Publishers pay authors, NOT the other way around

I got an e-mail recently from an author — a boy of fifteen, actually — who said his novel had been accepted by a publishing company. The problem was, the publisher wanted the author to pay more than $7,000 for the right to see his book on a shelf. Was this, my correspondent asked, normal?


Thankfully, it was apparent even to a teenager that someone asking for this kind of money wasn’t quite kosher. Some Web searches led him to SFWA’s excellent Writer Beware column and, from there, to my author profile on the SFWA site, and finally to my e-mail address.

The publisher is, as you might imagine, a vanity or subsidy publisher. They’ll pretty much accept anyone so long as you pay them. And what you get for that payment varies widely, though I have yet to hear of any such publisher landing a title on The New York Times bestseller list. Whether or not a given publisher can even get your book onto Amazon or in Barnes & Noble remains an open question, depending on the outfit.

I’m glad this young man wrote, because I was able to tell him to run away from this deal as quickly as possible. There is, I believe, one maxim that every novelist should hold near and dear to their heart: The publisher pays the author, not the other way around. 

I recognize that, for the vast majority of this blog’s readers, this is not news. But there are new folks aspiring to be writers testing the waters every day, like this young man. And so it can’t hurt to reiterate from time to time. Vanity and subsidy publishers ask for money up front, generally lots of it. They attempt to make this better by offering a very high royalty rate, but the fact is, most subsidy/vanity books barely sell any copies at all. You’re highly unlikely to recoup your investment.

In this particular case, I doubt the vanity publisher in question did its homework, because although I’m no lawyer, having a 15-year-old signing a binding contract involving thousands of dollars seems legally iffy, not to mention morally wrong. I’m simply going to assume the publisher didn’t know that they were dealing with a minor, which is a minor benefit of the doubt given that they probably send the same contract to every applicant, no matter their age or, frankly, the quality of the submission.

I advised the young man to seek out a literary agent, as I did. I’m a strong believer in agents, because my agent has been a tireless advocate for me and my work throughout the various travails of my still-young career. I also told this young author about self-publishing through Amazon or other reputable outlets, though I warned that there would be up-front costs, and that most folks going down that road don’t sell enough to turn a profit. But at least in the self-pub case, the author remains in the driver’s seat.

As I mentioned earlier, Author Beware is a great resource for authors to figure out which publishers are on the level and which aren’t. I also like Writer’s Digest and for more info on the publishing process. (And yes, any agent who charges “reading fees” and such should be given as wide a berth as subsidy/vanity publishers, in my opinion.)

On the one hand, how is it that, in the age of self-publishing, these sort of vanity/subsidy presses can still operate? But then when you think about it, you likely have folks like this young author who haven’t done their research, and are excited that someone has accepted the manuscript they’ve slaved over for months. Or you have folks who simply think they’re paying for high-quality services beyond what self-publishing might give them; hell, for all I know, maybe that’s exactly what they’re paying for. Still seems like a lot of bank, though.

Personally, when I started out, I wanted to test the waters of traditional publishing before I explored self-publishing. Don’t get me wrong — self-publishing plays a major role in today’s publishing world. There are those who just want to have more control over what they write and the profits that come from it. Others may have been rejected by traditional publishers, only to find an audience online with self-publishing. Still others publish both ways, with traditional publishers and self-publishing, and have seen a virtuous cycle of sales feeding into each other, making everyone happy.

But all this takes patience and hard work. The lure of the vanity publisher is that you don’t have  to put in the time looking for an agent or scouring for submission opportunities. They’ll accept you, edit you, work with you and you get to see your pride and joy on a bookshelf. All it takes is money.

I prefer the patience and hard work. Because when I put in enough time and effort, I’m the one who gets paid for it. When Starbucks starts paying me for drinking their coffee, then I might consider subsidy publishing a valid model for creative folks.


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