Authors Beware: Scams and Publishing Companies to Avoid
[Last updated 10/26/2018]
Becoming a published author is a fantasy shared by almost all writers. And as with almost any widely-shared ambition, there are also folks out there looking to make a quick buck by exploiting those dreams — whether they involve securing a book deal or going the indie publishing route.
The publishing world has its fair share of scammers and disreputable companies. At Reedsy, we regularly hear from authors who, despite being well-informed and educated people, have fallen prey to these scammers. In this post, we’ll take a closer look at common writers scams and show you how to identify the publishing companies to avoid on your journey to publication.
“Oh, my! There’s a publisher who wants to release my book!”
Not all publishers are created equal. For every Random House, there is some guy in a random house, convincing authors that they hold the key to publishing success. But before you sign on the dotted line, stop for a second and ask yourself and look at what they’re offering.
Most reputable publishers share the same business model: the publisher acquires the rights to publish and distribute the book by paying the author an advance. The publisher will then cover the costs of editorial, design, and marketing. Once the book is published, the author will receive a royalty of every copy sold (after the author’s total royalties have covered the advance).
Notice how, at no point in this process, the author hands any money to the publisher? Vanity presses, on the other hand, will not only not offer an advance, but they will also play on the vanity of authors in order to make them bear some (or all) of the costs of publishing.
What to expect from vanity presses
Here’s the ugly truth: Vanity presses don’t rely on book sales to pay the bills. Their end customer is the author who’s willing to pay for services like editing and design. Think of them as the equivalent of Bialystock & Bloom from Mel Brooks’ The Producers — they can make as much money from a flop as they can from a hit.
As a result of the vanity publisher's business model:
- Their editorial standards tend to be lower. They will happily work on titles they believe won’t sell.
- Editorial and design work will likely be outsourced to one of the lowest bidders.
- Their book marketing efforts tend to range from meager to non-existent.
Vanity presses will often infer that they can sell your book to major chains. Usually, this means that they'll list your book with a wholesaler, like Ingram — which means that booksellers can order it. That’s not the same as it being actively sold into stores.
How else do vanity presses exploit authors?
Getting authors to pay upfront for production costs is just one way that a vanity publisher can get money out of an author. They might also:
- 'Upsell’ the author where possible. Once the author’s paid for their editorial and design services, they may realize that the publisher’s agreement said nothing about marketing, publicity, or the fact that you need an author website. Don’t worry, though: your 'publisher' can do all of that — or fake doing all of that — for an added fee.
- Entice the author into entering paid contests. "Congratulations, your book has been selected as a finalist in [enter name of bullshit book award/contest]. You have a great chance to win it! First, you need to enter your book for the final, which only costs [enter insane amount of money]."
- Withhold royalties until they ‘break even.’ This might sound reasonable, but their side of the production costs can be any number they pick. They might pay an editor $500 to copy-edit your book, and then claim it was actually $1,500 including their 'admin costs.'
- Require the author to buy a certain number of copies. They’ll tell you that you need to have at least 50 or 100 copies to sell at book signings. But because they’re the publisher, they choose the cost-per-copy, which will tend to be quite high once they’ve added their — you guessed it — ‘admin costs.’
- Include a minimum sales guarantee in their contract. This is a sneaky variation where the author pays a smaller fee upfront. But if a book doesn’t hit a particular sales target within a specified period, a clause kicks in that requires the author to either make up the difference or pay back the production costs.
Infographic: Traditional Publishers vs. Vanity Presses
To help you visualize what you'd be getting into with a vanity press, let's see how they stack up next to publishers adhering to the traditional model.
This is not to say that traditional publishers are perfect. But with the traditional business model, publishers are incentivized to release quality books and foster long, healthy relationships with authors.
Important note: There are many companies out there calling themselves "assisted self-publishing companies". They operate in a similar model as the one we described above for vanity publishers (i.e. you pay for all the production and marketing services). However, some of them are actually reputable and known for providing quality services at reasonable fees and offering solid advice and handholding through the process. We recommend you do extensive research when you encounter such an organization and watch for any signs that could indicate a vanity publisher in disguise.
"So it's either I pay for everything upfront and I keep all royalties, or I try to get a publisher who'll give me an advance but then take almost all my rights?" Well, no, not anymore. The publishing landscape is ever evolving and there is now a third kind of 'publisher': hybrid publishers.
The idea is simple: authors participate in the costs of production, but in exchange, get a greater split of the royalties. Most hybrid publishers will advertise a 50% split on both costs and royalties. For a first time author, this might seem like a great idea — so long as the company has the intention of creating quality books.
The problem is: many vanity publishers have decided to surf on the "hybrid" wave and disguise themselves as such. They'll take on any submissions they get, ask you for a bunch of money upfront for editing and design (all the while assuring you it's only really 50% of the costs), and make a profit off of that. Which means they don't really care afterward how the book sells.
How to identify a reputable hybrid publisher
Every time you encounter a hybrid publisher, you should be asking the following questions:
- How much do they charge authors in general for their 50% share of the editing and design costs? Compare this to market rates and make sure they're not fooling you.
- Do they have a track record of producing well-reviewed, successful books? Buy a few of the books that the company has published and gauge not only their editorial standards but the quality of their print items.
- Are there any hidden costs lying in wait? Talk to authors who were published by the company in the past and ask them for their experience.
