The Sharks Are Circling

All the indications are that this is going to be another bumper year for self-publishing. However, the ever-increasing viability of this path, and its popularity with writers, is also attracting those seeking to make money from self-publishers.

Writers pursuing the traditional route to publication have had to put up with any number of scams and dodgy deals over the years. We’ve seen vanity and subsidy publishing houses masquerading as conventional publishers, agents who charge all sorts of fees to “represent” your work or push writers towards “editing” services which they either own or receive kickbacks from, and all sorts of nefarious individuals who will claim to get your work under the nose of famous writers, editors, agents, or Hollywood producers – all for a fee, and with little result.

The presence of such con men is a grim inevitability in an industry where there are so many are fighting for so few slots. Writers rely heavily on organizations such as Writer Beware whose mission is to expose such scams, warn writers when publishing houses are in financial trouble, and educate them on issues such as contracts and copyright.

In general, writers are quite good at taking the time to warn those less experienced of scams and dodgy deals, as well as things which are simply a waste of money.

Self-publishers don’t face the same problem as writers pursuing the traditional path: namely, being one of many competing for (very) limited slots. We don’t have the same bottleneck at the “publishing” stage. However, questionable services are capitalizing on a mystique that has attached itself to the publishing process, squeezing good money out of writers and providing little in return.

There are three major steps for a self-publisher:

  1. Writing a good book.
  2. Publishing to a professional standard.
  3. Marketing effectively.

These services tend to focus on the second step – publishing. The sad thing is that this is the easiest step of the three. Before that cues howls of protest, consider the following. Marketing a book is hard, much harder than the functional steps necessary to publish something to a professional standard, especially when we are talking about e-books.

You can hand someone a set of instructions, which, if followed to the letter, will result in a good looking book. Yes, there is a learning curve for much of it, and many of the tasks (particularly editing and cover design) will need to be outsourced, but it’s something anybody can do, with the right approach and a little investment.

Marketing is much trickier, and successful marketing always involves some element of guesswork and luck. Writing a great book is the hardest task of all, and there is no real blueprint available to the prospective writer. While there are great guidebooks, writing groups, forums, and communities, you are really on your own when it comes to the writing part.

Publishing is easy in comparison.

At least, that’s how it looks to someone who has published four titles. I remember being quite daunted by the process before I published my first. I had a background in digital marketing, I had worked for tech companies, and I knew a little HTML. Someone without any of that may consider the process beyond them.

This has created an opportunity for a variety of self-publishing “services” some okay, some not so. When Penguin launched their vanity-esque self-publishing imprint – Book Country – there was a chorus of disapproval from the self-publishing community. However, I don’t want to single out Penguin. The Book Country deal is a terrible one, but there are far worse out there.

And, frankly, I don’t think any of these “middlemen” self-publishing services are a good idea. The royalty percentages are so favorable in self-publishing precisely because the middlemen have been removed. Once you allow them to reinsert themselves in the process, all that changes.

These services range from charging once-off upfront fees (often significant), to taking an ongoing percentage of your royalties (again, often significant), and, in some cases, even make horrendous rights grabs.

It should be instructive that authors who have already self-published something are rarely tempted by any of these “services” as they know it doesn’t take a genius to find an editor and cover designer, learn how to format your books (or pay someone a small fee to do it), and to upload your books.

Marketing is hard. Writing a good book is harder again. But the publishing part, in comparison, is relatively simple. Perhaps, as self-publishers, we need to do a better job in getting that message out to the wider writing community.

I made the PDF version of Let’s Get Digital a free download on my blog (and Scribd), and it has been downloaded nearly 6,000 times, but I could really do with having a simple one-page run-down of the basics like indie author David Burton has done here.

In fact, if we all had something similar on our blogs, we would be doing the whole writing community a service, keeping them out of the clutches of companies who will squeeze them dry and give little in return.

Self-publishers have done a very good job of arguing for the viability of this path, and many writers have heeded the call. However, now the sharks are circling, we need to get another message out: stay away from these services, protect your royalties, and guard your rights carefully; don’t be afraid to do it all yourself; there is plenty of (free) advice out there and plenty of writers willing to help.

To be clear, I’m not referring to services like Smashwords. They are a distributor/aggregator. For approximately 10% of your cover price, they will distribute you to retailers that are tricky to get into, or impossible on your own. I also have no real issue with some of the newer services that only charge a small upfront fee for a combined formatting, uploading, and distribution service, as they don’t touch your royalties (such as BookBaby).

While it might be easy for experienced self-publishers to make such a distinction, it’s getting harder and harder for newer writers to do so, which is why I was delighted to hear about a new watchdog site called Indie Beware.

