Vanity unfair, aspiring authors are warned

`Partnership publishers' are accused of ripping off writers who wish to get into print. Vanessa Thorpe reports
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The Independent Online
"VANITY, vanity, all is vanity," or so it can seem to the unpublished, aspiring novelist.

Everywhere they look, self-styled partnership or subsidy publishers - better known to most as vanity publishers - are waiting. And some are more than ready to flatter would-be authors into handing over large amounts of money. Until now there has been little or no redress for a dissatisfied customer, but things may be about to change.

A dedicated campaigner against vanity publishing has joined forces with a Manchester lawyer to gather evidence on the companies they believe are most at fault and their crusade is gaining momentum.

"I have so many case studies that I can now show exactly how many of these publishers operate," said Mark Lewis, the solicitor who is representing a number of aggrieved writers.

"They seem to do very little for their authors, although they always talk about their large marketing operations," said Mr Lewis.

Most of the cases on his books were referred to him by the veteran campaigner Johnathon Clifford, a man who has made it his mission to shed light on the industry.

"I have well over a thousand cases in my files, but for the first three- and-a-half years of my campaign I was just fighting to make people realise there was a problem," said Mr Clifford, who concedes that there are some fair and honest vanity publishing businesses about.

Once printed, if a book does not sell well, vanity publishers have always been able to argue that the public simply did not share their high opinion of a work. Now, however, Messrs Clifford and Lewis believe their efforts to publicise a few of the worst cases will alert vulnerable writers to the financial hazards.

"I have examples where a few pages that would not normally even count as a pamphlet were printed up as if they were a book," said Mr Lewis.

The two crusaders will meet with a research team from World in Action this week and plan to make a programme focusing on the saddest stories. Some of the most established and reputable subsidy publishers - companies such as Avon, Pentland Press and Minerva Press - are getting ready for battle. They say that they are repeatedly misrepresented and misunderstood.

David Moore, a consultant director of Minerva, describes Mr Clifford as "a thorn in our side".

"He is conducting `a war', as he calls it. We are partnership publishers and we don't consider ourselves vanity publishers because we sell our books," he said.

"I don't know exactly how many we sell, but it is in the region of hundreds of thousands of pounds' worth. If you speak to Mr Clifford, you get the impression we only sell one or two."

But it is not just Mr Clifford who has vanity publishers in his sights. As a matter of course the Society of Authors warns new writers that so- called subsidy deals should never be seen as an investment. In an information sheet they suggest that when a publisher uses complimentary phrases like: "We don't accept just anything, but your book really deserves publication..." alarm bells should start ringing.

"We counsel extreme caution when dealing with vanity publishers," confirms Mark Le Fanu, the general secretary of the society. "They will publish almost anything. They have no outlets and they sell very little, except to the author's family."

Mr Le Fanu defines the culprits as those publishers who demand or seek substantial payments from their authors.

"They may describe it as `partnership' publishing, but most of the costs are being covered by the author," he said.

It is not always a story with an unhappy ending, though. Former barman Po Wah Lam from Cheshire paid pounds 3,000 to Minerva Press in a series of installments so that his first book, The Transient Guest, would appear between covers. His writing has since gone from strength to strength and he has just been awarded pounds 25,000 by the University of East Anglia to work as a writer-in- residence on a new fellowship scheme.

"My first book was published by a subsidy publisher, who explained themselves very smoothly and said they would be marketing the book," he said.

"I thought it was an easy way to go because I had sent out about 10 unsuccessful letters to publishers. As far as I can see the book sank without trace.

"I think vanity publishers are right for certain kinds of people though," said Mr Lam.

"Apparently they publish a lot of autobiographies."