The phone rang just as I was sitting down to write my next blog post. One look at the caller ID told me it was trouble. My plumber, Sam, who has an endless number of ways to drain my bank account.
I let the phone go to voice mail and logged in to my blog.
The doorbell rang. Twice. Three times. Then one long continuous ring.
I peeked out my office window and saw a very short, stout older woman on my porch holding a plate stacked with the largest cookies I’ve ever seen.
I went to the door and opened it. “I’m sorry but–”
“See, he’s home after all!” boomed a familiar voice. Sam the plumber jumped out from behind an enormous tree.
“Dear boy!” said the woman. “Little Sammie’s told me all about you! Thank you so much for offering to help with my book. Here, have a cookie!” She handed me a chocolate-chip cookie the size of a small pizza. It felt like it weighed ten pounds.
I suddenly realized that the woman looked a lot like Sam, except scaled down in size. Sam is well over six feet tall and weighs about 300 pounds.
“I see you’ve met my Ma!” Sam bellowed as he wiped his boots on the welcome mat. “She’s got great news. Wanted you to be the first to know.”
“Um, that’s … great.” I noticed that some of the chocolate chips were already melting in my hands. “Listen, I need to go put this cookie down.”
“Go on ahead.” Sam pushed open the door. “We’ll just make ourselves at home.”
Which was exactly what I was afraid of. I backed into the kitchen, dropped the cookie on the counter, and washed about a pound of melted chocolate off of my hands.
When I got back to the living room, Sam had taken over my favorite chair and his mother was perched primly on the couch.
“I don’t think we’ve been introduced,” I said as I sat down. “I’m–”
“Sammie’s told me all about you already,” she said. “You can call me Minnie.”
“Well, um, Minnie. What sort of news do you have?”
“Dear boy!” she said. “I’m going to be published! By a real publisher. I’ll be an author at last!”
“That’s … great. So there’s an advance and all that?”
“Yes, and quite a sizable one!” she said. “That’s why we need your advice. Sammie tells me you’re a world-famous author and you know about these things. I don’t want to make a mistake.”
“Well, what kind of book are you writing?”
“It’s a yeah novel,” Sam said.
“A … what?” I said. “I’ve never heard of a yeah novel.”
Minnie gave me a disapproving frown. “Sammie said you know everything about publishing. How could you not know about yeah novels?”
“Who’s the target audience?”
“Why, young adults, of course.”
“You mean a YA novel?”
“Of course. A yeah novel.” Minnie beamed at me. “And it’s got a wonderful title: SAMMIE KILLS THE DRAGON.”
“That’s, um, pretty unusual.”
“My publisher thinks it’s marvelous and unique. He says they want to publish it right away, as soon as I sign the contract.”
Every hackle in my body rose. “Right away? They don’t want to do any editing?”
Sam grinned. “They said they might wanna fix a few spelling errors. Other than that, it’s good to go. They even have a whole buncha nice covers on their web site. We already picked one out — it just needs a title and author name.”
“And the dragon has to be pink,” Minnie said.
This was not computing. Not at all. “You said there was an advance. Can I ask how much?”
“Almost $8,000,” Minnie said.
I stared at her. Something was really wrong here. “$8,000? That’s pretty high for a first novel in this economy. You must have really impressed them.”
“Well, that’s just the thing,” she said. “We think it’s too much.”
Then it all clicked into place. “Whoa, whoa, whoa! Stop right there. You’re telling me they’re ASKING for $8,000 to publish your novel?”
“See, that’s where we figgered you could help us,” Sam said.
“Dead right, I can help you.” I was angry now. I hate seeing writers get ripped off by predatory publishers. Here’s how I’ll help you–”
“Dear boy!” Minnie leaped to her feet and threw her arms around me and squeezed. Hard. For nearly a minute. Forcing every molecule of air out of my lungs.
By the time she finished hugging me, I was nearly unconscious.
Sam grinned. “See, we know that being a bigshot author, you probably got $8,000 in spare change socked away that you could use to help a feller author out–”
I waited for the black spots to disappear from my eyes. “Okay, listen. Have a seat Minnie. Let me tell you a few things about publishing.”
Minnie sat back down on the couch.
I tried to pick my words tactfully. “Listen, the way publishing normally works is that the publisher pays the author an advance.”
