Books by Melissa Bowersock

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Vanity Presses

In my last post, I discussed the rise of self-publishing and how the perception of it has changed dramatically over the last 10 years. Luckily it has morphed from the proverbial red-haired step-child into a respected and viable option for writers, often successful and even lucrative.

That’s the good news.

In my post, I talked a bit about vanity presses and how they worked in the olden days of traditional publishing. The bad news is, they have morphed also, and still prey on naïve and unsuspecting writers.

It used to be that you’d see an ad for Vantage Press in the back of every magazine ever sold. (I was surprised to find that they still exist, except now instead of a black and white ad, they have a slick webpage.) As I said in my last post, their game is that they get their money from you up front (VP’s webpage estimates between $5,000 and $25,000 to publish a book!), then have little incentive to promote your book. I suppose that if there are any aging millionaires out there who still haven’t learned to use a computer and/or the internet, this might be the way to go. For most of us, however, that kind of initial outlay is prohibitive.

Enter the new breed of vanity press.

Some years ago, I had a manuscript that I believed in yet hadn’t sold to a traditional publisher, so one day I got to searching on the internet and found a place that offered to publish my book—for free! What a deal! What could possibly be the downside of that? Without researching (major mistake), I submitted my pride and joy and they quickly accepted it.

PublishAmerica has lulled a great many writers into a false sense of euphoria by being so accommodating. For absolutely no charge (I believe they still send a crisp $1 bill as an honorary “advance”), they will proofread and edit your book, then turn it into a beautiful and saleable paperback. They will even send out announcements to all your friends and relatives, and of course you can always buy as many books as you’d like at a discount. Sounds great, doesn’t it?

Guess again.

When I submitted my book, I was very confident that the story was tight, clean and ready to go, so I declined the editing service. When I proofed the book, I realized that they had put a disclaimer on the publishing page saying that I had refused editing and that the book was being printed verbatim as submitted by the author, or in other words, they were absolving themselves of any editing miscues. Fair enough, I suppose, although I didn’t care for proclamation. As it turns out, I was actually happy that I’d gone that route. After the fact, when I began doing more research that I should have done ahead of time, I read many complaints about their “editing” service. It seemed to consist entirely of running a spell-check of the manuscript, sometimes even changing words the spell-check found questionable—even changing names! I read that many writers found the “editing” to not only be of little value, but actually detrimental to their story. I was glad I didn’t have to deal with that.

While I was still operating under the naïve bliss of my good fortune, I was contacted by a rep who helped me with the cover. Luckily I already had a good idea of what I wanted for the cover, and they were very willing to go with my design. That part, at least, went well.

Next thing was the announcements. I happily sent in a list of every contact I could think of—friends, family, acquaintances. I figured any announcement had to be fairly benign, right?


The announcement included an offer of an advance discount to buy my book, the retail price of which had been set at $26.95! For a 204-page paperback! Clearly three times what it should have been. Oh, but luckily my friends and family had the chance to buy it at the steal price of only $16.95! Only twice as much as it should have been! What a gonga.

Luckily, only one person bit on this. I’d be embarrassed if more people had paid that price for the book. But of course with a retail price of $26.95, the book was not flying off the shelves in any way. As a matter of fact, I am hard-pressed to remember receiving any royalties at all from PublishAmerica, although granted this was many years ago. If I did get any, they were paltry.

But now that the book was published and available, now the real marketing began—selling to ME, the author. All of PA’s selling efforts come from this—weekly e-mails to the authors announcing this or that special or sale and how they can buy their books at a discount. Stock up now! Buy 50 and get 25 free! So now you can see how we’re slipping back to that moldering-boxes-in-the-garage phase, just like vanity presses produced decades ago. Same dog-and-pony show, different name.

In the meantime, I re-read my book and was aghast to find a handful of typos. I verified that they were in my original file and yes, they were. My fault. I really thought I had gone through the book with a fine-toothed comb, but obviously my helpful brain showed me what it thought I wanted to see, not what I needed to see. I sent an e-mail to PA’s customer service asking if I could correct these mistakes. I got a rather offended response saying, well, yes, I could correct the book, but only if I signed in blood promising that I would NEVER, EVER ask for any more changes to the book—EVER! That was fine with me, and I happily sent a corrected file.

Not long after that, I got an e-mail that the corrected book was available for purchase. I ordered a box, eager to be able to hand out a perfect book instead of the flawed first rendition. Imagine my shock when I checked the new books and found they had every one of the typos still intact!

Grrrr. E-mails flew, complete with the original one saying the book was fixed and ready for sale. I got a replacement box and checked immediately. Yes, typos fixed. Ok, but now I’ve got another box of unacceptable books to store in the garage along with the original box I bought.


Luckily it wasn’t too many years before I caught on to the self-publishing options now available. After publishing one or two unsold manuscripts through Create Space and being thrilled with the process, I was on a roll. I began the process of retrieving my rights for the older books of mine that had gone out of print or were no longer being promoted by their traditional publishers. After the fiasco with PA, I was particularly happy with Create Space’s level of cost of production, from which I could set a retail price that was patently affordable.

Finally, with several books under my belt, I sent an e-mail to PA saying I wanted my rights back. I told them I would NEVER buy another book from them (and obviously no one else was, either, at that price), so they might as well surrender my rights to me. Our contract was for 7 years and I was still a few years short of that, which they pointedly reminded me. I reiterated that they would most likely never sell another book and so recouping their “costs” was just not going to happen. They finally relented and agreed to sell my rights back to me—for an “administration fee” of $99.

At this point, cutting all ties to them was worth the price.

So the moral of the story is—do your research. There are a lot of options out there for writers; just do very diligent research on the companies offering their services. Particularly search the forums where writers talk about their experiences. Just reading the “what authors are saying” page on a company’s website is not enough. There’s a site called Predators and Editors that is excellent on this subject. Likewise, there is an excellent site for indie writers about more trustworthy companies.

There are some very good companies out there (Create Space, Lightning Source) and there are also some very bad ones. Keep in mind that the cost of printing these days is very cheap compared to yesteryear, and you should never have to pay thousands or even hundreds of dollars to be published. As a matter of fact, through Create Space you can literally—and I mean literally—publish for about $10 if you’re in the US. This is the cost of a proof and shipping (depending, of course, on how many pages your book is).

I don't know about you, but this does not seem like rocket surgery to me. Spend upwards of $25,000 to have someone else publish your book, or do it yourself for $10?

You decide.


  1. Hi Melissa :-)

    I have nominated you for the 'One Lovely Blog' award!

    Please go to: for the 'rules' and to snag the award to put on your site :)

  2. Charmaine, thanks so much! I was at an all-week meeting for work last week, so just now getting caught up. I will check it out.

  3. I think that you and I are a lot alike. We both blog to educate others about our experiences. I was recently nominated for the Liebster Award, too! I will be posting it on my blog within the week!