Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- Stealth Vanity Publishers

One important point that we at Writer Beware try hard to make is that the traditional definition of "vanity publisher"--a publisher you pay to print and bind your book--is outdated. Sure, there are many straightforward vanity publishers that want cash on the barrelhead and make no bones about the fact that you're paying to be published. But there are also many stealth vanity publishers--publishers that try to sanitize their fees by calling them something else or shifting them to some other aspect of the publication process, or that attempt to deceive writers by failing to disclose upfront that they require a cash infusion.

There are a number of stealth vanity publishers on Writer Beware's Thumbs Down Publishers List. New World Media, a.k.a. American Book Press, doesn't require authors to pay for printing and binding--just for editing (cost: $3,000-$3,500). American Book Publishing also doesn't charge for printing and binding--just for "setup" (cost: around $700). Durban House Publishing doesn't charge for any aspect of book production at all--just for marketing (costs reported to Writer Beware range from $15,000 to $25,000). Harbor House and SterlingHouse Publisher also don't charge for book production--but they do require authors to buy their own finished books, with the money due on contract signing (1,000 copies and 550 copies, respectively).

The only "traditional" vanity publishers on the list are Helm Publishing and Tate Publishing. Their fees (Helm charges $750-1,500, and Tate asks for $3,985) are clearly identified as being for printing and production. There's a catch, though: authors don't find out how much they have to pay until after they've submitted.

Other stealth vanity tactics, from Writer Beware's archives: the now-defunct NovelBooks at one point bound ads into its books, requiring authors to sell ads for their own books and pressuring them to buy ads for other authors' books. Picasso Publishing, which closed its doors a couple of years ago, made its authors pay for a publicity campaign. Authors with Gardenia Publishing (also out of business) had to sell a minimum quantity of books prior to publication--they didn't have to buy the books themselves, but if the money wasn't turned in to the publisher, publication was off. Still other stealth vanity publishers only accept submissions through the publishers' own paid assessment services, or keep all royalties until the book's production costs are reimbursed, or force authors to buy "adjunct" services (such as cover art or interior design) from approved vendors.

A special variant of stealth vanity publishing is the "subsidy" or "joint venture" or "cooperative" or "partner" publisher. Such publishers claim to match your fees with their own money, or to contribute goods and services of substantial value. In other words, you aren't paying the whole freight. However, while there are a few genuine subsidy publishers (mainly in specialized fields such as academic publishing), a claim of subsidy or partnership publishing is much more likely to be a marketing ploy designed to make you feel better about handing over cash. In fact, the fee has probably been carefully calculated to ensure the publisher's profit, and is far more than the actual value of the services provided. Subsidy publishers often claim to support their authors with significant marketing efforts, but they have little incentive to market their books, since they've already been paid upfront.

Recently, a new wrinkle in the stealth vanity publisher game came across my desk. Blue Dolphin Publishing presents itself as a "traditional" publisher. No fees are mentioned in its submission guidelines. Authors who submit, however, receive a "Dear Author" letter informing them that they have "a worthy project" but in order for their book to be published there must be "a separate contract with an outside investor." While Blue Dolphin "never expects an author to finance a project," they "do, however, ask the author if he or she knows anyone who can help us."

This is clever psychology. It isn't an actual demand for cash, nor is the author herself being directly asked to "invest." Heaven forbid! That would be vanity publishing! But the ball is now firmly in the author's court, and the publisher is counting on the carrot of publication to inspire her to "help"--either by raiding her own bank account, or borrowing money from a relative. (Complaints Writer Beware has gotten about Blue Dolphin suggest that this is exactly what some authors do.) So the publisher never actually requests money--but obtains it even so. Stealth vanity publishing indeed.

Bottom line with the stealth tactics described above: you're paying to be published. Don't fall for deceptive terminology, and don't be fooled by elaborate rationales. A publisher that requires you to lay out your own cash for ANYTHING, at ANY point in the publication process, is a vanity publisher. Period.

For a detailed discussion of why vanity publishing is never a good idea for writers, see the Vanity Publishers page of Writer Beware.

31 comments:

Laura K said...

Great info, thanks! Could you perhaps post something about "reverse royalties", of which I have heard, but about which I know pretty much nothing?

randomsome1 said...

