Seriously, Toronto Star? - A self-published author's advice on vanity presses and media bias

There is nothing – and I mean nothing – that pisses me off more as a writer and self-published author than seeing stories online or in newspapers lauding and praising vanity presses for the customer service they offer.

Why? Because I dealt with a vanity press, when I was a young and innocent 14-year-old. Or rather, my mom did, as she tried to help me pursue my dream of becoming a published writer.

See, back then and newly arrived in Canada, we didn’t even know the difference. Of course, 13 years later, that has definitely changed for me. Now a proud indie author with 13 (soon to be 14) works to my name, I can say with certainty that I chose the right path.

But, back then? Well. It was a mess that ended up costing money we never saw back, for services that were complete and utter crap.

Which is why, when I landed on the Toronto Star article “With self-publishing in Canada, profit isn’t the main motive,” I was none too impressed. Rather, I was downright furious. With practically little to no research, this piece goes on to glorify a vanity press, all the while sending the wrong message to would-be self-published authors: that they shouldn’t be in it for the profit, because it’s useless. And this was an article that showed up in the Life>Advice section of the Star… But I’ll get to that later.

For context, here’s the piece I did in my column at the Observatorul, a local Romanian newspaper. This post continues after.

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The following article originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of the Observatorul.

(Original piece in Romanian; translation to English by Alexa Whitewolf)

Advice from a Self-Published Writer

I spoke a lot in my previous articles about culture and the importance of identity, as it related to being Romanian. Shifting topics a bit today, a big part of my identity is also that I'm a writer. I've been a writer since I was 12. I self-published my first book at 14 through a vanity press, but I'll get to that later. With all these years under my belt, and despite the ups and downs, it’s safe to say that writing is truly what I am meant to do on this earth.

That being said, there is a culture in the writing world, in the publishing industry, which has shifted over the years, even more since 2010. Previously, it used to be that writers could only get their books out there through the Big Five publishing companies like Penguin, Random House, etc. In the early 2000s, self-publishing took off. Amazon owned the market (I talk more about this in the longer version of this article on my blog), and writers all of a sudden found their dreams more within reach. In between the option of self-publishing and traditional publishing, was another. An insipid little snake that wiggled its way through, eager to prey on the weak: vanity presses.

In order to understand vanity presses and why they flourish, you have to understand that while traditional publishers do everything for a book launch, in self-publishing it’s the author who does it all. The marketing, the editing, the cover design. We outsource to various areas, form a team under us, and eventually present a finished product. It’s a lot of hard, exhausting work. Vanity presses promise to deliver the traditional publishing experience (i.e. having someone do everything for you) at a price. And writers that get their books rejected from traditional publishers but desperately want to publish it, well, they get sucked into it.

For us self-published authors, vanity presses are the worst. The industry is hard enough to get through, with enough of a money commitment, without having sharks biting at your heels. But that is what vanity presses do: basically charge you to self-publish a book for you. And articles like the Toronto Star’s latest, “Self-publishing isn’t about the profit,” only publicize and encourage access to these vanity presses. As a writer, I was disappointed in seeing it (and that’s putting it mildly). The article outlines how one author paid $6000 to get ONE book published, then goes on to list all the fees this included, the entire time treating it like a legitimate business. It is not. It is a shark. Sadly, this kind of shift in the culture is more and more out there.

Loads of people have an idea and decide to become a writer, but don’t want to put the work into it. They come upon these companies that basically do everything for you – at a price – and jump on it. Delivering poor-quality books, and flooding the market with it, all the while making money not for themselves, the authors, but for the vanity press companies. It is a sad truth of the new publishing world, and one that I cover in depth on my blog at should you wish to read more on it. But I will leave now with this: if writing is something you’re thinking about doing, please, don’t get into it for the sake of getting rich. Get into it because it’s what makes you happy doing, or because you need to get a story out there. And most of all, don’t get swept up by this new culture of laziness. Writing is hard work. It takes time to get a base of readers, even more time to get your books recognized out there. But that is not a reason to throw in the towel and lets others run the show for you, bleeding your wallet dry in the process.

