Advice for New Authors: Beware Vanity Publishers

I was approached on LinkedIn recently by a vanity publisher, and it made me realize that many new authors might not realize why this practice is exploitive and problematic. So, I did what I always do when I’m angry about something, and I wrote a blog post about it.

books with folded pages
Photo by Viktor Talashuk on Pexels.com

I have published my books two ways:

  1. Self-publishing – all editing, formatting, design, and marketing falls on the author. The author finds a printer to produce the book, but the printer simply produces exactly what the author brings them. The author is responsible for any and all financial cost that comes with publishing the book. In self-publishing, the author then keeps all royalties and profits from the book because they did all the work. They also retain all the rights to the work.
  2. Traditional publishing – I pitch a book idea to a publishing company. When they accept, I am given a deadline for writing the manuscript. They provide editing and feedback, and we work together to produce the final draft. They may ask me about my preferences for things like the cover, but they have the final say in this area (and hire professionals to do the design work). They help with marketing and distribution. My contract specifies what the rules are around the rights to the manuscript, and I lose a certain amount of creative control. I am paid a royalty, or a percent of the resulting sales.

Depending on your goals as an author, both of these options are valid and legitimate. Like I mentioned, a traditional publisher may retain some of the rights around my work – for example, I cannot print my own copies of Telemental Health with Kids Toolbox and sell them without PESI’s permission. They invested money and labor into the layout, editing, design, and marketing of the book, so they have a right to profit from it just like I do.

On the other hand, I retain all rights to Armani Doesn’t Feel Well. I can unpublish it, give it away for free, print as many copies as I want, or release a new edition without getting anyone’s permission. I have full creative control, and I’m responsible for every aspect of the book, what it looks like, editing, and marketing it. If I had used illustrations instead of photographs, I would have had to either draw them myself or pay an illustrator out of my own pocket.

When you contract with a traditional publisher, your job is to provide a manuscript. Vanity publishers expect you to provide a manuscript and cover various costs that fall on traditional publishers. The publisher who contacted me said that it could cost me up to $8,000 to publish with them.

Many new authors who are unfamiliar with the business and are eager to get their manuscript out there might not realize that this is not okay. These companies are profiting from royalties (though if you check their sales rankings, they aren’t making much in that area) and from exploiting authors by charging them to publish.

The publisher I spoke to told me the benefit of working with them is that I retain the rights to my work, but I already retain the rights if I go the self-publishing route. If I’m financially responsible for edits, design, and distribution, and I have to pay publication fees, what exactly does this publisher do for me that I don’t get from self-publishing? From what I can tell, nothing.

Traditional publishing has had serious gatekeeping issues, but the beauty of self-publishing is that anyone can get their story told with minimal investment. For my first book, I Don’t Want To Be Bad, I went with a pay-on-demand printer (Kindle Direct Publishing) and did all the design and edits myself. My investment was $0 (minus my time and labor that went into creating the book). Of course, I could have hired a designer to make my cover and an editor to do the line edits, which may have been a good idea because I did have to re-publish after the first week when a friend spotted a typo I had missed. But again, why would I sacrifice a percentage of my royalties to a company? Why not just hire those services directly?

These vanity publishers prey on writers who want to get their story out there. My initial contact was through LinkedIn, a message that simply said, “Hi Dr. Amy! Have you ever considered writing a book?”

A list of my published books is on my LinkedIn profile.

I asked what made them choose to reach out to me. They said they look for people who are “at the top of their field” and “have something important to say.” How did they determine that about me if they did not even see the list of books I had already published before messaging me?

The answer is: they didn’t. They cold message people and flatter them, then tell them that this is the way to get their book out there. All it will cost is $8,000.

Yes, your story deserves to be told. No, vanity publishers are not the way to do it. Please don’t give these people your money.

Edit

After I published this blog post, an individual on Mastodon shared with me an experience with a vanity publisher that shed more light into how predatory these organizations are. This individual’s colleague paid £5000 (over $6,000 USD according to today’s exchange rate) to a vanity publisher and never received a penny in royalties. The publisher said it was because they made no sales, even though friends and colleagues had bought copies.

If the publisher was telling the truth and they were unable to sell a single copy, what did the author pay £5000 for? But the author had proof they were withholding royalties. When you self-publish, you know about every sale that you make. These publishers, who are already scamming you out of your money to publish the book, are under no obligation to prove to you that your royalties (or lack thereof) are accurate.

Authors deserve better.

Published by Dr Marschall

Dr. Amy Marschall received her Psy.D. from the University of Hartford in September 2015. She completed her internship at the National Psychology Training Consortium with specializations in assessment and rural mental health. Currently, she specializes in trauma-informed and neurodiversity-affirming care, and she is certified in telemental health. Dr. Marschall runs a private practice, RMH Therapy, where she provides individual and family therapy as well as psychological assessments across the lifespan. Dr. Amy Marschall is an author and professional speaker.

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