Page updated/links checked: 8/24/23
Small publishers offer an important alternative to the Big 5 publishers (Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, etc.) and larger independents (Sourcebooks, Kensington, etc.), most of which are effectively closed to unagented writers.
More flexible than their larger counterparts, free of the shareholder expectations that drive the major houses in pursuit of profit, and willing to work with authors without the intervention of a literary agent, they can afford to take chances on authors and books that bigger publishers may overlook or be unwilling to risk, and serve niche or specialty or experimental audiences that aren’t profitable enough for the majors to bother with.
Digital technology has transformed the world of small press publishing over the past two decades, reducing or eliminating the cost of print runs and warehousing and making it far less expensive to start a publishing business than in the past. Easily-accessible digital self-publishing platforms like IngramSpark, Amazon KDP, and Draft2Digital allow almost anyone to set up a publishing business, with minimal outlay. There are more small publishers now than ever before, specializing in every conceivable market and genre, offering a wealth of opportunities to writers.
There are important considerations to take into account if you’re thinking of submitting to a small press, however–and many things to watch out for. Scams and dishonest operators are as prevalent in the small press world as they are in other areas of publishing.
– The potential for instability.
It’s tough to make it as a publisher. The attrition rate is high even for well-capitalized presses with experienced staff. For publishers run by people with limited experience and/or funds, it’s even higher. Many small presses go out of business within the first couple of years. The sudden death of your publisher can create big problems for you, especially if the publisher doesn’t bother to return your rights before it vanishes.
Especially risky is signing with a brand-new publisher that hasn’t yet proven itself in the marketplace. It’s wise to hold off on querying a new small press until it has been issuing books for at least a year–and preferably more–and has demonstrated some staying power.
– Competence and/or resources.
Once upon a time, the substantial financial outlay involved in establishing a publishing company was a deterrent to starting new ones. These days, as noted above, setting up a publisher is both easy and inexpensive, and anyone can do it, whether or not they have professional publishing or business experience. (And make no mistake: a publisher is a business.)
Like the amateur literary agent, the amateur publisher may have good intentions and a genuine desire to do right by authors. But good intentions–like responsiveness, enthusiasm, praise, and all the other non-publishing-related things that so often entice writers into questionable situations–aren’t a substitute for knowledge, experience, qualified (and adequate) staff, and working capital–all of which are far more important factors in a publisher’s success.
Just as new writers can get into trouble if they don’t take some time to learn about publishing before starting to submit, inexperienced publishers can run into difficulties if they start up too quickly and attempt to learn on the fly. This can lead to author-unfriendly contracts, poor editing and cover art, ineffective marketing, fouled-up publishing schedules, opaque communication, inaccurate royalty accounting, missed royalty payments, and abrupt closures. (Here’s one example.)
Also a potential pitfall for authors: publishers that are one- or two-person operations, or run in the owner’s spare time, or otherwise lack financial resources and/or the cushion of regular salaried staff. With the best will in the world, a single illness, personal misfortune, or other unexpected event can derail the business and bring things to a standstill. (Three examples, from Writer Beware’s blog.)
Any and all of these things may push publishers into financial or logistical trouble, which in turn may provoke unprofessional and even abusive behavior from the publisher and its staff as things become increasingly bad. Alternatively, the publisher may simply vanish, cutting off communication, closing down websites and social media accounts–sometimes without warning or explanation.
All of this may sound farfetched or alarmist. Unfortunately it’s not at all uncommon. Small press complaints are among the most frequent that Writer Beware receives. You can see the many posts I’ve written about these in the Small Press Complaints section of the Writer Beware blog.
– An abundance of sharks.
The ease and cheapness of digital technology has made it very easy for unscrupulous or dishonest people to establish publishing ventures.
From vanity publishers masquerading as legitimate small presses (see Vanity Publishers in Small Press Clothing, below), to “author mills” that seek to turn a profit on enormous author volume and skimpy services, to overseas scammers impersonating real publishers (see A Special Warning, below), these companies are the Venus flytraps of the writing world, lying in wait for the inexperienced or desperate authors who are their sustenance of choice.
