Page updated/links checked: 5/29/22
Overview: The Evolution of Self-Publishing
Self-Publishing or Traditional Publishing?
Bad Reasons to Choose Self-Publishing
A Special Warning: Publishing/Marketing/Fake Literary Agency Scams
Overview: The Evolution of Self-Publishing *
Until relatively recently, if you wanted to self-publish, you faced a labor-intensive and costly process.
You had to handle every aspect of producing your book yourself, including hiring and overseeing editor(s), designer, cover artist, and printer. You had to order a print run, which meant you also needed somewhere to store a lot of boxes. Then, at the end of all that work and expense, you had to find a way to get your book into readers’ hands—an uphill struggle, since bookstore and library distribution wasn’t available to individual authors, and paid publishing carried a powerful stigma.
Except for authors who had direct access to a niche audience, or were extraordinarily talented promoters, or simply caught a lucky break, it was a rare self-publisher who ever came close to recouping his or her investment.
Things began to change in the mid-1990’s, with the appearance of the first Internet-based publishing service providers. These took advantage of a new digital technology called print-on-demand, which eliminated the necessity of traditional high-volume print runs by making it possible for books to be produced one at a time or in small lots.
The new publishing service providers made self-publishing simple: all you had to do was upload your manuscript, choose an interior format and a cover, and the service turned your book into a digital file that could be printed and bound when ordered and never had to be stored or warehoused. They were also inexpensive: since the entire process was automated, and production costs could be recouped at the point of sale, the services could keep fees low and still make a profit.
The resulting books were flimsy and cheap-looking—as I recall, books from Xlibris, one of the earliest print-on-demand publishing service providers, didn’t even have cover images—and available only from the services’ websites. Building a readership did not become easier—bookstores were no more interested than before in shelving pay-to-publish books, especially when those books didn’t carry standard wholesale discounts and weren’t returnable. But for the first time ever, authors could self-publish with relative ease and at minimal cost.
Through the late 1990’s and into the early years of the twenty-first century, publishing service providers continued to evolve. Distribution expanded to include online retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Many services added an ebook option–though ebooks, back then, were a niche market with very limited readership, and print was still self-publishers’ primary focus. Other options expanded as well—not always to authors’ benefit, as the services realized they could make a huge profit by offering premium-priced (and dubiously effective) marketing services. Fees ballooned: some services were still cheap, and a tiny few were free, but others offered packages costing nearly as much as the old-fashioned vanity publishers.
What didn’t change: the challenge of discoverability. The pay-to-publish stigma was still alive and well–and together with high cover prices (print-on-demand is an expensive production method, and POD books must be priced higher than offset-printed ones in order to make a profit) and limited distribution (online only, with little or no physical shelf presence), the average self-publisher was lucky to make more than a few hundred sales over the lifetime of his or her book.
Then, in 2007, Amazon introduced the Kindle, and with it, the first exclusively electronic self-publishing platform: Kindle Direct Publishing. KDP offered a new self-publishing model: it was ebook only; it was free; and it granted self-publishers control over the pricing of their books (something they didn’t have with the POD-based publishing service providers). Even more important, it gave them access to the exact same distribution channels as traditional publishers. Self-publishers could now launch their books into a marketplace where the two biggest shortcomings of print self-publishing—high cover prices and sharply limited availability—simply didn’t exist.
Of course, none of this would have mattered much if ebooks had remained the tiny, enthusiast-only market that they were pre-Kindle. But as we all know, the Kindle was the tipping point. Ebooks took off—and electronic self-publishing with them.
Self-publishing is still a difficult, demanding way to go–at least, for authors with commercial and career ambitions. As with any form of publishing, major success is still an outlier event. But for the savvy, motivated, entrepreneurial author, self-publishing has become a viable career choice. Today’s self-publishers are building audiences and making money; they’re receiving traditional publishing offers—and sometimes refusing them—and crafting innovative distribution and subsidiary rights deals. Self-published books represent a commanding portion of sales in certain ebook markets, particularly genre fiction. Traditionally published authors are expanding into self-publishing, a hybrid career model that’s becoming more and more common. The successful self-published author can no longer be dismissed as a fluke.
There are still many pitfalls and “bewares,” however—some arising from technological and logistical issues, and others, paradoxically, from self-publishing’s explosive popularity. The sections that follow address these.
