Wednesday, August 6, 2014

A World Full of Sharks

by Janis Susan May/Janis Patterson

An acquaintance of a friend just published her very first book. Now normally that would be a cause for rejoicing. Instead I wish it had never happened – at least, not like this.

I’m not going to give any details, mainly because I don’t want to embarrass her any more than she already is, and because I don’t want to get sued or targeted by the so-called publisher. Somehow it seems that the less savory a publisher is, the more litigious they are.

The story is one that is all too common today. A newbie writer finished her first book and sought a publisher. Any seasoned writer will tell you it’s hard to get picked up by a reputable publisher. Lots of them – usually the traditional ones – won’t even look at a writer without an agent. Nowadays even the better epubs only take a tiny percentage of the submissions they receive.

Unfortunately too many times newbie writers will grab at anything that calls itself a ‘publishing company.’ They are so bedazzled by the perceived glamour of becoming a ‘published author’ they don’t do their due diligence. They are just so glad to be offered a contract that it seems they don’t question anything the publishing company… and everything should always be questioned, even with the most venerable of traditional publishers. There always seems to be a lot of these predatory and/or incompetent outfits out there, just lying in wait, trolling for newbies with stars in their eyes.

Of course, part of the blame falls on the newbie author. There are ways of checking out publishers – websites, fora, other authors, etc. Also, since this was a romance, the romance writers community is incredibly generous with their knowledge and would willingly have given this newbie advice. There are so many more pitfalls now than there were when I first began writing, but there are also so many more resources. I never met nor was even in the same room with another romance writer until after I had sold two books (to a major house, I might add); this was at the first organizational meeting of what would eventually become Romance Writers of America.

You were lucky, I can hear people saying. You’re a professional. How would she know to check such things? Who can be expected to do such dull old business-type stuff when her dream of publication is about to come true?

That’s when my ears turn red and my blood pressure begins to rise. Who is expected to do dull old business stuff? Who? Everyone! Writing is a business. Writing is a very hard business, and the writing of the book is the easiest part.

In these days of shrinking to non-existent advances and diminishing marketing support from even the most sterling of publishers, the author is expected to do more and more of the work – for which she still receives the smallest part of the pie. Some legitimate publishers even suggest that a writer pay on their own to have a book professionally edited before submitting. Some publishers won’t look at anything that doesn’t come through an agent, effectively using the agent as a first reader. Some publishers expect the writer to format their manuscript to their specifications before they will even look at it, let alone make an offer. Some publishers – like this charming specimen who signed the newbie – expect the writer to do everything. This one told the writer that she was responsible for handling – and paying for – all her own publicity. He dropped this bomb the week before her book was to be released. No guidelines, no suggestions, no support – just ‘it’s your responsibility.’

Small wonder that the world of self-publishing is burgeoning. Self-publishing is an incredible amount of work (I can attest to that!) but I feel if you’re going to be doing most of the work yourself, you might as well reap the rewards of it and get the lion’s share of the income. But that’s just me. Publishing is a business, and self-publishing is even more so. The allure of being taken on by a publisher is so much more seductive, especially to starry-eyed newbies. After all, you’ll have parties and signings and interviews and tv spots and… Yeah. In your dreams.

And in their dreams is where most of these gullible newbies begin. They’re published! A publisher has actually agreed to take their book! The publisher has a website, one that extolls how great they are, so they must be legit, right? I can understand the lure, the glamor, the pure b*llsh*t put out by these predatory publishers dazzling a newbie who has been so entranced by the glowing dream of being a Published Author that the cold hard reality of what publishing really is cannot penetrate.

So what is to be done about this? There are no uniform standards of what make a legitimate and desirable publisher, enforceable or not. Unfortunately, anyone can put up a website and call themselves a publisher. Lately even some of the ancient and venerable publishing houses have been coming up with some pretty hinkey clauses in their contracts. Just because they are ancient and venerable doesn’t mean they can’t be as rapacious and manipulative as the brand-new-website rip-off artist.

One thing that every writer must always remember is that money flows to the writer. Anyone asks you for money – or an investment – or subsidies – RUN! Ask for the names of other writers with the company – and contact them. Check the watchdog sites like Preditors&Editors and Writer Beware. Ask other writers. Ours is a small and close-knit community; very little happens here that someone doesn’t know about. Seek and investigate and learn before you sign anything.

In other words, don’t feed the sharks.

UPDATE : Since my last column my publishing binge has been going according to plan. THE FAIR AMAZON, a traditional Regency romance, was released on 15 July and is doing well.

More exciting – at least to me – is THE JERUSALEM CONNECTION, a new contemporary romantic adventure suspense, released on 30 July. This is a special book to me, mainly because years ago I worked in Jerusalem on a film for over three months, and some of the adventures the heroine of this book has actually happened to me in real life. (And no, I’m not saying which!)


  1. All sad but true A woman in my town had a similar experience Even the most seasoned mid-kist author like most of us is struggling to grab a portion of the sales market. Writing a book is hard. Knowing how to get it to the readers via a reputable venue is even harder

  2. Happened to me. I got an offer from what sounded legitimate. But in my case, I immediately asked an on-line writing group I was part of if they had heard of the "publisher." Had they ever! And they said run, don't walk, in the opposite direction. Dodged a bullet. That's why it's really useful for newbies to join a good, solid group such as Sisters in Crime, etc., to help them avoid these pitfalls.

  3. I am nodding my head at your words, Janis. There are so many scammers taking advantage of wannabe writers. It's a very tough business.

  4. Great advice here, Janis. Something those of us who've been around for a while need to stop and think about. Your two new/old books look great too. Keep up the good work. You're an inspiration.

  5. Great advice, Janis. I just wish we could warn every new writer, and that they would all listen. Would prevent a lot of heartbreak.

  6. Hi Janis--
    You're absolutely right and we all probably know someone who has been scammed. The worst case I heard of: when I arrived at a new job the previous woman had left to become a fulltime writer. She had paid $30,000 to a publisher who promised her book would be a bestseller and that she'd never have to work again. Her book was never published. The scammer took her money and ran. She left a high-paying job and had her dreams smashed and her bank account depleted. I wished I could have arrived sooner and pointed out the red flags. So sad.

  7. Great post and good advice, Janis. There are many sites that expose bad and fraudulent publishers and other predators on writers and you're right in saying it is our responsibility to do the research and the math. We are professional writers and this is our business. We have to protect ourselves from the sharks who think nothing of taking advantage. I'm sorry your friend has had such a terrible experience but she is not alone. Years ago, the vanity publishers were the culprits, now those of us who can are self-publishing and achieving the success (in whatever way we define it) we deserve and want. I sincerely hope your friend will be able to extricate her work from this publisher. Due diligence in all aspects of business is essential. SFWA has a great site for writers:

  8. Janis, thanks for sharing this sage advice. There are too many wanna-be writers with stars in their eyes, and they need to understand what it takes to be professional. Yes, there have always been vanity publishers, but now there are new and different sharks too. It pays to be savvy!

  9. I always like good advice to newbies. Even though I'm an oldie, the candid words ring true for all writers.