Thursday, 31 January 2008

The vanity publishing route - is it worth it?

These days, many authors, new and established, experience frustration at trying to get manuscripts published by commercial publishers – sometimes they are lucky if the publisher even gets to the basic stage of reading their work. It is perhaps due to this situation that some authors – aided by digital publishing, which has made book production a good deal cheaper – have published their books themselves.

There is, however, a third option – vanity publishing. A vanity press offers to publish a book provided the production costs are financed by the author. These production costs will, however, include a built-in profit for the press, thus guaranteeing an income irrespective of book sales. After all, unlike genuine publishers, vanity presses do not undertake the promotion, marketing or distribution of books that they produce – this is left to the author.

The press also usually promises professional editorial assistance and advice, and the book – the number of copies of which is determined by the amount that the author is able to pay – is delivered to the author within the relatively short period of a couple of months or so.

In certain circumstances, such a scenario is not necessarily bad in itself. For example: your favourite hobby is writing poems about your pet cat. The end of the year is approaching and you feel that an excellent idea for a Christmas present would be to collect your poems, publish about 20 copies of them through a vanity press, and circulate them privately as presents to family and friends. In this instance, no harm is done.

However, the usual situation involving vanity presses can prove quite damaging. A new author produces a novel that may not be of any literary merit. But with a vanity press, the sole qualification for publication is the ability to pay – whether the book is good or bad. Authors of bad literary works may, therefore, be misled into believing they have a saleable masterpiece on their hands due simply to the fact that someone is willing to publish it – even if at a cost.

While some vanity presses are upfront about the requirement for payment and will provide quotes prior to the signing of the contract, there are some that will hide the payment factor among a series of clauses and conditions, or while not actually stipulating that the production will have to be paid for, will state that a ‘consultation fee’ will be charged – the amount of which authors will only discover after they have legally bound themselves to the contract.

Despite promises, editorial consultation is generally poor or nonexistent. I have known of cases where even author’s corrections have been ignored. The print and paper quality may be poor, the cover design and colour reproduction inferior, and the binding weak. I recently saw a vanity published book with print on some pages so faint that it was difficult to read, the edges of the book had been trimmed skew, and the spine was falling apart – a matter of months after delivery to the author.

But even if the production is of acceptable quality, authors may encounter difficulty when they try to market and distribute the book. Vanity presses generally lack credibility among distribution agents, book editors, and bookstores; the reason being that it is known that the book would have been published solely on the basis of ability to pay and not on merit. Authors may, therefore, be sitting with 500 copies of a book that no one is willing to promote or buy, while the vanity press has already made its profit.

For some time it has been the payment factor – even if stated upfront – that has been the controversial aspect in vanity publishing. But due to the fact that more and more publications these days, especially in South Africa, are funded, wholly or in part, I do not regard the request for payment to be an issue in itself.

If the production of a book is funded and published by a genuine publisher, that book will probably have literary merit, plus the publisher will be both able and willing to provide the author with the services that a publisher should be able to – which is not the case with vanity presses. Furthermore, a genuine publisher has an interest in producing a quality product to ensure sales revenue, while a vanity press – which has already secured its profit upfront – has no such incentive.

Should you approach, or be approached by, a publisher whom you have never heard of, or know little about, it is worthwhile to:

· Establish whether the publisher has a website and check it out. Study the wording carefully to ascertain whether it may be a vanity publisher
· Find out what titles the publisher has produced and try to locate copies. If you are successful, study the quality of production and try to get a grasp of the literary merit of the titles
· Find out if the major bookstores store these titles; if not, phone the respective purchasing managers to find out if they have heard of the publisher, and if so, what they know of the business
· If you receive a contract from the publisher, study it carefully to ascertain whether there are any references to the possibility that you may be required to pay towards the production of the book. If so, query them with the publisher. As an independent publisher myself, I can appreciate a publisher’s reluctance to foot the bill for unwarranted costs such as excessive author’s corrections at final proof stage, so such clauses may not necessarily be an indication that you are dealing with a vanity press
· Check in the contract if the publisher does not undertake, or guarantee to undertake, promotion or distribution. Remember that a genuine publisher makes its income through the sale of books, so if a so-called publisher does not undertake promotion and distribution, this begs the obvious question of how the business is earning its money. If there is no reference in the contract to promotion or distribution, query it with the publisher and get a written commitment to these tasks

Should you choose to go the vanity press route, then fine. As I have said, some vanity press productions are of an acceptable quality, though promotion and distribution may still present a problem. It depends on what your expectations and requirements are. But in the age of digital publishing, I consider vanity presses to be unnecessary. Author can, given a bit of learning and time, publish their own work – the production of which they can oversee themselves – at substantially reduced costs.

(This piece was originally published as Dye Hard Press Newsletter 3)

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