I think I've seen what you're talking about. Word Association Press (Tarentum, PA) touts itself as a "self-publishing" company, but charges for everything. Setup, editing, marketing, printing, typesetting, so on--and then they take a chunk of the net sale, too.

Janny said...

"Word Association Press (Tarentum, PA) touts itself as a "self-publishing" company, but charges for everything. Setup, editing, marketing, printing, typesetting, so on..."

Well, that's kind of what self-publishing IS. So they're not scamming anybody; at least they call themselves a self-publishing company up front. When you publish your own book, you do in fact pay for all these services, or you do them yourself. So that's hardly a scam...just not a great way to get published, IMHO.

But I know several self-published authors who knew exactly what they were getting into, were willing to invest the time and capital, and are happy with what they got. That's a different animal entirely than the scams this post was talking about, so I think it's important to differentiate the "stealth" operations that hoodwink the innocent author from those where the author is willing and able to put in what's spelled out up front.

Janny

Victoria Strauss said...

Janny said,

I think it's important to differentiate the "stealth" operations that hoodwink the innocent author from those where the author is willing and able to put in what's spelled out up front.

I agree. My post wasn't meant to refer to POD-based publishing service providers like iUniverse or to book manufacturers like Thompson-Shore, both of which offer a straightforward (if often quite expensive) service. They may be stretching a point by calling themselves self-publishing services, but they don't try to pretend that they aren't asking you to finance publication of your book.

lorralaven said...

Hi Victoria - Can I play devil's advocate for just a sec? - I fully expect you to point out the faults in my logic.

Let's say you're a first-time novelist and you're lucky enough to get a contract from a legit publisher. From everything I've read on the web, it appears that the wise first-timer plows back the majority of their advance (assuming nothing astronomical, of course) into promoting their book because if they don't sell through, they're toast in terms of getting another publishing contract.

Isn't that a little like what you describe in your post? Obviously, there is no "requirement" to spend your advance on marketing, but who wants to shoot themselves in the foot? It seems to me, a writer is required -- in a way -- to spend a certain amount of money.

So please tell me where my logic fails. (I'm sure it does.)

PS - Don't worry - I'm not planning on pursuing vanity publishing - at lease not in this lifetime.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, funny, isn't it? One set of publishers (if you call the scam artists publishers--I do not) wants their money up front. The other set wants you do to their publicity job on your money.

Either way, seems to me, you're out the money and the publisher wins.

Who says the deck is not stacked against writers?

jamiehall said...

lorralaven:

For one thing, in the case of an author using their own advance for book promotion, the money is theirs, but it actually came from the publisher. So it isn't exactly the same as using the money from your day job to pay a vanity publisher.

Also, you have an exaggerated idea of what real publishers expect from authors. Most of the best promotional opportunities are either free, or they are paid for by the publisher (sending books to reviewers).

Expensive marketing campaigns or spammy mass mailings usually don't produce much return for the amount of money put into them, and the real publisher's marketing department may even resent marketing schemes hatched by the author, if those schemes don't fit well with the rest of the marketing plan.

lorra laven said...

To Jamiehall - thanks for responding to my question. I've read so many conflicting things on marketing, I have no idea what is or isn't true. It's nice to get an answer from someone with real experience.

Jim said...

Your information about Tate publishing is incorrect. I have not signed with them yet, and am not certain I will, but the fee is on their website and everyone who read it carefully would have known that.

In addition, the fee was again revealed to me before I submitted my work.

So the charge that the fee is not revealed until after the author has submitted is false.

In addition, such a charge is insubstantial, even if it were true. How much effort is involved in submitting a manuscript? It is absolutely nothing compared to the effort involved in writing one.

Victoria Strauss said...

Your information about Tate publishing is incorrect. I have not signed with them yet, and am not certain I will, but the fee is on their website and everyone who read it carefully would have known that.

Here is the only place on the Tate website where a fee is mentioned--in coded language (double points to anyone who can identify it). There's no mention of the actual amount.

This tiny, ambiguously-worded mention is very easy to misinterpret or to miss. Writer Beware regularly hears from writers who've approached Tate in the assumption that it is, as it presents itself on its website, a "mainline" publisher, and are surprised to find out they have to pay.

So the charge that the fee is not revealed until after the author has submitted is false.

