From "Writers Beware," with alterations and additions by me 🙂
I often hear from writers who are confused because they’ve been offered a contract by a publisher that describes itself as "traditional" or "small press," but wants its authors to make some sort of financial commitment in order to be published. If a publisher wants money from you, STOP!!! Hit your mental remote control. PAUSE AND REFLECT.
Remember: Publishers pay writers. Writers do NOT pay publishers. Publishers make their money on book sales. They are investing their money in your talent because they see a place in the market for your book, and a clear profit in its publication and distribution.
If they are asking for money, they are not a publisher. They are a printer.
If asked, such publishers vehemently deny that they are vanity operations. After all, they don’t accept everyone who submits, and they aren’t asking their authors to pay for printing–just to finance their own editing, or to commit to pre-selling a certain number of books. But the bottom line is the same: you are paying to see your book in print. A publisher that turns its authors into customers has little incentive to get books into the hands of readers, and is not likely to invest much money in marketing and distribution.
Here are some of the "alternative" charges you may encounter:
* A setup fee or deposit. Publishers that require a setup fee will tell you that you’re not paying to publish, just contributing to the cost of preparing your book for printing, or making a "good faith investment" in your own success. Some publishers promise to refund the fee under certain circumstances (usually carefully crafted so they’ll almost never be fulfilled). The setup fee often isn’t large by vanity standards–a few hundred dollars–but since such publishers typically use print-on-demand technology to produce their books, it more than covers their expenses.
* A fee for some aspect of the publication process other than printing/binding. Some publishers ask you to pay for editing, or for your book cover art, or for a publicity campaign (commercial publishers provide these services as a routine part of the publication process, at their own expense). Services may cost thousands of dollars, and are often minimal and not of professional quality.
* A pre-purchase requirement. Some publishers include a clause in their contracts requiring you to buy a set quantity of finished books–as much as a thousand copies, often at a minimal discount. This can be more expensive than straightforward vanity publishing.
* A pre-sale requirement. A similar contract clause may require you to pre-sell a certain number of books prior to publication, or to "guarantee" a minimum number of sales (usually, exactly as much as is needed to enable the publisher to recoup its investment and make a profit). You don’t have to buy them yourself–but if you don’t deliver the sales, the publishing deal is off. This is an especially tricky variation on the pay-to-publish scheme, because it allows the publisher to claim that it’s not asking you for cash. But it’s not an author’s job to be a salesman for his own books–that’s what the publisher is supposed to do.
* Pressure to buy your book yourself. The publisher may not contractually require you to purchase your own book–indeed, it may make a big deal of telling you that you don’t have to buy anything. Even so, it will put you under heavy buying pressure–for instance, providing an Author Guide that extols the financial benefit of buying your own book for resale, or offering special incentives designed to spur author purchases, such as extra discounts or contests for the month’s top seller. These are all signs of a publisher that relies on its authors as its main customer base. Unfortunately, if the publisher employs such tactics, you usually don’t find out about them until you’ve already signed the contract.
* A variety of other sneaky tactics. Some examples from Writer Beware’s complaint files: requiring authors to pay for publisher-sponsored conferences or lectures or "publicity opportunities". Requiring authors to sell ads that are bound into the company’s books. Selling stock in the company, despite the lack of an appropriate license. Requiring authors to find "investors" willing to cover the cost of publication. The permutations are endless.