* The above is adapted from my Introduction to Choosing a Self-Publishing Service.
A rising tide does not necessarily lift all boats. The runaway success of self-published ebooks has not been duplicated for print self-publishing—mainly because no one has figured out how to overcome the twin challenges of price and distribution.
Many self-publishers choose to forgo print entirely and publish only in ebook form. But there are still good reasons to self-publish in print (though never only in print):
– To give readers alternatives. The more formats you can offer, the more readers you can satisfy.
– To exploit real-world sales opportunities, if you’ve got them. You may have a way of selling directly to your audience (a restauranteur who wants to make a cookbook available to his or her customers, for instance), or of exploiting “back of the room” situations (someone who lectures or conducts workshops and can sell books at these occasions).
The easiest–and potentially least expensive–route to print self-publishing is through one of the many print-on-demand-based publishing service providers. There are a number of issues to consider with these.
The most popular self-pub platforms that offer print, such as Kindle Direct Publishing (formerly CreateSpace) and IngramSpark, are free, or cost no more than a few hundred dollars. Others are much, much more expensive–and possibly less reputable (see the section on Author Solutions, below). What you get for those very large amounts of money may not be worth what you’re paying, especially considering the issues outlined below.
Many authors choose to self-publish in print because they hope to gain brick-and-mortar bookstore and/or library presence. However, limited distribution and nonstandard sales practices make that unlikely, or at best, very difficult.
Most publishing service providers claim to provide “worldwide distribution”–and generally they do, through wholesalers such as Ingram. But for libraries and brick-and-mortar stores, wholesalers are only half the distribution picture. The other half is a distributor with a sales team that sells books directly to the people who acquire for bookstores and libraries. (For a more detailed discussion of the differences between wholesalers and distributors, see this post from Writer Beware’s blog.)
Without that direct sales component, libraries and booksellers will probably never know your book exists, unless you tell them yourself. This is a frequent source of disappointment for authors, who often assume that wholesale distribution equals bookstore presence.
Another potential disadvantage for print self-published books: by long tradition, booksellers are accustomed to a particular set of buying protocols, which include discounts of 40% or more, 60- or 90-day billing, and full returnability. Many print publishing service providers don’t offer industry-standard discounts, and most require that orders be pre-paid. And while some services do offer returnability if you pay an extra fee, it may be a restrictive policy that booksellers won’t find attractive.
Libraries may be willing to accept donations of books, especially from local authors; and authors who are willing to go door-to-door can be successful in persuading local bookstores to stock their books (though often they must sell on consignment, or agree to buy back unsold copies). Some bookstores have special programs for self-published authors (though there may be a fee for service). By and large, however, self-published print books rarely see the inside of bookstores or libraries.
Publishing service providers use print-on-demand technology to produce books (POD allows books to be printed one at a time or in small lots, rather than in larger print runs of several hundred or several thousand). Because it can’t take advantage of economies of scale, POD is a more expensive printing process, per unit, than traditional offset printing.
Publishing service providers recoup their production costs and overhead at the point of sale, by including them in a book’s retail price. The more paper it takes to produce the book, the more expensive it will be; at longer page counts, POD-produced books can cost more than twice as much as their offset-printed counterparts. Even where service providers allow authors to set list prices, they must do so on top of a fixed production cost.
In other words, your self-published print book may cost more–possibly a lot more–than a similar book from a traditional publisher. A price tag of $25 or $30 for a trade paperback-size book is a major disincentive for readers.
POD-produced books can be almost indistinguishable from traditionally-printed trade paperbacks. But some publishing service providers skimp on paper and cover stock, and don’t pay enough attention to production standards. Books from these companies can be shoddy in appearance, with covers that curl and pages that fall out as you’re reading them (a good reason to order a book or two from any publishing service provider you’re thinking of using, so you can assess quality). Also, POD-produced books are often bound with a narrow spine, so that they look more like pamphlets than books.
For most authors, the corollary of all of the above is low sales. It’s estimated that the average self-published print book sells around 250 copies over its lifetime (for a look at some very old but still meaningful statistics, see here). This may not matter much to self-publishers who are focusing primarily on ebooks, and making print books available only as an adjunct. But if you’re self-publishing in print, you need to be aware that ebooks will likely be your main source of sales.
