Big Six Vanity Tricks: Guest post by Susan Kaye Quinn

Sher A Hart here. It’s my turn to post since Paul R Hewlett, my new blog partner, did the last post. You should check out his review and giveaway of Heart of a Hero by Billi Tiner. I was on vacation when I saw this Author Beware post by my favorite YA author, Susan Kaye Quinn, and asked to share it. It turned out she was away too. But now that we’re both back, it’s not too late to share this information on my blog too. It’s still important for writers to beware. I couldn’t say it better than Susan did, so  read on to see how she can help you protect your pocketbook and your integrity.

 Innocent Kitten Writers, Beware

Writers have always had to be wary of people trying to scam them, predators that live off your dreams of having your story in print and read by the masses.

Preditors and Editors has been been around since 1997, warning writers away from unscrupulous agents and editors, and Writers Beware has been maintaining an “extensive database of questionable literary agents, publishers, independent editors, writer’s services, contests, publicity services, and others” since 1998. Apparently the turn of the century saw a big need for this.

Vanity Publishers, where writers pay lots of cash to see their work “in print,” have their own page on Writers Beware, due to the enormous cost and outrageous (unfulfilled) promises of vanity publishers, not to mention outright fraud and unethical practices. It used to be that the distinction between “proper” publishing and “vanity” publishing was that in proper publishing money always flowed to the writer, not to the publisher.

With the rise of self-publishing, this maxim had to be tweaked a bit, because self-publishers (at least ones that do it right) do pay money for flat-rate services (cover art, editing, etc). Writers Beware now distinguishes self-publishing from vanity publishers by saying that for self-publishers “all rights, and profits, remain with writer.”

[Which is an interesting distinction, given that rights and profits do not remain with the writer that contracts with any publisher; the distinction between vanity and “respectable” publishers then becomes how much money the author pays to the publisher. But I understand Writers Beware’s attempt to parse this.]

For self-publishers, it seems every day there are new people trying to make money off authors jumping into the self-publishing game for the first time. Sometimes these people are outright scammers, sometimes it’s debatable whether these people are actually helping or hurting self-published authors, and sometimes there’s legitimate gray areas in the ethical debate. Things like:

  • Agents who act as publishers (usually just uploading to Kindle), “self-publishing” their authors manuscripts that they cannot sell (for a cut, not a flat fee)
  • Kirkus, who offers paid reviews for self-publishers ($495) while not charging for reviews of authors from publishing houses
  • Even more fake contests and awards focused on self-published authors
  • Sites selling “ads” when their website may have less hits than your own author blog
  • Companies offering to get self-published authors’ books into various book fairs around the world
  • All manner of “awards” and “seals of approval” offered to self-published authors (for a fee)
These transactions should be marked with big CAUTION signs for authors, to make sure they know what they’re getting (and what they’re not) for the money they’re paying.
While many of these transactions have shades of ethical grayness, I thought the bright ethical line was still there with vanity publishers. The King of Vanity is Author Solutions, but there are more all the time:
  • Writer’s Digest owns vanity press, Abbott Press
  • Thomas Nelson has vanity West Bow Press
  • Harlequin owns vanity DellArte Press
(Note: these are actually “white label” versions of Author Solutions, i.e. AS is behind the scenes, providing the services.)
These vanity publishers act like they are part of the indie revolution, “shifting the power from the publisher to the author.” They talk the indie talk, all while they charge you thousands of dollars to make your “dream” come true.
Even with the increasing entanglement of “industry” publishers with vanity publishing, I still didn’t see this coming:
Let me repeat: The King of Vanity Publishers has been bought by a Big Six Publisher.
[update: Writer’s Beware post on this here. Thanks Peter!]

When I think of Big Six publishing cherry picking out the best practices of the indie movement, I think of things like putting Big Six titles on sale on Pixel of Ink or starting an ebook only line, like Pocket Star at Simon & Schuster. These are steps in the right direction, things that benefit authors as well as publishers (and even consumers! zounds!). This is what I want to see: indie publishers and traditional publishers learning from each other, filling market needs, making the world a better place for books.

Big Six publishers swallowing Vanity Publishers whole? I honestly wish there was some upside to this for authors, but I’m not seeing it. And I’m not the only one: see Jane Friedman’s insightful analysis of what this means. From Jane’s site:

“I’m sad to say I’ve heard publishing executives talk about the opportunity to “monetize unpublished manuscripts” and it’s why I left commercial publishing. Is this where the industry is headed? If so, I want no part of its future.”

Maybe Penguin/Pearson will change Author Solutions’s business practices so that they help authors instead of charging $20k to make a “Hollywood Trailer.” Maybe Penguin/Pearson will force Author Solutions to become transparent about the services that they can provide to authors. But, like Jane says, that’s not what made Author Solutions profitable in the first place.

If not, I see this being one more thing that authors have to beware of.

I want to thank Susan for letting me use her post, and even if you’ve heard about Penguin’s purchase of Author Solutions before, I bet you didn’t know all these details. And if you haven’t read Susan’s books, Open Minds or Closed Hearts, you don’t know what you’re missing. I’m a picky reader and I think Susan’s stories are better than The Hunger Games with more mind games and less graphic violence. 

You can find Susan’s website and books here.

Share A Heart

Indie author-friendly freelance editor, children's book blogger for picture books through YA, kid lit, SF/fantasy lover with special fondness for middle grade, pun-loving SCBWI member, meter-maid for poetry and rhyming picture books.


  1. Thanks to you both for the informative post! This is important information for aspiring writers, I hope many take notice and educate themselves accordingly.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Rick. I hope putting Susan’s post on my blog helps me remember to be careful when the time comes to publish. The last thing I need is to get caught up in the excitement and forget to check every detail.

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