It’s heartbreaking. You go to a local fair and there at the author’s table is a row of smiling hopefuls, eager to sell their books. A few are beautiful books, either self-published or produced by traditional publishers. But so many are poorly written, poorly produced, with amateurish covers and cheap bindings. The author’s smiles are wearing thin as they realize that the world isn’t flocking to buy their books, and they’re just beginning to wonder if there’s something wrong with this picture.
Score another for the vanity presses. The poor authors, with no knowledge of the business end of publishing, have been snookered out of hundreds or even thousands of dollars and now have cases of unmarketable books serving as very expensive doorstops.
In these days of POD (publish-on-demand) technology, the vanity presses may promise to ship the books when they are ordered, which at least relieves the author of having to warehouse the books. But the vanities still charge large amounts of money and the author is still left with an empty bank account and shattered dreams.
Or worse. Some scammers take money from hopeful authors and deliver nothing at all.
The good news is that with a little knowledge, it isn’t too hard to spot a scam. Here are some obvious red flags to look for:
Red Flag #1: “We’ll publish your book for ONLY $595!”
Remember this one rule above all: legitimate publishers pay YOU for the rights to publish your book. You should never have to pay anyone to publish your work unless you choose to self-publish.
To get a book published, you have to write the very best book you can. You must study the market, and use a current market guide to select the most appropriate publisher. You submit your manuscript using a standard manuscript format, which is described in most good books on writing and publishing. While you wait for a reply, you go to work on your next project. If a publisher is interested, an editor will contact you and make an offer. The publisher will pay you an advance against royalties, and once the advance is earned back, you will earn royalties on further sales. You or your agent may also sell other subsidiary rights, such as foreign translation rights or movie rights. Chances are high, however, that your manuscript will be rejected. If that happens you select the next publisher on your list and send the manuscript there, then go back to work on your next project.
If you want to self-publish, the best way to go about it is to create your own small publishing company. You give your company a name, you choose a good printing service, you buy the ISBN number and file for copyright. If you pay for “publishing,” but the book bears the imprint of another publisher, that company is a vanity publisher. A good printing service will encourage you to use your own imprint. You have a much better chance of getting a distributor to carry your books if you use your own imprint. Most distributors steer clear of vanity publishers.
If you want only a few copies, such as a memoir meant only for family, look for a good book binding service.
Red Flag #2: “Authors wanted by major publisher!”
No legitimate publisher ever has to advertise for authors. All major publishers have gigantic slush piles stacked high with far more manuscripts than they will ever be able to use, most of which are of poor quality. If you see an ad in the back of a magazine that offers to “publish” your book, or suggests that they “need” authors, chances are high that it is a vanity press.
Red Flag #3: “We know the secret for instant success!”
There is no “instant success” in the publishing world. Most famous authors worked hard for years to become an “overnight success.” Sometimes a lucky break will propel a new author to the top of the bestseller list, but remember, their story is just one out of millions. Most authors never get that kind of fame. If the opening page of the site talks about how your book could be a best-seller, be cautious. Real publishers don’t make those kinds of promises, because they know the reality of the publishing business.
Red Flag #4: “Traditional publishing is dead/a rip-off/not worth your time.”
A publishing company that disparages traditional publishing is almost certainly either a vanity publisher or an outright scam. What they are disparaging are long-established honest businesses that carefully select the manuscripts that are most likely to sell and pay the authors for the rights to publish these works.
Red Flag #5: “We’ll list your books on Amazon.com!”
Getting your book listed on Amazon.com is as easy as going online and filling out a form. Anyone can do it. And a listing on Amazon isn’t a guaranteed path to success. Even in this day and age of online commerce, something less than 10% of all books sold are sold online. The vast majority of books are sold through bricks-and-mortar bookstores. While you may possibly be able to talk your local bookstores into carrying your self-published book, the only way to get it into bookstores across the nation is by getting a distributor to carry it. That can be expensive (which is one reason that the vanities don’t bother with distribution), and distributors won’t touch vanity books (which is the other reason). Distributors and bookstores also don’t like POD (publish on demand) books, because they can’t be returned if they don’t sell. Booksellers, unlike most businesses, expect to be able to return or destroy unsold books and get their money back. It sounds crazy to other businesses, but that’s how it is. If the publisher can’t offer distribution services to get your book into bookstores, it’s not a publisher that will serve you well.
Red Flag #6: Bad review on Preditors and Editors and Writer Beware
Yes, it’s really spelled that way, for alliterative purposes. Preditors and Editors is a website chock full of scam warnings and wise advice to writers. Writer Beware, on the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America website, has a list of current scam alerts. Both are useful when researching a potential publisher. If any publisher disparages either of these sites, beware!
If you can spot these red flags, you can avoid most publishing scams. The best way to protect yourself, though, is to educate yourself about the publishing industry. Read as many books on writing and publishing as you can get your hands on. Find out how the industry works, and find out how to market your work in the genre you are writing for. Stay abreast of industry trends by reading Publisher’s Weekly or visiting their website. With a little education, you can help put the scammers out of business.