Watch out for vanity and subsidy presses who lure you in with fancy marketing and promises of literary success. I have spent a lot of time helping authors extricate themselves from a vanity presses who overcharge or fail to deliver, and sometimes we manage to do it without too much of a cash loss.
These companies make a lot of promises and their premium packages can be priced well into the five figures. They say they'll help you with all aspects of book development—editing, design, marketing, website, ebook conversion, copyright, returns programs, and distribution. Sometimes they can do this, maybe even competently. But it costs much more than you need to pay and you’ll end up trapped with the company because they own the ISBNs. More on that late.
Where’s the Money?
In general, vanity presses make money from selling services to you, and not from selling your books. They also make a tidy profit by overcharging for printing. The typical novel printed at IngramSpark or Amazon can be printed for a little over $3 a copy, plus postage. With a vanity press, your cost per book will be over $6, maybe even $8 or $10. So they make a lot of money when you print your own book in addition to the cost of your publishing package.
The great majority of self-published authors sell fewer than 200 books, and most of those are to friends and family. The fact that these companies make a profit (Author Solutions, Inc. to the tune of about $100 million a year) speaks to the number of authors they attract with their sophisticated marketing programs and follow-you-everywhere web ads.
Vanity Press Hype
Here's how to identify vanity presses: They sell high-priced "packages." They have a large enough marketing budget that their name pops up again and again and again in ads and search engines. They use language like "your book deserves to be published" and urge you to "tell the story that needs to be told.” They want you to "imagine your book on the shelf at your local bookstore." They offer add-ons that claim to get your book in front of literary agents and movie producers. This might occasionally be true, but it’s rare.
Preaching About ISBNs...Again
If you’re a regular reader of my posts and books you know that I strongly believe you need to invest in your own ISBNs. When a company owns the ISBN for your book, your book is effectively trapped with that company.
Vanity presses do not allow you to assign your own ISBNs. Giving up the right to our own ISBNs is okay if you have attracted a partner publisher who is truly invested in your book's success. But a vanity press’ business model is to not to help you create a book that sells. They want to sell you the highest-priced package they offer, and they'll keep selling to you as long as they can.
A Word to the Wise
A legal action against Tate Publishing highlights some of the worst practices of the vanity press industry. Authors who do their due diligence almost always identify these companies and avoid them. But many authors are so anxious to publish that they buy the sales pitch—hook, line, and sinker. All the companies owned by Author Solutions, Inc., fall into this category (iUniverse, Author House, Trafford, Xlibris, Balboa for HayHouse, Archway for Simon & Schuster, Westbow for Thomas Nelson, and more), but there are many others. Do your research and avoid them.
If you need to extricate yourself from the clutches of a vanity press, here’s what to do.
First, call them and obtain all of your original files—the Adobe InDesign files for your interior and cover, the EPUB files. The PDFs, the Photoshop images, the fonts, the graphics…the whole package. You’ve paid for all of this and you have the right to demand these files. They don’t need a reason. Then, after you have all your files, give them another ring and tell them to “retire” your book. If they're managing your website, they're probably hosting it, too, so you'll want to get a web professional to help you move it to a hosting service you have control of. It's not very expensive.
Meantime, you’ll have bought a set of at least 10 ISBNs from Bowker. In the Bowker record for each new ISBN (print, EPUB, MOBI), indicate that it replaces the old, vanity press ISBN.
In your original files (InDesign or by directly editing the PDF), replace the old ISBNs with your own and make any associated changes to the copyright page regarding the publisher, including the name and logo. If there’s a CIP block for library sales, you’ll need a new one, or just eliminate it altogether.
Can’t figure out how to edit your files? You should be able to outsource this for just a few hundred dollars.
Once You’ve Re-published
Once you’ve re-published your title (uploaded it to IngramSpark, Draft2Digital, Amazon, etc.), create an Amazon Author Central page and claim all of your books—the old editions and the new. Edit the book description so that first line of the old edition lets readers know that it has been replaced and to search for the new ISBN.
(I do this very same thing when I put out a new edition of my Self-Publishing Boot Camp Guide for Authors. If you look at my Amazon Author Central page, you’ll see that previous editions of this guide refer to the new edition.)
It will take a while for the book systems to stop referring readers to your old book. Eventually, it will show up as out of print and customers will also see your new one. However, your old book will be available from resellers forever. This is frustrating but there’s nothing to be done about it. Just be patient, do your marketing, and be happy that you’ve reclaimed your book!
The awesome Victoria Strauss keeps a running tab of predatory publishing companies on her Writer Beware pages sponsored by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (with additional support from the Mystery Writers of America, the Horror Writers Association, and the American Society of Journalists and Authors). Thank you!
These pages are beloved by all authors as it includes alerts on current scams, thumbs down agencies and publishers lists, a list of vanity/subsidy publishers, and much sensible advice for writers looking for services and freelancers.
Check these lists before you contractually engage with a self-publishing service, marketing and promotion services, a literary agency or a small press. Scammy vanity presses know how to look like real publishers, and many authors are fooled to the cost of tens of thousands of wasted dollars.
Do Your Homework
Not all services with book “packages” are in the predatory category. Use your spidey senses and ninja Google search skills to identify possible too-good-to-be-true claims. Again, the first test is to ask if you can apply your own ISBNs. If no—then move on. If you’ve already been had, now you know how to start to reverse the damage. Good luck!
Have you had an experience with a vanity press? Got your book away from them? Trying to? I'd love to hear about your experiences below in the comments. Thanks!