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Beware Vanity Press and Predatory “Self Publishing” Companies

I am just about to publish my first novel, and I’ve done the whole thing myself (with, of course, help for cover design, editing, and typesetting). However, over the last 12 months, I’ve also done a hell of a lot of research into publishing, and looked into a number of organisations that promised to help me “self publish” my book. This immediately rang alarm bells for me – if I’m the one self publishing, then why do I need a company to help me? Beyond this exposure, though, I have close contacts with people that have utilised some of these companies, and I wish I could have advised them sooner. For that purpose, I hope this article will help any new writers on the path to self publishing.

Depending on your exposure to self publishing, you may not have heard of the term “Vanity Press” as yet. These are generally smaller publishing houses that promise to traditionally publish your book – at an upfront cost to you. The simple advice here is this – don’t fall for it. Traditional publishers will often pay YOU for the chance to publish your book, based on the fact that they see good potential in your book actually selling. Vanity presses don’t care if your book sells or not – they make money simply from the contracts they forge with writers, and then move on to exploit the next.

With the rise of self publishing, a new angle on the Vanity Press format has arisen. These are companies offering to help you self publish and market your book, all at an upfront cost. This is effectively a Vanity Press under a different name, and again you should be wary. Many of the claims these companies make are vague, and the prices they charge are exorbitant.

Note I’ve chosen not to name names in this post – my opinion is that none of these “self publishing” companies should be trusted. If you want to self publish, then… do it yourself – it’s actually quite straightforward. However, I will use an example that I did see on one well known organisation’s website.

This company offers a la carte options at a reasonable price – editing and cover design services, for example. However, they also offer self publishing bundles, being quite open that they will effectively do all the things you can do yourself, but as a service. They then make a lengthy list of inclusions to make it seem like a lot of value is provided in these bundle.

I reviewed two of their “most popular” bundles – one of which came out at just over $3000, and another at $6000.

The $3k package included:

  1. Paperback, eBook, and Hardcover, interior and cover templets for authors to choose the internal layout, the option for authors to submit their own cover (but NO cover design), a website with very basic design, ISBNs supplied, worldwide distribution and listing, 15 paperback copies, 5 hardback copies, 50 business card, 50 bookmarks and… a whole list of things that look good but mostly meant nothing – and note NO editing service. Nor can you set your own price – they will set the price for you, which pretty much also means you won’t have access to your book in the portals. Doesn’t sound like self publishing to me…

Seriously, the length of the list was impressive, but consider this – many of the items on the list were standard offerings as part of a KDP submission, which authors can do themselves for free, or a $50 IngramSpark submission. Worldwide distribution and listing, for example? This most likely means they will submit your book via IngramSpark and click the “worldwide distribution” button. It doesn’t necessarily mean they will actively seek to get your book into bookstores. Bookmarks and business cards will set you back $100 if you do it yourself, as will the book copies. Writers will still need to get their cover designed and their book edited. To do everything on this list yourself would set you back all of $500, probably less.

The $6k package included:

  1. Everything in the $3k package, plus cover design, a few more copies of your books and marketing material, an undefined marketing campaign, and – finally! – copy editing and cover design services, as well as the capability to set your own prices

And that’s it. Sure, the list makes things look more impressive, but again, most items on the list can be rolled into a single aggregate that writers can do themselves at low cost. I’ve seen the output of this package and I can tell you this – the Copy Edit seemed like more of a Proofread, and the cover design was very basic, utilising basic fonts and public domain images. From what I’ve seen, it hasn’t really been worth the cost. More importantly? Everything on this $6k package can be done – and done well, I might add – for far less than half that cost, plus you would have full control over everything.

My advice would be this: consider what needs to be done in order to self publish, and organise it all yourself.

Here’s a quick list:

  1. Write book

  2. Edit book

  3. Design cover

  4. Get ISBNs

  5. Typeset/formatting

  6. Publish via Amazon

  7. Publish elsewhere

  8. Market your book

That’s it. Sure, there’s a lot more work that goes into all of this, but this is a very basic list of what needs to be done in order to self publish, and in my opinion there are two that you absolutely shouldn’t do yourself (edit and cover design) and a third that you can do yourself, but getting someone else to do it may be a better idea (typesetting). And marketing? I’ll discuss that chestnut another time.

So go off and research prices for cover design, editing, and typesetting. Think of an amount you’d be willing to spend, and still within that budget. Keep in mind that you might not sell enough books to get this money back (it’s important to be realistic). You might find you can do all of this for only $1000! Personally, I’d spend more – ensure you get a really good cover, and that your edit is extensive and professional – but the amount is up to you.

Now… keep in mind that I did mention that some of these “self publishing” companies offer these services a la carte. While this may be true, I think it’s better to go find someone who offers this service as a primary source of their income – you’ll get much better results.

And… I should note that I have been told there are some organisations out there that help writers prepare to self publish, and then let the writer do the publishing themselves – effectively helping with editing, cover design, and typesetting only. This may help you to get things done all under the one umbrella, so it may well be a viable option. My preference is to find the right resource myself, but I thought I should clarify that not everyone out there is gunning for your money and offering nothing in return.

But the bottom line is this: don’t spend a ridiculous amount of money to let someone else “self publish” your book for you – and then effectively own the publishing rights. Yes, it seems daunting to do it all yourself (and at times it is), but trust me – when all is said and done, it’s really quite easy.

I will look to cover the self publishing process in more detail in future posts, so join my mailing list for more info (scroll to the bottom of the page). I’m currently working my way through Book 2, and finalising marketing for Book 1, so I’m still learning, and there’s a great deal I can share that I think will be of benefit.

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