Self-Publishing – A Cautionary Tale

Wikipedia defines a vanity press as “a publishing house that publishes books at the author’s expense.” The term vanity is apt.  A book from a vanity press is most commonly born from a writer’s need to be published, whatever the cost. There are no gatekeepers at a vanity press. The only limits are the size of the author’s wallet and the amount that author is willing to spend on a dream.

Early on in writing, I learned that vanity publishing was to be avoided. English teachers, critique partners, and other fellow writers all spoke of self-publishing as the bad boy, the guy from the wrong side of the tracks – undesirable for one pursuing a respectable writing career.

The birth of the Internet then e-publishing and e-readers blurred that definition. Suddenly anyone could self-publish, regardless of the size of one’s wallet.  The limits were lifted.

Joe Konrath at WisRWA 2010

I first heard Joe Konrath speak at the WisRWA Conference in Spring 2010, but I wasn’t ready to hear his gospel. I don’t remember much of his talk (but I did take a great pic at the book signing; he signed a peanut for me :wink:).  Guess I still hoped some traditional publisher would recognize my brilliance and wave a favorable contract before me.  But e-Publishing?  Wasn’t that the same as vanity?  No thanks (sorry, Joe).

Then came the RWA National Conference in New York City in June 2011, and the buzz about self-publishing. At dinner one night, author Mary Stella mentioned Joe Konrath’s name. Her zeal touched me.
When I returned home, I looked up his column, The Newbies Guide to Publishing. I started educating myself.

Was self-publishing the right path for my full-length novels?  Could I do it freely?  Would it harm my reputation?  Then I realized, what reputation?  I wasn’t published. Despite some contest wins, at the rate I was writing and submitting, I wasn’t likely to be. Publishing something, anything, would give me a stake in the new world. I could learn the ropes until my novels were ready.  For the first time in ages, I grew excited about writing.

So a few months ago, using free guidebooks, I formatted and self-published two little e-books.  I paid $10 each for an ISBN from Smashwords but that was my only cash outlay, and it wasn’t technically necessary.  You don’t need an ISBN to publish on Amazon or Barnes & Noble.  And yet now these little books are available on Kindle e-readers, the Nook, on Smashwords, and other e-reader sites. I’ve even had some sales. It can be done.  More important, in a few months time my first novel will go online.

I believe there’s a huge difference between independent self-publishing and vanity publishing. Both may have the same result – a published book.  But in indie publishing the author is empowered, working freely.  In vanity, the author pays someone else for the opportunity to work.

This past week I read that Penguin Books has created a company called Book Country Fair.  For a premium price of $549, Penguin’s Book Country will format an author’s book and publish it on sites such as Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and so on.  There’s no editing.  No cover.  You’ll need to provide those at your own expense.  Oh yes, in addition to the $549, Book Country also takes 30% of the book’s royalties, for life.

By publishing through Book Country, on an e-book sold by Amazon for $2.99, an author earns $1.47 (plus pays the initial upfront fee of $549).  By comparison, if an author totally self-publishes on Amazon, each e-book sold for $2.99 earns the author $2.05.

Why would anyone want to publish through a vanity press?

I urge you to read more about this issue on the following sites:

I’m adding my voice to the chorus.  If you choose to self-publish your work like a growing number are doing, please do NOT pay out a large upfront fee AND royalties, such as those charged by Book Country Fair and other vanity publishers.  It’s simply not necessary.

Finally, please share this with others by clicking the button/s below.  All comments are welcomed.   ♥

60 thoughts on “Self-Publishing – A Cautionary Tale

    • Ella,
      So good to hear from you. You’re right…lots of good formatters, and editors, and cover designers who will only charge a flat fee, and not all that expensive either. btw, I love your new blog. Thanks for comments!

    • Mary,
      Glad you liked it. We all need to make sure our work is ready for publication before we put it out there. Still takes an apprenticeship, of sorts. Write, enter contests, get feedback, join a critique group. But yes, when work is ready, it really can happen, sooner rather than later. Exciting, isn’t it?

      Please keep in touch. I wish you well.

