SterlingHouse Publisher’s Cover Gambit (Or, How Vanity Publishers Make [More] Money)

One of two covers for this week’s edition of Publishers Weekly features SterlingHouse Publisher and a number of its writers–just in time for Book Expo America. Over the SterlingHouse logo and seven author photos floats the cover caption “Hot New Authors.”

If you’re a Writer Beware regular, you may know that SterlingHouse is one of a number of publishers included on our Thumbs Down Publisher List. Why? Because SterlingHouse’s contracts require writers to buy bulk quantities of their own finished books (550 books is a typical number, for a total cost of just under $7,000)–a fact that is not revealed anywhere on SterlingHouse’s several websites. Recently, SterlingHouse added an interesting twist to its vanity-style contracts by offering some writers a small advance ($250 to $500, in contracts Writer Beware has seen). The buyback clause is still included, so writers still wind up considerably out of pocket–but now they can in honesty (well, half-honesty) say that they signed with an “advance-paying publisher.”

What’s a vanity publisher doing on the cover of PW? Well, PW’s cover is advertising, and anyone who’s willing to incur the fee can buy it. A more relevant question might be why a vanity publisher is willing to cut into its profit by paying premium advertising rates.

Oh, but SterlingHouse isn’t paying. Its authors are.

It’s all part of SterlingHouse’s annual attendance at BEA. SterlingHouse will have a booth at the fair, with its own staff, video crew, podcasts, and other special events, and authors are eligible to participate at several different levels (Writer Beware has seen a copy of the participation offers, which were sent to SterlingHouse authors last fall).

At $9,500, the “Premier” package is the richest. It includes not just the PW cover spot, but (among other items) passes to BEA, an author signing in the SterlingHouse booth, 150 copies of the author’s book, a poster and tabletop display, a podcast, sitting/storage space in SterlingHouse’s booth, and an invitation to SterlingHouse’s Annual Beer and Pretzel Celebration. (For $9,500, I’d expect champagne and cake, but that’s just me.) Nine Premier slots are available.

Can’t afford $9,500? Authors interested in a somewhat lower-priced package can spring for the “Spotlight”–just $8,250, including a spot on PW’s inside cover (“no less than 1/8 page”), BEA passes, free books, a signing in the SterlingHouse booth, assorted extras, and, of course, the beer and pretzel party. The Spotlight has just six slots.

But there’s more. Authors really looking to economize can choose “Special Level One” or “Special Level Two” ($4,650 and $2,995, respectively), which don’t involve PW but do include a signing, a BEA pass, and free books (and, yes, beer and pretzels). Up to 40 spots are available for Levels One and Two; however, since signings are in the BEA autographing booth, rather than the SterlingHouse booth, not all those slots are guaranteed.

So how much money will SterlingHouse make on author BEA attendance? There are seven authors on PW’s cover, so that’s a cool $66,500 from the Premier package. I haven’t seen PW’s inside cover, so I don’t know how many authors opted for the Spotlight package–but assuming a similar level of participation (4 slots out of 6), that’s another $33,000. As for Special Levels One and Two, a search of the BEA Autographing Area schedule turns up 12 SterlingHouse authors. Let’s assume the lower level of participation. That’s at least another $35,940.

Gross total: $135,440. Granted, there are costs associated with all of this–the PW cover, the SterlingHouse booth, the autographing slots, the BEA passes, etc. But I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to surmise that SterlingHouse is realizing a tidy profit. And don’t forget that all these authors have already paid several thousand dollars each for publication.

Of course, SterlingHouse authors don’t have to pony up for any of these BEA packages if they don’t want to. If they have a ticket to the show, they can even stop by and visit SterlingHouse’s booth.

But if they do, they shouldn’t count on sitting down (“…we will not have any author storage room or sitting space for authors who are not participating at the Premier or Spotlight level”), or on being included in any of the video footage SterlingHouse is organizing (“…footage will be used to promote SterlingHouse and authors participating in [sic] at the level of Premier, Spotlight and Special levels”), or on making contact with any of the “regional sales force, foreign and domestic reps and distributors” with whom SterlingHouse staff will be meeting (that’s for participating authors only). As for face time with their publisher…sorry. “Due to the amount of appointments scheduled for Cynthia Sterling, she will be unable to meet personally with authors who are not participating at the Premier, Spotlight or Special levels.”

The beer and pretzel celebration is right out, as well.


