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Sunday, May 06, 2007

Scam Publishers

Every month I receive a newsletter from Anvil Publishers, Inc. Specifically, what I receive is called Southern Review of Books.

Last month, I read the story of aspiring author Linda Wattley. Linda has told her story several places, about how she was victimized by a publisher. Here’s an excerpt from her story:

When I joined her, I was eager to get a message out about healing the damages of sexual abuse. She told me she could make it happen if I could front the funds. I paid for a trilogy and received one book with errors.
Prior to realizing she had published my book without a galley, she introduced me to Belinda Williams of Literary Lifestyle, LLC. Together on a three way call they convinced me together we could make great things happen. Ms. Williams informed me as my publicist it would take an entire year to do justice for my career and her fee was $10,000.00 plus a $500.00 retainer fee. Immediately I told her I it was far out my budget. She took a $1,000.00 off making my payments $700.00 a month. Reluctantly, I stepped out on faith.

The first rule about being published is that you should never pay your publisher to be published. You don’t have a publisher – you have a printer. (I am splitting hairs here. If you choose to be self-published there are viable options to consider – Lulu, for example – where you will not pay $10,000 to get your book out. However, if you’re seeking a publisher, that’s entirely different from pursuing self-publishing. If you’re looking for someone to publish your book they should never charge a fee.)

There is no doubt in my mind that the so-called publishers Ms. Wattley dealt with are scams. However, the one thing I did wonder about was how it is that there are still so many people who become entangled in these scams. Obviously, scam publishers stay in the game because they are able to make money.

Which means somehow, we haven’t spread the word enough about how to determine if a publisher is legitimate or not.

You can find exhaustive lists of key warning signs to look for at on Preditors and Editors, Writer Beware and Associated Content. The latter, from Associated Content, is perhaps the most balanced. I will be touching on the advice from Preditors & Editors specifically, as some of it is extreme. For example, one no-no they cite is that the publisher has a focus on new authors. Some publishers do begin with an open submission call. For example - Crème de la Crime is one example of a publisher that launched with a competition. Not only have Crème de la Crime been operating over three years now, garnering reviews, producing well-received books, being invited to participate in events like Harrogate Crime Festival, they have also expanded distribution into the US. This is an example of where I’ll jump on another soap box: Some sites that are designed to provide warnings can overstep and overstate. The advice for writers is always do your homework.

I am not bringing much new to the table here, but I would also like to direct your attention to the May 2007 issue of Southern Book Review. Item #2 tackles a publishing scam that touched on a book produced by Lightning Source, which is owned by Ingram. Item #3 goes on to outline another publishing scam.

Reading about these scams, month after month, I realize that our present method for distributing useful information to those at risk is flawed. Part of the reason is the reliance on forums. While helpful to some, they are often populated by anonymous and regular users. In some cases it’s possible that the users find a certain perverse pleasure in trashing new publishing venues without doing their homework. Look at some of the advice given for spotting a scam publisher:

“Acceptances usually take place in less than a month. Even less than a week is not unusual.”

In order to know this, someone actually has to submit to them. It may be possible to spot a scam quickly, particularly if they list fees on their site, but it may also be necessary to actually initiate a process with them in order to reveal the truth. I went through this myself, with researching publishers, and in some cases everything checked out until contract offers were made, stating the fees I was required to pay. In order to get the information it took time, and in some cases far more than a month.

Here is another example of dubious advice. Online forum criticism is frequently immediately responded to by a defender of that publisher. This is a circular argument, at best. It puts more doubt on the publisher if anyone has anything positive to say about them.

As I was looking over these articles and thinking about how we identify scam publishers, I was reminded of a conversation I had with another author, who was one of the first to be published by a new publisher that’s been doing quite well. Several of their authors have been nominated for awards, and some have even won them.

I asked the author about making the decision to go with this publisher, who didn’t have a track record, and they admitted that you can do all the required homework and still, in the end, without a publishing history behind them it’s a gamble. You don’t know how well the publisher will do at distributing your book. You don’t know if the editing will be solid or if the artwork will be professional.

Sometimes, things work out, sometimes they don’t.

Here are a few things I definitely think you should consider:

If at all possible, contact an author they publish and ask for feedback. If you can’t find a website or method to contact the author listed online, send them mail through the publisher. This is a standard practice. Put your letter in a sealed envelope, and put that inside another envelope, with a note to the publisher asking them to forward the mail to their author.

I would be very suspicious of any publisher that has no authors willing to engage readers. Most authors have websites or blogs.

The publisher should operate like a professional publisher. Publishers should work to release dates, do advance promotion of books, and their books should be reviewed by legitimate reviewing sources.

Any legitimate publisher should have their books carried by bookstores. If you’re considering a publisher you should check out local booksellers – both chain and independent – to see if their books are carried there. This may not apply if you live in a different country from the publisher (you will have to check their distribution) but even with legitimate publishers this is something for authors to consider. If a publisher does not have the ability to distribute and have books carried by stores then you are limited to online sales, which are estimated at only a fraction of total book sales.

You may still choose to go with a smaller publisher in order to break in and get an agent/larger publisher, but you should definitely do your homework.

Never commit yourself to a contract for more than one or two books if the publisher does not have a proven track record. If Random House offers you a four book deal, congratulations. However, most legitimate publishers are now offering new authors one or two book deals. A new author is a considerable financial investment, and if the first book bombs the publisher doesn’t want to be stuck with them through three more titles.

Always make sure there’s an ‘out’ clause in the contract, and, as I already said, if at all possible talk to someone with the publisher.

This is really skimming the surface. However, I would ask everyone to consider linking to an issue of Southern Review of Books, and reminding people that there are still a lot of writers who are falling for scams. The very best thing you can tell aspiring authors? Take your time, ask lots of questions and get to know legitimate people in this business. If you understand the way the business works you’ll be able to see through not only the scams, but the not-scam-but-not-professional publishers quickly.

I use that wording deliberately. It’s easy to identify scams. It can be harder for newcomers to recognize the difference between inexperienced and unprofessional.

Which is a whole other issue, and in some respects just as serious. At the end of the day, you want your publishing experience to be a positive one, not a journey to financial ruin filled with regret.