I believe I’ve identified a new variant of the vanity publishing scam. More than one publisher appears to be using it, so I’ll do a generalized description. It has a couple of interesting structural novelties. For starters, it’s configured to avoid setting off one of our most basic alarms.For years now, we’ve been dinning Yog’s Law into young writers’ heads: Money always flows toward the writer. Alternate version: The only place an author should sign a check is on the back, when they endorse it. Most of them are now clear on the idea that if a publisher wants you to pay to have your book published, or subsidize your book’s publication as a “co-investor” (a.k.a. subsidy, joint-venture, or co-op publishing), they’re a vanity operation. Some aspiring writers are sophisticated enough to recognize the sneakier forms of vanity publishing, as described by the estimable Victoria Strauss:
An increasing number of pay-to-publish ventures are trying to dodge the “vanity” label by shifting their charges to some aspect of publication other than printing and binding. Instead of asking you to pay to print your book, they ask you to buy goods or services. For instance, you may be asked to purchase editing, or to fund a publicity campaign for your book, or to hire the company’s own artistic or design staff. You may be asked to commit to buying a large number of your own books once they’re published, or to become a salesperson and pre-sell your books prior to publication. You may be asked to buy or sell ads for your book, or to pay to attend the publisher’s own expensive conferences, or to purchase a certain number of the publisher’s other books. No matter what the permutation, the bottom line is that you’re still paying money to see your work published.One of my least favorite of these is the version where you’re asked to guarantee the advance purchase of a large number of copies of your own book. This is often represented as a “standard publishing practice” made necessary by the difficulty of selling first novels. Your money will supposedly be reimbursed when those copies sell—only they never do. In the case of some scammers, this is directly traceable to the books’ never having been printed in the first place, which undoubtedly saves a lot on printing and warehousing. The only copies that are ever made up are the few that get sent to the author.
The sheer number and variety of schemes for putting the bite on aspiring writers is why Yog made his law so simple. No matter what anybody tells you, no matter where in the process you’re asked to cough up the cash, no matter what they call their program: if money is flowing away from the writer, there’s something wrong.
So, when a writer armed with this wisdom encounters this new scam, it doesn’t look like a bad deal. The publisher undertakes to do all the pre-press production, printing, and binding, at little or no charge to the author. They don’t require authors to buy some pre-set quantity of their own books, either, and they pay a small royalty on each copy sold. Sales are made through the online booksellers. It look a lot like a standard POD operation. There’s just one oddity, not something you’d notice in advance: the publisher’s cover prices are higher—sometimes a lot higher—than you’d see on comparable titles from other POD publishers.
What’s the trick? It’s a combination of low production costs, high cover prices, and immutable auctorial behavior patterns. Authors always want copies of their books, and they always sell further copies to their friends and relations. Here’s something interesting: Jim Macdonald says that whenever one of these New Model Publishers (not just the scammers; all of them) gets to bragging in public about their total number of titles published and copies sold, the derivable average number of copies per title comes out right around seventy-five.
If a vanity publisher’s production and setup costs are low enough, and the cover prices on their books are high enough, they don’t have to make the author commit to purchase hundreds of copies of his own book. They can make their profit off the average number of copies the author and the author’s friends-and-relations are going to buy anyway. The publishers still aren’t making their money selling books to the general reading public. They’re still making their profit off the author and the author’s posse. They’ve just made it a lot harder to see that.
This is moderately clever. It relocates the sting to the point of retail sale, where it’s never been before. Further camouflage is provided by the author’s tendency to see that transaction as a book sale, a good thing, not as the vanity publishing on a per-copy installment plan that it really is.
What’s the difference between this scheme and books that just don’t sell very well? It’s the cover price. That’s the tip-off. Imagine you’re a publisher. If you honestly think a book is going to sell to a general audience, you set its price at a level comparable with other books of its sort. But if you consistently set your prices higher than consumers would imaginably pay, you’re betting against your own books. You’re calculating that there’s no chance this book is going to be bought by anyone who doesn’t know the author, so you lose nothing by giving it a cover price that guarantees it won’t be bought by strangers. Instead, you make your money by putting the squeeze on Rabbit’s Friends and Relations.
(Exception: Specialized nonfiction sold to a specialized audience. Totally different scene. Disregard it.)
Some additional background: Three developments have gone into making this new variant possible. First, there’s computerized desktop publishing (DTP) technology, which lets you pour the author’s electronic text into an existing template, run a spellchecker over it, and come out with something that superficially resembles proper text pages. This process is to your full-scale publishing production cycle as a cardboard display dummy is to a real computer, but if you’re not worried about quality control it can be extremely cheap.
Second, there are the ongoing developments in binding and dry-copying technology that have make it feasible to do short runs of books while incurring relatively low press setup charges. This sometimes gets referred to as POD (print on demand), though it isn’t; POD is a business and production model. This is the technology that POD publishing is based on.
Third, there’s online bookselling. Used to be, vanity publishers didn’t claim to be booksellers, for good reason: going out and selling books is a lot of work. However, it’s relatively easy to shovel your titles into the maw of Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com. It’s a real stone soup kind of deal: they’ll sell any book that sells itself. But the setup enables vanity publishers to represent themselves as booksellers, which means they get to set the cover prices.
So there’s your necessary mechanism: (1.) lower production costs on the book, (2.) lower set-up charges for reproducing it, and (3.) the power to set the cover price, meets (4.) a relatively predictable number of sales generated by (5.) the irresistible desire of authors to buy copies of their own book, and talk their friends and relations into buying it too.
[Note: If you aren’t familiar with the basic publishing scams, you might find it instructive and amusing to check out the Writer Beware! and Preditors & Editors websites, Victoria Strauss’s original Writer Beware article, and the Writers’ Center Scam Kit. (Motto: “The easy path to publication is paved with your dollars.”)]