The Perils Of Vanity Press Publishing

I recently received an email from an author who wrote to me wanting to know why he wasn’t seeing a bump in sales from the novel that he’d recently published for the Kindle. So, I figured I’d take a look and see if I could come up with any pithy words of wisdom, but discovered that he’d fallen into the trap of the good ol’ “vanity press”.

Pulling up the book on Amazon, three things immediately caught my eye. The first was the image of the cover. As I’ve harped on a number of times, and readers can likely attest, if the cover doesn’t catch the reader’s eye, the chances of them going further down the path to buying the book dry up rapidly. The cover on this book, which dealt with a pretty intense sci-fi topic, looked – literally – like a grade schooler had drawn it with pencil and overlaid the title and by-line in text with Microsoft Paint. If the title text hadn’t been there, I would have thought the book was some sort of kid’s comic art thing.

Note that I am not dissing the author. I am simply pointing out a brutal fact: good cover art will help sell books. Crappy cover art will do the opposite. Like it or not, a good cover is the first step to getting a reader’s attention, which is essential if you’re going to sell books (readers, back me up here!). So if you can’t do it yourself, pay a starving artist to do it for you. There are tons of talented folks out there in places like DeviantART. Seek and ye shall find.

The second thing was the price. The digital list price (which is essentially the base retail price) was $9.99, which Amazon was discounting to $7.69. In this day and age, almost no one is going to pay this much for a book by an unknown author, especially one that has a cover like this one does. Why should any reader pay that much, when there are tons of great books out there for prices ranging from free to $4.99? Heck, I’ve given up on some of my favorite authors from the Big 6 publishers because I refuse to pay the ridiculous prices they’re demanding, which are sometimes more than the paperback price. And an unknown indie trying to charge this much and make any significant moolah? Good luck, my friend.

Now, authors debate all day and night about what the “right” price is for a book: $0.99, $1.99, $2.99, $4.99 – whatever, take your pick. But I can tell you what is NOT the right price, and that’s seven, eight, nine or more bucks for an author who has yet to develop a significant (by that, I mean somewhere in the thousands) readership.

The third thing was that the catalog entry for this book had no blurb, no description of the story it contained. All it had was a brief author bio listed under editorial reviews. This is an absolute killer. Who’s going to buy a book that doesn’t even have a description on the catalog page, especially with the first two strikes against it?

This is when I happened to look at who was listed as the publisher: AuthorHouse. The flashing red alarm beacon went off.

AuthorHouse is what many of us snobby author types call a vanity press. Why? Because you, the author, pay someone else to publish your book. There are a number of these companies around, although many of them have consolidated in recent years. They offer a variety of “packages” to help you publish your book.

In the case of AuthorHouse, that ranges from $349 for a basic ebook package to – as best I could tell – a whopping $8,499 for their “Showcase” package. There was also another one, just an email marketing campaign to reach “10 million opted-in e-mail recipients” for a paltry $9,996 (one-time send, and you apparently don’t actually get the list, it seems like they just send the email out to their own list).

But one of the things they apparently don’t do (at least from what I could tell) is actually provide editing services as part of these packages, which is the most important thing your book needs.

Holy crap. Listen, here’s the deal. If you’ve got that kind of money to blow, send it to my PayPal account and then go watch Spongebob Squarepants. Your book sales will be about the same as spending it on one of these publishing deals, except I’ll gladly make you some chocolate chip pancakes that you can enjoy while watching Spongebob. Seriously, if you’ve got that amount of money, stick it in a CD or something and let it work for you. You’ve got some work of your own to do, and it’s something none of these vanity press places can or will do for you.

You can do by yourself just about everything any of these companies can do and reap three vital benefits: control of critical things like pricing, getting a bigger cut of the royalties, and saving your freakin’ money. If you publish direct via Amazon’s Kindle publishing platform, Barnes & Noble’s Pubit service, and Smashwords, you’ll have 95% of ebook market covered; for print use CreateSpace or Lightning Source to get your books to the big online retailers (note: forget bookstores, you can’t offer print books at a sufficient margin for them to make the sort of profit they want).

