Vanity Presses, Scammers, and Thieves, Part 1

scammer“I need to terminate contracts with my publisher,” an acquaintance recently said. “I never get a statement and I haven’t been paid.”

“You should check into my publisher,” another acquaintance said. “Their upfront fees are much lower than most.”


In my self-publishing guide I said, “Hopefully by now it goes without saying that money should flow to the author, not from the author.” But I was wrong. Every week I read another post or article about someone either paying ridiculous amounts of money to sign on with a “publishing” company, or someone who signed with a company they’ve since discovered is a scam.

Because it bears repeating, because publishing scams still swindle naïve authors, and because I’m a graduate of the I Wuz Scammed School of Hard Knocks, a recap:

First, never, ever pay a company to publish your book. Not a reading fee, not a signing fee, not a publishing fee, and not a promise to buy x number of copies that will only sit in boxes in your garage and collect spiders and dust. Even the Evil Mastermind has said, “Legitimate publishers make their money from the sale of the authors’ books, not from selling services to the author,” in his post on How to Spot a Scam.

There. With that out of the way, I’ll share a few more things to consider before signing on with a publisher. Keep in mind this isn’t an exhaustive list, nor is it an indictment based on any one item. Instead, it’s a general list of items that should at the very least cause you to ask questions.

Buzz on the web:

We research car insurance, cable companies, and school districts, so why wouldn’t we also research publishers before signing contracts? Do a quick Google search and see what pops up. Check Writer Beware, Absolute Write, and Preditors and Editors. What does the internet have to say about the publisher? Are disgruntled authors writing blog posts about not getting paid? Or about books held in limbo indefinitely? Books that haven’t been properly edited? I’m a big believer in learning vicariously. (Well, I am now, a day late and a dollar short.) If other authors are complaining, take heed.

While doing your internet research, see how the company is registered. Is it registered? If it isn’t, that’s a possible red flag. Ideally, there should be some indication that the owners’ personal funds and business funds are separate. Of course, registered companies have also been known to rip people off (Wall Street, anyone?), but there should at least be some obvious attempt to separate business from personal.

The company and the products:

Check out the publisher’s website. Are there misspelled words, grammatical errors, and broken links? If so, is this how you want your book represented? I once visited the website of a small publisher and was greeted with, “We are so glad your here.” I wasn’t, for long.

Take a look at Goodreads and Amazon. How do the company’s books look? Do the covers look professional? Do they adequately convey the genre of the book? Are the titles clearly readable?

How about the “Look Inside?” Is the book formatted well? Are there typos and grammatical errors apparent in that first 10%? If so, more red flags. Why sign with a publisher that puts out unedited, poorly formatted books?

More subjective questions: Are the majority of their book reviews done by review sites and readers, or are they from other authors at the same publishing company? That sounds like a weird question, but it matters. Ethical implications aside, if the only reach your book will have is to the other authors in the company, that doesn’t speak well for the company’s marketing strategies (and I’ve seen this happen many times).

Also, how are their books ranked on Amazon? Chances are we’ve all dipped into the hundreds of thousands before (not so bad, if you consider Amazon has something like 3,000,000 eBooks). But if the company’s books are consistently hanging around that 3,000,000 mark, that’s a good indication they aren’t selling, which again would raise questions about the company’s marketing strategies.

All of those issues would make me ask some serious questions about the publisher’s role. If they aren’t formatting, editing, or marketing, what exactly are they doing to justify taking a cut of my profits?

I could go on (and will, in subsequent posts), but these are the very basics, the first things to research when trying to protect yourself from a scammer.

Author: Melinda Clayton

Melinda Clayton is the author of the Cedar Hollow series, as well as a self-publishing guide. Clayton has published numerous articles and short stories in various print and online magazines. She has an Ed.D. in Special Education Administration and is a licensed psychotherapist in the states of Florida and Colorado. Lear more about Melinda at her Amazon author page

24 thoughts on “Vanity Presses, Scammers, and Thieves, Part 1”

  1. Who knows why some people fall into those sharks’ traps. Vanity Press business model is to make money off the aspiring writer’s pockets.

    They have zero interest in selling what they publish and would be happy to receive your money to publish your laundry list. You’d get the very same treatment.

    There’s a very simple test to say what is what and which is which: follow the money. If the flows is supposed to go from your writer’s pocket to the “publisher” scamming business you have only one option: RUN.

    If you don’t… well, I have a stake on the Colosseo in Rome and can sell it to you for a great price.

  2. Excellent post, Melinda. Great check list to keep handy. So often a new author is just so thrilled to have an offer of a contract, they don’t take off the rose-colored glasses long enough to entertain the worst-case scenario. Forewarned is forearmed.

    1. Thanks, Melissa. I think you’re right – that first contract offer is pretty thrilling. Unfortunately getting *out* of that first contract offer isn’t much fun.

  3. Melinda,
    The timing of this post could not be better! This Saturday I have the pleasure of presenting a free program to my local library about self-publishing for aspiring authors. I am including a link to this post in my resource sheet.
    Thank you for summing up everything I wanted to say so concisely.

