Scam vs. Self-Publishing

Discussions about self-publishing and vanity presses seem to be in the air today. I received this question in my email…

I’m a guy with a day job working on a business book related to my profession. 
As a business person I am comfortable with self promotion and like the cost
structure of self publishing.  I was curious about the distinction you made in a
recent post about the difference between a vanity press and a self publisher. 
What is the difference in your view?

Vanity presses and self-publishers are the same thing… companies you pay to publish your book.   There’s nothing wrong with vanity presses… as long as they aren’t trying to fool  you into thinking they are a traditional publishers.

IUniverse, for example, is a reputable vanity press that turns out a nice looking product at a reasonable price. They don’t pretend to be anything but what they are… a company that offers authors a way to self-publish their books.

I’ve had several of my out-of-print titles republished in trade paperback  editions (at no cost to me through a special Authors Guild program) and have been very happy with the results.  The books look great and I get nice little royalty checks on a regular basis… and I can double-check my sales at any time by logging into their website.

But before you get involved with a vanity press, you should have realistic expectations about the kinds of sales, distribution, promotion, and critical notice you are likely to get.

Figure close to zero.

The burden of selling the book, promoting the book, and getting any critical notice at all will be entirely up to you.  Stores are reluctant to carry self-published titles because they rarely get a discount and can’t return unsold copies.  Critics will rarely review a self-published title. Reporters are loathe to interview a self-published author unless there is an incredibly compelling angle to the story (It helps if you’re a TV star (Buddy Ebsen), a controversial politician (Richard Lugar),  a famous songwriter (Lee Hazelwood), or a key player in a sex scandal (Amy Fisher).

I can see how going to a vanity press would make sense for a non-fiction book if, for example, you want to market it yourself at speaking engagements and seminars… or use as a promotional item for your company and its services.  There is a place for self-publishing…it’s a useful service.  But it’s not a replacement for authors looking for all the things that come from having a book bought by Simon & Schuster, Penquin/Putnam, or any other "traditional" publishing house.

18 thoughts on “Scam vs. Self-Publishing”

  1. My iUniverse book is nonfiction. The first collection of essays I’m reworking and expanding into a new book that is already under submission to an agent. Otherwise the writing is lost being available as a vanity press POD online only product. That’s just the reality of it.

  2. For the record, in my eight years of newspaper reviewing, I reviewed only one self-publish book, the memoirs of a Myrtle Beach restaurant owner, because a) the book was beautifully put together (typography, photos, design, cover) and b) he jammed it full of very funny stories about his life, written in a fabulous, over-the-top style.
    No, it was not published through any of the vanity presses. He did it locally, and I think except for a small Web presence, sells it to tourists at his restaurants.
    Here’s the book (“Greek Boy: Growing Up Southern”)

  3. One more to add: the review was for a South Carolina newspaper, and I had been to Myrtle Beach, so there’s a few other factors that a self-published author can’t account for. I had received some incredibly awful self-published books, but also some decent ones that I cast aside in favor of published authors.
    As if the bias against self-published wasn’t bad enough, in the end, what really kills them is that each month, there’s a stack of books which deserve reviewing but can’t be because there’s simply no time to read them. When writers like Ian Rankin and Loren Estleman get tossed because I’ve already got a Grafton and a Westlake on my stack (and more coming next month), what chance does a self-published writer have?

  4. You’re right that some, perhaps several, print-on-demand companies are less than honest, if not outright deceptive, in their dealings with eager authors. But I think you paint with a little too broad a brush. I’ve had experience with three now, one apiece through my father and my best friend, and the one–Llumina Press in Coral Springs, FL–for which I now work, as of two weeks ago.
    1stbooks was a fraud; they became Authorhouse. I still urge caution about them. iUniverse is the BMOC; my dad’s experience was pleasant enough. Llumina strives hard to ensure authors understand that they will bear the responsibility for promoting their book. That’s their choice. No one forces them to use P.O.D. Some authors choose to go the P.O.D. route simply to have a real copy of a book in their hands. Others make the choice out of necessity or strategically. Sometimes it’s the only option left, if the larger houses refuse to pick up your book.
    This is why James Redfield wound up self-publishing The Celestine Prophecy. After he’d sold 100,000 copies on his own, Warner picked it up and the rest is history. Blanchard and Johnson self-published The One-Minute Manager, then sold it William Morrow after their local success. Rick Evans had the same experience with The Christmas Box.
    So it can happen. It merely depends on the quality of the material and the marketing savvy and gumption of the author. It provides another option. There’s certainly no harm in that. As with anything, caveat emptor, but also as with anything, do some research first. There are certainly reputable P.O.D. companies out there ready to help you get your book published.
    I should clarify, too, that your statement that “Stores are reluctant to carry self-published titles because they rarely get a discount and can’t return unsold copies,” is no longer true. One of Llumina’s innovations was to erase the returnability hurdle. Working with Springboard Logistics, Llumina now offers the ability to list a P.O.D. book with Ingram as returnable. Other P.O.D. publishers are beginning to follow suit.
    So the opportunity is there and it’s fair, depending on how much work the author wants to do and how much he wants to pay to be able to have copies in his hand to do with as he pleases. It’s purely a marketing strategy. It worked for What Color Is Your Parachute and In Search of Excellence. If an author’s book is equally excellent, and he wants (or has) to do the leg work, it can work for him, too.

