I’ve been meaning to write this post for a long time because predatory publishing has been around for quite some time. Used to be you could spot a self published book by an Uncle George cover (he had some Adobe skills-ish), poor writing (no editing), and yellowing pages from its lengthy time in garage storage. Back then there were two ways to get published–traditionally through an agent, then a publishing company, or you could brave the Wild West of self publishing. Authors who did the latter dropped tens of thousands of dollars for a bunch of books they typically could not sell.
Thankfully things have evolved since then. There are now a lot of options to publish your book. Savvy authors have learned to cafeteria-plan their books, hiring out for good editing and design, then either uploading their book to Amazon on KDP for free and have it be POD (print on demand), or they pay for a print run with an offset printing press.
- The first option is less risk because there’s no inventory to deal with, and you don’t have to fulfill the books. They print only when purchased.
- The second option has more potential to make money because the copies are less to produce, but you have to deal with fulfillment and inventory.
Although I’m primarily traditionally published, I have done both of the above options and have been happy with them. Thankfully, I knew great editors, and I either designed the covers myself or paid a designer to do so. My outlay was not a lot, and the books still have a life. They don’t sell as well as my traditionally published books, but I do recoup more per copy. For the sake of comparison, I typically make $1 a book on my trad books. On POD, I make about $6. The print run book, I make $14 per book. Because my outlay was fairly affordable, I made back my investment within the first year. I am also extremely happy with my fulfillment warehouse who does amazing work.
ENTER IN PREDATORY VANITY PUBLISHING.
Unscrupulous “publishers” with important sounding names saw a chance to make money off many people’s dreams of writing and publishing a book. They knew that new authors were not aware of the two options above, and they capitalized on a mixture of pride (I want to hold my book!) and naivety (I don’t know about the publishing world). They even targeted people, sending persuasive, flattering emails in order to appeal to the person’s longing for publishing significance. (A longtime industry professional told me early in my career something that’s stuck with me: “Publishing doesn’t validate your life.” It’s a truth we should all follow).
So what is an author to do?
My first piece of advice is to join an online or in person author community. At Rockwall Christian Writers Group, we routinely counsel people who have been offered a “contract” with a known predatory publisher to run away from it. People who have been in the industry a long time can sniff out a predatory situation quite easily.
Next, I’ve created a cheat sheet metric as you consider publishing your book. If the publisher in question does most of these things, run away!
15 Traits of Predatory Vanity Publishers
- Without even knowing your book’s contents (other than maybe the verbiage of your query letter), they send glowing emails about the book’s content and throw around words like “bestseller” or “impact.” This is why these publishers are better referred to as vanity publishers–they appeal to your vanity, and the money you give them will be spent in vain.
- They email you first. (These publishers buy email lists in order to target novice authors). In this initial email, watch for lots of flattery and ego-stoking. They also offer “free” services, like manuscript evaluation services, publishing manuals, or various PDFs with “valuable” information. This is a loss-leader, a gimmick to make you think they’re benevolent. They are using the Law of Reciprocity–a sales tactic that makes you feel beholden to them because they gave you something for free.
- There is usually a sense of hurry in the correspondence, particularly around pricing. If the predatory publisher calls you, be alert to sales tactics like authority (they are connected to a reputable ministry/company), scarcity (only a few of these publishing contracts are offered), urgency (do it now or the deal goes away), and legacy (don’t you want to give your book to your granddaughter?).
- Immediate acceptance of your proposal, mini proposal, or manuscript. This is a huge red flag, particularly if they use more effusive language about your genius way with words. TRUTH: they will “accept” anyone willing to pay their high prices. It’s not a reflection of your talent; their quick acceptance is an indication of their greed.
- Vague promises not outlined in the contract. If a publisher says they’ll edit your book, but they do not say what type of edit you’ll receive, that’s too vague. A typical edit includes a substantive edit, a line edit, and a galley edit. And each takes time. When they say they’ll “market” your book, but give no details, you will basically be paying for air. If they promise to highlight your book in an eblast, ask to see what an eblast would look like, and ask for proof of their list size. They sometimes throw in Hollywood and movie rights in their correspondence–something that will literally never happen.
- They have a basic plan to get your book published (usually more than $5000), but each extra upsell costs thousands of dollars in addition. They constantly send emails to upsell you on platform building, PR packages, author coaching, social media packages, ISBNs (You can buy your own, or Amazon gives you one), marketing plans, masterminds, mentorship, book trailers, a website, bookmarks, hard copies, Amazon listings, press releases, better back cover copy, etc. These emails border on harassment–they are insistent and relentless.
