Is that really a publishing offer?

3949414617_722d21eb98_zI’ve had this question:

I’d love a traditional publishing deal. I’ve submitted my manuscript to two agents, and while waiting to hear from them I have been offered three ebook contracts – but I’m not sure which way to go. Also, could you quote me a price for professional editing?

I answered the email at length in private, but some interesting issues emerged that I feel might make a useful post.

Wow, three offers!

Three ebook contracts already. Way to go! Some publishers are offering ebook-only deals to authors, and considering print if sales are good. But in the nicest possible way, I was worried about my friend here – because in this market, it seemed unlikely to get that many serious offers and not have secured an agent.

My correspondent sent me the details of the publishers and I checked their sites. I’m not going to reveal their names here as I haven’t contacted them or asked for statements, as you should do in a proper investigative piece. Also, they weren’t attempting to scam or con anyone. They certainly could publish her book. But she didn’t realise they weren’t publishers of the kind she was hoping to get offers from.

One site had several pages about selling tuition and support to authors. There was a mission statement page that included a point about ‘fees’. The others stated they offered services to authors. Publishers – of the kind that my friend here was seeking – don’t use those terms. These people are pitching for business, not offering a publishing contract.

If I were her, I’d wait to hear what the agents say!

But if you do want to use self-publishing services, here are a few pointers.

bewareBeware rogue clauses

Some publishing services providers can try to tie up your rights so that you can’t publish the book elsewhere. Others will make you pay for formatting and then not release the files for you to use yourself unless you pay a further fee. (I know regular readers of this blog who’ve been caught in these situations.) Some charge way over the market rate as well.

To get acquainted with the kinds of scams and horrors that are perpetrated on unsuspecting authors, make a regular appointment with Victoria Strauss’s blog Writer Beware.

Check the quality

Assuming no nasty clauses, you also need to know if the services are good enough. I’ve seen some pretty dreadful print books from self-publishing services companies. Before committing, buy one of their titles and check it out, or send it to a publishing-savvy friend who can help you make a sensible judgement.

Your best defence? The Alliance of Independent Authors Choosing a Self-Publishing Service will tell you the ins and outs.

Readers and communities

Obviously traditional imprints score here because they have kudos and reputation.

And the publishing services companies on my friend’s list were attempting to address this. They emphasised that they were attached to reader communities, or wrote persuasively about how they were in the process of building them.

This sounds good, and let’s assume they are genuinely putting resources in. But communities take years to establish, plus a number of these publishers seemed to be relying on their writers to spread the word. We all learn pretty quickly that we need to reach readers, not other bunches of writers. And if a community is in its infancy, you might be better buying advert spots on email lists such as Bookbub or The Fussy Librarian, depending on your genre.

selfpubservSome of these companies may give you no advantage over doing it yourself. You might be in exactly the same position as if you put your book on Createspace and KDP and write a description that will take best advantage of Amazon search algorithms.

As a novice author, you might not realise how unmysterious these basics are. So don’t make any decisions without reading this post of mine – before you spend money on self-publishing services….     And try this from author collective Triskele Books: The Triskele Trail.

Wait for the agent… part 2

Basically, if you get a proper publishing offer, you don’t pay for any of the book preparation – that includes editing, formatting, cover etc. Which leads me to my correspondent’s final question about editing. This is one of the things a publisher should do! You only need the likes of me if a) an agent says you need to work with an editor to hone your manuscript or craft or b) if you intend to self-publish!

Thanks for the main pic liquene on flickr 

Do you have any advice to add about assessing offers from publishers or publishing service providers? Or cautionary tales? Please don’t name any names or give identifiable details as it may get legally tricky …

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  1. #1 by acflory on February 10, 2014 - 2:55 am

    Ouch. Perhaps not a scam, but definitely not the real deal either. 😦

    • #2 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 10, 2014 - 8:41 am

      Hi Andrea! One of the companies required the writer to generate a number of pre-orders before being accepted, a figure they would set according to each case, although they said they would help with publicity. It’s an interesting approach and probably not that different from the way a traditional publisher would do the sums before making an offer – after all, they always try to gauge if they can sell an author’s book. This company says it doesn’t charge for any publishing services. But they pushed the author tuition packages the hardest, at a few hundred pounds a time … swings and roundabouts.
      It’s hard to know if it’s open to abuse or if it’s a clever way of reinventing the publishing deal.

      • #3 by acflory on February 10, 2014 - 1:11 pm

        I’ve never been able to make the sums balance in the author’s favour. The ideal would be if the publisher shouldered those tasks that authors are least good at – i.e. promotion and marketing – that would feel like a partnership. Yet even if they did, promotion and marketing are very different these days, so would it even work?

        I rather think it wouldn’t, so I can’t help wondering what real value an author gets out of the deal.

  2. #4 by sharonhughson on February 10, 2014 - 4:55 am

    Thanks for sharing this information. It’s irritating to be the excited writer thinking you’re getting real offers only to realize it’s just a hoax to get your money.