  5. This is why James Redfield wound up self-publishing The Celestine Prophecy. After he’d sold 100,000 copies on his own, Warner picked it up and the rest is history. Blanchard and Johnson self-published The One-Minute Manager, then sold it William Morrow after their local success. Rick Evans had the same experience with The Christmas Box.

    But those are the rare exceptions…and you’ll notice the instant they had the chance to switch to a “real” publisher, they did.

  6. Lee’s point is the real killer in this discussion: “success” for a self-published author in every case is defined by them being picked up by a traditional publisher. If self-publishing, in and of itself, was the ticket, the story wouldn’t end that way.

  7. That’s the deal David. I agree 100 percent. For Clint who has no reason to be objective now, Redfield self-published his book. He didn’t do it with a POD vanity press so that alone invalidates your example. Mark Twain pops into this fill-in-the-blank too. 1st Books wasn’t a scam either, like the others it was a vanity press in the new POD model.
    Unfortunately for you that’s all Llumina is too. No books on shelves=no sales. Tackle that problem.

  8. “For Clint who has no reason to be objective now, Redfield self-published his book.”
    Yes, because a couple of weeks ago I started working for a company I’d never heard of before then, I’m instantly a shill for them. Funny, I don’t remember checking my free will at the door. Good lord. Nothing like a temperamental snap judgment to foster reasonable discourse.
    I said it’s purely a marketing strategy, which it is: another tool for the aspiring writer. No respectable P.O.D. company–and Llumina is forthright about this with its authors; I sit next to the nice lady who tells them–claims that it will be able to generate the kind of marketing and produce at the same cost as traditional publishers. Llumina explicitly tells its authors that their books will be edited once they’re submitted–they don’t just buy and print–and, more important, that they authors will be responsible for all promotion and marketing, which is obviously the secret to anything beyond trivial sales. They don’t promise sales, they promise a book in the author’s hand and nothing more.
    So–is that “tackled” enough for you? Jesus, man. Take a pill.
    There’s nothing complicated or scandalous about any of this. Traditional publishers can’t and won’t publish what they don’t know about. If a writer is lucky enough to grab one’s attention and a contract, fantastic. Most writers won’t, though, of course, which in the past largely meant they were dead in the water. Now, at least, they can turn to P.O.D. and at least get a product in their hands that they can market on their own if they so choose. How there’s anything wrong with having more options is beyond me. It’s two different niches fulfilling two different needs giving authors more choices in how to get their work seen, which is only a good thing. Does it cost? Of course it does, but no one’s putting a gun to a writer’s head to do it. It’s a choice the writer makes, a calculated risk that through his own legwork he can find a vender for his product.
    Are there scam artists out there taking advantage of the opportunity? Of course, just as there are scam artists out there taking advantage of every other kind of opportunity. A writer should approach it with the same caution as anyone should when looking to invest in what is essentially a business opportunity. Do the research and proceed with caution. You know, use some common sense.
    Again, there’s no great mystery here. It’s pretty straightforward, in fact: Do your homework, decide which approach is best for you, and go for it. Sheesh.

  9. “vendor”
    Sorry, it was grating on me.
    And if the point wasn’t clear enough, I think most authors realize that they’re not going to achieve huge sales through a P.O.D. The idea from the start, at least among the writers I know who are interested in it is to try to garner enough sales through it to attract the attention of a traditional publisher. If they don’t realize that–well, first, they’re a little dim and certainly haven’t done their homework–but a P.O.D. publisher should explain that. I know Llumina does. I know 1stBooks didn’t when my friend hooked up with them, but he was smart enough to know that going in, as did my father when he went with iUniverse.
    The point being no one’s getting misled about the nature of P.O.D. and its limited potential who’s done his homework on the book publishing industry.

