Yog's Law (as coined by James D. Macdonald): "Money should flow toward the author."I hope everyone reading this has heard, and understands, the above quote. When an author signs a contract, that author doesn't pay the agent, publisher, editors, or publicist. Instead, that author should expect to be paid for the intellectual copyright, for the time and energy it took the words to get onto the page.
No, publishing isn't the most lucrative of operations, especially for writers just starting out (with a few notable exceptions). But there will be income. There may be an advance (though I understand those are falling by the wayside these days). There will be royalties, once the advance is paid out. There will be royalties from sales of the back catalogue, which a lot of writers experience a surge of with each subsequent book.
If the money is flowing in the opposite direction, you're dealing with what is politely called a vanity press. Less politely, they're a scam.
I'll take a moment to separate out vanity press and self-publishing. There's a difference, and an important one. The vanity press will sound like a legitimate publisher. They'll make it sound like paying them to publish your book is the way the business works, and that those evil gatekeepers at the traditional publishers won't touch your book until after you have some publishing credits under your belt. They prey on a would-be author's vanity. Hence, the name.
Self-publishers, on the other hand, are honest and up-front about their intentions. They serve an important function. Without self-publishers, a lot of local- or limited-interest books wouldn't be put together in a nice hardcover (or paperback) package with editing and legal graphics and the like. A lot of ebooks you see flooding the market these days are self-published under these honest and open guidelines, making it perfectly clear the writer is in charge of marketing and distribution, and the writer is pleased simply to have the book out there for people to read. Those who achieve success without going straight to a traditional publisher don't go through a vanity press, first.
I honestly don't think this information can be too readily available. If vanity presses didn't make any money, they wouldn't be in business. And they make money the same way as any other scam: people fall for it. All of those who know better have an obligation, then, to shield those who don't know enough about the publishing industry to avoid vanity presses. Otherwise, a Google search for a publisher will have them stumbling across one of the vanity presses, and it'll all sound so reasonable. A few dollars there, a small fee for editing there, and they're in bookstores? Where do they sign up?
Vanity presses deliberately make it sound like they're the best avenue for success, when they're the exact opposite. A writer listing a publication under a vanity press will be regarded as naive, at best. In one case of spectacular author fail (I alluded to it in this post), the vanity press's promises led to the author feeling a sense of entitlement where her dreck was concerned, and she lashed out at anyone who dared question her right to hear only wonderful things about her terrible book.
If you're a writer just starting out and you don't know anything about publishing yet, beware the vanity presses. Beware anyone asking for money up-front, and promising more than they can deliver. Beware anything that sounds too good to be true. As my husband writes, writing is hard. Anything that shortcuts that process he discusses in his post should be regarded warily.
And if none of this is news to you, please, find a newbie writer to warn away from these leeches.