Tuesday 20 January 2015

Spotting a Vanity Publisher: Part Two

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 discussed this in my post last week, 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 targeting the Christian market include WestBow Press, XLibris, and Xulon Press. WestBow is, in my view, particularly obnoxious. They advertise themselves as a subsidiary of Thomas Nelson and Zondervan (which they are, and Thomas Nelson is a subsidiary of HarperCollins, who also own the Heartsong Presents, Love Inspired and Zondervan imprints). HarperCollins is a subsidiary of NewsCorp, a multinational corporation built by Australian Rupert Murdoch--

WestBow publishing services are provided by the notorious Author Solutions, but WestBow don’t actively publicise the link. I don’t know whether that’s because they 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.

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.

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?

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 Smashwords (who 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).

The beauty of these options is they require no money up front, and they do the distribution for you. I've run out of space for this post, but if you have any questions about self-publishing, leave a comment and I'll do my best to answer, either now or in a future post.

About Iola Goulton

I am a freelance editor specialising in Christian fiction, and you can find out more about my services at my website, or follow me on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest or Tsu.

I love reading, and read and review around 150 Christian books each year on my blog. I'm a Top 25 Reviewer at Christian Book, in the Top 1% of reviewers at Goodreads, and have an Amazon Reviewer Rank that floats around 2000.


  1. You are right. I've seen many writers mistake statements like: "Available in Bookstores" as quoted from a publisher website when what is really offered is "Available for order in Book Stores" like you said.

    Traditional publishers, both large and small, do have in their contracts a set number of marketing copies free (print) to the author, and then usually a 40-50% discount (retail price) for authors to order directly. What the vanity press published authors discover that with only 30% off + shipping, if they do get a bookstore to carry copies on consignment, they won't make a dime and would actually lose money, and most book stores won't order copies to stock, and the books, even through Lighting Source, are not returnable, as is the case with major publishers.

    Finally, one thing to add, is that some vanity publishers market themselves as helping someone Self-Publish. The fees are much higher than if the writer contracted out themselves for the work to be done, the covers are generally inferior, as is the editing with the vanity presses, and the author loses control, as the 'self-published' book is listed with the publisher and the author earns a very small percentage/royalty.

    I should add that many vanity press published books are over priced. In both ebook and print, they are not competitive with similar books based on length and content/genre. This is a huge factor for readers. Why purchase a 250 page trade paperback novel for $21.00, when most are between $10 and $15? The elevated price, you might guess, is tied to the fact that authors are the ones that purchase the books--a built in customer to squeeze just a little bit more.

    1. Terry, I could have written a lot more on this subject, but you raise an important point: many vanity presses price their books out of the market.

      I've seen cases where this is a result of lack of editing: a vanity press has no incentive to tell an author their book is 100 pages too long, and that will make it up to $10 than the market price for similar books.

  2. Iola, excellent post! Terry, I totally agree with your points. The high print and ebook prices certainly don't encourage potential readers to buy the books. Unlike the indie authors, who have published independently and have control over their book prices, the vanity press authors have signed contracts that are legally binding and usually designate the book pricing is at the publisher's discretion.

    If an author has done their homework, they'll know that most authors don't spend their entire publishing career with a single publisher. It doesn't make sense to have an author website tied to a publisher, especially when you can set up a free blog eg. Blogger and use it as an author website.

    1. I found the website address particularly irritating, given how easy it is to set up a website for free on Blogger. I'd be interested in knowing how much Tate charge to set up their websites, which are worthless to the author.

  3. I hope people will read these articles before they get scammed It scares me how easy some people are lead to accept these. If they read the fine print or had a lawyer read it before proceeding they may think differently also. For Tate just researching you will find horror stories online about how people have lost so much money and how when they say books will be available in stores they don't actually offer the books to bookstores

    1. "Read the fine print or have a lawyer read it".

      Exactly. But they are so happy to have a "publishing contract" they don't think of the obvious, and they trust the publisher because he phoned them, and he sounded like such a lovely Christian man. (And he might be. But that doesn't change the fact he's ripping them off).

    2. Its like those internet jobs where you get a site and can make money that parts fine they don't tell you its a monthly fee for the website its not in the info you get to start then the phone calls start to put pressure on you to buy (which I got a small package for) then the big guns come and get quite nasty to make you buy. I joined one as it was cheap only to find when I finally got the info it was not what it seemed but thankfully I could get out and have the bank stop them being able to take money etc. I should have read the fine print but it wasn't easy to find but I know ask for all the details for anything.

  4. I noticed one author who was at tate well she still has 3 books listed there but I notice she has re-released them with a much better cover and cheaper price through self publishing through Amazon. seems the original 3 are still at Tate but she has don't the ebooks at a very nice price and self published more since. I wonder if somehow she got her rights back as I hear its very hard to. The new covers look really good compared to the original ones which were not good

    1. Jenny, I wonder if those authors have actually got the rights back. It's possible they've just published an "updated" edition and registered it as a new book. Some of the vanity books are so bad that editing them would change them sufficiently to be a new edition.

    2. Its possible cos the new edition looks so much better than the original.

  5. Again, a fabulously informative post. Thank you Iola.

  6. Great post again Iola - I like how your show the different approaches to miking the unsuspecting author - from paid packages, compulsory marketing packages to expectation of purchasing copies. Thanks.

    1. Thanks, Jeanette. It's kind of disappointing how many different ways they've found of ripping off authors, as though word gets out about one method, so they invent another.


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