– The possibility of small sales and exposure.
Limited budgets and/or limited expertise often go hand in hand with limited marketing and distribution. Many small presses sell only online and by special order, and don’t have the capacity for brick-and-mortar distribution (still a major source of sales for print). They may rely primarily on authors for marketing and promotion. Such limitations can negatively affect sales.
The small press world can be a murky place. If you’re submitting, it’s vital to carefully evaluate the company, both to assess its professionalism and to be sure that what it can do for you is in line with your own goals.
It’s also really important to do this research before you submit–not just so you won’t waste your time with stealth vanities or problem contracts, but because it’s much harder to refuse a bad offer once it’s made (this is something dishonest publishers count on).
– Is there a fee, or do you have to buy something?
Many reputable small presses can’t afford to pay advances. But they don’t ask for cash upfront, or require you to buy anything (finished books, editing, cover art, marketing, just to name a few) as a condition of publication. If you have to give your publisher money in order to be published–whether upfront or on the back end via book purchases or withheld royalties–you are likely dealing with either a vanity publisher or an assisted self-publishing company.
Don’t be fooled by terminology. Some assisted self-publishing companies style themselves as “indie publishers”. Many vanity presses (falsely) describe themselves as “hybrid publishers” (see the discussion of hybrid publishers, below).
Fee-charging publishers posing as traditional small presses can be inventive about hiding or attempting to sanitize their fees. For examples of these sneaky practices, see Vanity Publishers in Small Press Clothing, below.
– Did the publisher solicit you?
If so, beware. You can never say never in the publishing business–but it is extremely unlikely that a reputable publisher will contact you out of the blue to tout its services or invite you to submit. For scammers, on the other hand, solicitation is one of the main ways they acquire clients. Solicitation scams are extremely common these days (see A Special Warning, below).
– Are there any complaints about the press or its staff?
A websearch on the publisher’s name can turn up information on social media, or on authors’ websites and blogs. One excellent resource is the Bewares, Recommendations, and Background Check forum at the Absolute Write Water Cooler, where writers discuss their experiences with publishers (and others). You can also contact Writer Beware; we’ll tell you if we’ve gotten any complaints or reports.
There are additional suggestions on where to research in the Resources section, below.
Don’t skip this step. A publisher may be open for submissions even as complaints are blowing up on the internet, and a professional-seeming public face may disguise a long history of problems. These things are more common than you might think.
Also, some small presses that fail under one name start up again under another; and staff who leave under questionable circumstances may start their own publishing enterprises. Here are two examples of small presses that fell apart under accusations of nonpayment and other problems, and whose owners started new companies just a few months later.
– Is the publisher new?
As noted above, there’s a high attrition rate for new small publishers.
This can work out badly for you, because a publisher that liquidates or goes bankrupt or simply ghosts its authors can tie up your rights, or may pass them on to third parties without your permission. Sudden failure is a possibility with any small press–finances are often precarious–but if you sign with a publisher that’s just starting up, or has been in business only a few months, or has not actually published anything yet, you are really taking a risk.
Look for evidence that the publisher has been issuing books for at least a year (longer is better), and that it has a decent backlist of published books (not just two or three). These things suggest at least some stability, and demonstrate that the press is capable of taking books all the way through the production process. You’ll also be able to judge important factors like quality, design, and how (or whether) the publisher is marketing its books.
– What are the owner’s and staff’s credentials?
Credentials, both for a publisher’s founder and the people that work there, are an important element of publisher evaluation. Do they have publishing, editing, and/or marketing backgrounds? If not, how does their experience relate to publishing and bookselling?
Be wary of publishers whose owners and/or staff don’t have relevant work experience (“Staffer X has been an avid reader all their life” and “Staffer Y did critiques for friends and always dreamed of being an editor” and “Founder Z has a degree in English and is a middle school teacher” are not relevant qualifications).
Be especially cautious with publishers that provide no staff information on their websites, or that provide names only with no accompanying biographies. This is important disclosure–not just because it’s good for a publisher to be transparent, but because without that information, you can’t properly evaluate the publisher’s expertise.
