Avoiding Self-Publishing Scams

The recent class action lawsuit filed against Publish America is just one more reminder that Indie authors need to be careful about whom they do business with in the process of publishing their books.  What follows is a list of red flags that may indicate caution is required if they pop up in your dealings with a so-called “publisher”.

Many so called self-publishing houses are what are referred to as “vanity publishers” because they offer to get the author’s books in print for a fee.  These often advertise that they “need” or are “seeking” new authors.  If you’ve ever tried dealing with a reputable publishing house you know that rejection is the normal order of things; they will put their imprint on and marketing efforts behind only those books that meet their standards.  Vanity publishers accept anyone and charge unsuspecting authors to publish their work, often producing books that are poorly written, have not been edited, have awful covers, and are (for all intents and purposes) virtually worthless in the commercial book market.  Worthless, to everyone except the vanity publisher, who makes thousands of dollars from the author.  Beware of these signs:

  1. Glad-handing and Flattery
    While having your ego stroked now and then can be a great self-esteem boost, when it’s coming from a publisher you will want to be cautious. Unscrupulous publishers use your ego to manipulate you by buttering you up in order to gain your business. While your writing may indeed be great and you may deserve to be published, legitimate publishers won’t bother with all the flattery.  Excessive flattery is a red flag: avoid companies that try to compliment you into doing business with them.
  2. They Seek You
    Rarely will legitimate publishers contact you with an e-mail or message through social networking saying that they are impressed with your work and want to publish your next book.  The question here is, “Why is this publisher so desperate for new authors that they’re soliciting them?”
  3. Guaranteed Success
    No one can guarantee that a book will be successful. You may have written a great book and it may well be popular, but making it successful takes a lot of hard work and determination. Legitimate publishers never promise that your book will be a best-seller or, indeed, will achieve any level of success.  That cannot be guaranteed and anyone who does is looking to take your money.
  4. Hollow Promises
    The old adage, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” holds here. If the publishing house promises to get your book into every bookstore in the country, it’s a blatant lie.  They can make your book available to every bookstore, but no one can guarantee that your book will be on the shelves of every bookstore, or any bookstore.  The same holds of promises of getting your book onto the major best seller lists; to make these lists your book has to actually become a best seller.  That depends more on the buying public than the publisher.
  5. Smoke & Mirror Marketing Claims
    Similarly, getting you to buy a “marketing package” to get your book into Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble’s web site, Smashwords, iTunes and the Ingrams book catalog (used by bookstores to order from publishers) may sound like a good deal.  And it may be, depending on the price.  You need to know that you can do these things yourself – FOR FREE.  Paying someone else to do it for you makes sense if you want to get right back to writing, but paying a large amount for this service is a scam.  Also be aware that print books produced through Amazon’s Createspace printing service will not get into bookstores because Createspace does not allow unsold books to be returned.  Lightning Source does allow returns, but there are fees attached for handling these returns and either storing or destroying the returned books that can mitigate any profits you had seen from bookstore sales. Choose a publisher that is recognized by bookstores as a quality dealer and conforms to their policies for book acceptance.Small publishers often offer to sell you packages that include editing, proofreading, sales, publicity, and shipping.  These extra-cost options may not do much for you and are often things you could easily do yourself for little or no cost.  Marketing materials often include little more than a press release (which will end up in the editor’s garbage can along with all other generic form letter  press releases they receive daily) and a listing in a book catalog.  You’d be better off contacting local papers, libraries, book clubs, and bookstores on your own and penning your own personalized press release.  Using Lightning Source as your printer automatically gets you into the catalog.
  6. Unintelligible Contracts
    If you can’t understand the contract any company is presenting to you, there is probably a reason. Never sign anything without understanding what it is you can expect from them and what they expect from you.  You may need to get a lawyer to look it over – this is money well spent.  Watch for hidden fees.  Be clear on who holds the copyright to your work, which rights are included,  and for how long.  And never be afraid to ask for a clear explanation of how much you will be paid and how payment will be made before signing anything.
  7. Hedgy Editing
    Any proper publishing company will have editing services available.  Not all are any good at it.  Find out up front if the editing they offer is merely a spell-check/proofread, copy editing, or a proper edit for content – especially if you’re publishing fiction.  Plot flow and characterization are very important and an editor who understands what it takes to get this right is an asset.  If they cannot give you a straight answer – and references – hire an outside editor.
  8. Dodgy Discounts
    To have any chance of getting a print book into bookstores, the book must be available at at least a 55% wholesale discount, and unsold copies must be returnable.  If your “publisher” does not offer these terms, you have no chance at all of getting into bookstores.  If their primary discount is aimed at you – so you can sell copies of your book at signing and to local vendors – be wary; they will very likely be considering this to be the book’s main sales channel.  Offering you a discount is not the kiss of death, but be sure you know why they do it.
  9. Dastardly Documentation Fees
    Most books will need an ISBN in order to be listed in book catalogs because book retailers use the ISBN to track inventory.  If the book is also available in eBook format, a separate ISBN may be needed. All publishers will offer to obtain the ISBN for you, some will say it is a complex, expensive process and demand a high fee for it.  It is not.  You can go to the Bowkers web site and obtain anywhere from one to one thousand ISBNs in just a few minutes.  Bowkers is the official international clearing house for ISBNs.  Other services may resell numbers, but Bowkers is the source.  At the time of this writing a single ISBN sells for $125, a block of ten numbers for $250, 100 ISBNs for $575 and a block of one thousand numbers for a $1,000. You probably won’t need a thousand ISBNs in your lifetime, but a busy publishing house will buy them in these blocks for a buck apiece.  So if they tell you they need several hundred dollars to get you an ISBN, get it yourself. Copyrighting a book is more complicated, requiring a copy of the finished book, several forms and a $35 filing fee.  In the USA, it is also quite unnecessary in most cases.  As soon as your work hits print, your work is automatically copyrighted for 70 years past the date of your death. Filing a claim of copyright infringement can get tricky, but that’s a topic for another time.
  10. Self-Publishing that is not Self-Publishing.
    Right now the self-publishing banner is a major rallying point for authors who are fed up with the high handed treatment received from the major publishing houses. Self-Publishing is hot, no doubt about it.  And being hot, it attracts a lot of scammers who are after your money.  But at what point does self-publishing turn into Indie Publishing and into Vanity Publishing? If you launched into a home improvement project by hiring a general contractor who hired all the needed tradesmen to do the work and your only contribution was concept design, could you then claim, “I built it myself”?  If a publishing house acts as the general contractor and provides cover artist, editor, marketing as well as printing, can you claim to be “self-published”?  Published certainly.  Indie published probably, but not self-published.  You can, and should, hire the tradesmen needed to be sure your work passes inspection for any area in which you lack expertise, but you need to be the general contractor if you want to claim being self-published. A publisher who gets your attention with the term “self-published” but proceeds to talk you into an expensive turnkey publishing package is misrepresenting the term.  What else are they misrepresenting?


