From Scott:

There has been a longstanding debate among authors, agents, and publishers, concerning the viability of self-publishing versus using a traditional publisher. Rick and I (and probably even some guest bloggers) have brought up the benefits and pitfalls involved with both methods. It’s fairly obvious from our writings that both Rick and I agree that, when everything is taken into consideration, the self-publishing route is the best way to go for most authors. For that matter, some best-selling authors (such as Barry Eisler) have turned down lucrative advances from traditional publishers to go it alone. I’m also aware that there are many people who will make the argument that traditional publishing is better. But one thing both sides of this coin can agree on is to STAY AWAY FROM VANITY PRESSES.

Yes, some people will disagree with that statement. The first group that comes to mind is the people who work for a vanity publisher. After all, they make their money by convincing people that theirs is the best option, or the only option. The other people who like that route are the authors who get pulled in by the dream of being published by a “real” publisher. But before we get into the reasons why most people feel the way they do about vanity presses, I should first explain exactly what vanity press is and how it compares to the other publishing routes.

[RICK ADDS: Yes, I know we’ve talked about and defined vanity publishers before, but we so many naive authors are being taken in by these that we feel we need repeat it.]

Vanity press publishers existed back before the days of the Kindle-style self-publishing, when the only other route to publication was through a traditional publishing house. Rick and I have both dealt with all the negative aspects of the traditional journey—the endless submissions and the stack of form rejection letters with no explanation for why the manuscript was rejected and the expense (and waste) of printing out hundreds of pages for dozens of agents and publishing houses, only to be turned away over and over.

Rick and I were lucky. We persevered, and we both landed contracts with Medallion Press. We experienced the thrill of seeing our work in print and of going to Barnes and Noble, or Borders, and seeing our name on the spine of those books on the shelf. We were paid an advance by Medallion, who also provided a number of important services: they edited the manuscripts for grammar and for content, they designed the covers, they helped us with advertising, and they fought to get the books into bookstores. Because Medallion had invested money in us, they had a vested interest in seeing those books succeed. And in the process of working with the people at Medallion, I met some new friends, especially Rick.

Not everyone is so lucky. While some books that are literary garbage do get picked up by publishing houses, many others that are hidden gems end up rejected until the author finally surrenders. The selection process is, in and of itself, fatally flawed. When unsolicited submissions arrive at a publishing house, they end up in what is affectionately known as the slush pile. In some cases, a new hire who wants to someday be an editor gets the lovely job of pawing through hundreds of submissions to pick out a select few that should move forward in the process. But this person lacks the experience and the training to spot truly good novels with any level of consistency. Any excuse to send a submission to the rejection pile is used. For that reason, the fledgling author has to follow the submission guidelines with robot-like precision, or the book will be rejected before the “editor” gets past the first page. Those few books that make it through the initial gatekeeper are sent to a more senior editor, who trims the pile down even further. I don’t know what the success rate is for submissions by unpublished authors, but it isn’t very high, and sometimes it falls to pure chance. A friend of mine who is now an award-winning, full-time author, had her book picked up on its first submission. Her agent told her that if she had waited just a few more months, the window for that type of book would have passed and it would have been rejected.

Some publishing houses take this whole thing a step farther. Rather than wade through the slush pile themselves, they insist on only accepting submissions from agents. So then it falls to agents to go through the same procedure, some using initial screeners who are even less qualified than those at the publishing houses. And the process repeats itself. You can see how even the most patient and determined of authors can become frustrated by the process and look for alternatives. These days, places like Amazon and Smashwords offer excellent alternatives to traditional publishing. But just a few years ago, that wasn’t the case, and vanity presses stepped in to fill the void.

Basically, the vanity press process works like this. The author contacts the vanity press in the same way submissions are sent to traditional publishers or to agents. Someone at the vanity press will look the book over and offer the author a contract to publish the book. But there’s a catch. Remember that I mentioned how Rick and I were both paid advances on our novels with Medallion Press? Medallion had confidence that the books would sell. They offered us money up front (confidentiality prohibits me from saying the amount) [RICK ADDS: But it certainly was NOT 5 or 6 figures], as an advance against the royalties the book was expected to earn. Once the book is released, the publisher keeps 100% of the profits on the sales until the amount of those royalties surpasses the amount of the advance. At that point, the author begins to collect a percentage, based on the contract, of the publisher’s profits.

[RICK NOTES: For the record, many books never earn past the advance. I’ve heard it said that publishers often try to calculate the advance so that they won’t have to pay additional royalties to the author. Ever.]

However, with a vanity press, the author has to PAY THE PUBLISHER to publish the book. This is not an inexpensive venture, either. I haven’t heard of a vanity press charging less than $2,000 to publish a book, but they can easily top $10,000. Some will let you order services a la carte, picking and choosing what services the vanity press will perform. Usually, the vanity press will offer editing services, cover design, and small print run at the very least.

In the end, the author will have paid thousands of dollars to publish a book that will likely only be purchased by friends and family. Once the book is published, the vanity press no longer has a vested interest in the success of the book. It would have to sell thousands of copies to even begin to turn a profit for them. And in the thinking of the publishing world, if the writer has to pay someone thousands of dollars to publish the book, then it must not be very good. Could they be wrong? Absolutely! An author might actually bring a potential bestseller to a vanity press. But it won’t sell. Just as most traditional publishers will have nothing further to do with an author who uses a vanity press, bookstores will not carry vanity-published books because they assume they’re trash and that they therefore will not sell.

[RICK ADDS: Vanity Press advertisements appear all over many commercial blogs and websites for writers. I’m quite sure that these publishers pay very well for the privilege of such advertising. If you do a Google search on “self-publishing,” you will see various advertisers on the right side of your screen. At least some of those are vanity presses. Author House, Outskirts Press, and Archway Publishing, for example, are commonly seen in those ads. Some of those, however, may be simply book printing services, which are not vanity publishers. They just print the books for you.]

