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

CLICK HERE TO GET YOUR QUICK START GUIDE TO SELF-PUBLISHING and to be notified when the 3rd Edition of the Indie Author Survival Guide releases!

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

How to Not Get Eaten By Sharks, Ch 1.1 Authors Beware

  (This is an excerpt from my Indie Author Survival Guide, available on Kindle and Nook.)

How to Not Get Eaten By Sharks
There have always been sharks waiting to feed off the dreams and wallets of new writers.
Don't be someone else's lunch.

Ch1.1 Authors Beware
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. 

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 owns vanity press, Abbott Press
  • 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:

A Big Six publisher swallowing the King of Vanity Publishers whole? I agree with Jane Friedman's insightful analysis of what this meant:

"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."
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 a class-action suit for "deceptive practices" among other things).

The Names of the Sharks
(from David Gaughran's tremendously helpful post The Author Exploitation Business)
(note: the sharks are constantly changing their names! This is not an exhaustive list.)
  • Author House
  • iUniverse
  • XLibris
  • Trafford
  • Palibrio
  • Publish in the USA,
  • Abbott Press (Writers Digest)
  • Balboa Press (Hay House)
  • WestBow (Thomas Nelson/Harper Collins)
  • Partridge (Penguin India)
  • Archway (Simon&Schuster)
  • Inspiring Voices (Guideposts Magazine)
  • Legacy Keepers
  • Fuse Fram (previously Author Solutions Films)
  • Pitchfest
  • Author Learning Center
  • WordClay
  • BookTango
  • AuthorHive
More Bad Actors
It's not just "self-publishing companies" that are sharks. Authors should also be wary of:
  • agents who "self-publish" their authors' manuscripts that they cannot sell (for a cut, not a flat fee)
  • 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 (see Appendix A - List of Freelance Providers). These legit freelancers and artists and 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 twelve-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.

Cover Art
DIY: $0 (assuming you have professional grade design skills; otherwise not recommended)
Outsource: $20 (premade covers) to $300 (stock art digital design covers) to $500+ (original art)
Sharks: $599 - $999 not including cost of stock photos

DIY: $0 (ranging from small to extensive knowledge, depending on type of formatting)
Outsource: $25-$150 for 85k novel
Sharks: $399 for 50k novel, presumably more for full-sized novel

Changing the Price of Your Ebook
DIY: $0 (no knowledge required)
Outsource: No one provides this service, because it's so easy
Sharks: $149 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
Sharks: $249

Royalties (on a $3.99 ebook)
DIY: typically 70% of $3.99 = $2.79
Distributors: (legit ones like Smashwords and D2D) typically 10% after retailer cut = 90% of $2.79 = $2.51
Sharks: 50% royalty after retailer cut = 50% of $2.79 = $1.39
Note: DIY your author copies are free (which is important for giveaways and reviewers) but the sharks 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 is 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. (I prefer uploading direct, but we'll talk more about distributors in Where to Publish?)

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 panicNow that you have this little ebook in your hands, you will know how to do all this and more. Plus I've provided a list of freelance service providers (see Appendix A - Freelance Service Providers) of this book. There are a few that I can personally recommend, but for any editor/cover designer you need to do your due diligence in making sure they're the right fit for you and your work (see Choosing an Editor and Creating Covers That Sell).

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.

They don't.

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.

(This is an excerpt from my Indie Author Survival Guide, available on Kindle and Nook.)


  1. Great post. I recently looked into Balboa Press for a friend. She assumed since it was "part of Hay House" it was reputable. The majority of the services they offered were things you could easily do for free yourself. Things like setting up a facebook and twitter account. The most important point, I told my friend, is that sure, they could set up the account for you, but you still have to maintain it. And, setting up the account is, by far, the easiest part.

    1. I'm so glad you were there to help your friend! And no kidding about setting up the FB being the easiest part. The biggest crime here - to me - is exactly what lured your friend in: supposedly "reputable" companies using that reputation to fleece writers. One would think they might be afraid of the tarnish that will come from that, but apparently not.

  2. Thanks for sharing the ones to look out for. Sad how some people fall for these type of things.

  3. Writer Beware was a godsend for me, when I began looking at publishers.

    Another tip for authors curious about possibly-dicey publishers: check out the 'Bewares, Recommendations, & Background Checks Forum' at Lurk or join for free, and see what a community of 50,000+ authors, readers, editors, agents, and other literary professionals says about places like Balboa, PublishAmerica, and Author Solutions.

  4. This is an excellent project you've got going, Sue! Keep fighting the good fight.

  5. Great start! I'll be following these posts carefully--this one was, thankfully, not very much news to me (except that Writer's Digest has a vanity press--what?!). Will you be posting a tentative "table of contents"?

    1. clarification: "by not very much news to me" I only meant that, since I've been indie publishing over a year, I've educated myself as much as possible about the sharks. I'm sure it will be very, very helpful to aspiring authors.

    2. Understood! This book will hopefully be helpful to people just starting out (or thinking about indie publishing) as well as those well down the path. :)

      As for a table of contents, I'm organizing as I go, so I'll leave that for the end. Actually, each chapter will be linked in a TOC on my For Writers tab as soon as it's done.

  6. Great post. What a lot of con men out there are out there. Looking forward to this series of posts continuing.

  7. Well done with the whole post... you have a very unique way of writing and executing your write ups... well done...

  8. is an invaluable resource. I send people there all the time.

    I'm woebegone to see "sharks" used to describe these people. ;)

    1. Ha! Janet, you are the nice kind of shark. But point taken; I'm not intending to cast disparagements on all sharky types, only the ones who eat my writer friends' livelihood.


Erudite comments from thoughtful readers