Publishers – Writer Beware

Valerie Douglas

“Publishers are just middlemen. That’s all. If artists could remember that more often, they’d save themselves a lot of aggravation. ” – Hugh Macleod, How To Be Creative

Ah, the lure of the publisher, the allure of the printed book sitting there in your hands, beckoning to you. Isn’t that the stuff of every author’s dreams? An e-book is great but don’t we all long to hold a book in our hands with our name below the title? I know I did. There’s also the sense of security and the idea that maybe we won’t have to work quite as hard, that they’ll pick up some of the load of marketing.

It also seems as if there are so many new choices these days – not just the Big Six, independent, e-presses and small presses, but all kinds of hybrids, include publishing groups and co-ops (where the responsibility for creating a book is shared). And not all of them are truly looking out for your best interests. A number of writers have found themselves contracted to a publisher with no easy way out. I did.

So how do you avoid the pitfalls?

(For our purposes, we’ll leave out the Big Six, the pros and cons there are known – advances (now much smaller), a huge pool of talent in which your book can get lost, gatekeepers with a narrow eye, six months to respond, a year to two years to reach print.)

First, do your homework. Google the company name. If you find that they’re listed on Preditors and Editors or Writers Write, run away. Are there complaints against/about them? Do they sound valid, consistent? Go to their website, find a book that looks and sounds interesting to you. Does the cover look professional? Are there spelling and grammar errors in the blurb (the back cover information)? Where can you buy it? Only from their website? Those are huge red flags. You want your book to look as good as possible and to be available to a wide audience through established booksellers like, B&N and iTunes. If there’s a feature like Amazon’s “Look Inside the Book”, use it. Are there a bunch of basic grammar errors? Is that the kind of book with which you want to be associated?

So, it all sounds good and looks good. Too good to be true? Then it probably is. How’s your gut? Getting some trippy vibes? It’s time to start asking questions…

1. There’s a standard rule in publishing that money flows from the publisher to the writer, NOT the other way around. Anyone who tells you different is blowing smoke. I don’t care what name they call it. If you’re paying them a percentage of your book that percentage is supposed to cover what they’re supposed to do for you – editing, cover art and marketing at the very least. By its very definition in a co-operative environment each writer donates their time and skills to the group as a whole, each contributing to the success of all. But the first rule still applies. If you’re paying any percentage to the publisher, those ‘fees’ should come out of their pocket, not yours. Otherwise, what are you paying them for? Their name? Make up your own.

2. NEVER, NEVER, NEVER pay for your galley or proof copies. No reputable publisher will ask you to do this. That’s the cost of doing business. You’re providing them with their commodity, books. Without you, they wouldn’t exist. To ask you to pay for your own proof copies, even at a discount, is wrong. If they don’t believe enough in your book to invest in it, they shouldn’t have bought it. No reputable publisher will insist that you buy your books in bulk, either, even for a book signing.  On those occasions they should provide them – unsold books should then be returned to the publisher or used for subsequent book signings.

3. NEVER, NEVER, NEVER pay for services you can do yourself. See below.

4. Editing. Read the excerpts. Is that your style? Is it overly simplistic, too Dick and Jane? Or too dark? (I submitted one book to a publisher like that but I had a pretty good idea it would be rejected. And it was.) Are the stories remarkably similar, too generic? Is the quality good? Are you seeing those grammar errors? In a recent post I commented on a reader who was surprised to find an erotica book so literate. (I don’t just write erotica, I’m actually more of a fantasy writer, but that is where I’m published traditionally.) Is most of their work adult, but you write YA? Make sure that publisher is a good fit for you.

5. Are they making a huge fuss about numbers, rankings and so on? Is the fuss legitimate? If you’re #4 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Nonfiction > Kitchen Appliances, is that a valid ranking for your contemporary romance, Cooking Class? Not really. Outside of the kitchen appliances listing, notice that it says Nonfiction. Yes, you want to market where people share the same interests as your book but if your book is the only fiction book in ten listings… being #4 isn’t all that great.

