May 9, 2013

Is This the New Breed of Vanity Publishers?

Sleazy salesman holding a contract with text: Is There a New Breed of Vanity Publishers?

A few weeks ago, author David Mamet announced he’ll be self-publishing his next book through his literary agency. Some think this is big news, some don’t, and some wouldn’t call David’s plan self-publishing at all.

Regardless, this news means we’re seeing the second wave of self-published authors. While the first wave was comprised of early-adopting, independent authors with an entrepreneurial spirit, this second wave is a mainstream movement where the authors are used to being part of traditional publishing team.

Understandably, they’d like some help, some hand-holding, some “I don’t have a clue what I’m doing—someone just tell me what to do!” direction. Many early self-publishers are stepping in to provide that help with how-to books and workshops.

Unfortunately, so are others…

A New Breed of Scammers?

In the old days of traditional publishing, scammers in the industry were easy to spot. Newbies heard the advice: “Money always flows to the author. If they want you to pay out-of-pocket, run.” That advice worked to protect newbies from unscrupulous agents attempting to charge a “reading fee,” as well as from vanity publishers charging authors for everything imaginable.

In fact, that advice stuck so well that many traditionally published authors initially looked down on self-publishing for no other reason than because they couldn’t understand how self-publishing was different from vanity publishing. Most now understand that self-publishing is an entrepreneurial undertaking and thus incurs upfront costs: editing, cover design, etc.

But the increasing numbers of self-published authors have also led to increasing numbers of companies claiming to want to help these budding entrepreneurs. And that’s where things get complicated. *smile*

Opportunism at Its Worst?

Companies are rushing to tell those nervous traditionally published authors, “Don’t worry. We know you liked the support of a team in the traditional publishing environment, and that doesn’t have to go away. We can be your team now.”

These companies offer to help authors format their ebooks, upload their files to the different retailers, provide assistance with cover design and editing, and sometimes even handle social media.

In short, they can look like a godsend to overwhelmed and intimidated newbies. But as I’ve written before, we need to watch out for many (if not most) of these epublishing service companies.

David Gaughran exposed how many agents are starting their own “self-publishing arms” with similar offerings. (His list of agencies using a questionable epublishing service company is like a round-up of many of the biggest names in the business!) He then went on to expose how many traditional publishers are doing the same with various extensions of Author Solutions, long known for their vanity publishing scams.

Are ePublishing Service Companies the New Vanity Publishers?

I think we first have to specify what made the old-style vanity publishers “bad.” To be blunt, they were scammers that took advantage of authors, often while selling the idea that authors needed these expensive options because they and their book were oh-so-special. They overcharged, under-delivered, and in some cases, locked up rights.

In these new cases, we have the Argo Navis company of David Gaughran’s post taking a permanent cut of 30% for simply uploading ebook files. No formatting, editing, or cover design. Just uploading to retailers like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc. Thirty percent. Ongoing.

Uploading files is arguably one of the easiest aspects of self-publishing, or if necessary, could be outsourced to someone for a flat fee. So I’d call that ongoing 30% “overcharging.”

The publishers’ approach isn’t any better, as Penguin now owns the biggest vanity press around and plans to expand its reach. Their Author Solutions subsidiary is made up of a dozen different logos and brands for each of the traditional publishers looking to offer their own self-publishing arm.

Author Solutions is known for such poor editing that they create more errors than they fix, and they’re currently being sued for breach of contract (such as for failing to pay out royalties). I’d call that “under-delivering.”

Or let’s take a random epublishing service company called easyepublish (I’m not linking to them on purpose—feel free to Google). They format and upload the ebook files to retailers. But that means they own the files (and don’t share with the author), and they own the ISBN (which means the author must start over with rankings and reviews if they don’t want to use (or pay) the company anymore).

Are the authors who sign up with companies like these even self-publishers? The authors are, to some extent, locked in and dependent on them for passing on the income from sales, less their ongoing 15% (or more) cut.