– How are the staff paid?
This may not be easy to find out, but it’s an important consideration. As a way of minimizing upfront outlay, many small presses pay their staffers not a salary or a flat fee, but a royalty on the books they work on. In other words, the publisher only has to pay if it gets paid.
This can be bad for staff, though, who are essentially working on spec. Poor sales can spur frequent staff turnover, as editors and designers become frustrated with low pay–a problem that has a direct impact on authors, especially if an editor or cover artist quits in the middle of the process. It may also result in less-qualified staff, since editors and designers with more credentials may not be willing to accept such an uncertain form of remuneration.
– What’s the website like?
Is it professionally designed and easy to navigate? Is the text well-written, copy edited, and formatted? Do the links work?
The website is the publisher’s business face, and should reflect a commitment to professionalism. If a press isn’t capable, or doesn’t care enough, to create an attractive website free of typos, grammatical errors, and the like, what kind of books will it produce? On the other hand, a glitzy website is not a guarantee of quality.
A reputable publisher’s website will be book-focused–it will publicize its authors, and try to attract readers. A questionable and/or fee-based publisher’s website will be service-focused–it will promote itself, and try to attract writers.
– What about the publisher’s backlist?
Investigating a publisher’s backlist can tell you many things.
For instance, Amazon sales rankings can give you insight into sales volume. Amazon obviously isn’t the only retailer out there, but it owns the lion’s share of the ebook market, and for most small presses, ebook sales far outstrip print. Amazon rankings can provide at least a general idea of well a book is selling. (Here are some attempts to explain the perennial mystery of Amazon rankings, or to convert rankings to sales numbers; you can find many more online.)
The number of books the publisher is issuing can give you a sense of its publishing volume. Tiny numbers (fewer than five or six books a year) may indicate a part-time or hobby press, while big numbers (a dozen books a month, scores of books a year) may be a sign of an author mill, or a publisher that’s pushing out books too fast to give them proper editing and marketing attention. Overcommitted publishers can get into trouble if they don’t have the staff or the resources to keep up with the workload, leading in some cases to mass contract cancellations (a couple of examples: Fireside Press and Month9 Books.)
Are there any gaps in the press’s publishing history? A hiatus of several months or years suggests logistical or financial problems; ditto for a press that abruptly stops issuing books, regardless of how active its publishing program may have been before. Missed publication dates are also a big red flag.
– Are the books professionally produced and edited?
Order a couple to find out.
I can’t overemphasize how important this is. If the publisher is producing poor-quality books for others, it likely won’t do better for you. Inconsistent formatting, typos and other errors, and unprofessional-looking cover art are all warning signs.
Error-free text and attractive covers are no guarantee that a press is reputable, of course. But their absence does suggest a lack of professional expertise, and won’t enhance your book’s appeal.
– Is the pricing reasonable?
Compare the publisher’s retail prices with those of similar publishers, large and small, to be sure it is pricing its titles competitively. High retail prices can especially be a problem for print editions, since digitally-printed books have a bigger unit cost than offset-printed books, and must be priced higher to ensure the publisher’s profit.
– What distribution is in place?
Distribution is a vital component of book publishing. At a minimum, the publisher should have a presence on the major online retailers (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Waterstones, Kobo, etc.), and make print books available for order in physical stores via a wholesaler like Ingram. Self-publishing platforms KDP and IngramSpark, which many small presses use for publishing, provide this type of distribution.
For brick-and-mortar bookstore shelf presence–as opposed to just availability to order–there also needs to be a relationship with a distributor (as distinct from a wholesaler or a publishing platform). For a discussion of the important differences between wholesalers and distributors, see this post from the Writer Beware blog.
– What kind of marketing does the press do?
Does it produce a catalog? Send out ARCs? Attend book fairs, writers’ conferences, and/or genre conventions? List books for pre-orderss? Have a NetGalley account? Maintain an active social media presence? These are all important components of book marketing, in many cases done long before a book is offered for sale.