There are a number of options for self-publishing ebooks.
– Publish to platform. Amazon makes it possible (and free) to self-publish to the Kindle via Kindle Direct Publishing. Also free is Barnes & Noble Press (formerly Nook Press) and Kobo’s Kobo Writing Life. IngramSpark charges a fee, but it’s minimal.
– Epublishing distributors or aggregators. These services allow you to publish simultaneously to a variety of platforms, and will often provide conversion and formatting as well. The best ones charge no upfront fees, making their money by taking a cut of your earnings. Smashwords, Draft2Digital, and Bookbaby are examples.
– Publishing service providers. Many publishing service providers offer epublishing across a variety of platforms, usually in tandem with print self-publishing. This is more of a soup-to-nuts option, with the provider taking care of formatting, cover art, distributing, etc.–all the things you’d have to do on your own with the other two options The downside is an often-hefty fee and less flexibility and control, as well as the widespread shadiness of this segment of the self-publishing industry (again, see the section on Author Solutions, below).
Issues to consider:
Epub only, or epub plus print?
As noted above, publishing a print book as well as an ebook gives readers alternatives, and that’s always a good thing. Even so, many authors choose to forgo what’s typically a low-selling option for self-publishers, and publish exclusively in ebook form. There’s no right or wrong here—but it is something you need to think about.
Platform or package?
If you decide to go with both an ebook and a pbook, should you publish them individually to separate platforms (for example, ebook to Smashwords and KDP, pbook to IngramSpark), or buy a package from publishing service provider that will produce both formats for you? Publishing to separate platforms is more work but gives you far more control; buying a package may be easier but can be expensive (see the Cautions section, below). Again, there’s no right or wrong, but you do need to carefully investigate your options.
These days, the best self-publishing platforms are free of charge or minimally-priced. For basic self-publishing, you don’t have to spend a lot of money.
That’s probably fine if writing is just a hobby. But if you’re serious about launching a career, you do need to consider investing in the services necessary to produce a professional, high-quality book. Today’s self-publishing is a crowded and extremely competitive field, in which authors have to work as hard to stand out as any of their trad-pubbed brethren. Quality editing, design, cover art, and publicity are no longer optional.
It’s not hard to find freelancers who are offering these services, often at very reasonable prices that will cost you far less than the inflated packages provided by publishing service providers. However, hiring freelancers is an area in which you really need to be careful. See the Cautions section, below. Also see the Links section, where there are resources to help you find vetted service providers.
Terms and Conditions
Some examples: the Great Erotica Panic of 2013, in which Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other retailers deleted hundreds of self-published ebooks over content guidelines violations; Amazon’s 2014 reduction in royalty rates for self-published audiobooks; and the recent controversy over Audible ACX’s reader returns program.
Format and Genre
For most authors, self-publishing success has always depended heavily on what kinds of books they write, as well as the number of books they have on offer and how fast they can produce them.
For instance, this chart from Hugh Howey’s (no longer active) Author Earnings Report indicates that in 2014, romance and science fiction/fantasy–in that order–brought in the most revenue for self-publishers on Amazon (which then and now commands by far the largest share of the self-publishing market).
That was still the case in 2017, according to Smashwords’ annual survey. Of best-selling titles, romance accounted for 73%, with fantasy next at 9%, and YA following at 5%. Over 87% of Smashwords’ sales are fiction, and series titles sell better than standalones, especially if the first book is free.
Things haven’t changed much in 2021, according to reporting from K-Lytics, a site that closely tracks Amazon Kindle sales. Fiction far outsells nonfiction, and romance, mystery/thriller/suspense, and science fiction/fantasy lead sales in all fiction categories, with YA and children’s books trailing far behind. Memoirs and self-help books–genres popular with self-publishers but not with readers–are even farther down the list.
As already noted, the explosive growth of self-publishing has attracted legions of authors, creating an intensely crowded marketplace where it’s harder than ever to stand out. Be aware that you’re launching yourself into a crowded and highly competitive field.
Self-Publishing or Traditional Publishing?
Publishing industry expert Jane Friedman breaks publishing down into six key paths: Big 5 houses (Penguin Random House, etc.), other traditional publishers (larger independents such as Sourcebooks or Kensington), small presses, assisted self-publishing (Author Solutions, etc.), DIY self-publishing (KDP, Smashwords), and social publishing (social media or platform-based: fan fiction, Patreon, etc.). There are meaningful distinctions to be made between all of them, but they really boil down to a binary choice: self-publish or publish traditionally?