For those things you may not feel like you can do yourself, like cover art or formatting, or even the whole process of taking your manuscript and getting it published, there are whole cottage industries out there with people who can help you do those things a la carte, and most will cost you a lot less (sometimes even free) than even the $300-400 base package cost offered by a lot of these services, and you’ll still have full control and a full cut of the royalties.

“But hey, these vanity press companies do press releases and other stuff!” If you want to do press releases, you can do those yourself, free. Personally, though, I’ve tried them and I don’t think they’ll do a thing unless, like any other part of your marketing strategy, you do them consistently over a long period of time. That’s what I do on Twitter and Facebook (and should be doing on Google+), and with work and time it’s paid off very handsomely. But that’s the thing: marketing and promotion is something you, the author, have to work on every single day. None of the stuff that these places offer will ever take the place of that, no matter how much money you shovel in their direction.

Listen, I know several authors personally who’ve locked themselves into deals with these companies where their books are priced way out of the market, and they’re stuck until the terms of the agreement run out. On top of that, they’ll have to sell thousands of books to have any hope of even recouping the cost of what they spent on their publishing package. It’s really outrageous.

To me, that’s really the bottom line, and why these things are called “vanity press” – if you want your book published, you pay somebody to do it and it’s done. You spent a bunch of money to “become an author”. Congratulations.

But if you want to do this for a business, to make real money at it, what you don’t want is to a) have to pay a bucket of money up front after you’ve done most of the hard work writing the book to begin with, and b) to have someone else skimming a big chunk of whatever royalty you might get from what are almost always grossly overpriced books (which, by the way, won’t sell worth a dang because nobody is willing to pay that much past your immediate family and friends).

So, when it comes to going with one of these places like AuthorHouse, my recommendation is, as Arnold Schwarzenegger might say, “Don’t do dat.” Do your homework on the web about true self-publishing, figure out those things like cover art that you need someone else to do, and spend your precious cash on those things while reaping the greatest long-term financial rewards for yourself.

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18 thoughts on “The Perils Of Vanity Press Publishing

  • Sean Van Damme

    You mentioned press releases, we had what I can only assume is a Vanity press book arrive at the TV station last week, with a release and the book it’s self. Just flipping through the manuscript, that was in a jumbo clear plastic binder with the MS word file tag still at the bottom of every page, all I hoped was that the author didn’t spend to much on the service. I then talked a co-worker’s ear off about what was wrong, and that poor guy was just trying to get a refill on his coffee.

  • Monty Fowler

    Once again, Mike nails it. I published my book THE WATCHERS OF UR: CRADLE on January 29, 2012 via KDP, Pubit, Apple iBookstore, and CreateSpace for print. Prior to publishing, while writing the book, I followed Mike’s system for building a Twitter following and had 14,000 followers on the day I launched the book. I spent the time to build a kickass website and create a blog and newsletter to engage the prospective readers and begin building a fan base. I found an awesome piece of art on DeviantArt that captured my vision for the book cover, I contacted the artist (in Poland) and negotiated an unlimited use agreement for $50 and a signed print edition of the book. I did the typesetting and cover design using my mediocre Photoshop skills, and have (IMHO) a very professional and high quality cover.

    I also used a traditional writing – editing – revising – beta reader – final revision workflow. I used one editor and six beta readers and got tremendous feedback that definitely made the story and the writing better. If you don’t follow a traditional workflow, your readers will notice and your sales will suffer.

    So…what did I get for all of this effort? After the first 30 days of sales I have sold 824 books in the US, 76 in the UK, 36 in Germany, and a handful in Spain and Italy. I have had 23 orders for signed print editions from my website, and sold another 13 print copies via Amazon. Most importantly, I have garnered five 5-star reviews, and my book is in the Top 50 bestsellers in three categories. Frankly, the book has performed beyond my wildest expectations in the first month.

    My point is simple – if you are committed to making writing your profession and making a living at it, you MUST do more than just write great prose. You must learn to be a marketer, artist, social media expert, and publicist. The recipe for success works. Now get cooking!