Many small presses have limited budgets, and expect their authors to play a major part in marketing and promotion. This is fine, as long as you’re up for it and the publisher is honest about it. No matter what you may have heard, though, the entire burden of marketing should not fall on you. Your publisher should be a partner in the marketing process, undertaking efforts of its own.
Especially, a press should not require authors to pay for marketing (for instance, charging for sending out review copies, or offering a menu of marketing options for which you have to pay (an example: Black Rose Writing) or pressure authors to become customers by buying their own books for re-sale (beware of publishers with book purchase requirements, such as this one).
Don’t take the publisher’s marketing promises at face value. Writer Beware hears all the time from authors who were promised the moon and got little or nothing. Research the publisher’s marketing efforts to make sure it’s really doing what it claims.
– What about the contract?
Whether because of ignorance, greed, or a combination, terrible contracts are common in the small press world.
Bad contract terms you could encounter include life-of-copyright grants without adequate reversion clauses, demands for copyright transfer, claiming subsidiary rights the publisher isn’t capable of exploiting, paying royalties on net profit, retaining a financial interest in the author’s work even after the contract has terminated, claiming the right to edit at will without seeking the author’s permission, tying next-book option clauses to current contract terms, imposing fees for early termination, tying rights reversion to purchase of overstock…the list goes on.
Contracts are a minefield for authors, who may not have the knowledge or experience to recognize bad contract terms, or to grasp their implications. Don’t just assume your contract is OK, or take the publisher’s word that its terms are standard (for these and other unwise assumptions, see my blog post: Evaluating Publishing Contracts: Six Ways You May be Sabotaging Yourself). Get qualified advice (if you seek legal counsel, be sure the lawyer has experience with publishing and is familiar with publishing contract terms, otherwise s/he may not be able to help you).
Writer Beware will evaluate contracts and answer contract questions if you email us.
You should be able to do at least some negotiating. There are contract terms publishers are almost never willing to negotiate (royalty rates or warranties and indemnities, for instance), and small presses may be less flexible on contract negotiations than bigger houses–but there should be at least some wiggle room on things like option clauses, holding onto subsidiary rights, how many author copies you get, and more.
If a publisher flatly refuses to negotiate, be wary. This may indicate an autocratic attitude toward writers–not a good sign for the road ahead–or the publisher may be hiding the fact that it doesn’t understand its own contract language (more common than you might think).
See the Links section, below, for some contract terms to avoid.
– Is the press forthcoming?
Does its website name its staff and provide biographical information (important: you want to be able to assess their experience)? Is the submissions process clear and complete? Are your questions answered promptly, fully, and without evasion? A publisher that isn’t transparent about its business, refuses to provide information–or, worst of all, scolds you for asking questions–is a publisher to avoid.
– Does the press add value?
I’ve left this question for last, but it may be the most important. Many small presses don’t do much more than upload a spellchecked version of your manuscript to Amazon KDP. For this minimal service, they demand that you tie up your rights with an exclusive publishing contract and yield up a portion of your sales proceeds. This makes no sense. If a publisher does barely more for you than you could do for yourself, what’s the point?
A publisher should add value, in the form of quality editing, design, cover art, production, promotion, and other areas that match your goals and ambitions as a writer. Otherwise, in today’s world of easy self-publishing, it may be better to go it on your own.
When is a fee-charging publisher not a vanity publisher? When it’s a hybrid publisher. Sometimes.
A growing number of pay-to-play publishers describe themselves as “hybrid publishers.” When used properly, this term indicates a publisher that straddles the divide between traditional and self-publishing: charging a fee and perhaps having a lower gatekeeping threshold than highly-selective trade publishers, but offering more value in terms of editing, design, marketing, and/or distribution than a self-publishing platform or a vanity publisher.
Unfortunately, many unscrupulous vanity publishers have embraced the label in an effort to hoodwink writers or make themselves seem more respectable. Ditto for some expensive assisted self-publishing services.
How to tell the difference? Author and editor Jane Friedman provides this advice:
- A good hybrid will have some method of curating or selecting what projects to take on. In other words: They consider the market potential of your work and its ability to succeed. If they appear to take anyone and everyone, then you’re better off evaluating the best self-publishing service to use. Don’t kid yourself about leveling up to a hybrid. (So-called hybrids aren’t averse to playing to your ego to get your business.)
