When I delve into self-publishing in my Publishing 101 workshops, I typically spend at least twenty minutes talking to authors about how to spot fraudulent marketing promises, shady companies, and questionable contracts. While these self-publishing pitfalls are not exclusively tied to online self-publishing companies, they do seem to follow in the footsteps of these companies quite frequently. Author Solutions is the current behemoth of online self-publishing (exempting Amazon, as it is the behemoth of all industries), and, not coincidentally, the owner of most of the other big-name self-publishing companies, including AuthorHouse, Xlibris, and iUniverse, and a surprising host of indie-sounding companies. And, also not coincidentally, Author Solutions has now found itself mired in a class action suit.
Filed last year, the case is brought on by several self-published authors and Author Solutions clients who claim the company misrepresented itself as an independent press, delayed publication and inserted errors into texts to garner additional author fees, and marketed (and charged for) services that either didn’t live up to their sticker prices or didn’t exist at all.
The behemoth gets a bit more behemoth-y when you consider its line of ownership. In July, 2012, Author Solutions was purchased by Penguin, one of the two largest publishing houses in the U.S., just months before Penguin merged with Random House, the other of the two largest houses, to form the single largest publishing house, Penguin Random House. So, to recap, the single largest online self-publishing company is owned by the single largest traditional publishing company in the world.
Is your head spinning yet?
Penguin Random House and conflict of interest concerns aside, this case brings to the forefront critical issues in the self-publishing industry. Whether or not these specific claims are found to be valid, there are a number of companies out there that are guilty of these missteps. Such companies are more than willing to market to an author’s hopes and dreams, promising marketing and promotional success, movie deals, bestsellers lists, blog tours, top-notch editorial work, and more. After signing you onto a high-end package, said companies then deliver sub-par services, or upsell you to bigger and more expensive “packages,” or offer you additional “opportunities” for award submissions and contests (with a hefty fee, of course), or charge you insanely high unit prices for additional copies of your book.
So what can you do to avoid becoming another self-publishing horror story? Here are some quick pieces of advice:
1. Check Writer Beware for mentions of companies you are considering to see if any of these companies have earned a poor reputation with the author community.
2. Only pay for what your publisher can actually deliver. No company can deliver bookselling success, or even the guarantee of a movie deal (unless said company is actually a film rights agent, or a production company, or Steven Spielberg). A self-publishing company can deliver a professionally designed, edited, and manufactured book. This is what you are paying for. If the companies you are considering wrap in additional charges, or if the final products are sub-par, move on to other options.
3. Understand your publisher’s bottom line. Does the company get a cut of your sales, or does it charge fees for award entries, or does it charge solely for services? It’s important to know the company’s bottom line so that you aren’t blindly upsold into profit-making opportunities for the company.
4. Know your publisher. Does your publisher have experience in the industry, a track record of high-quality products or book marketing success? Can you speak with your publisher one-on-one, or meet with a representative from the company?
Safeguard yourself and your goals, pay only for what your publisher can actually deliver, and above all pledge to know and understand your publisher’s strengths and weaknesses and its unique bottom line. If you can successfully navigate the decision-making process, your published book will showcase the hard work you put into it.