  1. Library selectors habitually read PW as one source for making purchasing decisions. A PW review makes a difference in reaching that audience, at least.

  2. Cynthia Sterling contacted me about one of my books years while she was advertising as an agent. She said she had a slot for it with a major, but then wanted me to sign a contract to go through an editing service, which told me she didn’t read any of it because it didn’t need editing. I refused and found a legit agent.

    I still don’t understand the big deal about PW. Books readers don’t read the magazine, and unless you’re with a major or can pay through the nose, being reviewed by PW doesn’t mean a thing to a reader; most have never heard of it. It seems to me that it’s a vanity mag for industry insiders. A small publisher can’t give the perks to the bookstores to get front listing or giant discounts. For small publishers, I believe PW is a total waste along with Writers Digest and other magazines that allow rip-offs to advertise for money.

  3. Particularly in children’s books, independent bookstore support and handselling can make a huge difference in sales numbers.

  4. Thanks for the list of possible book selling outlets.

    However, I’d venture to guess that the troll is correct in saying that if the book has a low Amazon rank in relation to its pub date, that it won’t get the chance to appear in those other venues you mention. it’s mostly the name brand authors you see in the big box stores or airport shops, anyway.

    The Canadian market is a good point, though. And there are other specialty outlets that can translate to huge sales, such as the Starbooks book program, Oprah, etc. Again, though, books that make it to these high platforms almost always have high Amazon ranks to show for it.

  5. I'm aware that I'm yielding to trollish baiting, plus we're way off topic–but this info might actually be useful to someone.

    So, sources of book sales other than Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and B&

    – Libraries (commercial publishers market to librarians as well as booksellers, and library sales can be substantial).

    – Independent bookstores (yes, many do still remain).

    – Chain bookstores other than B&N (believe it or not, there are a number).

    – For US-pubbed authors, Canadian chain and independent bookstores, both physical and online (many commercial US-based publishers distribute simultaneously in the USA and Canada).

    – For authors in some genres: big box stores such as Wal-Mart, Costco, etc.

    – For more popular books in some genres–grocery stores, airports, and similar impulse purchase venues.

    – Book club and foreign editions can also add substantially to sales, though not every author manages to sell these subrights.

    Anyone care to chime in, and open our troll's eyes to a world beyond Amazon and B&N?

  6. Not sure if I'd call him a troll. Seems like he's got a point:

    What ARE the "many sales sources" (besides Amazon and B&N) of which you speak, Victoria?

  7. Yes, the big houses do have some other income sources that the POD/indie books may not, but I do agree that in general, Amazon is the #1 bookseller today. Borders is gong out of business, leaving only B&N. A major house book needs to do well on Amazon to do well overall. There are really only a few markets: Amazon, B&N, foreign rights, and screen options…okay and audio books (which are sold..where?–AMZN).

    So, the ads taken out for vanity press books in the trade mags–do they work? Look up the titles on Amazon and chaeck the ranks and # of reviews.

  8. "not really, since if you're self- or small-press published, Amazon may be your main or only source of sales, whereas for commercially-published authors, it's just one of many sales sources."

    You can still tell exactly what's goin'on by the Amazon #'s…If a major house book is selling crap on Amazon, it ain't gonna be movin' pallets in the brick and mortars, either…and there's really only 1 B&M left these days anyway…B& can't tell me that if you're ranked over 1 million on Amazon that you're making up for that at barnes & Noble, can you?! I think not.

    Amazon is like a litmus test for the economic viablility of ANY book.

  9. Self-published, POD, small press, NY house–makes no diff…show us the rank and we know where you’re at.Um, not really, since if you’re self- or small-press published, Amazon may be your main or only source of sales, whereas for commercially-published authors, it’s just one of many sales sources.

  10. I totally agree. First thing i do when someone gives me the title of their book is to plug it into amazon and check out the rank, publication date (cuz the ranks tend to be higher when they first come out, so if they’re still high more than a year after, tht’s statying power), and # of reviews(whether they’re positive or negative makes no difference).

    Higher rank and more reviews = higher sales. NOTHING else matters. It doesn’t matter how you got there, only what happens to those numbers when you do.

    Rank relative to pub date. # of reviews. That’s all there is. All this whining over mags and blogs is stupd.

  11. Guys, as someone pointed out above, the phrase “author” or “writer” is so bandied about these days, that you only need ask 1 question to assess how well they’re really doing:


    Self-published, POD, small press, NY house–makes no diff…show us the rank and we know where you’re at.

