FROM SCOTT:

Last time, I talked a bit about what a vanity press is, and I began to discuss some of the aspects of a vanity press that I’m calling XYZ publishing and an author named Bob who is about to fall into their clutches. I’ll cover a few more points today, and hopefully anyone who is still considering a vanity press will see the light. Onward!

XYZ publishing guarantees that they will distribute the novel, in ebook format, to tens of thousands of outlets (such as Amazon, Smashwords, and so on). What good does that do? Currently, very few ebooks are sold outside the handful of primary ebook distributors (Amazon, Smashwords, iBooks, and the Barnes and Nobles website for the Nook). The number of people who have heard of (or visit) the other twenty or thirty thousand websites is pretty small. Sales at those points would be negligible. If you self-publish your ebook, you can put it in those places yourself, for free. Why are you thinking of paying someone thousands of dollars to do it for you?

[RICK ADDS: Smashwords distributes to dozens of other ebook distributors and retailers, including B&N and Apple iBooks, so you don’t have to worry about all these others. It’s likely that XYZ is just distributing to Amazon and Smashwords anyway. They’re not going to spend their time contacting all those other guys directly.]

Interestingly, while XYZ will convert your novel to ebook format for you, they will not check to be certain that there were no issues with the conversion.

[RICK ADDS: they say that specifically in their contract]

If you inserted any artwork into your novel, such as drawings or maps, the insertions may cause formatting trouble and cause your book to take on a very unprofessional appearance. XYZ will not correct it. Why would they, when they’ve already made their money on the transaction by signing you on as an author?

[RICK ADDS: Even though Scott is talking about the contract from one particular vanity publisher, there is no reason to think that others will differ that much. You, the author, need to look at the contract (any contract, for that matter, even from a traditional publisher) to be sure what you’re signing and agreeing to. These presses are in business to make money-from you. Contrary to what they lead you to believe, they do not have your best interests in mind, and they are not going to be your publishing BFF.]

One benefit of XYZ publishing is that they do offer editing services. But they will only edit it twice, unless you want to pay more. Here’s what you need to ask at this point: who is doing this editing? What are that person’s qualifications? How much of the money I paid is going toward editing? Because there are other ways of getting your book edited. Rick and I have discussed this before. One good way is to join a writers’ group. With good, professional critiques from multiple authors, you can correct the mistakes without shelling out any money. Your payment for this service is simple: in turn, you edit other writers’ books. Barring that option, you can always seek out a professional editor. Shop around, check prices, and look at the quality of their work. Many will offer a free sample edit on a few pages of your work. That way, rather than dump thousands of dollars into a vanity press, you could pay a few hundred to have your novel professionally edited.

[RICK ADDS: The cost of professional editing services varies and depends on the type of editing you require (in-depth is more expensive than basic proofreading). For a typical novel (70,000-100,000 words) you can expect to pay anywhere from a few hundred dollars up to $2000 or more for a good professional editor. If a vanity press is offering ALL of the publishing services you supposedly need for $3000, then is enough of that money being allocated to proper editing, which is perhaps the most important aspect of the publishing process?]

Cover design is part of the XYZ package. Granted, designing a cover is no simple task. But if you just take the time to network with other authors, surely someone in the group can help you. Alternatively, you can do as I did with two of my novels. I went to a local college and found an art student who would design the artwork for me, for a small fee. From there, it was a simple matter to upload and complete the cover design for the various sales websites. Amazon and Smashwords have step-by-step instructions that make it simple.

For the print version, XYZ will design the cover and make the book ready for purchase. They will deliver ten free copies to the author, with hard cover format available at an extra fee. So, you can pay thousands of dollars and receive ten books. Or you can find a traditional publisher and receive free copies. As I recall, Medallion sent me about three dozen copies of each of my books they published. Free. If you self-publish, and (like me) you still want print copies of the book, use CreateSpace, or a similar service. I have all of my ebooks printed through Amazon’s CreateSpace, and I’ve always been satisfied with the results. I don’t get free copies, but I can buy them at a substantial discount.

[RICK ADDS: Through CreateSpace, the cost to you per print copy is about $4-$6 for books of 200-400 pages. Given that CreateSpace is print-on-demand and that the per-book cost is higher than with volume printing, even at those prices, those 10 copies that XYZ gives you represent tiny fraction of that $3000 you paid them to publish your book.]

XYZ gets to set the price on your novel. If you think the price is too high, which would limit sales, or too low, which would limit both profits and sales (where buyers perceive an inherent lack of value), then too bad. XYZ has the final word on the price. The only word, actually. If you self-publish, the price is yours to set. And you can change it at any time. You can do temporary price drops to try to draw buyer attention. Or, once the book has been out for a while, you can do a permanent price drop. But not with XYZ. You are at their mercy.

XYZ claims that they provide marketing services. On the surface, this appears legit. It looks like they really go out of their way to market your book and boost your sales. I’ll list their efforts, then go back and look at each one.

They do social media blasts by listing your book on their Facebook page and Twitter account. Good old Bob, our fledgling author, gets his own web page on XYZ’s site, along with his own blog. Lovely! You can help in the effort to spread the word! They send out information to search engines in order to boost Internet search hits. They send out a monthly newsletter to the bookstores to let them know about any new releases. And they send notification to major news outlets, such as The New York Times.