The Line between Self-Publishing and Vanity Publishing

The lines between self-publishing and vanity publishing have gotten blurred and wavy over the years. (After all, Amazon’s print-on-demand CreateSpace lists itself as publisher and uses their ISBN for extended distribution.) That makes it harder for us to know whether a service provider is friend or foe.

However, we might have uncovered a scammer if…

  • their name is listed as the publisher
  • they own the ISBN
  • they own copies of the book above and beyond what’s authorized by the author
  • they can sell or distribute the book in a place or time against the author’s wishes
  • they set the price of the book
  • any rights to the book transfer away from the author
  • they want to dictate any aspect of the editing, formatting, design, distribution, or sales process
  • they demand any kind of exclusive
  • they require the author to sign on for a minimum period, or the author isn’t free to cancel at any time
  • they charge by ongoing percentage of sales rather than by flat fee
  • they provide their list of charges and services only in a nebulous, easily changed TOS (terms of service) statement instead of in a contract
  • they receive the revenue from retailers and pass on the money only after their cut
  • sales figures from retailers go to the service company and not the author

As noted above, Amazon’s CreateSpace fails on the top two bullets, so this isn’t a smoking-gun list. Instead, it’s a list of what should make us look more closely at the situation. What’s being offered, what’s being required, and what’s in it for us? And especially, what are they doing for the money that we couldn’t do ourselves or pay someone to do for a cheaper/flat fee?

Some authors might decide an epublishing service company is perfect for them. And as long as they fully understood all the pros and cons going into the situation, I wouldn’t necessarily say they were being scammed.

But I’m afraid too many authors don’t fully understand and/or are intimidated by the self-publishing process and thus too eagerly accept help without doing their due diligence. Self-doubt can hurt us.

Even if a wanna-be self-published author finds a “good” service company, they might find that using those services erases many of the benefits of self-publishing. Self-published authors usually enjoy the ability to make changes to the content, ebook files, metadata, and pricing of their work. Depending on another company can slow down updates or make them unworkable due to additional fees.

That said, I’ve never been one to say that one publishing method is “better” than another. We all have our own goals, and that means we can have different paths. My hope is that we continue to share information so we have the right knowledge to figure out what’s best for us. *smile*

Do you think epublishing service companies are the new breed of vanity publishers? Where do you see the line between vanity publishing and self-publishing? Can you think of other red flags to watch out for? Do you consider those who use epublishing service companies self-published or not? Do you have any experience with these types of companies?

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Comments — What do you think?

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Great post Jami–and I am so glad you did! There are so many scams out there right now taking advantage of the new, inexperienced soon-to-be self published author. Truly, the process is so easy and definitely something a person can handle themselves. However, for some, they may not want to learn formatting, so they outsource. They need fresh eyes and hire an editor (thank goodness–a smart move). They hire an artist to create the cover–completely understandable as the right cover sells and the wrong one drops a person’s book into obscurity. Uploading is by far the simplest part of the package, and I can’t even begin to understand who someone would pay someone else to do it, but that’s me. It is okay to hire out for these services should the author wish to. What is NOT okay is companies who change an ongoing % for any of these things, and that includes agents. Especially when the author is being charged for these services up front as well as being hobbled with giving away % earnings. A flat fee yes, provided is it competitive and reasonable, and the agent or company has valuable knowledge of SP and the elements needed to successfully self publish. Anything else, and I would definitely be worried. It is rather disgusting how Author Solutions and some other SP arms at traditional houses are taking advantage of authors. More disgusting still is how no one is really holding them to task. I would like to see…  — Read More »

Kathryn Goldman

Knowledge is power and a writer needs to be informed about the options before making a decision on whether to use an e-publishing service. This post goes a long way to providing needed information. The problem with drawing the line between “vanity” and “self” publishing is that with each the author believes that she is good enough to be published. In traditional publishing, someone else has said she is good enough. So I think the difference may be that in self publishing, the author retains direct responsibility for building or connecting with her audience. When an author abdicates that responsibility, she may fall prey to scammers.