- A great hybrid offers the potential of bricks-and-mortar distribution—whether to bookstores or other retail channels. They might not be able to promise it, but if they’re actively working with a distributor or retailer—and they have a catalog of titles for marketing purposes—that’s a good sign. A self-publishing author can easily get distribution through online retail, via Amazon and Ingram (distribution fees are zero or little for online retail), so the more the hybrid invests in marketing and distributing print editions, the more they’re offering something you may not be able to accomplish yourself.
- A good hybrid works with you both pre-publication and post-publication. The relationship doesn’t end once the book is done. (However, you may have to pay fees to continue the relationship.)
Jane also advises that a good hybrid should “pay better royalties than a traditional publishing deal. (Fifty percent is common.)”
Similar guidelines are provided by the Independent Book Publishers Association in its Hybrid Publisher Criteria, a 9-point set of standards intended to differentiate true hybrid publishers from other author-subsidized models (i.e., vanity publishers). “Hybrid publishing companies behave just like traditional publishing companies in all respects, except that they publish books using an author-subsidized business model, as opposed to financing all costs themselves, and in exchange return a higher-than-industry-standard share of sales proceeds to the author. In other words, a hybrid publisher makes income from a combination of publishing services and book sales.”
Unfortunately, these criteria are extremely easy for less-than-honest fee-charging publishers to game by misrepresenting their business models or just plain lying (an example: prolific vanity publisher Austin Macauley). This kind of subterfuge is extremely common. As a result, you cannot trust that a self-described hybrid publisher actually is one.
It’s a good idea, therefore, not to take a hybrid publisher’s claims at face value, but to investigate on your own.
- Does the hybrid claim to screen for quality and publish to professional standards? Assess those claims for credibility–buy some of its books, and use Amazon’s Look Inside feature to sample more.
- Make sure that the hybrid is offering more than just a self-publishing-style suite of services, or pretending that the basic elements of digital publishing (such as “worldwide distribution” via Ingram and online retailers) are premium extras. What will it do for you that you can’t do for yourself, or buy for less from another service?
- Check the hybrid’s other claims. Does it really work with a distributor (as opposed to a wholesaler like Ingram)? Can it really get its books into brick-and-mortar stores? Does it really do the marketing it promises?
- Search for complaints; Absolute Write’s Bewares, Recommendations, & Background Check forum is a good place to start. Contact Writer Beware; we may have heard something.
- Ask yourself whether it’s worth it. Hybrids can be seriously expensive–mid-five figures is not uncommon. Some hybrids don’t include everything you might want in their basic packages–you may have to pay extra for editing, for instance–or try to upsell you on extras that add thousands to the basic fee. Not only does this make it even more important to determine that you’re not being rooked by a vanity publisher in disguise, it should prompt careful and realistic consideration of the the probability of ever recouping your investment. There’s a reason that no hybrid publisher will tell you its average sales figures, or disclose the number of authors who’ve successfully made their money back.
As writers become more aware of the pitfalls of fee-based publishing, many less-than-honest pay-to-play operations are trying dodge the vanity label by stripping mention of their fees from their websites, using misleading terminology, or shifting their charges to areas other than printing and binding.
I often hear from writers who are confused because they’ve been offered a contract by a publisher that describes itself as “traditional” but wants its authors to make some sort of financial commitment in order to be published.
If asked, such publishers vehemently deny that they are vanity publishers. After all, they don’t accept everyone who submits! Or they aren’t asking authors to pay for printing–just to finance their own editing, or to pre-sell or pre-purchase a certain number of books.
But whether you’re shelling out cash for book production, finished books, adjunct services, or anything else, the bottom line is the same: you are handing over money as a condition of publication. A publisher that turns its authors into customers has little incentive to get books into the hands of readers, and is not likely to invest significant resources in editing, marketing, and distribution. (For much more on the pitfalls of vanity publishing, see Writer Beware’s Vanity Publishers page.)