It’s a somewhat polarizing question. Many self-publishing advocates portray traditional publishing as backward, elitist, and abusive. Traditional publishers, they say, hold writers’ rights captive and add no value beyond, possibly, print distribution. Self-publishing, on the other hand, is at the forefront of digital innovation, offers unlimited freedom and control, and pays better (at least, on a per-book basis). Self-publishing is the best way to start a writing career, regardless of what kind of writer you are or what kinds of books you write.
In the traditional publishing community, there are still those who see self-publishing as a gigantic slush pile, a realm of narcissistic losers unleashing a tsunami of bad writing on the world. They decry the cheapening of literature and the loss of traditional values. They dismiss self-publishing successes as flukes and outliers.
These highly biased views miss the point of the self-publishing revolution—that writers now have options. Where once it was traditional publishing or nothing, now there are multiple possible paths to publication and success. The great thing about being an author in the twenty-first century is that you get to choose.
Both self-publishing and traditional publishing offer benefits and disadvantages. Which is best for you depends on your needs and goals. They’re also not mutually exclusive–plenty of writers are choosing to become hybrid authors, self-publishing some books and traditionally publishing others.
Some tips for making this very important decision–especially for first-time authors:
– Understand your options. Invest some time in learning and research, to make sure that you have a solid basic knowledge of the advantages and disadvantages of both self-publishing and traditional publishing. Unless you are familiar with the whole range of options available to you, you can’t truly make an informed decision.
– Think about what kind of writer you are. What you write, how you write, and where you are in your writing journey all should factor into your choice. For instance, are you prolific or slow? Self-publishing can be a good choice for prolific writers, but is less certain for slow ones. Do you write genre fiction or literary fiction? Self-publishing can work well for genre writers, but for literary fiction, the traditional publishing route may be a better way to go.
– Decide how comfortable you are with DIY. Successful self-publishing is entrepreneurship. It’s also a lot of work: self-publishers must not only do everything an author does, they must do everything a publisher does. For authors who like being their own bosses, that may be ideal. For those who aren’t comfortable with the idea of running their own businesses, traditional publishing may be a better option.
– Be skeptical of the hype. There’s a tremendous amount of hype and proselytizing around self-publishing, and not all the information you may find is accurate, complete, or representative. Beware of self-publishing evangelists who claim that any author can make a living by self-publishing, or who present self-publishing as the only viable (or honorable) route to success, or who spend a lot of time decrying the horrors of the traditional publishing model and insulting authors who aspire or choose to publish traditionally.
Self-publishing is an option and a choice. Like traditional publishing, it isn’t right for everyone. Which you select should depend on your abilities, your goals, and your writing…not on someone else’s word for what’s “right” or “best”. There’s only what’s right or best for you.
Bad Reasons to Choose Self-Publishing
There are good reasons to choose self-publishing. There are also bad ones.
– Because you think traditional publishers aren’t interested in new writers. This is false. Every publisher is looking for the next big thing, and they are well aware that breakout authors often come from the ranks of the previously unpublished. If you have a marketable manuscript (which really is the biggest “if” for any author), never having been published before won’t prejudice your chances.
– Because someone told you that self-publishing is the best route to success. Also false. It may be the best route for some authors, but not for all, and not necessarily for you. Make your own decisions.
– Because you think it’s easier. If you just want to slap your unedited manuscript up on Amazon, self-publishing is indeed pretty easy. If you want to produce a professional product, however, there’s a lot of work involved. From hiring editors and copy editors, to procuring cover art, to marketing and promotion, you must take on the entire burden–and expense–of the services that a traditional publisher would provide for you.
– Because you’re impatient. Self-publishing will get your work on the market a lot faster than traditional publishing will. But it still requires time and care to create and market a quality product. Rushing a book into the world doesn’t benefit you–or readers.
– Because you don’t want an editor tampering with your golden prose. Every writer needs an editor. If you want your self-published book to stand out in an extremely competitive market, hiring a competent editor is one of the best investments you can make. (There’s more on editing, along with tips on vetting freelance editors, at Writer Beware’s Editors page.)
