Greedy Businesses Target Self-Published Authors

Sleazy salesman pointing

It is not difficult or expensive to publish on your own, but a lot of would-be self-publishers dont know that. As a result, whole nests of snake-oil salesmen have hatched to separate unwitting writers from their money. Most of these writers will never make back the money that is being bilked from them, and even those who do are often wasting their hard-earned cash.

As I prepared my presentation on self-publishing for The Writers’ Union of Canada’s cross-Canada professional development workshop, Publishing 2.0: Tips and Traps, I became aware that taking advantage of the naïveté of first-time self-publishing authors (or “indie publishers,” as we are also known) has become a growth industry.

Quite a few of the businesses involved in this field of endeavour used to be legitimate, contributing members of the traditional publishing establishment: printers, literary agents, book publicists and the like. With their incomes from traditional sources now eroded by the same technology that permits anyone and everyone to publish anything and everything, quite a few of these formerly upstanding companies have turned their attention to “helping” unsuspecting authors to get their books published… for a fee.

Many writers who set out to publish their manuscripts independently or to get their out-of-print books back on the market have no idea that it costs almost nothing to make their novels or non-fiction works available for sale as e-books, and that for about $500, they can get a respectable-looking paperback up for sale online. It is upon these unsuspecting souls that the newest incarnations of the film-flam artist have set their sights, offering self-publishing packages that can cost thousands of dollars. and promising little in return that isn’t available for free or at very little cost elsewhere.

These authors are being convinced by ads and on-line pitches that self-publishing is a technically challenging undertaking, requiring expertise. Paying for technological expertise is not, in fact, necessary because self-publishing sites such as Smashwords are extremely user-friendly. Nonetheless, from the beginning to the end of the publishing process, these highway robbers lie in wait — urging offset-printing services, for example, upon writers who ought to be printing on demand instead. (Offset- printed books are ones that are printed in large numbers on huge printing machines machines that are now increasingly sitting idle all over the country in the wake of the move online of so many magazines, books, catalogues and brochures. Print-on-demand (POD) books are printed on much smaller machines, one at a time, when the book is ordered. Single copies of books can be printed immediately, so no extra trees are wasted, and authors have no obligation to buy a certain number of books as part of the self-publishing option — or to warehouse those books in their basements. Today, the difference in quality between offset-printed and POD books is negligible.)

Other self-publishing authors are hoodwinked into paying companies to “promote” their books on social media ­ a strategy that is nearly ineffective unless it is part of an overall marketing plan. And the costs for overall marketing plans themselves  (also available from a host of sources) can be outrageous and unnecessary. (I have just been looking at one company that lists one of its services as “Amazon Optimization” through the creation of “keywords.” If you’ve written the book, you can pick seven words to help readers discover it, as you will be prompted to do by Amazon itself when you post your book there. That is all that “keywords” are. Snake-oil salesmen love to throw technical terms around, but most of them are easy to translate into plain language.)

Still other companies offer book distribution packages that are actually available to everyone at very little cost when they publish books online with Smashwords, Kindle, or other self-publishing outlets. (You can get expanded distribution from Amazon, for example, that includes bookstores, libraries, etc. Your royalties per book are smaller than with direct sales to purchasers, but there’s no need to pay up front.)

We are also seeing increasing numbers of expensive, needless gimmicks such as seals of approval to indicate production quality in published e-books (this one charges $125 per title. How many readers do YOU know who are choosing to buy books because they have a formatting seal of approval?), and costly competitions for awards that very few can win (and who knows whether the winners gain any sales traction from their prizes?).

Who Is Doing This?


While there are some great resources out there — people with editing and publishing backgrounds who are charging reasonable hourly fees for their services — too many book-publishing coaches and self-publishing managers and others who go by similar titles are no more than fly-by-night operators with no significant credentials. They offer to help you get your book edited and up on Amazon for several hundreds or thousand dollars when you can do it very easily for free or at very little cost.

Printing Companies

Dozens of printing companies that were established to print books for real publishers have huge off-set machines now sitting idle. They need you to help them pay the overhead, so they have re-branded themselves as publishers.  In truth, the only traditional publishers they resemble were formerly known as vanity presses. These companies are selling packages of print-only copies of your book (usually no e-books are offered) for $800 or $900 or several thousands of dollars. They do not know much about promotion and the fine print on their websites state that after you’ve paid the big bucks to buy several boxes of offset-printed copies of your book, they will help you build a website (wow!) and put you in touch with a marketing company to help you promote your book (where you will pay additional fees, of course).  One printing company whose site I visited said they would even put you in their catalogue. Now tell me, when was the last time you bought a book because it was listed in a printers catalogue?

If you are selling to a specific, known market (such as the residents of a small town whose history youre writing) you may decide to go with offset printing because the per-item production cost will be lower. But if you are not certain that you are going to sell the books you are required to purchase when you work with a printing company, using offset is a false economy. These printers who are now calling themselves publishers also say they offer editing: I would advise you to ask who the editors are, and to request their references and credentials.

