Let’s dive into the second of three main forms of book publishing: vanity publishing.
If we were going to go deep into the weeds, it’s true that vanity publishing can be broken out in a variety of approaches. But, for the purposes of this article, we’ll keep things simple and state that, at the highest level, vanity publishing is a publishing arrangement whereby the author pays a publishing house to publish their book.
It’s also important to note that said publishing house is usually not terribly discerning in terms of which books they are willing to publish. (In other words, if you are willing to pay them, they are willing to publish your book.)
As with all three publishing approaches discussed through this series, there are pros and cons to vanity publishing.
Pros of Vanity Book Publishing
One of the (perceived) pros is the exchange of one item of value for another; in this case, it’s the exchange of money for a “recognized” imprint. Keep in mind that “recognized” is truly subjective. There are so many vanity presses in existence today, and none of them truly has any more industry credibility than another. Saying that you’re published with Balboa Press (the vanity arm of Hay House) or Westbow (the vanity arm of Zondervan) doesn’t net you the same clout as does saying you’re being published by Hay House or Zondervan. Those in the know know that you’re paying to be published, and those not in the know likely don’t know the names Balboa or Westbow anyway, meaning that you could just as easily create your own publishing house named Bow Tie Press and those individuals would be just as impressed.
One of the other issues with this is that vanity publishers prey (and I don’t use this word lightly) on authors’ desire to have someone validate their book idea. Oftentimes, vanity publishers will contact newly self-published authors or prolific bloggers and say, “We’d love to publish your book!” which initially elicits excitement and pride on the part of the author. But the other shoe always drops: “It will only cost you $10,000 for us to do that!”
I honestly don’t know how the salespeople say it with a straight face, but given that they’re on the other end of a phone, perhaps they don’t.
Another (perceived) pro is the notion that the publishing house has everything you need in one place—editors, cover designers, formatters, distribution, and marketing—and knows what they are doing in each area. This often proves wildly inaccurate.
Just as when you’re building a house, it feels efficient and convenient to go to the builder’s design center and pick out your cabinets, carpeting, and tile, one-stop shop publishing is compelling. It doesn’t always sound fun to go to one store for tile, one for cabinets and another for carpet. But when you end up with exactly what you want, you’re often glad you suffered through a bit of inconvenience. After all, you now have to live in that house for however many years!
Similarly, finding your own editor, cover designer, interior formatter, and marketing coach takes time and commitment. But the end product of a personally curated group of experts, each of whom is the right person to work on your book, is worth the added effort.
Ability to Be Stocked in Bookstores
Many vanity publishers proclaim this benefit to working with them, but the real question is: is it actually a benefit? Once you understand how the bookstore lifecycle really works, it’s easy to quickly understand why the arrangement is far from ideal.
To see the full step-by-step lifecycle of bookstore distribution, you can sign up for my free Top Insider Strategies to Publishing an Impactful Book training.
This is an area where I quickly become frustrated because, in many cases, authors are being taken for the ride of their life (and not in a good way) when it comes to the marketing assistance a vanity publisher provides.
For one thing, consumers buy books from authors, not publishers.
Second, swiftly written, non-strategic press releases are about as helpful as a floor-to-ceiling window in the path of a tornado.
Third, every single book needs its own marketing plan. There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all plan, and I can all but guarantee that a vanity publishing house (or even a traditional publishing house) is not going to cater to their authors when it comes to devising an intentional strategy that has an ounce of potential. When all is said and done, you will either be doing your marketing yourself or hiring someone outside the vanity publisher to help you with marketing. Therefore, the inclusion of any marketing assistance in a package is moot.
Finally, the commitment to help you with a website and social media assets is one to be probed. In many cases, the website is simply a page on the publisher’s site. That is of zero value to you. Ask questions about what exactly website creation includes and whether or not it’s a site that you can maintain as time goes on without having to pay them for changes, additions, etc. Authors need a 5-page (at least) standalone website to have a credible presence in the market, so if this is not what they are providing at a minimum, the asset is of little-to-no value.
When it comes to social media assets, ask pointed questions as to what those include. Are they creating branded images for your cover image and for posts? Are they managing your social media in some way (I highly doubt it). In many cases, the deliverable in these areas that authors know are important but have little idea how to approach (and, therefore, anyone’s offer to help in any way, however big or small, is welcome!) is sub-par at best.
Cons of Vanity Book Publishing
You’d think that if you’re paying someone to publish your book, you’d reap the majority (if not all) of the royalties earned from book sales. Unfortunately, that is rarely the case. The amount you pay up front to have your book published often only ensures that the vanity publisher doesn’t lose money on your book project¾not that they make money. In order to turn a profit, they have to make money on the back end of the project as well through sales. Therefore, they will still take a percentage of sales, and your author cost for books¾while lower than retail price¾will include a higher-than-normal markup.
Additionally, tracking royalties with vanity publishers is historically quite challenging. In their defense, they’re tracking not only paperback sales but eBook sales and the reporting structure and timeline for those from different vendors is different. Then there’s the fact that the books are returnable. Bookstores typically require a 90-day return policy, so while you might earn money from the sale of 25 books to a bookstore one month, if those books don’t sell by day 89, the bookstore will return them and you will then have that amount taken out of your next royalty check. In short, tracking is a nightmare.
Little-to-No Control over Distribution/Pricing
In most cases, the vanity house distributes through their established channels, and your ability to modify that to suit the needs of your book are limited, if not non-existent. Can you enroll your eBook in KDP Select? Can you control sales? Can you major retailers? An inability (or heavy hindrance) to any or all of these options is problematic when you are feverishly working to get your book into the hands of those who want or need it.
Higher Cost for Author Copies
As mentioned above, author copies come at a discounted rate. Through any printer (whether Amazon/KDP or an offset printer), you will pay a small upcharge so that the printer can turn a profit on the printing of the book. However, oftentimes the upcharge that vanity publishers charge is borderline absurd and makes it nearly impossible for the author to turn a profit on books sold at in-person events.
Getting access to a large number of copies in a short timeframe doesn’t always prove an easy feat. When you are invited to speak at or attend an event 3 weeks in the future, it’s nice to be able to secure books without hassle.
No Single Point of Contact
Many times, authors who work with vanity publishing houses feel like they are being shuffled from one person to another — it seems that it takes three phone calls to get the answer to what seems to be a simple question, and sometimes the fourth person you speak to will contradict the answer you finally received!
Additionally, authors often feel like things aren’t moving along terribly quickly. In other words, they don’t feel like a priority. The truth is: they aren’t! This isn’t necessarily “bad”¾it’s just something to be prepared for. You are one of dozens (if not hundreds) of authors in the queue to be published, and you likely don’t have one point of contact who will walk you through from start to finish and answer any questions that come up in a timely manner. This is simply the nature of the beast in this arena, and I find that, as long as authors are prepared for this reality, they can flow with it with less frustration.
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