It is not difficult or expensive to publish on your own, but a lot of would-be self-publishers don’t 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.
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 printer’s catalogue?
If you are selling to a specific, known market (such as the residents of a small town whose history you’re 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 (I’m surprised that The New York Times and The Globe and Mail haven’t 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.
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.
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.
Don’t 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.