Very much modeled on Writer Beware, it aims to provide a similar service, with a special focus on issues relevant to self-publishers. The writer behind it – Jessica Meigs – is razor sharp, and I have high hopes for the site. It’s only a few days old, but if you have the time, take a moment and pop over to Indie Beware, and tell them the kind of issues you would like covered.


David Gaughran is the author of the South American historical adventure A Storm Hits Valparaiso and the short stories If You Go Into The Woods and Transfection as well as the popular self-publishing guide Let’s Get Digital: How To Self-Publish, And Why You Should.

16 replies
    • avatar
      David Gaughran says:

      My pleasure, David.

      Indie Beware is very new, I think there are only a couple of introductory posts up there. But I’ve been talking to the writer behind it, and she has big plans. I think it’s badly needed to. While Writer Beware provides a great service, it is more focused on the traditional path – which is understandable. I think there is room for something similar covering issues specifically related to self-publishers. It might be the Wild West, but it’s still helpful to know who the bad guys are, or how to spot them.


  1. avatar
    Larry "FARfetched" Kollar says:

    Great article, and thanks for the Indie Beware link too. I’ve found myself thinking that this is somewhat like the gold rush: yeah, some prospectors got rich, but more got rich servicing (in all meanings) the prospectors.

    Very true about the formatting process not being rocket science. Yes, I’ve spent many years with formatting, file conversions, and typesetting as part of my dayjob and I feel like I could do much of that in my sleep. But for people who barely know what styles are, this does all seem like a black art (and most writers handicap themselves by using MS Word in the first place). In fact, I know someone who is pulling her hair out over getting her book ready to publish — she has paid an editor and cover designer to make sure the book is the best is can be, and she was hung on formatting. Fortunately, she got some help and is rolling along now.

    For me, it’s the marketing where I need the most help. I make no bones about that.

  2. avatar
    Keri English says:

    Wow: a wealth of info, thanks for this! It’s comforting that there are people looking out for the indie side of publishing; especially when we are just beginning the self pubbing process. Good to know 🙂

  3. avatar
    Ron Fritsch says:

    Thank you once again, David, for your insight. And I thank you not for myself but for those indie authors who are just starting out and think they need the services of these con people. I’ve been an independent author for more than a year now and believe I can separate the con from the genuine. But my heart goes out to those new writers, many of them young and/or of limited means, who waste their precious time and money on crooks. The indie community needs people such as yourself and the founder of Indie Beware to keep us alert to the fraud that permeates independent publishing.

  4. avatar
    Joel Friedlander says:

    Excellent article, David, and you are exactly right about the “gold rush” mentality that surrounds self-publishing at the moment. The best way to combat this is through author education and I applaud your continuing efforts to do just that.

    The unadressed problem is that many, many authors don’t want to have anything to do with the process of publsihing. They really just want to hand their manuscript to someone and have them deal with everything. That scenario is the one that so many subsidy publishers take advantage of. Indie Beware is an excellent idea, and thanks for letting us know about it.

  5. avatar
    Nick Caruso says:

    David, another fantastic article. However, one of your sources listed herein had a “shark” of their own:

    John Steinbeck Family Defrauded by Writer Beware™ & SFWA Attorney: The 2007 Scam that Writer Beware™ Didn’t Report . . . Why? Here’s the link:

    As the posting indicates:

    “Sometimes that shark he looks right into ya. Right into your eyes. And, you know, the thing about a shark… he’s got lifeless eyes. Black eyes. Like a doll’s eyes. When he comes at ya, doesn’t seem to be living . . . until he bites ya, and those black eyes roll over white . . . .”

  6. avatar
    Pete says:

    Good stuff, David.

    Nick, I’m not one to defend bad lawyers, but I hardly think it’s fair – much less appropriate – for The Write Agenda to tar and feather A.C. Crispin, Rebecca Strauss, Writer Beware, etc. because the lawyer who’d done so much for them had a disciplinary problem brought about (so the Bar’s own expert testified) by mental health issues.

    That’s an interesting blog, though!

    • avatar
      Nick Caruso says:

      Pete, when a “watchdog” group holds itself out as a protector of all, fails to report a scam (even though it involves one of their own) . . . it’s hypocritical; it is fair to publicly call them out on it (or as you say: “tar and feather”). By the way, it’s “Victoria” Victoria Strauss. They endorsed this guy and praised him him. Beware . . . educate yourself.

  7. avatar
    Brett Hoppough says:

    Great tips for beginners. I know if I hadn’t stumbled upon (not using StumbleUpon) your “Let’s Get Digital!” e-book, I would have been oblivious to how simple self-publishing can be. You’re doing a great service for writers new to the e-book world. The business is full of sharks and it’s terrible that they prey on the ignorance of newcomers.

  8. avatar
    Laura Howard says:

    I found this article very informative! Thanks for attempting to keep us aware of scams, as I’ve fallen prey to such things in the past. It’s nice to know there are honest people out there, too.


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