Laura Pauling

Good post. I don’t understand why traditional authors who couldn’t sell, turn to agent-assisted publishing, which isn’t really self publishing, because the agent, even if they are taking the financial risk of editing/cover design, are taking their percentage of profit…forever. When all of that could be a flat fee. I understand agents are trying to make money, but that’s not really truly putting their client first. But many authors seem fine with it. **shrugs**

My ideal agent would collaborate with their authors on each book project to figure out if it would do better traditional or should the author self publish – even if they pay the agent a flat fee to help. This agent would fight against non-compete clause and first option clauses and be willing to walk away b/c that’s not good for the author who wants to self publish too.

Right now. I know only two agents who do this. Kristin Nelson and Jane Dystel. And the privilige of having this kind of agent only goes to the top sellers. If there are others, I haven’t heard of them or their deals.


You wouldn’t give your gardener a % of your house because he kept up your lawn. Now, you might provide rooms for that gardener for as long as you want to keep that person as the gardener, but it’s your house. Your call on whom to hire. Your call on when to hire them. Your call on when to fire them.

A lot of these % folks are the equivalent of someone saying, “Okay, I’ll mow your lawn this weekend and maybe sometime in the future, when it really needs it…but you have to give me somewhere to live for the rest of my life.”

For some reason, some writers just don’t seem able or willing to see that.

Hugh B. Long

Great post Jami!

One thing to note about Createspace. If you provide your own ISBN, then you can list whatever publisher you like. Their service is fantastic. I’ve been using them for 3 years.

Suzanne Johnson

Interesting post, but I have to quibble with one statement: that authors who go this route do it because they need “some help, some hand-holding, some “I don’t have a clue what I’m doing—someone just tell me what to do!” direction.

There’s a bias there, intended or not, implying that any author who chose this middle ground is basically stupid. I will offer another scenario from my own experience. I had four 90,000-word novels to write to contract last year. When I had a holiday novelette I wanted to get out, I jumped at the chance to have someone take it over.

Not because I was too stupid to do it myself. Not because I needed someone to hold my hand. Not because I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. I freaking DIDN’T HAVE TIME. I would rather spend my time writing my novels and fulfilling the terms of my contracts than formatting, hiring editors and artists, and marketing.

I’m planning to do one myself this summer if time allows. But there is a valid market for this service from legitimate agents. Plus, no one is forcing authors to use these agent-driven services. Okay. Off my soapbox now. Gotta write.

Donna Hole
Donna Hole

The publishing world is becoming a scary place to navigate. I don’t want to self publish, but some of these small presses are on the par with vanity presses. It truly daunting.


Rinelle Grey

As a self-published author, it was really overwhelming initially to sort through all the various options out there. I’m pretty internet savvy, so I spent quite a few weeks and months reading everything I could find about self-publishing, and bringing myself up to speed on the industry so I could make my own decisions.

One of the best things for me about self publishing is getting access to the sales data, and the royalties paid directly to me. Nothing another company could offer would make up for that! I do outsource some parts of publishing (like editing), and I can see how others might need to outsource others (cover design, formatting etc), but the uploading isn’t hard, and in the end, it means you retain control over your book yourself.

I guess, as you said, it comes down to what your reasons for publishing are, and what your goals are. If you’re happy to see your book out there, and get a little money, then you might be content with one of these companies. But please find one that charges a flat fee and lets you make changes! (I’ve heard of companies who are charging again to correct typos or change listings.) It’s sad (but not unexpected), that there are companies out there willing to take advantage of people like this.

Angela Quarles

I’m sleepy, so I might not be coherent or digesting all this efficiently. My first thought when I saw the breakdown on his site of what the author would get (41.something%) was that it was a better percentage than they would’ve gotten if they’d traditionally published, or gone with an ePublisher. So, if the epublishing service company is doing editing, cover, promo and uploading (which is what an epublisher or trad pub would do), it’s actually a better deal. Many of the things you listed as signs of a vanity publisher are aspects of publishing in general, not specific to vanity. My epublisher gets paid first, they set the price, sales figures go to them, etc.


It’s so disheartening to read about all the ways that people take advantage of writers’ dreams to see their words in print. I guess that no matter what medium it is, there will always be scammers out there looking to take advantage of the latest trend.

Booooo to people that prey on artists!

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