Once upon a time, the publishing business was straightforward. You wrote a book, and you tried to find a publisher who was interested in it, or maybe you’d look for an agent who would find a publisher for you. Either way, your main work is done – you can hand over the manuscript to the publisher, who would then invest in it by way of editing, typesetting, proofreading, marketing and printing.
If you couldn’t find a publisher you would keep trying, or write another book and try with that one. Or you would give up trying.
One alternative, if you have enough money, is to pay a publisher to publish your book for you. This sounds good in principle – pay a fee, hand over the manuscript and they will edit, format, proofread, commission a cover and publish the book.
The trouble is, this method can prove very expensive. After all, the company is making the bulk of its money from the author, not from book sales. So there are many horror stories about huge costs for very little return.
If you’re publishing your memoirs for your family, and have the money to spare but not the time or inclination to pick your way through self publishing, then this might be a reasonable solution. Just be aware of the implications.
If you intend to write a series of books, or want to learn the publishing business for yourself, then steer well clear of vanity publishers – on top of paying over the odds for work done, when you reach the point when you want to take control for yourself you could find it difficult to claim rights back.
So what should you be aware of? How can you recognise a vanity publisher? One view is that anyone who asks for money to publish your book should be avoided, but if you’re indie publishing that becomes a grey area (see service providers below).
Try googling the company name with “reviews”. See what other authors have said about them. Did they offer value for money? Are authors pleased with their service? Or do they feel they’ve paid out a lot of money for very little?
Ask around. Can you find another author published by that company? Can you find their books in bookshops? What are the reviews like for books published by them?
Did you find the company or did they find you? Anyone contacting you and offering to publish your work before they’ve seen it should be treated with suspicion. Do they care about the quality of your writing, or do they just want to part you from your money?
There’s a third route – indie authors are publishing their own work, but treat writing as a serious business. They invest in editing, formatting, proofreading, cover design, marketing, and do all the things that a trad publisher would be expected to do, but as they’re publishing their own work they keep all the profit instead of having to split it.
It is important, however, to recognise that if you’re putting out material that you want people to buy, you need to ensure it’s as good a quality as possible – this does mean paying out for editors, and having your work thoroughly proofread. While it’s possible to skip these steps, and a few people might manage this successfully without paying for services, the majority risk end up putting out a piece of work that is of low quality, damaging their reputation as an author and lowering the public’s expectations of books from outside the big publishing houses.
Some companies offer a selection of services, such as editing, proofreading, formatting, cover design, to help you with your book. Like vanity publishers these make their money from the author, but unlike vanity publishers they don’t continue to make money through book sales, and don’t hold any rights over your material.
Here the main issue is of quality and value for money. What control do you have over the services? Are you handing your book over to an unknown editor, or are you in direct contact with whoever is working on your book? Editors can work very differently; while it can be reassuring to have a company overseeing a group of editors, you might feel detached from the work and prefer to find an editor you get on with, and can build up a working relationship with.
If you’re a member of ALLi (Alliance of Independent Authors) then you have an excellent source of advice there, and can check for partner members, who have been vetted.