Last night, Cait came running into the kitchen, screaming. Heart pounding, I raced in from outside to see what was wrong. She’d just hung up with one of her best friends, who’d called to say that she’d just received an offer from a publishing house to publish her first children’s story.

This friend of Cait’s is the kind of kid that you’d wish for good things to happen to. She’s a wonderful girl who doesn’t have the easiest of lives and always tries her best with a smile. Her dream (at 13 years old) is to be a published author.

So you can imagine how I felt when upon hearing this news my stomach sank. I immediately had a bad feeling about it and my gut isn’t often wrong. Unfortunately, it wasn’t wrong this time either.

Offering to take a look at the contract to check it over for her, I quickly saw the reason for my misgivings. Tate Publishing (the house that had “accepted” Sarah’s submission) would be happy to enter into contract to publish Sarah’s book–once she forked over $4000.

Oh, they made it sound much prettier and tied it all up with a fancy bow. But the bottom line was that if Sarah wanted to see her book in print, she’d have to scrape together money she didn’t have for the privilege.

I advised her mother against signing the contract and pointed them toward several reputable children’s story publishers. And, as you can imagine, while Sarah’s mother was quite appreciative, Sarah was crestfallen.

printingpress.jpg So how do people who aren’t familiar with the publishing business steer clear of the pitfalls? It’s not always easy, but there are steps you can take to ensure you’re dealing with a reputable publishing house. When you’re researching publishers to whom you’d like to submit your work:

  • First: Look to see if they are listed in the most recent Writer’s Market, and for the Children’s Markets check the 2009 Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market. Finding them listed there doesn’t guarantee they are legitimate, but it sure ups the odds. Conversely, if they’re not listed there, I’d avoid them.
  • Second: Visit the selected publishers’ web sites. Check out what books they’ve published. Look at their submission guidelines. See if they charge fees (stay away from these). And so on.
  • Third: Beware of publishing scam pick-up lines (Tate had a few of them in their cover letter.) Read some of the common ones here.
  • Fourth: Do a Google search on them to find out what others are saying about them.

So what’s the big deal about going with a vanity press? And why did I suggest that Sarah avoid the one who offered her a contract? And what’s the difference between a vanity press and a regular publishing house anyway?

Let’s take the last question first. A vanity press is basically a service where you hire a press like IUniverse and pay (usually a few thousand dollars) to have them print and distribute your book. Whereas a publishing house pays you an advance and/or royalties for the rights to publish and distribute your book. More simply put: you pay a vanity press; a publishing house pays you.

Let me also say that there’s nothing inherently wrong with vanity presses. As long as they’re upfront about it. Tate Publishing was not upfront. Quite the contrary. Reading through Tate’s site and these comments here, and here, it was more than clear to me that Tate is a vanity press that’s being cleverly deceptive in packaging themselves as a traditional publisher.

As for the question of what’s the big deal going with vanity presses? If you can’t get your foot in the door anywhere else, maybe no big deal at all. Vanity presses, in and of themselves, aren’t bad. But authors looking for viable writing careers do everything they can to keep away from them, because they are looked down on by “real” publishing houses — rightly or wrongly. As such, going with a vanity press will not help your publishing chances in the future. Unless of course your book becomes a best seller, and then even the snobby hoy-faloy will be happy to open their doors to you.

And, lastly, why is a vanity press not a good move for Sarah? Aside from the fact that she doesn’t have the money, she does have real writing talent that a real house will be interested in. So even though I know it’s hard for her to let go of what she thinks is the bird in her hand, I’ve no doubt that there are two in the bush waiting for her. A tough leap of faith for a 13-year-old, I know.

And speaking of leaps of faith, the one I’ve had to take in telling her all this is that somewhere down the road she’ll be able to appreciate that someone was looking out for her.

Fingers crossed for both of us.