Self-publishers: Buyer Beware

Yvonne Hertzberger, Author

It’s crunch time. My post is due and I woke at 3 am in a panic with no topic. (Sound familiar, Dan?) There is too much going on in my life. But then an idea I have been toying with for some time came back. I can share the story of my experience with iUniverse and use it as a cautionary tale for novice authors. And cautionary it is.

Let me preface this by saying that I do believe there are legitimate ‘self-publishing’ companies out there who deliver what they promise with integrity and quality. But let me also emphasize that such companies are few and far between and, to most of us, indistinguishable from the rest.


I have singled out iUniverse because that is where my story happened. The real point of this post, however, is that my story is not unique and definitely not exclusive to iUniverse. LinkedIn had a thread about the Author Solutions company, under whose umbrella I believe iUniverse, as well as Authorhouse, fall. Other companies were also mentioned there. There are others, many others, not under Author Solutions, and that is what makes this so important. The experiences of their customers, Indie authors all, new to this game and naïve, were overwhelmingly similar. Again, there were exceptions.

In 2008 I did what I thought was good research on the ‘net to see how self-publishers were rated. I also checked out which ones offered the services I felt I needed at the time, and what the costs would be for those services. I did my homework – I thought.

iUniverse stood out as the best option for me. I contacted them and opted for their top package at the time at a cost of roughly $1100.00. The package included two editorial reviews and the opportunity to earn their ‘Editors’ Choice Award’, which I felt would increase my sales, should I win it. It also included the support of a personal assistant with whom I could be in constant touch by email.

Things started out swimmingly. My assistant proved very helpful – the first one. By the time my book came out I had gone through three. My first editorial review suggested a number of ways to improve my book. This was the most important element to me because I felt I needed some guidance due to my lack of writing experience. I cut 30%, re-ordered some chapters and edited it myself four times, had my other half edit it as well. I re-sent it. I was pleased with the second review but felt I wanted another kick at that can so I purchased a third review, requesting a different set of eyes this time to give me a broader look. They told me how close I was to getting that coveted award but suggested my book needed a copy edit and a proof-read to bring it up to snuff. I paid an additional $2000.00 (roughly) for those two services. This was a huge sacrifice for us as it did not fit our budget at all. But I did get the award and believed this put me on the road to being recognized, and would garner me good sales. After all, only 5% of their authors got the ‘Editor’s Choice’ seal on their covers. (I counted.)

My package also included a cover design. Their site led me to believe it would be custom created by an artist in accordance with my ideas. When I filled in the form I was told it was too busy because they use stock photos that a graphic designer then manipulates into a cover. When I challenged them, citing their own website, they hooked me up with their head graphic designer. I must admit she was good. I got a cover I truly liked, but it still was not what they advertised.

When my books arrived (a 350 book bulk shipment, most of which I had to pay for at $1700.00) I was elated. They looked beautiful. My hopes were high.

But, a marketing package was part of my ‘package’. It did not arrive and their website no longer included it. Eventually they convinced me to pay for a press release. It was appalling. I rewrote it myself and told them to use my version. They also sold me “a list of contacts for newspapers and media, concentrating on the three cities close to me which I specified”. The list I received had almost none of the contacts I expected and over 100 for remote places as far away as the Yukon. The names were out of date or incorrect. Calls to complain got me nowhere. They stonewalled me. I learned later that they outsourced their marketing. No quality control there at all.

All my sales came through my personal effort. Literally none were the result of the award. I had to push to be listed at amazon.ca in spite of iUniverse’s promise to do so at the outset.

Then readers pointed out two inconsistencies that no one had caught. Now I have learned that there are editing errors still in the final product.

Am I steamed? You bet.

The moral of the story is, your homework may not be enough to find a ‘self-publisher’ you can trust. Word of mouth is still best, preferably from several established Indie authors who have used these companies and been pleased. Better yet, find a recommended private editor and then publish your book for nothing on either CreateSpace and Kindle or Smashwords. Your end product will be better and so will your reputation.

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Yvonne Hertzberger is a Contributing Author at Indies Unlimited and author of Back From Chaos and Through Kestrel’s Eyes, Books One and Two of Earth’s Pendulum, an Epic fantasy trilogy. For more information please see the IU Bio page and her blog @  http:/yvonnehertzberger.com.

Author: Yvonne Hertzberger

Yvonne Hertzberger is a native of the Netherlands who immigrated to Canada in 1950. She is an alumna of The University of Waterloo, with degrees in psychology and Sociology. Her Fantasy trilogy, ‘Earth’s Pendulum’ has been well received. Learn more about Yvonne at her blog and her Amazon author page.