According to Tate's Getting Started page, "The first thing you need to do to get started is to submit a manuscript." Of course, you can also request information without submitting a manuscript. But either way, you have to actually contact Tate in order to find out how much you have to pay--something that, as mentioned above, many writers are quite surprised to discover.

Anonymous said...

Poor innocent little writer? Come-on. I don't understand what all the fuss is about; is there anything wrong with an entrepreneur investing in his/her own startup? A writer should feel free to partner with a legitate publisher to help get a message out or to share his/her art and perhaps touch or inspire others.

There is enough information out there to make a well informed decision; no one is being taken advantage of. It is awesome that there are avenues for worthy writers to become published, even those without celebrity status.

Many of these publishers you mentioned are publishing less than 10% of the submissions they receive, so I don't think they are out to profit from the "poor author;" otherwise, they would publish for everyone who could afford to pay.

CallToDestiny said...

"Many of these publishers you mentioned are publishing less than 10% of the submissions they receive, so I don't think they are out to profit from the "poor author;" otherwise, they would publish for everyone who could afford to pay."

Here's the deal with this comment. Who says that they don't publish everyone who comes along? By saying they publish 10%, or as Tate says, 4%, they make their accepted authors feel really special when accepted. What writer doesn't want to get a letter that says, "We publish 4% of all books submitted and, congrats, you're part of that elite club." The fact that they claim to publish a low percentage doesn't ensure that they do. It could very well be a psychological ploy that distracts you from the scam-i-ness of it all.

Victoria Strauss said...

I agree with CallToDestiny--whatever these publishers may claim about their selectivity, there's no way to know whether they're telling the truth. I suspect a spot check of their books might refute the claims--but I haven't made one, so I can't say for sure.

But Anonymous has missed the point of my post, which is that "stealth" vanity publishers are not honest about what they are. To attract writers, they pose as "traditional" publishers, and don't reveal their fees on their websites or in their promotional literature. Many of the writers I've heard from about these companies have approached them in the belief that they were non-fee publishers, and have been quite surprised to discover that fees were due.

I'd never suggest that any author choose vanity publishing (POD self-publishing is a much better option, IMO). However, vanity publishers like Dorrance and Vantage--while often hugely overpriced--are at least straightforward about their fees and services. That's why you won't see them on Writer Beware's warning lists--and why you do see Tate, New World Media, Durban House, etc.

Anonymous said...

Tate Music Group is experiencing extreme technical difficulty at this time on http://cdbaby.org/stories/08/05/26/9927886.html

We Artists have pushed them to the most northern point of the thread. Tune in and tell us your story!

Bill Elson

Victoria Strauss said...

Adding a link to Bill Elson's comment.

Tate has recently added more fee disclosure to its publishing website, but the website of Tate Music Group doesn't appear to have any fee disclosure at all.

Stuart Yates said...

This is such a minefield! I've just had a work accepted by Black Leaf publishing, with a really nice letter about my book, making some editorial suggestions (mainly typos) with a view to them accepting my work for publication. Naturally I was over the moon! But, they want 299 GBP as a 'contribution' towards mounting costs, and a furhter 99 GBP for production of a cover. They have a web-site, they have about 12 authors and they have these books on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. What should I do? I've been trying for years to get published. Is this really a bad route to take?
Thanks!

Victoria Strauss said...

Stuart, a publisher that forces authors to cover its publishing costs (whether by levying upfront charges, or making authors buy their own books, or both) either can't support itself by doing what a publisher ought to do (sell books to the public), or else is mainly interested in turning its authors into customers. Either way, bad news for authors, who can look forward to tiny sales beyond the books they buy themselves.

Ask yourself why this publisher conceals its fees. Would you have submitted to it at all if you knew you'd have to pay? Probably not. The publisher knows this. It also knows that if it hides its fee initially, and reveals it only after it has offered you the validation of publication, you'll be more likely to hand over the cash.

Would you contact me at beware@sfwa.org? I'd love to have documentation of Black Leaf's fees. All information and documentation shared with Writer Beware is held in confidence.

Moses said...

Great points! What about the company called Dorrance Publishing? Are they a legitimate subsidy Publishers?

Thier site says nothing off fees and they offer to mail authors self-addressed envelopes and will read manuscripts for free.

