Friday, 15 August 2008

The Case Of The Imaginary Big Advance

Many of you will have seen various media reports this week about Lorna Page, the 93-year-old woman who published her novel A Dangerous Weakness with AuthorHouse, which supposedly paid her a £310,000 advance for it.

It seemed unlikely to many people, including me, that AuthorHouse would have paid any sort of advance to Ms Page, let alone one big as that. AuthorHouse is a well-known vanity press which expects writers to pay for publication, often to the tune of several thousand pounds. Which, as we know, is not how commercial publishing works--you know, the kind that pays its writers advances and gets their books into bookshops nationwide.

The story has been covered by the Telegraph, the Guardian, the Mail, the Mirror and the BBC, and has been discussed at Absolute Write (discussion starts at post number 393), Making Light, and Writer Beware!

I've been asked about this in the comments to one of my previous posts: you can read my responses here.

The BBC blog has now put up a response from Ms Page's daughter-in-law, Cate Allen, who has made it clear that Ms Page did indeed pay for her publication, and that no advance was given.

This story has been dreadfully misreported by the British media, but that's not the biggest issue here. That dubious honour is reserved for the thousands of people who have read the articles, consequently consider AuthorHouse to be a legitimate, advance-paying commercial press, and are now submitting their work to them.

To say it again: I strongly advise anyone to avoid vanity publishing, as this is not the way to become a successful writer. If you are determined to go that way, you'd better have low expectations and an open chequebook.


Sally Zigmond said...

A very timely post, Jane. I'm now waiting for the guilty to put the record straight but I'm not holding my breath. Why let the truth spoil a good story?

In some ways I applaud the daughter for attempting to crank up sales of her mother's novel but am still appalled that even she perpetuates the myth that writing a novel is a good way to make money. It never was and never will be.

And vanity publishing is always a bad idea, however much those who have been vanity-published themselves defend the process either through ignorance of world of publishing or through arrogance. To paraphrase the wonderful Mandy Rice-Davies: 'Well, they would, wouldn't they?'

HelenMWalters said...

I think one of the many morals of this tale is that if something sounds too good to be true - then it probably is and I agree with Sally that those responsible for the misinformation aren't likely to apologise. I also can't help wondering whether the book is actually any good or not!

Anonymous said...

I've just discovered your blog via Authonomy. It's a good read. Reminds me of the GOB. I've added you to my feeds so I'll definitely be back for more.

Jane Smith said...

Gulliver, welcome. I'm glad you like the blog, and will look forward to seeing more of you here.

And yes, Sally and Helen: just, yes. Bloody vanity presses, etc. I hate them.

ORION said...

And if you look on Amazon uk the numbers on her book are really up. What a deceptive way to get free advertising. There was no fact checking here. I will venture to guess it was a planned way to get free PR.
Quite clever if you think about it. Being as it was released in July of this year - with no advance there is no way she would receive monies this soon for the books that have sold- so her saying she was able to buy a house with the proceeds cant be true.
But it's the tempest in a teapot and the controversy of untruth that will sell this book...and I'm sure there are people who will buy it thinking they are supporting an old lady...

Annie Wicking said...

I guess the moral of the story is... 'There is no such thing as bad publicity....'

I still wish her lots of luck with her book.

There are a few self-published writers who have been taken on by the big boys i.e G.P.Taylor.

And who knows if Mrs Page's book is well written... Her world will truely be her oyster.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this, Jane. The issue sparked considerable debate on my blog and I was wondering how the story was going to play out. Many vanity publishers only serve to rip off disillusioned people by playing on their ego. I hope Lorna's tall story does not send thousands signing up for Author House.

Anonymous said...

The term 'vanity publishing' belongs to a previous age. Commercial publishing is moribund trying to keep pace with the modern world. What you are referring to is 'independent publishing'. It is possible to publish and market a book entirely for free using the internet. Anyone who pays a 'vanity' press is clearly getting ripped off. The quality of the finished product is exactly the same as a commercial publisher. Independent films, independent music, independent publishing; why is the literary world always so far behind the rest of the planet?

Jo said...

Thanks for clearing this mystery up. Living away from the mainstream of publishing gossip I was very dubious about the brief article I read on an online 'red top'. The 93 year old bit caught my me another 27 years to persuade a publisher I'm worth a punt! But when I saw it was self published I knew there were no advance sales in the bag.
But it's generated loads of publicity so maybe she and her daughter are a lot smarter than some of us.

Ray Girvan said...

The term 'vanity publishing' belongs to a previous age
Or the meaning has drifted. It used to refer to the complete ripoff merchants; but nowadays there are so many affordable services that this is unnecessary. I'd say the test of "vanity" now is when people use such services but try to conceal that they've done so.