Here are some of the ways in which vanity publishers attempt to hide or sanitize their fees.
– A setup fee or deposit. Publishers that require a setup fee may tell you that you’re not paying to publish–just contributing to the cost of preparing your book for printing, or making a “good faith investment” in your own success. Some publishers promise to refund the fee under certain circumstances (usually carefully crafted so they’ll almost never be fulfilled).
The setup fee many not be large by vanity standards–a few hundred dollars–but since such publishers typically pay their staff royalties rather than salaries and use digital technology to produce their books, it more than covers the cost of production.
– A fee for some aspect of the publication process other than book production. Some publishers ask you to chip in for editing, or for cover art, or for publicity (traditional publishers provide these things as part of the publication process, at their expense). Services may cost thousands of dollars, and are often minimal and not of professional quality.
– A book purchase requirement. Some publishers include a clause in their contracts requiring you to buy a specific quantity of finished books–from less than a hundred to several thousand copies, often at a paltry discount. This can be more expensive than straightforward vanity publishing
– A sales guarantee. If your book doesn’t sell X number of copies within X amount of time, you must agree to buy the difference. Most authors have an over-optimistic idea of the sales they can achieve, and figure they’ll never have to pay up–but vanity publishers’ nonexistent marketing and distribution ensures that they’re usually wrong.
– Withheld royalties. You get no royalty income until the publisher’s out-of-pocket costs have been recouped. In this version of vanity publishing, you don’t have to physically lay out any cash–but money that should be yours is kept by the publisher to fund publishing costs, which amounts to the same thing.
– Fees for extras. The publisher doesn’t charge you an upfront fee, but does offer you the opportunity to pay for expedited editing, or special website placement, or inclusion in book fair catalogs, or enhanced marketing. These services are optional–so the publisher can claim it’s not making authors to pay to publish–but there’s often heavy pressure to buy them, and authors who don’t pull out their credit cards may become second-class citizens.
– A pre-sale requirement. A similar contract clause may require you to pre-sell a certain number of books prior to publication, or to “guarantee” a minimum number of sales (usually, exactly as much as is needed to enable the publisher to recoup its investment and make a profit). You don’t have to buy them yourself–you may be asked to find “investors” or organizations to commit to purchases–but if you don’t deliver the sales, the publishing deal is off.
This is an especially tricky variation on the pay-to-publish scheme, because it allows the publisher to claim that it’s not asking you for cash. But it’s not an author’s job to be a salesperson for his or her own books–that’s what the publisher is supposed to do.
– A claim that your fee is only part of the cost, with the publisher fronting the rest. This extremely common claim–whose sole purpose is to make you feel better about handing over a large amount of money–is at best an exaggeration. At worst, it’s a lie. Vanity publishers’ profit comes from the fees authors pay and the books authors buy, rather than from book sales to the public; they have little incentive to cut into that by investing resources in high-quality editing, design, production, and marketing. Most of the time, your fee will pay not just the whole freight, but the publisher’s overhead and profit too.
– A claim that fee-based contracts are only part of the business, with traditional contracts making up the rest. This is meant to make the publisher seem more respectable, since it doesn’t just do pay-to-play; but it’s as apt to be a lie as to be true. Even if a vanity publisher does offer fee-free contracts, it’s unlikely that they make up more than a small fraction of the total.
– Pressure to buy your book yourself. The publisher may not contractually require you to purchase your own book–indeed, it may make a big deal of telling you that you don’t have to buy anything. Even so, it will put you under heavy buying pressure–for instance, providing an Author Guide that extols the financial benefit of buying your own book for resale, or bombarding you with special incentives such as extra discounts or contests for the month’s top seller.
These are all signs of a publisher that relies on its authors as its primary customer base, and therefore has little interest in selling books to the public. Unfortunately, if the publisher employs such tactics, you usually don’t find out about them until you’ve already signed the contract.
