Do Some Vanity-Published Authors Suffer Stockholm Syndrome?

#PublishingFoul Logo Indies UnlimitedThis month at IU, we’ve been featuring articles on bad experiences with publishing contracts — either bad deals or scammy companies. You’d think that with the proliferation of stories about companies that swindle authors or offer all-around bad deals, they’d all be out of business. Yet, many persist. And some even have glowing recommendations from authors who’ve used their services.

So, what’s the deal? Are these people getting better service than those who got scammed or do they, as my friend Jim suggested, suffer from Stockholm syndrome? For those unfamiliar, Stockholm syndrome occurs when a kidnapping victim begins to identify with captors and even ultimately defends the captors. Patty Hearst, the heiress kidnapped in 1974 by the Symbionese Liberation Army, later joined in the group’s crime spree and was said to have participated because she suffered from Stockholm syndrome.

The notion that the aggrieved authors now adore their publisher transgressors is said somewhat in jest, but I do think the truth is a shade of that. I know two people who have used vanity presses to publish their books. I won’t list the company names, but Googling either company turns up a series of complaints about editing, pricing, and other things that indicate it’s a scam designed to part authors with their hard-earned money. Yet both authors I know had complimentary things to say about the company they used (even though Google searches and many other authors said otherwise).

One of the authors went so far as to encourage others to self-publish using a vanity press like hers and talked about how wonderful her customer liaison was. She loved the company, even though she spent $800 on her own cover and a $1,000 on editing, in addition to paying the company more than $3,000 to help her self-publish. This author sings the praises, while the listener tries to refrain from open-mouthed shock.

authors locked in with publishers Stockholm syndrome is a stretch, but I do believe there are some people who “drink the Kool-Aid,” as folks say. They believe it costs a lot to publish a book, so they don’t bat an eye at the excessive costs these vanity publishers charge. Because a lot of self-published books — and traditionally published books, for that matter — don’t have stellar sales figures, the authors aren’t alarmed if their book doesn’t fare well. They don’t consider that maybe the company didn’t do a great job editing the book, or that the company didn’t provide the “stellar” cover that was promised. Or that all the services they paid the company for (like getting their book on Amazon, editing, or writing a press release) are things they could easily have done themselves or hired more efficient contractors to do better and cheaper. Often people who use vanity publishers want help publishing. And I get that. I don’t know how to change the oil of my car, so I hire out to do it. However, if my car broke down shortly after I got my oil changed, I’d be suspicious. After consulting another mechanic, I’d learn the first shop used Canola oil instead of motor oil, and tell everyone I knew not to go to that business.

With self-publishing, there often isn’t the immediate “break down,” so some authors are content with the level of service they received, which is a problem when they encourage others to follow their own footsteps

I don’t believe there is malice in these people who say good things about these companies. That’s why I think it’s important when you get a recommendation from someone, that you ask them some questions. Find out how much the place cost, how it performed, whether the editing was up to standards, if the cover looked good. Ask to see a link to the book, too, in case a person doesn’t understand that the cover they think is great is actually just mediocre. And always do your own research – get other opinions. Someone who’s open and friendly and willing to give you both the positives and the negatives is probably offering you good perspective. I’ve found those who’ve been scammed by vanity publishers but don’t quite realize it yet are less than forthcoming when they recommend or have answers that betray the problems with the vendor they’ve chosen.

Author: RJ Crayton

RJ Crayton is a former journalist turned novelist. By day, she writes thrillers with a touch of romance. By night, she practices the art of ninja mom. To learn more about her or her books, visit her website or her Author Central page.

22 thoughts on “Do Some Vanity-Published Authors Suffer Stockholm Syndrome?”

  1. I’ve come across this, too. In one on-line discussions I was involved in the praise was so high I wondered if the person was a plant paid by the publisher. In another I was personally attacked when I criticized a vanity publisher. I suspect pride plays a role. It’s sad, in a way.

    1. I think you’re right about pride being involved. Its a bit embarrassing to be scammed, and the companies rely on people feeling shame and keeping their mouths shut so they dont have to be publicly embarassed by what happened. I think the posts thus month have been very helpful in noting the shame in this situation falls solely on the shoulders of the scammer, not the victim.

      Still, some people don’t want to admit they’ve been had. They’d prefer to think publishing is just expensive and those who are asking legitimate questions are just attacking them. And that’s unfortunate.

