Rule number 1 for the working writer: The money flows toward the writer.
There are a few honorable exceptions to this rule:
- An agent who bills the client or deducts from earnings for the not-inconsiderable costs of photocopying or printing manuscripts, and the costs of postage.
- A free-lance editor, expressly and purposefully hired by the writer with a clearly defined assignment and in a way that does not provide perverse incentives (“If I tell him this turkey can be made to work if we go over it again, he’ll pay me for another round of edits”), and with no expectation that there will be a quid pro quo of some sort (“Hire me, and I can get your manuscript in front of a top acquisitions editor at Shyster and Sons.”)
And that’s about it. The following are dis-honorable non-exceptions to this rule:
- Agents who charge reading fees or otherwise charge for their services.
- Contests that offer the hope of publication but charge entry fees.
- Online services that put your manuscript online for agents to read. (No legit agent in her right mind would waste her time on the no-hopers to found in such spots.)
- Vanity Presses — the worst of a very bad lot indeed. They have gotten with the digital age and gone online, but boy, howdy, can they clean out a bank account!
I am working on an essay about vanity presses that I hope to post here in the very near-ish future. Until that happens, here’s a handy checklist of things to watch out for lifted from said essay. While you’re at it, pay a visit to the Writer Beware blog at accrispin.blogspot.com and the Writer Beware webpage on the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Web (SFWA) site. Never mind why there is only one F in SFWA, and even if you have no interest at all in science fiction, you’ll find a great deal of writerly advise and information at that page. Anyway, here’s my own little list.
If a publishing house advertises to writers and would-be writers, it’s a vanity press. (Real publishers do what they can discourage rank amateur writers, for fear of being inundated by submissions from every kind of nut there is.) When was the last time you heard Little, Brown running ads encouraging wannabes to send in their work?
In similar vein, if the publisher’s website home page is aimed at signing up writers, not showing off the publisher’s latest works, the publisher has just told you where they get most of their income.
If the publisher charges the writer for services, it’s a vanity press.
If it has lots of “partner” companies (some of whom have no specific addresses, or the same address, or just a post office box address) that provide editorial services or fulfillment or whatever, watch out. It is highly likely that what you’ve got hold of is one larger company pretending to be lots of smaller companies in order to slice and dice the fees charged to the writer. “I certainly understand that you didn’t expect to pay that much. But that charge is coming from our distribution partner. We’re just passing it through.”
If you have never heard of any of their authors or their books, and/or if none of the books have been reviewed, and/or the reviews and blurbs are anonymous, you might stop and ask why.
If the publisher isn’t boasting about all the New York Times Bestsellers they have had, it’s because they have never had any.