41 thoughts on “Self-publishers: Buyer Beware”

  1. Interesting Yvonne, I went with Authorhouse back in 2004, because they seemed a better bet than iUniverse at the time and I was quite pleased with the service, although I got the same useless press release and pointless outlet list. That was before they were taken over by Author Solutions I think. Since the 'new look' I have been plagued by sales calls trying to make me buy more marketing services. Plus, they produced an electronic version of the book for me this year, without telling me, and placed it on all the outlets, B&N, Indigo etc. I had just produced my own ebook version, updated with some new info and was about to put it in KDP when they finally told me they'd done this. It then took me weeks to persuade them to take their version down, I was furious. Back in 2004, the option to do it yourself wasn't really on the radar, I'd never use a company like this again.

  2. Very interesting Yvonne, thanks for sharing that with us.

    I think the only way is to do it onself – you have to keep control over the whole process. I use Lulu for my paperbacks because they charge nothing to publish – you really only pay for what you buy. Lulu also distributes through all e-channels as well, also for free. You can purchase additional services (e.g. editing, publicity), but Lulu are very clear and upfront with what you get for your money. Also Lulu, like Smashwords, will remit whatever royalites you earn every month to your Paypal account (which is the main reason I think that selling a book through Amazon is pretty pointless, because Amazon won't pay till you accumulate $100, which most of us never will, which Amazon knows, so it can keep making money off of our money, bless their cotten socks).

    1. Chris, the Amazon money is not accurate, they will pay monthly as low as $10 and they will direct deposit into your bank account.

      Otherwise, I agree with your point, you've got to do it yourself!

      1. I've read that $100 limit somewhere, too. I know for a fact that the $10 is correct for a US writer in the US Amazon system. I think this is something to do with GB banks and payments, not US. I know I've been this before and there are mentions of it on their community board.

  3. Thank you, that was eye opening and I'm sorry you were so let down and didn't get what you paid for. I'm still in the process of choosing a print supplier and epub book creator for Gunshot Glitter but first hand feedback and people's comments are invaluable.

  4. Great illustration of the indie experience. It is amazing how far we've come in just a few years. Certainly it's more possible now to be a DIY author. Networks of editors, copy editors, reviewers, writers groups, etc are in place. I love how advertising on the web is so inexpensive (like at Indies Unltd). And with the web it doesn't take a lot to build a simple mailing list. Still, as Indies we're all going to run over bumps and even places where the road disappears for a while (nothing like seeing your latest novel's Amazon ranking every morning). We are on the frontier. Taking care of each other is so important. Your story provides great lessons for us all. Thanks.

  5. I agree with all the thank yous for this personal publishing story. iUniverse certainly didn't have the author's best interests at heart.

    I do get royalties from amazon for my books and ebooks. amazon now transfers to my account whatever I have earned at the end of the previous month. There is that month delay but apparently no upper limit. If it's $11 they will send it.

    1. Trish,

      Has Amazon changed the rules? I've been living in a cave recently (well, Poland) – I always thought you needed to accrue $100 and I have months of Excel sheets that I don't understand at all.

      1. Chris,

        I can only speak to the rules for me as an Amazon affiliate and it may be different for an author's KDP account, but I suspect they are close. If you get a check (which may be your only option if you aren't in the US) then the threshold amount is higher. If you get payments via direct deposit to your bank account the threshold is $10. Each different Amazon website (UK, DE, etc) has the same situation. I get a direct deposit each month from .Com, but I'm building toward the higher check amount at Amazon UK.

        1. That'll be it, thanks Al.

          It's still a bit outrageous if you don't happen to live in those countries. Everyone else can use Paypal, why not Amazon? Oh yeah, so they don't have to pay all that money out (silly me!).

          1. I've been pleased with Amazon's royalty payouts except that I've sold 3 copies on amazon.de and 1 on amazon.fr that I will most likely never ever see the royalties for. All's well with .com and .uk though.

          2. It is always better to check first and shoot only when you are positive that you know what you are aiming at deserves it. It is a basis for credibility. I you stop being outraged with everything, you will have time left to think.

  6. Great post Yvonne. My niece had signed with Publish America until I told her to not only walk away but run as fast as she could. Thank god she got out from under their clutches.

  7. Sooner or later, every indie-inclined author is going to have to decide: Do I want to be a writer, or do I want to be a publisher? Because they are really entirely different animals.As a small publisher, however, I encourage every author to do their homework when it comes to choosing a company. A true indie press is just that–independent. If you don't know that CreateSpace is owned by amazon, or that iuniverse, (now xlibris I believe) is owned by Random House, you won't know that as an author you're pretty much screwed when it comes to individualized attention.

    But it's also true that any publishing company is running a business and the object of business is to make a least a marginal profit. That does not automatically make them suspect. My goal is to give every author individualized attention. If they need editing to compete in the marketplace, they should get it. If they need promotional help they should get that too. It is true that requires an investment, but our royalty structure, (unlike the corporate giants) at least makes it possible to see a return on that investment. I quit the corporate game because I was tired of seeing authors get screwed. And self publishing is not the ultimate answer for many. There are companies out there who truly believe that if you're successful, we're successful.

    1. Just did a quick Google search. It looks like AuthorHouse, Xlibris and iUniverse (and a few others) are all subsidiaries of Author Solutions, which in turn is owned by Bertram Capital.

