Monday, 11 July 2016

Don't be a Chump

By Iola Goulton

Marketing guru Seth Godin recently published a blog post titled Chump (Don’t get played). He’s talking about the Bernie Madoff scandal, and how Madoff stole twenty billion dollars from people who Godin says should have known better.

Godin probably didn't intend the post to be a lesson for writers. But it is.

Godin says:

To pull off a significant deception, you generally need two things: A deceiver and a crowd of people open to being deceived.

Unfortunately, writers are open to being deceived. And I think Christian writers are especially susceptible. I think there are several reasons for this:

  • Christians want to encourage other Christians, so will give encouraging feedback when a friend shows them a manuscript.
  • Christians don’t want to bring other Christians down, so are reluctant to give critical feedback even when a manuscript has clear issues.
  • Christians expect other Christians to encourage them, so may not believe critical feedback that contradicts the positive feedback they have already received.
  • Christians trust other Christians, whether they have shown themselves worthy of trust or not.

And that leads to the second part of Godin’s argument:

Once those are present, the deceiver brings out the big lie.

Sadly, there are people and businesses who target these good Christians, these people who are always ready to think the best of others. This leaves a ready market of Christians ready to hear the big lie.

In publishing, this lie is often delivered by a “Christian” vanity press. Because there is a never-ending market of writers:

  • Ready to believe their book is good enough to be published, because the publisher says so.
  • Ready to believe it’s normal to pay a publisher, because the publisher says so.
  • Ready to believe their books will be available in all the major bookstores, because the publisher says so.

As with all good lies, there is an element of truth in the message the vanity presses are preaching.

  • Yes, it’s hard to get a contract with a major publisher.
  • Yes, the major publishers turn down a lot of good books (and publish a lot of rubbish).
  • Yes, authors have to actively market themselves and their book.

And this is where vanity presses come in. Godin says:

people are open to looking for shortcuts and a new reality, even if no shortcuts are available

As with many things in life, there are no shortcuts in writing and publishing. Sure, print-on-demand technology and the introduction of ereaders and smartphones and tablet computers have made it easier than ever for authors to self-publish (for example, I’m currently reviewing a book written by four pre-teens as a summer project). Amazon and Kobo and iBooks make distribution easy.

Or authors can hold out for a traditional publisher—but that takes time and money, in the form of entering contests and going to conferences to attract the attention of influential agents and editors. For many writers, it’s a seemingly endless cycle of rejection and frustration.

And that frustration can lead us into making bad decisions.

Frustration in the face of the way things are makes us open to the big lie. Frustration and fear and anger can suspend our ability to ask difficult questions, to listen to thoughtful critics, to do our homework.

To be a chump (not merely the victim) is to be open to the big lie. Not merely open to it, eager to buy into it.

And I suspect this is why many people get caught in the clutches of vanity presses.

Because they are eager to get out of the cycle of rejection and frustration and eager to buy into any alternative.

Especially when that alternative tickles their ears, confirming how difficult it is to get a book accepted by a major press but that’s okay because they have an alternative, a third way. Yes, it involves a small investment on the part of the author, but that’s normal. And then your book will be published and available in book stores and you’ll be a real author.

They’ll even tell you how to respond to the naysayers, horrible people like me who say they are nothing more than a vanity press. Because they’re not. They’re a hybrid publisher, a co-publisher, a subsidy publisher, a traditional publisher, a royalty-paying publisher. They’ll convince you black is white, and you’ll believe them.

Don’t be sucked in by the promises of the vanity presses. As Godin says:

We're not chumps. Not if we don't choose to be.

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:
Facebook (Author)
Facebook (Editing)


  1. Thanks for the wise advice, Iola. You and Seth Godin are right. Perhaps these preying publishing houses have learned the lesson that it's easy to make a chump of someone when you say just what they want to hear.

