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The Price of Vanity
by Moira Allen
You've just written the perfect novel, the
ultimate poetry collection, or the thrilling tale of your life. You'd like to
get it published. But you've heard the horror stories: The odds against a new
author, the endless wait as you shop your manuscript, the futility of seeking
publication without an agent.
Then you see an ad. "Authors wanted!" it coos
seductively. You know it's a subsidy or "vanity" press (a press that is paid by
the author to "publish" a book), but publication is virtually guaranteed. What
harm could there be?
1) No money. If you want to earn a profit,
subsidy publishing isn't the answer. Costs may run to thousands of pounds, while
royalties range from 10% to (in rare cases) 40%.
Let's do the math. You spend $10,000 for
publication, and receive 15% royalties on "net" sales (the amount received after
discounts). Your book is priced at $10.95, but often sold at a 50% bookstore
discount. This means you'll receive 15% of 50% of $10.95 -- or 82 cents per
book. Thus, you must sell more than 12,000 copies (a staggering number even by
commercial terms) just to regain your investment -- before you see a penny of
2) No bookstore distribution. When was the last
time you saw a subsidy imprint in a bookstore? Bookstores rarely carry subsidy
titles. But if your book isn't in stores, it isn't reaching the vast majority of
book-buying customers -- for this is the one place people who have never heard
of you can "discover" your title.
Your book may be listed in online bookstores
such as Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble, because any book with an ISBN can be
included in an electronic catalog. Unless customers know about your title in
advance, however, they'll have no reason to look for it.
3) No library distribution. Like bookstores,
libraries rarely invest in subsidy-published books. This cuts off another
opportunity for readers to "discover" your work.
4) No reviews. Most book reviewers ignore
subsidy titles. In addition, subsidy publishers often send out only a limited
number of review copies, and expect you to pay for any additional copies. This
greatly limits the opportunities for people to "find out" about your
5) No publicity. Most subsidy publishers promise
a certain amount of advertising. This is rarely in the place you need it most,
however. For example, if your book covers women's health issues, don't expect it
to be advertised in health magazines, women's magazines, or other publications
that target prospective readers. The general rule about publicity for
subsidy-published books is that if you want it, you must do it yourself -- at
6) No editorial screening. Most subsidy
publishers do not accept books on the basis of quality or marketability, but
simply on the author's willingness to pay. This is the primary reason that such
books have such a poor reputation with reviewers, genre organizations,
bookstores, distributors, and consumers. In addition, many subsidy publishers
offer little or no editorial assistance, publishing books "as delivered." While
some authors relish the idea of "no editorial interference" with their vision,
rare is the book that couldn't benefit from the suggestions of a good editor --
not to mention copyediting and proofreading.
7) No industry acceptance. Most writing guilds
and associations won't accept a subsidy-published book as a qualification for
membership, or for consideration for an industry or genre award. To qualify, a
book must be "commercially published" (as defined by sales figures or an
8) No ownership. Do you simply want a book to
distribute to family and friends? If so, subsidy publishing isn't the answer.
You'll usually receive no more than ten free "author copies;" if you want more,
you'll have to buy them. This means you pay for your book twice: Once to publish
it, and again to obtain extra copies. Authors usually receive a 40% discount,
but some subsidy publishers don't pay royalties on sales to the
9) No subsidiary rights sales. This varies from
publisher to publisher. Some subsidy presses openly acknowledge that they are in
no position to exploit subsidiary rights (such as movie, audio, electronic, or
translation rights). Others, however, issue a "standard industry contract"
claiming those rights -- or demand that the author pay them a percentage of any
such rights that the author happens to sell. Review your contract carefully, and
never sign away rights that your publisher won't actually use; don't accept the
argument that such a transfer is "standard" in the industry.
10) No respect. While many authors have been
successful with self-published books, subsidy publishing is rarely a
stepping-stone to fame. The reading, writing, bookbuying, and publishing
communities regard subsidy publishing as the last resort of the truly desperate
-- i.e., of authors who can't get their work published any other way. This means
that no matter how good your book is, most consumers will assume that it is of
poor quality and won't give it a chance to "prove itself." If you're a serious
author, therefore, keep in mind that subsidy publishing is more likely to damage
your reputation than to enhance it.
If you haven't found a commercial publisher,
don't despair. There are alternatives. One is to self-publish -- which, though
nearly as costly as subsidy publishing, provides you with full ownership of your
books, your copyright, and your revenues.
Another option is electronic publishing.
Commercial e-publishers welcome quality manuscripts that "fall through the
cracks" at the print houses. While e-publishing still doesn't bring in "big
money," such publishers are willing to take chances on new authors and
nontraditional works. (For more information, see Moira Allen's Inkspot article,
"FAQs on E-publishing," at
A third option is to choose an electronic
subsidy publisher. While online subsidy publishers share many of the problems of
print vanity presses, your cost will be far less: Usually from $300 to $500.
Your royalties will also be higher (typically 40%). Such books are generally
listed by online bookstores.
Every author longs to be heard. The key is to
choose a publishing venue that will encourage people to listen. Only then will
your book truly be judged "on its own merits," rather than by the dubious
reputation of the imprint on its cover.
© Copyright 1999, Moira Allen
Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com
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