pay it forward.
Be warned and buckle up. This is going to be a long post.
The other night, I got a question from a reader that made me friggen cringe. I won’t screenshot the question, as I don’t want to embarrass the writer, but here it is, paraphrased.
“How much did you pay to get published?”
People, if you are truly serious about your writing, this is never a question you should ask. In fact, I’m going to refer you to something that I learned when I started researching publishing in the first place. It’s called “Yog’s Law.” It was penned by a successful writer named Jim McDonald, and it’s very simple.
“Money flows towards the writer.”
If you want to turn your writing into a bill paying career, learn that, live that and love that.
I publish in two mediums. I have a small press publisher and I self publish. There is a third type of publishing, called vanity publishing, that I would never consider using. Not with today’s resources. This is what the person who emailed me was asking about.
Here’s what happens when I submit a new novel to my small press (i.e. real) publisher. They assign it to a reader. After a few weeks (timeline varies on size of the publisher) I get an offer. The offer includes a flat advance against royalties, along with a royalty percentage rate. Half the advance is paid up front, while the other half is sent once the editing process is complete.
They assign me an editor. My editor is a retired author (in my genre) and journalist with a degree in language arts, who graduated suma cum laude from an accredited university (this will be important later). She is my assigned editor for every book and reviews the book for plot issues, flow, grammar and punctuation.
Once edits are approved, she sends ARCs (advance review copies) to volunteer readers who provide reviews once the book is released. While that is happing, the graphic arts department develops a cover concept. The audio department works on creating a ‘book on tape’ file. They create all the files for eBook and audio. They manage the print copies as well.
When the book is released, it is SEO optimized for Amazon, shopped to various book stores and placed on my publisher’s website. My publisher’s website is designed for readers and people predominantly go there to buy books (this will be important later). While there is a submission’s page for new authors, it is not the sole focus of the site.
Please note that all of these services are provided by my publisher free of charge. This is because it is in their best interest to create an excellent book, in order to make back the money they spent on me.
On the other hand, I also self publish. I write my book and then hire a proofreader. A proofreader is different from an editor in that they are there to check for grammatical, spelling and punctuation errors and nothing else. As I have confidence in my prose and storyline, I go with a proofreader over an editor as they are cheaper. This runs me anywhere from $200 to $500. A true editor would run me well over $2000, so I make sure my book doesn’t need one before I hire.
I send the book to beta readers that I have gathered on my own. These are volunteer readers who are simply fans of my work. I let them decide whether or not to leave reviews. These beta readers might warn me about editing, but they are mainly there to check for story flow.
I work with a cover artist who hand draws my covers. This costs me around $100.
I format my books (it’s incredibly easy) for Smashwords and Kindle and upload them. They usually go live within 24 hours. I use Createspace for print books. These are all free services.
My blog, Facebook fan page and word of mouth are my marketing routes. I pay $20 a year for my blog’s domain name.
In the end, I spend under $1000 self publishing and maintain a royalty rate of about 75% on all sales. I make my initial investment back in about 30 to 60 days and write off the full amount on my taxes. However, I put a minimum of 6 months, 40 hours a week work into every title before I elect to release it.
When you have a true publisher, they do the work for you and pay you for the right to distribute your book. They make the money back in the percentage of royalties they get from sales of your book. When you self publish, you have more control over the process and get a higher royalty rate. Both of these are excellent options if you want to make writing your career.
Vanity publishing is not.
Here is what happens when you vanity publish. You submit your work via their flashy website. At their flashy website, their sole marketing efforts are directed at writers, not readers. They may or may not admit they have a fee up front. You may have even gotten to their site via an advertisement on Google or Facebook, stating they were ‘looking for new writers”.
Real publishers don’t take on advertisements on Facebook or Google. They don’t need to. The big houses get so many submissions a year, they’d be far more likely to take out an add asking people NOT to submit. Many won’t even accept un-agented submissions.
