Over the years I have been promoting poetry competitions and advertising literary magazines from external websites that are free for writers to submit their work to. If you have been following my blog posts on these topics, you will know that I disagree with any literary platform that charges authors upfront payments to publish their work, whether that be in the form of ‘submission fees’, ‘reading fees’ or any other contribution towards production costs.
If a publisher charges fees to an author to submit their work, I would be inclined to call this business a vanity press, not a publisher. If they are charging the writer, say, a £20 submission fee to even have their work considered for publication, I’d bet my boots they have an almost 100% acceptance rate of submissions. The publisher may state on their website that there is no guarantee of publication, but if they are making money from the author, not book sales, then why would they worry about the quality of the writing? Publishing a new or little-known author is a risky business: sales may or may not do well. But if a ‘publisher’ eliminates the risk of losses by charging an author upfront fees, then why worry about sales? If an author will pay £20 upfront, then they will surely pay more once they have signed a contract. Why not charge them to buy 50 copies of their book, as a contractual condition? Why not make them commit a couple of hundred, or even several thousand pounds towards production costs, so that they can “have control over design of the finished product”?
Yes, publishers need money to survive and make more books. They may need start-up funds to get their business going in the first place. Nevertheless, a reputable publisher should make money from sales, or subscriptions, not authors. I have absolutely no problem with a publisher asking a would-be author to buy a book from their bookstore to support the publisher and to see if their writing fits with the catalogue. But asking a writer to fork out a tonne of money as a condition of being published in the first place is wrong. With all this in mind, let’s end with my checklist of publishing red-flags:
1. Do you have to pay a submission fee or reading fee to have your work considered? If the answer is yes, then the publisher is profiting from author, not reader. Ask yourself is your book really going to reach that many readers? The publisher has already benefited; why would he/she bother doing more to get your book out there?
2. Are you being asked to buy 20/50/ a hundred copies of your book as a condition of publishing? (Note that with poetry in particular, the only way to sell books is to get copies for literary events that you will organise yourself, regardless of having a publisher or going solo. So as long as the profit margins work out alright for you, buying copies of your work is the only way to get your work out there.) A reasonable incentive might be for a publisher to offer an author 10 free copies, for example, and offer a discounted rate, with no obligation, to buy more copies.
3. Are you being asked to pay anthing towards production costs, as part of the publisher’s “ethos”, while being told to keep details of your contract confidential? (Red-flag advice = run a mile!)
The bottom line is that if a publisher asks a writer to cough up cash initially, it may not end there. There may be even more hidden charges once a contract is underway. My advice is always this: don’t bother with such a publishing venture in the first place. If a publisher believes that they can sell your work, you won’t pay them; you’ll make money from royalties of sales after the process. It should be mutually beneficial; a collaborative relationship, not exploitative.