The Signs of Vanity Publishing

Last week, I reached another milestone in the querying of my novel: a vanity publisher made me an offer. Oh, it called itself a hybrid publisher, to cloak itself in respectability, but it was clear enough what it was. For several thousand dollars, it would publish my novel. What it would do in return was vague. The letter I received talked about how the publisher had distributed previous books, and about various rights, but never explicitly said what it would do for me.

Naturally, I refused.

I might have considered a hybrid publisher. A hybrid publisher can be a publisher too small to give advances and royalties, but that is still willing to take the risk of publishing your work. So long as you are willing to accept these limitations, nothing is inevitably wrong with hybrid publication. By contrast, a vanity house makes you assume all the risk. As soon as you sign and pay, it has made its profit. Chances are, you will never make any, although you are encouraged to think you will. There is no mutual risk, as there is in legitimate publishing.

It was not difficult to see the sort of offer that was being made. To start with, the publisher’s priorities were clear when this business letter included adds for the publisher’s other publications.

Other warning signs included:

  • A rush to sign me, although my novel is not tied to any recent events. The hope, I suspect, was that I would rush to sign with taking some thought or consulting anybody.
  • Extravagant praise. Obviously, a publisher making an offer must like my book, but the tone was exaggerated. I am as vain about my writing as any other author, but I just couldn’t believe what I read was genuine, especially when the publisher showed no willingness to negotiate or modify the contract. Instead, all I got was an explanation of why the contract had to be that way.
  • The contract gave me no control over editorial changes. I would be foolish not to listen to an editor’s suggestions, but I would likely want to discuss and explain some points, even if the final decision were not mine.
  • The payment was based on the medium I wanted, with different costs for just an ebook, and higher ones for hardcopy and audio books. Besides the fact that I was expected to pay, the media for publication is set by the expected market, not the authors preference.
  • A promise of high royalties. A first book rarely receives royalties over ten percent. But a high royalty is easy to promise when sales are negligible.
  • A discussion of how profits from other rights would be divided, such as foreign or film rights, but no undertaking by the publisher to pursue these rights. A promise of splitting these rights is easy to make when they are not pursued.
  • A promise not to publicly criticize the publisher. Why insist on that promise if the publisher did not expect criticism?

In short, this contract was as far from the SFWA’s model contract as it is possible to get — and clearly not negotiable. Should you receive a similar offer of publication, you can safely assume that it is not made in good faith.