– Because you want to make a living. Many authors are making a living wage–or even getting rich–from their self-published books. Will you be one of them? Maybe–but there are no guarantees. Bear in mind this important fact gleaned from a sales survey by ebook aggregator Smashwords: “The ebook sales power curve is extremely steep…A few titles sell fabulously well and most sell poorly.” In other words, as with traditional publishing, self-publishing is not a golden ticket, and success is an outlier. The battle against obscurity must be fought by all writers, no matter how they decide to publish.
– Because you think it will make you totally independent. Self-publishing gives you far more control than traditional publishing does. But you’re still subject to the policies and content guidelines of whatever service or platform you use–and if you violate those policies or guidelines, they can make you disappear. You’re only as independent as your service provider will allow you to be.
The growth of self-publishing options has spawned an explosion of services aimed at self-publishers. Problem is, not all of them are worthwhile or legit.
Always check the reputations of any platform or service provider you’re thinking of using. Good resources for doing that: the Bewares, Recommendations, and Background Check forum at Absolute Write, and the Kindle boards.
They’re out there. Some examples, drawn from Writer Beware’s files:
Bait and switch editing schemes, where someone posing as a reader contacts a writer about (sometimes imaginary) errors in his or her book.
Fake PR services, charging a premium for, basically, junk mail.
Conman publicists, soliciting successful self-publishers, taking the money and running.
Fake blog tour companies. One that Writer Beware knows of of took authors’ money and vanished without ever arranging the tours. Another created a closed loop: dozens of fake book blogs posting identical material.
Profiteering writing contests that aren’t about honoring writers, but about making money for the contest sponsor.
Fake literary agents. See A Special Warning, below.
Unqualified/inexperienced service providers
Far more common than scams, but just as bad. Like unqualified literary agents, unqualified editors, publicists, designers, and artists are often entirely well-intentioned, but just don’t have the skills to do a professional job. They may seem appealing because their fees are often lower than the professionals’, but don’t be tempted–you get what you pay for.
Always check the credentials of any service provider you’re thinking of hiring (and those of their staff). People who offer a service should have relevant work experience. A love of reading, a degree in English, or a career as a teacher doesn’t necessarily qualify someone to be an editor, for example. If you can’t find information on a provider’s background, or you request it and encounter resistance or refusal, walk away.
Look for samples of their work (book covers they’ve designed, books they’ve edited, etc.; a reputable provider should be glad to share this information). Ask for references. Plug their names into search engines to see if you can find recommendations or complaints. Check Absolute Write. Email Writer Beware; we’ll tell you if we’ve gotten any complaints.
Many companies, and almost all publishing service providers, sell marketing services and packages. These are typically heavily based on ineffective methods (press releases, email campaigns, video trailers, book fair display, print and online advertisements, pay-to-play radio and TV interviews) or things you could do yourself (setting up and maintaining social media accounts, creating websites). This is an extremely lucrative area for publishing service providers, since most of these items are cheap to provide and can be sold at a huge markup. For writers, however, they are rarely worth their often exorbitant price tags.
Other marketing strategies to avoid range from the pointless (posting your book and/or information about you on websites the marketer owns–the odds that such websites will get much traffic is slim) to the exploitative (offering you vanity radio spots, or interviewing you for the marketer’s own radio and TV shows–these shows are usually on public access channels or pay-to-play stations, and have tiny audiences) to the downright deceptive (claiming to pitch your book to Hollywood producers or market it to traditional publishers–this may entail a spam-style mass-mail approach or a listing in a catalog-style publication, but either way it will be ignored). And they can be eye-poppingly expensive. For instance, Outskirts Press (one of the larger publishing service providers) charges over $15,000 for its “Book Your Trip to Hollywood” service. AuthorHouse charges nearly $7,000 to produce a TV infomercial and book video.
Beware also of the many marketing and PR services that aggressively solicit authors with out-of-the-blue offers of promotional services. Many of these sound too good to be true…because they are. Most such services are scams. See A Special Warning, below.
Deceptive publishing service providers
Publishing service providers can be quite deceptive in the way they present themselves, implying a greater potential for success than actually exists, glossing over the challenges of self-publishing, and overstating the value of the overpriced, ineffective marketing services they sell. When evaluating publishing service providers, it’s important to remember that you are a customer purchasing a product. Sales pitches are not intended to benefit you, but to motivate you to pull out your credit card. Be skeptical of promises. Investigate before you buy.
