It Doesn’t Pay to Pay to Be Published

This is one of those pieces of advice that every writer I talk to seems to understand before I ever bring it up. However, there must be some writers out there that believe that paid publishing, be it a vanity press or a vanity press under the subversive label “subsidy publisher,” is an effective way to get your work out there. Otherwise, these businesses would be unable to turn a profit. So, clearly, there are some out there who believe that they will benefit from these publishers. While it is possible to work these systems to your own benefit as an author, I would contend that the wide majority of paid publishing authors wind up taking a loss on their work. Here’s why:

Little to No Bookstore Exposure

As I once read, publishing isn’t really the part of the bookselling process that benefits the author, but rather the distribution arm of the publishing company. Vanity presses are widely known as such by most bookstores, and as a result, are frequently unable to distribute their work to major bookstores. It doesn’t take much thought to realize why this makes sense: If the author had to pay money in order to get their book in print, it means that the only person making an investment in the book is the author himself or herself. This means that it is on the author to get books into people’s hands, because the bookstores are unlikely to be any help.

Little to No Editing Support

If you get a book published at a vanity press, you are likely to get absolutely no feedback on your book. Rather, you will submit your manuscript, and the company will print off an initial run of books that you are responsible for buying from them. This means that any typos that you didn’t catch are in your published work, and any plot inconsistencies that an editor would have picked up on are permanently a part of your work. In short, you get a lower quality book because you don’t have the “people” that it takes to take it from a great concept to a great product. So-called subsidy publishers usually call themselves such because they offer some book editing before publishing your book, but you usually pay a fixed fee before ever buying any books from such a publisher for these services. Really, though, these two things all boil down to a single, fundamental problem with this publishing method.

No Risk on the Part of the Publisher = No Screening Process and No Marketing Support

Writers are like most people, in that they don’t like to get rejected. So, on the surface, the idea of a publisher accepting any and all work for publication seems appealing. However, you don’t have to dig deep before the idea becomes appalling in your mind. A publisher which publishes bad work as well as good work is going to have a reputation, not for publishing occasionally good stuff, but for publishing anything and everything that they can get their hands on. This is the sign of a company that is desperate to improve their bottom line, not the sign of a company that actually cares about producing quality literature. Thus, your book, no matter how great it is, has to overcome the stigma of being published by a bad label.

Furthermore, it’s important to ask yourself: What incentive does the publisher have to work to get books into people’s hands? In the vanity publishing models, the answer is exactly nothing. They have absolutely no incentive to sell your book for you. They have taken no risks in publishing your book, but rather have profited from selling publishing to you as a service. Therefore, they consider their job complete when you have a book in your hands, not when they have your book in as many hands as they can. That means it’s up to you to sell your own book. While this is also true in traditional publishing to an extent, the traditional publishers will at least do what it takes to get your books into inventories. They have to: They paid you a $1,000 to $30,000 advance on royalties, and they intend to get that back.

There are merits to self-publishing, but in today’s digital world, there are cheaper ways to do it than through a vanity publisher. I consider these companies predatory, and would strongly advise any emerging writers to never sign a contract that requires them to pay money to the company. This goes double for agents: A good agent shouldn’t be paid a retainer, but should be willing to take you on as a client on a commission-only basis, making money only when a publisher pays you for your book. It’s harder than paying someone, of course, because your work will be screened and judged and you’ll get lots of rejections along the way, but if you aren’t willing to face that as a writer, you’ll never make it, even if you do self-publish.

The reason I go into all of this, and go into it in such depth, is because I have experienced it first-hand. I have seen the tears that come with using a vanity or “subsidy” publisher. Trust me, in the long run, you will regret choosing to pay one of these companies, even though it’s an easier way to get your work “out there.” Aspiring writers, I beg you: Heed my warning.


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