    1. They are definitely good salespeople, with enough truth to make the lies convincing.

  2. Bernie Madoff's biggest losers were charities. Imagine if they had actually put that money into the cause/people they had been gifted it for. It could have saved lives, but NO - they want it to make more money, so they invested it with Bernie. They were driven by their importance - their vanity.
    I'm thinking the same goes with the Vanity press author. Imagine if they worked longer/harder on that manuscript? Who wants to say that? Who wants to believe it?
    For Christians, we write because the Lord calls us to write. Does that instantly mean we should write in order to be published?
    I think about my Dad, who had a blog before anyone really knew blogs existed. He wrote because he loved to write. And the Lord gave him something to say. As for who read it? - He left that completely up to God.
    Dad wasn't published, but he was a good and faithful servant - doing what the Lord would have him do.
    I am sure Paul wrote many other letters. But only those the Lord wanted to use were published.
    This is a great post Iola. Makes me think of all those stories I've written/started that haven't come to publication. They are all sitting there doing nothing but teaching me more about my craft, and helping me get better.

    1. I hadn't realised the biggest losers were charities. That makes it all the more awful. I guess that's what happens when greed overrides common sense. Although, as my father always said, common sense isn't that common.

      Do we write to be published? Maybe and maybe not. I think the more important question is are we writing what God would have us write, and are we writing to the best of our ability.

  3. I'm seriously considering Indie publishing my novels - and it's not for a lack of going to conferences, networking, doing courses (a Masters, Year of the Edit, and soon the Margie Lawson Immersion Class), reading craft books & blogs, getting & listening to criique and professional editing. In part, it's because I don't think sitting around another 5 or more years waiting for my manuscripts to rise to the top of the slush mountain is the best use of my times and talents.

    Iola, I know you're not suggesting that Traditional publishing is the only valid route - but some of the things you say here about 'Vanity' publishing, could equally apply to Indie publishing. For me the sad thing about 'Vanity' publishing is not the gullibity of the authors - we were all newbies once and most people caught up by the publishing sharks are naive not necessarily vain - it's that there are people out there who knowingly and deliberately make their money from writers - crushing their dreams - with exorbitant prices and shoddy services. Which is why it's always good to ask and check out any publishing contract offered.

    1. Given your genre, I think you need to at least consider indie publishing. The trick is to make sure your writing is good enough to stand up to a trade-published novel - which you are doing, by investing in learning about the craft of writing. Margie Lawson isn't going to sugarcoat her feedback, and nor will any quality editor.

      But, yes, a lot of what I say about "vanity" publishing can also apply to indie publishing, especially in terms of quality (or lack thereof). The difference between indie publishing (i.e. genuine self-publishing) is who is profiting from it and the degree of control the author has.

      Quality indie publishing still costs money, especially for professional covers and editing, but the author has complete control, and the author will earn the profit. Yes, some indie books could be described as "vanity" projects, but so could some traditionally published books (e.g. many of the celebrity memoirs or books of selfies).

      Yes, definitely check out those contracts!

  4. Good perspectives, Iola. So important to surround ourselves with people who we can be accountable to, not just in our writing but in life. And also develop a relationship with the Lord where we listen to His nudges.

    I think one of the challenges that confuses us is this view of a calling. It's a very misunderstood 'saying.' I don't profess to be an expert on it but for a lot of us we are simply using a gift we've been given to honour the Lord. I look at those 'called' in the Bible and more often than not they were not equipped to fulfil God's calling, however, in their weakness God equipped them. What's that old cliche it's not the equipped God calls, rather the called He equips.

    So because we believe we are called we make decisions and have others agree with us based on our 'calling'.

    1. Good point, Ian. However, I have seen some writers say they write as an offering - another form of using the gift they've been given to honour the Lord. I don't necessarily see the distinction. I do see either or both as a way of honouring God with our talents.

      Either way, I believe we have a responsibility to pursue excellence in all we do, to give God our best, and to be good stewards of what God has given us in terms of talents and resources (including financial resources).

    2. Ian, I agree with your thoughts on calling. Over the years I've unfortunately had a few difficult conversations with writers who have published with well-known vanity presses. The conversations tend to run along the lines of 'I was called to write and God told me to publish my book with XYZ publisher and that means you're obstructing God's will by not allowing my vanity press book to be promoted in ACW.'

  5. I love the way you 'tell it like it is' Iola. Such important advice for the unwary. Yes, getting your work published is a long haul uphill but learning the craft & every dollar paid to those editors etc. who can help us get there is truly worth it.

  6. Iola, excellent post! Educating new writers eg. blog posts is one way we can help writers learn more about their publishing options. But, I agree, there are writers who know the facts but still choose the vanity press publishing path. They allow themselves to be deceived and conned by slick marketing and empty promises. Very sad.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.