Fraud Spotting

Various conversations around the internet lately have made me think that numerous misconceptions exist about self-publishing. One of the odd confusions seems to center on what’s known as Yog’s Law—a rule originally laid out by SF writer James D. Macdonald stipulating that “money flows toward the writer.” Specifically, some people find it confusing because the self-published author pays for publishing services instead of getting an advance. Many feel that it this violates Yog’s Law.

I think the breakdown comes by not understanding that a self-published author needs two hats. He or she wears the Writing Hat while creating the manuscript. The author must still pay out for writing implements and such, but the expenses aren’t terribly onerous even when buying a new computer every few years. When the manuscript is finished – that is, when it’s had a couple of drafts, perhaps been seen by a few beta readers, and had a spell check or two run on it – then the writer takes off the Writing Hat and puts on the Publisher Hat.

Publishers have to invest in order to produce a book. They hire editors. They hire artists. They hire layout people and book designers. Some even publish catalogs and hold up release for months while they wait for the stars to align and their promotional efforts to take root.

It doesn’t matter if you’re self-published or being served by Orbit. The process remains the same. Some self-publishers invest in skills, knowledge, and tools that help keep their direct costs low, but they follow the same path.

More than a few people have suggested that this investment on the part of the publisher means that money does not flow to the writer if the writer self-publishes his or her opus. Certainly the hats occupy one head, but not at the same time. Writers and publishers play different roles with different expectations in the creation of a book. Writers invest time and effort. Publishers invest time, effort, and money.

Writers recognize this when they pursue contracts with publishers. They don’t want to incur the direct costs of publication. They choose to reach the market indirectly, trading direct production costs for a percentage of future earnings. They want the publishers to invest and a portion of the the revenue money flows toward the author.

The fraud comes in when unscrupulous operators inject themselves into the process.

Some of these bad actors literally hang out a sign telling the potential customer that they’re going to cheat. They put themselves forward as “self-publishing companies” – the moral equivalent of Dante’s admonition “Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here.”

The diagnostic definition of a “self-publishing company” is “a publisher that publishes only one author’s titles.” Typically, the same person who wrote the story runs the publishing operation which the phrase “self-published” implies.

Most of the bad actors follow the same patterns. They charge an exorbitant upfront fee for services like editing, cover design, and marketing – which is where the “money flows to the author” caveat actually applies – but then they fail to support those promises. They run a spell checker and make a pass with a grammar tool for editing. They use a default cover design which attracts more derision than attention. They’ll put an advert on a web page that nobody ever sees as a marketing plan, then place the books in various online bookstores at prices that all but guarantee no sales. They fulfill the letter of their contracts while charging the author for the privilege. They do this because they know the book will never earn them any money in sales so they have to get it up front.

By comparison, some companies provide self-publishing services. These companies may broker an editor and cover artist for a small finder’s fee. They may offer layout services. They’ll charge a one-time fee for their services and return the completed files for the owner to publish. Any company that keeps the file and publishes it is a publisher. Period. Beware of those organizations that claim otherwise.

Vanity presses can be a little tougher to spot, because too many people don’t understand how much it costs to publish a book. Historically, vanity presses left the author with cases of books that cluttered up the garage or basement with no hope of selling. Today, these houses don’t make it easy by claiming to be a “self publishing company.” They offer al a carte services at the same high levels as the straight-up scammers. They ask the author to pay the upfront investment for producing the book and add a hefty commission for undertaking the work. They frequently offer additional services like promotion and web pages. They then publish the books—again with stupidly high prices—and often claim the lion’s share of revenues leaving the writer with an empty wallet and no book.

Straight scoop. You can self-publish a high quality book in both ebook and paperback for less than $2000 in direct costs. Very good freelance editors charge around $1500 for a novel length manuscript. You’ll pay a bit more if you need development as well as copy editing. Excellent cover art costs much less than $500. With a little ingenuity and elbow grease, you can do the ebook layout yourself. Creating a well laid out PDF for print-on-demand publishing takes a bit more effort but it’s not rocket science and free tools exist to handle the conversion.

