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The Truth About Vanity Publishing

CultAdmin's picture Posted by CultAdmin

The Truth About Vanity Publishing

Essay by Ron Placone

When I was 17-years-old I had about 130 pages of poetry and monologues along with a novella on my desk-top.  I had started writing when I was about 15.  I decided I wanted to publish this manuscript (at the time I thought was good.  Looking back, it wasn't too bad, I just keep in mind how old I was when I wrote it).   Anyway, I had no idea how the publishing industry worked, the whole thing was alien to me.  With the help of Google I immediately found tons of P.O.D. vanity publishers on the web.  I went to some of their web-sites and read what vanity publishing was all about, and, quite frankly, it didn't make any sense to me.  At the time, I was heavily involved in the music industry, so using that as a point of reference I came up with the following comparison:

Say you're a band, and a record label decides to sign you and put out your album(similar to how a publisher publishes a book), that label will front all of the money necessary to make the finished product a reality.  This of course includes the following:

  • Your recording costs
  • Your printing costs
  • Your artwork
  • Any advertising and marketing money
  • A producer

If you're lucky, they'll even pay for a music video and you'll get a nice advance...But, for the sake of keeping things simple, let's just say they pay for pretty much everything.  Then, they recoup expenses.  After all expenses are recouped, the artist makes a percentage per unit sold.  The percentage is usually small, most would say too small, but that's a whole different topic.  The point is, the label takes the financial risk, the label recoups, and then they take the lion's share of the profit because of that initial risk.

Here's the scenario with most vanity publishers:

  • You pay for your copyright and your ISBN
  • You pay for the printing of the book (in most cases it's P.O.D., in which case you pay by the unit)
  • You pay for the estimated production costs

Noticing the trend here?  Bottom line is: You and you alone front the financial risk involved with publishing your book.  The publisher takes no financial risk whatsoever, absolutely none.  What happens next is they bait you...You're promised royalty rates "higher than the industry standards."  Well gee, I sure hope so, you fronted the cost of publishing the book.  Do you get to recoup your expenses before the "publisher" starts making their share?  No.  So basically, you pay someone to publish your work, and after you've paid them to publish, they continue to make around 80% of the royalties off of your work that you financially backed to produce.  Rip-off?  I'd say so.

All of this went through my head.  I did more research, and I found that there were tons of vanity publishers in the US and abroad.  "How could something like this even exist?"  I thought.  The answer I concluded: "It must be the only way to be able to publish a book if you're not on an actual publisher."  I was completely wrong.  I wish I knew then what I know now.  I signed up with the cheapest vanity I could find, and I wasn't disappointed.  Total rip-off.

First, I was naive enough to think that the people at that company actually cared about my book and read it.  A very popular misconception.  So, it all started when I noticed I was listed on Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble as a children's book.  The book I wrote was anything but a children's book, and it took months before anything was done about it.  No big deal, but frustrating none-the-less.

Next, were the issues with obtaining actual copies of the book.  Most packages out there do include around 25 or so "free" copies of your book.  In the initial fee you paid them for their services, believe me, you've paid for those books ten-fold.  After those copies are used you may order more copies from the publisher since your title is P.O.D. (print-on-demand) and can be printed one-at-a-time and as needed.  In my "Author's Account" with this particular company I had an area where I could order my books.  They sold me my  own book at slightly less than what it sold retail value.  What a deal huh?  In my particular case, this company, while offering an "author's discount," had very expensive shipping, which made up for their discount.  At the end of the day, IT WAS THE SAME AMOUNT OF MONEY FOR ME TO BUY MY OWN BOOKS OFF OF BARNES AND NOBLE AS IT WAS TO BUY MY BOOK DIRECTLY FROM MY "PUBLISHER," and I'm talking bulk here.  So whenever I wanted copies of my book, my own book that I worked years to write, I had to get a friend order them for me off of Barnes and Noble, then I would pay my friend for them.  I did it this way because as I mentioned before it was the same price from the publisher as it was from BN once the publisher added their insane shipping charges, so I ordered them from BN because at least then I would get my "royalties."  Needless to say my book never sold well, I had no idea how to promote or market it at the time, I didn't even know how to set-up a signing.  Not to mention, I never had the financial resources to acquire copies of my book, it was as if the vanity was holding it hostage.

