Vanity Publishing & Austin Macauley

A short journey to the sewer

We’re always on the side of the book. We’re always on the side of the writer.

With books, we want them to be as good as they can be – written well, edited well, pressing clients to be as wonderful as they can – and if you have the guts and determination to pick up a pen and write a book, we’re on your side.

And that’s why we are firmly, emphatically, viscerally opposed to vanity publishing in all its forms. This is a story, yes, about Austin Macauley, but it is also a story about a whole raft of other vanity presses too. Snakes, worms and weasels, every one.

Why such strong language?

Because vanity publishers take vast sums of money from authors to publish their books. This is in contrast to how to best practice in both traditional publishing (where publishers pay you), and modern ebook-led self-publishing where it costs nothing to upload your book to retailers like Amazon, and where per book royalties are excellent. So if you want to know more about what to avoid – and about Austin Macauley specifically – then read on.

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What is Vanity Publishing?

Vanity publishing is where authors pay for their book to be ‘published’ and where ownership of the book passes to the publisher as part of the contract.

Vanity publishers never call themselves by that name. They’ll say they offer ‘partnership publishing’ or ‘hybrid publishing’ or say they offer a ‘contributory contract’ or anything else of that sort. But if any publisher:

  1. Asks you for money
  2. Ends up owning the rights to your book

you should regard them as a vanity publisher.

That’s if you’re polite, and inclined to be generous.

Quite frankly, we prefer to think of them as thieves and fraudsters.

To be clear: they are not breaking the law. But whether some narrow legal test of fraud is or is not met misses the ethical heart of the issue.The fact is that these publishers are offering writers a contract which they basically know will not meet the legitimate dreams and aspirations of those writers.

What vanity publishing looks like

We’ve spoken to one writer who was offered a ‘contributory contract’ from one vanity publisher (not Austin Macauley), requesting from her a staggering £7,000 to publish her poems.

This lady was dying of cancer, and she wanted to earn a little something for the son she’d leave behind. Thankfully, she called us first, and asked for our advice.

What we told her was this:

  • There is not meaningfully any market for poetry, and certainly not of the (sincere, but quite home-spun) verses she’d written.
  • She would never see that £7,000 again
  • Sales would be modest in the extreme. Aside from any sales she made to friends and family, her sales would quite likely be zero, nothing, nix, nada.
  • She almost certainly would get a nicely produced book to hold in her hands
  • She would not find that book being sold in bookshops
  • Yes, the book would be available on Amazon, but so are 5,000,000 other titles. Uploading a book to Amazon is easy. Selling it once it’s there – that’s hard.
  • She would not, meaningfully, get any marketing support from the publisher once the book had actually been produced.
  • In effect, she’d be paying £7,000 to have her book printed & the rights owned by somebody else. You could easily spend no more than £1,000 for a book of that length, print as many copies as you wanted, work with lovely, truthful, well-intentioned people, and still retain all the rights to the book.

Naturally, she did not use that publisher to ‘publish’ her work. Instead, she went to a reputable local printer and, for a modest sum, got the thing printed up for local distribution. She told me that she wanted everyone who came to her funeral to get a copy.

And look, there’s something good here and something awful.

The good thing is that a dying woman made a book that she wanted to create. That spoke her thoughts to those she cared about.

There is nothing at all of vanity in that impulse. In that sense, the term ‘vanity publishing’ is a total misnomer. I’ve seen a lot of people snared by vanity publishers, and in not one single case was vanity the issue. On the contrary, it’s naivete, hope, and nothing else.

So that’s the good thing. A dying woman wrote and distributed some verses.

And here’s the bad thing: someone wanted to steal £7,000 from her. Sick, dying, and not at all wealthy.

Did I say bad?

I meant awful.

The thing about vanity publishers is they don’t really publish at all. They get books designed & printed. You can do that too, just google “typesetting”, “cover design” and “book printers” and you’ll have everything you need.

