Sometimes I think I haven’t learned a darned thing about writing and publishing. This sentiment has never been more apparent than in the last couple of months as I stumbled through my first publishing contract – feeling completely clueless. In addition, after all the years I’ve been at this, I still don’t have an agent, I don’t have a multi-book deal with some big print publisher, I’ve never received an advance and, despite the fact I have now signed two contracts, I have yet to see any sort of remuneration for my work.
Then I meet a new writer…
Suddenly I am face to face with the person I was four years ago and I realize, holy crap I’ve learned a ton! Yes, much of my learning has been centered around the craft of writing, but where the learning curve is steepest is in the area of publishing and the topic I want to discuss today is the issue of self-publishing and vanity publishers, something I knew nothing about four years ago.
Self-publishing is basically producing, printing and distributing your work yourself. Vanity publishing is using a third party to help you accomplish this task. Both require the author to front the costs of the production. There is definitely a place for this sort of publishing and I believe it will become even more common in this age of e-books and e-readers. But for me, at this time in my life, I am not interested in marketing and distributing my own work. Not only that, I simply do not have the time or capital to adequately promote, print and distribute my books. This may change some day, but not right now. In addition, though I recognize that large publishers do not have the perfect model, there is an element of quality control that appeals to me.
I have nothing against a vanity press or consultant that facilitates the dream of someone who just wants to see their book in print so they may pass it off to their friends and family. I also believe self-publishing is essential for writers of non-fiction, where their book complements their work and may be sold on their website. I even think there is a place for those who want complete control to mass produce and distribute their work to a wider audience – as long as they know what they are doing and what they are getting into.
What I have a problem with is a vanity press or supposed literary consultant posing as a legitimate publisher and/or agent. I have a problem with people blatantly lying to new writers, taking advantage of their naivety about the publishing industry and trying to make a quick buck. In the three short months since I have taken on the role of president of my local chapter of Romance Writers of America, I have already come across two such situations – new writers who have come to me to ask my advice on an offer of representation. It’s funny because in both instances my initial response was, ‘why are you asking me? I’ve never been offered representation by an agent?’. Then I looked at their offer.
Fees for postage and photocopying (okay, some small agencies still do that). Fees for editing (red flag!). A literary agent who also happens to be the president of a vanity publisher (hmmm, can you spell, c-o-n-f-l-i-c-t o-f i-n-t-e-r-e-s-t?) But the worst part of it is, that in both situations the people offering to help these writers publish their books pretended to be mainstream legitimate agents. One of the writers even sent me a portion of the letter from the individual offering representation. In the letter the representative said (I refuse to call them an agent), there are two types of agents, ones who ask for fees up front (but only take 15%-20% off royalties) and those who don’t (but they take 30%-50% off royalties). This is a bold-faced lie! However, I only know this is a lie because I have been researching agents for a few years now and am familiar with sites like Predators and Editors, Writer Beware and The Association of Author Representatives. But this author had no idea, just like I wouldn’t have had any idea four years ago either.
What this has made me realize is, first of all, how far I’ve come as a writer and how much more I understand about this industry than I did when I began. While I may still feel like a beginner because I don’t have my dream contract, I’m not – and that’s a good thing. I’ve learned what I know today from savvy people who share my passion for writing – people who have been involved in this business longer than me, people who continue to take time to guide me through the maze of publishing. The result is that I’ve realized my responsibility to those new writers who are now coming out of the woodwork, toting their first completed manuscript and thinking, like I did, that the hard part was over. It’s my turn to ‘pay it forward’ and do my best to help.
For more information on how to tell the difference between a legitimate publisher and a vanity publisher, check out Rachelle Gardner’s post (Ms. Gardner is a legitimate literary agent) from June 10, 2010, called Sussing Out Legitimate Publishers.