Victoria Strauss said...

Dorrance clearly reveals on its website that it's a "subsidy" (really, a vanity) publisher. Writer Beware doesn't recommend vanity publishers like Dorrance, because there are more cost-effective alternatives for writers who want to pay to publish. However, we don't consider it a "stealth" vanity publisher.

Author Karen Mason said...

I am currently reading a book published by Black Leaf that was given to me for free. It is one of the saddest things I have ever encountered. The story 'The Secret Men in Jennifer's Life' is fantastic, but it reads like a first draft. There is no editing, page layout is attrocious, even down to the page numbers only being on one side. To think that the poor author, Julia Cadwell paid £400 to produce this rubbish is so heart-wrenching. She could have paid a professional editor £150 to edit it, published it with lulu.com for free and spent the other £250 on marketing or actually buying copies and sending them out to magazines etc. Instead I bet she got a couple of free copies, an empty bank account and a book she's too embarrassed to market.

Anonymous said...

The blackleaf publishing group are certainly vanity publishers. I have visited their website and they don't provide any help with marketing books or editing but they just take a lot of money from people. Please beware. No vanity or subsidy publisher will admit that they are.

Jim Magwood said...

Hi all,

We all want to get published but the facts are simply that there are more than 300,000 books published each year now and the chances of a new author getting through the process are very slim.

However, we CAN get published. We can pay our own way. Only the "traditional" publishers do the job without charging for it because they have determined the book will likely sell its way into the profit range. ALL others are going to charge for their services and their profit - simple as that. Some more; some less.

And, do keep in mind that almost no publishers have any amount of marketing suport. Some will send out advance, review copies. Most will get you listed in Amazon, etc. Some put you in a catalog that their distributors walk around with. But for any "real" marketing, YOU are the responsible party. I define marketing as "getting my book cover and a basic description in the face of anyone who might buy it, bookstores, libraries or readers, so thst if they ever get an urge to buy a book, and see mine in front of them, they will have already seen it and "might" choose mine." Anything less that this is not real marketing; it's just putting my book in catelogs and hoping someone some day might see it.

Yes, save yur royalties and advances and spend them on marketing because no one else is going to do it for you.

Jim Magwood
Author of SANCTION
Webmaster for The Author's Inn
http://www.the-authors-inn.com
JimMagwood@aol.com

Anonymous said...

Reference Black Leaf Publishing - you may call us vanity publishers and, yes, we do charge a small fee from 149 GBP towards our costs. This information is freely available from our web site or from us direct, with nothing hidden.

All enquirers are told up-front how we operate and if they are not happy with this then we harbour no hard-feelings whatsoever should they go elsewhere. They are not forced to use us. One of the authors who commented on this site - Stuart Yates - has since published five books with us and we are currently in the process of publishing a three-book multi-volume edition for him. He has also recommended another author to us for whom we are currently publishing her second book, so if we were such a rip-off why are so many of our authors returning to us with their 2nd, 3rd, and 4th book and recommending us to both friends and family.

With reference to Julia Cadwell, this is the pen name of one of our team who kindly allowed us to use her manuscript (without her making any financial contribution) as her first published book and yes, we made a lot of mistakes in the publishing of her book. We have learnt by these mistakes and have now built-up a good following amongst our authors. The whole reason BLP was born was because one of our partners who, together with many other aspiring writers, had been ripped-off to the tune of thousands of pounds and we wanted to offer a fair option.

We do fully understand that there will be a lot of people out there who are only too ready to slam publishers which charge the authors anything at all. We would love to be able to go back to when we started by using our own savings to fully-fund our authors, but in reality that is no longer a viable proposition. If, God willing, one of our published books becomes a best-seller we will be able to revert to not charging anything at all, but until that day, I'm sorry but we have to charge a minimum amount.

Miyako said...

Hi,
I have a friend who recently set up a "publishing deal" and I have a few suspicions that she's falling for one of this vanity publishers or an even worse scam. Here's what happened: She found a site online which claimed to send manuscripts to publishers. Not a week later she claims that the book is being sold overseas and that in order to have it on the US market, she has to pre-sell 100 copies. She also claims to have a soundtrack CD to go with it. I don't see how any of this could be possible in one week! On top of that, there is little information regarding the price of these "books" and she won't say the publisher's name either. I have suspiscions, but could you tell me with certainty that this is a scam?
Thank you

Victoria Strauss said...