A special case: Author Solutions
The Author Solutions conglomerate owns a galaxy of assisted self-publishing imprints, including iUniverse, Xlibris, Trafford, AuthorHouse, Palibrio, Partridge, Booktango, and Alliant Press. Author Solutions and its imprints have among the largest number of author complaints, and poorest reputation, of any similar company in terms of customer service, product quality, and transparency.
This blog post, which I wrote in 2012 after Author Solutions was purchased by Pearson (the former parent company of Penguin), provides a rundown on these and other problems. Pearson sold Author Solutions to a venture capital company at the end of 2015, but other than that, nothing has changed.
Author Solutions is notorious not just for quality issues, but for its hard-sell sales tactics and its out-of-the-blue solicitations. It employs a variety of deceptive marketing tactics to promote its services, including sockpuppet social media accounts and an extensive network of fake publisher-matching websites whose sole purpose is to steer authors to Author Solutions imprints. While it was owned by Pearson, it aggressively used the connection with Penguin in sales calls, falsely suggesting that using an Author Solutions imprint would get authors closer to a Big 5 publisher.
In addition to its branded imprints, Author Solutions runs an array of assisted self-publishing divisions for traditional publishers: West Bow Press (Thomas Nelson/Zondervan), Balboa Press (Hay House), Archway Publishing (Simon & Schuster), and LifeRich Publishing (Reader’s Digest Association). These divisions all emphasize their connection with their parent publishers, and Writer Beware often hears from writers who believe that choosing Balboa Press will give them access to Hay House’s marketing department, or that their books will become part of Simon & Schuster’s distribution network if they use Archway Publishing. Again, this is deceptive marketing. Simon & Schuster and the rest collect a percentage of profits, but otherwise have no hand in running the divisions, which are entirely administered and staffed by Author Solutions. All authors are really getting is an Author Solutions publishing package plus the glamour of a famous name.
As DIY self-publishing via KDP, Smashwords, etc. has grown in popularity, the customer base for Author Solutions and its imitators has shrunk. Output for all Author Solutions imprints, including those it runs for traditional publishers, has dropped by more than half since its high point in 2011.
A Special Warning: Philippines-Based Publishing/Marketing/Fake Literary Agency Scams
As noted above, Author Solutions has been losing business for some time. Unfortunately, whatever space its contraction has created is being filled by a slew of imitators. Why not, when hoodwinking authors is as easy as setting up a website and opening an account with Ingram? In many cases, the copycats have first-hand experience: they’ve been founded and/or staffed by former employees of AS’s call centers in the Philippines (as well as by ex-employees of other disreputable companies, such as Tate Publishing and BookWhirl.)
Although based in the Philippines, the copycats employ spoofed phone numbers and fake addresses (virtual offices, PO Boxes, randomly-selected residential addresses) to convince authors that they are located in the USA or Canada. Their primary targets are self- and small press-published writers, whom they attempt to poach from whatever platform or press the authors are currently with.
The copycats’ approaches aren’t merely deceptive, but blatantly false: claiming writers’ books have been recommended by Amazon, or spotted by a literary scout, or given a favorable review by a conveniently unnamed industry expert. Like Author Solutions, they hawk overpriced publishing packages and deceptively-described junk marketing services (services that cost little to provide and can be sold at an enormous markup), but they also approach potential victims by posing as literary agencies. In a number of instances, they’ve impersonated well-known and reputable traditional publishers, literary agents, and film production companies. Some have even gone as far as faking letters and memos from Big 5 publishers.
Many of the services offered are completely fictional; the scammers have no connections with Big 5 publishers or Hollywood producers, and your book will never be submitted for consideration. Other services, such as book trailers or press releases, may be delivered, but are frequently substandard. Or the copycats may simply take authors’ money and run. I’ve heard from writers who’ve spent thousands, or even tens of thousands of dollars with these scams, in many cases for goods and services they never received.
Fortunately, the scams share a set of reliably recurring markers that can help to identify them.
