A Cautionary Tale – My Encounter With A Vanity Publisher


This was a post I ran a little over a year ago, and it’s been on my mind of late. I’ve seen several other bloggers writing about scams targeting authors, plus The Society Of Authors recently published an article about how the publishing industry is so heavily weighted towards publishers making a profit, rather than writers. I know Amazon isn’t perfect, but as a platform that’s allowed me to share my work with people all around the world, and, most importantly, keep writing, I think it can’t be beat.

So a cautionary tale for a Friday – have any of you out there had similar experiences?

I’ve been thinking about this post for a little while, unsure whether or not to share it, but then decided I had to. The spirit of this blog is that it’s my journey to publication, lessons learned, paths taken, decisions made. And so here it is…

A little while ago I was offered a publishing contract for Oak and Mist.

Woo hoo, right? Champagne for everyone!

Well, not so much. I had seen this publisher mentioned on a few blogs and websites as one who took unsolicited submissions (and, more importantly, took fantasy submissions, for which there is a much smaller market in publishers and agents). So I sent my book to them and, about a month later, received a request for a full manuscript. So far, so good. About a month after that something, I don’t know what, spurred me to do a little more online research into the publisher. And what I found was a shock. They were a vanity publisher (you know I hate that term but for the purposes of this post it will have to do) who approached first time authors with what they called a ‘contribution scheme’ contract. So, they would publish my book, but I would have to contribute up front to the costs of doing so. Red flag number one. I was pretty gutted, but worked through it and in some ways they did me a favour, for it cemented my decision to self publish instead of waiting any longer.

About a week later a big fat envelope from the publisher plopped through onto my doormat. I picked it up, then went to the kitchen and made myself a big greasy sandwich and a cup of tea (comfort food), before taking the lot up to my office (spare room) and sitting down to read. Luckily I was prepared, for on the surface this was a very exciting envelope to receive. ‘Publishing Contract’ said the black letters on the glossy covers of two official looking documents. A nice cover letter cited their ‘excitement to be working with me’ and their ‘faith in my ability as an author.’ A second insert listed a whole bunch of different ways in which a book could be marketed, but then ended by stating this wasn’t necessarily what they were going to do with my book. Red flag number two.

So I took my glossy gleaming contract and flipped it open, taking a bite of my sandwich to fortify me as I read on. Interesting. According to the contract:

  • The Publisher could amend or edit my book whenever they wanted and how they saw fit
  • They had the final decision on the look of the book
  • Other than ten author copies for me and five sent to university libraries, there was no mention of how many other copies they planned to print in the first run
  • They could decide at any time that my book ‘no longer warranted publication’ and could then cease to print or market it (so after the first fifteen copies, if they wanted to)
  • They would market the book by any means at their disposal (very vague) but could not be held responsible if no bookstores wanted to order it
  • If they failed to pay me my royalties on time I ‘had the right’ to notify them of this in writing – no other penalty was mentioned
  • They wanted first refusal on my next two books

Ding ding ding! Red flags everywhere! It was like a Communist Party parade at this point, but the kicker, the real icing on the cake of this contract, was that I could receive all this jammy goodness for the princely sum of £2500, my so called ‘contribution’ to the scheme.

Um, no thanks.

If I’m going to spend £2500 to publish my book, then I’ll spend it myself, designing a cover I like, editing the book to my satisfaction and marketing it the way I want to, while retaining the rights and a much healthier slice of the royalties. And I’m sure I could do all that for a lot less than £2500, to be honest. But I can see how for some people this offer would be very enticing, the language of the contract and accompanying letter written in such a way that on first glance it hides the fact that the deal is so heavily weighted in favour of the publisher.

A few months ago I attended an agent workshop at Bloomsbury. It was a great day, I learnt a great deal and met some wonderful people. One thing I do remember is sitting next to a well known agent as she told the room that, often, publishers don’t make back their advances. They make their money on the bestsellers, the books that do well, then offset these other losses against that. But they do what they do because they believe in the book, they believe in the writer and they are willing to put their money where their mouth is in a speculative business. And that’s the sort of publisher I’d like to work with. One who’s willing to back me and my work all the way. And at the moment that’s me, though I live in hope.

So the lesson for me was to dig deeper, do more research. My problem is not with their offer, it is in the way it was presented, their website making no mention of the fact that this was how they operated, so I wasted time and energy submitting and waiting for a response. I’m not bitter about it, nor am I angry. It is what it is and the choice was with me as to whether I chose to sign with these people who, after all, are in the business of making money. I chose not to, because I want better for myself and better for my book. So I sent them an email, politely declining their offer and they sent me one back, very nice, wishing me every success with my publishing. So I will take their good wishes and move forward, a little bit wiser (I hope) about it all.


38 thoughts on “A Cautionary Tale – My Encounter With A Vanity Publisher

  1. Sorry you had this experience. It’s awful and such a shame. Though good you weren’t taken in like some sadly.

    By the way, I love the story you sent through today. It’s really clever but as I went to close the window, I accidentally deleted it! I’m so annoyed with myself! Please could you post it in my comments again? Sorry to be a pain, but I’d really like to feature it next week. Thanks, Helen. Have a good weekend. 🙂

    • Thanks Esther. It was pretty awful at the time, I remember feeling quite gutted after I’d done the research. It wasn’t just the type of publisher they were, it was also the time wasted hoping and sending out my work to them. I’m glad I did it though, it was certainly a lesson.
      And I’ve reposted my comment – glad you liked it! Have a great weekend too x

      • I can imagine it was a hard time. Something like that takes you through a wholerange of emotions. Though, you certainly won’t be fooled be anything like again. Thanks fro reposting your story! 🙂 x

      • Thanks Esther. At the time it was pretty tough, as I’d been knocked back by so many agents and when they asked for my full MS I was thrilled. However, you live and learn and I actually prefer having creative control at the moment – I’m still going to submit to agents in the future, but I’m glad this happened, as it spurred me on to self publish which has been a good experience.

