Legitimate publishers, or scammy villains? How can you tell?
by Anne R. Allen
New writers have much to be wary of these days. New publishing scams are landing in writers’ inboxes faster than we can send out warnings.
Probably the most dangerous predators for the newbie writer are phony publishers, because they can shatter dreams as well as drain bank accounts.
I often meet writers who fell prey to less than legitimate publishers like PublishAmerica — later known as America Star Books. Or Author Solutions snagged them in one of its many predatory incarnations.
The “bad guys” are the companies that pretend to be selective, traditional, royalty-paying publishers, when they’re actually “vanity” presses. “Vanity Press” is an old-fashioned term from the days before digital self-publishing, when publishing your own book cost a fortune and didn’t do much but feed an author’s ego.
Present day vanity presses generally use hard-sell tactics to push worthless marketing packages as well as overpriced self-publishing services. Bookstores know them well, and usually won’t take their books, even on consignment. Their reputation for producing unedited dreck can sometimes get an embarrassed newbie writer laughed out of a store.
Vanity presses often require that the author buy a certain number of print copies. These are usually priced so high that an author would have to sell them at a loss to compete with traditionally published books.
On top of it all, these companies can tie up a copyright for years.
In all cases, they are in the business of making money FROM the writer rather than FOR the writer.
They stack the deck against you by charging more than you can ever make back in book sales. An author can’t make a profit with a vanity press book.
But Aren’t There Legitimate Self-Publishing Companies?
Companies like BookBaby, Lulu, Ingram Spark, D2D, Smashwords, and CreateSpace (now part of Amazon’s KDP) are all reliable self-publishing companies.
There’s nothing shady about offering paid services to self-publishers. Very few indie authors can produce a professional quality book without hiring professionals. Amazon itself used to offer fee-based assistance with cover design, interior formatting and even editing.
You also want your books to be with a reliable distributor.
Going to one full-service company, like Lulu or Bookbaby—a place that provides all the services, including distribution—is a reasonable option. Especially for a new author who doesn’t want to learn a bunch of new tech as well as everything else involved in launching a book.
They’re also an excellent choice for people who aren’t planning to write more than one book, and may have a memoir, family history, or collection of recipes or poems they want to publish mostly for family and friends.
But this is a situation where the buyer needs to beware. Shop around and compare prices. Good self-publishing assistants charge a competitive rate for their services. Some, like Story Editing Services, (which offers cover design and formatting as well as editing), charge by the hour, so you know exactly what you’re paying for.
Vanity presses charge a whole lot more than simply the cost of the services. They may not even list their pricing on their website. They may also ask for rights. No legit self-publishing assistant has any need of your publishing rights.
And they will never call themselves publishers.
Types of Publishing Available to Today’s Author
1. Big 5/Major Publisher
These mostly require a literary agent. The “Big 5” are Penguin-Random House (PRH), Macmillan, Simon and Schuster, Hachette, and HarperCollins.
There are other major publishers that usually require literary representation as well. Some of the best known in the US are Kensington, Norton, Workman, Chronicle, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Abrams, Scholastic, and Amazon imprints like Lake Union, Montlake, and Thomas and Mercer. (Amazon imprints are not carried in brick and mortar stores, but they are otherwise like the other major publishers and the Big Five.)
2. Small, Independent Presses and Micropresses
These are sometimes called “indie” publishers. (Just to confuse you 🙂 .) Many of these are prestigious, and may require agents. But some high-profile indie presses will look at unrepresented manuscripts too. Some you may recognize are Algonquin, Graywolf, Tin House, Grove Atlantic, and Copper Canyon. And there are new small presses and micropresses springing up all the time.
These can be the best route for literary or niche authors. The top indie presses have the same kind of distribution as the Big 5, and their books can be chosen for Oprah’s book club and nominated for the big awards just like bigger publishers’ books.
But most small presses aren’t high-profile. They’re also not big money-makers. And since their owners are often more into literature than business, they can go under. That means even though they are legitimate publishers with the best of intentions, you could still end up being stiffed for royalties.
So check a company’s track record before submitting. If they’ve been around a while, it’s more likely the owners aren’t just winging it.
3. Digital-Only or Digital-First Full-Service Publishers
Imprints of both major publishers and indies can be digital-first. What this means is the book is first published as an ebook, and the paper version doesn’t come out until/unless the digital version sells.
Harlequin’s Carina Press, HarperCollins’ Killer Reads and Harper Legend, and PRH’s Alibi are all digital-first publishers.
Many independent digital-first companies aren’t household names, but they’re solid, legitimate publishers that pay royalties (often much higher than the big guys.) They have acquisitions editors, book editors, cover designers, formatters, etc. who insure quality.