Or use an ethical outfit like Matador, or Lulu, or CreateSpace, or IngramSpark, or Completely Novel, and you’ll get a fair service at a fair price. (What each of those outfits offers is different, so you can’t just compare prices – it’s more complex than that.)

So if you just want to pay something to produce 10 books (or 100, or 1,000), you need to work with a company like one of those guys. Or source your own design / copyediting / cover design, etc. It’s not hard, and it can be very rewarding.

What are the alternatives to Vanity Publishing?

A word about traditional publishing and modern self-publishing

[This section talks about the alternatives very swiftly. If you need more help, go to our main publishing advice page that gives you a load more detail in a very helpful format.]

Traditional publishing

Or you can publish in the traditional way with a regular publisher.

The advantages of that route:

  • you get paid, upfront plus (potentially) royalties as well
  • you get a real publisher working hard to market your book
  • you will be sold in bookstores and have the pride of having done a hard thing well.

There’s also one obvious disadvantage:

  • It’s very hard to get accepted by a traditional publisher – the rate of success is probably 1 in 1000 submissions (or even worse)

If your work IS of that quality, you probably need a literary agent. Details on how to do that can be found here.

Self-publishing

If you don’t want to go that route – too hard? too slow? you don’t want to lose control of your book? – then modern self-publishing is also an excellent answer.

Modern self-publishing involves selling your book via Amazon and/or the other e-tailers such as Apple.

You will make a majority of your sales – perhaps over 90% of them – via ebooks, but it’s perfectly possible to create and sell print-books as well. They’ll be of good quality and will be available to readers all over the world.

The advantages of self-publishing include:

  • Royalties are superb: Amazon pays 70% royalties on ebook sales, whereas traditional publishers will pay just 17.5% (or less, if you inlcude the amount you’ll owe your agent.)
  • It’s easy
  • It’s fast
  • You reach readers right across the globe

The disadvantages include:

  • you have to handle the various bits and pieces yourself: cover design, ebook formatting. Most people will just outsource those tasks, but you still need to find the right people for the job.
  • Because of those tasks, you are likely to pay something to get our book published – but $1500 / £1000 would be a perfectly reasonable  budget for most.
  • You have to market your book. Amazon is a platform; it’s not going to market on your behalf unless you have some prove sales potential already.
  • There is still a difference in kudos between self-publishing and the traditional sort. That doesn’t really make sense to us. (Who do you admire more: someone who sold $100,000 worth of self-published books on Amazon? Or someone who got a £1000 book deal from some remote bit of Penguin Random House?) But still: it matters to some people.

If you want to find out more about how to self-publish your work, you can find out with our (characteristically comprehensive) guide here.

Austin Macauley – a close-up look at one vanity publisher

Hold your nose, folks. We’re descending to the gutter.

This post grew (as you may have guessed) out of an encounter with Austin Macauley, a vanity publisher. Or rather: multiple encounters, all of them negative.

We heard about authors feeling cheated.

We heard about authors being threatened with legal action if they spoke out about their experience.

We heard about authors going to court against the firm.

We heard about a prominent blogger – a person of integrity and intelligence – being threatened with legal action for speaking out about these things.

So we thought we’d look into it . . . and we did not love what we saw.

So, in this updated post, we take another look at Austin Macuauley – but please remember that ALL vanity publishers operate in much the same way. What we say about this firm could, mutatis mutandis, be said about all its snakelike brethren.

To be clear, and to reiterate: we do not believe that Austin Macauley is engaged in illegal activity.

Let’s take one example of how this might be worded.

Austin Macauley – a publisher we do not love – states on their website:

“From the very beginning we have worked with the ‘hybrid’ model of publishing contracts, which has become increasingly popular in recent years. This means that while we look at every new manuscript with a view to offering a traditional mainstream publishing deal, we also have the option of offering a partnership agreement instead, where the author may be asked to cover part of the cost of publishing the book.”

This is slippery nonsense, in our view.