  2. Last year I attended a program sponsored by our local writer’s guild that included a couple of authors who were happy to share information about wonderful Author House. I kind of just sat there with my mouth open. (And, yes, I finally spoke up and pointed out that many authors consider that an extremely expensive way to publish.)
    I think the one time it makes sense to use a vanity publisher is when you are truly vanity publishing … i.e. you don’t plan to make a career of writing, or even hope to finish a second book. You just want something about your life that you can print up and give to your family and friends. A reasonably-priced vanity press like the one our local bookstore owner runs may make sense for you in that case, as opposed to figuring out how to do it all yourself. (Though I have to assume something like BookBaby would be a much better deal.)

    1. Sandra,

      I agree that authors need to find a press that meets their needs. If they just want to publish one book and have no interest in learning anything about the self publishing process, then they’ll need some help. But it’s important to find good help. I think one of the main problems people have with vanity publishers is that they charge a lot for services and don’t do a good job. They charge you for editing that’s done poorly. They charge you for a cover that’s bad.

      I don’t know every vanity press out there, so I doubt they’re all crooked. If someone uses one and is willing to pay for help, they should use one that gives them optimal service, not subpar service.

  3. I was actually put in contact with three authors who sung the praises of PenPress – the incompetent publishers who took money from me on a partnership publishing deal and left me stranded at a book launch without any books after a 12,000 mile journey – one of the authors had published with them a couple of times.

    1. T.D. That’s awful. And the other thing that’s never clear about certain places is whether any of them use the Ponzi scheme method, where they do a pretty good job initially, to get good word of mouth and then bilk later customers.

      Though, I can’t say I’ve heard of a lot of publishing places being like that. But you never know. I’m sorry you got recommended to a place that turned out to be shoddy.

  4. I attended a workshop on self-publishing and was flabbergasted when the author began discussing contracts. It ended up she was using a “service provider,” yet still called it self-publishing. She was obviously happy with it, but never did get into what it was costing her. I have a feeling it wasn’t cheap. I think you’re right, RJ, that many just think this is what it costs to publish. Because they don’t know what they don’t know, they don’t research or ask. We can only hope our work here this month clears up that particular falsehood.

    1. I completely agree with you, Melissa. That was the thing people always said when I covered education: People don’t know what they don’t know. Calling them stupid, berating them, deriding them, saying they should’ve known and all that other stuff people do is unhelpful. The only thing that is helpful is providing information so those who don’t know can learn. Be kind, be gentle, be supportive and teach. That’s how you get change.

  5. I think, to a large degree, your observations are spot on. I have been offering inexpensive assistance to self-published authors for years now, generally at an hourly rate. Most of what I do involves design and formatting of the paperback and Ebook editions, including cover design. Many of these authors have related horrible stories of how they have been bilked—some knowingly, and some less so—by these so-called “vanity” presses. When asked, most of them admit to having paid thousands of dollars, with very little to show for the expenditure. As to your point regarding the “Stockholm Syndrome,” I think that speaks volumes to the fact that most of these aspiring authors hate to admit that they’ve been victims of their own vanity.
    I recently published TWO books for an author under our Escarpment Press imprint (in regular and large print, and in Ebook format) for well under $2,000. The author admitted to paying over $3,000 previously to one of the many vanity presses, just for the editing. Needless to say, the company never published her books.
    When in doubt about one of these companies, my advice is to do a Google search as follows: “Complaints about XYZ publishing company.” If you search that way, you can almost always learn what you need to know, before forking over your hard-earned money. Bottom line? Caveat Emptor.

    1. It’s sad that the buyer has to beware in this instance, but we do. Unlike mechanics, this isn’t an industry that’s bonded and insured or has certifications that you can check on and assume they’re good if they have them. If an oil change place was regularly using vinegar rather than motor oil in people’s cars, attorney generals would get involved, prosecution would be happening and the place would get shut down. But, when the only harm is to the author’s pocketbook and pride, consumer protection advocates tend not to get as involved. So, you really have to be your own advocate.

  6. P.S. I always inform my clients of the fact that the average self-published book sells less than 100 copies in its lifetime. I also try to be as candid as possible about the quality of their writing. One thing I do offer that very few other services like mine make available is marketing assistance. Without that, even the finest self-published book will languish at the bottom of the sales charts.

  7. Great post, RJ.
    As Sandra has said previously, vanity publishing may be the solution if an author wants to publish with no thought to recouping their investment. A friend’s father published a family history with photos. He paid a lot, but didn’t care as it was a gift to the family. He hasn’t sold a single copy, but gave away copies to his relatives.

