FOULED! Part 1: Taking on Scammy Publishers

Predatory Publisher Month at Indies UnlimitedAs Kat announced Monday, IU is devoting the month of March to authors who have been scammed by scummy publishers, and what to do if you’ve been caught by one.

This whole thing started with an email to the IU admins from an author who was just beginning to realize that she’d been had. While the minions sat around the gruel cauldron and kicked around her options, we realized that we had a hole in our coverage. So many of us had horror stories of our own – and we were sure that we were only the tip of the iceberg.

We were right. The current CEO of Author Solutions, Andrew Phillips, told the Alliance of Independent Authors last year that it has published works by 180,000 authors over the past few years. (It’s telling that those 180,000 authors published just 225,000 books with Author Solutions imprints – or just over one book each. You’ve gotta ask yourself why they get so little repeat business.) And that’s just one vanity scammer. That doesn’t take into account those who signed with America Star Books (which used to be called PublishAmerica) or other pay-to-publish outfits. And it also doesn’t cover authors who signed a contract with an inexperienced small publisher.

My own story falls into the last camp. In 2002, I agreed to co-author a nonfiction book about simple living. My collaborator had already lined up a publisher, and even though the publisher had only put out one other book prior to ours (his mother’s memoir), I figured it would be okay. I even had a lawyer vet the contract. But after months of doing interviews and writing and editing the chapters, it became painfully clear that our publisher expected us to do all the marketing by word of mouth (as in Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point). When I proposed a more traditional marketing push, all I got was crickets chirping. Not only did I not make any money, I never even recouped my costs.

I don’t believe our publisher meant to scam us; I’m sure he didn’t make any money from the book, either. But even today, I feel uncomfortable talking about the experience in public. There’s a stigma associated with being taken in, even when the scammers are pros. The victims expect others will judge them and call them out for “being stupid.” Melody Stiles, a licensed clinical social worker in Indianapolis, told me, “Shame is a very difficult thing to deal with internally, let alone publicly. Most people who have ‘gotten over’ the shame connected with a past incident will sometimes admit it if they are angered by seeing someone else get taken in a similar situation or if others are ‘coming out’ telling their stories.”

So this month, we’re coming out.

A number of minions and others have bravely come forward to tell their stories, and you’ll be reading them in the weeks ahead. Later today, indie author David Gaughran will be along to talk about how to avoid predator publishers in the first place. In the weeks to come, I’ll be sharing information from Victoria Strauss of Writer Beware on getting out of a bad contract. And for those who are already angry, I’ve talked to some lawyers about the process of taking a publisher to court.

Here’s what we’re hoping you will get out of this month’s posts:

1. If you’ve fallen prey to a vanity press or some other sort of shady “publisher,” you aren’t alone. You are one of a vast tribe of smart people who fell for something that sounded like a great deal. That’s nothing to be ashamed of. All you did was make a mistake.

2. If you’re presently stuck with one of these contracts, you’re not completely helpless. Do you want your publisher to do what they said they’d do? Do you want your book back? Do you want your money back? We’ll help you sort through your options.

3. There is life after a vanity press contract. We’re going to hear from a host of people this month who fell for one of these outfits, and then went indie. You can, too.

4. Help us spread the word! Vanity presses have slick websites that feature reassuring words and soft-focus photos. They have tons of cash for online ads and preferential placement in search results. All we have is word of mouth. But we have a lot of mouths, and we’re pretty darned loud. Please share our posts far and wide with the hashtag #PublishingFoul. Tell us if you have a story below, or use our contact form if you want your story heard. And if you run into somebody who’s thinking of signing a contract with a dodgy publisher, please point him or her to our legal resource page, which we’ll be building throughout the month.

Americans are probably familiar with “March Madness,” which usually refers to the NCAA basketball tournament. We’re adopting the phrase because we’re mad as hell at scammy publishers, and we’re not gonna take it anymore. Please check back throughout the month, and help us throw the yellow flag on these guys.

Author: Lynne Cantwell

Lynne Cantwell grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan. She worked as a broadcast journalist for many years; she has written for CNN, the late lamented Mutual/NBC Radio News, and a bunch of radio and TV news outlets you have probably never heard of, including a defunct wire service called Zapnews. But she began as a fantasy writer (in the second grade), and is back at it today. She currently lives near Washington, DC. Learn more about Lynne at her blog and at her Amazon author page.

37 thoughts on “FOULED! Part 1: Taking on Scammy Publishers”

  1. Thanks so much for spearheading this, Lynne. Add me to the list of scammed authors who then self-published. There’s not only a writing life after being scammed, there’s a much better, more lucrative, and more satisfying writing life.

  2. I came within an eyelash of signing with an outfit that would have cost me $5,200 to publish my first book. I got lucky, found IU and other great resources on the net, and did it myself for about $1,400 – editing, cover, proofreading, formatting and all.

