A writing friend was abuzz with excitement about a publishing offer. I was thrilled! And then I started hearing some of the details…
It turned out to be a shonky outfit offering what were basically overpriced, poorly executed, unreliable “vanity” publishing services, and passing them off as a traditional publishing deal.
My friend’s heart was broken. It makes me mad that people prey on writers who are not experienced in detecting the different types of publishing. We’re not talking about fools here – my friend is smart! Just not experienced enough to see through deliberately misleading descriptions to recognise a shark.
Not everyone out there has your best interests at heart. This is how I check things myself.
DISCLAIMER: I am not a lawyer. Do your own due diligence. This is just the checking methods I use myself, and I’m sharing them with you in case it helps.
The litmus test: are they asking for money?
A traditional publisher should be paying the author, not the other way round.
When I hear someone has been offered a publishing deal but there’s a fee involved, I instantly take about 50 steps backwards and become very, very suspicious.
This is why…
Basic types of publishing
Type 1. Genuine traditional publishing
- They pay you a royalty and sometimes an advance for rights to publish your book in specific forms and/or specific territories – often exclusive rights, meaning you can’t sell it to another publisher or self-publish it while the contract remains in force.
- They don’t charge you a fee to publish.
- You generally receive a small number of copies for free, maybe 5 or 10, and you can buy more copies at a discount off the recommended retail price.
- They handle editing, cover design, typesetting, distribution, advertising – although you will often be required to play a large role in marketing, such as making appearances, maintaining a social media presence and a blog, etc.
- They have the final say about the words, the cover design, the title, the schedule, although to a greater or lesser extent they may discuss these things with you and possibly be influenced by your opinion.
Type 2. Genuine self-publishing
- You do all phases yourself, or pay someone to do parts of it, or pay someone to manage the whole thing on your behalf.
- You have final say about everything, and final responsibility for everything.
- You do not sell your rights – they remain yours at all times.
- If you buy services or choose any kind of package deal, the provider is upfront about the fact that you are the publisher, not them, and that it is a fee-for-service situation.
Type 3. Shonky operators
- They pretend to be Type 1 while charging you for the full cost of getting your book out there. They make their money from authors, not from readers, but this fact might not be openly declared.
- They make grand statements about getting your book onto all the online bookstores worldwide, even though that’s now open to every self-publisher. (Presence on an online bookstore does not mean visibility, nor does it mean sales. It takes a lot of work to make a book sell.)
- Sometimes their services are of terrible quality, or not even delivered.
- Sometimes they make a grab for your rights even though they have no justification for it and no intention to reward you appropriately.
- Sometimes you spend a lot of money and get nowhere.
Type 4. Weird hybrids (…but non-shark)
- This is a new type that seems to be emerging.
- They are Type 1, but with the added requirement of some level of financial commitment from authors. It makes me uneasy, but I’ve discovered it is happening as the publishing industry undergoes huge changes.
A story about weird hybrids…
A friend of mine was asked to buy a percentage of the first print run. I probably looked a bit like the robot on Lost In Space, flailing my arms and shouting, “Warning!”
He checked with his lawyer, did a lot of due diligence… and in the end he decided to proceed.
I continued to worry, but then I was pleasantly surprised.
The book sold well, went into reprints, new markets and foreign languages, and he got a contract for a second book. It turned out they were indeed a proper publishing house with a long history in his specialty market, and it was a genuine contract, not a “vanity” contract.
They produced the book properly, and marketed and distributed it properly.
I’ve asked some of my contacts from the olden days in publishing and they’ve told me this is happening more and more. Traditional publishing is hurting. A few genuine publishing houses, especially smaller specialist houses that produce useful books for smaller markets, seem to be experimenting with new business models to survive.
We could hate them for this new approach, but consider: in the big publishing houses, the big earners like JK Rowling can carry the less successful books. Small publishing houses don’t have that advantage, so I guess they either adapt or go under. If they go under, many of these useful books for smaller markets may not ever get published, because not everyone wants the responsibility of self-publishing.
How to tell if you’ve got Type 3 or Type 4
Are they shonky, or are they a genuine publisher testing a new model? This is what I do to check.
Google the publisher. I check their website. What does their About page say about them? How long have they been in business? Which authors have they published? Is there a Wikipedia entry for them? What does it tell me about their history?
Google the publishing company’s name and the word “scam” or “complaints”. What are people saying about them?
Google the name of the person who signed your offer. Do they come up on LinkedIn as a professional publishing person? What other mentions do they have?
Check warning lists. For example, the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) has a growing list of so-called “publishers” and publishing service providers that it ranks according to their reputation in the writing community and their own investigations. Also try searching for the Science Fiction Writers of America Writer Beware Thumbs Down list – they keep track of reports from their members.
