THE BLOG
07/28/2016 12:03 pm ET Updated Jul 29, 2017

Publishing Scam Artists: How to Spot Them

Experienced writers shun them.

Bookstores refuse to stock their titles.

And they're part of a multimillion dollar industry that scams first-time authors every day.

Vanity presses, otherwise known as "self-publishing companies" or "subsidy publishers," will publish any book written by anyone with a large bank account and a spendthrift attitude. In the ocean of publishing, vanity presses are the sharks.

Luckily, there are measures new authors can take to avoid becoming one of their next victims--as I almost was.

Publishing Scam Artists: Spotting the Sharks

Rather than carefully selecting and investing in books in exchange for a percentage of profits as do traditional publishers, or offering self-publishing services such as editing or design for a fee and letting authors keep their royalties, vanity presses take a cut from both pieces of the pie. It's unethical, but they get away with it by strategically targeting newbie authors who know little about the publishing industry.
Here's what to look out for:

- The publisher's website contains little to no information to attract readers, and is almost entirely devoted to selling to authors.
- The website contains slogans about helping authors "tell their story" by "letting the experts guide them," etc.
- In exchange for your name, email, and phone number, you can download a free publishing guide.
- Expect a call later on that same day, before even opening the guide.

Empty Promises

Although results are not guaranteed, and will never in fact be realized (I have yet to meet an author who has turned a profit from a book published with a vanity press), vanity presses imply:

- That your book has the potential to find itself on a bestseller's list ($1,999 fee)
- That Julia Roberts could one day play you in a movie ($3,999 fee)
- That you could get exposure from major media outlets ($5,999 fee)

If you choose to publish with them (or as their salespeople put it, "invest in your dreams"), vanity presses promise that their dedicated team will work to make these dreams a reality. But at the end of each promise is a hefty price tag, and upon closer inspection, the services don't offer much value. You could hire a publicist for $5,999 to write a press release for you and send it out en masse to 1,000 media outlets--where it will no doubt be delegated to the "spam" folder of someone's inbox--or you could write your own press release and send it to outlets you've chosen yourself based on relevancy.

Killer Contracts: The Vanity Press Undertow

Although you've paid through the nose, a vanity's lengthy, messy contracts put little onus on their responsibilities. In his invaluable e-book Writing Tips, author E. Van Johnson dissected a vanity contract he received (and smartly rejected). Below are a couple of its many clauses that were exceedingly unfair to the writer:

- SPECIFICATIONS PRINTING/BINDING
The PUBLISHER shall cause the WORK to be set out in clear modern type and shall have absolute discretion as to the format, typeface, style, binding and printing of the work and the number of copies from time to time to be printed and bound.

(This clause is problematic because the publisher does not need to consult the author on design and print run.)

- REVIEW COPIES
The PUBLISHER reserves the right to distribute copies of the paperback and digital copies of said WORK, free of charge, to [media outlets]. ...All matters concerning promotion and publicity in respect of the WORK shall be at the discretion of the PUBLISHER.
(All matters concerning promotion, etc. should be clear. Otherwise, this clause allows them to do absolutely nothing and keep your money.)
Johnson's contract isn't a one-off. Below, I've included some troubling clauses from my own contract with a vanity publisher.

- TIMING OF SERVICES
We will use commercially reasonable efforts to deliver Services in a timely manner; however, We cannot guarantee that We can provide any Service by any desired deadline, as there may be circumstances beyond Our control.

(This permits the publisher to work without a deadline--a clause that can and will be abused. I waited months with no work at all done on my manuscript before I terminated the agreement.)

- IF FOR ANY REASON A CLAIM PROCEEDS IN COURT, RATHER THAN IN ARBITRATION, YOU AND WE EACH WAIVE ANY RIGHT TO A JURY TRIAL. YOU OR WE MAY BRING SUIT IN COURT ON AN INDIVIDUAL BASIS ONLY, AND NOT IN A CLASS, CONSOLIDATED OR REPRESENTATIVE ACTION, TO APPLY FOR INJUNCTIVE REMEDIES.

(This ominous clause prevents authors from filing class action suits against the vanity, likely instated in wake of Author Solutions' previous lawsuit.)

Escaping the Jaws of a Vanity Press

What to do if you've already signed a contract and your book is post-production? While you retain ownership of the copyright, as previously demonstrated, self-publishing contracts are messy. You do not own your ISBN, cover design, or typesetting, and upon termination, you'll have to start from scratch with nothing but your manuscript. Still, it may be worth it for the greater royalty rate and control over your book down the road.

True self-publishing is done through owning your own ISBN under your name or your publisher's imprint and uploading directly to bookseller websites such as Amazon and iTunes. This is the best way for self-published authors to maintain maximum creative control.

It may still be in its fledgling stages, but self-publishing truly is the way of the future. You do not need the "help" of a vanity press or "self-publishing" company; writers can contract out specific services like editing and design, and even an author coach to guide you through the publishing process. When your book makes enough of a splash, legitimate traditional publishers will approach you.

Savvy writers should also be savvy publishers.

*Note: For more on self-publishing, visit my blog.