To Publish with a Vanity Press or Not to Publish with a Vanity Press: That Is the Question

I came across a question on the Internet that is a horror story in the making: a children’s book writer asked for the names of reliable publishers in a certain geographic area who would publish her book for little to no money.

Fortunately, a couple of commenters explained that it shouldn’t cost her anything to publish her book and recommended that she hire an agent, who would submit her manuscript to publishers (and hopefully sell it to one of them), who would then pay her, not the other way around. The commenters further explained that only “vanity publishers” would charge her to publish her manuscript and that for several reasons she should stay away from them.

As for why you, as an author, should stay away from vanity publishers, let me discuss some provisions from a contract that an author asked me to review. The publisher, which I won’t name here, is located in West Virginia, but I have no reason to think its contract is significantly different than what publishers in other locations would use

Perhaps most importantly, the contract is not limited to a finite period of time, so it is in effect until the parties agree that it is not. Obviously, the publisher has no incentive to agree to limit the duration of the contract, which puts the author at a disadvantage from the beginning of the relationship.

In addition, the contract specifies that it’s a partnership publishing agreement, whereby the author agrees to make two equal payments for the costs of publishing her book. (I will discuss these costs later in this post). The first payment is due when the contract is signed and the second is due when the publisher presents the author with a laser proof of her manuscript for final approval.

These payments can be made by wire transfer, cash or check, but not credit card. (I don’t know why the publisher doesn’t accept credit cards, except that a credit card enables a cardholder to challenge a transaction, which the other payment methods do not. On the other hand, a credit card company’s fee, which is a percentage of the transaction, would eat into what the publisher receives.)

The publisher is responsible for processing wholesale and retail order fulfillments, the costs of which are to be divided between the author and the publisher and deducted when books are paid for by the vendor or the customer.

The contract provides that 50 percent of sales on “any and all peripheral products that will be spin-offs from the Work referred” are paid to the publisher, although “peripheral products that will be spin-offs” is not defined. As with order fulfillment, the cost of the peripheral products is divided equally between the author and the publisher. This is another red flag: because “peripheral products” is not defined, it can be interpreted to include anything the publisher claims (such as subsidiary, electronic, dramatic, audio, etc.) and thus entitles the publisher to half of all proceeds.

Here’s what the publisher is charging to publish a 32-page children’s picture book with a suggested retail price of $16.95:

1,000 copies = $7,375.00
1,500 copies = $8,205.00
2,000 copies = $9,420.00

Finally, the publisher specifies 22 “Additional Publisher Services” included at no additional cost to the author. Rather than summarize them, I’ll list them and you can judge for yourself how valuable these “services” are:

1. to produce the manuscript and cover into camera-ready form for printing;
2. to obtain the services of an acceptable printing company;
3. to oversee the printing of the book and to arrange delivery;
4. to provide ISBN – International Standard Book Number;
5. to provide Library of Congress number
6. to provide Barcode;
7. to provide one laser proof of final output for author corrections;
8. to provide storage;
9. to provide press releases;
10. to provide flyers for direct mail piece to Author’s address list;
11. to provide miscellaneous items such as posters, bookmarks for book signings;
12. to arrange author signings at various events when possible, invitation to attend book fairs and festivals and appear in the [publisher’s] booth;
13. to include Work in the [publisher’s] Catalog
14. to provide bookkeeping services and quarterly updates and quarterly payments if payments are due;
15. to submit the Work to Waldenbooks, Ingram Book Distributors, Baker & Taylor Distributors, Borders, Books A Million, Midwest Library Service, Barnes & Noble, and other wholesale and retail outlets for their consideration to add to their inventories;
16. to provide exposure on the [publisher’s] websites;
17. to list on Amazon. com;
18. to provide workshop and school show materials if requested;
19. to provide major media with review copies upon release;
20. to provide Author Agent for scheduling appearances if requested;
21. to provide marketing and advertising for Author’s School Show Program; and
22. to provide estimate to Author for subsequent reprints as negotiated at the time necessary or required.

Very few, if any, of these publisher “services” are something that an author couldn’t do for herself. In other words, the publisher provides very little value by offering these services. You will also notice that several of the services have what my contracts professor in law school called “weasel words,” meaning words or phrases that are vague or ambiguous or that qualify the publisher’s obligation to perform. The publisher can rely on phrases such as “when possible” or “if requested,” if the author claims that the publisher did not perform as required under the contract.

The issues that the contract does not cover are significant and include what happens if the publisher files bankruptcy; subsidiary rights; how royalties are calculated and paid; and responsibility for cover art and title, including retaining any necessary artists or illustrators. I’ll discuss these items in a future post.

The reality is that a lot of writers, particularly those who have been writing for a while and are beginning to doubt whether they’ll ever be published, are easy marks for unscrupulous publishers, because of their desperation to be in print.

But if you’re a writer and a publisher wants money from you to publish your book, you may be better off to self-publish your manuscript, especially in an e-book format. You’ll pay less money upfront and retain more control over your book and your career.

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2 responses to “To Publish with a Vanity Press or Not to Publish with a Vanity Press: That Is the Question”

  1. Lindsay says :

    Jeff I agree that if an author wants to have their book published and can't get a non-vanity press then self-pubbing is the way to go. Especially if the author wants to go e-book with little or no print copies.
    Some times even with a small press an author can run into difficulties in getting their book/story published.

  2. Jeffrey V. Mehalic says :

    Lindsay,

    Thanks for your comment. You're right that even a small press can present problems that self-publishing avoids. The only benefit I can see from the contract I discussed in the post is that it enabled the author to have her book published by a print publisher. But the terms of the contract so favored the publisher that the author lost far more than she gained.

    Take care.

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