A real publisher’s goal is to sell books, not solicit new writers. A real publisher’s webpage will be set up to sell books, not solicit writers. If you doubt me, check out Penguin, Randomn House or even smaller niche publishers like Harlequin. All of these pages are designed to sell books, not solicit manuscripts.
With a vanity publisher, after submitting to their site, you will get a ridiculously quick response. I’m talking like 48 hours. This is another red flag. When I submit to my publisher, it takes them a week to even assign my manuscript to a reader. I only get that five star treatment from them because I’m an established author with their company. Most newbies wait a month or more.
No true publisher will read and decide on your book within 48 hours or even a couple of weeks (again, unless you have an ongoing relationship with them). I mean, chances are it took you months or even years to write your book. Do you really believe that someone read and loved your book in only two days?
This is where the flattery comes in. They’ll skim your novel, pick out few key points and send you an email talking about how marketable it is, how it’s the finest thing since Chaucer and how they couldn’t put it down.
Another point, real publishers don’t talk like that.
I consistently write novels that reach the top ten in their genres and still get emails saying ‘it’s good but…’. This is because my publisher is also a negotiator. She’d never gush about how great my book was, even if it was, and then try to close the deal. I mean, would you go to your local car dealership, drive a new car, and then tell the salesperson “it’s the best thing I’ve ever driven. I must have it, no matter what the price?”
No, you wouldn’t, because you’d get screwed.
The same holds true for publishers. Real publishers won’t gush about your novel unless you have a pen name exclusive contract or you’re of the same caliber as JK Rawlins. Or until after your editor is already handling it, because you’ve signed the contract. My editor thinks I’m brilliant, but my publisher thinks I’m an idiot. It’s all part of the process.
Vanity publishers are doing exactly what the name suggests. They are appealing to your vanity. They will tell you exactly what they know you want to hear. Let’s admit, as writers, we’re a vain group. That’s why when we hear how great our latest masterpiece is, we don’t think “scam artist” we think, “finally, someone has recognized my genius!”
After they’re finished flattering you, they hit you with the even better news. They’ve decided to publish you! They’ll overnight a contract.
All you need to do is send them X amount as part of your ‘partnership agreement’.
Vanity publishers want you to ‘invest in your future’. They’ll call these ‘fees’ tons of different things. Marketing fees, publication fees, partnership fees. Regardless of what they call them; if they are a publisher who wants to charge you, they are a vanity publisher.
But isn’t vanity publishing the same thing as self publishing?
Not even remotely. With self publishing, you manage every aspect of your novel. You get a higher royalty rate and you get to choose the people you work with. You decide who distributes your work. Also, you pay reasonable fees for only the services you need and again, you control every aspect of what those services are. When I need a cover, I go to a guy I hired on Elance with an excellent history of producing remarkable artwork (much love, Evan Ringuette!). When I need a proofreader, I select a bid based on a large network of proofreaders with excellent and verifiable credentials. I pay a competitive, industry based rate and I have complete control over what these people do for me.
Most importantly, the rights are always mine because I am the publisher. If I want to (and I’ve done it before) I can resell a self-published book to a publisher whenever I want.
With a vanity press, you get none of that. You pay for a ‘package’ and they outsource the work to whoever the hell they want. They could submit your novel for editing to a person they’re paying $0.12 per hour in the Philippines. They could buy your cover off of a premade cover site. They could do ‘print on demand’ at a free site and claim it costs them $1000 to have it professionally printed.
Vanity presses have one goal in mind and it’s not your success as a writer. It’s to get you to pay them to make you a successful writer. Their business isn’t a book selling business. It’s a volume business. The more writers they sign, the more money they make.
This is where the credentials come in. You might see on these vanity sites that they hire ‘the best in the business’. The fact is, they don’t specify what this ‘business’ is. The business they talk about could be the business of selling corn dogs on the boardwalk. Semantics are key to vanity publishers.
They offer very few verifiable credentials, meaning your novel could be getting edited by someone with less of a grasp on the English language as you. They can mark up their services and gullible writers will never even verify they’re getting what they’re paying for.