    1. Awesome, Lois, thanks for sharing it, and I hope you have a lot of fun at your presentation! 🙂

  4. When I was a naive newbie I got caught by one of these. Even though I thought I had done my research and chosen a reputable company that turned out not to be the case. It is so difficult for someone who is just starting out to know who to trust. For those of us beginning with no contacts and no leads from other writers it is so easy to be hoodwinked by these scammers. Even those who have “self-published” are still taken in because they still don’t see how they have been taken in and are happy with their results. They have a book in their hands they think is wonderful and can’t see past that to the costs they will never recoup, or don’t see the poor quality in the cover or formatting.

    My next post (next Monday)will look at yet another – one that has no negative history on any of the ‘beware’ sites, yet is questionable.

    1. I look forward to that post, Yvonne. I got caught in one of these, too, and at that time it wasn’t yet mentioned on all the warning sites (although it is now). The thing I really wish I’d known to do before signing was to look more closely at the books they’d already released. If I’d done that I’d have seen the lack of editing and nearly nonexistent sales and *maybe* chosen not to sign. Then again, as mentioned by Melissa up above, that first contract offer is pretty thrilling. Who knows? Back then, I may have signed, anyway.

  5. Let me just jump in and say that I’ve worked in publishing as an author and editor at the Senior and Acquisitions level for 30 years. What always makes me laugh about posts such as this is the idea that there are people who actually think publishers are getting filthy rich making money off of writers! If I truly wanted to exploit somebody, I’d do better going after CEO’s or something wouldn’t I? I happen to run what is referred to in the industry as a hybrid publisher. That means that yes, I charge authors for cover design, interior design, editing, formatting and other promotional services. Whether they choose to use those services is entirely OPTIONAL.But not every book is automatically ready for prime time just because someone wrote it. I never invite anyone to a contract if I feel I can’t sell it and I publish less than 1/10 of the books I work on. Some books need professional help.Some authors don’t feel confident navigating the world of self publishing alone, and some use companies such as mine as a launching pad. I’ve had three authors get picked up by agents, others who decided to self publish once their books were in shape and still others who used my guidance to help navigate the world of traditional publishing. If I do sign an author, yes, they get paid royalties and yes they are expected to help sell and promote their own work, just as you would be expected to do so in a traditional house. That is not a scam; it simply embraces the reality that authors have lots of options open to them these days. So don’t tar us all with the same brush, okay?

    1. Absolutely, Teresa, which is why I said, “Keep in mind this isn’t an exhaustive list, nor is it an indictment based on any one item. Instead, it’s a general list of items that should at the very least cause you to ask questions.”

      One of the most exciting things about the writing/publishing world these days is the huge variety of options available to writers. On the flip side, such a variety of options can be confusing to a new author, particularly when he/she doesn’t have an understanding of the industry. Authors need to ask questions and seek clarification before signing so they know and understand exactly what the expectations are.

      1. Only more confusing because some of those companies specializing in self publishing scams are now sometimes owned by publishers that we all know are legitimate. Thanks for the post, Melinda.

  6. Very helpful info and advice. Sometimes, paying a vanity press to self-publish your book seems like a “good idea,” but it rarely turns out that way. I know several authors who got snared in this trap.

    1. Thanks, Linda. I’ve also known several authors who got snared. I think the biggest issue is not only that they don’t research the particular company, but also that they have no idea what to expect in general so are unable to spot a bad deal.

  7. “Publishing” companies that have come into existence since the onset of Facebook especially are quite often just people jumping on an opportunity to make money quickly. Most have little or no experience in the fields of writing or editing or marketing. They are simply focused on the amount of money they can make if they funnel someone else’s hard work through their “organization.”

    They hire friends to provide various services without checking their past work to ensure their competency.

    They equate “getting it out there” with being a responsible publisher. With today’s technology, we can all “get it out there.” Being a publisher is about having contacts in the industry that will take your clients to the next level and the next beyond the average indie writer’s ability.

    I have seen many successful indie writers, but most are talented marketers. If you’re not, then it behooves you to market yourself to a publishing company with a legitimate history of success or find the money to hire a PR person for yourself.

  8. Melinda! You nailed it. I FB, Tweeted and Google+ your article because it needs to be read by indie authors–all of us. I signed a contract with an online publisher that has a nice reputation. But! It was not the place for my books, and there were so few outs. Plus, the editor that was feeding me so much fantasy got fired. There I was hanging. I have a clause that says I can buy my contracts. They refuse. Now, I just have to outlive them. Thus far, I have managed to get four titles reverted to me. Every single one needed a professional edit, a decent formatter and cover. I have learned to steer clear of anybody who says, I’ve been in this business for 30 years. Most online publishers have a cheat sheet for ‘editors’ to use. Knowing where to place a comma or not, the difference between there and their, does not an editor make. Hard lesson, but I learned it. Yep. Great post.

  9. Thank you for writing this – and thank you to the person who posted the link that brought me here! I am new to self-publishing, with only two books out right now. I’ve been reading and joining writer’s organizations in order to figure out the best way to produce and then market a quality project.

    As many authors do, I have dreams of being approached someday by an agent or publisher impressed by my work but I was fortunate enough to be put on my guard early. While doing a book signing with several indie authors, I listened to their experiences. Some were good, most were not, with the small independent publishers.

    For now, I plan to continue to hone my craft as a writer and to develop my skills as a marketer.

    1. I’m so glad you stopped by, Linda. IU is absolutely full of helpful articles for authors, so I hope you’ll take a look around. Good luck with your books!

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