Respectable Book Reviewers

Reviewing outlets such as Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews have established branch services that are charging unwitting self-published authors upwards of $500 for a single review (Im surprised that The New York Times and The Globe and Mail havent jumped onto this bandwagon yet). The idea is that if you get a good review of your self-published book, you can use it to convince booksellers to stock your book. (If you get a poor one, you eat the money you have spent.) The trick is that most booksellers won’t stock your book anyway, because self-published books are nonreturnable.

You can also pay to have your book review included in a variety of in-house publications where publishers, agents etc. can contact you if they are interested. Humpff.

Keep in mind that your average reader doesn’t know the difference between a Publishers Weekly or Kirkus Review and one your aunt Elsie wrote and posted on Amazon. A $500 review is largely a waste of money.

Book publicists

I believe that book publicity will, along with editing, become an area of specialization that self-publishers need in future. But for now, there are a lot of people out there who say they are book publicists who have no actual experience in the field, or access to the media outlets that might promote your book, and they are overcharging for the services they do provide. Keep in mind that it is almost impossible to get noticed if you have written a novel anyway, even if you’re traditionally published; non-fiction writers usually have a better hook for interviews. And even if the book promoter is well known to the media, there is no guarantee that he or she will make any special effort to get your book noticed, no matter what you pay. Remember that if a book publicist has not read your book and fallen in love with it, that person cannot help you.

A few book-promotion companies will tell you that, for a price, they can help you become an Amazon bestseller or even get you onto the New York Times bestseller list. To do this, they use a complex system that involves a whole lot of purchasers, funded by you, all buying your book all across the country all on the same day or in the same week, which drives your numbers up in the right places. But this kind of access to best-seller lists is not sustainable and authors often end up paying more to get on the lists than they earn back in royalties.

You do need a great promotion plan – one size does not fit all — and here a creative and honest book publicist can help a lot. Remember that at this point in time, getting self-published books into bookstores, or onto radio or television, or reviewed in major newspapers or magazines, is nearly impossible… because of the attitudes of the gatekeepers of those organizations. At the same time, social media is an almost useless promotional device. Any book promotion company that wants your money for these kinds of initiatives had better offer you some proof that they can do the impossible.

Literary agents

Well, you know how I feel about most literary agents. The ones I dissed five years ago are largely out of business now or have found new ways to earn their keep from unsuspecting authors. Check their websites for further info.


Even some publishers have turned to mining self-publishing authors for a few quick dollars. Some will take your money and publish your book with a slightly different imprint than their other publications (so those on the “inside” of the industry still know you are self-published, and will still lock you out, unread).

Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, had harsh words for enterprises of this nature. Writing in the Huffington Post in January, 2014, he said:

The vanity approach to self-publishing, as witnessed by Pearson/Penguin’s acquisition of Author Solutions (operates AuthorHouse, iUniverse, BookTango, Trafford, Xlibris, Palibrio, others…), has shown itself to harm the brands of all traditional publishers. I predicted this last year. The Author Solutions business model is wholly dependent upon making money by selling overpriced services to unwitting authors. Their business model is expensive at best, and unethical at worst. It’s about selling $10,000+ publishing packages to authors who will never earn the money back. The model represents the antithesis of what the best and proudest publishers have always represented. Great publishers invest in their authors. The money flows from reader to retailer to publisher to author, not from author to publisher.

Dont Be a Cash Cow (for anyone but yourself)

The best books are not published for nothing, of course, but most of the work can be done at very little cost. The best places to invest your money are directly with a book editor, a book designer, and a book publicist, each of whom loves your book.

In each of these areas, make sure you are getting your money’s worth. You need someone who knows the business and can provide solid references. You need to check those references. You do not want to be one of a hundred books and authors in a money-making assembly line.

The writing and self-publishing community is unbelievably generous with its knowledge and its skills. Almost everything you need to know about self-publishing is available online for nothing. All you have to do is ask the right questions in the Google box. At the very minimum, check out the publication costs on Smashwords, Amazon, Kindle and Kobo before you hire a consultant. In other words, before you pay good money to anyone to get your book up for sale, find out what the work they are going to do for you is going to cost them. Don’t let yourself be bamboozled.

It has already cost you a lot to write your book  – particularly if you consider the time you spent when you could have been doing other things, like climbing the corporate ladder. Invest what you must to get the best possible book to readers. But don’t waste money until after you attain bestseller status. Then, you will be able to afford it.

Book Promotion Tip of the Week #11: Don’t Give Up

Mary W. Walters Militant Writer(With a special P.S. for fiction writers)

This can be a very discouraging undertaking, this book promotion business.

Most of us didn’t set out to be book publishers, business managers, and self promoters – we set out to be writers. We wanted to communicate with readers, to tell a story, to express our dreams, hopes and nightmares. But however well or poorly we have done in the writing of our books, these days it is only the beginning. Even getting what we’ve written published is only the beginning. It’s the promotion that is the long, long haul and it can wear down the most determined and self-reliant among us, and devastate those of us who are lacking in confidence already.

