Don’t fall into these two too common pitfalls.
Helix the Fallen asked me to cover a common scam that befalls writers: Vanity Press. I decided to also cover another prevalent scam: literary agents. I’ll talk a little about what is and isn’t vanity press and get into ways to separate the good agents from the bad. Because of the nature of this discussion, I’ll be pulling heavily from my publisher. He has a lot of information on this but couldn’t present it in a way that would allow my readers to stay conscious. I dare him to try and deny it.
Also, let me say, unlike my other journals, this journal contains things you should never do. Even if you feel like there’s a logical exception to what I’m saying, and there very well might be, do not give these people money. Even if it works for you, it allows them to hold you up as an example to lure in other unsuspecting people.
Vanity press refers to a publisher who offers to publish your work for a fee in exchange for “exposure.” Let me start by saying something that I’ll be saying a lot in this journal: You don’t pay to be published.
In Soviet Russia publisher is paid by you! Well, not really, but I thought it was funny. Publishers (not to be confused with printers. I’ll touch on that in a moment) receive manuscripts from prospective authors and/or agents and decide what will sell and then pay the author (and agent if applicable) for the work.
A place my publisher worked was once accused of being a vanity press. They had a small volunteer staff that read the stories. Measures were taken to assure each story was anonymous and decisions were made prior to an author being identified. The staff also knew what the staff liked and so it wasn’t uncommon (maybe as much as 20%, but I’m told it was probably much lower than that) of what was printed was by staff. Sounds a little like something that was happening for vanity reasons, but it cost those authors nothing and the pay was a half cent a word, so it wasn’t paying much. ($50 at the most.) In addition, the magazine had a subscription base, and was read by a number of famous people. It actually gave exposure. So, you’ll see little semi-professional publications like this all the time, but they’re not vanity press.
Right now there are quite a few places that will offer print on demand. You put your stuff together and format it and they’ll print it. They’ll send you a royalty based on what sells, but do not charge you unless something sells. This is a legitimate business model and can be a good way for small authors to make money, provided they can get the word out. So to be clear, this is a print service, not a publisher and not in any way vanity press.
Vanity press used to come in the mail (now they spam your email). It plays on the poor misunderstood artiste mentality that I despise. It asks you if you have something worth publishing and offers to publish it for you. All you have to do is pay x dollars up front to cover expenses and they’ll print it or all you have to do is submit and then if you want a copy of the finished work at about $100 a copy, you can buy it. Many will add a “you’ll be put in a drawing to actually get some real money” line too.
People like that don’t have your best interests in mind. They want your money and once they have that there’s absolutely no obligation to do anything else for you. If that “exposure” lands you money, they don’t get any of it, so why would they care?
I’ve tried to be thorough, but if you have experience that can show more versions of how this is currently happening, please leave it in the comments.
Now let me talk a little bit about agents. A literary agent is a person that works with authors and publishers to facilitate finding new talent. Let me be very clear on this: an agent works for the publisher. An agent doesn’t work for you. Look at it this way. You go Panda Express to get some of their yummy orange chicken with their overly-cabbage-ized chow mien. The cute guy at the counter takes your money or runs your credit card. Does that guy work for you? No. None of that money goes to him, it all goes to the company. He works for Panda Express and that’s who pays him.
Now let’s take it step further. Let’s say that the cute guy is a jerk (because that never happens) who takes your money and pockets it and then says that you never paid the company, so you don’t get any food. There’s no way, no matter how cute he is, that he’d get away with that right? You’d have to be really sleepy or something to let that happen.
Well, some agents do that, and some authors let them. They do things like call it a “reading fee” or a “screening fee” and charge you to see if they can get you published. They’ll usually even tell you that they can and give you a list of authors they’ve worked with. These fees can be anywhere from $50 on up. I’ve heard of some in the $1000s.
You’re probably thinking, “But Chaaya, they have to spend time reading your story. They deserve some money for that don’t they?” I can say the same thing about the cute guy at Panda Express. He deserves to be paid. That’s true. It’s also true that I will be getting some food for that money or I’ll be going all Chaaya on him. In this case, you’re getting a possibility of money back. You can try to call that investment, but let me show you why it’s closer to gambling.
How long does it take you to read 1000 words? Not terribly long huh? For most adults, that’s about 4-5 minutes. Now let’s take some information from my publisher. He says that for 80% of the stuff he receives, he can determine if it’s unpublishable in 1000 words or less and for at least half that, it’s within the first two paragraphs. Less than 10% require a full reading and of those perhaps half are worth sending on for approval. Even fewer will be accepted.
That means that, provided someone who reads for a living reads at the rate of the slowest adults, there’s a good chance your “next great American novel” got less than 3 minutes of this person’s consideration. Add a paragraph to their standard response, which is now all on email, and maybe you got 4 minutes of their time.
But they got your money and they want to get more of your money, so why would they tell you that? Instead they’ll tell you that they’re looking through possibilities and they think they might have a deal with some big publisher, but be sure to send your next story, just in case.
A good return on an investment is ten percent. You’re not likely to see that. You’re more likely to lose money. Where I grew up, they called that gambling. It’s not even a risky investment at that success rate.
Now what if they get lucky and your stuff actually is publishable? Then they’ll give you a cut of what the publisher pays. They’ll take the rest and still get your “reading fee.” In addition, they probably had you sign something to begin with that’ll allow them to show off the fact that they got you published. That’ll help them lure in more authors. In addition, they end up on a publisher’s “official agent” list.
Well, that wasn’t my usual type of material for a journal, but I agree with Helix, it’s good stuff for writers to know about. If you have personal experience with this stuff, let me know in the comments.
I hope you enjoyed my ramblings. I try to present stuff in a fun and light-hearted way. This one is the kind of authoritarian stuff I shy away from, but I’ll call it a necessary evil. It’s pretty much angst-free though. If you have suggestions for future topics, you can message me or say something in the comments.
Thank you so much to my few followers. I honestly do all this for you. You’re the best.
May you keep running forward and never look back.