PhotoIf you dream of earning your living as an author—or simply of publishing a book that’ll be seen by people other than immediate friends and family—established writers recommend you not waste your time with vanity press publishers like PublishAmerica.

Novice writers are quick to learn this expensive lesson. David B. of Cleveland, Ohio, wrote us on Sept. 12 to describe how he became the latest writer to learn this the hard way. Last year he wrote a children’s book and submitted it to several publishers. “The only one that responded positively was PublishAmerica [….] It is true they will publish your manuscript for free, but for any other kind of marketing that they do there is a cost involved.”

David knew better than to pay any marketing fees, but still lost money to the company: “So far I have not received any royalties from Publish America, and I know for a fact that my book has been sold through Amazon, and other companies.”

Another children’s book author—we’ll call her “S”—had the same complaint about PublishAmerica: every royalty period, PublishAmerica told her she’d earned no royalties.

“That is a lie, because I know multiple people who bought my book off Amazon and I never saw one penny for those sales,” she told us on Sept. 1. “I wrote and inquired about that and they had some weak excuse that it was Amazon's fault. Yeah, right! I inquired with Amazon and everything was hunky-dory with them.”

The difference between legitimate publishing houses and so-called “vanity presses” like PublishAmerica can be summarized in a single sentence: legitimate publishers make money by selling books to readers, while vanity presses make money from their authors.

Only sign the back

PhotoProfessional writers belonging to the SFWA (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) have spent almost a decade warning fellow writers away from PublishAmerica and other vanity presses. Three such writers—James D. Macdonald, Victoria Strauss and the late AC Crispin—founded an advice and discussion forum called Absolute Write to warn writers away from vanity press companies.

Visit the forum and you’ll see a bold-print reminder across the top of every page: “A publisher or agency using Google ads to solicit your novel probably isn't anyone you want to write for.”

MacDonald, author of 35 novels, also coined what he calls “Yog’s Law,” which states that “Money flows toward the writer” or “The only place an author signs a check is on the back.”

MacDonald explains this in more detail: “[T]hat doesn't mean that the author should get paper and ink for free, or that he won't pay for postage. It does mean that when someone comes along and says, ‘Sure, kid, you can be a Published Author! It'll only cost you $300!’ the writer will know that something's wrong. A fee is a fee is a fee, whether they call it a reading fee, a marketing fee, a promotion fee, or a cheese-and-crackers fee.”

However, PublishAmerica claims not to charge fees; its website [indeed, its very logo] makes the bold claim “We treat our authors the old-fashioned way—we pay them,” and authors who go with PublishAmerica aren’t asked for fees until after the contract has already been signed.

How to know?

So how can an aspiring author know how to weed out the vanity press publishers? The easiest way is to look at the publisher’s website and ask: “Who are they trying to sell to here—readers, or writers?” Look at the websites of legitimate publishers such as Random House or Simon & Schuster:  the sites are designed to convince would-be readers to part with some money in exchange for a good book.

By contrast, PublishAmerica’s website tries to convince authors to publish with them: “Become a published author for FREE!”

Face it: legitimate publishers—those who make their money selling books to readers—don’t need advertising to find aspiring writers, anymore than legitimate movie studios need advertising to find aspiring movie stars. In both cases, the number of people who dream of earning their living that way is exponentially greater than the number of positions available.

Which is why the Absolute Write forum reminds aspiring authors: “A publisher or agency using Google ads to solicit your novel probably isn't anyone you want to write for.”

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