How does a vanity press convince authors to work with them? Perhaps the best way to explain this is with a case study. A friend of a friend of a friend was given my number so he could call about publishing advice. I explained the routes I had taken over the course of my writing career. He told me he was considering a certain publisher, which I will not name here. Let’s call them XYZ Publishing, and let’s call the writer “Bob.” As soon as he began to describe the company, I knew he was in the grip of a vanity press. He sent me a copy of the terms of the agreement. I looked it over, and I will describe some of those terms here. Some of their terms were hidden in the small print of a secure page on the publisher’s website. Since I didn’t have access, I can’t see what else they demand from their authors. I can only imagine. I doubt they want your firstborn son, but who knows.

First of all, XYZ is given the exclusive rights to publish the book in all formats. So, if Bob decided that he wanted to try publishing the novel in ebook format, he can’t. XYZ holds the rights to it. And ebooks aside, there are other things with books that can really bring in the money. Movies, for one thing.

[RICK NOTES: Scott sent me a copy of the contract and I noted that this publisher also gets all subsidiary rights. This means not only rights for other formats of the book such as hardbacks, special book club editions, electronic and audio versions, but it also includes foreign translation rights, movie rights, adaptations, and TV series, etc. In most contracts I’ve seen, the specific subsidiary rights are listed, but in this contract, they were not broken out, which is a MAJOR red flag.]

While a vanity-published book has the proverbial snowball’s chance of being picked up on a movie deal, let’s go hypothetical and say Hollywood comes calling. “Hey, Bob, we loved your book. We want to turn your one novel into three, blockbuster, Hollywood movies with A-List actors. You’re going to be rich!” Yay for Bob, right? Oops, not so fast. XYZ publishing retains all those subsidiary rights. So when Hollywood brings that 7-figure check, it doesn’t have Bob’s name on it: pay to the order of XYZ Publishing. Sorry, Bob. Better luck next time.

Hollywood comes calling more often than you realize. They give authors a small advance of several thousand dollars just for the rights to turn the book into a movie. Most of these end up not going any further than that. But I’d rather see that check in my pocket than with XYZ Publishing.

This particular contract is in effect for three years. If the book should (somehow) sell 10,000 copies, then XYZ automatically gets the rights to the next two books in the series. This is a little steep. There is a similar standard provision in many traditional publishing contracts that gives your publisher the right of “first refusal” on the next book you write within the same genre (or it may be on your next book period). If Bob has a big house publish a sci-fi novel for him, that house gets to take the first look at his next sci-fi novel. If they reject it, he is free to shop it around. If they make an offer and he doesn’t want it, he has two choices. He can either not publish with them, or he can try to find a better offer. But with XYZ, they own him for two more books, regardless. Also, according to the XYZ contract, if Bob’s book should somehow make $50,000 during that three-year term, the contract is automatically renewed for three more years. And if it earns $50,000 or more in that three-year period, he gets renewed again for three years. This is unheard of in the publishing world. At least, in the traditional publishing world. Contracts never automatically renew.

[RICK ADDS: This is like those yearly subscriptions you pay for where they automatically renew if you don’t cancel them, except with XYZ, you don’t have the option to cancel. Granted, the chances of Bob’s vanity-published book earning $50K in one three-year are miniscule, let alone successive ones, but this is still an egregious contract term. The vanity press is in effect saying “We’re pretty sure your book will never make any money (which is why we made you pay us to publish it in the first place), but on the slim chance that it miraculously goes big, then we’re holding it and all the rights to it hostage for however long it continues to rake in the dough.”]

As I have said, the chances of a vanity press novel getting anywhere near these numbers is astronomically low. According to BookScan, the average book in the US sells fewer than 250 copies per year, and fewer than 500 in its lifetime. And those numbers are skewed because some books sell millions of copies.

Putting it into perspective: 90% of books published in the US sell fewer than 100 copies. Period. This includes traditionally published books as well, which are marketed and placed in bookstores.

[RICK ADDS: I believe that these numbers refer to print books, not to ebooks. Due to so much self-publishing, reliable statistics are not available for ebooks. Granted, you likely won’t find any book from a larger traditional publisher selling only 100 copies, but these figures include the numerous smaller presses, where some books indeed may sell only a handful of copies.]

With numbers like these, why would XYZ Publishing even need to put terms like these in a contract? I can offer an answer, but this is only my opinion. I believe it’s in there as a lure. A red herring. An inexperienced author who is worried about dropping thousands of dollars on a vanity press project might see that clause and think that the only reason they would put that figure in there is because it happens all the time.

If anyone reading this blog is still thinking about publishing with a vanity press, do me a favor: Contact the publisher and demand that they show you some numbers. What is the average number of books sold per title at this publisher? What is the highest number of books sold for one title? What percentage of their books meet that magical 250 units per year mark? How many sell 100 units over their lifetime? They don’t need to provide the names of the books or the authors. They should be able to quote their sales as a company. If they refuse, then ask yourself this what they are hiding.

[RICK ADDS: Remember in last week’s post I gave you a way to judge sales through Amazon’s sales rank numbers. While these won’t tell you how many book sold, they’ll give you an idea of whether any of the books from the publisher are doing well overall.

Next week, I’ll finish this off by delving deeper into the terms that are typical of a vanity press. In the meantime, if you’re considering giving a vanity press a shot, please hold on a little longer. Wait until you’ve read this entire blog entry so you can make an informed decision. Or if you have a friend thinking about it, hide his computer until he reads the second part of this. Please.

—Scott