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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 profit!

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 book.

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 your cost.

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 advance).

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 author.

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 http://www.inkspot.com/epublish/.)

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

Other articles by Moira Allen :

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