- Some take all your publishing rights so that you can never get the rights back and re-publish the book on your own for drastically less money.
- Some predatory publishing entities make money by charging you to “apply” to their program. If someone asks you for money up front–when they’ve provided no service to you–be extremely cautious.
- In many cases, the basic publishing plan doesn’t even include ACTUAL COPIES of the book. They may provide 5 or 10, but this is NOT the same as a print run. So basically you’re paying for POD (print on demand)–a service that is free on Amazon. They often require YOU TO BUY your own book, even after you’ve paid for their services.
- If they are a “Christian” publishing entity, they’ll use a lot of language around kingdom impact, legacy, family values, the cesspool that our culture is, and the importance of your published story bringing God more glory. They also tout their personal ethical standards as being Christian.
- They have internal (artificial) ways of earning “awards.” They may highlight high performing books in their publishing circle with an award of excellence or sales quota in order to motivate their authors to sell their books. (Hint: the more the author sells, the more the publishing house makes, though they make MOST of their money in the initial author investment.)
- They typically do a royalty split. So even after you’ve paid thousands of dollars, you still only get a percentage of revenue. In POD, you do something similar with Amazon, but there is no initial thousands-dollar outlay. When you do a print run, once you’ve paid for that print run, you receive 100% of monies when you sell a book.
- They heavily pump “success” stories, testimonials, and other social proof to “prove” they are not a predatory publisher.
- Predatory publishers use traditional publishing words, but they don’t mean the same thing. When they say they’ll have worldwide distribution, it simply means the book is somehow discoverable somewhere in the world, but it does not mean that they’ll be sending actual books to the Netherlands. They may say you’ll be included in their catalog, but that is not the same as being included in a traditional publisher’s catalog where actual book buyers place their orders. A predatory publisher catalog is simply a vanity press publication. Book buyers almost never look at a vanity publisher’s catalog.
- Sadly, even after you’ve paid all that money and have little to show for it, the harassment is not over. I once talked with an author I met at a writers conference. “I don’t want you to be my agent,” he said. “I just have a question about agents in general.” He went on to tell me that he had self published his book with one of these predatory Christian publishers, and then was promptly contacted by an “agent.” That agent glowingly shared about how this author’s book was so amazing that she wanted to represent him. “How much did she want?” I asked. He was surprised. “How did you know she wanted money?” he asked. “Because no good literary agent would ever ever ask for money.” He replied, “Well, it was only $1000.” Of course I told him to run away. What had happened: the predatory publishing house must’ve sold their author list to unscrupulous “agents” whose job was to harass these authors into paying them $1000 for nothing. I asked the man how many books he had sold. The number was less than 300. I told him, “I’m so sorry, but no literary agent would pursue an author with those kind of sales. This is a scam.” In all likelihood (I don’t have proof), these “agents” may be directly connected to the predatory publisher.
So how do you protect yourself from predatory vanity publishers?
- Google the publisher, then add the word “fraud” or “scam” or “Better Business Bureau” and see what comes up. Be sure you go to pages 2-5 on the search because these publishers tend to scrub bad reviews or push them to other pages.
- Create an account on KDP and upload your book, but don’t publish it. Here’s a free tutorial. This will show you how easy it is to do and will give you confidence to do this yourself for free.
- Attend an in person or online writers group and ask lots of questions. The more you learn about the publishing industry, the less likely you will be scammed. Also, ask them for recommendations for good editors, book cover and interior designers, and marketers/PR experts. You absolutely CAN do this yourself, but you need reliable, vetted experts to help you. (When I self publish, I pay for an editor and an interior book designer. And then I upload it to Amazon, though there are other places you can upload your book.)
- Do a search of the publisher on Writer Beware. Here is their Scam Archive. (The list is so long; it’s discouraging!)
- You have to remember that a vanity publisher’s customer is NOT the book buyer on the other end. The publisher’s customer is the AUTHOR who pays them for services. Also realize that, while it’s easy to get into a predatory publishing relationship, it’s often very difficult to extricate yourself from the relationship. Why? Because you are their customer, the one who pays their bills. They are going to try to keep you for eternity!
I hope this article was helpful to you. My heart is to protect authors from outlaying thousands of dollars for very little value. There are affordable ways to publish your own book, and your words matter. Just be cautious if a publisher approaches you, and they embody most of the traits above. If they do, run.