6. If they’re offering to put your book in print, who is doing the printing? I honestly never considered asking that question. I didn’t think I had to, after all, they were a publisher, right? So therefore they had a printer. To my surprise, one company was using CreateSpace to do their printing. (See Rule 3) I already had two books in print through CreateSpace on my own but that publisher made it sound as if he had a local printing company. Never assume. You know what happens when you do.

7. Ask what their pay schedule is and what your percentage is for e-books or print. Is it different if you do book signings? WHEN do you get paid? Smashwords pays quarterly, most regular publishers pay monthly, but both will provide you with a regular accounting of how much money you can expect to receive. The same should be true of any publisher. You have a right to know when your first paycheck will arrive. After all, you have bills just like they do. If they can’t give you that information, if they waffle about how they can’t give you accurate figures, that they have to account for returns, etc., RUN. At absolute worse they could simply deduct a return from your next check but a reputable publisher wouldn’t – returns should be few and they accept that as a loss, as the cost of doing business. (If returns are excessive, someone needs to look at the book.)

8. What is their marketing plan? How do they market their authors? (Again, see Rule 3) Is it largely through Facebook, Twitter and blogs? What else do they do? You want a concrete marketing plan that will take you beyond what you can do yourself. Does it mainly consist of book signings which you have to arrange, not them? Then you’re in the wrong place.

And if you hear pie in the sky promises – I can get you on Leno, for example – ask yourself how many authors Jay Leno has on his program? None. It’s all smoke. Run, don’t walk, to the nearest exit.

9. Check out their Facebook pages. Is there chaos and drama around them? Do you want chaos and drama in your life? If not, then walk away.

Indie publishing is hard enough without people making it more difficult, or outright ripping you off. I have yet to see the money from my book and I have a pretty good guess I never will. Despite it being a legitimate Amazon best seller. It regularly floats in the Amazon Top 100. I haven’t given up entirely but that’s the price you pay for not doing your ‘due diligence’ – your research.

There are people out there more than willing to prey on our hopes and dreams and many authors will pay almost anything to realize those dreams. I know one writer who put thousands of dollars of his own money into a print version of his books. I don’t know how many are still in boxes. Print books are much more difficult to sell. Getting bookstores to take a chance on giving precious shelf space to an unknown, independent writer is difficult. So many authors do that and their garages are filled with broken dreams. Many walk away, their hopes dashed.

For a while I struggled, trying to fit myself into a round hole when I was a square peg. I put my hopes of seeing my books in print under a publisher’s name… until I learned all the lessons above. Now I’m experiencing the delicious freedom of being able to write my books the way I want to write them. If I’m going to do print, I’ll do them myself. And I won’t have to share a penny. No one will make money from them besides me… in tandem with Amazon and CreateSpace, or B&N, Smashwords, etc., of course.

That’s not to say that the traditional way is wrong, but unless what a publisher offers you makes your life easier, what do you need a middleman for?

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Valerie Douglas is a contributing Author for Indies Unlimited and author of the epic fantasy series The Coming Storm and the contemporary romance series The Millersburg Quartet. For more information please see the IU Bio page and her blog


23 thoughts on “Publishers – Writer Beware”

  1. Fantastic post – thanks! I'm about to opt out of a contract with a publisher which requires me to buy a minimum of 50 books (albeit at a discount) in order to guarantee a print-run (by a POD printer!). Plus their marketing is simply on their own website, nothing more.

    I'd like to put a link to this post on the 'helpful hints' page of our group blog Heroines with Hearts – hope that's okay with you?

  2. Excellent advice! We have a thriving group of writers here in Auckland NZ helping each other through the publishing and distribution process – we're making small profits and having a ball doing it! Who needs those damned publishers!

  3. Excellent post, Valerie, you spell out the pitfalls succinctly. As a traditionally published writer with one book still under the control of the publisher, I'm much happier self publishing ebooks. I only wish I could wrench the electronic rights of my print book out of my publisher's control!