    • Yes. I think if I hadn’t done the research into their business I might not have spotted them as easily – after all, it was a pretty exciting set of documents to receive. But there were so many stories online of authors who’d lost the rights to their work and had nothing to show for it (with regards to this publisher) that I’m very glad I looked into it before going any further.

      • Yes. And the language is very persuasive as well – I just commented to someone else that it took me several read throughs to find the bit where it said I had to pay money up front, even though I knew what I was looking for. And it was only after several read throughs that it became apparent how one-sided the whole deal was. So I would recommend to anyone to do their research, that’s for sure!

  2. Thx Helen! Seriously I’d rather publish on amazon and be a writer whose work wasn’t destroyed. Actually as much as i would love to be a paid writer, I take some comfort in knowing it’s something no one else can ruin and I’ve considered even staying indie even when I’m famous lol!

    • Yes, I feel the same way, actually. I love having creative control over Ambeth, as it means so much to me – I’d hate to have had to change it based on somebody else’s ideas. And I love your confidence – ‘when’ you’re famous. Absolutely! 🙂

  3. Ah how disappointing for you! Their model of business might be legal technically, but it shouldn’t be. They are misleading the author. I think it’s awful. Although with that long list of examples you gave us, one has to wonder, how does anyone fall for that? Thanks for sharing your experience. Xxx

    • Yes, that was one of the things that made me angry – that I’d actually invested time in sending them my work, then waiting and hoping. There was nothing on their website to indicate any sort of vanity aspect to the publishing. And the contract is very cunningly written – even though I knew what I was looking for, I had to read it several times before I found the bit where I had to pay money up front. So it was a lesson to do my research, that’s for sure.

      • Although I suspect the info is not easy to find on their website, no matter how good a researcher you are.

      • Oh yes – I went back through their website and there’s no mention of it whatsoever – it was only by going through Writer Beware and similar threads that I found out about them and their practices.

      • Oh, it’s really interesting. They list agents and publishers and other related businesses who are shonky, so it’s a good resource. There are a few other similar sites but that’s the main one. When I googled this Publisher’s name they came up as ‘not recommended’ and then there were several tales of woe from writers who had lost a lot of money plus rights to their work.

      • How awful! If that’s not illegal I don’t know what it… how do they get away with it? How do they sleep at night? Shonky. .. what the hell kind of word is that??? I l love it!

      • Yes – and yet when I declined, they sent me a very nice response email. So there you go – I suppose they just think it’s business as usual.
        And shonky? It’s a great word, isn’t it? LOL 😀

  4. Thanks for sharing this cautionary tale, and I’m glad you weren’t taken in. There are publishers like that over here, too, and it’s handy to know how they operate. A good friend of mine paid AUD$2,000 to an agent—not even a publisher—just to send her manuscript out to publishers. All to no avail.

    I’m glad your self-publishing experience has been a good one, as it’s a courageous decision to make. 🙂

    • Oh, that’s awful – your poor friend. There are a few helpful sites online, such as Writer Beware, which list scams like that plus publishers and agents to avoid – the experience was certainly a good lesson for me.
      And yes, self-publishing has been great! I love having creative control, as Ambeth is very dear to me. I’ll still keep submitting in the future, but for this series I want to be in the driving seat 🙂

    • Oh wow, what’s your mom’s book about? That’s so cool 🙂 And yes, there are a lot of scams out there – basically, if someone wants money to read, publish or agent your work, it’s a scam. Writer Beware is a very good resource for researching agents and publishers etc – basically, if you’re self-publishing, the only things you would spend money on are editing/formatting, cover design and advertising, all of which can be outsourced. However, I would also check editor credentials before working with them, as I’ve heard some horror stories there too. Good luck to your mom – it’s a great achievement! 🙂

  5. God horror stories. I am so torn about whether to even try and trad publish, I know so little and it’s all so far away I can’t really comprehend it.

    Really REALLY useful post though, thank you.

    What was the workshop? How did u find it?

    • There are horror stories out there, unfortunately, but there are also some really good resources on the web for research, including writer forums. They certainly helped me in this instance, and taught me to always double and triple check everything! I’m planning on self-publishing the rest of my Ambeth series, but will still be submitting other work to agents. So don’t lose heart – there’s a big community with lots of support out there :-).
      And the workshop was run by Bloomsbury at their London Offices – it was a day long seminar including lunch where several agents took us through the process of cover letters, synopses and blurbs – what they are looking for, their likes and dislikes etc. It was really interesting and valuable knowledge, plus I connected with a few other writers on the day which was nice. Then at the end we got a ten minute pitch with the agent of our choice – I was woefully unprepared and so stuffed it up completely – d’oh! But I take it as a sign I wasn’t ready and chalk it up to experience. 🙂

    • It was a real turning point for me, Graeme, and made the decision to self-publish very easy indeed. And, even though it’s a tough road, I’m enjoying the creative control 🙂

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