Monday, 23 January 2017

What is Vanity Publishing? (Part Two)

By Iola Goulton

This article continues our series on vanity publishing ... and the alternatives.

Vanity Presses Target Christian Writers

It would be nice to think that publishers operating in the Christian market would all be honest, truthful, looking out for the best interests of everyone ... you know, Christian.

But there are many organisations specifically targeting the Christian market, perhaps because many Christians are so trusting, especially when publishers use language like this:
WestBow Press, a division of Thomas Nelson & Zondervan, understands that an author’s work is more than just a book. It’s a calling. We empower emerging Christian writers to answer their callings and share their messages of faith ...
You should know the people you are choosing as a publishing team. They should be people with extensive publishing experience…people with integrity
Tate Publishing & Enterprises, LLC, is a Christian-based, family-owned, mainline publishing organization with a mission to discover and market unknown authors.
If you feel God has given you a message to put in print, we hope you let fellow believers help you get it published. We want to be your partner in self-publishing and spreading the Christian message through your book.
Sounds good, doesn't it? But these are all expensive vanity publishers. If you've got thousands of dollars to spare, spending the money with one of these organisations isn't good stewardship. I can suggest some charities who will put your dollar to much better use in sharing the gospel.

Vanity publishing contracts fall into three main categories:
  • Paid publishing packages
  • Marketing packages
  • Book purchase packages

Each of these options miss the one thing a real trade publisher offers: comprehensive editing. They may say they edit their books, but I've read novels from each of the publishers referenced below, and my view is that while some have been competently copyedited or proofread, others have not, and all could have benefited from developmental and line editing.

Paid Publishing Packages

This is the most common form of vanity publishing, and usually takes the approach along the lines that trade publishers turn down a lot of good books (true) and publishing yourself is difficult (partly true), so why not take away the stress by working with a Christian cooperative publisher (which ignores the inconvenient truth that not all of these publishers are owned by Christian organisations).

I have three main issues with these packages:

  • They are overpriced. For example, it costs $35 to electronically register copyright with the US Copyright Office. One vanity publisher I looked at charges $199 for this service (Xulon Press), while another charges $249 (XLibris). Other "services" include $499 for "Book Search Optimization", something you can do free for yourself on all major online bookstores (Tim Grahl explains how in his free online course, Hacking Amazon).
  • Packages do not include editing or proofreading. Poor quality editing is one of the most frequent issues cited in Amazon reviews (reviewers frequently mix up editing and proofreading, but the point is clear: many books haven't been adequately edited). This means the publishers are actively and knowingly publishing books which aren’t ready to be published. I've discussed this in a previous post: I Wanted to Cry.
  • The advertising is misleading regarding distribution. Would-be authors read the website and believe their books will be available for purchase in all the major stores, which isn’t true. They will be available for order in all major stores and online, but that means nothing unless the publisher is making some effort to sell the book to retailers. Without this marketing effort, the distribution is the same as what any self-published author can achieve using CreateSpace.

Vanity publishers offering paid publishing packages and targeting the Christian market include WestBow Press, XLibris, and Xulon Press. WestBow advertise themselves as a division of Thomas Nelson and Zondervan (which is true--they are part of HarperCollins Christian Publishing, a subsidiary of NewsCorp, a multinational corporation built by Australian Rupert Murdoch--hardly a "Christian" publisher).

WestBow publishing services are provided by the notorious Author Solutions, but WestBow don’t actively publicise the link (although HarperCollins Christian Publishers don't hide it). I don’t know whether that’s because HCCP promote WestBow as being a Christian publisher (where Author Solutions isn’t), or whether it’s to try and distance themselves from the negative publicity surrounding Author Solutions and their business practices. (If you want to know more about why not to use Author Solutions, see David Gaughran’s blog.)

Marketing Package

Tate Publishing specifically target the Christian market with the promise of free publishing, but the small print states that authors are required to have professional marketing support … which they provide for around $4,000. You won't find this figure on their website any more (well, if you can, please leave a link in the comments), but sites such as Dog Ear Publishing (another vanity press), Absolute Write and Writer Beware make reference to it.

However, there is no information available on what form this marketing or publicity support will take, or what return there will be on the investment. This, to me, is a red flag. No one should be spending that amount of money without a clear indication of what it will buy. But the biggest problem is that publicists do what they think is best … which might not be what is best for your book:
We can hire people to do a lot of the targeted marketing for us, or we can save the money and do it ourselves. By hiring people, I am not talking about hiring a publicist. Publicists charge an arm and a leg and most of them do … one-size-fits-all marketing.

