When is a vanity press not a vanity press? When it pretends not to be, I guess.
Today I noticed that Amazon.com had coughed up a recommendation for a new book on Ayn Rand, titled The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics. No doubt this book was earmarked for me because I have ordered several Rand-related books (mostly critiques of her views) through Amazon. In any case, I checked it out. It appears to be a hagiographic effort to defend Rand's virtue by attacking Nathaniel and Barbara Branden, two former Objectivist insiders. But that's not what interested me.
What got my attention was a minor controversy among the reader-reviewers on the book's Amazon sales page. One reader pointed out that Durban House, the publisher of this title, is a vanity press:
What I wonder is, did any of these reviewers happen to notice that the book is "self-published?" It's in print purely by virtue of a vanity press outfit.
Another reader heatedly disputed this claim:
The hysterical lies being told about this thrilling page-turner of a book say much more about the reviewers than the book. From personal knowledge, I know that this is a legitimate (and demanding) publisher--nothing resembling a "vanity press," I assure you. (Just where did that lie come from?)
Now I was interested. I had never heard of Durban House. So I Googled them and found their Web site. No mention of any vanity-press contracts. No mention of any payments by authors to the publisher. Yet something didn't quite smell right. Maybe it was the fact that their book covers looked like vanity press editions - there was that slightly cheap look about them. And the publisher was soliciting unagented manuscripts - not a common approach among the legit houses these days.
I Googled a little further, and found a discussion thread at WritersWeekly.com that seems to hold the answer. One member writes that "Durban House Publishing Co., Inc. of Dallas, Texas advertises in Writers Digest that it pays up to $2,000.00 up front to any author with whom they sign a contract," but that when his contract was sent to him, it included the words: "In exchange for Author paying Publisher $25,000.00 in Dallas County, Texas, Publisher shall provide...."
Thus the $2,000 advance from publisher to author suddenly became a $25,000 upfront payment from author to publisher!
If this account is accurate, then Durban House surely is a vanity press, a.k.a. a subsidy press, even though their Web site gives no hint of this fact that I could see. (And by the way, beware of any publisher advertising in Writer's Digest magazine. Legit publishers have no need to beg for submissions; they get more than enough of them as it is.)
The writer in question certainly felt he'd been misled:
Durban House didn't advertise they would publish me if I paid THEM. They advertised they would pay ME.
I wasn't looking for a vanity press or a print on demand.
This was "Bait and Switch" plain and simple.
There follows a long message from a Durban House editor, defending the company. This message is rather odd. It is all one long paragraph, rather like a passage from Kant. It contains at least one obvious contradiction. The editor says,
I asked [the writer] if he would be able to carry out usual things authors are expected to do, such as promoting his book through book-signing tours in key markets, talks to book clubs, libraries and civic organizations, attend book festivals, and writers’ conferences. He said because of his age he was unable to travel very far from Conroe, TX, the town where he lives. I told him for his book to have a chance at success it was essential for him to promote it, and that Durban House would have to pass.
But later he writes:
It has never been a Durban House policy to accept books based on an author’s ability to provide promotional consideration.
While denying that Durban House is a vanity press, the editor says he told the writer, "... we might be able to do a cooperative effort, or joint venture, giving him a 50% stake in his book, if it was accepted for publication." A cooperative effort or joint venture is, in plain language, a situation in which the author subsidizes at least part of the publication and promotional costs of his book.
If the author is paying a subsidy to the publisher, then it's a subsidy press by definition.
Incidentally, I have no prejudice against books issued by vanity houses. Some of them are quite good. I do think that a smarter approach is to go the print-on-demand route with a company like iUniverse. The upfront cost is much lower, so the risk is more acceptable. And iUniverse is perfectly frank about what they do; their Web page is subtitled "Book Publisher for Self-Publishing and Print on Demand."
You probably won't sell many copies of any vanity-press book, but if you're going to use a subsidy house, at least find one that plays straight with you.