Wherein I Answer An Awkward Question

Monday, August 29, 2011

Hi guys. I'm going to answer something today, and I'm not calling out any names or anything because I don't want to embarrass or anger anyone, but this seems to be a fairly common line of questioning, so maybe this will help. I'm going to be a bit frank, but please don't think I'm belittling anyone's ability. This is NOT about the writers who have asked, but rather about the companies they've mentioned.

If you write a book and either skip or have no luck with the agent step, you might be tempted to send your book direct to publishers. Okay, fine. That totally works for some people, and despite the odds, YES, sometimes real publishers will respond to unsolicited submissions. I know this for a fact because I've done it. I don't recommend it, but I've done it. (years ago, pre-agent, and the book was not published).

Having said that --

IF said publisher turns around in 2 days or less and screams that they want to give your book a chance, I know it's hard not to jump up and down and start composing letters in your head to all those people who said you'd never achieve your goals, but please - PLEASE - before you agree to anything with a publisher, unagented, and with no advocate on your side, DO SOME RESEARCH.

Google is your friend. There are many legitimate small presses out there, and you may not have heard of them, so Google to make sure the one that's offering isn't a vanity press if you aren't specifically looking for a vanity press. (There are real reasons to use a self-publishing service, and if that's what you want, and the company is upfront about their services, then more power to you.)

If you get an offer from a company you've never heard of, do this:
  1. go to Google
  2. type in: "really awesome publishing company SCAM"
If this results in a long list of complaints, then READ THEM. Yes, it sucks to think you got excited over something and then that something turns out to be not what you thought it was, but it's better to find out before you sign anything.

Call your local bookstore and ask them if they stock books by Really Awesome Publishing Company.

You can also query a couple of agents with the header :I HAVE AN OFFER FROM A PUBLISHER. and see if anyone responds. Most agents will tell you flat out if the "offer" is from a scam press (assuming it's one they've heard of). Please listen to them. They are not jealous of you or trying to keep you down. They are people who love writing and books and writers and don't want to see a potentially amazing book thrown into a black hole.

There are 2 kinds of vanity presses -

  1. A regular vanity press says "pay me $X.XX and I will give you YYY". Very straightforward. If you want only a couple of copies of a book or if you write to a small niche audience, then this might work for you. (It might not, that's not my call.)
  2. The sneakier option is a "reverse" vanity press. They say they're "traditional" in that they don't require payment for a book to be published. They may offer a small "token" advance. They're very careful to word things so that you will assume that by signing with them your book will be on shelves and that you will have signings and that you will be able to pay your bills with your royalty checks. Then, as soon as the contract is signed, they start bombarding you with offers to buy copies of your own book.
There are tons of these places out there and they know exactly what to say to make it seem like you're getting an amazing break, but please take the time to find out about any publisher (or agent) you've never heard of before. You spend months, if not years, writing your book, so don't risk throwing it in the trash by only taking ten minutes to find it a home.

Just some things to consider, pulled from different sites/companies, etc.
  • A press cannot simultaneously be a small press and still put out over 3,000 books a year. This is a #logicfail
  • They will dazzle you with statistics like how few "books" are sold in bookstores these days. (Less than 40%). What they don't tell you is that "book" =/= "novel". Most books aren't for commercial use; they're technical manuals and reference books put out for specific industries, but when added into the volume of all books published in a given year, they skew the percentages. Remember: Numbers don't lie, but you can lie with numbers.
  • No legit publisher tries to find you another publisher to take on your book after they've bought the rights to it.
  • No legit publisher tries to find you an agent to sell the book they've contracted for.
  • No legit agent requires you to pay them to read your submission.
  • No legit publisher charges you to fix typos
  • No legit publisher charges you for galleys.
  • No legit publisher will sell you a USB drive with your book on it in e-form.
  • Even the smallest of micropresses will give you at least 1 free copy of your book

Work out the average earning/author with the company's provided stats. Most of them will tell you, upfront, the number of authors they have. This is to make you think there are thousands out there, happily churning out books for the company. The company will likely also tell you that it's reached some major milestone in royalty payments, usually a million or two. Don't be awed by all those zeroes - do some basic math. Take that threshold and divide it by the number of authors the company claims.

If they say they have 75,000 authors, and that they've cleared 3 million in royalties:

3,000,000/75,000 =$40

$40 is the average total royalties per author, and that's assuming none of those authors have more than one book with the company. Is your book worth more to you than $40? (or whatever total you come up with given the company's stats)

These are just a few red flags, but there are hundreds of others. If you see them, heed them. Don't ignore them because of the glow of being accepted. <--- this is what these companies count on. They know that the average writer dreams of being someone snapped up right away, and so they do it. But by doing this, and having such a quick turnaround, they can pressure a potentially commercially successful author into signing away their rights. Once those rights are gone, they're gone. The book is published, and it now has a sales history -- as do you. 99.99999% of the time that sales history will be dismal. (Vanity published books average in the low double digits for sales.)

Now for the big one. If you've signed with a vanity press by mistake...