– A variety of other sneaky techniques. Some examples from Writer Beware’s complaint files: requiring authors to pay for publisher-sponsored conferences or workshops or publicity opportunities or “author universities”; requiring authors to sell ads that are included in the company’s books; hawking company stock to authors, despite the lack of an appropriate license; requiring authors to hire the publisher’s staff to perform various adjunct services. The permutations are endless.
The latest ripoff to hit the writing world is a plague of publishing and marketing scams that, through outrageous prices and worthless services, extract enormous amounts of money from unwary writers.
Based in the Philippines (despite their apparent US and Canadian addresses and phone numbers) and preying primarily on senior citizens and writers who’ve self-published, these companies recruit authors with relentless–and highly deceptive–phone and email solicitations. The claim: the scammer can re-publish your book at a better price, or provide excellent marketing, or “represent” you to big publishing houses like HarperCollins or Penguin Random House or major movie studios like Paramount or Netflix.
Many of the services these scams sell are completely fictional: for example, book insurance (there’s no such thing), an international book seal (ditto), or retrieving a book’s “license” so it can be re-published (again, no such thing). Nor do the scammers have any connections with Big 5 publishers or Hollywood producers: promises to “endorse” or represent are just window dressing to convince you to shell out money. Marketing services, such as book trailers or press releases, may be delivered, but are frequently of substandard quality.
Often the copycats simply take authors’ money and run. Writer Beware has 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.
– Cold-call solicitations by phone and email. Publishing/marketing scams 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, or evaluated by a literary organization or traditional publisher. Sometimes they’ll claim to be literary agents looking to transition you to a traditional publishing contract or represent you to Hollywood, or film companies that have discovered your book and think it would be great on the silver screen.
Solicitation is the number one sign of a scam these days. Real literary agents, publishers, and production companies only rarely reach out to authors they don’t already represent. For scammers, on the other hand, it’s their main way of acquiring clients. Any out-of-the-blue solicitation related to publishing or movie rights, no matter what it’s for or who it appears to be from, should be treated with caution.
– Re-publishing offers. A big focus for the copycats is poaching authors who are already published or self-published. They claim they can do a better job, or price the book better, or provide greater credibility.
Often, re-publishing is presented as a pre-requisite to representing writers’ books to traditional publishers; traditional publishers, the scammers claim, scorn self-published books, and your book needs to be re-published to remove the stigma. Beyond the fact that the “self-publishing stigma” no longer exists, 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.
In reality, re-publishing is a gateway to writers’ bank accounts. By demonstrating that they’re willing to pay, writers make themselves fair game for escalating sales pressure to buy more services, and/or fraudulent publishing and movie rights offers involving large upfront fees. Writer Beware has heard from writers who’ve lost enormous amounts to these schemes. We also regularly get complaints from writers who bought a re-publishing package and have never received royalty reports or payments. When writers get suspicious, start asking too many questions, or the scammer judges that they’re tapped out, the scammer cuts off contact, leaving authors high and dry.
– Claims of expertise that can’t be verified (in the absence of staff and owner names), or that can be easily refuted (for example, if the scammer claims years of experience but their web domain was only registered a few months ago). Some scammers include fake staff on their websites, using stock or AI-generated photos and made-up biographies. Always make sure you can independently verify any claims of accomplishments or success. If you can’t, or if the company’s website makes it impossible to do so because it provides no specifics, move on.
– English-language errors on websites and in emails. The scams are owned and staffed primarily by people for whom English is a second language. Although the advent of ChatGPT and other AI-assisted writing tools is making grammar and colloquial errors much less common on websites and in written text than they used to be, this is still an important marker that too many writers are willing to overlook.
– Phone solicitors with foreign accents. Callers are in the Philippines, and speak fluent but accented English.
– A catalog of junk marketing services, and heavy pressure to buy. 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 and 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. Publishing/marketing scams employ high-pressure and deceptive sales tactics to entice writers to throw good money after bad.
There’s a lengthy list of the publishing and marketing scams Writer Beware has identified to date at the Writer Beware blog.
Researching Publishers and Checking Reputations
- E-mail Writer Beware. SFWA has assembled a large archive of documentation on publishers that engage in questionable practices. Send us the names of any publishers you’d like to know about, and we’ll summarize for you any data that’s in our files. We will also evaluate publishing contracts, providing non-legal (we are not lawyers) comments and advice.
