Writers Be Warned: Out There Be Monsters

I’m not going to try to pretend that scammers within the publishing industry are a new thing. Ever since publishing came into the picture, there have been industry con artists looking to turn a quick buck. But with Self Publishing pulling in hopeful new writers in numbers never before seen, we have more opportunity for scams.

And boy, the scammers are having a field day.

Although I’ve had my nose in the publishing industry for over a decade (as an author wannabe, I’ll admit), I’ve never seen as many scams taking place as what I’ve seen in the last two years. I’ve watched numerous writing buddies of mine get suckered into these bad contracts. Ninety percent of the time, our interactions go something like this:

“Belinda! I’ve just signed on/been picked up by this AWESOME publisher. I’m so excited!”
“That’s fantastic! Who are they?”
“X Scammy Publishing House! My book is going to soar like an eagle. I can’t wait to rake in my millions!”
“…….. have you already signed the contract?”
“Of course! Their offer was too good to pass up!”
*facepalm*

Variations on this conversation include:

“…….. have you already signed the contract?”
“Not yet! But my grandfather’s pet budgie told me they’re AWESOME, so I’m definitely signing up!”
*facepalm*

And:

“…….. have you already signed the contract?”
“Not yet, but I definitely will soon. The lady/dude is soooooooooooooo nice!”
“…. So are used car salesmen.”
“This is different. He/She really cares about my success.”
*facepalm*

If I hear of even one more friend getting scammed by less-than-stellar phoney publishers and service providers, I think I’m going to do something drastic. Like, cover the scammer’s house in a year’s worth of my mutt’s poopsies. Or run nekkid down the street, screaming, “NOT AGAIN! NOT AGAIN!”

For the sake of my olfactory senses and the eyesight of my fellow human beings, I’m writing this post instead. It’s my hope that I prevent even just ONE new writer from getting duped. So let’s learn a little more about how these things work, shall we?

What Is Self-Publishing?

For the sake of clarity, let me explain what REAL self-publishing is. An author who self-publishes their own book is an author who does EVERYTHING. They write and edit their own book. They create their own cover. They even print and bind their own books. They do all of their own marketing. They have complete control over their work every step of the way. It’s also a helluva lot of work, and costs a lot of money and time.

Unsurprisingly, very very few people self-publish with any real success.

Thankfully, when most people talk about self-publishing, what they really mean is indie-publishing.

What Is Indie-Publishing?

When people talk about self-publishing, what they often mean is indie-publishing. This is when an author writes their own book, but they bring in the professionals when it comes to editing, cover design, and publication. Some authors will even go as far to hire their own marketing crew.

There are varying degrees of indie-publishing. Sometimes authors prefer to edit their books themselves, or create their own cover design (unfortunately, going the DIY route on these things often leads to an amateurish product that doesn’t sell as well as it should). Other indie-publishers take things to the opposite extreme, where they don’t even write their own books- they hire ghostwriters.

Indie authors have experienced a great deal of success in recent years. Much of this is due to companies like Amazon levelling the playing field when it comes to publishing. In the past, self/indie-publishing was synonymous with a garage full of books and no readership. Now, however, it’s entirely possible to become a bestselling author without the help of a major publishing house. In fact, check the New York Times Bestseller Lists; at any given time, a good chunk of the books there were written by indie authors.

Of course, going this route does involve quite a bit of research and work. Thankfully, it’s also the route that has the greatest potential for a minimal financial outlay.

If you’re thinking about walking the path of the indie, you need to learn exactly what is involved, what you should outsource, and what you should do yourself. For those services you outsource, you need to make sure you’re hiring reputable freelancers/companies. Otherwise, you’re probably just opening yourself up to more scamming.

That, I think, is a whole other post just in itself.

 

Vanity Presses/Publishers

The only times authors should consider going with a Vanity Publisher (VP for short) is:

  1. If you have copious amounts of money to burn
  2. You don’t really care about making money from your book, or gaining a readership. You basically just want to give your book to your friends and family, and that’s it.

And honestly, how many authors fit into both of those categories? Unfortunately, going with a VP is one of the most common ways authors get scammed.

Let me make this clear: REAL PUBLISHERS DO NOT ASK FOR THE AUTHOR TO PAY FEES UP FRONT. EVER.

Yet, this is how the majority of Vanity Publishers function.

Exactly what the VP offers will vary from publisher to publisher. Some VPs will simply charge the author a fee to have their book printed and shipped to the author’s address. Usually they’ll have a minimum order, “If you publish with us, you must purchase 1000 of your own books”. Of course, they’ll almost always present this as a bonus, “Pay us $5000, and you’ll get 50 copies of your book FREE”.