    1. Lois,

      I completely agree with you. I think the most important thing is informed consent. If a person understands there’s a cheaper way to go, that they could do a lot of this themselves with minimal time and effort, but chooses not to because they just don’t want to or feel they’re technologically challenged, then fine.

      The real problem is that people go in thinking this is the norm, and if they’d just known otherwise, they’d have taken a different route.

  8. When I first contacted the publishing company who did my first book, I thought I was getting a great deal. I only had to pay $700-$800 as opposed to my husband who paid $1000+ to iUniverse.
    I paid $99 for an ebook conversion. It turned out to be just the manuscript converted to PDF and cost $9.99. A few months later, I discovered Smashwords and the FB author groups. Then I knew just how badly I was taken in and ripped off.

    1. I’m sorry to hear that Greta. It’s awful that these companies take advantage of people’s lack of knowledge. Like I was saying to Lois, I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with charging exhorbitant prices. Companies do it all the time. The key thing is informed consent. People need to understand what they’re getting. Many of these vanity publishers do everything in their power to present their prices as normal and hide information from their customers in order to line their own pockets. That’s what’s not right.

  9. In assembling my material for The AuthorHouse Scam I solicited positive comments of them and their affiliates on a Google site for authors. I got some 30 comments and none were positive. On fellow author on Face Book had good things to say about iUniverse, but she had published with them before they were bought by AuthorHouse, as did best-selling author Lisa Genova. The bottom line is the bottom line. Ask the defenders “Did you make a profit?” and don’t hold your breath waiting for an affirmative.

    1. I’m not surprised you didn’t find many positive comments on an author’s forum. I think the people who comment positively haven’t yet engaged with a lot of writers. Once those with positive comments do start engaging, it becomes clear that perhaps the company they dealt with doesn’t have the best track record and what they thought was great service really wasn’t.

      Also, I don’t know if you can really hold people to the standard of, “Did you make a profit?” People self-publish for all sorts of reasons. Some people do it simply to put out a book and they don’t do marketing, etc., because profit isn’t their motive. Some people self-publish with a subpar product, and that’s just not going to sell, whether they do it themselves or with a vanity publisher. And some peoplel write good books that just don’t sell a lot initially, or take time finding their audience. This is why vanity publishers are able to get away with so much, because selling books isn’t a defined science. Traditional publishers have lots of books that don’t sell as well as they’d hoped. That doesn’t mean it was a scam. However, I think if you ask authors to look at the overall way business was conducted between the company and the author, then they can tell if it was a scam. All the publishing nightmares that have been posted have one thing in common — a publisher who was unresponsive and refused to do things the contract called for. Most also included the element of the publisher asking for additional money to do very simple, cost-of-business type things. Those are your red flags.

  10. I think you’ve got a good point, RJ — people who still have that “I’m a published author!” glow will speak highly of whoever it was who got them there. Especially if paying to be published is the only way they know how to do it. And too, as you’ve pointed out, nobody wants to find out they’ve been scammed after the fact.

    While generally, I believe in the concept of caveat emptor, I can’t fully support it in the case of new authors. As we’ve seen from the posts this month, for the vast majority of these newbies, it’s their first time ever dealing with the publishing process. Places like Author Solutions have figured out how to game their SEO so that they turn up first in any sort of publishing-related search. How can a newbie even know to search for “publishing scam” when the vanity presses have jammed the search results so full of their own links that the first uncomplimentary link is several pages in?

    IMO, the best thing the knowledgeable among us can do is to keep making noise. We need to keep telling newbies the truth about these “publishers”, and we also need to let them know that there’s a better way. (/soapbox) 😉

    1. Lynne,

      I completely agree with you that we need to keep making noise. If one or two people who hadn’t realized there were scammy publishers out there realizes it now, then that’s a good thing.

      I think the main problem that newbies face, is they assume that a company that was swindling clients couldn’t stay in business, so they give the company more credit than it’s worth, especially companies that tell you, “you don’t pay to publish” and ask for no money upfront. That sounds really legit, and like a no-risk proposition. Unfortunately, we’ve learned this month that it’s very risky and quite the scam.

  11. There’s always a cost to experience, but like Lynne and many others have said, in this case it’s way too high, especially when the internet is skewed in favour of the scammers.

    I wonder how much business AuthorSolutions et al would do if the Writer Beware site [or something similar] shared equal prominence with them on the first page of each and every search?

    Unfortunately, the sites trying to save authors don’t have the funds to place expensive advertisements, so, as they say, ‘money talks’.

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