    You shoulnd’t need any fancy magazines or subscriptions to break this down for you (if you do, you’re in the wrong business, baby).

  12. Couldn’t afford PW any more so cancelled my subscription. Now I’m glad I did. Naive me: I had no idea that cover was all paid advertising.

  13. SterlingHouse has succeeded in now attracting more “clients” (authors) to their business, via placing the ad in an assumed legit magazine (until the front cover ad)
    Vanity presses are not about selling books but about selling the idea of being published to authors. Does this press have stocks and how do I buy some!!!

  14. “Paying for a premium slot doesn’t equate to a publishable product…”

    It CAN equate to a publishable product, but it doesn’t have to. As was pointed out above, spending money will only get the book out there in front of readers–but they still ahve to BUY it.

  15. ALC:

    Unfortunately, these are the same people who will argue to the ends of the Earth that this was a smart “business” maneuver.Never realizing that this is brilliant marketing for SterlingHouse, not it’s authors; although, to be sure, they’re allowed to pay for it.
    Reminds me of the infamous “partnership” between Publish America and NY Times several years ago. Lots of focus on the company, worthless for the authors, since people don’t buy books that way.
    I doubt it’s a foot in the door to commercial publishing either. Paying for a premium slot doesn’t equate to a publishable product, and acquisition editors know that.

    The front cover, specifically, is supposed to represent a publication in its best light. To sell it out is decidedly sleazy.I entirely agree. I’m a bit shocked, actually. I hadn’t realized it was ad-space.

  16. Re: “SterlingHouse doesn’t publicly reveal that it’s a vanity publisher. So there was no reason for PW to know.”

    As one other poster put it, if PW doesn’t know, they’re the only ones in the business who don’t.
    This is the same quality of advertising that WD sinks to when it takes ads for vanity presses, and that other organizations have sunk to when they take ads for some of the less-reputable “self publishing” scams. The excuse is always, “Well, we can’t know about ALL of these.”

    That excuse, of course, no longer holds water in this age of search engines. One click on Google, and these people would know better.

    And let’s not forget, these are the same people who will then turn around and lambaste authors for doing the slightest thing wrong in the manuscript submission, query or contract process. Uhhh-HUH.

    So what they’re saying is…people wanting to BREAK IN to a business are supposed to know all about publishing and act accordingly; professional publications ALREADY IN the business, however, aren’t obligated to do so.

    What’s wrong with this picture?


  17. I guess the “low quality” attendee policy doesn’t apply to the actual exhibitors.

    What the hell is a “low quality” BEA attendee, anyway?

  18. And here Pub Lunch makes a definite point of saying how “low quality” participants are not being encouraged this year, thus making the BEA experience more valuable for all…


  19. Victoria,
    You’re absolutely right. That never even occured to me. I guess I didn’t change gears. We’ve had lots of discussion about self-publishing lately.

  20. I’d for go

    And beer and pretzels? That’s the best they can do?

    PW should do some research before letting publishers promote themselves through them. It only makes them look bad.

  21. “Don’t they [PW] have a reputation to uphold and newbie authors to educate?”

    Educating “newbie authors” is most decidedly not the job of PW. It’s an industry news publication, for those already working inside the industry.

    It’s all about business, people. Remember that. More about business, less about writing.

  22. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to surmise that SterlingHouse is realizing a tidy profit. Oh, that’s a given, to be sure. The autographing events only cost $100, and the publisher donates 100 books for the event. And the passes? Those are extended to the publisher as freebies from the BEA organizers.

    But I expect this sort of thing from SH. Publisher’s Weekly is another story, and I can only cluck my tongue like a mother hen. Sure, they’re struggling just as the other trade mags are, but to willingly dump your reputation? Man, I’m just not that hungry, yanno?

  23. ALC said,

    Unfortunately, these are the same people who will argue to the ends of the Earth that this was a smart “business” maneuver. After all, as self-published authors they are running their own “business”.That’s just the thing, though. SterlingHouse presents itself as a “traditional” publisher. I would bet that none of its authors consider themselves self-published, and would be highly insulted by being called so (as indeed they would be by being called vanity-published).

    They probably do see it as a business investment, though. This is the dark side of the relentless emphasis on authorial self-promotion. So many authors these days believe they must turn themselves into a business or a brand in order to succeed, and thus are vulnerable to schemes targeted to that belief.