    • #5 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 10, 2014 - 8:44 am

      Hi Sharon!
      I don’t think any of these were hoaxes, but they were taking advantage of the fact that the novice wouldn’t understand how a ‘real’ publishing deal worked. All of them claimed they picked authors carefully, but that might mean anything.
      The funny thing is, we need new models of publishing deal because the current ones are outmoded. But what should those new publishing deals be, and how will we know who to trust?

  3. #6 by Alison Morton on February 10, 2014 - 9:20 am

    I think the litmus test is to check the rights clauses, and that its a non-exclusive publishing agreement to provide services, not a publishing contract. I use a publishing services provider and am very happy with my choice as their business ethic is genuine author support, but believe me, there are some cowboys out there. One company wanted to charge me a hefty fee plus retain rights. Now I am educated about choices, I realise what a narrow escape I had.

    As usual, information and education are the twin keys to take forward from this discussion. Serious self/indie publishers should be prepared to give a little time to write and speak to authors seeking publication and, frankly, the rest of the world, about the choices and how to make them. There is no right or wrong way to publish or be published, just informed choices.

    • #7 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 10, 2014 - 8:15 pm

      Rights clauses? Good point, Alison.
      And it’s nice to hear from someone who has found good publishing services providers. We need to get these jobs done somehow, either by finding our own freelances or by using a team who know what needs to be done.

  4. #8 by philipparees on February 10, 2014 - 12:01 pm

    A recent salutary lesson. In 2006 I ‘self’ published with one of the now ‘Authorhouse’ companies. In those days there was little advice for self publishing and I knew nothing. They charged over £1000 to ‘publish’ AFTER I had edited, formatted all files and bought 40 photographic images (including cover) and designed entire book block and cover. What they claimed to have done was to put these into ‘high resolution’ print ready files. Since then (in seven years) I have not been paid for a single copy sold. Not one. Many ‘used’ copies have been offered on Amazon. When I queried, Amazon said the book had never been listed with Nielsens or Ingram (contrary to promise in contract)so they could not ascertain how or whether these used copies had ever been sold, or to whom. Or whether they even existed.

    Recently I informed the Company ( I would be happy to name them but Roz asked not) that I wished to cease any further trade. As Victoria Strauss above says they refused to release the high resolution files that had already cost over £1000 unless I paid a release fee of $150 for both the book and cover file. To reformat would have cost more and I needed the images which I had already paid for separately. I had no choice but to obey this extortionate demand. I now find that Amazon cannot withdraw that listing under this company’s ISBN because some books may exist and Amazon Marketplace cannot withdraw those owners rights by de-listing! So much for author copyright!

    It seems that for me to republish under the same title ( which I like and cover fits) will cause confusion. If I re-title there is nothing to stop copies being printed and all benefits (as well as 5* reviews) being bequeathed to the Company.
    What to do? Hang yourself?

    • #9 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 10, 2014 - 8:19 pm

      Philippa, I was thinking of you when I wrote that remark and was hoping you’d share the circumstances. What can I say but how appalled I am? This is a horrible thing to happen to a book when we put so much in.

      Unfortunately Amazon won’t withdraw a book if it’s ever been on sale. I had this situation on a much less negative level when I retitled the characters book, and just had to live with two print editions. I’m racking my brains in case I can think of a solution for you, but I don’t think there is one.

      But thanks for coming here and filling in the whole sorry story.

      • #10 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 10, 2014 - 8:31 pm

        Philippa, see my answer to Robin below. You might find you can get some extra legal guns without spending any money. Just a thought.

        • #11 by philipparees on February 11, 2014 - 11:53 am

          Thanks Roz. Some small consolation that you had two print editions side by side. Would you recommend a new cover sufficiently evocative of the first (but newer and sharper) or an entirely different one?

          • #12 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 11, 2014 - 4:33 pm

            I’d say it’s best to give the book the cover it deserves. Don’t try to make it look like the old one for the sake of continuity. The cover is what grabs the readers for you. Readers won’t get confused by two covers, they’ll be able to work out it’s the same book. But if you make the new one look more attractive you can make sure you grab the sales!

  5. #13 by Charles Ranier on February 10, 2014 - 4:04 pm

    long story short: a publishing offer is one in which they pay you. Money comes toward you. If an offer includes ANY money going FROM you TO them, it’s not a publishing offer, it’s a ripoff. See: Publish America and all the attendant tentacle companies.

    • #14 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 10, 2014 - 8:22 pm

      That’s mostly right, Charles. Certainly you should never be paying the company, even if they’re dressing it up as ‘tuition’.

      But it’s no longer the case that publishers will pay you, at least not up front. For instance, HarperCollins has an imprint called The Friday Project which doesn’t pay advances, but it does split the profits 50:50 with the author. So that means the author gets paid after the book earns out its costs.

  6. #15 by David Anson on February 10, 2014 - 7:26 pm

    I’m curious. How did these publishers get her contact information if she didn’t submit to them? Did one or more of the agents sell her information to these sites?

    • #16 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 10, 2014 - 8:25 pm

      Good question, David. She didn’t say. But I somehow doubt that the agents would have sold her information, though I can see why you’d think that. Agents are so busy trying to cope with their own inboxes that they wouldn’t have time to sell her contact info.

      However, years ago I got a rejection letter from a publisher that included a flyer for a literary consultancy. They obviously were promoting a service that their friends were running and it was probably a good way to get business. In my case, I read the flyer, thought ‘I’d like to work for them’ and wrote them a letter pitching myself as an editor. It worked!

  7. #17 by Robin Lynn Griffith on February 10, 2014 - 7:28 pm

    Hi there. So just on last week Wednesday I reviewed the sps contract with my “contracts contact” at XYZ and she did not have any real answers for me. Reading into the details, I would have no rights to the created work. I was so excited when they contacted me I gave them the first payment but have yet to sign the contract. Also, I saw a lot of fees they could charge me before royalties and the “contract” person could not tell me what those could potentially be. I asked her to ask someone and come back to me. I have not heard one word in three days. But before I had the contract in hand and asked questions they called me every day. I am so disappointed as a new author trying to be an active writer, it sounded so exciting. I also asked for a referral. To speak with a real client, not one from the marketing brouchere. Again, I’m still waiting. From what I read, its going to cost me over $100 to get the rest of my first payment back. This weekend I go the SFWC and did enroll in the speed dating with agents session. I’ll try that and see what happens. Everything is a learning adventure that’s for sure. Thank you so much for your information. RG

    • #18 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 10, 2014 - 8:30 pm

      Robin, that is an awful story. Thank goodness you thought to scrutinise the fine print and ask some level-headed questions. You’ve clearly put them on the spot.
      Will you be able to get your money back? It might be worth looking at your credit card benefits or house insurance, as sometimes they come with free legal advice. I found my horse insurance (yes, that’s not a typo) came with free legal help, and I used it to sort out a tricky employment law situation. Nothing to do with horses, but it was legal advice and they had a lawyer who helped me without charging. Another possibility is your car insurance policy – maybe there’s legal advice on that too.

      Good luck. I really hope you don’t lose too much. And then, forge ahead and write great books.

  8. #19 by DRMarvello on February 11, 2014 - 12:25 am

    I forget who originally said it, but there’s a saying related to trade publishing that goes “money always flows to the author.” The author should not be expected to pay for production services like editing or cover design.

    The whole point of having a publisher is to have someone else deal with the production and operational aspects related to the business of book publishing. The author provides the content and the publisher takes it from there. The publisher edits and “packages” the book. The publisher distributes the book into the marketplace. The publisher collects royalties and shares them with the author. Once authors hand over a manuscript, their only involvement should be receiving royalties. Whether or not authors get an advance that has to be earned back is just a contract detail.

    There is one exception to authors getting involved in the business of publishing: marketing. Trade publishers do little or no marketing for first-time authors. In fact, for years trade publishers have been increasingly demanding that authors have a “platform.” Having a viable marketing plan is a necessary part of a book proposal. My point here is that getting an offer that leaves the marketing up to you is nothing unusual, and it’s not an indicator of a scam publishing company.

    • #20 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 18, 2014 - 8:53 am

      Hi Daniel! You’re right – usually the publisher pays for all the production. But I know of one long-established publisher who has been experimenting with partnership deals, where the person who wrote the book also provides the editorial services – and the publisher provides the distribution network and kudos. The publisher and author split the profits 50:50, an unprecedented percentage for authors.
      Sadly, it didn’t work because the overworked staff of the publisher couldn’t get their heads around it. So I’d better not name names, although I know who they are.
      And you’re right about the marketing. Often traditional publishers do a minimal amount, and what’s more, the author doesn’t realise how little that will do in a crowded marketplace. They think if the publisher just sends a press release to The Guardian, they’re on a fast track to fame.

  9. #21 by fmclaren on February 17, 2014 - 10:23 am

    This is such a compelling article to read. I think the self-publishing industry is a very skewed one, and I’m sure that if there were regulations in place it would do the industry a lot of good. It’s a shame to see so many new writers fooled by these so called offers.

    We’re having a similar debate over at our website about whether readers’ book buying habits are affected by self-published versus traditionally published books. We’d love if you stopped by to give your views.

  10. #23 by Randal Eldon Greene on October 6, 2019 - 7:01 pm

    “We all learn pretty quickly that we need to reach readers, not other bunches of writers.”
    Very wise words. This is why Facebook groups full of other writers isn’t the best place to market your book. You certainly may, but it’s best to find other ways to market to readers. Yes, writers are readers, but writers groups aren’t a great place to market your books, though they’re great places to get and give advice.

    • #24 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 6, 2019 - 9:42 pm

      Hi Randal! The eternal problem! Writers are very supportive of each other. In the outside world, readers have no idea how hard it all is – and why should they? It’s not their problem. So we all end up arranging our wagons in a circle, which might not be the best approach, but the understanding we all give each other makes us feel safer in those spaces.

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