- A good spot to research the reputation of small presses: the Bewares, Recommendations, & Background Check area of the Absolute Write Water Cooler. Check the index first, to see if the press you’re interested in has already been discussed.
- Successful novelist Piers Anthony maintains an internet publishing resource that lists and describes epublishers and small presses, and flags those that have problems or are the focus of complaints.
- Helpful advice from author and editor Jane Friedman: How to Evaluate Small Publishers.
- Agent Janet Reid offers a list of criteria for evaluating a small press.
- From Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, Tips for Evaluating a Traditional Publishing House.
- From author and editor Harold Underdown, a helpful discussion of concerns and cautions about publishers that don’t pay advances.
- Not All Hybrid Publishers Are Created Equal: advice and warning from Jane Friedman.
- The Independent Book Publishers Association’s 9-point list of Hybrid Publisher Criteria. (As noted above, these can be–and are–easily gamed by dishonest vanity publishers, so while they are helpful, you shouldn’t necessarily trust a self-identified hybrid publisher’s claims to follow them.)
- The vital importance of reading your publishing contract–a step no one should skip. An old but still relevant resource.
- Evaluating Publishing Contracts: Six Ways You May Be Sabotaging Yourself. Should you believe your publisher if it promises that a nasty contract clause will never be enforced? Or trust it if it tells you that contract language doesn’t mean what you think it means? How these and other assumptions could come back to bite you.
- The Authors Guild’s model trade book contract.
- Model contracts from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.
- This article by attorney Lloyd Jassin on drafting book contracts is intended for publishers, but provides a useful checklist of the (many) components of a publishing contract.
- From IP attorney Joward G. Zaharoff, another checklist and explainer of publishing contract terms.
- A list of red flag/yellow flag publishing contract clauses, from the Electronic Publishing Industry Coalition (EPIC).
- Discussions of contract clauses, from Writer Beware’s blog:
- Why royalties paid on net profit are a contract red flag
- An outrageous reversion clause
- Early termination fees in publishing contracts: a cautionary tale
- More on termination fees and why they’re bad not just for authors, but for publishers
- The importance of reversion clauses in book contracts
- Editing clauses in book contracts: how to protect yourself
- Red flag: when a publisher claims copyright on edits
- Two red-flag sentences in book contracts
- Signing away your rights: arbitration clauses in book contracts
- Beware temporary transfers of copyright
- Does the bankruptcy clause in your book contract really protect you?
- Attorney Matt Knight on negotiating editorial control in publishing contracts.
- The Authors Guild’s Fair Contract Initiative takes a fresh look at the standard book contract, and highlights where change is needed.
- From the Alliance of Independent Authors: Who Does Your Publishing Contract Protect? (Make sure it’s not just the publisher.)
- Keep Your Copyrights, a copyright information resource from Columbia University, includes a helpful section on publishing contract clauses, both good and bad.
- From the Authors’ Guild: Ten Book Contract Traps.
- How to Request Rights Reversion From Your Publisher, from Writer Beware’s blog.
- More termination suggestions from Writer Beware: Getting Out of Your Book Contract (Maybe).
- From author and former agent Nathan Bransford, a glossary of publishing terms.
- Start Here: How to Get Your Book Published. A comprehensive resource from author and editor Jane Friedman.
- Useful guidelines: Jane Friedman’s chart of the key book publishing paths puts small press publishing in context.
- The Association of American Publishers, a trade group for publishers in the USA, provides useful info, industry stats, and a list of member publishers.
- The Independent Publishers Guild, a similar organization in the UK, also lists its member publishers.
- The Independent Book Publishers’ Association is a US-based group focusing on smaller presses.
- The Complete Review provides a substantial list of independent publishers and small presses. (Note: not all are necessarily reputable. Do extra research on any publisher you approach from this list. The same caution applies to the two lists below.)
- Another list of small presses, from Poets & Writers.
- NewPages.com’s List of Independent and University Publishers.
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