A little over three years ago…
It was a different time (obviously) in many ways. In the summer of 2012, I went back to work at my old stomping grounds of the smalltown newspaper in Albion, IL (The Navigator & Journal-Register). Their sports editor had left and they had a pressing need, so I stepped in for a couple months while I wasn’t teaching. I learned a lot during that span and I believe much of it helped form the writer I became. Within three months of leaving the newspaper for that stint, I had started my first novel. There is a lot that went into that that I’ve discussed in other blog posts and other areas, so I’ll leave the Hugh Howey inspiration out at this time (mostly — it seems as if the spectre of Howey looms over most indie publishing stories).
Anyway, going back to the summer of 2012, I hadn’t yet put pen to paper for my own fiction adventures, but I had long held a dream of doing so. I had started following Hugh Howey, but was still ignorant on most things when it came to writing and publishing a book. One day an assignment dropped in my lap. We’d gotten a press release that a former local resident had written and published a book. He had graduated from a local high school a few years previously, but had moved out east since his teenage years. I would mention his name, but you’ll understand in a little bit why I don’t. Let’s call him Reggie.
Now at the time I knew some about publishing (like I said, I was starting to really get into Howey’s blogs), and I was a fan of books, so I felt I knew some things. I even was aware of vanity publishing, but for some reason, that concept didn’t dawn on me with this fellow until later. The press release had an email address for him, so I zipped off a quick email to Reggie and we set up an interview. I called Reggie one night and we talked about his book — a sci-fi romp of sorts. It was an interesting interview, but something he said at the end of it tipped me off. I don’t even remember what exactly Reggie said, and it probably didn’t even matter. But something clicked in my head and I realized one important thing. This guy didn’t publish a book. Not how Isaac Asimov or John Grisham did, at least. Reggie used a vanity press.
I finished the interview and published the feature on him, leaving out that one fact.
What is a vanity press, exactly?
If you just type that question into the Google search box, it brings up the Wikipedia definition, which reads:
A vanity press, vanity publisher, or subsidy publisher is a term describing a publishing house in which authors pay to have their books published. Additionally, vanity publishers have no selection criteria as opposed to other “hybrid” publishing models.
Reggie paid someone to publish his book. Ultimately I don’t know what he paid, but whatever it was, it was too much. What did Reggie get for his work? Not much.
I went back and checked out the book today on Amazon. It is still available and it has a ranking for the hardcover version of the book. If you know anything about Amazon rankings, the lower number the better. His book ranked around 7 million — meaning: at least one person bought his book, but it has been a VERY long time since that happened. A VERY LONG TIME. On a whim, I checked out the Kindle version. No ranking. Which means no one has ever purchased the ebook version.
Not only that, but the book is just…not great. The cover is literally a box and the contents. For a story where the main character interacts with aliens and has a grand adventure. Not only that, but there is little to no editing. Believe me, I’ve seen worse, but I did the “Look Inside” and found an error in the first few paragraphs. It was rough.
That was three years ago. About six months after I conducted the interview, I began writing my own novel and I fully intended to SELF-PUBLISH. I had immersed myself in the world of Hugh Howey and his blog followers and I realized self-publishing was the way to go. I never had intended to use a vanity press. I’d learned my lessons about them from an episode of The Waltons.
That’s right. The Waltons. John Boy and his family living on Walton’s Mountain, Virginia in the heart of the Great Depression. One episode John Boy gets a letter from someone offering to publish his novel. As a writer, you dream of this day. That a publisher will think your novel is special. That it is worth publishing. That it can be the next great thing. John Boy falls for it as well and accepts the contract. Soon John Boy is losing money, getting frustrated with the “publisher” and is on the hook to sell the copies of his own novel. All the same things people are still falling for today.
Earlier today I saw an article linked on The Passive Voice originally from The Hartford Courant. (I’m not linking the original due to a paywall.). In the opening few lines of the article, it talks about a woman who became a “self-published” author. In fact, she became a vanity press author. From the article:
She has self-published her book. “Travels with My Son: Journeys of the Heart” debuted on Amazon in June for $15, and in mid-August she sold more than 30 copies at a book-launch party in her hometown of Branford.
She hopes to sell upward of 500 copies, which would cover the costs of “on-demand” printing and the $5,000 she paid a firm that helps writers like her.
Now, I hate to put a damper on her published book dreams, but selling 500 copies of a book is TOUGH. Even from your so-called friends, very few actually read books and even fewer will want to read Your book. But that $5,000? At this point, we’ll call that a publishing fee that she will probably never recoup. It’s sad to say, but it’s the lesson John Boy learned decades ago on TV and its a lesson people are still learning today. Vanity presses still exist and the costs are high — in monetary and emotional terms.
So…what can be done? Research for one. Get to know the self-published greats. Obviously I learned to publish thanks to Hugh Howey, but there are tons of great resources and tidbits of advice for the prospective author. Here are just a few. If you want to be a traditionally published author, go for it. Submit to traditional publishers all you want — more power to you. But, if you are like me and are thrilled to just get your work out there, self-publishing is a wonderful avenue for that. (And I’ve never spent anywhere close to $5,000 even with two novels and about a dozen short stories and novellas under my belt.)
So this lady…or Reggie…you can still self-publish and for a lot cheaper than doing it through vanity publishing. To all those out there who need advice, the following is for you —
LINKS (I will add more as they are suggested):