What proportion of book titles would fall under ‘traditional mainstream’, and what proportion published via ‘partnership agreement’? Authors need to know. What are some of their traditionally published titles? Where are those? Can you find them in a bookshop? We’re doubtful that those ‘traditional’ AM titles form any significant block of sales. We rather think they’re more likely a smmokescreen – a fig leaf to give respectability to the big vanity-based machine beneath.

So take those partnership (vanity) agreements. We’d want to ask:

What is the median cost to the author of these partnership agreements? Partnership implies some joint sharing of risks and rewards, so do you contribute a sum broadly equivalent to that contributed by your authors?

What are the median sales of partnership titles? Note that ordinary averages (means) can be distorted by one or two high-selling titles, so a median figure would be helpful.

What, loosely, is the median financial outcome for partnership authors? Do they recover their contributions via royalties? Do they generally make a profit, and how much? And if they make a loss, what is the average magnitude of that loss?

I hope it’s obvious why these questions are important.

Austin Macauley operates within the law insofar as it prints books, makes those books available on Amazon, available for order by bookshops (not the same as saying that these books are likely to be stocked in bookshops). It makes modest efforts to secure publicity for its books and authors.

On the minus side, that question of whether new writers’ inexperience is taken advantage of remains. Many, many writers have called us to ask whether they should make payments like this to vanity presses, whether this is how publishing traditionally works.

Vanity presses, we stress to our writers, aren’t reflective of publishing in general. It can’t be said too often you shouldn’t need to pay a publisher to publish your work.

Writers need to research in full how publishing works, to be aware they typically shouldn’t feel obliged to pay publishers or agents a thing. I also doubt many authors make much money investing in ‘partnership publishing’ and I seriously doubt that, with most of the books taken on, vanity presses do expect to sell many copies at all, if they’re demanding massive contributory author agreements.

As it happens, we also have copies of letters and contracts sent out by Austin Macauley to real clients of theirs: a real sales letter and a real contract.

No letter from an established trade publisher – HarperCollins, Macmillan or so forth – will look anything like this. No one ever said, “Hey, Harry, we had a special meeting with the Chief Executive to determine whether we were able to proceed.” They just made an offer and my agent, and I decided whether to accept it. That’s how things work, not with stagey copy about board meetings designed to entice an author into parting with their money.

The contract is where rubber hits road.

On signing a book deal, an author conventionally sells rights in the work for the term of copyright – typically life, plus seventy years.

Even in traditional publishing, that clause has looked ever less acceptable as time goes by. (Why not a fixed five-year license term, renewable by mutual consent? That would give plenty of incentive for a publisher to work hard and the author an easy escape option if things don’t work out. Still, at least there is a rationale.)

Combine a pay-to-play ethos with no exit route for the author, and it becomes just unthinkable. No author should sign such a contract.

There’s also a gagging clause in this contract, saying that the author can’t do or say anything that might upset the publisher.

I have signed book deals with Penguin Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins, Bloomsbury, not to mention deals with overseas, and I have never been presented with a clause like this. Of course, authors and publishers should work collaboratively together, and why would any author work to undermine his or her book?

In fact, why insert a clause like this at all?

I can only wonder: might such vanity presses sense a portion of authors will come to be disappointed.

This clause, on its own, should be a clear warning.

If you are looking for publication, just follow these steps:

  1. Look for a literary agent with our free advice.
  2. If an agent takes you on, then great. Just follow their advice. They’ll get you an offer from a reputable publishing house, involving them, almost always, putting money in your pocket upfront – not taking it.
  3. If an agent doesn’t take you on, fix your manuscript (ideally using editorial help) and begin again the agent-hunt. Or you may decide to self-publish, in which case:
  4. Self-publish for free on the Amazon Kindle platform, using this guide, where you’ll gain 70% royalties.

In the meantime, if you’re considering entering into a partnership agreement with a vanity press, just – please – think again.

Consider self-publishing yourself via CreateSpace and Kindle Direct, or hire an outfit like Matador to do the fiddly bits for you. Matador mightn’t make you rich, but they’ll always be clear, telling you truthfully what can and can’t be achieved.

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