4. Yourself: Pure Self-Publishing
The author is CEO. You’re the owner of a publishing business that hires people to do the formatting, cover design, editing, etc. You hire professionals to do all those jobs you’re not qualified to do. (And the days of getting away with 100% amateur self-pubbed books are pretty much over.)
Self-publishing is a great choice if you’re a savvy business person and write in a genre that’s read voraciously. You need to be good at producing quality writing fairly quickly. For more on how to self-publish effectively, see my post on 9 Tips for Self-Publishing Successfully.
If you don’t know where to start looking for professionals to hire, I recommend Reedsy, which has vetted lists of service providers for indie publishers. (No I’m not an affiliate. I just like them.) And if you’re looking for translators, editors and other freelancers with a global reach, there’s a new company called ServiceScape that looks intriguing.
DO learn about the business before starting your own.
5. Hybrid Publishers
These can be confusing, because the lines between hybrid, assisted self-publishing, and vanity publishing are blurry. Sometimes the blurring is done intentionally. So be extremely careful before signing with a hybrid company.
A true hybrid publisher charges an upfront fee, but they should otherwise behave like a traditional publisher.
This means they maintain a reputation for high quality. They are selective in what they publish, and provide solid professional editing, design, marketing, and distribution.
Make sure they really do! Look at the books they’ve published.
- A defined mission and vision
- Vetted submissions.
- Publish under its own imprint(s) and ISBNs.
- Publish to industry standards.
- Ensure editorial, design, and production quality
- Pursue and manage a range of publishing rights. (They’ll either work to get you audio and foreign rights, or you can negotiate to keep them.)
- Provide distribution services. This means they have a sales staff that actively market your book to retailers and distribute to wholesalers.
- Demonstrate respectable sales. A hybrid publisher should have a record of producing several books that sell in respectable quantities for the book’s niche.
- Pay authors a higher-than-standard royalty. Because the author has made the initial investment, IBBA says the royalty should be 50% or higher.
Hybrid companies can be pricey. But pricey doesn’t always mean scammy. If you go this route, shop around. And don’t be flattered into signing before you’ve done thorough research.
6. Assisted Self-Publishing
That’s when you hire a “general contractor” to manage many of the non-writing tasks. Assisted self-pub includes pay-upfront models or royalty-sharing models.
I would recommend the royalty-sharing over the pay-upfront, unless the pay-upfront company is also your literary agency, or someone else who is invested in your book’s success.
A number of literary agencies do have assisted self-publishing wings to help their authors self-publish between releases with traditional publishers. These are operations like Fuse Literary’s “Short Fuse” press, which is exclusively for their own otherwise trad-pubbed clients.
Assisted Self-Publishing vs. Vanity Presses
A lot of vanity presses pose as self-publishing assistants these days, so again, authors need to do their homework.
A good self-publishing assistant—
- Does not pretend to be a traditional publisher.
- Is transparent about what they are and what they do.
- Never bad-mouths other legitimate types of publishing (or publishing industry watchdogs.)
- Charges the going rate for services and lets you know where the money goes.
- Does not push expensive marketing packages. (A tell-tale sign of a vanity press.)
- Does not ask for rights and offers non-exclusive contracts that can be terminated at will.
- Is not pushy or flashy or hard-sell.
- Never promises the impossible, like getting your books into the big box stores, landing you a movie deal, or rocketing you to the NYT bestseller list and Oprah’s Book Club.
- Does not require you to buy print copies of your own book or make them so pricey that you can’t make a profit when you sell them.
- Has a reasonable production schedule and can give you a launch date so you can plan your publicity.
Self-publishing services’ fees will be a good deal lower than vanity or hybrid publishers, so you have a much better chance of actually making money with your books.
Here’s a list of self-publishing services with ratings from the Alliance for Independent Authors.
Beware Vanity Presses Masquerading as Legitimate Publishers or Self-Publishing Assistants
Some self-publishing services started out as legit, but discovered they made more money selling useless marketing packages (and ridiculously pricey booths at book fairs). Or Author Solutions scooped them up and turned them scammy.
When iUniverse started in the late 1990s it was an excellent self-publishing assistant. There was no KDP in those days, and POD was brand new. It was a great way to self-publish at the beginning of the digital publishing era. I have friends who published with them early on and were happy campers.
Then Author Solutions bought the company. The authors found themselves in telephone sales hell. They were harassed day and night by predatory salespeople trying to bully them into buying high-priced marketing packages.
Some of Author Solutions’ brands are: AuthorHouse, Trafford, iUniverse, Xlibris, Palibrio, BookTango, WordClay, FuseFrame, Archway, Partridge, Westbow , Balboa Press, Abbot Press, and Dellarte Press. They are probably buying up new companies as we speak.