1. Solicitation. Like the Author Solutions imprints, the copycats are big on out-of-the-blue phone calls and emails hawking their services. Often they’ll claim your book has been recommended to them, or was discovered by one of their book scouts. Sometimes they’ll claim to be literary agents looking to transition you to a traditional publishing contract, or represent you to Hollywood. Their phone solicitors frequently have foreign accents (most are based in the Philippines). Email solicitors use a recurring set of job titles: Book Scout, Executive Literary Agent, Senior Literary Agent, Senior Marketing & Publishing Consultant (or Senior Publishing & Marketing Consultant), Executive Marketing Consultant, Marketing Professional, Marketing Supervisor.
Solicitation is the number one sign of a scam. Real literary agents, publishers, and marketers do not typically reach out to authors they don’t already represent. For scammers, on the other hand, it’s their main mode of recruitment. Any out-of-the-blue solicitation, no matter what it’s for or who it’s from, should be treated with caution.
2. Offers to re-publish authors’ books. A big focus for the copycats is poaching authors who are already published or self-published (often with Author Solutions imprints–it’s pretty clear that copycats’ staff either maintain contacts with Author Solutions workers who feed them information, or, if they themselves formerly worked for AS, took customer information with them when they departed). They claim they can do a better job, or price the book better, or provide greater credibility, or get authors in front of traditional publishers.
Often, re-publishing is presented as a pre-requisite to representing writers’ books to traditional publishers. Re-publishing an already-published book so it can be published a third time makes absolutely no sense, and is not how the legitimate publishing business works.
3. Elaborate claims of skills and experience that can’t be verified or don’t check out. A copycat may say it’s been in business for ten years, even though its domain name was registered only a few months ago. It may claim to be staffed by publishing and marketing experts with years or even decades of “combined experience”, but provide no names or bios to enable you to verify this. A hallmark of the copycats’ “About Us” pages is a serious lack of “about.”
4. Poor or tortured English. The copycats have US addresses, and purport to be US-based companies. Many have US business registrations. Yet their emails and websites frequently contain numerous (and sometimes laughable) grammar and syntax errors. Their phone solicitors appear to be calling from US numbers, but commonly have foreign accents, and may get authors’ names or book titles wrong.
5. Junk marketing. Not all the copycats offer publishing services, but most offer “marketing”: press releases. Paid book review packages. Book fair exhibits. Ingram catalog listings. Hollywood book-to-screen packages. Vanity radio and TV interviews. These and more are junk marketing–PR services of dubious value and effectiveness that are cheap to provide but can be sold at a huge markup. It’s an insanely lucrative aspect of the author-fleecing biz, not just because of its enormous profitability, but because while you can only sell a publishing package once, you can sell marketing multiple times. The copycats’ marketing services are right out of the Author Solutions playbook: AS basically invented junk book marketing, and most of the marketing services offered by the copycats were pioneered by AS.
For a full list of the more than 125 copycat scams that Writer Beware has identified to date, see this post at the Writer Beware blog: From the Philippines, Not With Love: A Plague of Publishing, Marketing, and Fake Literary Agency Scams
Finding a Publishing Service Provider or Platform, Checking Reputations
- Mick Rooney’s Independent Publishing Magazine provides detailed reviews of many publishing services, as well as news and commentary on the world of digital publishing. Mick also maintains an extensive index of publishing service providers.
- Choosing a Self-Publishing Service is the Alliance of Independent Authors’ guide to publishing service providers and platforms; it also offers helpful advice for self-publishers. (Full disclosure: I’m one of ALLi’s advisors, and I wrote the introduction to this book. I don’t receive any remuneration or other benefit from sales.)
- ALLi also provides this excellent annotated list of publishing service providers (including not just publishing services, but ebook discovery services, editorial and design services, and more) with advisories about those that are the subject of complaints.
- Good advice from editor and author Jane Friedman (a 2012 article that’s regularly updated): 10 Questions to Ask Before Committing to Any Epublishing Service.
- Novelist Piers Anthony maintains an internet publishing resource that lists and describes publishers and publishing service providers, and flags those that have problems or are the focus of complaints.
- Another good spot to research the reputation of publishing service providers: the Bewares, Recommendations, and Background Check forum of the Absolute Write Water Cooler. Check the index to see if the service you’re interested in has already been discussed.
- The Writer Beware Blog provides alerts and cautions on publishing service providers (and a lot else). To see if we’ve written anything about a company you’re interested in, plug its name into the search box.
