Author Beware - Don't Put Your Book on the Assembly Line

I received a call from one of my authors a couple of years ago that still bothers me...greatly.
     "Karen, have you called "XYZ Publishing" regarding my book?"
(Long pause on my part before answering)

     "Um, no I haven't. Why would you want me to call them?" I inquired of my author, who had several books already to his credit, some which had sold in the six figure mark.
     "Because they are America's top publisher!" he exclaimed. "As my literary agent you should know that," he stated emphatically.
     Well, as his literary agent I did know about this publisher and what I knew was that they most certainly weren't the top publisher in America. In fact they weren't a publisher at all, they were simply a vanity press disguised as a publisher.
     After our conversation, I went to their website and found the audacious claim, "America's Top Publisher" big and bold on the home page. I don't think I have to say this, but for good measure, since at least one of my authors had some trouble here, I will state the obvious:
Don't. Believe. Everything. You. Read.
     What I would say about that "publisher" is that they were perhaps the biggest frauds in publishing. And that, my friend, is what this blog will address: How not to get taken in the publishing world.
The word "publisher" is tossed around very loosely in publishing today. It can be very confusing for an author, especially if you are new to the horizon. And there are several ways you can be taken in by their bodacious claims to "help" you.
So, how do you know if you have a real publisher or just a vanity press? Here is the litmus test:

How many books do they publish a year?
If their boast is in the hundreds, you're talking to a vanity press that just pushes the book out the door. Books take time to market. You can only effectively do a certain number a year. The more they print each year, the less attention your book will get...if any.

How quickly can they publish your  book?
Large publishers usually have their publishing schedule set two years in advance. Smaller publishers are more typically one year out. If your publisher tells you that they can get your book out the door in three to six months from the time they receive it, then you are talking with a vanity press or self-publish entity that will not be presenting your book to bookstore buyers. It requires a minimum six month window prior to release to include a book in these sales presentations.  
(Exception: Traditional publishers do, on occasion, "drop a book" into the schedule bypassing this window, but only when there is an already present demand in the market for the book. Example: a well-known public figure passes away unexpectedly, and within 2-3 months there will be books in the bookstore on the incident.) But note, this is the exception, not the rule. Publishers know the importance of hitting that sales window and selling the book into the industry.

Have they told you they don't charge anything to publish your book, but they require you to purchase a several thousand dollar PR campaign?
If in reality you did receive a full PR campaign from this contract, then you would still come out ok on this deal. But the reality is, at least for the authors that I have spoken with in regards to these type contracts, is they only received one to two interviews on their book. One or two. Those are pretty expensive interviews then and many said it was from the local newspaper and television in their own town! 

What type of publisher feedback and editing feedback do you receive on your manuscript?
A good publisher will assess and help shape your book to make it better...more marketable. I know some authors don't like for the publisher to make any changes. I get that. This is your baby. But the reality is, this is what publishers do for a living. They know the industry and for the most part when they make suggestions, they are usually right.  
If you publisher has told you how fortunate you are that they have accepted your manuscript, but don't give any assessment, evaluation or recommended changes, my first question is why? No book is perfect. Their goal is to sell books, not just print books. A vanity press "publisher" on the other hand makes money off the printing alone. They often sends out their acceptance letter with the feeling that you are one of a small percentage of manuscripts they have accepted, but in reality they rarely turn down a manuscript. That's how they make their money.
NOTE: This is not to be confused with publishers who now require an author to purchase a minimum number of books in their contract. These are indeed traditional publishers, who although willing to invest in you as an author, may say they want you to share in the risk of launching your book, by investing in the initial print run. This is different...and an entirely different conversation. Back to recognizing a vanity press...
It's important to recognize that more and more publishers are creating branches apart from their traditional publishing arm, to assist the self-publish type author. There is nothing wrong with that as long as you know what you are getting.  
The books coming off the self-publish label are different. They read different and they look different. Why? Because books that go through the self-publish arm of these publishers receive only what you pay for. That's the catch. The criteria is different. On those labels YOU have to monitor the quality of your final product with many of these companies any where from the quality of paper used, to the edit received, etc.  
These companies are there to meet demand and help you get your book out. Again, there is nothing wrong with that service. But the quality and standards of what come out vary greatly. And unfortunately many authors don't necessarily know what questions they should ask at that level. The trust factor that they will receive a professional, industry standard product is expected, but often times the result can be disappointing.
A few years ago an author approached me to create a publicity/marketing campaign for his book that he said was published by a large, well-recognized traditional Christian publisher. However, when he sent me a copy of the book I was shocked. The chapters weren't really even chapters. They were just random thoughts strung together from one chapter to the next. When I quizzed the author, who was the pastor of a large church, he proudly stated the book had been edited and published by "Big Name" publisher.

What I later learned was it was their self-publish branch. The book needed a substantive edit, but what it received was a copy edit. It was indeed free of grammatical errors (copy edit) but it lacked good readability. His book would have never been considered by a traditional publisher in the state it was in, and yet the self-publish arm of the large traditional publisher was more than willing to give it a light edit, slap a cover on it and "publish" it for him. I was embarrassed for the author. It was a travesty of his message that he had hoped to convey to the world. His message was good. Unfortunately his book didn't measure up.  
The author had needed a little help to shape his message. That's what he thought he was getting. In fact, what he received, was in my opinion, the feeling that he was getting professional help, but the end product lacked the polish he had anticipated.
In the end, it's not just a matter of "you get what you pay for", although that can certainly be part of the equation. But you need to know what you are getting. What are your expectations and what does their contract promise? All edits are not equal. The same goes for the level and quality of a cover and typesetting or marketing. The extra "perks" some of these "publishers" offer are often little more than hype if you don't know the industry.
Finally, just because there is "name" recognition unfortunately can mean little more than they have paid a lot in advertising dollars.  
My point? Author beware. You spent time laboring over your message, don't speed through the process now to receive an "assembly line" product. If your message is quality enough to write a book, let the book reflect that same quality. It doesn't necessarily cost more to do it right. But do it right.   
Got a question? Ask me.