“That’s what we thought,” said Minnie. “So we were surprised when they said that they were going to partner with me and my share would be all that much money.”
“There are plenty of publishers who ask you to pay to publish your work,” I said. “Sometimes they’re called vanity publishers. Or subsidy publishers. Or whatever. Most of them are not legit.”
Sam pulled out an iPad from his coverall pocket and started thumping with two fingers on the screen. “Don’t mind me. I’m just taking notes on all this. So we don’t fergit.”
“Let’s be clear that some of these publishers are legitimate,” I said. “They basically do all the work you’d have to do if you were acting as your own publisher. They help you manage the process and they take a fee, but the profits for the book go to you.”
Sam pecked madly on his iPad.
“But way too many of these publishers are scammers,” I said. “Their job is to get as much money as possible from you and to do as little work as possible. They take a fee and then if any copies of the book actually sell, they take most of the profits.”
Minnie’s lower lip was trembling. “How … how can you tell which is which?”
“It’s kind of a gray line,” I said. “There are some publishers that are very clearly legit. There are some that are obviously a scam. And there are some in the gray middle. You have to read the contract and know what you’re looking for–”
“Dear boy! You’ll help us, won’t you? Sammie, you were so smart to know to come ask him for help!”
I sighed. Obviously, I wasn’t going to get my blog written today. “I’d need to have a copy of the contract to know for sure–”
“That ain’t no problem,” Sam said. “Got it right here on my iPad.” He pecked and swiped furiously on the screen for half a minute, then handed it to me. “Just read that there contract and tell us what yer expert eyes sees.”
I took the iPad and began reading. By the end of the first paragraph, I already didn’t like it.
“You realize that this contract gives the publisher the exclusive right to publish your book anywhere in the world, in any language?”
“That’s good, ain’t it?” said Sam. “Means they believe in the book.”
“It means they’re locking down all sorts of rights, even if they have no plans on using them. But if your book should happen to do well and some foreign publisher inquires about foreign language rights, then this publisher will take 50% of that income. The contract says very clearly that they don’t seek out foreign deals.”
“Dear me, that doesn’t sound honest,” Minnie said.
“And this paragraph says that the publisher will print out copies at their expense to fill out all bona fide orders.” I looked at Minnie. “You do realize that means they’re a print-on-demand company, right?”
Minnie shook her head. “I don’t know what that means.”
“It means they don’t publish any copies at all until an order comes in. Then they have a machine to print out that one order.”
“That’s good, ain’t it?” Sam said. “Means they don’t waste no space in a warehouse with books that ain’t sold yet.”
“It means they never have to print a single copy,” I said. “Unless by some miracle somebody somewhere orders it. Then they print it out.”
“Well, but then they pay me royalties when they do that,” Minnie said. “I know I saw something in there about royalties.”
“Royalties!” I shouted. Now I was furious.
“Ain’t royalties a good thing?” Sam said. “You get royalties from that publisher of yours that publishes books fer stupid people.”
“Royalties are fine when the publisher is paying the costs of publishing the book and is paying the author an advance. Royalties are NOT fine when you’re paying those costs.”
I scanned to the next paragraph in the contract. What I saw made my head start throbbing.
“Okay, this is awful. This is horrible. You pay for all the production costs, and then when you make a sale, IF you make a sale, they pay you 10% of the retail price.”
“Is that … bad?” Minnie’s voice was quavering.
“They ought to be paying you the sale price minus the cost of printing and distribution.”
“But they’re the publisher,” Sam said. “Don’t they got to earn something fer their investment in Ma’s career?”
“They AREN’T investing in her career!” I shouted. “They’re asking her to invest in them.”
Sam looked thunderstruck. “That ain’t right,” he said. “That’s like … charging a customer full price on a low-flush toilet that ya bought at wholesale, and then charging fer delivery when it’s already in the back of yer truck.”
I gave him a sharp look. “Exactly like that.”
Sam’s face turned bright red. “Not that I’d know nobody who ever done something like that.”
Minnie pointed at the iPad. “Explain to me about this catalog fee.”
I studied the paragraph. I’d never heard of a catalog fee. It turned out to be bizarre. “Well, it looks pretty simple. Every January, they charge you a fee to put your book in their catalog. And if you don’t pay, then they deduct it from whatever royalties you might have earned.”
Minnie shrugged. “I suppose that sounds fair, but just how much is this catalog fee?”