It’s not like these resources are hiding. The best way to find an editor is ask around. I have a couple I regularly recommend — same with cover artists. Some of the same editors and artists that work for the Bigs — or used to — are available for indies to hire.

While you’re considering publishing your next work, remember that the money flowing toward the author comes from the publisher even when you publish it yourself. If your publisher cheaps out on production costs, you’ll ultimately pay the price out of your writer’s wallet, regardless of whose head wears the Publisher Hat.

Image credit: Pictures of Money
Licensed under Creative Commons-BY 2.0
Nathan Lowell

Nathan Lowell has been self-publishing his science fiction and fantasy since he started releasing his books in podcast form in 2007.

He frequently writes about social media, marketing, and the life of a full time self-published author.

6 thoughts on “Fraud Spotting

  1. Thanks!

    This topic is near and dear to me because I see so many people get taken in and then wonder what’s gone wrong.

    Knowing how to tell the difference among “self-publishing,” “vanity publishing,” and “scammers” needs to be one of the first thing authors need to know — whether they’re just starting down the publishing road or long-time trad-pubs looking to capitalize on reverted back lists by self publishing them. The signs are pretty clear, but not everybody can read “Dinner: Humans welcome” as “Here thar be dragons.”

    I’m looking forward to writing more about publishing, social media marketing, and the nuts and bolts of getting books from writers’ heads into the readers’ hands.

  2. First time I’ve seen any cost estimate given in articles on self-publishing. Good to know. So after you’ve spent your $4500 or so, how do you generate sufficient sales to recoup your investment? Is it realistic to think that you will?

    • A lot will depend on the terms of your agreement with the publisher.

      I don’t know what Five Star is doing with your book, but at least the ebook is not priced badly. The paperback is out of play, but ebooks are the market these days.

      If you can, get the rights back and publish it under your own name so you can actually see whether the book is selling or not. You can then begin to fix some of the damage done.

      Get a new cover by haunting the pre-made cover sites. They’re relatively cheap (most under $100) and they’ll earn back what you pay for them very shortly. The graphic on yours is “okay” but the font and layout isn’t.

      Get some help with the blurb. It’s too long, lacks punch, and needs a hook. You don’t need to hire somebody for that. Go over to G+ and hang out in either/both Writers Discussion Group and Writers Critique Group. You can post your blurb in WCG and get feedback from people who are actually good with blurbage.

      If you can’t get the book back, write the next one and check back. My budget now is higher than I could justify when I first started out, but I can point you to some tools/techniques that can leverage small budgets for maximum effect. I published my first book for couch-change.

      Maybe I’ll write a “how to bootstrap a book” post.

  3. I love, love, love to see this. While I am a strong advocate for self/indie publishing, I am also an advocate of those of us in the industry sounding an alert about the unscrupulous. It’s so easy to get lost, when you first start out, in what you don’t know. And you don’t know all that you don’t know. We want to think well of others, even companies that are out to make a profit. We don’t want to assume that people will behave less than honorably towards us, as we pursue this dream.

    But unfortunately, it’s true. Scammers abound, wrapped in seeming respectability. When I hear of a new publishing company, or service, I always look them up on Predators and Editors, and Google them to see what comes up. You should always do that before investing any of your publishing budget. Talk to other writers, and see if any of them know about the house/company.

    It’s one of the reasons I advocate strongly for authors to be part of a larger authors’ organization. The ability to share information and keep track of who is legit and who is not increases when you’re part of an org that allows for sharing information.

    Thanks, Nathan! Fantastic article!!

  4. Thanks, Lisa.

    It’s really, really important to build a network of your peers. I have two or three that I can lean on when I need some particular piece of expertise. Having a network means you’ve got somebody to bounce ideas off who isn’t out to charge you for their expertise.

    Luckily everybody in RMFW is already part of a network.

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