  1. I’d heard of Penguin’s Book Country Fair. I thought it was a rumor about keeping an author’s rights for life. Now that is depressing and a little frightening. I’ve just gone down the self-pub route myself. It’s a completely new territory, but I think the entire industry is going through uncharted territory.

    Thanks for the wonderful article!

  2. Hi Deb,
    I’ve self published as part of a group of authors creating an analogy using Amazon’s Create Space. The only cost you have to pay is the cost of the preview copy of the book, unless you want more assistance. I don’t recommend it unless you have access to a good designer/layout person and access to your own editor, but if you have these things, it is an excellent way to publish.

    • Amazon’s Create Space seems to be the preferred source for Indie Authors who want the option of a print book. I’ve heard many good things about them. But, yes, design and layout is important in a print book. It’s worth it to hire someone, or trade services with someone you know. If you have a link to the Amazon site, I’ll insert it here.

    • Glad it was interesting, Louise. Just looked at your blog. Your last post made me cold! Brrr. is right. But then I’m still freezing from our furnace being out for 5 days, and our own pre-Halloween snow. Thanks for your comment, and for tweeting my post!

  3. Deb, great post. Let’s get the word out. I took a week-long class and had my book formatted and up at Amazon,, and Smashwords at the end of the class. You really can be an Independent author.

  4. Exactly. Someone in one of my chapters shared a great chart that showed the pros and cons of traditional presses, e-pubs, small presses, self publishing and vanity press. The chart made it amply clear that vanity presses are not small presses, not independent publishing like self-publishing nor legitimate e-pubs. They’re scams, plan and simple, whether it’s got an imprimatur like Penguin or whatever that ill-fated Harlequin venture was. I think as long people are focused on getting published rather than getting read, these scams are going to thrive. If you have something to say, create a blog, but if you’re going into writing as a business, make sure you’re the one getting the lion’s share from what you produce. Thanks for the post. It’s timely.

    • Thank you, Anna! The chart is great. I’d love to see it. A person can’t argue with the logic of the numbers and Vanity Publishing just isn’t logical! Thanks so much for your comments.

    • Happy shopping, MJ. That’s what I should have done today. Too much writing, too much blogging, and now I have a chapter to polish. I’ll shop tomorrow. At least we have a functioning (new) furnace now so we’re warm again.

  5. Hey, Deb, great post, very informative. I guess the real trick on knowing whether to go indie is being sure your book is ready. Liking or not liking a book is all so subjective, whether you’re a regular reader, an agent, publisher, or contest judge. Put your book a way for even two weeks and when you look at it again, you’ll find things to change to make the ms better. So when do you decide, “It’s good enough?”
    You’ve also got great posts under Indie Publishing. Thanks so much for sharing and encouraging those of us with less guts to jump on the new ride.

    • I agree, Marsha. Knowing when you are ready is difficult. Contests help some. Critique partners and beta readers help a lot. And your suggestion of putting it out of sight for a few weeks is great. You catch things that way. I also find that printing a hard copy gives it a whole different look.

      But then at some point, a person needs to dive in and test the waters, don’t you think? Indie publishing allows for that. And, if uncertain, one can always use a pen name. 🙂

      Glad you liked the links under Indie Publishing. Great blogs, all of them. I’ve found them very helpful.

  6. Reading that a “reputable publisher” is doing this kind of scam makes me sick to my stomach. Uninformed people and/or authors who are afraid of the process are going to be suckered into doing this. Then, when they find out the truth, are going to be stuck with their contract.

    I paid for formatting for my books–$50.00 each. I put them up on the sites myself, and if I can do it, anyone can. I was afraid before I did it because I’m so tech challenged, but everything went fine. Amazon, B &N, Smashwords all take you step by step through the process. Charge these authors $200 and make a nice profit. But don’t take a percentage of their sales money.

    Thanks for the article. I hope lots of people read it and beware!

    • Yes, Debra, it is sickening. I’d always viewed Penguin as one of the class acts, publisher of the classics with a solid reputation. It is business, they might say but the seamier side of it. That’s why I felt compelled to write this post and join my voice to the others who have already posted information. To get the word out to those looking into self-publishing and say beware.

