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Publishing scams are all too common. An aspiring author who knows little about the publishing world will be eager to find a publisher. Battered by rejection letters from well-known publishers (often because the book is not ready for publication), the author may abandon mainstream or small press publishing to respond to a magazine advertisement or an enticing email that promises editing help, distribution, even submissions to film producers.
Soon the author is paying the publisher, when the publisher should be paying the author!
Fortunately, writers can avoid this if they are aware of the warning signs and know how to recognize the difference between legitimate publishing opportunities and publishing scams.
Companies such as AuthorHouse or Vantage Press, which charge a fee for producing a book with their name in it as 'publisher' are called vanity presses, or subsidy presses.
They have no investment in your success as an author but will 'publish' anyone who can pay for their services, and seldom reject anyone. They market to you, not for you. Their end goal is to sell services to you. They will cost you money, generally far more than you will recoup in sales, and are most often for those unwilling to accept that even a self published book should be of publishable quality. The end goal of a legitimate publisher is not to sell to you, but to sell your books and make you money.
If a publisher wants payment from you, whether for the cost of materials or for copies of your book, you are dealing with a vanity press. To say anything different is a publishing scam. More and more people are using vanity presses, and for some people it makes sense—those who are writing mostly for family and friends, people who have tried and failed to acquire a traditional publisher, or those who wish to promote a good cause by writing about it, for example. However, to use a vanity press and then refer to it as "my publisher" will make any author sound foolish and uninformed.
A traditional, legitimate publisher will not charge a fee to read your work, will not insist that you purchase their 'sample' books before you submit your own manuscript, and will not require you to commit to buying copies of your own book after it is published.
A vanity press may claim that they can get you reviews and distribution (for a price). They may even claim that they can get your book in front of a film producer. Whether or not they follow through on these promises is irrelevant. All reputable reviewers, bookstores, and producers will recognize the name of the vanity press.
They will show little interest in your book because it has not gone through the usual editorial and publishing process. They will expect it to be poorly edited and produced. They will be aware that there is no marketing team behind it to raise public interest and create sales.
You will have a much better chance with reviewers and bookstores if you self publish, which means that you create a publishing company, get your book properly edited by a professional, have it printed and bound by a quality printer, and create a marketing plan that includes professional publicists, all before you contact reviewers and bookstores.
The publishing company you have created will be unfamiliar to those in the book business, but many good books have been self published. An unfamiliar name is always better than one with a poor reputation.
Many legitimate hybrid publishing companies are also springing up to help authors self publish books of which they can be proud. These publishers provide all the services of a traditional publisher, but charge for the services. They do not accept anyone who can pay, the bulk of the sales price of the book goes to the author, and they help authors plan and implement a legitimate promotional campaign.
There is talk that this may be the way of the future, even for traditional publishers. So what is the difference between these hybrid companies and the vanity presses? A book that will be recognized as having been legitimately (if not traditionally) published, and a quality end product!
Legitimate publishers buy the rights to your manuscript and pay you advance royalties on expected sales. When actual sales are higher than expected and earned royalties cover the cost of the advance, all further royalties will be paid to you at specified times over the year. Legitimate publishers pay all costs up front and so take all the risk.
In a CBC One interview with Anna Marie Tremonte on The Current, David Kent, president of HarperCollins Canada, comments that the vast majority of authors never sell enough books to support themselves. Quoting BookScan sales figures, he says that of the 1,400,000 titles sold in the US in 2007, only 425 sold over 100,000 copies. Worse, 1,200,000 of those titles sold 99 or fewer copies. I expect that the numbers would be proportionately similar today.
T.K. Kenyan, author of Rabid, also uses BookScan numbers to report that of 195,000 new titles published in the US each year, 70% sell fewer than 500 copies a year. He goes on to say that in general, an author will not profit significantly from sales until his or her fifth book is published. This is why you do not want to pay all the expenses up front.
When a vanity press tells you that they will print your book on demand (POD) and pay you higher royalties than a conventional publisher, they don't tell you that the average book sells fewer than 100 copies. They will entice you with higher royalties but what does their share cover? They've taken none of the risk. They have no boxes of books sitting in storage. They didn't pay an editor (you did). They have no one visiting bookstores on your behalf. They didn't pay a publicist. They didn't send you on tour. They didn't run ads in print media.
If they sell a print copy of the book, at least they have to print it out, bind it, and ship it. That's worth something. If it's an ebook, you've already paid all the production costs—all they need to do is accept more money and deposit some of it in your account. What they're really doing is taking a commission for any sales they make on their web site. Fair enough, as long as the commission is also fair.
Many writing forums on the Internet feature other authors like yourself who provide useful information about which publishers are genuine and which you should avoid.
If you are curious about a publisher, look for lists of reputable publishers as well as publishers that have received complaints and should be avoided. A simple Google search on the name will often turn up valuable information.
Keep abreast of other publishing scams on the Writer Beware web site.