To learn more about what constitutes a reputable hybrid publisher, check out these criteria set out by the Independent Book Publishers Association.
The potential danger with hybrid publishers
At Reedsy, we've always believed in the idea of hybrid publishers. It seems logical, and fair, to have a business model at the intersection of self-publishing and traditional publishing. However, in practice, we've seen too many authors get burned by hybrid publishers who looked reputable at first glance.
Here's the main problem with this business model: publishing is a hit-based business, and you don't have a hit every year, let alone every month. So let's imagine that a reputable hybrid publisher goes through a rough spell, and is suddenly getting short on cash. What is the first thing they'll be tempted to do? Raise their fixed income, i.e. the income they receive from authors participating in the production costs. The impact on cash flow will be immediate and certain, and it's a much easier thing to do than to try to sell more books. Many authors won't question whether what they're paying upfront is 50%, 80%, or 120% of the actual production costs — they'll just be happy they're getting a 'publishing deal'.
Just a quick note: reputable agents work on commission. If you’re dealing with an agent that requires querying authors to pay a ‘reading fee’ or suggests that you pay for editorial services (provided by them, or an affiliated company), then your spidey-sense should be tingling pretty hard.
Research your agents before you query them: see which authors are on their list and if former clients have something to say. If an agent contacts you unsolicited, don’t let flattery get the best of you — find out what they really want. Or, even better, check if they’re a member of the Association of Author Representatives (AAR), a professional organization that maintains some of the industry’s highest ethical standards.
Self-Publishing Companies to Avoid
Self-publishing, by definition, means that you’re doing it yourself. But there are companies out there who can give you a hand… or reach into your pocket if you don’t have your wits about you. Here are a few things to look out for:
Companies who will “publish you with Amazon”
The great thing about publishing with major retailers is that it’s almost always free! And unless you’re 100% technophobic, you shouldn’t have much of a problem uploading your book to Amazon or Kobo or Apple Books within a few quick minutes.
There is often value in working with a professional to optimize your blurb and your metadata or perfecting your author bio, but getting your book listed on Amazon is not something you need to pay for.
Services that will get your book an ISBN
Getting an International Standard Book Number (or ISBN) is not like joining the Illuminati: you don’t need some special introduction. Any author can buy one for $125 through Bowker in the USA or Nielson in the UK: agencies that issue ISBNs and cannot profit from their sale.
To be honest, most online retailers use their own identification codes these days. If you decide not to get an ISBN, you’ll probably be fine. But if you simply must have one, don’t pay more than you need to.
Did you know that if you don’t register the copyright of your book, literally anybody could claim it as their work and profit from it?
Now, that’s entirely false, but you’d be surprised how many people believe it. Authors own the copyright to their works before and after they publish them. In the US, registering that copyright simply provides a few statutory rights when it comes to claiming damages — and it should only cost you $35 to apply for it online (as of March 2018). For more details on how to register your copyright, you can check out this comprehensive guide.
Publicity and PR Companies
Marketing a book is something that most authors struggle with. (For a primer on the topic, check out this guide.) So it’s no surprise that there are people who will offer to solve your publicity and PR problems for a low, low fee. Some of these companies might be able to place guest posts and reviews on blogs that nobody visits (and only exist to host content for swindled authors). Other companies won’t even be that subtle: they’ll just take the money and run.
However, it’s not just authors with a book to publish who are targeted by scammers. Some people have found a way to get money out of writers at the very start of their writing careers.
Writing Contests and Awards
Writing contests are a great way to reach an audience, solidify your writing credentials, and even make a little money in the form of prizes. There are, however, competitions that are little more than money-spinning enterprises. And you can usually sniff them out by the fact that their prizes are not really prizes.
Some contests will publish winning entries in a magazine or an anthology — which is great. But sometimes, ‘winning’ authors will be obliged to pay an ‘editing fee’ for that privilege — which is not great.
There are also some competitions in which the prize might be a trophy. The catch here is that the author will be expected to pay for the cost of the physical prize. This isn’t necessarily bad — unless you mind paying $80 for a slab of acrylic that dozens more have also ‘won’ that month.
In short, read the fine print. To find contests that have been vetted, you can look through this directory of the best writing competitions.
What’s the best way for an author to stay safe?
Research is the answer. With the internet, you can find out if 99% of companies or services are reputable within a few minutes. Here are some specifics to help you spot which publishing companies to avoid:
Google it. A quick search will at least show you the company’s website and examples of the previous work. If you’re unable to find anything, or if something smells fishy, then you might want to stay away.
Check with fellow authors. Author forums are a great place to find critique partners, tips on cover designers, and to vent about anything and everything. They’re also where you want to go if you have any questions about a service. Head to a forum that’s large enough and at least one author will have encountered the company in question.
Be wary of unsolicited offers. If a company or service contacts you out of the blue by email or phone, the chances are that they bought your number. Reputable companies with a track record and positive word-of-mouth don’t tend to cold-call.
Ask questions. As we’ve mentioned, some reputable companies will require authors to pay money up-front for services. But before you commit to anything, make sure you know exactly what you’ll be getting for your money, what isn’t included, and what their provable track record looks like.
Yes, there are a lot of predators working in the publishing field, but they’re nothing to lose sleep over. So long as you’re careful and approach opportunities with a critical eye, you will find no problem navigating around the sharks in this business.
And of course, if you have any questions about reputable companies or publishing scams, drop us a note in the comments below.