The hook for the unwary author is a small ad in the literary pages. ‘If your book deserves publication, write now to …publisher seeks manuscripts for UK, Canada and USA …’ Those authors who take the bait do not have to wait long for a glowing response to their submission. No matter how illiterate, misconceived or downright boring the manuscript, the vanity merchant will offer praise and encouragement. Since the vanity publisher can make a profit without donating a penny of the company’s money to the book, he has no incentive to really publishing. His main goal is to have his print shop busy.
Authors show surprise when they encounter a publisher who wants money up front. Publishers are supposed to pay authors, aren’t they? There is nothing wrong in this. The trouble comes if the author, having signed a hefty check, is led to expect that his book will be treated in the same way as all the other books coming onto the market. To pay for publication is no guarantee that a single copy will appear on the shelves of even the local bookshop. Authors feel they have been conned, persuaded to part with money for services not rendered.
Reality is kept at bay until after the signing of the contract. This usually binds the author to pay 30 per cent of the fee upfront, 30 per cent on receipt of proofs, and the remainder upon publication. The rest of the contract will positively glow with promise: what will be paid to the author for subsequent reprinting, subsidiary, audio and e-books, film and foreign rights.
Other fairly standard clauses in a vanity contract include a quota of ‘free’ copies to the author; if he requires more, he has to pay for them. In reality, he is paying for them twice! The stock of unsold books usually remains the property of the publisher, so if there is a chance to remainder them later, he takes the proceeds. Unless otherwise directed, only a certain number of copies in an edition will actually be bound; the rest will remain as flat printed sheets until required, which is probably never. A vanity publisher will undertake to distribute a certain number of review copies, but this task is pretty academic; although the regional press might run notices if there is some local interest in the book.
Distribution and marketing operation: For most vanity books, neither exists. Most vanity books are therefore sold through the vanity house’s mail-order operation, with most of the work – family, friends, and common interest groups – done by the author. In practice, unless the vanity house has an efficient and proven distribution and sales set-up, the author might as well take all the copies, because if they are going to be sold he is going to have to do it himself.
Despite the evidence, there are still writers who fall into the trap of vanity publishing – often with open eyes. That is why as soon as one vanity publisher goes out of business, another soon fills the gap. Here are a few tips on what to look out for:
- Do not take a flattering report on your manuscript at face value. The publisher may simply be motivated by a desire to do business at your expense.
- Be suspicious of vague promises of quality production. Subsidized books are often dingy books.
- Regard with suspicion promises to sell television and film rights, serialization and other money-making options. The chances of getting your money back from subsidiary rights are remote.
- Watch out for cop-out clauses in the contract which enable the publisher to renegotiate his initial pitch.
- Don’ t bring a check book to the meeting, get a copy of the contract and show it to a lawyer that is specialized in contract / copyright law.