Miyako, I can't say for sure whether it's a scam without knowing the name of the publisher (based on what you describe, I have a good guess as to who it is).

However, it does sound very irregular. A self-publishing service could conceivably get a book out in a week, but they typically charge a flat fee, rather than having a pre-sell requirement. Reputable publishers, on the other hand, don't ask authors to buy or sell anything as a condition of publication. Either way, your friend's arrangement doesn't sound kosher to me. (Contact me at beware [at] sfwa.org if you want to discuss this in more detail.)

Anonymous said...

Don't go with Black Leaf publishing. They are a SCAM and run by a bunch of amateurs

Anonymous said...

Beware of Black Leaf Publishing and its other imprints. They do not honour the contract you sign with them. So the agreement you enter with them is basically worthless because they do what they want and ignore you. They are also based in Spain, and not the UK, as stated in the contract. The customer service is terrible and the staff is very rude. There is no quality control at all. They also ask yearly publishing fees which are not included in the contract to keep the book in print, which makes them a vanity publisher for the authors that they "accept". Their formatting is poor and once they get your money they are unwilling to re format the work. There is no quality control as the author is asked to edit his/her own work. The royalties are also pathetic and are slow to pay, sometimes not sending sales reports at all. Basically they are scam artists. AVOID! AVOID! AVOID!!!

LilySea said...

I don't see Koehler Books anywhere on your website, but I submitted to them, as they claimed to be a small press with a traditional model.
They responded to me with a "co-publishing" proposal. It reads like a vanity press deal, asking me for roughly "half" of the editing and print costs--several thousand dollars. They still claim to have a traditional part of their business, and perhaps they do, but there was no mention of this "co-publishing" thing when I submitted.
I'm not saying they are big fat lying liars, but they are indeed misleading.
I thanked them and explained that I was only interested in a traditional publishing deal. They were polite about it.

Stuart G Yates said...

Re the posts from Anonymous...(always wary of people who identify themselves as such) regarding Blackleaf...I've never found them amateurish and certainly not rude. Jean, their chief editor, is a very intelligent, approachable and talented person who gives up a lot of time to help ones book become something quite special. I am about to have my 9th (and 10th) book published with them, and I have no complaints...except for one, tiny one. and that is the covers. You have to pay. I have provided my own covers for the last two books I published with them, but still had to pay a reduced fee in order for them to be set up. But, if you feel you don't want to use them, go elsewhere. They certainly don't publish just anything, and the idea that the company is 'a scam' is simply not true. Perhaps these are just the churlish remarks of a writer who has had their work rejected and simply can't stomach that fact. I've got a pile of rejections in my draw that would cover over an entire football pitch, so get real. Rejections are just part of the business. you don't have to be catty about it. Blackleaf publish good books, and they provide a good service. I've moved on now, with bigger publishers, but I'm still immensely grateful for them for giving me my first break.

Anonymous said...

That's not true. i have been published by Black leaf. You are invalidating my experience which you do not anything about. If anyon with any sense looks at their website, they can see that they are not disclosing information. By law in the UK they have to provide an address. They don't, hiding behind the fact that the address is published inside the books they print. Any reputable publishing company would not do that. They also overcharge for their annual fee, which should be £10 according to industry standards, not £60!!!

Anonymous said...

If anyone is ever in any doubt as to the poor book formatting offered by Black Leaf and any of its imprints (i.e. Boudoir press, which I note have mysteriously disappeared) you can preview one of their books here

http://www.amazon.com/The-Black-Lily-Angelica-Whitecroft/dp/1907407227/ref=sr_1_cc_1?s=aps&ie=UTF8&qid=1365714712&sr=1-1-catcorr&keywords=angelica+whitecroft


The dedication and Preface are all in the same line, and the chapter headings too. It is appalling and they are a bunch of amateurs, a reputable publishing company would never format a book like that and sell it. Their formatting should reveal to anyone not to go to them. If they can't even format a book properly, which is what you pay them for by the way, why not self-publish and retain all the rights? with all due respect, the formatting speaks for itself, regardless of personal experience.