  4. You make publishers sound evil and greedy; not every author wants a contract with a publisher, nor is capable of doing all the requisite tasks of self-publishing. My publishing company is very small, but we are up front with what we can and cannot do. My clients are varied from full-blown contracts of print, e-books, marketing and 50% royalties, to providing file conversion and editing as hourly-rate services. Yes, CreateSpace is one of our printing resources, and for those clients who want POD, it works just fine. Your article does provide good info for authors to think about though.

    1. Mardou, I understand where you're coming from. Seven of my books are published through a small, indie publisher. They edit, provide cover art, distribution, file conversion, and proofs all for FREE. They also use Createspace as their printer. I am most grateful to them for having faith in me and for supporting me all these years. There are some very good Indie publishers. I wish it was easier for authors to find them.

    2. Mardou, this was a post about predatory publishers, since you're up front abut everything that's fine. I just wanted to give writers the right questions to ask so they don't get caught by a bad publisher, and can find publishers like you. Using CreateSpace as a resource is fine, as long as everyone is aware of it.

  5. Excellent post, Valerie, thank you! Other things to check out: 1. Do they have a professional attempt at a web site? 2. What do they charge for other authors' books? 3. Do they even accept returns?

  6. This is article is so past fantastic, Valerie, and ALL writers should follow your advice. Thank you for writing it. I can realte to everything you said, kinda like "Been there done that". It is better to have NO publisher than to have a bad one. A bad one can ruin you and your work. As for the comment about writers not having the means to self-publish- that's just BS!!! In today's time, traditional publishers are not the end all. I know, because I've discovered that I don't need them. It takes less than 10 minutes to uplaod an ebook to Amazon and why anyone would give 50% of their profits away to someone just to load their files is crazy. If more writers saw just how easy it really is to self-publish and do it well without any money up front, I think more would do so. You do not need the middle man any longer. @Mardou – to me it is irrelvant whether you are telling your writer's up front that they will be charged money for services such as editing, file conversions, etc. if your company is profiting off of those authors for that service, that makes you a vanity press. No thank you 🙂 It takes less than 10 minutes to do a file conversion with Mobi Pocket publisher and it's free, which is what Amazon uses. More writers need to take stock and control over their own careers and for once, they should be the ones to make the most off of their work. After all, without the writers, all publisher's and agents would be out of a job.

  7. That's a fantastic article Valerie and after escaping from a publisher who was much like the ones you mention I absolutely adore this post. It's the best advice for any author who is venturing into self-publishing.

    After trying to get it done for me and realising that all I was getting was royally ripped off. I'm embracing the do it yourself lifestyle as a writer and it's a nice life.

    I even started a non-profit publishing agency to basically give authors advice on how to set up their own self-publishing. I chose to make it non-profit and a free advisory service after 'escaping' from a very bad publisher. Because much like your post here, I too felt that authors just needed the right information to avoid bad publishing experiences.

    Publishing ebooks or books on places like Kindle and CreateSpace is not difficult and making them saleable products is like making any product. Take time to perfect it, and present it well and you'll reap results.

    Thanks for a fab article!

  8. I learned the hard way that I can be just as poor with book put out by a publisher as I can putting out one as an indie … but being an indie has a much better ring to it.

  9. Valerie,

    Thank you for this great article. I only wish that I'd had the opportunity a year ago to read it. I am now free from the grips of one of those publishers who are giving all the legitimate ones a bad name. But, I will never be free of the pain that occurred after enduring the breach of trust and lack of professionalism. Perhaps, as more and more alternatives to traditional publishing companies arrive, these kinds of groups or individuals will diminish in number. I feel comfindent that your article and others like it will provide information that will help other authors avoid the pitfalls that you have outlined for us. Thank you for sharing.

    Clu Gallagher/Author

  10. Very sound advice, Valerie. I hope your advice helps several people avoid the pitfalls of partnering up with people who are looking to profit from you rather than profit with you.

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