Ask other writers. I’m a member of ALLi, which gives me access to a private Facebook forum with over 1000 members, where I can ask the “hive mind” questions about anything I like. Some of the most experienced and successful indie authors drop in and answer questions at times. It’s probably the most useful indie publishing organisation I’m currently a member of. (If you want to check out membership options, feel free to use my affiliate link to give me a little support at no cost to you.)
Check the quality. I go to Amazon and in the search window, I enter the publisher name. Hopefully, a bunch of books will come up. I look at them and ask myself these questions – which all require a judgement call.
- Are the covers industry quality, or do they look amateurish? If you’re not sure, compare them to bestsellers in that category.
- I open the Look Inside feature on Amazon, and have a look at the formatting. Does the layout look professional? I read a bit of it. Do I see multiple errors?
- Is the book description well written? Or clunky, ponderous, full of errors?
- How many reviews has the book got, and how many stars? What are people saying in the reviews? Are they complaining about a lot of errors, formatting problems, and other things that raise a warning flag?
- What ranking does it have on Amazon? If it’s way down in the millions, I’m wary.
If I’d received an offer that passed all these tests, I’d then ask the publisher…
- A polite question, eg: “I’m puzzled why you’re asking me to pay. That seems unusual. Is it what you normally do? Could you please tell me your reasons and how it all works?” You obviously want to avoid any appearance of belligerence if you’re trying to keep the door open, and this can be easier to achieve in person or by phone than in writing.
- Some houses have a section for regular publishing deals, and a branch that offers services to authors who have not qualified for a regular deal. It’s not always easy to tell which one you’re getting. I’d ask, “Is the deal you are offering me similar to the one you offer all your regular authors, or is it more like a self-publishing deal?”
- Ask how many bookstores they will get you into, and whether this is bricks-and-mortar bookstores, or only online. It takes no special skill to get you into an online bookstore – you could do it yourself this afternoon.
Self-publishing packages: how to tell if you’re getting what you pay for
Let’s say you’ve worked out that what you’ve been offered is a self-publishing package, and for whatever reason, it’s appealing to you. Please use some of the tips above to make sure:
- That they’ll do a good job of editing, layout and design.
- That they’ll actually promote the book properly, if that’s something you are paying them to do – or that you at least understand what is and is not included.
- That they’ll provide books in a timely manner when you need them. Personally, I’d rather have complete control of the Print on Demand accounts so I can order them myself.
- That their offer regarding distribution is what you expect. It’s reasonable for them to charge a fee to get your book set up on Amazon et al as it does take time; it’s not okay however for them to deceive you into thinking you’ll be in bookstores in every town if that’s not the case.
- That you’ll get a decent share of the proceeds of sales, since you’re already paying for the setup of the book. If they are keeping part of the proceeds for themselves, why are they doing that, and what are you getting in exchange? Personally, I don’t see why a self-publishing service should be taking a cut of your royalties if you’ve already paid full fees to get the book set up.
- That they won’t lock up your publishing rights when they have no intention of doing anything with them. In fact, I would never assign any of my rights to a self-publishing service or give them an exclusive licence. Be aware that your rights are valuable.
Self-publishing packages: check the benefits!
Use your noggin and take a close look at all the details. Do those fabulous sounding benefits really add up to anything? I’ve seen some that are like those real estate ads that brag about “water glimpses”… you’ve got to see through the doublespeak.
A lot of packages don’t seem to include editing, even though I’d regard that as the cornerstone of good publishing. Yes, as an editor I’m biased, but I can assure you that I hire professional editors for my own books. It doesn’t matter how beautiful that book is if the words inside it are rubbish. People might buy it because it looks good, but then they’ll be disappointed or annoyed, and there goes your career.
Seriously, this is the order:
[Rant over] 😉
If they do include editing, ask them who will be doing the editing. What is their experience and training? Are they members of a professional association of editors, such as IPEd Australia, SfEP UK, EfA USA, or Editors Canada?
Is English their first language???
I’ve seen packages where the editing was valued lower than the book trailer, which is ridiculous. They are almost certainly not using professional editors if the editing is cheap. Good editing is time-consuming. (See my post on why book editors are so expensive for more on that.)
If the “editor” is going to “edit” the book in two hours, you know that all it’s getting is a spell check. That’s not editing.
If the package doesn’t include good editing, but you still like the other things they’re offering, remember you’ll need to budget to get editing done separately.
As per the points above, check cover design and layout for other books they’ve done.
Other spurious benefits
Go through the list and check every single one.
Do you even need all those special features?
I’ve seen packages that valued Twitter exposure at $100, and all the organisation did was post one (1) poorly worded tweet to a spammy profile that had almost no followers and no interaction.