  10. Hello.
    I was thinking about self-publishing, and i have made contact with AuthorHouse. But someone in here said they were a fraud? To me, they seem like fraud. too good to be true.

  11. They seem like they are: a vanity press. It’s straight forward and in my view useless as id any vanity POD press. It’s a paid date: Not the same thing as being wanted.

  12. I want to publish a book through author house. One person i knew did it and had great result, but I’ve read that it was a scam. I’ve been in contact with an author representative and I even negotiated a student discount so I would only pay a little over $450. It seems like a really good deal. What are your thoughts?

  13. Elisabeth,
    It’s not a deal at all, it’s a scam. You are throwing your money away.
    Authorhouse is a vanity press. All they do is format your book as PDF file that can be printed in a form that resembles a trade paperback, only with a horrific cover.
    They aren’t publishers, they are printers.
    Why do you want to “publish” a book with Authorhouse? What are you looking to achieve? No will take you or your book seriously. You won’t get reviewed. You won’t sell any copies to anyone but a few of your friends and family.
    You are better off spending the money on your rent or electric bill…or on some creative writing courses.
    (FYI – The book “The Fine Print of Self-Publishing” by Mark Levine ranks Authorhouse among the worst and most “author unfriendly” of the major vanity presses).

  14. My two contracts with for my books “Signal” and “Six Degrees North Latitude” ended in early 2008. I have received no royalties and vbworm won’t answer my letters or email. I know the books sold since both new and used copies are available on Amazon, ebay, and other sites. Other authors with legitimate complaints are invited to send particulars to Jarvis Parsons at the Brazos County, TX DA’s office at
    Their office has had vbworm under investigation since May, 2008

  15. Xlibris is a fraudulent, dishonest and incompetent, disaster zone. Xlibris is nothing more than a quick-buck scam printer, posing as a “print-on-demand publisher”, and it has one of the highest complaints percentages for a small business of it’s type – with numerous civil legal proceedings for fraud and libel – including one major one that is currently in the Indiana courts and when the judgement is made public in Spring 2011, will likely make the Rebecca Brandewyne/Authorhouse saga look like a walk in the park. (Word is they’re going to need to remortgage a few houses to cover the damages on this latest libel case) Xlibris was started in the late 1990s in a parents’ basement, and was previously run out of a garage/home office in Philadelphia, but in the last year moved to the Author Solutions call-center with partner frauds, AuthorHouse (which has a long legal history – just Google “Authorhouse Scam” to find out) and – the quintessential Author trap. As of December 2010, Xlibris owes huge back taxes to the IRS and is currently carrying huge liabilities that Mr Princeton CEO Kevin Weiss has strategized to rescue with disturbingly dubious “publish 2 for 1” / “publish for a buck” coupon deals which any writer, however good or bad, should stay well clear. Their book production is dogshit like their customer service. Piers Anthony, one of the website’s English owners, one of the swarming flies who still fronts this scam, is a failed British “published author” and part time con-man who lives in Florida, and has a few skeletons of his own – including a 20-year old criminal record in the UK for serious sexual misconduct, fraud and theft. Yes, Random House does still own a percentage – but let’s be clear folks, Random House has a sleeping stake much the same way that Microsoft partially owns the adult services site, Ingenio/Niteflirt and don’t they keep that very quiet. RH makes VERY CLEAR that Xlibris books have nothing to do with RH. The Xlibris website contains inept, vague material which is more confusing than helpful, and makes wild inconsistent boasts about how the company has “600 staff” on one page, yet, on another page mysteriously has “300 employees”. The company actually has 3 full time employees, (including Mr Ivy League Kevin Weiss), and at any one time up to 10 part time workers, most of whom are part-time college students who know virtually nothing about publishing except high school english and how to make a greasy $10/hour. The problems with printing at Xlibris are as long as Authorhouse’s scam history, they are a disgusting company and I’m sorry they ever crossed paths with my work.

  16. I am baffled! Initially I contacted Authorhouse for ‘vanity’ reasons…a book written by me for my family. There never were expectations of becoming a ‘bestselling’ writer. My two books,published and on Internet sites, including Amazon, came as a complete surprise. The books have sold,internationally, albeit in limited numbers. The help and encouragement I received from AH has been continuous. If you don’t believe me: 1)The Indestructible Soul, Jasmin of the Svea.2)Metempsychosis: Eternal Wandering Spirit.
    What’s going on? Is AH a scam or not?


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