Dear Writer-Friends,

I've been self-publishing since 2011, and I've shared the knowledge I've gained in two books: the Indie Author Survival Guide, Second Edition, and For Love or Money. I'm not an indie rockstar or a breakout success: I'm one of thousands of solidly midlist indie authors making a living with their works. These books are my way of helping my fellow authors discover the freedom of indie publishing. Write on, writer-friends!

S.K. Quinn, Independent Author of Science Fiction

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Friday, July 20, 2012

Author Beware

 Innocent Kitten Writers, Beware

Writers have always had to be wary of people trying to scam them, predators that live off your dreams of having your story in print and read by the masses.

Preditors and Editors has been been around since 1997, 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. Apparently the turn of the century saw a big need for this.

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. It used to be that the distinction between "proper" publishing and "vanity" publishing was that in proper publishing money always flowed to the writer, not to the publisher.

With the rise of self-publishing, this maxim had to be tweaked a bit, because self-publishers (at least ones that do it right) do pay money for flat-rate services (cover art, editing, etc). Writers Beware now distinguishes self-publishing from vanity publishers by saying that for self-publishers "all rights, and profits, remain with writer." 

[Which is an interesting distinction, given that rights and profits do not remain with the writer that contracts with any publisher; the distinction between vanity and "respectable" publishers then becomes how much money the author pays to the publisher. But I understand Writers Beware's attempt to parse this.]

For self-publishers, it seems every day there are new people trying to make money off authors jumping into the self-publishing game for the first time. Sometimes these people are outright scammers, sometimes it's debatable whether these people are actually helping or hurting self-published authors, and sometimes there's legitimate gray areas in the ethical debate. Things like:
  • Agents who act as publishers (usually just uploading to Kindle), "self-publishing" their authors manuscripts that they cannot sell (for a cut, not a flat fee)
  • Kirkus, who offers paid reviews for self-publishers ($495) while not charging for reviews of authors from publishing houses
  • Even more fake contests and awards focused on self-published authors
  • Sites selling "ads" when their website may have less hits than your own author blog
  • 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)
These transactions should be marked with big CAUTION signs for authors, to make sure they know what they're getting (and what they're not) for the money they're paying.

While many of these transactions have shades of ethical grayness, I thought the bright ethical line was still there with vanity publishers. The King of Vanity is Author Solutions, but there are more all the time:
  • Writer's Digest owns vanity press, Abbott Press
  • Thomas Nelson has vanity West Bow Press
  • Harlequin owns vanity DellArte Press
(Note: these are actually "white label" versions of Author Solutions, i.e. AS is behind the scenes, providing the services.)

These vanity publishers act like they are part of the indie revolution, "shifting the power from the publisher to the author." They talk the indie talk, all while they charge you thousands of dollars to make your "dream" come true.

Even with the increasing entanglement of "industry" publishers with vanity publishing, I still didn't see this coming: 

Let me repeat: The King of Vanity Publishers has been bought by a Big Six Publisher.

[update: Writer's Beware post on this here. Thanks Peter!]

When I think of Big Six publishing cherry picking out the best practices of the indie movement, I think of things like putting Big Six titles on sale on Pixel of Ink or starting an ebook only line, like Pocket Star at Simon & Schuster. These are steps in the right direction, things that benefit authors as well as publishers (and even consumers! zounds!). This is what I want to see: indie publishers and traditional publishers learning from each other, filling market needs, making the world a better place for books.

Big Six publishers swallowing Vanity Publishers whole? I honestly wish there was some upside to this for authors, but I'm not seeing it. And I'm not the only one: see Jane Friedman's insightful analysis of what this means. From Jane's site:
"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."
Maybe Penguin/Pearson will change Author Solutions's business practices so that they help authors instead of charging $20k to make a "Hollywood Trailer." Maybe Penguin/Pearson will force Author Solutions to become transparent about the services that they can provide to authors. But, like Jane says, that's not what made Author Solutions profitable in the first place.

If not, I see this being one more thing that authors have to beware of.


  1. Yeah, that's not too encouraging, depending on what Penguin wants to do with it. You wouldn't think they'd want a reputation of ruthless and possibily illicit profiteering anywhere near an imprint as respectable as Penguin. You'd think they'd want to find ways to better take advantage of their own brand, rather than dilute it with the acquisition of something like AS.