      Hope others join in and pass the word.

      Your experience is a good one, and you’ve had some amazing success. Good books, and minimal one-time costs to publish. Thanks so much for your words! And continued good wishes in your career.

  7. Deb,

    Such great insight. I had recently heard of Book Country, but didn’t realize how much they charged and that they required the author to provide the cover and editing. Yikes! I posted this to my Twitter and Facebook. Hope the word gets around quickly.

    • Cherie, thanks so much for your comments. That’s why I posted, to spread the word. Thanks so much for tweeting and posting to your FB! The word is definitely getting around,

  8. Great post, Deb! I love this part: “Was self-publishing the right path for my full-length novels? Could I do it freely? Would it harm my reputation? Then I realized, what reputation?” 🙂

    I’m pretty much in the same boat and decided to indie publish a novella. I did pay a graphic artist and an editor, but my costs weren’t even half what Book Country will charge. (I didn’t purchase the ISBN numbers from Smashwords, but I’m thinking of it.)

    So far my results are TBD :-), but like you, I’m excited about writing again!

    • Leah, so good to hear that you are publishing your novella! A good cover and well-edited book are important for success. As you learned, you can do that for minimal costs. The thing is, the price BC charges does not include those things – cover or editing – so you’d have those charges anyway.

      As you probably know (but others might not), Smashwords will give you a free ISBN number but it will be registered to Smashwords. No big deal. But for just $10, you can buy your own ISBN through Smashwords and it will be registered to either you, or the self-made publishing name you designate. If you don’t get an ISBN number, your book can still be listed on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. They’ll assign another number. It won’t be listed on Apple and a few others. Everything I’ve seen shows that the majority of sales are through Amazon.

      The excitement is a great thing, isn’t it? We’re no longer looking at waiting for months for the possible but improbable hope that we’ll get “the call.” It’s all in our hands. Scary but exciting. Writers are empowered, as never before.

      Congratulations again on the novella!

      • Wow….you mean the BC charges don’t include the artist and editing? Wow. Thanks for the additional info on ISBNs. I thought about getting one from Smashwords (for $10), and I thought about purchasing outright from the source (Bowker…not so cheap), but so far I’ve been paralyzed with indecision. 🙂 Actually, i read that you need a separate number for each digital version (e.g., one for Kindle, one for Nook, etc.) and that stumped me a bit.

        • Interesting, Leah. I’d read several places that as long as an e-book was the same version (text, cover, etc.), only one ISBN number was needed. However, based on what you said I looked a little deeper.

          Please see this link from Publishing Basics.

          According to this, a person would need a different ISBN for each different type of conversion. HOWEVER, Amazon and B & N do not require ISBN numbers so you would not need one for an e-book with them. Smashwords provides a free ISBN for use with the company/ies that require one; Apple comes to mind. If you want that ISBN assigned to you (or the “publisher” you create for yourself), rather than to Smashwords, you could buy one for $10.

          The practicality of it, in my understanding, is that ISBN numbers exist so that customers ordering a book can make sure they order the correct version – i.e. hardcover, paperback, abridged, and so on. Practically speaking, when ordering, someone who owns a Kindle is not going to order through B & N. They’re going to order it through Amazon, and a Nook owner will order through B & N.

          Personally, I’m going to make sure I’m covered for Amazon, B & N, and Smashwords (who cover several of the others). If those are taken care of, I’m fine. Most self-pubs will tell you the majority of their sales come from Amazon. My opinion. THANKS for bringing up a really good topic!

          • Really good points, Deb. I think I’m with you, and I think I’ll now go buy my $10 number. 🙂 I appreciate your digging into it a bit more.