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So, context aside, let me continue with a clarification. Keep in mind this is an opinion piece, I am by no means an expert nor do I claim to be, and I am not interested in starting an online war with whomever disagrees with this. However, having been both traditionally published, self-published and used a vanity press in my journey, I find myself in a place where I simply cannot be quiet on the Star’s complete idiocy by publishing this piece and flat-out advertising a vanity press.

Self-pub vs Trad pub vs Vanity presses

If you’re new to the game, this additional clarification may help. At the risk of sounding repetitive, there are hordes of articles online explaining the difference in much more detail. But my purpose is not to educate in these three areas, rather to get to the crux of my opinion. Only, in order to do that, I have to establish some foundations.

Pillars, meet foundation:

Self-publishing is when a writer takes the publishing process in their own hands. They become an independent author – an indie. They write the book, edit it, format it, do the cover design, launch, marketing, etc. There are tons of ways to DIY, but wise indies outsource to the professionals. You can tell a lot from a book by its cover… Well, that certainly holds. Regardless, the point is the indie author has complete control on the process of publishing, the pricing of the book, the royalties they get back, and how long it takes them to publish.

Traditional publishing is when an author’s book gets accepted for publication by a publishing house. This is usually done through the intermediary of an agent, involves querying letters and contracts, and may take years to happen. The publishing house will do everything for the book’s launch, at no cost to the author. They take their cost out of the book royalties, by offering the author only a small percentage back of the revenue. Editing, marketing, cover design is all done at no charge up front for the author. In some cases, if the publishing house sees added value in the book, they may offer the author an advance on what they project the book earnings would be. Such instances are rarer and rarer but this article explains in detail how it works.

Last but not least, this website explains vanity presses/subsidy publishers extremely accurately: “Vanity publishing involves paying a fee for the publication of your book. Generally this takes the form of paying a vanity publisher for a prearranged number of physical, high-quality copies, but it can take other forms such as paying to have your work included in an anthology.” Basically, it’s what a self-pub author can do on their own, only in this case, they’re paying someone thousands and thousands to get it done for them, and getting back services that don’t deliver good quality – or any quality, period. For additional resources on vanity presses, check out Writers Beware.

All set on the difference? Great! Let’s move on to the real stuff.

What’s so wrong with vanity presses?

Oh where to start… How about the fact that you pay them money to do things you can do yourself, and on top of that original money they also take money from the royalties? So it’s practically impossible for you to break even.

Add to that the services you pay for, and what you expect to get, will be drastically different from what you actually get. For a lack of a better term, you’re paying for diamonds and you’re getting back sand.

Or how about the fact that they sell you on the most outlandish claims and packages, some of them as high-priced as a down payment for a house… And still you’ll end up not seeing anything? Vanity presses don’t get big and fancy because they sell a million books. They get big and fancy because they con a million authors into their over-priced services.

No? You don’t see the point? Ok. Let me take apart the Toronto Star article, and then maybe you’ll get the gist. Because make no mistake, Tellwell Talent, mentioned in the article, is a vanity press. And the Toronto Star has just tried to masquerade their entire piece into the “advice” offered to anyone who wants to self-publish.

The fumble of the Toronto Star

If you missed the link for the article, here it is again. Make sure you read it in detail, top to bottom. And let me be clear, what I criticize here is the lack of research into the subject matter, the outlandish claims, the message sent and the fact that it basically contradicts itself at every corner.

Now, before I start breaking it apart in pieces, a disclaimer – again, because everyone and their granny seems to get offended over the slightest thing nowadays, to the point you can’t even have an opinion without being crucified. So: I am in no way shape or form trying to diminish what the author, Jenn Bruer, has done with her book or criticize her decision of opting to publish with a vanity press. I am, however, fully criticizing the way the article is laid out, and the message it sends.

Let’s start with this little nugget: “the Mississauga resident was afraid traditional publishers wouldn’t take her seriously”. This, in short, is laid out as the reason to why Jenn Bruer dished out $6670 of her own money to publish ONE book. One. Not ten. Not twenty. ONE.

Soak that in for a minute…

Back to the article, and that little nugget of a sentence. Can we comment, for a second, on the feeling? “Afraid traditional publishers wouldn’t take her seriously.” Yeah, that’s a legitimate fear – but it should never, ever decide how you publish and with whom. And the hard truth? Vanity presses will praise your book, even when it’s crap. Because they want your money. Again, I’m not saying Bruer’s book is crap, I haven’t even read it. By the sounds of the content, it’s a legitimate story, with loads of self-help for people. What I am saying is that at the end of the day, Tellwell’s goal is in making money for themselves, not for the author. And if they’re giving back the author 100% royalties, as per their claim (see below) how else do they get rich but with the author’s money??

Ok, let’s move on to the money. $6670!!!! (That’s in Canadian dollars for my American friends). I could get a car with that money. I could go to Ireland (again!) with that money! It is an insane amount to be dishing out for ONE book, especially a first book.

For the sake of comparing, I can tell you I haven’t spent $6670 on a book. Not even on my 13 books. And it’s not because my books aren’t edited, or have a professional cover, or I did everything myself. I did do a lot myself, but I also found myself bargains. How? Because I searched and searched and outsourced and didn’t stop looking until I found a team that got my vision. So yeah, it’s possible to be self-pubbed on a budget and make money. Takes a hell of a lot of work and sacrifices, but it’s possible, like every other dream.

Let’s move to another insightful nugget (I’m telling you, this article is full of them!): “…readers around the globe have praised Helping Effortlessly (Bruer’s book).” Hmm, ok. Yet later on in the article, it clearly states that despite this, Bruer hasn’t made back her money. Which goes to support the article’s whole theory of how self-publishing in Canada isn’t done for profit. A sentiment further enhanced when the article goes on to say “A growing number of writers are using online services to publish their tomes on a wide range of budgets. But making money? Well, that’s iffy.”

Hmm, not true. How about this for a list of successful indie writers? Notably, E.L. James, with Fifty Shades of Grey? Heh. Look in the Amazon bestseller charts – some of those names are indies, too. It’s not impossible. Again, it takes a lot of hard work, dedication, marketing and maybe a touch of luck – the kind that you make yourself, not the kind that’s sprinkled upon you by a good fairy godmother.

Another part of the article goes on to explain how Bruer hasn’t made back her investment yet, and mentions how “she makes $7 on a $17 paperback and $5 on a $10 ebook.” That’s another problem with vanity presses, in that they take away your control. As an indie, you choose the pricing of your books, both ebook and paperback. Depending on the time of year, holiday happening, or sale you want to run, you can adjust as needed and make (on Amazon alone) 35% to 70% of the profits. If you have a newsletter, you can sell direct and make 100% of the profits.

I’ll tell you though, I don’t price my ebooks at $10. And it’s not because they’re not good quality, it’s because the market is harsh on starting authors, and $10/ebook for a new name doesn’t really compete well with the brand names out there charging the same (or higher) price. It could work, yes, but if you’ve only got one book, in one genre, and it’s being priced that high, the likelihood of readers taking a chance on you vs a brand name author is slimmer. Originally, when I started, I was keeping my books at $0.99, $1.99 or $2.99 tops. Now that I’ve got some years under my belt and three series in various genres, I’m comfortable pricing them higher at $4.99 and $5.99, and I do get sales at that price. But, again, the key here is control of the price, and of the royalties.

Now, all these nuggets aside, I’m going to get into the meat of the article and the real reason I’m pissed off with it. The article clearly mentions that an industry expert “urges writers to avoid vanity presses (a.k.a. subsidy publishers) that cost thousands but provide little support and keep all rights to the book” and yet still spends the majority of its content talking about one – Tellwell Talent, the same people Bruer gave $6670 to self-publish her book.

