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Authors: Warning Signs That You're Being Scammed

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As long as I've been in publishing scams of all kinds have been a sad part of this culture. Granted, no industry is immune to them. They are often very expensive, always heartbreaking, and definitely avoidable.

If you've been in this industry for any length of time you probably remember companies who called themselves "vanity presses;" these were firms that would turn your beloved manuscript into a completed book for around $20,000. Realistically, it does not take that much to produce a book. There are a few exceptions of course, if you have complex graphics, dozens of photographs or are planning a print run of 10,000 copies. I was always surprised when authors would spend good money to utilize a vanity press, and then guess what? They still had to buy copies. It was a big scam and, for the most part, these vanity presses have died out because authors are becoming savvier about their choices.

The problem is the term "vanity press" remained a pretty consistent part of the indie publishing market, despite the fact that the actual vanity publisher was a very different animal.

These days, however, there are a few new predators out there. The first is in the form of big-name publishers offering self-publishing "options" that seem to imply that if you publish with their self-publishing arm, your book could get the attention of one of their editors and you could end up being published by Harlequin, Penguin, Simon & Schuster, or Hay House. In fact, Balboa Press says that if you publish with them and the book does well, Hay House may consider it. I don't know of any books that have been picked up this way and, to be fair, if your book is self-published and it does well, someone could notice anyway. It doesn't matter how it's published. I do know that we worked with a Balboa Press author who did really well and she was never offered a contract.

How is this happening? Well, Author Solutions, which has long been known as a predatory publisher (for reasons detailed in this article and also in this Publisher's Weekly piece) has offered their services up to companies like Penguin, Random House, Hay House, and others. This is a smart move actually because major publishers always have an overflow of projects they just can't service or publish for a variety of reasons. I have no issue with them dabbling in the self-publishing space, the issue I have is that there is no clear definition of how the author is being published or who is publishing them. While it may not be the smartest marketing tactic to say, "If you publish with XYZ company, you are not considered a Simon & Schuster title," I feel like there needs to be a clearer understanding of what, specifically, authors are getting.

When the self-publishing craze started back in 1999, many of these new publishers (who at the time were dominated by a few companies, i.e. iUniverse, Trafford, Author House and Xlibris) published books under a bit of a cover. They didn't tell authors outright that they were their publisher (like a New York publisher would) but they also didn't dispute that they were the publisher. One of the things that used to frustrate me is that authors often assumed that engaging a company like an iUniverse to publish your book was the same as having a major house pick them up. Being published is the same regardless of method, right? As we know, that's not true. Self-publishing, though much more accepted now than it was in 1999, is still not traditional publishing. And it's important to understand the distinction. Yes, you can publish with Archway Publishing (the indie arm of Simon & Schuster) and you can publish with Balboa Press (Hay House), but that does not mean that you are an actual Simon & Schuster or Hay House author.

Last week I spoke with an author who said, "I'm being published by Penguin." Turns out, this wasn't the case at all. He was publishing through Author Solutions, which is owned by Penguin and, therefore, he assumed they were one and the same. Now this author is not a newbie. He was a business man who should know better; the problem is, the whole mess is very misleading.

What recourse do authors have?

Well, trust me when I say that connections mean nothing. But great books mean everything. What I mean by this is that a connection to Penguin, Harlequin, or Simon & Schuster is great, but more often than not a traditional publishing deal won't come from their self-publishing arms. Success comes from publishing a quality book and doing the work it takes to get it noticed. There are no shortcuts, and self-publishing connections won't get you there any faster.

I also have concerns about the marketing methods these companies use. By full disclosure, we are a full service marketing company so by no means is this a suggestion of "use us vs. them," but rather a suggestion that you really look closely at what you're getting as it relates to marketing plans. A couple of weeks ago, David Gaughran's blog discussed the marketing programs and the issue of their real lack of effectiveness. The issues around these plans are not just limited to their effectiveness, however. The other challenge is that they are wildly overpriced for the marketing you get. How do you know? Take some time to price compare with other firms. Read up on marketing from some trustworthy sources (see my recommended list below). If you're still confused, ask for help. Most times if I get a question around this, I have no issue answering and just to make it fair, I'll recommend a bunch of marketing firms, not just ours.

Marketing, for the sake of just blasting a book out there in some haphazard fashion, does not work. Take a look at some of these dos and don'ts as well as a few other things that I found when investigating these marketing programs.

Customized Marketing Plan: If a marketing plan isn't customized to your marketing needs or budget, you should consider going elsewhere. Most companies have a "menu" of options, but all of the reputable companies know that cookie-cutter never works and will almost always customize something within the programs they recommend.

Getting Shot From a Cannon Never Works: Big isn't better, sometimes it's just big. A lot of programs seem appealing because they blast your email or press release out to thousands of media contacts or bloggers akin to, you know, getting shot from a cannon. I can tell you that in almost every case, your email pitch will get deleted because the pitch isn't custom to the media person or blogger, the pitches often have a generic salutation like "Dear blogger" (which I personally find wildly annoying), and most, if not all, pitches are sent out with all of the media or bloggers just bcc'd in the email. Here's what lack of customization tells the media person or blogger: you're not even interested in trying.