Other VPs claim to offer a more rounded package. They’ll get your book listed with the major online and offline book retailers. They’ll handle file conversion (if publishing an ebook) and basic formatting. Some will issue you with an ISBN (licensed to the VP, of course). What they won’t tell you is that it’s possible to get all these things done for free, if not for very little money. Many claim that they will use their “extensive marketing expertise” to ensure the success of your book. They rely on your lack of knowledge- if you knew anything about marketing, you’ll quickly see that they do virtually nothing to successfully market your book.

More savvy VPs will sucker authors into parting with their dollars in another way. Usually they’ll talk up basic tasks, making them sound more difficult than they really are. Then they’ll tell you that they’ll do these tasks for you in return for a massive chunk of your royalties.
This route is a little more risky for the VP because it means they need the book to sell at least a little in order for them to make their money back. But consider these two facts:

  1. Many of the tasks they perform cost nothing but a small fraction of their time,
  2. Most books will sell a few copies, even if they suck.

This is how they make their money. They take an enormous share of the book’s profits (usually 50% or more), and they “publish” many, many, MANY books. It adds up.
If a book is successful, you can almost guarantee it’s because of the merits of the book itself, and not because of the work of the VP. Despite this, the VP will benefit.

WRITER BEWARE sums up Vanity Publishing very well:

“[Some vanity publishers] suggest that they’re contributing their own resources to the relationship. Don’t be fooled. Fee-based publishing is fee-based publishing, and whatever you’re paying, it covers 100% of the cost and then some.”

“If you’re looking to establish a career as a writer, however, or if you actually want people you don’t know to buy and read your book, vanity/subsidy publishing is probably not a good idea.

For one thing, the expense can be enormous. In order to ensure their profit, vanity/subsidy publishers charge far more than the actual production cost of a book.

For another, it’s very difficult for authors to recoup this investment, since vanity/subsidy publishers rarely offer meaningful distribution or marketing. They have no economic incentive to do so– their principal source of income isn’t the sale of books to the public, but the sale of services to authors, and they have little desire to cut into that. If you vanity/subsidy-publish, it’s likely that you’ll lose money.”

Another important consideration: while there are honest vanity publishers that fulfill contractual promises, there are also many that engage in a wide range of unethical or fraudulent practices, including misrepresenting themselves as commercial publishers, grossly overcharging for their services, reneging on contract obligations, producing shoddy books, failing to print the number of books contracted for, providing kickbacks to agents who refer manuscripts…the list goes on.

As writers become more aware of the pitfalls of vanity/subsidy publishing, many less-than-honest pay-to-publish operations are trying dodge the vanity label by omitting to mention their fees on their websites or other public materials, or by shifting their charges to areas other than printing and binding.

A [Vanity Publisher may] claim that your fee is only part of the cost, with the publisher paying the rest.
The publisher may tell you that it will spend as much or more on your book than you’re being charged, or that the services it provides–warehousing, distribution, publicity–are worth far more than your “investment.” At best, this is an exaggeration; at worst, it’s lie. Since most vanity publishers these days use digital technology (thus eliminating the expense of print runs and warehousing), provide minimal editing and marketing, and use the same wholesale distribution channels employed by self-publishing services, their production and distribution costs are minimal. Most of the time, your fee pays the whole freight, plus the publisher’s overhead and profit.

If you haven’t read the whole article, please check it out.

50 Shades Of Scammers

You can also find scammers in traditional publishing, as well as amongst the numerous author services (including shonky Print On Demand services, and con artist cover designers and editors). And if you’ve heard about some new great course or program that promises to teach you how to become a successful author and make truckloads of cash, I 99.99% guarantee that you’re looking at a scammer.

But I’ll bore you with that information in another post. For now, let’s focus on how you can avoid getting ripped off by Vanity Presses:

Avoiding Scammy Vanity Publishers and Scam-like Operations

There are two kinds of entities you need to steer clear of:

  1. The scammers. They want your money, they don’t care about your success, end of story.
  2. The scam-like. These people often have good intentions, but the way they’ve structured their business model means that you’d be better doing virtually anything other than sign on with them.

Regardless of which category the entity falls into, you can avoid them by asking yourself the following questions:

“HOW DO THEY MAKE THEIR MONEY?”

A traditional publisher makes all their money from selling books. This is why it’s so difficult to land a traditional publishing deal with a reputable publishing house. It’s their butts on the line if your book doesn’t succeed. If they invest $20,000 getting your book into bookstores, and your book only sells $5,000 worth, it’s the publisher that is out of pocket.

If a publisher is asking you to cover upfront costs- ANY upfront costs- you can bet your sweet bippy that they’re not a real publisher, and that they haven’t got the success of your book in the forefront of their mind. They’re making their money off the author, not the book sales. And despite how “strict” they say they are regarding which books they take on, you know that their business model is based on volume, not quality.

Of course, some Vanity Publishers try to disguise their true nature by taking a massive chunk of royalties instead. This is where some of the other questions come into play.