    One of the ironies of all this is that attending BEA is really not a great use of one’s self-promotional dollar, even if all one springs for is a day pass. A lot of business goes on at BEA, and obviously if your publisher invites you, you’ll want to be there (as long as you don’t have to pay for the privilege)–but the business that gets done is done by agents and publishers, not, typically, by individual authors. And BEA is absolutely not the place to go to try and sell your unpublished manuscript.

    Unfortunately, there’s a lot of mythology to the contrary. BEA ripoffs abound. I’ll be detailing a number of them in my next post.

  24. If PW does not know about this publisher then they would be the only ones in the business who don’t.
    I find it hard to believe that a magazine that is all about publishing wouldn’t know who they have put on their front cover so this means, they don’t care. If they don’t care about creators of the books they base their whole magazine on, then do I really want to pay the huge subscription fee?
    I find this part of the story far harder to get my head around then naive authors willing to pay for ads or BEA.
    Maybe Vanity press’s are the only ones with any money left to buy the cover!

  25. Unfortunately, these are the same people who will argue to the ends of the Earth that this was a smart "business" maneuver. After all, as self-published authors they are running their own "business". They probably assume that taking part in the Expo in this fashion lends them a degree of perceived credibility. Sadly, legitimate professionals are probably woefully aware of Sterlinghouse's reputation.

    I don't understand how anyone could be so overwhelmed by the desire for validation as to shell out this outrageous amount of personal cash to make themselves believe that they are in the same ranks as J.K. Rowling or Stephen King.

    Wake-up call people! J.K. & Stephen NEVER shelled out their life savings to be called writers.

    As for PW accepting SH's advertising dollars – I don't have a problem with that in & of itself, the issue I have is them using their COVER for advertising. The front cover, specifically, is supposed to represent a publication in its best light. To sell it out is decidedly sleazy.

    If you'll sell out your front cover to anyone who pays, that says quite a lot about the quality of your publication as a whole.

  26. I wonder if it would have made any difference to PW if it knew that SterlingHouse charges authors to publish? Possibly not. But that’s the whole point: SterlingHouse doesn’t publicly reveal that it’s a vanity publisher. So there was no reason for PW to know.

    Frankly, the boggle for me isn’t that PW accepted SterlingHouse’s advertising dollar, but what the poor authors had to pay for these BEA “packages.”

  27. To me, it is obvious that the exterior cover of PW is advertising. I used to routinely discard it, which is easy to do. A sharp tug, and all of those shouting-loud words and pictures of books you’ve never heard of (andthat never get PW reviews) vanish into the waste bin.

  28. I find it unbelievable that publications like PW accepts such adverts. Don’t they have a reputation to uphold and newbie authors to educate? It’s the attitude that advertising is separate from the magazine content that allows such outfits to survive.

  29. Sterling House is a pretty lousy deal for said doctor/lawyer/dentist/architect types, too; you can get much the same sort of service for less elsewhere.

    I’m really ashamed of Publishers Weekly for doing this. I’m used to complaints of ad driven media coverage in the automotive press world, but at least it takes a lot more creativity to find a way to get your company’s name on the front cover of Hot Rod than writing a check. (Usually the only way to get your name on the cover is if it’s already stuck on a newsworthy car.)

  30. This is a business aimed at doctor/lawyer/dentist/architect types who don’t have the time to really get published the traditional way, but they’ve always fancied being an author, they wrote a book, and they want it “published” so that their friends can buy it. Nothing really wrong with that, but as the above anon pointed out–check the Amazon ranks on the titles and you’ll see how cool a reception these things get.

  31. $$$$ will get it out there, but they still have to like it.

    Easy to check out the real performance of this publisher: go to and look up the Amazon rank #s for each of their titles. My guess is they’re all over a million, but I haven’t actually checked. But that’s the best way to gauge a publisher.

    Show me the rank. You can lead a horse [potential book buyer] to water [a book], but you can’t make it drink.

  32. Thanks for bringing this “publisher” to the attention of writers, I am worried about publisher’s weekly now. I wonder how much PW is willing to get from a more legitmate publisher? (or one who is not a vanity press.)

  33. Shame on Publishers Weekly for selling their cover to such a sleazy operation. It makes you wish they’d gone with the Acai Berry and White Teeth ads instead–much classier.

  34. Wow.

    The sad thing is that a lot of those folks have been assured that this is the norm, and that all the authors promoted by legit trade publishing houses are paying the same.

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