The forest of Publication Land is prowled by ravenous wolves.  Be cautious in choosing those you will partner with in publishing your book.  Do your homework.  Use WRITER BEWARE ® to find out if a company has complaints lodged against them.  Ask for references: contact info for other authors who have used the service.  And don’t jump into the arms of the first stranger who strokes your ego.

13 thoughts on “Avoiding Self-Publishing Scams”

  1. An awesome post, Allan, with a ton of good info that I would hope all potential self-publishers would take into account.

    Personally I can handle email or social media contacts. Those are easily dealt with. More annoying, a few months back one of these places somehow got my phone #. Their pitch was all about email marketing to various lists. Fortunately for me, in my other life I’m an online marketer and know 1) the grey area that purchased lists exist on in the spam world and 2) that it’s a mostly useless marketing tactic (especially compared to people who actually sign up for an author’s newsletter). When I turned them down they tried to go for the hard sell.

    “Oh so you don’t want to market your books to millions of people?”

    To which I answered. “Yes I do…I just don’t want to do it with you.”

    1. Thanks Rick!

      I get the same sort of come-on from companies wanting to “optimize my websites to improve my search ranking”. Same sort of approach. I like your answer to their hardball pitch.

    1. Very true, Greta. It occurs to me that in this age where we often tick a box and click I AGREE (without reading that 40 page User Agreement) every time we install or update software, we sometimes fall into a “it will be OK” attitude about legal agreements. That may be OK with software EULAs, but not on important things like a publishing contract. Thanks!

  2. Hey Allan. While these very handy tips do not hold any value for me, because I’m not about to ever publish a book, they can be of great value to someone who is. That being a case I think a Tweet is order. Perhaps in that way someone it will come across the path of someone who need the knowledge.

    –Dan Poynter, Book Futurist. http://ParaPub.com

    Authors and publishers have been contacted lately by organizations offering “self-publishing services.” They employ “boiler rooms” of sales people making relentless calls. They wear you down and are hard to resist.

    Be very careful.

    Some of these companies have tarnished records with a lot of unhappy customers. Several authors have complained to the Better Business Bureau and some companies have been sued.

    When people are victims of scams, they often report the incidents on the Internet. Before doing business with POD publishers or any other person or company that wants your money, make a Google search for:

    (That company name) + Scam
    (That company name) + Fraud
    (That company name) + Rip-off
    (That company name) + “Better Business Bureau”

    Read the reports and be advised.

  4. Oh man, I could have used this about 12 years ago.

    My sister fell prey to one of these scammers, who talked up her book like it was the next big hit, all the while asking for down-payments on “this” and money to cover “that” expense.

    We ended up spending a good few hundred dollars before we realized it was a scam. After researching we saw that many get taken for even more than that!

    The funny thing was, this “publisher” was running an ad in the back of a leading writers magazine. We attempted to contact them several times about the scammers, but the ad continued to run for years.

    Guess they were paying their ad bill on time with the money they scammed from us.

    1. I think you got it exactly right, John: the Mags don’t police the ads, they just collect the bucks they make from them.

      I’ve heard from a good many fledgling authors who were bilked out of Thousands of dollars and either got nothing at all or a piece of crap book for all their investment. It amazes me that these people stay in business. I’m pretty sure they do because people don’t bother to check out these companies: they see an add in a major magazine and assume it must be legit. As you found out: that’s not always the case.

      Thanks for joining in!

      1. Hello, this is great information and has made me think twice. Recently I was in touch with Xlibris regarding the possible publishing of my book but since reading this, and the posts I have reconsidered. Are you able to direct me on the right path to publishing a book? If it were you, as a first time writer … What would you do ?

        1. Thanks Toni. This blog is just stuffed full of free advice on publishing. If you type “publishing” in the little search thingie (top of right column) it will pull up a list of articles dealing with publishing. Or, from the bottom of this article (and all articles on this blog) click the Posted In or Tags links to view similar articles. Or to make it really simple: just buy my book, which has all of this stuff and more in it (wink, wink, nudge nudge).

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