“HOW MANY OF THEIR BOOKS ARE ON THE BESTSELLER LISTS?”

If they’re a legitimate publisher, at least a couple of their books will have made it to the bestseller lists. And I’m talking New York Times bestsellers, NOT “Little Hick Back-Country Town Bestseller”, or “Obscure Website Bestseller”, or “Obscure Award We’ve Never Heard Of Winner”.

Why can I confidently say this? Because real publishers:

  1. Are very selective with the books they represent, and will only choose books they’re reasonably sure they can sell.
  2. They have important industry contacts that mean your book gets seen by the right people, at the right time.
  3. They get your book in front of readers. Lots and lots of readers.
  4. Their connection with bookstores means that your book doesn’t simply end up on the bookstore’s computer database (which can be achieved for free), your book will actually end up in store, usually by the pallet-load. This, funnily enough, is one of the key determining factors to whether a book ends up on bestseller lists.

If a good number of the publisher’s books have never appeared on the key bestseller lists, you can guarantee that any other claim regarding their marketing experience and industry contacts is at best an exaggeration, and at worst an outright lie.

“IS THE ONLY GOOD PRESS ABOUT THE PUBLISHER BY THE PUBLISHER OR ITS AFFILIATES?”

Regardless of how reputable you think a publisher is, you should always do extensive research. If there is any bad press about them, you need to seriously look into it. What is the reputation of the person/s giving the bad press? Let me help you out with that one. If the publisher is given bad press by WRITER BEWARE, the WB Blog, or unanimously shunned by the folk at AbsoluteWrite, (you can ask for their opinion if you don’t see the publisher mentioned), you can guarantee that the publisher is best avoided.

Most Vanity Publishers say, “Ask our authors! They’re all happy with our services!”
The problem with this statement is that the authors who get roped into VP contracts are authors who really don’t know how the publishing industry works. As harsh as it sounds, they really don’t know any better. Ask those same authors in a few years time whether they were happy with the service or not. Usually their rose-coloured goggles have faded by then.

If the only good press about the publisher is by the publisher itself (or people who work for said publisher), alarms should go off. This is also true if the only good press is by affiliates (i.e. people or organisations who stand to gain something from the publisher’s success) or new authors (who are often only mentioning the publisher in an effort to make their own books look more legit).

If the publisher is legit, it should get widespread approval throughout the industry. If it hasn’t, you need to seriously ask why.

“OF THE GENUINE CUSTOMERS (AUTHORS), HOW MANY HAVE ACHIEVED SUCCESS BECAUSE OF THE PUBLISHER?”

One of my good friends chose to opt with a VP because the VP promised that their amazing marketing techniques would make his (previously indie-published) books successful. He was sick of spending all his time marketing his books- he’d rather write. He wanted someone who could take care of it for him. They promised him that. So in return for a massive cut of his royalties, he signed on the dotted line.

Months later, he comes to me, utterly exasperated. The VP’s super duper marketing techniques basically involve forcing the authors to spend all their time marketing. Get interviewed here, do a guest post there, participate in these social networks. All of the things he was already doing as an indie, he’s now doing again, except he’s losing 50% of his profits for the privilege.

If his books do become successful, will it be because of the publisher? Of course not. He’s the one doing all the hard work, and he’s not even reaching new readers with the publisher’s “awesome industry contacts”.  He would achieve the exact same result by doing things himself. And if he made friends with more successful authors, learned from their experiences and took their advice, he’d likely achieve more success. And he’d keep all his royalties.

Of course, even traditional publishers will usually require that authors do some marketing. That’s why authors go on book tours. But traditional publishers are able to open up doors that aren’t easily opened on your own. This is where the value is. VPs on the other hand will only ever be able to offer you the same success as if you did things yourself. Why? Because you basically are doing things yourself- you’re just paying someone to do some of your paper-shuffling for you.

“HOW DOES THE PUBLISHER ENSURE QUALITY?”

As much as VPs will tell you they’re picky, we’ve already established that this is not the case. So how do they make sure that your book is the best it can possibly be? The short answer is, they don’t.

If the VP asks for money up front, you can guarantee that they’ll tell you whatever you want to hear. They’ll tell you that you’re a rare prodigy not seen since the days of Shakespeare. They’ll tell you that while most of the Science Fiction submissions they get are utter rubbish, YOUR sci-fi romp is brilliant. They might have some personal preferences regarding genre, but beyond that it’s come one come all.

If the VP is instead asking for a share of your royalties, generally they’ll make a cursory attempt to make sure the book is publishable. This might include reading the first 100 words to make sure the book isn’t the result of a word spinner or a third-world-country outsource job, but beyond that, they’ll pretty much accept anything. Like I mentioned before, presuming the book has a serviceable cover, even terrible books sell at least a few copies. This is what the VP counts on.