I haven’t seen any of the marketing this publisher offers, which suggests they focus on the things many trade publishers focus on: activities are designed to attract book buyers from major book chains.

What I have seen is the Tate Publishing contract, which clearly states the marketing fee ... and which they sent me without even seeing my manuscript. Or asking if I had a manuscript. That is not how real publishers work. Real publishers assess the manuscript for saleability before offering a contract (well, unless you have a solid track record of New York Times bestselling books). That's because real publishers make money by selling books to customers ... not by selling marketing packages to authors.

Tate describe author websites as an "option", which I suspect means "additional fee". I have seen a couple of their author websites, and they are basic at best. These are linked to the main Tate site, so authors don't actually control their site, which means they run the risk of their website becoming an empty shell.

My other issues with this publisher include:

  • They claim that they only accept 4% of manuscripts submitted for publication, but I’ve never seen anyone report being rejected by them, or knowing anyone who was rejected.
  • I’ve never seen their titles in stores, and while their titles are on, the book pages are often incomplete (e.g. there is no Look Inside activated, or no Kindle version).
  • Based on the (few) titles I’ve read, while the interior formatting is excellent and the proofreading good, the cover designs are uninspired and the copyediting sporadic. I suspect the books haven’t been copyedited at all, and any good editing is purely because the author is an above-average writer and self-editor, or has paid for professional editing.
  • I don’t see them undertaking the kinds of marketing activities self-published or trade published authors undertake, such as proactively seeking reviews through a reviewer programme, or participating in blog tours. Where I have seen these activities, they have been instigated by the author, not the publisher.

Purchase Requirement

Some publishers offer to publish free, but require authors to purchase a specified number of books This is an attractive offer until you look at the fine print. Deep River Books targets the Christian market, and require authors to purchase a minimum of 1,000 copies for 30% off retail price. Most paperbacks retail for $12.99 or more, so purchasing 1,000 copies will cost a minimum of $9,000 (plus shipping, which will be expensive if you are based outside the USA, and author sales are not counted when calculating royalties).

The scary thing? It will only cost Deep River around $4,000 to have these books printed (The Fine Art of Self-Publishing says most "self-publishers" use LightningSource, which means their printing costs are all broadly the same). Deep River have made their money on the printing alone, which gives them no incentive to promote or market your book.

Creation House use the same idea. They require authors to purchase a "significant quantity of books at a deep discount from the first press run", but I couldn't find information on how many copies or at what discount ... which suggests a lot of copies at a negligible discount.

If you are interested in getting 1,000 physical copies of your book, you will be better off by letting your fingers do the walking (to paraphrase an old Yellow Pages advertisement), and find a local printer to print your copies. This will almost certainly cost less to print, and will eliminate shipping costs. Alternatively, you can get books printed more cheaply in Asia, although you will then have to pay shipping and customs fees. Or you can get your book printed the way the professional self-published authors do: direct with Lightning Source/Ingram Spark.

One Final Warning

There is one more vanity press that authors should be aware of: America Star Books, better known by the previous name, Publish America. They are blacklisted on sites such as Absolute Write, Predators and Editors, and Writer Beware, and have previously targeted Christian authors. Read here for an in-depth explanation of their business practices from a Christian author who is now pleased to be out of their clutches.

What should an author do?

Trade publish or self-publish. If you want to self-publish,  use freelance contractors (like me) to provide services you need help with (e.g. editing, formatting, cover design). Then publish directly with one of the main distributors:

For paperbacks: CreateSpace or IngramSpark (part of LightningSource). remember how I said vanity presses promised your book would be available for order in bookstores? That's because they are using LightningSource too.

For ebooks: Amazon Kindle and Draft2Digital or Smashwords (both of whom distribute directly to all ebook stores for a small distribution fee). Alternatively, you could distribute through the major ebook stores yourself (e.g. Barnes & Noble/Nook, Kobo and iBookstore).

I'll talk a little more about self-publishing next week. For now, do you have any questions about vanity publishing? 

About Iola Goulton

I am a freelance editor specialising in Christian fiction. Visit my website at to download a comprehensive list of publishers of Christian fiction. 

I also write contemporary Christian romance with a Kiwi twist—find out more at

You can also find me on:
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