SFWA’s Writer Beware has been been around a long time, warning writers away from unscrupulous agents and editors, and Writers Beware has been maintaining an “extensive database of questionable literary agents, publishers, independent editors, writer’s services, contests, publicity services, and others” since 1998.
Vanity Publishers, where writers pay lots of cash to see their work “in print,” have their own page on Writers Beware, due to the enormous cost and outrageous (unfulfilled) promises of vanity publishers, not to mention outright fraud and unethical practices.
Don’t Be This Writer
I met one of the poor souls who got taken in by a Vanity Press at a local class on publishing. She zoomed in on me because I was the only one in the class with a published (small press) novel. She had mortgaged her house to pay $10,000 to publish her memoir, only to be saddled with boxes of typo-ridden, over-priced hardcovers. She shook one of them at me, Exhibit A in the trial she wanted to put the vanity publisher through. She was angry. And she had every right to be—they hadn’t just stolen her money, they had soiled her dream.
Self-Publishing = Gold Rush for Sharks
When self-publishing went mainstream—i.e. when people started making money at it—the sharks multiplied. Many became sharks in tuna clothing, with all kinds of “respected” writerly establishments starting “self-publishing” divisions that were really Vanity Publishers.
· Writer’s Digest owned vanity press, Abbott Press (note: WD divested themselves of Abbott in 2014; guess that wasn’t such a great idea after all, eh?)
· Thomas Nelson has vanity West Bow Press
· Harlequin owns vanity DellArte Press
Actually, all these little sharks were part of one larger shark. They were white label versions of the King of Vanity Publishers, Author Solutions (i.e. Author Solutions is behind the scenes, providing the services).
And then this happened:
“I’m sad to say I’ve heard publishing executives talk about the opportunity to ‘monetize unpublished manuscripts’ and it’s why I left commercial publishing. Is this where the industry is headed? If so, I want no part of its future.”
(Note: Jane left Writer’s Digest over their acquisition of Abbott Press.)
As David Gaughran details on his blog, this isn’t Big Six Publishers making a “progressive” move into indie publishing; this is Big Six Publishers trying to monetize the slush pile and make money off writers (Penguin Random House Merger Helps Author Solutions Exploit Writers). (Also: Author Solutions is now in two class-action lawsuits (here and here) for deceptive practices among other things).
In January 2016, Penguin announced it was selling off Author Solutions (guess that wasn’t such a good idea, either!). However, Penguin is still in the vanity business with its imprints Partridge India, Partridge Singapore, Partridge Africa, and MeGustaEscribir… where Author House operates these vanity publishers on the behalf of Penguin.
Long story short: just because a publisher has a long history doesn’t mean it’s a good one. Do your homework. (Check David Gaughran’s blog for the latest on vanity publishers.)
The Names of the Sharks
(from David Gaughran’s tremendously helpful post The Author Exploitation Business as well as the more recent Author Solutions and Friends: The Inside Story and Penguin Random House is Still in the Vanity Business)
(note: the sharks are constantly changing their names! This is not an exhaustive list.)
· Author House
· DelleArte Press (Harlequin) – partnership terminated 2015
· Balboa US, Balboa Australia (Hay House)
· Nook Press Author Solutions (Barnes & Noble)
· Lifeway (Crossbooks) – partnership terminated 2014
· Partridge India, Partridge Singapore, Partridge Africa (Penguin)
· Archway (Simon and Schuster)
· WestBow (Thomas Nelson/Harper Collins/Zondervan)
· MeGustaLibros (Random House Spain)
· Abbott Press (Writer’s Digest) – partnership terminated 2014
· Publish in the USA
· Inspiring Voices (Guideposts Magazine)
· Legacy Keepers
· Fuse Fram (previously Author Solutions Films)
· Author Learning Center
More Bad Actors
It’s not just “self-publishing companies” that are sharks. Authors should also be wary of:
· fake contests and awards focused on self-published authors
· sites selling ads but have no statistics to back-up the rates they charge
· companies offering to get self-published authors’ books into various book fairs around the world
· all manner of awards and “seals of approval” offered to self-published authors (for a fee)
In a business where authors traditionally have had to accept lousy contracts and low royalty rates just to be in the game, getting taken advantage of may seem the price of doing business.