I could feel my blood starting to boil. “That’s the beauty of this scam. They don’t tell you how much it is. Might be $10. Might be $1000. There is no way for you to know — until next January when you get the bill. And then you’ll get another bill the year after and the year after — forever! So not only are they taking your money at the beginning of this con job, but they’ve got you on the hook to pay money to them forever. And they aren’t telling you how much it is–yet. But they’ve got a contract to prove that you owe them more money every year.”
“Well, that ain’t fair!” Sam said. “Wiggling in extra charges like that, it’s like … fixing the toilet and then offering to service the flaboozie valve on the septic system fer an extra hunnert bucks.”
“Sammie, dear, what’s a flaboozie valve?”
Sam looked extremely uncomfortable.
“I’m sure no honest plumber would ever pad the invoice,” I said.
“But a feller hears stories from time to time,” Sam said.
“The point is that this charge is ridiculous,” I said. “This is a predatory publisher, for sure.”
“But the man on the phone was so nice!” Minnie said. “He said they print all the author copies at their own expense.”
I read the next paragraph. “Yes, they print the first 25 copies at their expense. That probably costs them $100. Maybe as much as $200. But you’re paying $8000. Where do you think the rest is going?”
“They said they was paying the editor fellers,” Sam said. “Says so in the e-mail they sent.” He grabbed the iPad and switched over to the e-mail. “See all the things they was going to edit? Long list.”
I read it carefully. “Let’s see, spelling, grammar, punctuation, commas. I should hope they’d fix those. It’ll cost them a few hundred bucks to hire a proofreader off the internet. Oh, and they say they MIGHT change the readability level. And what’s next? Aha!” I jabbed my finger at the screen. “Read that list, Sam.”
Sam peered at the screen. “Basic content could be enlarged and better examples given.” He frowned at Minnie. “Ma, I didn’t know you had any examples in yer book.”
“Well, I don’t. It’s a yeah novel.”
Sam continued down the list. “Many common references need to be checked fer accuracy. Permissions fer use of copyrighted work may need to be obtained. Any potentially libelous statements will be purged.”
A puzzled look settled across Minnie’s face. “But I don’t HAVE any references in my book. This is a yeah novel. And I don’t quote any copyrighted work either. Or make libelous statements. Why are they going to do all that work for me when I don’t need it?”
“They aren’t,” I said. “Here’s the thing. They send this exact letter to every writer, fiction or nonfiction. They haven’t read your book. They have no idea what’s in it. They’re giving you a long list of things that they might do, when they hire some cheap editor somewhere to skim through your book and tweak it up a bit.”
“That’s … that’s like a feller who calls up cold and offers to inspect yer irrigation system fer termite damage when–” Sam stopped and coughed lightly. “What I’m saying is, it ain’t honest.”
“And here’s the clincher,” I said. “this last point says that the Marketing Department has indicated that their promotions may not result in as many sales as they would wish, and they want you to know that, but they’re going to approve publishing your title anyway.”
“Why would they DO that?” Minnie said. “If they don’t think my book’s going to sell, why would they go to all the work to publish it?”
“Cuz it ain’t no skin off their nose if it don’t sell,” Sam said. “Since they’re asking us to pay fer it all, they don’t care if it sells or not.”
Minnie looked shocked. “That’s dreadful! Perfectly criminal!” She jabbed a finger at me. “You’re telling me that all these publishers are naughty, naughty boys, aren’t you?”
“Not necessarily,” I said. “There are some perfectly legitimate subsidy publishers who would do a good job for you, hire good editors and get a good quality cover made, all at a fair price. That could make financial sense, if you had a marketing platform in place and could sell copies on your own.”
“Sell copies on my own? Is that legal?” Minnie began wringing her hands.
“Authors should be able to buy copies at cost and then sell them. Let me just check the terms.” I scanned the contract.
“Ma, you could buy copies and sell ‘em to yer friends,” Sam said.
“These are terrible terms,” I said. “This publisher will sell you books, yes. But they’ll charge you the wholesale rate, which is probably a lot more than their cost. That’s a ripoff. They should charge you their cost.”
I continued scanning down the contract. “And it gets worse. They only pay your royalties annually. Legitimate publishers pay your royalties at least twice a year.”
Sam was stomping back and forth in my living room. “Ma, this coulda been a fiasco. They mighta took yer money and then you woulda got nothing and then you’d have to wait till the next book to get rich.”