Very rarely will a VP include free editing and cover design if they’re going for a royalty model. Why? Because tasks like this take more time, and therefore are not economically viable for publishers who don’t actually sell your books. The VP might “include” these services if they ask for money up front, but you can be sure that they’re making a sizable profit on top of whatever the designer/editor gets paid.

Does the publisher tell you WHO their editors and designers are? Most of the time, they don’t. Why? Because if they did, you’ll see that at best their designer/editor is inexperienced (and therefore cheap), and at worst an outsourced third-world amateur who probably doesn’t know the first thing about the craft, and gets paid pennies for their work.

The VPs that are a little more tricky to pick out will usually go for the royalty model, but charge you extra for the services of their “expert” designers and editors, if they supply them at all.

If the publisher gives you the option of publishing your book without mandatory use of a professional designer and editor (either in-house or otherwise), you can guarantee they’re scammy. Every successful indie publisher and every legit traditional publisher knows that a professional book cover design and editing job are almost always critical to a book’s success. VPs don’t much care about this, because they don’t care about whether or not a book is successful.

“WHAT ARE THEIR MARKETING TECHNIQUES?”

Most VPs will do virtually no marketing, regardless of what they say. If they’ve got pages dedicated on their website to you and your book, here’s a news flash: that’s not marketing for YOU, that’s marketing for THEM. The more pages they have on their website, the greater chance some unwitting new author will stumble across said page and sign up.

Many VPs claim to be masters of online marketing and social media. They rely on the fact that most new authors don’t know the first thing about online marketing. Because if their authors did know anything about it, they’d quickly see that VPs SUCK at marketing.

Firstly, just because VPs have accounts on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+, doesn’t mean that’s they’re successful social media marketers.

Check their Twitter profile. How many of their tweets are retweeted by readers? How many discussions are going on? If the VP does nothing but spam their Twitter feed, it’s unlikely that they’ll engage people, and therefore unlikely that any promotion they DO do on Twitter will be ignored.
In fact, of their Twitter followers, how many of those followers have the default egg avatar? Do the majority of them have Indian or Asian names? These last two points strongly indicate that the VP bought their followers. The followers aren’t “real” people, they’re dummy accounts, made to make the VP look popular.

The same questions can be asked of their Facebook and Google+ accounts. How many discussions are going on? Is their feed nothing but spam? Is there interaction and engagement going on? Do their followers even look real? Do their posts on Google+ have little strike-throughs on them? This means that the VP tried spamming a G+ Community with their half-hearted dross, and got their post blocked or their account banned because of it. Hardly a good way to build a following.

Scammy Publishers Fail At Google Promotion

If there is some interaction going on, and real followers, who are these people? Usually you’ll find that the vast majority of followers are authors. They’ll either be authors who have already signed up with the publisher, or authors who are considering it. This is one of the MAIN reasons why marketing by VPs never helps sell books. Because their followers are authors, not readers.

Other tactics VPs might use are guest posts, interviews, and blog carnivals. These are tactics employed by successful indie publishers, and are not bad in themselves. But VPs rarely do these things successfully. Why? Because their effort is in giving the guise of marketing,  not in ensuring the book’s success. If they do manage to pull guest posts, interviews, and blog carnival posts out of the author, the resulting content will often go to places that:

  1. Don’t have a following at all, or
  2. Have a following of other authors, not readers.

So while a VP might look like they’re all over the internet, they’re nothing more than a drop in the bucket, and they’re not helping your book get seen by the people who matter most.

 

Authors Doing It For Themselves

This isn’t an anti-publisher post, nor is it a pro-indie-publishing post. Personally, I’m going the indie route, but I know others choose the traditional route with plenty of success. But reality is that whichever route you take, you should avoid Vanity Publishers. Avoid them even if they call themselves something different. If they have the hallmarks of a Vanity Press, you should avoid them like you would a plague-infested rat. The only one who benefits from a contract is the publisher.

You might wonder why I haven’t “outed” some of these Vanity Publishers. For starters, WRITER BEWARE and the Absolute Write forums do a plenty good enough job of that. But the main reason is that VPs frequently disappear, only to reappear under another name. Instead of naming names, I would much prefer to teach people which signs to look out for. Then it won’t matter what they call themselves.

But, if you feel like venting about one of these scamalicious publishers, please don’t let me stop you.

3 Responses to “Writers Be Warned: Out There Be Monsters”

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  1. For those who would like to see some “naming and shaming”, most publishers are listed at Preditors & Editors, a long-established resource which aims to list all publishers, good and bad, and identify the “Preditors”.

    http://pred-ed.com/

    • Belinda Pepper says:

      Thanks for sharing that link, Marisa! I can’t believe that after my mammoth post, I forgot to include them. Despite the ugly timewarp appearance of the site, it’s a great resource.

  2. S.J. Buckman says:

    Thanks for the post Belinda!

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