It’s not. (At least, not anymore.)
Who Are The Good Guys?
At the same time, the sharks were in a feeding frenzy, a thriving marketplace of freelancers sprung up to supply indie publishers with much-needed and valuable services. These legit freelancers—editors, cover artists, formatters—will make your life easier; in fact, these amazing, talented people will be a key part of your self-publishing team. But the first step in surviving as an indie author is getting street-savvy about who are the legit business people and who are the snake-oil salesman.
How to tell the difference?
Things to look for:
· Flat rate vs. percentage: legit business people are not asking for a percentage of your business forever. They know they are providing a one-time service.
· Know the going rate: the indie author world is fantastically open about prices and thrives on a culture of information sharing. Ask for recommendations. Educate yourself with ebooks like this. The information is out there, you just have to look.
· There Are No Industry Experts: If someone has been in the publishing business for decades, and they use this as a credential for their expertise in self-publishing, they are probably a shark. I love Grandma, but I don’t go to her if I need my iTunes playlist updated—for that, I go to my thirteen-year-old. Because he’s got the skillz for realz. The grandmothers of publishing are wonderful, but digital publishing is (still) not in their wheelhouse. One could almost say it’s their kryptonite. In any event, if someone has been around forever in publishing, they are likely not the ones to help you understand publishing in the digital era. (However, they may make an excellent freelance editor.)
There are times when you’ll want to DIY (Do It Yourself), and times you’ll want to outsource (to a freelancer or business offering services). Sometimes it’s faster to outsource, even if you have the skills to do it yourself, and sometimes you could learn the skills, but you’d rather spend that time writing.
In all cases, it helps to know the range of reasonable rates so you can avoid the sharks.
Here are some examples.
DIY: $0 (assuming you have professional grade design skills; otherwise not recommended)
Outsource: $20 (premade covers) to $80 – $300 (stock art digital design covers) to $500+ (original art)
Sharks: $399—$1,199 with limited revisions
DIY: $0 (ranging from small to extensive knowledge, depending on type of formatting)
Outsource: $25-$150 for 85k novel
Sharks: Custom Quote – they won’t even tell you how much. Not a good sign.
Changing the Price of Your Ebook
DIY: $0 (no knowledge required)
Outsource: No one provides this service because it’s so easy
Sharks: $49 for one price change (are you kidding me??)
Uploading Your Book to Retailers
DIY: $0 (minimal knowledge required)
Outsource: Few people provide this service because it’s a basic part of your business
Royalties (on a $3.99 ebook)
DIY: typically 70% of $3.99 = $2.79
Distributors: (legit ones like Draft2Digital) typically 10% after retailer cut = 90% of $2.79 = $2.51
Sharks: 50% royalty after retailer cut = 50% of $2.79 = $1.39
Note: If you DIY, your author copies are free (which is important for giveaways and reviewers), but the sharks will charge you for copies of your own book.
For indie authors, ebook royalties are your bread and butter. Don’t give all your royalties (forever!) to a vanity publisher for the simple, one-time act of putting your book up for sale.
Making back your initial up-front costs is important, but royalties are where you will make money month after month. If you do end up going with an ebook packager of any kind (including vanity publishers), please make sure they are not taking half of your profits forever.
But I Don’t Know Any Cover Artists or Editors!
If you don’t know how to find cover artists, or the idea of formatting ebooks makes your eyes cross, or you don’t know the first place to start to upload your ebook… don’t panic. Now that you have this little ebook in your hands, you will know how to do all this and more. There are a few freelance service providers that I can personally recommend, but for any freelance editor/cover designer, you need to do your due diligence in making sure they’re the right fit for you and your work.
I’m Afraid to Do It Myself
Don’t let your lack of knowledge about these fundamentals of your ebook-publishing-business make you dive into a tank of sharks. Don’t let the sharks eat all your royalties before you earn them just because you think they have specialized knowledge you can’t possibly acquire.
And these things are fundamental to your new business. Be brave and learn them. It’s not rocket science (believe me, I know the difference). Then you’ll be on your way to being a savvy indie author who side-steps the Sharks to find the talented Angelfish freelancers who will make your business thrive and your life easier.