Over the next few weeks I'll be posting a series aimed at beginner writers on how to find the right service providers for your needs, and how to identify scammers before they take your money and leave you in tears.
This week I'll be looking at that bane of most self publishers lives: Vanity Publishers, those companies that give legitimate self-publishers a bad name.
That was then...
Once upon a time, before self publishing became the juggernaut it is today, authors who self-published their books were looked down upon. This was generally because the only people who self-published were (a) rejected by all the reputable publishers, and therefore quite possibly no good, (b) believed they could do a better job than the professionals, and (c) had enough money to gratify their egos by paying for books they could sit and admire. Hence the term Vanity Publishing.
That was back in that far distant past, when the only books were print books, so going it alone wasn't really an option. You needed a company with the printing machinery to actually make the books. The 'self' publishing company created you a cover, formatted your manuscript, and printed several boxes worth of books, depending on how much you paid them. And that was where their involvement ended. The writer, out of pocket for a substantial sum of money, now sat with a garage full of boxes, and nowhere to park the car.
The writer would then have to handle their own distribution and marketing. And if you think that's easy, and anyone can do it, you try loading several boxes of books in your car boot and driving from bookstore to bookstore to hawk your wares. Especially when your reception from the bookstore owner is likely to be a sneer. "You don't have an account with us, you have no track record, and you couldn't find a real publisher to publish your books - so why would we possibly want to stock your book in our store?"
Harsh, but mostly true. Of course, there were a few rare writers for whom this model worked. Those writing within a niche market or attempting something radically new, who conservative publishing houses were too afraid to take a risk on, could get their books out to their specific readers. Speakers, teachers, or other professionals with a built-in market and platform to sell to could also benefit from this arrangement.
Too often, though, the people who paid over their live savings to have their books printed were simply the gullible who didn't know any better.
And this is now...
Then the eBook revolution happened. Suddenly, books didn't have to be made by expensive printing companies any more. Authors with stories to tell, unable to find a publisher willing to take a chance on them, could now publish their own books. And with the advent of Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) anyone with a computer and a manuscript could self-publish. A few intrepid writers braved the sneers of "oh you couldn't find a real publisher, could you?" and hit it big. Astronomically big. Amanda Hocking big.
Within a very short space of time, writers were jumping on the band wagon, striking it rich, and an entire industry sprang up to cater to them: freelance editors, proof readers, cover designers, book formatters, marketers, reviewers, book bloggers and virtual assistants - even printers, willing and ready to turn successful eBooks into print books.
On the down side, the deluge of books now hitting the virtual book shelves has made it harder and harder for those publishing today to make the big bucks. With so many books to choose from, it is harder than ever to become a breakout success.
On the plus side, the stigma that once clung to anyone who self-published is largely gone. How can anyone deride the quality of self-published books when some of the biggest names in publishing are doing it, when readers are lining up to pay for it, and authors are building successful careers on it? Today, self-publishing is an informed choice, not a last resort.
But buyer beware...
Where there is money to be made, there are sharks looking to make an easy buck. Those vanity publishers of yore are still there, though they've adapted to this new paradigm. Instead of saying "we'll print your book for you", now they say "we'll self-publish your book for you", and the gullible are still lining up to hand over their hard-earned cash.
Vanity Publishers today still make their money in the same way they did back before eBooks - from the author. They don't give a damn whether you sell ten copies or a hundred - or none. They already have a client paying them great big chunks of cash (you!) so they don't need to expend any effort to sell your books to readers.
Don't become shark bait!
How can you tell which companies are legit, and which are scammers? Here are six handy tips to help you distinguish between the two:
Would you spend R5,000 on a new television set without researching the different products on the market, their features and their costs? No, so why do it with a publishing company? Do your homework. Don't just go along with the first company you stumble across (or who markets directly to you based on your web searches). Check what other companies are offering, compare products and prices.
Google is your friend. Don't only look at the company's official website. Don't simply follow a paid advert in your search engine, and look no further. Go to page 3 or 4 or 5 on Google, and look at what other people are saying about them. Don't trust the testimonials on the company's website - remember that companies are only going to quote their positive reviews on their websites, not the negative ones!
Word of mouth. Ask for recommendations from other authors who have self-published. Search out forums, message boards and Facebook groups and ask. Learn from the experiences of authors who have gone before you. (Trust me, we don't bite!)
Check their credentials. No matter whether they are a self-publishing one stop shop, an editor, or a cover designer, they should all have samples of their work displayed on their website. What other books have they published? What quality are those books? What do the reviews on Amazon say about the book's content and formatting? Is that the kind of book you want in return for your money?
Don't be afraid to ask for more. Any genuine service provider will be happy to send you a portfolio, examples of their work, or refer you to satisfied customers.
Finally, are they doing a really hard sell? The good guys out there aren't call centre sales agents, and they're not emailing you every ten minutes, popping up in Gmail ads, or buying your details from online marketing services. They don't need to - they're too busy providing a service to their clients. However, Vanity publishers make their money not by providing good service, but by selling you a product. Their sales people often work on commission, and their job is to up-sell you even more products. So if a company is constantly putting you under pressure to sign up with them, they are more than likely sharks - and the pressure on you to pay more and more is only going to get worse, not less.
Remember that no matter whether you are traditionally published or self published, one golden rule always remains true: the money should flow from the publisher or reader to the writer. Not the other way round.
Whether you have a publisher, agent or service provider standing between you and the reader, you should still be at the receiving end of the cash, not the giving end, and you should always have a very clear contract stipulating what you are getting in return for any money you pay or share.
Every time you agree to pay for a service, or to share the income from your books with someone else, ensure that it is an informed business decision. Anything less, and you might as well hand your life savings to that Nigerian lawyer who wants to pay you a vast inheritance from a relative you never knew you had - in return for access to your bank account.
If you're looking for recommendations for reputable self-publishing service providers, check out ROSA's Resources page here.
Next week I'll be looking at Writing Coaches. Yes, I know I am one, but that doesn't mean you should sign up with me before first understanding what you're getting!