How To Avoid The Vanity Publishing Trap

Over the weekend TIPM received an email from an author expressing frustration with trying to navigate the minefield of submission while trying to secure a home for his/her manuscript with a reputable publisher. The email went something along the lines of:

“I have read your description of XXXXXXX [publisher name redacted] as a vanity publisher. Can you advise me how to identify truly independent Publishers?”
I suspect, like many authors looking for a publisher, this author may have begun with an online search for a publisher. While there is nothing wrong with using the Internet to resource information about a prospective publisher for your manuscript, I’d never advise any author to use the Internet alone. Chances are that the first few pages of returned searches will only list self-publishing services and out and out vanity publishers. Of course, if self-publishing is your thing, that’s fine, but be aware,  authors who fall into the clutches of unscrupulous vanity operations often start out with this kind of search and make no effort to use resources like The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook or the official website of a national authors’ guild or publishers’ association. Generally, The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook is more scrupulous than several other handbooks for authors, and some can be nothing more than a listing of publishing companies. For example, I’ve found quite a number of what I would describe as vanity publishers listed in The Writers’ Handbook. Frankly, at times, you may as well be looking in the local phone directory!  
One reliable place to check out the credentials of a publisher is here on TIPM, though we mostly review publishing services, we also feature a great deal of news on trade and independent publishers, week in, week out. Another great resource for authors looking to avoid paid-publishing services or vanity scams is AbsoluteWrites forum, Bewares and Backgrounds. You will also find another good online resource at Preditors & Editors, though, sometimes this is not always up to date with the latest info on a publisher.
However, there are always some basic guidelines to consider when searching and identifying a reputable publisher, independent or trade, or what some might describe as a traditional publisher:
  • You should be able to find a reputable publisher’s books in your local book shop and library. A good bookseller or librarian will generally be able to recognise the names of many publishers, even small niche ones.
  • Reputable trade and independent publishers don’t advertise for authors in newspapers and writing magazines. Publishers are inundated with submissions. They don’t need to look for authors!
  • One myth of modern publishing is that reputable trade and independent publishers don’t publish new or unknown authors. They do, and the argument that they don’t just doesn’t stack up at all. However, small or large, most publishers publish many books by authors you’ve actually heard of. No publisher can sustain a business by publishing wholly unknown authors alone. Avoid any publisher advertising for new authors in newspapers, magazines and online.
  • Reputable trade and independent publishers don’t ask the author for money, ever, for any part of the publishing or marketing process. However, don’t always expect an advance (or a large one) on royalties from a small or niche publisher. The industry might not like to admit it, but the size of advances is reducing quickly and some small publishers cannot afford anything more than a few hundred dollars in an advance.
  • Trade and independent publishers sell books [mostly!] – not author services. However, more and more trade and independent publishers are developing imprints offering publishing services. Be very cautious of the motivations of editors from publishers who refer your rejected manuscript to a paid-service imprint or affiliated self-publishing service. Ask yourself why your book is not good enough to be accepted by the publisher, but is still good enough to be published at your expense by an imprint or business affiliate the publisher owns or receives a commission.
  • A good publisher’s website is full of books and is aimed directly at the reading community – not authors.
  • Reputable publishers are listed by name in the ‘recent acquisitions’ sections of trade business magazines like The Bookseller and Publishers Weekly. However, as self-publishing and digital publishing has democratised the industry to a degree, many trade magazines do feature articles, interviews and promotions of paid services of some kind; everything from paid book reviews, advert placements to self-publishing services.
  • It’s difficult to submit to reputable publishers directly – without an agent – and the publishers that accept unsolicited MS’s, almost always require a letter of enquiry detailing a brief synopsis of your book for consideration. Never send your whole MS to a publisher open to direct submission, and be very suspicious of ones welcoming full submissions.
  • Reputable publishers often have specific open and closed times of the year for submissions due to the volume received. Adhere to these guidelines and always study a publisher’s list before submission.
  • Be wary of publishers you have never heard of – unless it is a large publisher listed in an official handbook – accepting anything and everything in all genres, especially poetry and short stories. Most publishers that accept poetry and short stories should demonstrate they are specialists in the area. Most publishers, even independent ones, have specific imprints for various genres. 
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