      Yvonne, I am so sorry you got sucked into that. But I'm glad you're with us now. 🙂

    2. Thank you. That's why I made sure that I did not paint ALL with the same brush. I do know there are a few trustworthy companies out there. It is just that they are so hard to find if you don't know where to start looking.

  8. Oh wow. Oh, that sucks so bad. I am so sorry, Yvonne. Thanks for sharing your experience, as horrible as it was. I now know what-and who-to look out for when it comes time for my own book to be published.

  9. Thanks, everyone. Soory I am so late in responding. Our cable/internet/telephone cable got cut yesterday to I have been inccommunicado – likely will be for two morw days. I am taking an hour at a cafe wifi until my battery runs out.

  10. All I can say is OUCH! I had a similar (but less expensive) first publishing outing with a vanity press. As soon as I learned there were better (and cheaper) ways of doing things, I never looked back. I now only pay for copy editing, my artist (and I don't use her all the time) and a few copies of the book to keep on hand. Other than that, my overhead has become pretty low.

    I am glad for all the other Indie authors out there who have helped me in the past with teaching me things, and pointing me to cool sites (like Smashwords) where I can publish for free. IU has been a great help too.

    1. Thanks. Yep, this is a great place to be. For my second book I used a cover artist and an editor. On that book I have almost broken even. Things are looking up. 🙂

  11. Yvonne,

    Thanks for sharing. I know that when I was doing my research, I had contacted iUniverse and decided against them, glad I did now.

    The part you didn't realize is that if you decide not to use them, you get hounded with solicitations from them thereafter, they've calmed down now, a year later!

  12. I'm sorry that happened to you, but thanks for sharing so it doesn't happen to someone else. It so hard figuring out all of the options. I still don't understand them!

  13. After agents wanted me to change my story to be more "commercially viable" I decided to go it alone and learned a lot! With a background in editing and print I ended up deciding to help other indie authors and formed a publishing company. Some authors hire us for editing and publicity (those lists don't help a self-pub all the time because some places won't talk to self-pubbers which is where being under a united banner helps) while we traditionally publish some others. Good for you to recognize the need to have your work edited professionally though regardless of whether you self-pub or send it in. We can't edit our own work, not completely. Our lead editor here at Staccato Publishing and I put on a few workshops about these very things (editing and publicity/marketing for indies) last week for a local book festival. It's shocking how misled some have been in the past. Digital options on Amazon and other outlets are both a blessing and a curse and some companies are making a killing while they leave authors with a box of flawed books and no idea what to do with them. Grrr.

    1. Thank you. I must admit I am a bit gun-shy now. At the moment I have an editor and I already have the cover art for Book Three as I wanted it to look like a set. But it is good to hear from those who are trying to make things better.

  14. Nice article.

    I have used publishing services form AuthorZilla.com, and I am quite satisfied with them.

    They have a plan, 'You Succeed, We Succeed' plan, where they co-invest with their author, and take responsibility for sales generation.

  15. I fell for the iUniverse scam on my first book but never again. The so-called edit review was a farce and not at all what I had anticipated as a new writer. They used a lot of terms that a new writer doesn't even recognize–I do now, but not then. What a waste of $$$ and I was just getting ready to retire. But, we of the right-brained persuasion do not have to be taken more than once. Thank you BookSurge (now merged with CreateSpace) and Smashwords!

  16. Only to you willing indies will I provide full disclosure. Yes I have been a senior editor, an acquisitions editor, a packager and an author for some of the NY biggies and beyond. But once upon a time, I wuz out of a job and Really, and I do mean REALLY broke and picked up a gig at iuniverse. Their idea of an editorial evaluation was to read thru a manuscript and check off little boxes, answering standardized questions, i.e. In your opinion, is this manuscript free of conceptual errors? Is it reasonably punctuated? Are the characters consistent?

    In 25 words or less, give us your impression of the story.

    etc.

    They then fed your feedback into a software program,which calculated a figure for further editorial services and only if the author "bit" at the figure they provided for further services, were you as an "editor" put in touch with the author for additional work. For the fees iuniverse received, the "editor" received 20 percent.

    I lasted 3 weeks in that position, because the goal was volume; the more authors you roped in, the greater chance of earning something resembling a wage.

    Many may find me "unprofessional" for telling the truth about them. But there it is.

    For myself? Never, ever again will I do that to an author….

    I'd honestly rather live in a refrigerator box.

  17. A cautionary tale, indeed. Thanks for taking the time to share this, Yvonne. And thanks to, to all the people who are responding to your article with more information and more cautionary notes. It's quite appalling and underlines the necessity to not only do research but, more importantly, connect with those authors who are willing to do what you've done: share their experiences! Thank you for being one of those authors.

    1. If only doing our research would work. It is such a well-orchestrated plague out there that unless you have connections in the know it is all but impossible to tell the good guys from the scammers.

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