Wishful Thinking: Let's say you're an author with your first book, no platform and no real following (aside from friends and family who follow you on Facebook). If you came to me and asked me if I'd get you on national television I would encourage you to consider building your platform online first before pitching media. It's not that you couldn't get picked up right out of the gate, but it's unlikely. Most, if not all, of the marketing programs offered by these publishers include some media component. Why? Because it's flashy and pricey. Does it work? Hardly ever.

I promised earlier in this piece to talk about why Author Solutions is considered predatory. They are not predatory because they are a self-publishing house. There's nothing wrong with that, nor is there anything wrong with paying to get published. They are predatory because of the connections to these bigger publishing houses and the prices they charge because of these connections. Let's have a look at some of the things you should be aware of.

Cost to Publish: How much does it cost to self-publish a book? Typically, if you're including a professional cover design, you're looking at somewhere between $1,000 and $2,000. But when I say quality cover design, I mean just that. Regardless of the publisher, you should not trust that their cover designers know what they are doing. Consumers do judge a book by its cover and while some of these self-publishers do great work, most, candidly, do not.

Ask better questions: Sometimes we have to own our mistakes, and when it comes to getting scammed part of the solution is asking better questions. If you look at the pricing of the Author Solutions marketing programs, you'll see that they start out at almost $6,000 and go up to $15,000. For that pricing you'd better see a lot of work and a few (or more) guarantees. How many reviews will you get? How many placements can you expect to see? While it's often hard to guarantee coverage it's not impossible. We guarantee some items, other reputable firms do, too. No one can guarantee book sales but for that kind of money, you'd better see some placement on reputable sites or publications that actually have traffic and a decent readership.

Book to Movie: Some years back I published a fiction book called Candlewood Lake. I published this book with iUniverse (now owned by Author Solutions) and to this day, I get calls (sometimes several times a year) telling me that "someone" is interested in turning my book into a movie. Guess what? I've never called them back. As much as I love that book, no one is interested in turning it into a movie. If they were, they'd contact me directly. I'm not that hard to find. What iUniverse/Author Solutions wants is money to push this to the movie community or turn it into a screenplay. Take some time and research how tough it is to go from book to movie (or even TV), you'll be stunned. Not to be all buzz kill but if you want your book to be a movie, then do the work. Market it until the buzz is so big that Hollywood can't ignore you. What you should ignore, however, are calls from your self-publisher telling you someone is interested in turning your book into a movie.

Flashy/Splashy Programs: I was perusing the Author Solutions website and was stunned at the number of marketing offerings they have. Everything from advertising on TV (big mistake) to "Book to Movie" (even bigger) and a "Library Email Blast." Let's have a look at the library blast, since of all of the programs, that seems the most benign. If you call your local library they will tell you that how they buy books really varies. Most, if not all of them, don't buy from an email blast. Most libraries want to see reviews from major publications, but some have more flexible standards and will carry a book (locally) that is getting a lot of requests. Email blasts won't make a bit of difference. Don't believe me? Call your local library and ask.

Strange Incentives: Several years ago iUniverse started offering "Editor's Choice," which essentially meant that your book was worthy of some of their special treatment: a Star designation, access to their premier cover artists as well as a personal publicist. The problem with this is that in order to get this designation you have to hire one of their editors. Years ago when I worked with iUniverse brainstorming some of their marketing programs, (this was long before Author Solutions bought them), their editorial staff was fantastic. Most, if not all, were from traditional publishers and they had a long, successful background in publishing. But with Author Solutions as their owner, it's hard to know how qualified their editors are. For that matter, you really want to hire your own person. The editorial process can be very tough and is always extremely important.

Over the years I've seen authors lose their shirts making bad decisions or get sucked into a publishing dream or marketing scam. Full disclosure, I have taught classes through Author Learning Center, which is a learning platform Author Solutions created. I have, though, vetted it carefully. They don't offer marketing programs on that site, just marketing help. It's $149 to join and part of the reason I did it is because I love to teach and I wanted to bring some marketing advice to the folks on this site. Oddly, most of the authors I teach there aren't Author Solutions authors; they come from a variety of places. My programs are never edited and I'm never told what I can and can't say. I also never recommend them as a publisher and they know this.

Does that mean that Author Solutions is changing? I honestly don't know, but I hope so. They may not feel they need to. As long as there are authors wanting to fork over money for fame, companies like Author Solutions will always be in business. You can't buy fame, and you can't buy a book's success. All you can do is write a good book and work hard to promote it.

What truly irritates me in all of this is that years ago, when I was first in this industry, traditional publishers turned their noses up at self-publishing. The topic was always laughed about at conferences. Now that they all realize they can make money from this industry, suddenly self-publishing doesn't look so bad.

Your book is your dream and your baby. You want it done right, and you don't want to fall prey to things that can a) cost you a ton of money and b) delay your success. It's up to you to make sure that you don't become the next victim to something that's only going to cost you money and take the wind out your creative sails. These companies are out there, dressing up their offerings, partnering with big, flashy publishing houses, and using terms that speak to directly to an author's hopes and dreams.

Here's a list of reputable industry voices

Jane Friedman:
David Gaughran:
Writer Beware:
Absolute Write:
Writers Weekly Whispers and Warnings:
Preditors & Editors: