Promotion and publishing scams are everywhere on the Internet. Here’s what to look out for.
There are a lot of advantages to self-publishing, including retaining total control of your book, higher royalty rates, and a much faster timeline from completed manuscript to holding your book in your hands. It also involves a learning curve and some work on your part. And, just to make it that much harder, the self-publishing landscape is filled with scam-mines, just waiting to separate you from your money—and potentially from the rights of your book.
My first response whenever someone in an author group asks about a “publishing or promotional company” is to tell them to Google the name of the company and add the word “review” or “scam” to it. I don’t know why writers—who should also be readers and researchers—don’t take this basic first step, but there you have it. There’s also a great website that you should bookmark, WriterBeware that talks about current publishing scams. Do a search on the site to see if the company you are interested in is listed. If negative reviews and complaints are not enough to turn you off a company, I have listed other things that should tip you off.
Here are some more red flags authors should watch out for when considering self-publishing options:
They contact you: Wouldn’t that just be lovely? A publisher contacts you. Or a book promoter has “discovered” your book and feels like it really deserves to be shown off to the world. A variation on this is the news that your book would make a great movie, and they will turn it into a screenplay (for a very large fee) and pitch it to their Hollywood contacts. If you receive unsolicited offers or emails from publishing services, especially those that claim they’ve “discovered” your work and want to publish it, be cautious. Legitimate publishers (add agents and promoters) generally don’t approach authors in this manner.
Upfront Fees: Reputable publishers and self-publishing platforms typically do not charge authors upfront fees to publish their books. Ingram-Spark had uploading fees for years (about $50) and discontinued them. Print on Demand platforms do not charge fees. There are scam companies who will use the Amazon or Kindle name in their company name. (Big red flag!) Amazon shuts them down for trademark violations as fast as they can, but they keep popping up. It’s a game of Whack-A-Mole. Beware of any service that requires a significant upfront payment for publishing, editing, or other services. Traditional publishers pay you. While advances to unknown and midlevel authors have been getting smaller and smaller over the years, and the marketing efforts are thrown more and more on the author, traditional publishers at least don’t insult you by asking for money. If a company says it’s a publisher and asks for any upfront fees, you are not dealing with a traditional publisher. There are hybrid publishers who are little more than vanity presses and full vanity presses. The cost of services they offer are inflated.
You also need to make sure that you are not signing over the rights to your book. Many new authors go with a vanity press for the convenience of having all the services in one package, only to later find out that they signed away their rights, they are not receiving royalties, and many times, when they try to get the rights to their book back, the company has gone out of business and is nowhere to be found.
There are self-publishing services (full disclosure—I offer those services) that act as a general contractor for you, coordinating editing, formatting, cover design, keyword and category research, ISBNs, copyright, and the uploading and publishing of your book. They should openly identify themselves as a service, not a publisher. Royalties should go directly to you and the ISBN and imprint should be yours.
Lack of Transparency: This follows right on the upfront fee issue. If a self-publishing service is not clear about their pricing, terms, or the services they provide, it’s a warning sign. You should be able to easily find information about what you’re paying for and what you can expect in return. While some companies and freelancers don’t want to list their pricing on their websites, they should give you a detailed proposal that includes pricing before you make a decision to work with them.
I will add in here that any “publisher” who has a confusing or poorly defined royalty structure has that for only one reason: to rip you off. Make sure you understand how royalties are calculated and when you’ll receive payments. You want access to a portal that allows you to track your sales. As a guideline, Amazon’s eBook royalties, for books priced between $2.99 and $9.99, is 70%. (Outside of those parameters, it goes down to 35%). For print books, you receive 60% of the revenue AFTER Amazon takes out print costs and other fees. Traditional publisher royalties are much lower than that because they shoulder all the upfront costs of publishing your book. For eBooks and audiobooks, royalties are in the 25% range, hardcovers hover around 15%, and paperbacks between 5% to 7.5%. A company that charges you upfront and has royalties that are in line with traditional publishers is a company to avoid.
Low Quality Editing and Cover Design: If you wanted low quality work, you could do it yourself. 🙂 There are two places in the publishing process where you do NOT want to go with the least expensive offer: editing and cover design. Let’s start with editing. Quality editing is expensive. On the low end, editors charge $35 per hour and can edit four to ten pages per hour, depending on the material. Most freelance editors charge by the word, with proofing and copyediting starting as low as $0.02 per word and going as high as $0.49 per word. On a 60,000 word book, you’re looking at $1,200 for basic proofing to almost $30,000. (That’s SUPER high, by the way.) Most editing runs between $0.05 and $0.10 per word. If someone is offering you a package price that includes editing, know that their editing services are typically running your book through a spell-checker and Grammarly. Once. If you have repeated entire sections within your book, if you have inconsistencies or jumps in logic or chronology, these services are not going to catch that.
As a writer, I hate to say this, but your cover design is the most important aspect of your book. The cover sells the book. Go onto Amazon and look at the thumbnail images of bestselling books in your genre. You want your cover to both look the same (fits reader expectations of what a book in that genre should look like) and stand out at the same time. Your cover catches the reader’s eye. They click on it and read the blurb. They may hit the “read inside” option but if they don’t notice your cover, they will never get that far. If you’re considering a company, go on their website and see the covers of the books they have published. Then go to Amazon and read inside a few of these books. How is the writing? Are there obvious typos? You might check the book descriptions while you’re there to see if they would make you want to read the book. And, just to be thorough, look at how many reviews a book has, the ratings, and the book rankings. Which brings us to…
Promises of Guaranteed Success: “Be a Bestselling Author!” You are being sold a dream, my friend. Any company that guarantees you will be a bestselling author is either lying or manipulating Amazon. (These companies don’t even try to hit the bestsellers’ list for the NY Times, Wall Street Journal, or even USA Today.) It’s quite easy to hit the Amazon bestseller list in a subcategory and that’s what these companies are promising. You can hit the #1 slot in some categories by selling as few as four books. You want to be ready to take screenshots when that happens, because Amazon updates their lists every hour. Hitting the Amazon bestseller list for a couple of hours does not translate into steady sales or big bucks. It’s nice for a bit of marketing buzz but it is fairly meaningless until your book is in the top 100 on ALL of Amazon and is selling consistently over a long period of time. If someone is guaranteeing a bestseller before they even know your book’s topic/genre or—you know—have actually read it to judge the quality of your writing, they are doing a snow job.
Exclusive Contracts: Some self-publishing companies require you to sign contracts that lock you into their services for an extended period. Again, they may have language in their contracts that have you signing over the copyright to you book. Even in traditional publishing, the author still owns the copyright. The publisher has the contractual right to publish, but it’s the author’s intellectual property. Most new authors don’t have the money to fork over to an attorney to check a contract. Scammers know this. If you are self-publishing, there is no need for a company to have an exclusive contract with you. Possible pitfalls? You might find you have to use their company (at an exorbitant price) if you want to create an audiobook. You may not be able to publish any new books with another publisher. Before you sign any contract, have a lawyer (or paralegal) read it over.
Lack of ISBN Ownership: A lot of new authors look at the cost of an ISBN and are more than happy to have someone else front that cost. A single ISBN is $125 at Bowker (which is where US authors buy their ISBNs). A package of ten is just shy of $300. This brings the cost down to only $30 per ISBN. If you have a book and an eBook, you will need two. If you want to do an audiobook or hardcover, they get their own ISBNs. You can get a free ISBN from Amazon, but your book will have Amazon listed as the publisher. You want to make sure that you retain ownership of the ISBN for your book. If the scam publishing company supplies the ISBN, it can limit your ability to switch publishers or even make changes in the future.
I highly recommend that you buy your own ISBNs. Get the ten pack. They don’t go stale and they don’t expire. (By the way, this is a nice hidden profit center for scam publishers. They show you that an ISBN is a “$125 value” but they have bought their ISBNs by the hundred ($5.75 each) if not thousand ($1.50 each). That means their profit margin for each ISBN sold to you is around $120. Also, bar codes cost nothing. Don’t buy them from Bowker. There are free online bar code makers, but many POD platforms create the bar code from your ISBN for free.
Hidden Costs: Scammers are geniuses at finding profit centers. You will be hit with “upsells” at every turn. Things like interior formatting, number of pictures allowed, “expanded distribution” or marketing services are hinted at when you first sign and then you find out that each one of these is an expensive upgrade. Another profit center is what they charge you for author copies. I have heard so many new, soon-to-be-scammed authors proudly stating that they “get 10 books” included. Big whoop. Author copies of most paperbacks are under $5.00 from POD platforms. (Books with interior color are more expensive.) And, they’ll “let you” buy as many author copies as you want at $8 or $10 each. They’re making anywhere from $3 to $5 per copy off you. On top of what you paid upfront.
The Distribution Promise: Again, this is a benefit that is touted by scammers that is a big nothing-burger. They promise to get your book on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple Books, etc. First, they are not talking brick and mortar retailers; your book is listed on these websites. If someone orders a print book from Barnes & Noble, it goes through the same basic POD situation as someone ordering off Amazon. How do they get your book distributed? They upload it to IngramSpark which distributes to over 30 online platforms. Retailers and libraries order their books through IngramSpark, so when you upload to them, you are put in their catalog. The chance of librarians or a retail corporate buyer finding your book in the catalog and thinking, “I MUST stock this book” are slim and none. You can get that same level of distribution by using Ingram yourself, Draft2Digital, or simply click on “Expanded Distribution” when you upload your book to Amazon. Each has its benefits; they all have overlap in what platforms they deliver to.
No Control Over Your Work: You should retain control of your book and have the ability to make decisions about pricing, cover design, and distribution. You want final say. You don’t want limits on those choices, either. (“You can choose from these two covers” or “You only
get need one round of editing.”) Avoid any service that tries to take control away from you.
Unrealistic Timelines: I can have fairly fast turnaround times—when I am the only person in the equation. You don’t want a one-woman shop. I use a wonderful company for covers and interior formatting—but their turnaround time is NOT fast. I have an editing company that does excellent work, but they like to have a heads-up a week or so before to make sure they can schedule my client’s book in. I also build-in time in case some piece of the process gets held up. (And something always does.) Be wary of services that promise an extremely fast turnaround for publishing your book. Rushed production can result in subpar quality, but more than that, the timeline is going to blow apart. It’s the nature of the beast.
Do Your Due Diligence to Avoid Publishing Scams
If you are going to use a company to help you through the self-publishing process, please do your due diligence. Your first stop is an online search for reviews and complaints. This might be your only stop. Please know that services like TrustPilot and the Better Business Bureau collect membership fees from companies and bad reviews of those companies somehow don’t surface. (I know. It’s disillusioning.) A savvy company can bury bad reviews by having a dozen good reviews and articles written that are SEOd to the max to gain the first page of Google, pushing the real reviews to page two, three, and never clicked. Go beyond the first page of the search.
Most of all, trust your instincts. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Publishers, agents, film companies, and big-time book promoters don’t contact unknown or newly-published authors with few sales. There are companies that buy lists of new copyright filings and contact authors. Be aware that scammers are out there who know you have a dream, and they are more than happy to steal that dream. Don’t let them.