“But what about marketing?” You might be shouting at your computer screen now. “They’re going to set me up with on TV and send me to book signings! They’re going to get me into all the big bookstores!” Or even worse, “but they’re an exclusive vanity publisher! They don’t accept everyone. In fact, they have only a 3% acceptance rate.”
I’m going to handle each of these one at a time.
I’m going to be on TV! – Let me ask you this. When was the last time you bought a book because it was advertised on television? While you’re mulling this over, you should know that buying a spot on a local cable access show is relatively cheap. I can get one on mine for $150. If your ‘publisher’ claims they can get you on anything bigger, chances are your story is intriguing enough to have gotten you there without their help. Think memoirs of kidnapping victims or people who were in cults. If that’s the case, you should be looking for real publishers.
Book signings – I don’t do book signings and it’s not because of my stalker. I’d actually really like to meet him. If he’s handsome, I‘d totally ignore the whole ‘wanting to wear your face as a mask’ thing and toss him a pity lay, just to be cool.
I don’t do them because they’re a waste of time. Most authors who do book signings wind up sitting alone, all embarrassed, waiting for someone to come buy a book (usually a friend or family member) Book signings are incredibly easy to set up, no matter who you are. All you need to do is call a local business and say “I’d like to offer some publicity at your shop, at no cost to you. Also, I will bring 20 of my closest friends to buy your stuff.” Can you blame them for saying yes? The worst book signings occur at places that don’t even sell books. Restaurants are a popular place, especially cafes and coffee shops, because they like to sound all deep and shit. Save the book signings for when you get big and need to kiss your fans asses. They will do nothing for you as a midlist.
They’re going to get me into book stores/ give me name recognition – I’m just going to say it, no matter how many emails I get from vanity publishers. Ever single important person in the publishing world knows who the vanity publishers are and they avoid them like the plague. Because vanity publishers aren’t very selective, at best your submission will get treated with the same respect that someone submitting alone would.(you’ll be regulated to the slush pile).
At worse you will deal a company who has a terrible reputation, and your submission will go right in the garbage. At least a self published person can say “I’ve sold this many novels on my own and would like to sell the rights to you.” A vanity publisher says ‘they’ve sold this many novels and you’ll have to enter into a long, complex legal contract filled with tricky jargon and clauses before we’ll sell the rights to you”. The fact is, once you vanity publish, you get that vanity publishers stink all over you. Those real publishers will smell it, hold their noses and walk away.
The same goes for book stores. If you’re considering a vanity publisher, go to your local bookstore. See how many copies from those publishers books they have on hand (by on hand, I mean in their warehouse or their shelves, not how many they can order for you). You’ll notice that very few vanity releases are actually carried on the shelves, unless they’re from the author’s own local neighborhood. That’s usually a result of said author begging to be carried and again, is something you could do if you self published.
All distributors, whether they be major publishers or book stores, have the same opinion. They have the same faith in your novel that your publisher does. If you had to pay to publish, that’s no faith at all and they will quickly bypass. Publishing with a vanity will do more to hurt your career than they will to help it.
“But they’re an exclusive vanity publisher! They don’t accept everyone. In fact, they have only a 3% acceptance rate.”- “Exclusive” has been used as a marketing ploy since marketing was invented. Hell, I could claim my comment section is exclusive, simply based on my “real person” to “spam” ratio.
Come on people, try to post in my EXCLUSIVE comment section. I only publish 1 out of every 50 comments I get. If you make it, you’re special; you’re one of the elite few!
Many of these vanity publishers claim a high rejection rate when people are actually rejecting them. For example, if I submit my novel, not realizing it’s a vanity press, and then get an offer to publish, for the low low price of $5000, I turn it down. And suddenly, I’m in that 97% of people they didn’t accept.
Claims of exclusivity are again playing on your vanity.
Sometimes, these vanity publishers can be tricky. They might send you a contract and not ask for a fee at all. That just means they’re prepping for the up sell. So you might sign it, and then three weeks later, you get an email saying that you need to send in $900 for editing services. Then, they’ll try to convince you you’re required to send in that money on account of the fact that you signed a contract.