I shook my head. “No, it would be even worse than that. This is unbelievable, but there’s a no-compete clause in this contract. If you sign it, not only will they cheat you out of your money, but you agree not to publish another book with any other publisher, EVER, that might compete with this one.”
“Ever?” Minnie squeaked. “But … don’t contracts end eventually?”
I pointed to the termination clause in the contract. “The contract only ends when this predatory publisher says it ends, and they have no incentive to ever end the contract because they’ll be getting that catalog fee from you forever. The only way you could force it to terminate is if the book goes out of print. But a print-on-demand book NEVER goes out of print.”
Sam was thumping his enormous fist in his palm. “There’s ways to MAKE a feller go out of business. That’d end the contract!”
“Not this contract,” I said. “This clause right here says that the publisher can assign the rights for your book to somebody else if they go bankrupt. And you can’t do anything about it.”
“So yer saying it’s a horrible contract,” Sam said. “Can you negotiate for us? Make ‘em give us a better deal?”
I shook my head. “Sam, this is the worst contract I’ve ever seen. These people are thieves. They’ll take your money and do the absolute minimum needed to get the book in print. They won’t do anything to market the book. If you market it yourself, then they’ll keep most of the money. They’ll charge you a catalog fee every year until the world ends. They’ll never terminate the contract. And they’ll sue you if you try to write another book that competes with it.”
“Dear boy! You’ve saved us from making a dreadful, dreadful mistake!”
Sam took my hand and shook it violently. “I take back some of the things I said about you on Twitter. Yer a decent feller, even if yer always griping about how much a honest plumber charges.”
There seemed to be no good answer to that, so I said nothing.
Tears were rolling down Minnie’s cheeks. “But I wanted so BAD to be a best-selling yeah author. And now there’s no hope. No hope at all.”
“Ma, I told ya about how ya could self-publish yer book on Amazon,” Sam said. “I done that and I’m making good money with my Joedunnit books.”
She blew her nose on my sleeve. “That isn’t real publishing, Sammie. That’s just something amateurs do.”
I didn’t want to make more work for myself. I knew I was crazy to say anything. All I had to do was keep my mouth shut and I wouldn’t have to deal with Minnie and her yeah novel, ever again.
But I’m stupid. I’m an idiot. I’m a hundred-percent, grade-A fool.
Which is why I corrected her.
“Minnie, that’s not exactly true,” I said. “Plenty of professional writers are self-publishing these days. And some of them are making good money.”
Minnie dried her eyes. Stared hard at me to see if I was lying. Took hold of my hand and kissed it.
“Dear boy! You’re going to help me publish my yeah novel, aren’t you? Aren’t you? Oh, Sammie, you’re such a genius to bring me here. Such a genius!”
TO BE CONTINUED …
Randy sez: This is the first in a series of blog posts on how to self-publish a novel. Some of what we say will be useful to non-fiction writers too.
Minnie’s contract is based on a real one I have seen. The list of spurious editing services offered to Minnie is based on a real one I have seen.
In the coming weeks, I’ll walk Minnie through the process of editing her novel and getting it published on Amazon and other online retailers. Maybe Minnie will earn big bucks. Maybe she won’t. But she’ll never know unless she tries.
And at least she won’t be paying out a huge pile of money to a predatory publisher somewhere.
A Contest For Most Helpful Story
Now I’d like to hear from my Loyal Blog Readers. Have you had a bad experience with a predatory publisher? Do you want to share what you learned? Can you tell us what you’d do differently?
You don’t have to name names, but if you do, I won’t stop you.
The main thing is that you can make a difference in the world. You can tell other writers what mistakes not to make. You can help put the crooks out of business.
Leave a comment and tell your story. If you’ve got a friend with a predatory publisher horror story, send them here to leave a comment.
I’ll read each story and choose the one that I think is most helpful to my Loyal Blog Readers.
The winner gets their choice of an interview on my blog or a free five-page critique by me of their current manuscript.
I’ll choose the winner two weeks from today, on July 2, 2013.
Note added July 3, 2013: And the winner is … Caprice, with her cautionary tale about “Publisher X.” Caprice, I’ll email you privately to ask whether you want to do an interview or get a critique.
Thanks to all my Loyal Blog Readers for your comments and stories about predatory publishers. I appreciate you!