For some of us, the writing is what sustains us: it is what we are meant to do. It is what gives the rest of our lives meaning. (I am one of those.) But a work of art (or wanna-be art) is only complete when it reaches its audience, as far as I’m concerned. And nowadays whether we are self- or traditionally published, the need to promote ourselves and our work eats up way too much of our writing time (such as it is in the first place, for most of us). And when it doesn’t eat up the time, it eats up our morale.

The Courage to Write

It has long been my conviction (like for 20 years or so) that it is necessary to have a whole lot of self-confidence in order to write a book. It takes gumption to complete any book, and as much courage as vision to complete it with any élan. When our self-confidence is eroded, we run into writer’s blocks, procrastination and all the other impediments that (in addition to our jobs and families and friends) can prevent us from writing well – or indeed from writing at all.

The problem, we are discovering as we put on all these new hats (publisher, publicity person, agent, bookseller), is that it also requires courage to promote a book or to promote oneself, and that our courage is threatened at every turn. Every time we check the sales stats on our books, or peek at the visitor-counters on our websites, our morale is likely to take a hit. Those hits affect not only our desire to keep promoting our books, but also whatever confidence we might have had stored up for writing the next book.

Some people probably decide to give up on promotion, but they are shooting themselves in their heads to spite their faces (or however the expression goes).  (Those who publicly announce that they are “giving up” or that they have been defeated are really only taking a new promotional tack. Check out this bit of self-promotion written under the guise of “being a failure” that recently appeared on the Salon website. Clever marketing.) To stop promoting means to disappear completely off the promo circuit, and the only result of that is  . . .  nothing. You sell even fewer books. And no one really cares but you. (The result is similar – or even worse, if that is possible – when you allow yourself to whine in public.)

Keep on Truckin’

In short, the only options are to a) move forward, and b) to sink without a trace. Which leaves only option a. And the only way to move forward is to “keep on keepin’ on.”

It helps to stay in touch with other writers who are doing the same thing we are, in places like this and other sites where people go to commiserate and encourage and share tips, rather than to promote themselves. (One might argue that I established this blog to promote myself, but I assure you that the strategy is not working. I have noticed no sales resulting from the blog, not even any clicks through to my books despite the 50,000 hits The Militant Writer has received, and therefore I claim innocence – albeit inadvertent – in the blog-as-marketing department.)

Ironically perhaps, I think it helps to be a writer in this strange new digital world of book sales – by disposition, writers are better equipped than most to take on solitary uphill battles where we slip backwards more often than we move forwards, where no one cares but us if we get anywhere, where giving up is really not an option: we do what we must do. It could therefore be argued that those who give up on book promotion are not real writers. :) (I am prepared to hear arguments that contradict this point of view. In fact, one of this blog’s regular readers, Kim Velk aka Woolfoot, is going to write a guest post on that very subject one of these days.)

It also helps to get enough sleep. Sleep knits up the raveled sleeve of evaporating self-confidence as well as care, and everything looks more do-able in the morning.

A Special Note to Fiction Writers

I have followed down link after link of tips on book promotion, as I am sure you have as well, only to find myself reading lists of strategies that relate primarily to non-fiction. Certainly some of the suggestions can be applied to fiction as well, but most non-fiction (with the exception of some creative non-fiction) is easier to promote than is most fiction: there is no doubt of it. Whether it is how-to, biography, history, memoir, even philosophy or psychology or economics, non-fiction always has an obvious hook that is more likely to interest the media – both social and traditional – than is a “made-up story.”

Because of this, perhaps, I was particularly disappointed to have wasted an hour of my life on a webinar entitled  “Create a Marketing Plan to Sell More Books” put on by CreateSpace, of all companies. (For the uninitiated, CreateSpace is the publisher of choice of most of us self-published authors who choose to create a paperback version of our books. You’d think they’d know that most of their customers are small-time authors, primarily of fiction.)

I was going to save you an hour of your life by telling you all the reasons why there is no point in listening to the replay of the webinar if you are a) a fiction writer and/or b) on a small or nonexistent promotional budget. However, another blogger saved ME another hour of MY time by writing a most eloquent explanation of why Brian Jud’s message is irrelevant to most of us. (Hint: Jud has been selling non-fiction, how-to books for decades and has built up a critical mass and a bank account to support the promotional tactics he suggests: most of them are far beyond the resources of most of us and irrelevant to any book with a literary bent. Take this suggestion of his for example: you should hire an accountant and a lawyer before you go to the bank to apply for a loan for the funding of your next book. All I can say to that is Hah!) Thank you, Ellen Larson, aka The Constant Pen and author of the sci-fi mystery In Retrospect, for an excellent summary and critique.

As Ellen does on hers, I have been making an effort, based on my own self-interests, to make the tips I present here on this blog specifically relevant to fiction writers—even if the majority are also relevant to writers of non-fiction – and I will continue to do that. If anyone finds other sites that are specifically directed at promoting novels and short stories, please let us know. Thank you.