For that, I’ll refer you to something called ‘the contract of adhesion’. This mainly means that disputes regarding the terms of a contract will always be decided in the contractees’ (that’s you) favor. If your initial contract was ambiguous (did not specifically state costs up front) a court will decide in your favor. Don’t fall for that bullshit. Tell them to stuff their ambiguous contract. Trust me, you won’t get sued.
This vanity crap needs to end. The age of true self publishing (which many people, including me, are making a success of) is helping to put a dent in it. But I still see my friends getting tricked by these vultures. I want it to stop. Unless you are a true self publisher, you should never ‘pay to play’.
Most people won’t say this about vanity publishers, but I will. They’re all scams. There is nothing any of them can offer you that that you could not get on your own, cheaper, while maintaining the rights to your own work.
Of course, don’t mistake vanity for self publishing. When you self publish, you’re not paying. You can put up whatever book file you want and assign an ISBN for free. Self publishing sites like Kindle, Smashwords and Createspace are fully above board in what they offer and they have made my career. They distribute and take a small cut of my royalties in return. They do not ask for money up front. It is free to publish but you are charged a nominal fee every time one of your books is sold. That is a true distributor partnership.
Companies that charge you an assload up front to work with sites like this are just plain scamming you. Let me make this clear.
- If they want the rights to your work, while at the same time demand you pay them, they are scamming you. I don’t care what they call it. Whether it be their $4000 marketing fee or their $2000 ghostwriting fee, they are scamming you.
- If they have no eBook presence at all, in a world where upwards of 30% of book sales (and growing rapidly) are made on eBooks, they are scamming you. The majority of my money comes from eBooks.
- If they expect you to do all of your own marketing and put a heavy focus on ‘book signings’ they are scamming you.
- If they promise you’ll get your money back after you sell 1000 copies of your book, they are scamming you. Think about it, they now have a vested interest in making sure your book doesn’t sell that much. Why would you agree to that?
- If they encourage you to buy hundreds of physical copies of your own books, without offering any free courtesy copies, they are scamming you.
- If they charge a disproportionate price for your books, they are scamming you. When people could pay $9 for a book from a best selling author like Tim Dorsey, why the hell would they spend $14.85 on your memoir, when they have no idea who you are? You’re being scammed.
- If your ‘publisher’s site’ is nothing more than an advertisement for soliciting manuscripts from writers, they are scamming you.
Here’s the deal. A real publisher reads your novel, likes it and OFFERS YOU MONEY, for the right to sell it. My advances aren’t high. I get anywhere from $500 to $2500, but I get advances. I don’t pay people to publish my work. If I am paying it’s because I’m publishing my own work. I’ve taken on the risk of being a publisher, so I get the reward too. (i.e. all that money that keeps me in Ramen Noodles every month)
Above all, do your research and do it right. Finish your novel, polish it and look up actual publishers in your genre. Don’t start looking for publishers for the idea you’ve half formed. Having the idea is easy. Writing the book is hard.
Once your book is ready, look at the novels in your genre and see who the publisher is. Look them up online and see if they have a submissions policy. Follow it to the letter and then wait…forever sometimes. The same applies for literary agents.
If you’re looking for a publisher, don’t pay fees. Reading fees, submission fees, editing fees, any kind of ‘fee’ is the mark of a scam publisher.
If you want to be your own publisher, stay tuned for an equally long winded post where I describe step by step how to get it done. Be prepared, because it really is like setting up your own business.
If you’re taking all the risk with your work (i.e. spending all the money) you should keep all the rights to your work. If you’re selling someone the rights to your work, then they should be taking the risk. That is how real novelists’ careers are made.
Just like any job, you don’t buy your way in. You wouldn’t walk into a store, offer them $3000 to give you a job, and then tell them they never have to pay you, would you? Then why do that with your novel? Give your book the respect it deserves. Either find a real publisher, or actually do the work to be your own publisher.
But don’t give into vanity.