Why I Don’t Like Vanity/Hybrid/Co-Publishers

Vanity, Hybrid, Co-Publishers. These are all names that make me go 🤨, 😱, and 😖 in varying degrees. Before we get into it, though, we need to understand what these terms mean, which is… tricky, to say the least. Definitions differ depending on who you’re talking to and their, erm, shall we say, opinions on the subject. In short, my definition of all three comes down to this:

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A company you contract with to share publication duties and costs.

That last bit, costs, is the hook on which most of my beef hangs, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Look at the word share. In traditional publishing, the publishing company takes on everything for you—hiring the cover designer, editors, marketers, etc. And they assume all the risk while you get an advance for selling the rights to your book to them. Meanwhile, indie publishing (aka self-publishing in this context) is just the opposite. You take everything on. With co-publishers, it’s shared, but that in no way means it’s equal. Now, let me admit I’m treading some sensitive territory here.

Hear me. I’m not judging anyone who decides to go down this path. Just know it’s fraught with danger and I advise you to take great care if you consider this option. Personally, I don’t think they’re worth it and an author’s money can be better spent elsewhere.

Hear me on this too. I don’t like the term “vanity press”. It is used by some to try and separate the scams from the legitimate (a generous use of that word) organization. But a lot of people who look down on indie publishing use this one too. The negative connotations are in the name itself, and I don’t agree with what it says about self-published authors. Therefore, I won’t be using it in this blog post.

Okay, all that being said, let me get to the reasons I don’t like these types of organizations.

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Most of Them are Super Shady ~ Granted, there are some companies that I believe probably mean well, but I think they’re way less common than the scams. Yes, I said scams. There are tons of “businesses” out there who are drooling to make money off hopeful authors. They often solicit authors out of the blue, which is a flattery-play. Oh, someone noticed my book out there amongst all the others. My moment has finally come! I’m sorry if this hurts to hear, but they’re not interested in you or your work. They’re interested in your money. Most require a massive upfront cost and charge more than the market average. And sometimes it’s for things you don’t even need. In this example from fellow indie author, Diana Tyler, she describes how one company she used required her to buy a thousand copies of the book.

Sorry, what?

A thousand?! That’s beyond insane! Firstly, you don’t have to hand-sell physical copies of your book if you don’t want. That’s just one option. But secondly, and more importantly, a thousand?! Unless people are lining up around the block to see you, you’re going to have those book copies forever.

This is the bottom line when it comes to investing money in anything: who’s taking on the most risk? With most co-publisher situations, it’s you. Now, some don’t require a huge outlay for physical book copies. Some just want a share of the royalties. But how much and for how long? Forever? What if you decide to take your business elsewhere? Well, you’d better make sure you didn’t sell the rights to your book when you signed your contract.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Always read your contract and don’t sign it until you understand it completely. If you don’t understand it, find someone who does.

Sometimes, these companies will include a clause that requires you to make up the difference if the book doesn’t sell a certain number of copies. Again, they’re protected if the book doesn’t sell while you’re left holding the bag.

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Convenience Costs ~ Should you pay for professional editing and cover design and all that? Yes!!! So much yes! People judge books by their covers. We say we shouldn’t, but we totally do it. Romance covers all follow a similar format so that when people see it, they’ll automatically know that’s a romance novel. I once heard someone complain about how all steampunk covers have gears on them. Yeah! Because gears are a hallmark of steampunk! A good cover designer will know book cover trends and the elements that mark out a book as romance or sci-fi or YA. This is worth the investment. Same goes for hiring a professional editor. Look, editing is not just making sure no words are misspelled. It’s making sure the story as a whole is cohesive, it’s challenging you to think deeper about character motivations and voice and all the nitty-gritty elements that make a story really shine. A good editor will challenge you. While doing the development edit on Across the Ice, for various reasons, my editor recommended I completely rewrite a couple of scenes from other character viewpoints, and she was right. For more on choosing an editor, you can read this guest post by her.

Back to the matter at hand, getting these things in a package can seem convenient, but you should not be making book publishing decisions based on convenience (more on that later). You should be choosing your editor and cover designer because they are the best choice for your book. Editors often specialize in genres because every genre requires different things. So how do you know that editor at XYZ co-publisher can handle your space opera? What other space operas have they worked on? Companies become successful by doing the specific things they excel at. Big publishers have genre-specific imprints so they can focus their efforts instead of trying to win at all the things. A publishing company that claims to do everything, no matter what type of book it is, sets off my alarm bells.

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Packages Kind of Suck ~ Like I said, above, you shouldn’t be making decisions about your books based on convenience. But, Dana, querying agents and traditional publishers is a lot of work, as is doing everything myself as an indie. Yes, it is. You know what else is a lot of work? Writing. In the words of Stephen King:

“…if you don't want to work your ass off, you have no business trying to write well—settle back into competency and be grateful you have even that much to fall back on.”

Every company has the same goal, to make money. Experienced people cost more money, so a lot of co-publisher outfits cut their costs by hiring inexperienced people. But what are they charging you, in turn, for their services? Is it in line with the average market prices? Your books will suffer if you choose a service based on convenience. And you might even get something you don’t care about.

Every package I’ve ever bought—farm CSA bundles, subscription boxes, those containers of different chocolates you get at Valentine’s day—had a bunch of stuff I liked. And always something I didn’t. I’m looking at you, coconut creams. Publishing packages are the same. For instance, I find book formatting one of those tasks authors can usually do themselves. If you can make a Word document look the way you want, Calibre can convert it to .mobi and .epub files for you for free. The print version is a touch more difficult, but a wee bit of googling goes a long way. Ditto for buying an ISBN and publishing it to Amazon. Packages allow companies to cobble together easier services, like book formatting and ISBN purchases, with the rest and charge more for them since you don’t get to pick and choose a la carte style what you want and what you don’t.

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The Cake is a Lie ~ This is a harsher blog entry than I usually do, but I feel really strongly about this subject. I get it; it feels nice for someone to call you up and tell you they’ve “chosen” you. The writing path is a hard one. The idea of hiring one place to take care of everything for you, especially when they make big claims about skyrocketing your book to bestseller stardom, is really attractive. But none of it’s true. Books, like all entertainment, is a tricky business. Not even the big wigs in the major publishing companies really know which books will do well. Movies that are expected to do great flop. Andy Weir started out indie. The only real keys to success are hard work and perseverance, and even then it might not be enough. But are you in this for the money or for the love of the craft? Honestly, if you’re in this for the money, you’re in the wrong job.

Here are a few more resources to check out, all of which cover facets of this issue I didn’t discuss. Knowledge is power, so arm yourself.

Again, that post from Diana Tyler about her experience using co-publishers.

Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) - Writer Beware: Vanity/Subsidy Publishers.

Also from Writer Beware, an article on book-to-screen scams.

From Reedsy, Scams and Publishing Companies to Avoid.

Thanks for reading.

Thank you to those folks who voted for me to cover this subject next. If you’d like to vote for an upcoming discussion subject, you can find that poll on my Patreon.

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Related Entries: 10 Things You Need to Know Before Hiring an Editor - Guest Post from Sarina Langer.

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