How to Spot Vanity Presses and Publishing Scams

Almost every writer wants to see their work in print. You’d be hard-pressed to find a writer that doesn’t want the kind of recognition (or gloating) that comes with the phrase ‘I’ve had a book published’. But there are many so-called publishers that prey on that dream, and unfortunately, they make a lot of money.

But that doesn’t mean we should lock our work up and never submit it, nor does it mean that we shouldn’t self-publish it. It’s about looking at each opportunity individually, and carefully following a few simple steps to reduce the risk as much as possible.

Be Careful If There’s Money Involved

In a traditional publishing relationship, money should always flow to the author. If you pay someone to publish your book, they have no incentive to sell it.

There are many horror stories online of people paying thousands of dollars to a publisher, only to receive 20 copies of their book with additional typos and misprinted illustrations. If you are giving money to a publisher, make sure you get in writing exactly what you will be receiving for your money, and how they will be providing it. For example, if they are including an edit, does the editor have a high profile in the industry? What other projects have they worked on? What makes this edit worth your money?

If you are self-publishing a book, or you’re knowingly going into a partner-publishing relationship, then yes, you will likely be handing some money over. (Though, it should be noted that it is totally possible to self-publish a print book without breaking the bank.) But if the publisher claims to be a traditional publisher, they should not be taking any money from you. If a publisher asks for a ‘reading fee’ or an ‘assessment fee’, this is a warning sign.

Quality Control

Can you find a copy of another book the publisher has produced? Is it available in physical and/or online bookstores, and can you find an ebook version? If you can’t find any books by that publisher, think about whether that publisher is really going to sell your book well. Take a look at the publisher’s social media presence. Do they have an active, loyal following?

Invest in a copy of the book in each format; is the quality of the product at a level that excites you? Are the words well edited, is the book well-produced, is the paper of a nice quality? Think about all of the things that are important to you in the design of your book, and check your sample book for those.

Get in touch with another writer or organisation who has worked with the publisher before. How was their experience with them? Would they recommend them? This is also a good time to do some quick googling to see if you can find any online reviews or stories about working with the publisher, and stalk their employees on Twitter and LinkedIn. A little sleuthing now could save you a lot of stress in the future.

The Legal Stuff

Before signing anything, make sure you read through your contract carefully, and that you understand it. If something is not in the contract, don’t assume it will happen; the contract is the only thing binding the publisher to do what they have told you they will. What you’re signing is what you’re going to get, and you could end up being legally bound to dangerous or shifty clauses.

This is by no means legal advice, and for different writers there will be different priorities. Some writers might want a big advance, but other writers might prefer the publisher pick up several books at once. Other writers might focus on the royalty rate or the reversion clause or the adaptation rights. It’s important to consider your plans for the book and what your needs are.

If you’re unsure about doing it yourself, and you don’t have a literary agent, there are contract review services offered by Australian Society of Authors, Arts Law and Alex Adsett Publishing Services, and if they’re going to advise you not to sign a contract, both the Australian Society of Authors and Alex Adsett Publishing Services will not charge you unless you want to move forward. Alex Adsett Publishing Services also negotiates contracts on an hourly rate.

Some Important Clauses To Check

Again, this is not legal advice. These are just a few areas that you should make sure you understand before signing a book with any publisher.

  • Royalty clauses: How much will you be paid, and when? Are there different rates for different forms of the book (e.g. ebook vs print book)? If the book is remaindered, will the rates go down again?
  • Advance: Will you be paid an advance? How much will you be paid? Note that smaller publishers may not offer an advance, and if you do receive one, it is the norm that you won’t receive royalties until you have ‘earned it back’.
  • Reversion: Will the rights to the book be reverted back to you if the book is not selling? Note that some publishing contracts may say that the rights revert if the book is no longer available, but with digital publishing, it is very easy to make a book always available.
  • Indemnity: Many publishers (including reputable ones) state if the book breaks any laws (e.g. copyright, defamation, etc.), that the liability stays with the author.
  • Multimedia and Language Rights: Who retains the rights to adaptations and translations? Who is in a better position to use or sell these? If you have a well-connected literary agent, they may prefer to hold onto these rights.

Pre-Publishing Checklist

  1. Are you handing the publisher any money? If yes, do you have written terms on exactly what you will receive for that money? Have you received quotes from other publishers, or opinions from industry professionals on whether that is a reasonable rate?
  2. Have you found any other works the publisher has produced in bookstores (if they are promising this)? Are they well-marketed online (and if so, is it from the author or the publisher), and does the publisher have much of an online following?
  3. Get your hands on another book the publisher has produced. If you want illustrations or pictures in your work, try to select a book with similar content. Is it well designed? Are there typos? Do you feel the work is well edited? Is the paper of a decent quality?
  4. Contact another author who has been published through them. Google the publisher’s name alongside words such as ‘experience’, ‘warning’ and ‘review’, search on Twitter for their authors and reach out to people to ask for honest feedback. Feel free to contact your state writers centre or the Australian Society of Authors if you’re unsure.
  5. Consider getting a contract assessment. The Australian Society of Authors, Arts Law and Alex Adsett Publishing Services all offer contract assessments, in which they will go over the contract and advise you on whether it is fair and if there are any warning signs. The Australian Society of Authors and Alex Adsett Publishing Services both offer your money back if they feel the contract is a scam.

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2 thoughts on “How to Spot Vanity Presses and Publishing Scams

    1. Sophie Mannix

      Thanks! I hope you found it useful.


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