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Thursday, November 30, 2006


Scammers are clever

(Side-note: my blog isn't showing all the new comments on this page. I did reply to the post yesterday, but the comments don't tell you that. If you're waiting for a reply, click through and there will probably be one.)

I've been thinking and reading around some more on publishing scams, and there's more to add. Because dishonest people are clever, and they adapt. An upfront fee is the traditional method, but there are other ways round it. There is, for example, the author mill - check out the wikipedia article on it http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Author_mill, which also has good links to useful articles. (http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/002692.html and http://www.sfwa.org/beware/vanitypublishers.html, in case wikipedia decides to move them.)

Author mills are able to claim that they're not a vanity press because they don't charge money upfront - but that doesn't make them legitimate; instead, they publish as many people as possible, depending on their authors' friends and family to buy enough copies to put them into profit. Which, if they produce books very cheaply and carelessly, is not that big a number. This would be different if they honestly admitted that was how they made their money, but the trouble with them is that they get more people signed up if they insist that they're a legitimate publisher, while refusing to do the things that make up the differences between a publisher and a press. They're cleverer about avoiding easily-identified lies, but they thoroughly mislead people about the likely outcome. And then blame the authors. Many authors believe what they've been told and will defend them, not having the experience of real publishers to compare them with, but be very, very careful of the following things:

Do not trust a company that actively emphasises that it doesn't charge you fees. That's like a surgeon advertising his medical skills by saying that he won't pick your pocket while you're anaesthetised. To a legitimate company, charging fees is so unconscionable that not charging them is nothing to boast of. They don't merit a mention.

Do not trust a company that emphasises that it wants to sell your book to bookshops, not to authors. Again, by real publishers' standards . . . what? They need to tell us this?

Basically, do not ever trust a company that emphasises that it isn't print on demand or a vanity press when promoting itself. That tells you people are calling them that. If someone calls Penguin a vanity press, Penguin looks at them like they're a lunatic and doesn't bother to refute the accusation. If a company feels it has to deny it, something's wrong.

Be very careful of a company that boasts of how many people it publishes. Real publishers boast about the quality and sales of each individual the publish, not the quantity. If a company publishes twenty thousand people and cuts costs in producing and promoting their books, then they don't need to sell that many copies of each author's book to be pocketing a large overall profit. Hence, getting their authors successful isn't necessary.

Do not trust a company that gives you author success stories or testimonials. If they were real author success stories, you'd be reading about them in the review and entertainment pages of the national media, not on the company's merchandising. The company certainly wouldn't make an issue of how they helped the author out. Bloomsbury doesn't go around boasting about what a helping hand they gave to J.K. Rowling; they say 'we publish J.K. Rowling' and leave it at that, because the fact speaks for itself. A dishonest company can always get testimonials from 'satisfied' authors who don't realise how badly they've been scammed, often written in the first flush of excitement before they spot the drawbacks, and if it can't, it can make them up: its business is selling promises, and testimonials can be faked. Testimonials and success stories provided by the company don't mean much. Like wasting advertising space calling for new writers, this demonstrates that it's primarily addressing hopeful writers, not people who might actually buy the books they publish.

Do not trust a company that talks about author services. Services are provided by people you've hired. In legitimate publication, you don't hire a publisher, they buy a product from you. And if they charge you for services, get away from them immediately; a legitimate publisher invests time and money in 'services' like editing and promotion as part of the deal, expecting to recoup the investment by selling the book.

Do not trust a company that tells you it has a higher acceptance rate than most. It aims to sound author friendly, but it actually tells you that authors aren't important to them as authors. 'Acceptance rate' is a meaningless concept with real publication. One month a legitimate publisher might have a hundred applications of which three are great, another month they might have four hundred applications of which none are great. It varies, because it's about the individual books, not about averages. However, if a publisher is assessing itself based on its acceptance rate rather than by the books it publishes, that means its primary interest is not in books. They're definitely not interested in quality: publishers accept books because they've fallen in love with them, and if they accept far more than most other publishers, there's no way of accounting for it except that they've lowered the bar - or more likely, are going purely by numbers rather than actually reading submissions. If a publisher doesn't care whether a book is good, it fundamentally isn't interested in that book as a book. It's out for its own profits.