    • io non capisco tutta quseta disapprovazione da parte della gente lo sparatutto su binari un genere come l adventure, action ecc.non potete dire che da sala giochi solo perch nato li. Forse pu nn piacervi come gusti personali ma non si pu dire che deve restare nelle sala giochi, xk c gente (cm me)a cui il genere piace e trova sul wii il meglio di se

  9. There is another option for non-techies like me. Books We Love will format your work, give you a great cover, and put it online. Butt you muist do all the editing. This is great for old books that were published years ago and you have the rights -back on. Since these have already been edited, by someone other than you, that’s a plus, But you still need to go through them carefully to check for typos and such. You pay BWL no money, but they do take a small part of your royalties–less than my epubs take. However if you are going to use them with a new book, I would strongly suggest you find someone capable to edit it–even if you have to pay them, because no writer can easily spot their own errors. I’ve done very well with this company and highlly recommend them . If interested, just type Books We love into Google. Jane

    • I’m glad, Kathye! It’s worthwhile checking out. Hope you start following some of the links I’ve put in this post and on my side bar under Indie Publishing. It’s a whole new world we’re entering.

  10. Deb, thanks for a great post that will do much to educate authors towards self-empowerment and away from scams like Penguin’s Book Country. The more authors who speak up and warn the less-experienced away, the fewer writers will get sucked in, fewer dollars ripped off, fewer hearts broken. Well done!

    • Thank you, Bridget. If you haven’t already, I hope you’ll add your voice to the chorus by blogging, tweeting, FB’ing, or emailing. We live in a remarkable age, to have the power of the Internet. We need to use it. BTW, I love your profile pic! 🙂

  11. I, too, was at the Bright Lights Big City conference – my first. I pitched to an agent and an editor, and got requests from both. Once I started working on my submissions, I knew I didn’t want to hand my book over to them.

    So I self-published.

    I wonder if RWA knows how many people came away with our reaction to the publishing industry?

    • Amazing conference, wasn’t it? Especially the non-conference conversations everywhere. CONGRATULATIONS on self-publishing! I’ll be sure to check out your site.

      Interesting thought about RWA. I hope their eyes are opening as they see members going Indie, both newbies, and those with backlists to publish.

      Thank you for your comments!

  12. Yup, everyone wants to cash in. Just like fortunes were made in the gold rushes…by the people selling shovels, businesses–everyone from publishing companies to agents–want to cash in on the new self-publishing boom. I’ve seen outfits that charge as much as $1,000.

  13. Great post, Deb. Penguin should be ashamed of themselves for doing this. Obviously, they did it because they don’t know what else to do now that big publishers are becoming obsolete in the new worlds of books.

    They still fill a need and are nice to have for the leverage they provide, but in the realm of digital, they bring little or nothing to the table.

    As far as their ability to design and publish a digital book, there are plenty of freelance book designers available who can do just as good, if not a better job.

    When I used to coach authors, I always advised them to “be the publisher” and avoid the online vanity sites, Penguin or otherwise. Since the author is going to be the one doing the marketing work, they should maintain control.

    Being experienced with both traditional and publishing myself, I can find pros and cons to both but, it’s still about marketing and publicity.

    My advice to any author is to save your money for marketing and spend it wisely. There are just as many “marketing experts” ready to cash your check.

    • Jim, I appreciate your advice. Avoiding vanity sites holds true, today more than ever. With all the new writers emerging due to the ease of e-publishing, we’re sure to see a proliferation of people wanting to “cash in” (as Lindsay B said). Sad.

      I’ve heard that most authors, traditional or e-pub, need to do most of their own marketing – all but the top bestsellers. So your advice to save money for marketing is wise (spending judiciously, of course). 🙂

      Thank you for your fine comments!

  14. I believe authors should have the opportunity to see their stories come to fruition – whether in book form or digital. I became weary of “gate keeper elitism,” so I began a business called Publishista. I take an author’s edited manuscript, format the interior, design the cover, handle procurement of the ISBN and LCCN, and manage the client’s account at Createspace, an on-line, print-on-demand publishing service. If the client wants an ereader, I format that as well. I charge a flat fee for my work. All royalties – and accolades – go to the author. I don’t need to dig into someone else’s cash flow because I reshaped the pages and designed the cover. Thanks for recognizing the “others” in publishing. Ellie searl,

  15. Thanks for the tip, Deb. A good vanity press will proofread and copyedit your manuscript, design a cover, print the book, and even provide some basic marketing services. I totally agree that it is expensive to publish your book through a vanity press, and most authors do not recoup the expense.

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