Fast forward 5 years later and as irony would have it I accepted a job with a vanity publisher.  Now, hear me out.  Before I was hired I was told that the company had some film projects on the way and within the year would be switching from a vanity to a traditional.  Excited about the possibly to do editing for a legit publisher, and, while the pay was fairly poor it was enough so I could pay my bills, I happily accepted.  Said company ended up going bankrupt, the supposed film projects never materialized and the company went under a vanity.  During my time there I wondered the same thing I wondered as a 17-year-old, “how is this all happening?  Why would people do this?”  I looked at it this way, I'd imagine writing a book is alot like having a child.  When someone gives their work to a vanity publisher, it's as if they've gone through the pregnancy, through the labor, and then when their baby is born and ready to start its life they give the baby to me and say "here, raise this."  That's how I felt on a daily basis, that I was handling these peoples' children, and quite frankly, people are neglectful of their children these days.

Last but certainly not least I'd like to touch on all the "marketing" services that are offered.  Most of these services consist of contacting book stores or other media outlets, usually by use of mass e-mail, and providing them a pitch about your book.  That's it.  Is it completely useless?  No, not at all.  Is it something you couldn't do by yourself if you put a day or two of work in?  No, not only can you do it yourself but chances are you'll yield better results.  You wrote an entire book, I don't think a one-page blurb about it would be too difficult.  Also worth noting is that the majority of these "marketing services" never follow-up with anyone they contact, it's a one-time pitch and then that's all folks!  Effective?  Hardly ever.  Anyone that took Publicity 101 will tell you the key to success is through following up and building relationships.  I'll never forget this one phone call I received awhile back.  There was an author that wanted his royalty statement.  He told me that he bought such-and-such promotion package and he wanted to know how many books he sold, he hadn't received a royalty statement yet.  This struck me as odd, how could you put out a book and not know whether or not you sold any copies?  Aren't friends and family your first targets?  If you can't sell your book to them you're in some trouble right?  So I asked him, "Well, have you sold any books?"  "I'm asking you."  "I'll have to ask accounting, but if you haven't received a royalty statement that most likely means you haven't sold anything."  He was surprised by my response.  "Well, this is contradictory to what so-and-so who sold me my promotional package told me, he said I'd probably break even if I bought this package."  "And indeed you might, what have you done for your book?  Have you done any signings?  Any readings?  Got any interviews?"  "Well, no, I haven't, I don't have time for stuff like that."  "Sorry to hear that, but that's probably why you haven't sold anything."  At this point he was starting to get upset, if he was a 10-year-old kid I would've felt bad for him but this was an adult, he had no excuse.  "It's just contradictory to what so-and-so told me..."  He kept going back to this miraculous "marketing" service he bought.  "Look man," I told him, "thinks of it this way, if you buy seeds to grow something, say carrot seeds, those seeds may work right?"  "Yes."  "But they won't work if you just take them home with you and never plant them right?"  "...Ok."  "Well, you were sold seeds sir, if you don't do anything, they won't grow."  "Well I don't have time for stuff like that, I work full-time."  "If you don't have time some Friday or Saturday night to have a reading or a signing at a local book shop where you live then I'm curious to know how you managed to find time to write a book."  Brief period of silence.  "Thank you for your help."  "You're welcome, good luck."  No I don't pride myself on customer service, and no I don't care.  Cutting a paycheck for some service a vanity publisher is offering is not going to sell your books, period.

So, to conclude here, I'm not trying to write-off vanity publishing as a complete scam, because in reality it isn't.  While much of their wording is usually misleading and exaggerated, there's nothing illegal about what they do (most of the time).  For people that have the money, know nothing about publishing, and just would like to see their book in print, there's nothing wrong with letting a vanity do that work for you.  However, for those that really want to try to get their book out there, those that are interested in doing many signings, attracting media attention, and, hopefully, selling enough to attract the attention of a larger publisher, I'd recommend staying away from vanity publishers.  Publish it yourself.  There are plenty of resources out there to help you in this process.  There are even publishing consultants that, for a small fee, will guide you through the entire process and help you publish your book.  They are not publishers and they will not take a cent of your earnings (at least they shouldn't.)  There are also information centers such as the IPRC (Independent Publishing Resource Center) in Portland, and Info shops all across the country that could help you along the way.  If you don’t live near anything like that, simply use the internet.  Even your local Library has helpful resources in your publishing endeavors.  Pack a thermos fellow Cult members, it's rough out there.


Ron Placone is a writer and comedian in Seattle, WA.  His upcoming novel, "Hostel Drifting," will be released in spring of 08.