Be careful of a publisher that compares itself with other companies to bolster its claims of legitimacy. If it's really legitimate, then it can stand on its own merits.

Do not trust a company that offers the author 'control'. That translates thus: they expect you to do more than your share of the work, and are prepared to cut corners. Being properly edited, being publicised by a team, having someone who's actually good at it design your cover, being entered for prizes based on your editor's experience and connections . . . all these things mean you go from the total control of writing to a more collaborative process. Less control, and more benefits. There's a line between not being controlling and not being any actual use, and a publisher offering writers control of the process is much like a porter giving someone control of their luggage by not helping them carry it.

Do not ever trust a company that, for any reason, talks about how central the author and their efforts are to the publicity campaign or how they'll expect you to actively promote your book. This is a particularly pernicious little dodge. They're expecting you to do the work of selling it and refusing to help you, so they can blame you when the book doesn't become a hit. The sting of this one is that can be made to sound reasonable - we all like to feel that we're proactive people who can take charge of their destiny, which is the image they're selling. What they're not telling you is that your chances are next to nil if you do it that way. Bookshops, reviewers and other book workers are already inundated with appeals from legitimate publishers, so many that they can't give space to all of them, even though it'll include the best books in the world, every year; that's what you'll be competing against. And any reviewer or bookshop will only have your word, not the word of a respected judge like a well-known editor, that your book is worth their attention - and every author in the world, even the hopeless ones, thinks that their book is good. Hence, very few people will listen to you. Without a reputable publisher behind them, any author is seriously punching above their weight. Expecting authors to promote their books without the publisher's support is like a bank offering business start-up loans up to a ceiling of ten pounds, and telling the borrowers that it'll work if they're dynamic enough. They're just not giving you enough to make it work, and then telling you that it's your responsibility to get off the ground. The whole difference between a printer and a publisher is that a publisher throws their weight behind the books they publish, rather than just running off copies and leaving them to their own devices.

Be very careful of a company that encourages you to be 'realistic' when promoting itself. A real publisher will be ambitious for their authors, just not crazy. It's not unrealistic to expect national distribution involving a presence in the bookshops, for example: every legitimate publisher gives that as a matter of course. A company that says 'obviously you'll have to start small and build up' is covering their backs, so when the book gets tiny sales they can say they never promised otherwise.

Do not, not, not trust a company that speaks slightingly of the need for an agent. An agent is a threat to an illegitimate company, because they'll be able to a) warn the author to keep away from it, b) point them in the direction of proper publishers, and c) get them legal advice if things have gotten out of hand. Therefore, it's in a crook's interests to present agents as inessential at best, a malign barrier between authors and publishers at worst. This is a very bad lie. An agent is there to stop the author getting messed about. Publishers may sometimes grumble that an agent will haggle for bigger advances and more favourable terms, or take the author's side against them (which are good things if it's your book being haggled over), but agents also serve as a facilitator, dealing with the author when they're being temperamental, keeping them organised, and otherwise taking some of the burden off the publishers' shoulders. Publishers prefer agented authors. They're generally less trouble: someone else is looking after them. A publisher saying that they'd certainly publish an unagented book if it was good enough is one thing, but a company that in any way disparages the need for agents per se is trying to ensure that you don't seek out or listen to the people who'd protect you from scammers like them.

Excellent piece.

- tnh
Thank you! I always enjoy your pieces, so I'm delighted to hear you liked mine ... That brightened up my morning no end. :-)
Wow! I followed the link here from Making Light's particles. Brava!
Thank you! Do stick around if you enjoyed it, the next post is going to be banging on about publishing scams as well...
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