If they are offering to make you a book trailer for $3000, ask for YouTube links to other book trailers that have been made as part of the same level of package they are offering to you.
If it’s just a set of still images moving left and right to elevator music with a few badly chosen words floating over the top, it ain’t worth $3000. You can make a better one yourself. This is the one I made myself for free for my own book Poison Bay – I saw footage I liked on YouTube, contacted the GoPro camera guy who shot it, he gave me permission to use it, and then I made the video myself in iMovie, using free music, and oh by the way, did I mention it was all free?? I’m a difficult customer for sure, but for $3000, I want actors and live action! 😉 (And a book trailer is not an essential, anyway.)
If they offer posters or bookmarks, ask to see samples of ones they’ve done for other people. Is it an eye-catching professional looking design? Or is it just a book cover slapped on a page with a bit of text beside it? You can do that yourself on Vistaprint for a few dollars. If you’re not sure how to judge it, try googling “book publicity poster” or “bookmark design” to compare it.
Please, check everything.
Finding a genuine publisher
A good place to start your search can actually be your local library or bookstore. Look for books that are like yours and check the page behind the title page to see who published it. There will most likely be a web address given. Check online to see if they are currently accepting submissions.
You might have heard of the Big Five, who are all genuine publishers:
- Penguin/Random House
- Allen & Unwin
- Harper Collins
- Pan Macmillan
You can search online to see if your local branch of these big players is accepting submissions.
Many of the imprints you find in your bookstore or library might turn out to be subsets of the Big Five, but there are also thousands of independent publishing houses as well. Some will only be accepting submissions from literary agents, but some will take them direct from authors.
Now that you’ve got a list of publishers, to see who is currently accepting submissions directly from authors, search:
[Publisher name] [your country] submissions
Please do read the submission guidelines closely, as they are different for every publisher. Study how they want it printed or formatted, and what they want you to include with it. Some only want a partial, some want a synopsis, some want a hard copy, some want it emailed… the combinations are endless. Consider printing out the description on the web page and ticking off the requirements one by one.
Also consider setting up a table or spreadsheet to keep track of when you submitted to which one, and when they say you can expect to hear. So for example, some say three months – you can mark the month you expect to hear, and then if you haven’t heard, you know you weren’t successful with that particular publisher.
Wherever possible, see if you can make “simultaneous submissions”. This is the wording that tells them you are also submitting to other publishers at the same time.
Shortcut: Australian Big Five publishers currently accepting submissions
In case you are in Australia like I am, here is the current list (conditions change all the time, so please do check all the details):
- Hachette Australia is accepting submissions: https://www.hachette.com.au/submissions/
- Penguin Australia is accepting email submissions in the first week of the month: https://penguin.com.au/getting-published/penguin-adult
- Random House Australia is accepting hard copy submissions: https://penguin.com.au/getting-published/random-house-adult
- Allen & Unwin Australia is accepting submissions: https://www.allenandunwin.com/about-allen-and-unwin/submission-guidelines
- Harper Collins Australia is accepting submissions in women’s fiction and romance: https://www.harpercollins.com.au/harlequin-books-submissions/
- Pan Macmillan Australia is accepting on the first Monday of the month between 10 and 4: http://www.panmacmillan.com.au/manuscript-monday/
- Bonus – Number 6! Text publishing (not a Big Five, but a good publisher) is accepting hard copy submissions: https://www.textpublishing.com.au/manuscript-submissions
An important note
Just because you get an offer from a genuine publisher doesn’t mean it will be perfect in every way. I know people who have turned down genuine offers because they were not happy about some aspect. You must always always always use your brain, check everything, get legal advice, and don’t be so grateful that you agree to something that ends up undermining your writing career for years.
Get a legal opinion
Whichever way you end up deciding to publish, it’s a good idea to get a lawyer to check the contract for you, ideally an IP lawyer who understands publishing contracts.
Make sure you understand exactly what is and is not included, and what they are asking to do with your rights.
If you’re not sure who to ask, there might be an Arts Law organisation in your country/state/city that can help you assess the contract.
Some writers’ organisations also do contract checks.
- Australia: The Australian Society of Authors offers contract assessments for a fee.
- USA: The Authors Guild has a similar service.
- UK: The Society of Authors has contract advisors and the Writers Guild of Great Britain offers contract vetting. Literary agent Caroline Walsh offers suggestions for what to look for.
Wishing you wonderful success in your publishing, however you pursue it!
Over to you. What has your experience been, and what have you learned?
PLEASE NOTE: Please be general in your comments rather than “naming and shaming” shonky operators. The purpose of this post is to equip people to research options. I don’t have time to handle a writ for defamation, and will therefore delete or edit any such references that appear in the comments. Thanks for understanding. 🙂