Rather than interview multiple indies for this piece, the journalist (and I use this term loosely because for me, journalism involves at least a mediocre amount of research) used Jenn Bruer as an example for this whole “advice” piece, only to subtly drop in the middle of the article the name Tellwell Talent.

And before you start arguing with me about how it’s not a vanity press, because their website says otherwise, how about we compare Tellwell with a well-known vanity press? Say, Xlibris?

Here’s a screenshot of Tellwell’s home page followed by Xlibris:

Here’s Tellwell’s About page:

And here’s Xlibris' About:

Perhaps more telling will be the prices. This is from Tellwell's Packages:

And Xlibris’ Black & White packages:

Clearly, these guys are in it for the money - your money, as the writer. There's a reason you don't see details for how they're going to be marketing your book, or what exactly that $15000 package is for. They’re great at selling the packages, for sure (word of warning: do not give them your contact info, unless you want to be hounded!) but at the end of the day, that’s because it’s their bread and butter.

No? Still not convinced? Or worse, did that A+ BBB rating Tellwell boasts hook you? (BBB is our Better Business Bureau). A rating under B means usually they have loads of complaints. Well, let’s take a look, shall we?

In 2018, Tellwell had 4 rather massive complaints, three of which have since been censored. But let’s take a look at the one still available.

“I have written and published through Tellwell, a children’s picture book. I have received my book. I am horrified and embarrassed by it. -The hardcover copies have two books printed inside. The book literally repeats itself. -The images are grainy despite the high resolution art I created. The paper quality is low. This book is cheaply put together, the glue is already coming apart at the binding from being opened a half a dozen times. -I have no say in the price point. People are spending $30-$40 CAN for a copy of this absolutely low quality book. I don’t understand why the seller chooses the price, I have asked for clarification on this and no one has been able to explain it to me. -People have had to wait 3+ weeks for their overpriced, low quality purchase to arrive. -I was sold a package that would allow me to send in my artwork, and Tellwell (with all their experience and professionalism) would take care of turning it into a sellable product for me. I have not received a sellable product. I have paid $5000 for what I have just detailed above. I feel I have been scammed. I was told this would be an easy process, and that I would get all the help and direction I needed. This has not been my experience. I’ve had no real direction or help at all. My “marketing” program has been a one hour phone call where Tellwell employees tell me I need a website and naming a few platforms that I can go to to create one. The standard package for a children’s book is $1499. What has my $5000 paid for?”

Perhaps more telling, is that Tellwell was able to take the time to write a lengthy response to this complaint, yet they weren’t able to contact the author prior to it happening, to address her issues? Hmm.

And this little gem from 2019:

“I contracted with TellWell to publish a full colour children’s book. My illustrator and I followed their illustration guidelines and met with the publisher in person to ensure we knew exactly what their requirements were. The illustrations were submitted digitally along with the manuscript. As the book was put together, each segment was sent to me to approve. I was thrilled at how beautiful the illustrations were .. very vibrant, appealing colours, perfect for my book’s audience. THIS IS CRITICAL: No one at TellWell ever indicated that the illustrations submitted and approved, would not be the actual colours when the book went to print. When I received my first order of paperback books, I was shocked at how completely different the colours were. They are drab, dark, and lifeless, and nothing like the illustrations submitted or approved. I was so upset, I contacted TellWell right away, and I mailed the books back to them as they are completely unacceptable. After numerous emails with the company, and an admission that they were negligent in never having said how the images would not translate once printed, they now want to charge me another $*** to ‘brighten up the illustrations’ when the fault is clearly theirs. If they can brighten up the illustrations now by charging me more money, they should have been able to do the job properly to begin with! Also, the company should give the author a print copy of the book before any orders are placed, to ensure it is visually acceptable. I based my order on my gorgeous, colourful submission, and got a sub-standard product back. They keep trying to negate my concerns, and as this becoming a very distasteful and upsetting situation, I am taking action to try and obtain some ‘good customer service and client satisfaction’. I would like these books reprinted to an acceptable standard (to me), and my order for the ten paperbacks and ten hardcovers that I have already paid for, to be replaced at no further cost to myself.”

