The publishing industry is one of the most competitive spheres ever and also prone to a wide oscillation in the success to failure ratio. A book becomes a bestseller based on a variety of influencing factors, and the industry makes or breaks writers and aspiring authors for seemingly random reasons.
Amidst such high doubts, there is yet another confusion plaguing writers who want to get their book published.
Self-Publishing or Vanity Publishing?
Who are vanity publishers, and how are they different from self-publishers? A broader perspective is required first to justify the presence of alternative publishing methods, and why they were needed.
The ‘Traditional’ Track Record
Statistics suggest that an alarming 95% of the books ever written are not traditionally published. This is because of the large number of submissions to the traditional publishing houses, which cannot champion all manuscripts.
The criteria for selecting a manuscript to publish varies from House to House, but in general, there are a few rules that are commonly applicable. The manuscript should offer something new or unique, be of an interesting subject that can generate sales in the current market (which oscillates based on the trends every few months), and the author must have a strong public presence or a really competent agent. In the absence of even one of these, it is hard to get a publishing contract, and hence, people resort to other publishing options, namely ‘self-publishing and ‘vanity-publishing.’
The Main Differentiation Issue
Even though vanity publishing is a pretty well-known term for one of the least ethical publishing practices, it is not easy to point out exactly which publisher falls under this category, because most often, vanity publishers advertise themselves as ‘self-publishers’ only. The trick is in identifying them with their track record and reports. There are, however, a few warning factors – red flags, even – that would help every aspiring author avoid having their fingers burned and publishing dreams crushed.
The Risk Factor
While both self-publishing and vanity publishing houses require the author to invest money, the difference is in the risk factor analysis. Vanity publishing (or subsidy publishing) is one of those contracts that append all risk on the author’s head. The author has to bear all costs – not only for the publishing and printing but also for the losses at a later stage.
The Control Conundrum
While most vanity publishers advertise themselves as mere ‘publishing helpers,’ and offer packages that include all the book-related services like editing, proofreading, cover designing, pagination, and typesetting, they take the control out of the author’s hands and shape the manuscript with their branding and design.
The author eventually loses control over even minute aspects of the outcome, even if initially promised complete satisfaction along with the assurance that their manuscript will be ‘polished’ and published. To see one’s final work draft directly hit the market without editing or proper structuring into a publishing-worthy book is not only a shocking practice but also detrimental to the image of the author, whose future publishing chances might be ruined by their lack of control in deciding the book’s ‘outcome.’
Price and Personality
Most self-publishing houses would give the author the right advice on the book to earn a bit of royalty or at least break even after all the production costs have been met. This is done with the idea that in case the book sells well with further reprints or editions required, the author will have the control to raise the price and get a boost in their royalty accordingly.
But vanity publishing houses calculate the production costs and their own profit into the venture without bothering about sales figures, leaving the author with no choice but to agree to their pricing to ‘break-even’ with royalties. This practice reduces the personality of the book and keeps a base price at a level that discourages initial sales, which are most important for an upcoming author.
The Property and Ownership Debate
This is perhaps the most important difference between the two publishing models. It is also essential to know this so the authors can save themselves and their books from vanity publishing vultures. Self-publishing, even if it is a rigorous process, helps the author and nudges them in the right direction. The author will have to take care of things like getting the copyrights and ISBN for their book, which can be done with zero to minimal charges. Once they get these details registered, the book becomes their property, and they can claim complete ownership of the intellect that went behind creating it.
But vanity publishers, on the other hand, take complete ownership of the book and register the ISBN on their name. Some worst practices include pasting an already obtained ISBN on the book with placeholder details that bode ill for the book when it should be listed on e-commerce sites and online libraries that depend on the ISBN to help with their sorting.
Vanity publishing houses release the books under their banner and insist that the book (and all its contents thereof) belong to them. This issue is serious because the author has no control over the content, and in the chance that the book does well enough for maybe screen adaptations or other presentations, that is when the author will realize that they cannot sign any other contracts pertaining to how the story will be used, and cannot decide on whether they could profit from such outlier ventures. This is not immediately evident in the initial stages because authors simply find it easier to have someone else ‘do the hard work’ for them and get the details from government agencies, so they could see their book in print, and become a ‘published author.’
The Market Presence
Self-published books with enough marketing done, and an organic reach amidst an audience with good reviews to show may even get some shelf space in the popular offline bookstores. But some booksellers outright reject the books under the branding of such vanity publishers due to the lack of quality from their publishing house in general. By going the ‘easy route,’ authors directly lose a chance to even place their books for sales in the bookstores and libraries.
The Stocking and Selling
Ecommerce sites have become the easiest marketplace for all books. They contain purchase options for major publishing houses alongside every minor wannabe book, too. So the presence in an e-commerce site is no indicator of the quality of a publisher.
Self-publishing gives that option for the author to maintain sales figures and replenish the stock in case their copies are sold out. But again, vanity publishing houses do not even bother to restock a book sometimes, citing bad sales figures and poor reception. The author may have to end up buying back their own copies.
The Wants and Needs
The vanity publishing models work because of the author’s desperation, probably after repeated rejections, and simply because traditional publishing houses reject a majority of submissions. Initially, they seem to be offering wonderful alternatives that make the entire publishing journey seem much easier, but in the fine print, the author will end up shelling a lot of money with no returns and a damaged reputation with vanity publishing houses, making the whole thing a really bad publishing experience.
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