Jane Smith said...

Gingatao, I think you're a bit confused--either that or I've misunderstood your point, which is perfectly possible!

There are many, many independent publishers out there which work just the same as the big commercial presses: they (usually) pay advances, they pay royalties, and they do not make their authors pay anything towards publishing. They usually produce much quirkier, riskier books than the big boys--just as those independent film-makers do. Quality can be variable, though, which is where the risk comes in.

As a rough guide, to determine if a company is a vanity press or not, just find out where it makes most of its money: if it comes from the writers buying publishing services or their own books then yes, it's a vanity press; if it comes from readers buying the books then no, it's not. Usually.

I've read many comments which insist that commercial publishing is still stuck in a rut, and not moving forward, and that independent presses are developing new, more modern models of publishing: the trouble is that this is almost always used as a way to justify the charges that a vanity press is going to make. Writers do have to be careful. As for commercial publishing being so moribund: well, I've been hearing that for decades. Yet they're still making most of the book sales worldwide, while vanity presses and the like, with all their revolutionary ideas, are still barely making an impression on the statistics.

Nicola Slade said...

You're quite right, Jane. Both my publishers are independents, but both are commercial publishers and they paid me an advance. Not a big advance, but the key is that THEY PAID ME! 'Independent' definitely does NOT mean Publish on Demand or the presses that are actually vanity publishers. POD is useful for all sorts of things but it shouldn't be confused with 'proper' publishing; vanity publishing is still alive and flourishing and costing hopeful authors a lot of money.
I've met people who have told me bare-faced that they are 'independently published' and then tell me the publisher's name. It's never a true independent, always a POD or vanity press. I've even read pieces in the local paper trumpeting a 'two book deal' but recognised the publisher as POD.

The bottom line is a real, 'proper', independent publisher usually pays YOU. You never, ever pay him.

Sally Zigmond said...

Both Jane and Nicola are absolutely right. My novel, Hope Against Hope will be published next year by the small and independent publisher, Myrmidon Books. Although it took six months to get a reply from my editor after he asked for the full manuscript, so far he has taken me out to a damned good lunch where we made merry over a bottle of wine and I have already been paid an advance; not mega bucks, admittedly but a nice little earner, thank you! Myrmidon uses a major distributor and its books are sold in bookshops. Its production values are high and you can't tell any difference between the look and feel of their books and those published by the big boys. One of their titles was long-listed for the Booker prize in 2007 and they are reviewed in the broadsheet press.

The big publishing companies are not behind the times. Like record companies, they find it harder to take chances as they have far more to lose if things go wrong, hence their caution. Maybe, they are too cautious but there are plenty of good independents to fill that niche market.

Vanity publishers are still, alas, always with us. They just call themselves a different name, have garish websites where they are very economical with the truth. They produce hundreds of titles but none look or feel professional and they are stuffed full of errors, because even if paid for by the writer as an 'enhanced service, editing standards are very poor. Booksellers will not sell them, even single customer orders. (Believe me. I used to work for a major book retailer.)

As Jane has pointed out, in proper publishing, money always flows to the writer. Always have; always will.

Unfortunately, the vanity boys know that those they've stung tend to lie low and not admit their folly or know so little about publishing have no idea they've been stung.

Someone has to stand up and tell the truth but it's hard work when people will keep sticking up for them.

Sally Zigmond said...

Call myself a writer? All those errors. Crawls away in shame....

Anonymous said...

Considering there's hardly a journalist who hasn't thought about writing a book sometime, I was surprised that no one could be bothered to dig a bit further and rumble this from the beginning. But I guess it would look very spiteful, poking around in such an apparently heart-warming story, so it was in no one's interests to fact-check the story properly.

POD is just a certain technology: vanity publishers use it, self-publishing companies like Lulu use it, small independents do, and big publishers sometimes use it to keep a title in print economically.

Self-publishing is vanity publishing only if it's vain to want others to read what you've written. There are plenty of perfectly honest and sensible companies which will supply, for a price, the expertise you lack in design and production, either conventionally or by POD. They can and they do do what they say on the tin, and if you want to print your family memoirs, or know you can sell every single copy of your book on narrow-gauge railways to your railway-nut friends, then they're just the job.

Vanity publisher promise the earth, charge the earth, and don't deliver. They can't do the editing, get the publicity, marketing, reviews, books-on-shelves that they promise, and which are the raison d'ĂȘtre of a proper publisher. But then they don't need to. They've made their money from you, either in an up-front fee or by insisting/pushing you into buying hundreds of copies at inflated prices.

(Sally, good to hear that it's going well with Myrmidon.)