Bob’s new novel just got coverage on the Facebook page and Twitter feed for XYZ Publishing. Ask yourself this: do you ever visit the social media pages for any vanity press publishers? How about any of the traditional publishing houses… do you visit their pages? I doubt it. Aside from employees and the authors who have been sucked in, I doubt that anyone visits those pages. So why would Bob think he will see any sales boosts from these pages? The same goes for Bob’s blog and web page. How many vanity press websites do you visit to read authors’ web pages and blogs? I’m thinking “none.” Again, no boost in sales from these. But they sure make you feel good. You’re getting Internet coverage!

But how about sending out information about Bob’s book release to Internet search engines. Surely that will increase sales, right? Well, maybe it might increase visibility just a bit. Keep in mind, this is a new age. Back in the days of purely traditional publishing, a buyer would browse through a bookstore, giving an author a decent chance to draw attention and secure a sale, even if the buyer hadn’t heard of that book before. Not so, today. Why would Bob’s novel be any more likely to come up on an Internet search, when the potential reader has never heard of either Bob or his book? Without those two factors being known previously, no one will search for him. No one will find him. No one will buy. Besides, Bob can send those search engines the information about his book himself. And when he designs his own web page (as mentioned below), he can add keywords about his books to the web page, thereby increasing the likelihood of a hit. There’s no need to send that information to tens of thousands of search engines, as XYZ claims it does. Think of the main search tools: Google, Bing, Nexus, and so on. A handful of search engines will do the trick.

But XYZ sends out a monthly letter to the bookstores, informing them about new releases. Surely that means the book could land on a bookshelf, right? In a word… NO. As I said previously, bookstores have limited shelf space. Traditional publishers do battle with each other over that space. The bookstores see themselves awash in books that were “good enough” for a traditional publisher to pick them up. Why would they waste their time on a book that the author had to pay someone to print? I’ll be the first to admit that a few of the books coming out of vanity press publishers are probably of a higher quality than some of the books that were traditionally published. But bookstores don’t have time to read them all and try to compare and evaluate them. They stick with what they know works. And they know that vanity press books are a bad gamble. You also have to understand a basic aspect of bookstores. They purchase books from the publishers, in bulk. The understanding is that whatever they don’t sell, they can return to the publisher for a refund. Vanity press publishers will not accept returns, so now we have another reason those books won’t land on a bookstore shelf.

And finally, we see that XYZ will send press releases to major media outlets. Let’s be honest for a moment. Do you think the managing editor at the New York Times, or the Chicago Sun Times, really cares in the slightest about a book coming out of a vanity press? For that matter, those news outlets wouldn’t care about 99% of the books coming out from traditional publishers. If your book hasn’t hit a bestseller list, or at least come close, any press release about it is only headed in one direction: right into the trash can.

So what should you do? It doesn’t hurt to try traditional publishing, if you want to go that route. Or you can decide to go directly to self-publishing. I would recommend looking over the history of this blog, as Rick and I have written extensively on the topic of self-publishing. In a nutshell, it’s easy. Write your book, and edit edit edit. Then edit some more. For the ebook, you do need a simple cover.

[RICK ADDS: It needs to be a decent cover, but it doesn’t have to be an expensive one.]

Upload the cover and the novel to a site that sells ebooks. Amazon is the giant in this area, and it has a very user-friendly system. Smashwords is only slightly more complicated. The best part: depending on what options you choose, you might pay $20 at most. Want a paper copy of your book? That can be done as well. I highly recommend CreateSpace. Again, for a small fee, you can have your book in print.

[RICK ADDS: Generally the only cost is for a printed proof copy (about $10, including shipping).]

Do your own advertising. Try word of mouth. Try social media. Create an author page on Facebook. However, just for the record, I have to say that with around 200 people following me on Facebook, I’m not aware of a single sale that came as a result of Facebook advertising, with one exception. I held a contest, with a Kindle Fire as the prize, and I advertized on Facebook. That little blitz might have sold a half-dozen copies. Want to tell the New York Times about your book? Do it! Trust me, you’ll have just as enthusiastic of a response as XYZ publishing will get. At a substantially cheaper price.

[RICK ADDS: We’re not saying that Facebook is totally useless for selling your book, only that it has not proven very effective. I’ve heard this from many authors, so I have to believe it. Given that, why would XYZ’s Facebook posts fare any better? Oh, it must be because they’re a publisher. Right? A publisher you’d never heard of until you saw their ad somewhere. One has to wonder that if Facebook and Twitter work well for selling books (as XYZ would have you believe), why don’t the Big Publishers use these in their marketing?]

On a final note, here’s another aspect to consider. Let’s say Bob tried the traditional publishing route, but after receiving an endless string of rejection letters, he decided to try something different. Instead of self-publishing, he tried the vanity press method offered by XYZ publishing. After shelling out thousands of dollars, he had his final product ready to go. On to the next novel! With one published book to his credit, he decided that he will once again try the traditional publishing houses. Bob’s next problem: once you’ve gone through a vanity press, traditional publishers will treat you like you have the plague. Remember when I said that the gatekeeper’s job is to eliminate as many submissions as possible? This one is easy. If Bob had to pay someone else to publish his first book, he is obviously not good enough to be paid by a traditional publisher. And remember…when an agent or a publisher looks at your submission and sees publishing history, they look those books up to see how well the book sold. When they see your vanity press effort sold about a dozen copies, they won’t touch your book.

Here’s what it comes down to. Anything a vanity press can do for you, you can do for yourself, at a substantially reduced price (or for nothing more than an outlay of time). With a little research, you’ll do it just as well. And you won’t have to pay thousands of dollars to get there. So do yourself a favor, and remember: friends don’t let friends vanity publish!

—Scott

[RICK ADDS: Unlike vanity presses, Scott and I are your friends and we do have your best interests in mind.]