- E-mail Writer Beware. We’ve assembled a large archive of documentation on companies and services that engage in questionable practices. Send us the names of any company or service you’d like to know about, and we’ll summarize for you any data that’s in our files. If we have no information, we’ll let you know that too.
Expert Self-Publishing Info and Advice
- The blog of author and authors’ advocate David Gaughran is an excellent information source on self-publishing and issues of interest to self-publishers. He offers a helpful free introductory course called Starting From Zero, along with recommendations on service providers such as editors, designers, etc.
- Author Joanna Penn offers advice on self-publishing, marketing, and writing at The Creative Penn.
- Dave Chesson’s Kindlepreneur is a free resource providing advice and info on writing, formatting, design, marketing, and many other aspects of self-publishing.
- Indie Pub 101 is SFWA’s comprehensive resource on self-publishing (it’s not specific to speculative fiction writers).
- Carla King’s Self-Pub Bootcamp offers paid courses, but there’s also a wealth of helpful free content on her website.
- Author and attorney Helen Sedwick maintains a blog focusing on legal issues for self-publishers.
Facts and Figures For Self-Publishers
- This survey from Ingram, published in 2022, shares fascinating insights from a project to monitor sales of 150,000 titles on Amazon for three years. There’s much helpful info here for self-publishers, including how sales rank correlates to units sold.
- K-Lytics is a site that closely tracks sales on Amazon Kindle, breaking sales down monthly by category and genre. It also tracks bestsellers in various genres, and produces special reports that drill down into subgenres. It’s a wealth of up-to-the-minute information–and is correspondingly pricey to subscribe. If you’re a career-minded self-publisher, though, the info here is gold.
- From the Alliance of Independent Authors, a recent, wide-ranging overview of facts and figures about self-publishing.
- This 2018 survey of self-publishing children’s authors from author Hannah Holt includes lots of data here about sales and earnings, as well as how self-publishing compares to traditional publishing.
- In 2016, author Marie Force received survey responses from more than 2,000 self-published authors (half were exclusive self-publishers, the rest were hybrid authors). Results are summarized on her blog. Ms. Force is a romance author, and the survey seems to have self-selected for that genre–which is not as much of a distortion as you might think, since romance is the biggest-selling genre for self-publishers. There’s a lot of interesting info here, including the very wide range of income.
- BookBaby, one of the low-cost digital distributors, conducted a survey of over 7,500 self-published authors in 2016-17. The resulting report is partly an ad for BookBaby’s services, but it includes some intriguing information on self-promotion as well as differences between low- and high-selling authors.
- Old but still instructive, since the situation for print self-publishing hasn’t changed much: a gathering of sales statistics for print-on-demand self-publishing.
- The Alliance of Independent Authors is a global professional advocacy group for self-publishers. Its Self-Publishing Advice blog covers subjects of interest to self-publishers, and it also provides a very useful directory of vetted service providers.
- The Kboards–news and discussion from Kindle self-publishers. This is a treasure trove of information on just about every aspect of self-publishing.
- Lots of helpful information at the blog of author and self-publishing expert David Gaughran.
- From author and editor Jane Friedman, Start Here: How to Self-Publish Your Book. This is a really comprehensive resource, as is Jane’s website overall.
- The Savvy Self-Publisher is a series of interviews by publishing veteran Debra Englander with authors who’ve successfully self-published their books. The interviews include comments and advice from publishing experts.
- Reedsy.com is an online marketplace where editors, designers, illustrators and others offer their services. There is some level of vetting at Reedsy, but Writer Beware doesn’t know how extensive it is, so it’s a good idea to do further research on anyone you’re thinking of approaching.
- A professional product requires financial investment. Author Michelle Prince takes a detailed look at the potential costs of self-publishing a book.
- More on the costs of self-publishing from author and self-publishing expert Joanna Penn.
- This survey of author-publishers reveals how much they budget on their books–and what they invest in.
- Editor Lauren Bailey on the 13 most common self-publishing mistakes to avoid.
- A 2016 survey by Library Journal assessed librarians’ views of self-published books: what they’re most likely to buy, obstacles to acquisition, and issues of quality. This is an older article, but the challenges it cites haven’t changed much.
- Many self-publishing authors have unrealistic expectations of what self-publishing can accomplish, and assume that low sales indicate a scam. Here are some reasons why your publishing service provider probably didn’t cheat you.
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