You can take an in depth look at the complaints and Tellwell’s responses here.

Clearly, money doesn’t buy quality where Tellwell is concerned. And that, in itself, is the issue with vanity presses. You end up paying thousands of dollars, get products of mediocre quality back, claims of marketing and all kinds of services that will get you into the bestseller lists – and none of those deliver.

Regardless of whether you see Tellwell as a vanity press or not, you have to at least be open-minded enough to consider the implications. Why pay for something that you have no proof will actually deliver sound quality, when you can do it yourself? Or, say, seek out professionals via various outsourcing websites or writer communities, and learn the lay of the land.

In addition to the poor quality products, other things you lose with vanity presses are autonomy and independence. According to the Toronto Star, Bruer’s “book project took 11 months, including seven months for the publishing process.” Wow. Here’s a little nugget of info: in the indie world, you have to be and remain relevant. If it takes you 11 months, dishing out $6000+ to publish a book, and you never make the money back… How in the world do you continue with your craft?

Then the article truly makes me laugh when it goes on to explain the various charges that contributed to that $6670 total.

$1500 for cover design?? I’m sorry, but given later on it clearly quotes an industry expert as saying, “after content, the cover is king and should both spark emotion and indicate the book’s genre,” that’s pretty damn laughable.

That’s worth $1500? To evoke the emotion of burnout and healing?

How about the fact that Bruer had to pay for an ISBN, which is completely free to get in Canada? Or that she paid $250 to ensure her paperback always shows as “in stock” in Amazon, yet “things went smoothly except for a few bumps, such as the ‘out of stock’ notice that appeared on Amazon for two weeks.”

Or how about $750 for ebook setup and distribution?? Distribution which, by the way, is free to do… Via Amazon and other major retailers like iBooks. I’m guessing the $750 was for formatting the ebook, but that alone is not enough to justify that cost. Look on Fiverr, Reedsy, there’s way cheaper alternatives, all just as legitimate and coming from professionals. What I’m advocating here isn’t using cheaper alternatives necessarily, but something where you get the biggest bang for your buck. A professional product, delivered on time, within a budget that suits you. Sound like a unicorn? It’s not.

Other expenses quoted in the article are $2000 for marketing and advertising, plus an additional $420 dished out for a website? Again… All these costs are inflated. My website costs $17/m to maintain. And while it may not be glossy, it’s good enough that readers like it and connect with me via it. Which, is basically what a website is supposed to do.

And yet all of these costs, which the journalist talks about in detail, don’t label Tellwell as a vanity press? To top it off, the article ends with a warning to avoid vanity presses, and that the risk of self-publishing is huge, but “it is possible to make money,” a complete contradiction to what the title and the rest of the article says.

Great freaking job, Toronto Star. Seriously. Way to put out there a buttload of biased misinformation, with a message cringe-worthy enough to deter other writers from seeking to pursue their dream unless they have thousands to dish out for a vanity press that will deliver sub-par quality. *insert sarcastic applause*

Ok, so the Star made a boo-boo, what’s the big deal?

The Star is a rather well-known newspaper in Canada. Toronto is one of our largest cities, basically our version of New York. So imagine the New York Times goes publishing an article like this… The influence spreads wide, and the message it sends is horribly flawed, one-sided and incomplete.

Vanity presses, regardless what name they operate under, are not to be trusted, because at the end of the day their goal is not your success as a writer, but rather their own. And the indie world, while hard to get into and survive in, is a large community of writers who support each other and strive for success, not something to be afraid of. And most of all, your craft shouldn’t be making you afraid of what traditional publishers are going to think. You should be confident enough in it, and self-publish it because of that confidence, and not because you don’t think it’s good enough for the big guns.

Note to all writers: Do check out Writers Beware, a website with massive amounts of information on alerts for writers and scammers, and what to avoid so you don’t fall in their traps (or what to do if you have fallen into their trap).

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