    Also, I mentioned you in my blog today. :)

  2. Oooh, very interesting. I heard about this sale this morning, and was curious.

  3. It's stuff like this that really makes me sick. I honestly hadn't heard about it until now. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Well, I guess we shouldn't be surprised in an industry where the Big Six are grappling to stay on top. Unfortunate, though. And sad.

  5. I can't conceive of anything positive about this.

  6. Okay, I admit that I haven't read up on the specific vanity publishers that you've mentioned, but I'm curious what the difference is between an 'indie' author paying one person for cover art, another for editing services, etc and for an author paying one company for a bundled package? Is it just that we have an ugly view of these service providers because they've been called vanity publishers for so long. Are they really that far removed from the self publishing revolution? I mean, an author could decide to spend $20K on a book trailer by contracting a videographer too and it wouldn't be considered 'vanity' - just a bad business decision.

    1. I can understand the confusion, so let me see if I can explain the difference.

      Self-pub: I can upload my MS to Kindle for free. It takes little knowledge and about 5 minutes.
      Author Solutions: They take care "distributing" your manuscript to "major retailers" (i.e. they up your MS to Kindle) for the "low price" of $800.

      AS is massively overcharging for a service that authors could do for themselves (or even pay someone else, but the going rate for that (if you even wanted to outsource, which no one does) would be about $20.

      A good example of a "reformed" vanity publisher is actually when Amazon bought BookSurge. They cleaned up the predatory practices, the massive overcharging, and the questionable marketing, and turned it into Createspace - a legitimate POD company used by LOTS of self-publishers. Createspace provides a useful, transparent, reasonably priced service that is very valuable to authors.

      The difference is between providing a service to authors and trying to bilk money out of them. Hence, the need for "author beware" sites to help authors know the difference, just like between a "good" agent and a "bad" one.

    2. Thank you for clarify this, Susan. I find this quite interesting and informative.

  7. Wow great post. Thanks for the info.

  8. Oh, my. I want you to guest post this same post on my blog. I'm on vacation, fishing online for my next subject and I couldn't say it better than you did.

  9. UR so smart. Have I told you lately how glad I am to know you? We should just start calling you Q. ;p

    Great post~ <3

  10. Nice summary, especially the comment in reply to Kai's question.

    $116 million for a company with over $100 million in revenue is shockingly low. I am intrigued to see where Pearson takes this and how they leverage their new asset. Not that I personally care, of course; I've been quite happy with Amazon's services. But I welcome any kind of innovation. Everything these days is really just part of the grand experiment we get to live through.

    Two quick things: (1) Your link to publisher's marketplace seems malformed. I had to copy the URL and edit it to get to the page. (2) The Writer Beware blog on this particular transaction can be found here:

    1. ‘$116 million for a company with over $100 million in revenue is shockingly low. ’

      That could be because iUniverse and other ASI imprints are in the crosshairs now for class-action lawsuits by the authors they’ve exploited. All that money could go poof in a hurry; or slowly, through litigation costs, if ASI/Penguin/Pearson manages to stave off judgement and refuses to settle.

    2. Thanks Peter! Hopefully the links are fixed/updated now.

      Usually offerings are 10x earnings, so I'm not sure if the revenue you've stated is earnings or not, but that would be very low. It will definitely be interesting to see where they go with in, but their press release isn't very encouraging.

      Tom - I'd heard of the Harlequin lawsuit, but not the ASI class actions...that would definitely be a liability.

  11. Susan you are SPOT on with this! I'm so glad you spoke out on this 'tip' of the iceburg on schemes used to drown out dreams of authors.

  12. Thanks for sharing about this Susan. It's sad this is going on. Glad there is the Indelibles for legit advice for those who want to self-publish and not get ripped off.

  13. crazy what people will do to make an extra buck. Very few people have integrity nowadays.

  14. Thanks for the info. It's worth the time and effort to find out about the company/service we're thinking of using.

  15. Great post, Susan. In this time of such rapid change in the industry it's hard to keep track of all the options. Some of the options are good for authors--some are costly mistakes. It's wise to do some research and you've alerted writers to that.

  16. This is a lot of great information. Thanks, Susan! :)

  17. Great post, Susan. Very nice summary, informative. I find this development worrisome and potentially disturbing.

  18. Sue, yes, I've read a lot about this lately, so it's great that you are posting more info on it. Another thing to watch out for is using photos that are not your own on Pinterest and blogs. One blogger said that she recently got sued for using a photo without paying for it. It's a sad day also when big 6 pubbers think up ways to seduce indie authors into shelling out $ for scams.
    Catherine Stine’s Idea City

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