You don’t want to go there.
Even if you’re willing to pay the high prices for services you could get cheaper elsewhere, the constant hard-sell harassment can drive you batty.
In 2014, Penguin Random House bought Author Solutions and many top publishers let them take over their self-publishing wings. The result was disastrous lawsuits. PRH finally had enough and sold Author Solutions in January of 2016 .
But there are plenty of new scammy vanity presses mushrooming up all the time. Author Solutions is still doing business under ever-changing names. Industry watchdog David Gaughran always has the latest news on these less than legitimate publishers. And always check Writer Beware.
You also always want to do a search on the name of the company with the words “scam” and “complaints.”
Beware Bad Contracts
Even legitimate publishers can come up with some pretty rotten contracts, so remember that the best policy is to run any publishing contract by a lawyer before you sign.
Ruth Harris offers this bit of valuable advice:
“Bottom line when deciding whether or not to sign with any publisher is to have an IP lawyer review the contract. A good IP lawyer can revise clauses in the writer’s favor when a legit publisher is involved or warn you away from agreeing to predatory contracts. The expense will be well worth it to save you from rights grabs, insane “fees” and future years of misery.”
Remember that writers who are desperate for publication are easy prey. Don’t let yourself be pressured into signing anything.
by Anne R. Allen (@annerallen) October 7, 2018
What about you, scriveners? Have you or anybody you know been taken in by vanity presses posing as legitimate publishers? Did you see an ad for a company that looked “too good to be true” and wondered if they were legitimate publishers? Have you used assisted self-publishing or hybrid publishing?
You can hear a podcast interview with Anne at the Writing for Children website this week. I talk about blogging for authors and give some of the background of two of my mystery novels. My microphone was ancient, so I sound pretty ancient too, but it’s a fun interview.
BOOK OF THE WEEK
This is my most published book. It was first published by Babash-Ryan in 2005 (a traditional small UK publisher,) then by Popcorn Press (a US micro-press, which went to an all-poetry format soon after.) It was re-published my Mark Williams International Digital Publishing (A digital first publisher) which later became Kotu Beach Press.
This prequel to the Camilla mysteries romps through the glitzy 1980s, when 19-year-old debutante Camilla loses everything: her fortune, her gay best friend, and eventually her freedom.
When she’s falsely accused of a TV star’s murder, she discovers she’s made of sterner stuff than anyone imagined — herself included.
Snarky, delicious fun! The Camilla Randall mysteries are a laugh-out-loud mashup of romantic comedy, crime fiction, and satire.
Perennially down-and-out socialite Camilla Randall is a magnet for murder, mayhem and Mr. Wrong, but she always solves the mystery in her quirky, but oh-so-polite way. Usually with more than a little help from her gay best friend, Plantagenet Smith.
FREE BOOK for Writers from FICTION UNIVERSITY! Are you thinking about participating in NaNoWriMo this year? Are you getting ready for your next novel? Janice Hardy is giving away the ebook of Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure DEADLINE October 15!
INTO THE VOID FICTION PRIZE ENTRY FEE $12 Canadian. First Place: $1,000 and publication on the website and in a print issue of Into the Void. Second Place: $100 and publication. Third Place: $100 and publication on the website. Maximum 5,000 words. This contest is open to writers from anywhere in the world. Deadline November 1.
WOW! WOMEN ON WRITING FALL FLASH FICTION CONTEST $10 ENTRY FEE; CRITIQUE OPTION FOR AN ADDITIONAL $10. Deadline November 30, 2018. The honorable guest judge this season is Literary Agent Heather Flaherty with The Bent Agency. Short fiction of any genre: 250 – 750 words. Reprints and multiple submissions okay. Limit: 300 entries. First Place: $400, publication, interview, and $25 Amazon Gift Certificate. Many great 2nd, 3rd, 4th place prizes. Top 10 stories to be published in Women On Writing ezine. Deadline November 30.
SERVICESCAPE SHORT STORY AWARD NO ENTRY FEE. They’re looking for any genre of short fiction. Maximum 5,000 words. Prize is $1000 in addition to publication in SERVICESCAPE. Deadline November 30.
DISQUIET LITERARY PRIZES $15 ENTRY FEE. Fiction, Poetry, and Nonfiction categories. Up to 25 pages for prose 10 pages for poetry. The top fiction winner will be published on Granta.com, the nonfiction winner in Ninthletter.com, and the poetry winner in The Common. The grand prize winner will receive a full scholarship including tuition, lodging, and a $1,000 travel stipend to Lisbon in 2019. Runners-up and other outstanding entrants will receive financial aid. Deadline January 10, 2019.