When Traditional Publishers Become Vanity Publishers

The publishing world was all abuzz last week when Random House announced they were going to not only take rights (NOT just ebook rights!!) to authors’ books for four new ebook imprints, but they were also going to charge authors some up-front fees. After being raked over the coals online, they changed their terms but, in my opinion, they’re still not good enough. If you’re interested, you can read about the controversy HERE. Be sure to read the comments under the post.

Random House isn’t the first traditional publisher to attempt to “cross over” to the vanity publishing industry. Last year, Penguin bought Author Solutions (owner of Author House, Xlibris, iUniverse, Trafford, WordClay and others), and wasted no time setting up a new “imprint” that appears to simply be Author Solutions’ services under yet another new name. None of that changes the fact that it’s still Author Solutions, with their inflated prices and a trail of numerous complaints posted about their services online. In fact, there’s a law firm in New York that is investigating Author Solutions for a possible lawsuit. They are seeking people who have had bad experiences with one or more of the Author Solutions companies.

You can expect more traditional publishers to cross over in the future. As traditional publishing dies a slow, painful death, they are looking for new revenue streams to get back what they’ve lost. The easiest way for them to do that is to turn into one of the firms they have long abhorred – vanity publishers. We predicted this when several traditional publishers started using print-on-demand technology many years ago. When new self-published books, numbering hundreds of thousands per year, started encroaching on traditional publishers’ sales, they felt the pinch. When ebooks started hitting their stride, the traditional publishers were still resisting the movement. When they finally joined the movement, they then got sued by the government for (alleged) ebook price fixing and, most recently, were sued by some Indie bookstores as well.

If traditional publishers want to cross over and become vanity publishers, I have no qualms with that. What I can’t accept is traditional-turned-vanity publishers pretending to be what they used to be, possibly hoping authors will pay them simply to have that large publisher’s name on their cover. Of course, once word gets around, that “big name” won’t have the same impact it once did.

The new Random House imprints are ebook only (yet they take more than ebook rights) but manuscripts are still vetted. Just because an author must foot the bill for some of the production and marketing expenses doesn’t mean they aren’t still vetting manuscripts. Since it appears they will be controlling the expenses expected of authors (their contract doesn’t quote dollar figures), what is their incentive to keep vetting those manuscripts as stringently as they always have? If they know they can depend on authors paying them a certain fee per book, it’s possible their quality control might take a back seat to the possible new revenue streams that will come from authors themselves. Time will tell.

Just the fact that they’re taking rights while also stating authors are required to pay for some of their services means they are no longer just a traditional publisher. No matter how they’ve tried to repackage it with their change of terms this week, it’s clear. Random House has crossed over. When a publisher charges authors for services, they are no longer a traditional publisher.

Here’s an expanded version of what I posted under the Writer Beware blog covering this story:

One bit of troubling wording (in the marketing section of the Random House contract) is the “up to $10,000” (they might spend on a book). Whenever “up to” is used in a contract, that means it could also be any number below that, including $1, or even nothing.

I disagree that authors should trust their contract based on “good faith.” Every contract clause should be crystal clear with no missing data and no generalizations (like “up to”) that can be used by Random House for their own advantage later. Having “faith” in the big publishing houses can hurt authors in the long run. We’ve seen far too many traditionally published authors get burned in the past. There are many cases of traditionally published authors who now self-publish because they were so unhappy with their traditional house, including myself.

Just because a publisher is large and has many resources does not mean they’re going to use those resources on all their authors. Mid-list authors frequently fall by the wayside while publishers use their resources to primarily or even solely promote their best selling and celebrity authors. If a publisher has $100K for marketing, do you think they’re going to spend that promoting a book by Stephen King or a book by John Doe? The best selling / celebrity author wins every time.

Since Random House seems to make this appear as a traditional publishing contract, I strongly oppose their plan to charge authors if their book will go into print later, as well as their plan to “share” the costs of some marketing with the author. Random House might (or might not) use this program to entice authors to pay them for print publishing and/or marketing services later. I can’t think of any reason they would not, which is scary. Of course, they haven’t disclosed those costs in the information they published online. If it’s really a traditional contract, and if they really think the books will sell based on the marketing they may propose, why charge authors at all since Random House will also be acquiring rights?

Finally, Random House is not accepting all manuscripts. Some authors who are talking about this online seem to think they can simply submit their manuscript for production and it’ll have the Random House name on it. That’s not the case at all.

If an author is offered a “traditional” publishing contract, it’s now more important than ever to read the entire contract – yes, every single word of the fine print. If anything is vague, that’s not good enough. I would strongly recommend any author offered such a contract hire a literary agent to negotiate the terms for them. Good agents are worth their percentage, and then some. Every traditional contract is negotiable. Recently, a BookLocker.com author was offered a traditional contract for one book. I put him in contact with my literary agent, who was able to secure not only a larger advance, but also a three-book deal. Just as you wouldn’t walk into a courtroom without an attorney, you shouldn’t sign a traditional publishing contract without a literary agent.

Angela Hoy is the co-owner of WritersWeekly.com and BookLocker.com. WritersWeekly.com is the free marketing ezine for writers, which features new paying markets and freelance job listings every Wednesday. According to attorney Mark Levine, author of The Fine Print, BookLocker.com is: “As close to perfection as you’re going to find in the world of ebook and POD publishing. The ebook royalties are the highest I’ve ever seen, and the print royalties are better than average. BookLocker understands what new authors experience, and have put together a package that is the best in the business. You can’t go wrong here. Plus, they’re selective and won’t publish any manuscript just because it’s accompanied by a check. Also, the web site is well trafficked. If you can find a POD or epublisher with as much integrity and dedication to selling authors’ books, but with lower POD publishing fees, please let me know.”


>>> BookLocker: $517 (Deduct $200 if submitting your own cover) <<
Rated “Outstanding” by Mark Levine, attorney and author of The Fine Print of Self-Publishing.
**(If you want to bypass the formal submission process, you can email your manuscript to Angela directly for consideration at angela -at- booklocker.com).

>> Trafford: $624.00 <<
Rated “Publisher to Avoid” by Mark Levine, attorney and author of The Fine Print of Self-Publishing.

>> CreateSpace: $978.00 (Deduct $299 if submitting your own cover) <<
Rated “Just OK” by Mark Levine, attorney and author of The Fine Print of Self-Publishing.

>> Lulu: $1248.00 (Deduct $450 if submitting your own cover) <<
Rated “Pretty Good” by Mark Levine, attorney and author of The Fine Print of Self-Publishing.

>> iUniverse: $1299.00 (includes 5 “free” copies) <<
Rated “Publisher to Avoid” by Mark Levine, attorney and author of The Fine Print of Self-Publishing.

>> AuthorHouse: $1593.00 <<
Rated “Publisher to Avoid” by Mark Levine, attorney and author of The Fine Print of Self-Publishing.

>> Xlibris: $1972.00 – (includes 5 “free” copies) <<
Rated “Publisher to Avoid” by Mark Levine, attorney and author of The Fine Print of Self-Publishing.

***Prices above based on least expensive package offered by each publisher on similar offers targeting U.S. authors. Fees include interior formatting (based on a 200-page book), original cover design with up to 5 images, print proof, ebook creation, up to 25 interior photos/graphics, an ISBN, barcode, a listing on the publisher’s website and distribution by Ingram, all within 6 weeks.