Gather ‘round, my dears, as I tell you a tale of the time I came scarily close to accepting a job with a notorious vanity publisher.
*cue horror music*
I know, I know. If you’re a fellow writer, you must be appalled, and with good reason. I swear I didn’t understand at the time exactly what constituted a vanity publisher. If you’re not sure, either, the Writer’s Beware blog of the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) has you well in hand.
The tale begins in the spring of 2014. We’d recently relocated from Texas to Maryland. I’d been applying to positions in the area for months—even before we moved—without much luck. I applied to anything and everything even remotely related to my college degrees, my past work experiences, and my recent volunteer activities.
While I waited for good news to roll in, I used my abundant free time to indulge in one of my long-neglected passions: fiction writing. I dusted off one of the stories languishing on my hard drive and began to work on it in earnest. I read up on the latest industry trends and even joined a local writing critique group. I largely credit this period of productive unemployment and my membership in the critique group for the writing journey I’m still happily continuing today.
It seemed like fate the day I came across an ad for a position with a local small-press “traditional” publisher. If I snagged this job, I thought, it could help me with my goal of one day being a published author. I was so thrilled by the possibility of working in the publishing industry that I didn’t care that I found the job through an online platform notorious for being rife with scammy activities. I’d find out soon enough that the job offer itself was real; it was the company that was scammy.
I emailed my resume to the hiring manager and got a prompt response and request for an in-person interview. My initial meeting with the company owner went well. He was impressed with my resume and writing and graphic design samples, but the experience also left me feeling somewhat…off. He seemed a bit too eager to bring me on board. Too impressed. Too amiable. Still, my desire to be a part of the “publishing industry” drowned out any off-putting vibes.
I also wasn’t sure how I felt about the company’s philosophy of “making book publishing accessible and available to everyone.” (That’s a summation; not a direct quote.) It’s a lovely anti-gatekeeping sentiment, but how does that work as a sustainable business model? They didn’t charge authors for design, formatting, illustrating, or printing books—which seemed absolutely wild to me— and they accepted virtually all manuscript submissions. The scope of the problem would become clear in my follow-up meeting with one of their editing managers (or whatever his title was; I can’t recall.)
The first red flag popped up when I asked about their editing process, as it related to what I thought I was being hired to do. I assumed that, given their name was printed on these books, they’d want to protect their reputation and ensure the books were of good quality. Not every manuscript is “traditionally” publishable based on the merit of simply having been written, which seemed to be their baseline submission acceptance standard. That means editing, and lots of it.
So when I asked how their editing process worked, I was told the company didn’t provide editing services. Other than fixing obvious and egregious errors here and there, they offered neither developmental or copy editing. They trusted writers to take care of their own editing and to submit when they felt their books were ready for publication.
*cue hysterical laughter*
Books are writers’ babies. Everything we write is a beautiful NYT-bestseller-level masterpiece, even when it’s a flaming garbage heap. I thought my first finished book was bound to be the next Hollywood blockbuster series. I loved it so much that I was blind to the significant pacing and plot problems. If that had been my first official book as a published author, I would be mortified. Truly. In an overwhelming majority of cases, writers need and WANT editing, or at the very least, a discerning eye and honest feedback.
I wondered how this company actually made money, then, if they weren’t putting out consistent quality products. What did their sales numbers look like? That’s when the second red flag appeared. Apparently, the company offered “paid promotion packages” that allowed authors to be as active in their book’s success as they wanted to be (or, as their wallets allowed…) Authors were also encouraged to buy print copies of their own books from the company (at a discount, of course) to sell or give away as they saw fit. The editing manager spun it as giving authors full control over their investments in their own writing careers.
I didn’t know much about publishing at the time, but I knew that legitimate publishers make money from selling books, not by selling services to authors, and certainly not by selling their own books back to them. These days, authors might shoulder the brunt of their own book promotions, but they should NEVER pay the publisher for promotions.
Needless to say, I didn’t feel great when I left that interview. I spent the remainder of the day doing what I should have done in the first place—researching the company. That’s the day I learned the difference between traditional and vanity publishing. It’s a good thing for writers to know.
I got a job offer via email within hours of the interview. Of course, I turned it down. I don’t imagine I would have worked there for long (it didn’t pay well, as I recall), even had it not ceased operations several years ago. Breaking into traditional publishing as an author has been long and frustrating, but this is honestly one near-miss that I have no regrets about.