What Five Years with a Predatory Vanity Press Taught Me About Art and Success
Alexa T. Dodd on a Book Deal That Seemed Too Good to Be True
Every few months, I receive an email or phone call from someone who claims to work for a literary agency or publishing entity. In the lengthy messages variegated with bold-faced sentences, or voicemails in which the speaker mispronounces my maiden name, I’m promised six-figure book deals with Simon & Schuster or Penguin Random House (“Yes, mmhmm that’s correct, Penguin,” one woman repeated in her message). I’m told that I will be represented to their network of mainstream filmmakers and that authors who have “partnered” with these publishers or agents have been New York Times and USA Today Bestsellers.
But these messages have nothing to do with the novel I’m actively querying. Instead, I’m told that a book I wrote as a teenager, self-published through an extinct vanity press and now buried in the library of obscure titles on Amazon, is the reason for their interest.
When I was seventeen, I sent the first book of a YA fantasy series to a publishing company I found through a Google search. The website had an ad video from Miss Oklahoma, vouching for the integrity and Christian principles of the press. My mom answered the phone when they called one afternoon of my senior year. The acquisitions editor told her my book had great potential and promised a full-scale publishing deal and marketing campaign. She failed to mention any expenses on our part, instead dropping the sum of $30,000, the amount the publisher would commit to me. She guaranteed my book’s success. When my mom rushed to tell me, we could barely contain our disbelief and excitement until my dad got home.
I remember his words for it: “It almost seems too good to be true.”
In recent years, I’ve signed with a literary agent for a different book, only to amicably part ways after the novel didn’t sell. As I query yet another novel, the forthright responses and sympathetic rejections are clear proof that the success I was assured as a teenager is not something easily attained. The random solicitations I still receive are like a siren call: empty, dangerous, but caressing of some of my deepest desires. To sell a book. To say without reservation that I’ve published a novel.
Usually, I delete the spam messages with something between fear and shame—fear that simply clicking open the email has unleashed a virus on my computer; shame at the naïve past that led to these unwanted invitations.
In truth, I did nothing so wrong, over a decade ago, when I signed the contract with the Oklahoma-based press that promised to fulfill my childhood dream of becoming a published author. It wasn’t my fault that the company went bankrupt after the CEO was discovered embezzling funds from the writers who paid to have their books poorly edited, cheaply bound, and narrowly distributed. It was probably my fault that I hadn’t done thorough research into the industry, but I was seventeen and couldn’t detect a scam tastefully disguised under a pretty contract and alleged Christian values.
I also don’t blame my parents, who funded the entire expedition, even after consulting a lawyer, albeit a friend of a friend. Despite the lawyer’s misgivings, my dad’s own reservations, my parents decided to let me sign the contract anyway. How could they do otherwise? Every day for three years they had seen me finish my other responsibilities only to glue myself in front of the family computer and write for hours at a time, the words, hot off the printer, placed on their nightstands for them to read and praise.
In our privileged, middle-class household, the contract the press offered—with its $3,500 price tag—was the kind of expense that warranted deliberation but seemed worth it, given the associated promises: the opportunity for a “unique” and “personal” approach to publishing, a thirty-thousand-dollar value (though not, as my mom had been led to believe in the phone call, in the form of an advance); bigger royalty percentages than any publisher in the industry; expert marketing teams to help get my books into readers’ hands; the added boon to my high school resume of having a published novel listed under my extra-curricular activities.
In short, my parents paid to make my dreams come true.
And then, after what seemed a diligent editing process (it only missed a dozen typos) and an only slightly disappointing cover-design, my parents paid again to purchase five hundred copies of my book—at a discount!—as this would ensure the highest royalty earnings in the industry, as previously promised.
Picture me, a college freshman, at my small, liberal art university’s mail room, requesting that the fifteen boxes of books be carted to my dorm room.
“What is this?” the student worker asked as he stacked the boxes and read my YA book’s title scrawled in sharpie on the outside. “That sounds like a perfume.”
“It’s a book,” I said, and didn’t tell him it was my book. There was very little glamor about five hundred books in my dorm room, some of them with bindings that were already beginning to fray, and the prospect that I alone was in charge of selling them.
As an introverted eighteen-year-old, I sat in a Chase bank branch for my first book signing, willing myself to pitch my novel to uninterested, harried bank patrons. My “publicist”—essentially a lengthy email with marketing tips—had insisted that the best places for book signings were local businesses where I had a connection. (In my case: I banked with Chase.) I sold one book, perhaps to a bank employee. I can’t remember, because I’ve blocked most of the awkward two hours out of my mind.
