POD, Self Publishing Reviews Part 2 – Vanity & the Typewriter

A vanity publisher is:

“any company which charges a client to publish a book; or offers to include short stories, poems or other literary or artistic material in an anthology and then invites those included in it to buy a copy of that anthology.”

(British Advertising Standards Authority Advice Note, Vanity Publishing, July 1997)

When I first began writing at the age of fourteen or fifteen, having a book published was akin to the kids in my school getting a professional contract with an English football club. In fact, several pupils did travel during the summer months to take part in trials for clubs like Leeds United, Manchester United and Arsenal. Of the six or so school pupils, only one ever made it as a professional footballer. Though he did not go on to succeed in obtaining a contract with a big English club, he did spend nearly fifteen years as a professional footballer in the League of Ireland for Bohemians, including several matches against top European opposition in the UEFA cup. These matches must have been the highlight of his professional career—the stuff of boyhood dreams. For me, there were no other kids I knew of in my school, or on my street for that matter, who wanted to earn their living as a professional writer and novelist. Yet, I felt the idea of becoming a professional writer had to be far more attainable than the challenge and remoteness of becoming a professional footballer. I think I was right—so fair play to you Maurice O’Driscoll.
Even at the age of fifteen, I was already very familiar with those vanity publishing ads in the Sunday newspapers. I remember writing off to Vantage Press for their brochure—getting it a few days later in the post and spending many nights in bed browsing through it and dreaming away about my future life as a novelist. Around then, I started buying the Writers & Artists Yearbook and other books on writing and publishing. I came across writers like Peter Finch who dared to write about self-publishing at a time when it was frowned upon by the literary establishment.


Finch may be a fine Welsh poet, but his greatest achievement was concisely presenting the alternative face of publishing with his compilations of small and large poetry publishers for Macmillan’s annual Writer’s Handbook and the self-publishing articles he wrote for A&C Black’s Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook. They delivered a reality check for me regarding the costs that vanity publishers like Vantage Press were charging its authors back then—anything from about $5,000 to $20,000. Those early dreams of being a novelist were quickly shattered. No fifteen year old earned that much in pocket money.


“Yesterday, a jury in Manhattan granted their wish, awarding a total of $3.5 million in damages to 2,200 authors of Vantage Press, the largest ”vanity press” in the nation. The judge said it was the first time that a jury in New York State had decided a class-action fraud suit.

Vantage, its authors argued, had duped them into believing that their books would be published, placed in bookstores and advertised to the book-buying public. ‘’Vantage operates a sham operation rife with fraud and phantom editors,’ said Arthur J. Jacobs, the lawyer for the plaintiffs.”

NEW YORK TIMES, April 7th, 1990.


The UK had its own burgeoning vanity publishers. Many of these have gone by the wayside; Excalibur Press, Avon Books, Minerva Press and Adelphi Press; their vanity publishing operations ended by industry watchdog and campaigner, Jonathan Clifford as well as investigative journalists Andrew Penman and Nick Sommerlad of the Daily Mirror.


These vanity publishers promised much for unsuspecting authors and did very little beyond printing and registering a book for publication. Yet, they charged exorbitant fees for editing, marketing and promotion, with little or none of it being carried out, and together with a print product which often was of substandard quality compared to professionally published books. Few spoke of fees in their adverts in Sunday newspapers and writing magazines and their fraudulent model of business was based on the ‘bait and switch’con. You know the deal—guy offers you a laptop for 50 quid at the side of the road, sells it to you with a bonus carry case, and you end up going home with a carry case and a phone directory hidden inside. What you see is certainly not what you get. These vanity publishers effectively lured the author into the scam under the pretence that they were dealing with a tradition publisher—praised the author’s work to the hilt—up sold a range of gimmicky non-effective promotional services, and did very little beyond the printing of the books which the authors ended up paying for and selling themselves.
Have these old vanity style publishers gone away, and have we reached a new dawn of author solution companies? Well, yes and no.
No, because we have newer more subtle forms of vanity publishing in the shape of companies like PublishAmerica.


And no again because companies like Excalibur Press, Avon Books, Minerva Press, Adelphi Press are run by people; business people. They do not disappear away with their companies. They re-invent their business under new company names. As an example, just this week, I had planned to review a leading print on demand publisher in the UK. However, I discovered in the past few weeks that this company had merged with another author solutions publisher with direct links through owners, financers, directors and senior staff who had direct connections with two of the above named UK vanity presses from the 1980’s and 1990’s. Sometimes the official records of company directors and owners can tell you more about a company’s quality of service than picking up the phone and speaking directly to them. So much so, that I have had to start a spread sheet on my PC listing company personnel who I consider unscrupulous from their own business failures and legal prosecutions in courts because of so many ‘red flag’ names I am encountering.
I sense a gloomy outlook from my written words. Yet, I am actually incredibly hopeful about the various forms of publishing which exist for authors, whatever path they choose for their work. For every gangster and scam artist I have encountered over the past three years of direct research into the publishing industry; from trade shows, one to one meetings, correspondence with authors, printers and publishers connected with every facet of the publishing industry—I can show you many dedicated business entrepreneurs with writing and publishing experience who are making a difference with their companies, but for the few damaging scam artists I encounter.
Just this week, I spoke to a CEO of a leading Partnership Publishing company and asked him about the current strains of the economic recession and the effects on his business this year. His reply:

“Yes, I’m worn out. We all are. I’m finding it difficult to pay my own bills and mortgage. I couldn’t come here today and negotiate a print deal with a company without believing that we can deliver a quality service and a product to the authors who are paying for this deal. Without them, we’re nothing.”

Authors as well as author solution companies are becoming more scrupulous. We all have to if we are to go forward. I think author solution companies are actually more worried now than at any time before, that is, the reputable ones. Vanity and greed will always flourish in any area of business. What has changed in the past few years is not necessarily the developments of print on demand products, but rather more, the ability for the producers/publishers of those products to reach a greater global audience more easily and cheaper and through direct viral marketing.
And for the future?
Traditional publishers are still working on a production timeline for an average book of twelve months or more to publication. That simply cannot work. Digital format sales will increase, and this was my main criticism of 50% of publishers at the London Book Fair this week. Just as self-published authors know; if the book is not widely available, then people don’t know about it and cannot buy it. I think it is on line freedom which scares many publishers and their lack of understanding that that is where readers as well as authors meet and engage. The growing issues with Google and Amazon have underlined this over the past couple of years. Publishers are no longer comanding the entire field of play.
My own son came to me this week when I got home and said, ‘Paddy doesn’t know what a typewriter is.’ Paddy, like my son, is ten years of age. ‘He thinks we do everything on the computer and it all goes off into space.’
My son knows what a computer is. Yet, the typewriter will always remain a curious novelty to him. I can show him everything on my PC and laptop and all it can do, but he still harps on about the old typewriter in the shed and says to his friends who come and visit, ‘Oh, it’s just like an old printer!’

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