    • J. Cameron McClain

      I contacted a photographer whose stuff I enjoyed and asked if I could use his work on my cover–all he asked for was a book in exchange for reproduction rights.

      A lot of would-be novelists don’t understand that with a little more effort of your own, you can do far better than any vanity publisher will do for you, and you’ll save a whole lot of money at the same time.

      Congratulations on your success!

  • Sarah Hulcy

    One of the most unpleasant things about self-published ebooks that I run into are the ones that have not used ANY other editors or beta readers. You may think your prose is right up there with Faulkner, but if you can’t spell or use proper grammar or write a simple, declarative sentence without repeating a word within one sentence, you will drive readers far, far away. Okay, so as a writer and former typesetter and legal secretary, I may be a bit more touchy about those things than the general public, but if you want anyone to read the entire book (story, whatever) and be pleased enough to recommend it to friends, PLEASE – get an editor… anyone with really good spelling, grammar and composition skills. I cannot tell you how many ebooks I’ve sampled (or downloaded free) that were so badly produced I could not stand to finish them. Okay, yes, Kindle formatting can be tricky at first, but there are literally thousands of people out there who have put out information to de-mystify the formatting. So, even if you have conquered the composition issues, if your book is formatted so badly that it is irritating to the reader, once again, you have lost your audience.

    • J. Cameron McClain

      No, you’re not more touchy than others, you’re trying to keep the quality of writing up at readable level–which is NOT a bad thing!

      I’m editing two authors who understand that the first thing one needs to do, is ensure that the writing doesn’t get in the way of the story. Another writer I couldn’t convince to hire me said, “hey, even Tolkien probably has typos in his book.” Beyond the whole “you didn’t just compare yourself to Tolkien did you?!” thing, the mindset is disappointing. CreateSpace charges thousands of dollars for editing, but I’ve come across services (and created one myself) that offer line-editing for novels for under $500. You cannot be a serious author and not get someone to edit your work at some point, and you don’t have to shell out a lot of cash to get it done. As a writer and editor, I’m going to be pretty firm on this one.

  • Ally E. Peltier

    Hi Mike. This is an excellent post! I work with self-publishing authors and have met dozens more at the conferences I attend, and so many of them don’t understand what they’re getting into when they decide to self-publish. I actually just taught an intensive all about self-publishing this past weekend and made the same points you’re making here. It’s wonderful to see authors like you out there DOING IT RIGHT and seeing success! And, even better, sharing what works.

    I just downloaded your free novel and am looking forward to becoming a fan. Keep it up!

    • Michael Hicks Post author

      Thanks, Ally! Yeah, I hate to see folks get ripped off. It’s one thing, paying for specific services you need (cover art, editing, etc.). It’s another to have to pay a boatload and give up your rights – and sales. Anyway, thanks much for the comment and hope you enjoy Empire! ๐Ÿ™‚

      • J. Cameron McClain

        Like Ally I’m working with self-publishing authors who, with the best of intentions, want to take their first-draft-of-a-novel and a cover created with CorelPaint and Apple Chancery typeface and “make it rich.”

        And like you say, it’s one thing to pay more than you need to for editing or cover design, but another to give up an ongoing chunk of your own profit to folks who did nothing for you but take your cash and put your cover fifty books down the list on their “promotions” page.

        Good post.

  • Kai Strand

    The truly sad thing is that there is SO much information available about how NOT to do it and it is so attainable to do it well on your own now. That’s sad and lazy.

  • Amanda Taylor

    Ohhh, Authorhouse and all their twin sisters are so evil! They make up the Evil Galactic Empire of Self Publishing. There are thousands of horror stories about these people, and the topics of this post is the very least of the damage they do!

  • Iniriba

    I am glad that you are calling out Vanity Press and not bashing Indie Publishing. There is a difference and I think the new writers out there often get overwhelmed and confused by two. They want the Dream and are given the ‘tent preacher’ speech from the VP guys.
    Any new author have tried to Google “How to Self Publish my Book” and been smashed in the face with Vanity Press places. I think we, as a community, need to do our best to push them out of the business.