Eventually, my bookselling skills improved. The courage it took to reach out to local businesses and ask them to let me have a book signing at their establishment was minimal compared to the courage it took to accost stranger after stranger and ask them if they would like to, please, buy my overpriced paperback. And while every sale did feel like a triumph—a conquering of my shyness in the name of my art—it also felt like treading water in the middle of the ocean. For all the publicity the publisher claimed it was undertaking, I realized that the only efforts that made much of a difference were my own. Despite numerous self-organized book signings and events, the stack of books—since moved to my parents’ house—never seemed to get any smaller.
Still, believing it would just take time to succeed, I chose to publish the second book in my series, this time at a discounted rate. But I soon discovered that the editing and communication skills that had seemed decent with my first book had decreased drastically in less than a year. My second book changed editors at least three times, and none of them seemed to speak English fluently. I often had to send four or five emails before receiving a response. While, with the first book, the publisher had organized a few interviews and signings, this time there was almost no marketing assistance.In the wake of my crumpled publishing dream, perhaps the most significant reward: the hard but invaluable awareness of the dangers that lurk in the publishing world.
And then, after five years and two books, I received the bizarre and poorly-written mass email from a member of the company, saying that the CEO was a thief and the company a scam that didn’t even pay its employees. After this, an email from an upper level executive promising that there was nothing wrong with the company, that the previous email had been from a disgruntled but dismissed employee and that the company’s authors had nothing to worry about.
And then nothing else. I read the details of the embezzlement and bankruptcy online, broadcasted by various small Oklahoma newspapers. Eventually, my mild devastation faded to something like relief: I could finally jump off this train to nowhere, and if anyone asked about my books I could reply simply that the press had gone under. Still, it’s taken years to see the experience less as a stain on my career and more as an insight into the literary world.
In some ways, the annoying but infrequent messages from various talent agencies and “publishers”—to whom I assume the original company sold my contact information—are the only real reminder of the years—and money—I devoted to those stories. That and the three hundred copies of my novels still in boxes at my parents’ house.
In other ways, I have many things to be grateful for—perhaps most of all, the readers who bought my books and read them and even wrote enthusiastic reviews. It was this support, not only from family and friends but also from kind-hearted strangers, that kept me going, that lingers in me still, kindling the joy of storytelling, for a story is not really a story until it is told. I’ll always be thankful for the libraries, bookstores, and university professors who took me seriously even though they certainly must have known I was not as published as I imagined myself to be.
And in the wake of my crumpled publishing dream, perhaps the most significant reward: the hard but invaluable awareness of the dangers that lurk in the publishing world.
After a master’s in creative writing and years researching the industry, I find myself wanting to shout it from the roof-tops, to warn all unsuspecting and hopeful young writers of the dangers lurking beneath the empty promises: vanity publishers masquerading as traditional publishers; hybrid publishers charging exorbitantly for little to no added benefit; any unsolicited messages from entities promising success that sounds too good to be true.
In truth, as a teenager, I didn’t want to do the research that would tell me the real reason I was published had very little to do with my own talent and very much to do with my family’s ability to agree to a price tag. And perhaps this is the source of the shame: that for so long I imagined myself to be what my high school teachers, my parents, and my friends believed me to be—a writer better than average, a prodigy, even—when, in reality, I was nothing more than a girl whose parents could pay for a publishing contract, only to discover that the paying couldn’t fulfill a dream.
As a parent myself now, I understand the desire to give my children what will make them happy, to justify the expense for their good. As the granddaughter of immigrants who couldn’t give their children everything they wanted or even needed, it is an impulse almost like retribution to spend in the name of my children’s wellbeing.
But, when it comes to art, it’s rare that you can simply buy your way to success. If you do, someone is probably lying to you.
Despite my many frustrations with traditional publishing, I’ve chosen to believe in it because I think it gets a few things right. For one, it doesn’t charge artists, starving or not, to have their books published. In removing the initial financial responsibility from the author, the traditional publishing industry at least ensures that a writer must focus on the writing itself if they have any hope of success. I know this not least of all because my friends who have received book contracts through traditional publishers have worked for years, revision after revision, to write their truly remarkable books.
Despite my own endeavors to become a better writer—graduate school and workshops and reading, always reading—I know I may never land a publishing contract, and even if I do, there’s no guarantee of financial success. When my literary novel went on submission to a thrilling list of Big Four editors, my agent received the most amicable, praised-filled rejections I’d ever read. “A near miss,” as one editor kindly wrote. Now that I’m querying again, I receive similar rejections from other literary agents.
I won’t pretend that this experience isn’t one of the most frustrating of my life. But this is the nature of art—some may fall in love while others may grow bored in the first few sentences. I’d rather hear a no out of genuine consideration than a yes that I paid for.
So, for now, I keep writing, I keep submitting, trusting in the efficacy of my writing itself. And I keep deleting the messages filled with false promises. I know if I one day publish a novel, it won’t be too good to be true.