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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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Authors Beware the Simon&Schuster Self-Pub Option

In light of the recent Simon & Schuster news (starting a self-publishing venture with Author House), I feel the need to repost this... from the time over the summer that Penguin did the same thing.

Author-friends, please BEWARE.

Original post: July 20, 2012


 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.

See the very interesting original comment thread HERE.

15 comments:

  1. I'm still in shock and awe mode with WTF Kitty.

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  2. The word monetize makes me shudder no matter how it's used, but when it's attached to art it's particularly unsettling.
    Good job sorting this out for us, Susan.

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  3. Thanks for sharing about all the info about things to watch out for. It's so sad that there is so much we have to be careful of.

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  4. Whenever some new market/product seems to be doing well, the leeches gather. Thanks especially for the helpful links. A couple members of my critique group have gotten sucked into the madness of the Mom's Choice Awards, which have exorbitant entry fees ($300 per category) and golly, have 150 categories (ka-ching). They offer no monetary prize (only "marketing help") and if you do win, they charge an even more exorbitant license fee ($500) to put their seal on your book cover. Insanity!

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    1. Holy cow, that's awful, Laurel! It shows, I think, the appeal so some people of having that "stamp of approval" in many different forms. It's unfortunate that so many shysters take advantage of that human need to basically rip people off. :(

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  5. I always wanted to be published by a Big Six. It would be proof that I was a good writer. But seriously, not now. They are just big business now. They used to mean something, but I think they've lost it all for the money. Besides the fact that they are dying and merging and all kinds of other things to stay afloat.

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  6. Hey, thanks for the heads up with all this stuff! Man, it's such a quagmire to wade through. Definitely worth it to really do your homework EVERY TIME you make a step.

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  7. Great post and links! Although I might have nightmares with WTF Kitty.

    I've seen opinions in recent months that Big 6 publishing is the new vanity publishing, because those authors still pursuing it are only doing it for the satisfaction of having a major press pick them up and to see that publisher's logo on the spines of their books. But this gives a whole other meaning to it. As you eluded, the Big 6 (well, Big 5 now) are blurring the lines between traditional and vanity publishing. Next thing you know, someone will be buying up Publish America (gads! they're the WORST vanity publishers) and touting it as an excellent resource for the self-published.

    I just hope writers do their due diligence and don't feed these sharks.

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  8. This makes you think more about the decision to try the traditional route, which I didn't have a desire to try years ago. I'll stick with self publishing. It may cost more off the top end, but not as much as the vanity publishers. Ugh.

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  9. Great post with great info. Thanks for sharing.

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  10. It's just weird. Though I'm curious to see how it will play out. Especially surprised that it was purchased by Penguin, who have the closest thing to an iconic brand in the business. Why mess with that?

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  11. I was just checking out the site before seeing your post, Susan. Ouch on some (all) of those prices. $2000 for a Kirkus review? Seriously? I'll pass.

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  12. Thank you for the information and the insights! I am familiar with Author Solutions, myself, and this development has me astonished.

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  13. How odd is it that the first publishing website I ever discovered was predators and editors? The very first time I ever queried, it was all I used.

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  14. I'm not familiar with Author Solutions, but it sounds like they sold out in more than one way. If their focus was on indies before, looks like the focus of their business is about to change.

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Erudite comments from thoughtful readers