    I’m so glad IU is doing this – bringing the subject out into the light to be talked about and examined. Good on you for spearheading it, Lynne.

    1. Whoa, Shawn! I didn’t know that about your first book. Thank goodness you saw the indie light. 🙂

      Happy to do it. If we can save some folks some money and grief, I’ll be very happy.

    1. (cringing) I’m sorry, Kathy.

      The thing is, Xlibris started out in the ’80s as a decent sort of POD publishing house. I remember back in the day when Piers Anthony talked about publishing with them. Then Author Solutions bought them and, well, aieeee……

      1. It’s good info. Especially for the people who are just finding their way around. Had I known better I would have done things differently. So good to have it all out in the open. Kudos to you all.

  3. I’m sure I’ll have nightmares after reading that you guys have a gruel cauldron.

    But those nightmares are a pittance when compared to what shady publishers have earned off the long hours of work hopeful authors invest in time and money to bring their words before the public.

    Great idea for a March Madness series.


  4. I am so glad you are doing this. I have heard so many horror stories from fellow authors. Even though I have not been a victim, I know how easy it is to be taken in by so many people involved in the publishing process.

    1. Thanks, Barbara. It just boggles my mind that these outfits have been allowed to rip people off for decades, and the general response is a collective yawn and, “Welp, you shoulda known better.” Ugh.

  5. What a brilliant idea. I would never have known about Author Solutions [in all its horrible hydra forms] if not for IU, and I’ll try to spread the message during March!

  6. Ok, everyone, be kind. We’re going to be lifting our skirts and showing off our holey underwear here. (Well, maybe not Jim and Gordon and Shawn and Al, but you know…) Lynne is so right about the shame part; it’s hard to share this stuff and admit we made huge mistakes. But if it helps anyone else avoid the pitfall, it’s worth it.

  7. Lynne Cantwell and Indies Unlimited~ Thank you for providing such a fabulous service for authors and aspiring authors everywhere. I network with five authors are have been taken in by such scams and they are lost in worry and wondering how to move forward. Not to mention how empty their wallets. There are pitfalls every step of the way to a published book whether an author has a choice for a traditional path or an indie path. It is work and time consuming to educate ourselves as authors and the only actual school of merit is the University of Hard Knocks. I am looking forward to this series.
    Best, Jackie Weger

    1. Thanks, Jackie. 🙂 Here’s hoping our event can save some folks from having to earn a graduate degree through that School of Hard Knocks…

  8. An excellent initiative, Lynne, and as a luminary graduate of the School of Hard Knocks I too will be baring all for the sake of posterity, but be warned: when you lift a Scotsman’s kilt it can be scary!

  9. What a great thing to do for authors who might not have heard of these types of schemes.

    A big thank you to Lynne and the future posters for taking deep breaths and posting their experience. So very brave of you all. 🙂

  10. This is a timely post and well written. My experiences are somewhat different than most others, as I was lucky enough to have started with a few decent publishers who’ve helped me put out quality books. I’m not a bestselling author–I wish!–but my books ARE out there and they are selling. And my publishers have been honest with me. I almost went with a fly-by-night pubber a couple of years ago, but I checked with Preditors and Editors (the late David Kuzminski helped me quite a bit) and I always looked to Piers Anthony’s Internet Publishing as well as Absolute Write’s “Beware” section for advice. I do know a few authors who did get caught and that is a shame. It is good of you, Ms. Cantwell, to have put this kind of timely article out there to warn others of shady scammers who care little about the literary world and only care about themselves.

  11. This is going to be a very enlightening month. So much of this stuff is not talked about. It’s almost like having a dirty little secret. When I got scammed I was told it was best not to talk about it for chance of being sued. How sad is that? We have to be able to protect not only ourselves but others as well. Unsuspecting innocent people who don’t realize what they are walking into.

    I chose to talk and not let fear drive me. For a while there I thought my short writing career was over. Shut down before I even started. Thank goodness I am my mother’s daughter and learned how to speak up for myself. We all need to have a voice and not let low ball operations get away with their dirty work.

    Thank you Lynne, the staff at Indies Unlimited and everyone who is sharing their stories.

    1. No, because you don’t have to pay them anything to publish with them. They do offer some services, but you’re not obligated to use them. I’ve used CS for all of my self-pubbed books, using their free ISBN. The only thing I ever paid for there was the expanded distribution, and they’ve even done away with that charge now.

      And I should add that I think Lulu is skirting the line. While they still offer free DIY self-pubbing, they’ve contracted with Author Solutions to run their packages.

  12. Thank You Lynne, a timely subject and an important one, shared information is the best tool we have against the vanity press and scammers. You are right, the dark arts of vanity publishing are slick and persuasive; glossy websites and promises abound, at a price, and the price they would really like us to pay is with our silence. We are dealing with professionals who know the system and how to work it to their advantage. Anything we can share strengthens us and you and the others at Indies Unlimited are a vital part of that sharing, Keep up the magnificent work.

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