  • IT DOES NOT MEAN YOU ARE A BAD WRITER.
  • IT DOES NOT MEAN YOU ARE STUPID.
  • IT DOES NOT MEAN YOUR BOOK IS BAD.
It means none of those things. ALL it means is that you ran into people who are professionals in the business of persuasion and insinuation, who prey on the hopes and dreams of those who have worked hard to create something they're proud of, and you made a mistake. It's NOT the end of the world, and it doesn't have to be the end of your writing career.

These companies are not set-up to make a writer successful. They're not equipt to handle the demand that would arise from a book becoming popular. They can't get an author into a worthwhile situation because their experience isn't in real publishing and their reputations are trash in the industry. No matter how hard you try, you will not be able to succeed as a writer through a scam vanity press, because their definition of success is to get as much money from the writer as possible before the writer realizes the truth. They actually make it difficult to sell/ship to anyone other than the author because outside income sources don't pay off as well as continuing to ransom the dream back to the dreamer. If you're stuck with one of these companies, IT IS NOT YOUR FAULT THAT YOUR BOOK ISN'T SELLING. It's the way the system is set up.

When someone tells me "OMG, I'm being published, too!" I want to be able to jump up and down and smile and say "YAY!" right along with them. I don't want to get messages like this, then hear the company involved and feel a cold knot in my stomach because I know that elation is going to be short-lived. I hope everyone who reads this blog and wants to be published reaches their goal. (It's possible, statistics are only important for those who conform to them.) But I hope they take the steps to keep that dream from turning into a nightmare.

18 Chiming In:

Elizabeth May said...

Great post, Josin. This is something all aspiring writers should be aware of. There are horrible scammers out there, and they take advantage of people's naivety. Knowledge is the best defense a writer has against people like this.

I don't want to get messages like this, then hear the company involved and feel a cold knot in my stomach because I know that elation is going to be short-lived.

I wouldn't even know what to say if someone messaged me and this were the case. It's heartbreaking.

Josin L. McQuein said...

It's a difficult thing, and I'm guessing it hit too close to home for a couple of people, as my follower count's dropped by a few since I posted this. I'm sorry if I've disillusioned anyone, but if you're with one of these companies and persisting with the idea that it's a legitimate, commercial (or "traditional", if you must...)deal, then all you're going to have for your trouble is a lighter wallet and a ton of broken dreams.

Terry Towery said...

So that twelve-book deal I just signed with Acme Publishing that's supposed to turn me into JK Rowling by next Saturday might not be what it seems?

Crap.

Jess Hartley said...

This is a wonderful reminder, and I've shared it with my friends/readers. It's easy to get excited when you've had your sight set on a star and someone offers to bring it to you on a silver platter, but most things that seem too good to be true, are. Thanks for writing this!

Broken Angel said...

I'm very grateful for this post. It's a very good warning and I'm glad you care about your followers to this extent. :) Sorry about your follower count dropping. :( I'm totally bookmarking this post!

Suz Korb said...

Scary! Thanks for this blog post of warning. Even more reason to stick to just self ePublishing.

thegracefuldoe said...

I blogged about this a few months ago when a friend came to me concerned that one of her friend's published books was riddled with grammatical errors. I was able to tell her straight away it was a scam publisher (since it was one with a big bad reputation). Unfortunately we were unable to convince her friend she'd been scammed. She was too excited and didn't want her bubble burst. If she'd only googled the publisher she would have seen straight away it was a vanity press posing as a traditional publisher. Writers need to be aware of these companies. This post is a great reminder. I've retweeted it :)

Emy Shin said...

Thank you so much for writing this immensely helpful and practical post! As an aspiring author, it's so easy to jump in with the first agent or publisher who offers. But there are so many awful spammers out there waiting to take advantage of unsuspecting authors that posts like this really need to be read.

Angie said...

Thank you for sharing your knowledge about these scams.

catherinedove said...

I'm surprised to hear that you lost followers with this post. I was pointed here by a group I recently joined, and as several people have said, I think all aspiring writers should read this. Also, now you've gained a follower.

Josin L. McQuein said...

@ terry - the worst I've seen is a mother who signed a 9-book deal on behalf of her kid who was like 6 because she thought he was a genius and destined to make millions. :(

Thank you to everyone who's passed this along. Hopefully it can help prevent someone from making a mistake before the only advice that will work is "Write another book and try again."

Linda said...

This is a really great informative post. I know it's hard for some people to read about this and it's unfortunate that you lost followers, but it really is necessary for writers to know these things.

Michelle Davidson Argyle said...

Excellent, excellent post! I try to put up information about what makes a legitimate small press. I just hope people listen, but I'm afraid they don't. I think your post is honest and frank and needed. Thank you!

Charlie said...

Hi Josin, Thank you for this post. (It's hard to believe that you lost followers from a post so informative and helpful.) This is one newbie writer who is becoming educated through the efforts of yourself and others trying to better our business. Thanks.

I surfed here from a tweet by Michelle, another good egg. :)

Dee DeTarsio said...

Great post, Josin, thanks for your insight! Take care!

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