The following is an excerpt from Produce, Publish, Publicize by Sabrina Sumsion.

Avoiding a Publisher’s Scam

The publishing industry is fraught with scams. There are publishing houses that claim to be traditional but aren’t. There are companies that have hidden fees or make promises off paper that they never intend to follow through on. Sabrina Sumsion has compiled a list of questions to ask publishers and the answers you want to receive.

Is my book returnable to the distributor?

Big bookstores like Barnes and Noble, B Dalton, Walden Books and Borders order through distributors, not the publisher. The main distributors in the United States are Baker and Taylor and Ingram. For bookstores to consider stocking your book, they must be able to order through the distributor and return through the distributor.

If the bookstore can't sell your book to the public, they want the option of packaging up the books and sending all the ones that didn't sell back to one location. There are thousands of book publishers and the stores don't have the time or desire to pack a box for each publisher.

Book publishers sometimes claim their books are returnable but they mean that the store can send it back to them and not the distributor. Bookstores don't like that. Bookstores deal with hundreds of different publishers and creating a box for each one to return books wastes employee hours. You will not get many, if any, signings and you will not get books on the shelf if your book is not returnable to the distributor. Get it in writing that your book will be returnable to the distributor by a certain date and that the distributor’s information will be correct.

You must have this in writing as some publishers will drag their feet to follow through on this issue. They can say your book is returnable until they are blue in the face but if Ingram’s iPage says your book is non-returnable, that is what the bookstores believe. If you have a guarantee that the distribution will be correct in a timely manner in writing, you have legal ammunition against the company if you incur losses because of their negligence.

For example, you hire an outside publicist to set up book signings and promote those events for you. You pay the publicist thousands of dollars and they make call after call but no one will host you because your book is listed incorrectly. You have lost thousands because the publisher was negligent in getting your profile listed correctly.

I know this happens first hand because I have been the publicist looking at a copy of the author’s receipt for return status (yes, some companies charge you money to be returnable) yet I’m on the telephone with a bookstore and they are telling me the book is not returnable according to the distributor.

Unfortunately, I have never had an author get a deadline in writing and therefore entire publicity campaigns have been ruined by negligent publishers. Again, get it in writing that the publisher is responsible for and accountable for listing your title correctly with the distributor.

Are you printing a run on my books or are they Print-on-Demand?

As I wrote before, a run of books is when a large quantity of the same title are printed at one time then stored in warehouses. Print-on-Demand books are stored electronically then printed as there is demand.

Why does this matter? In the end, the printing method affects your cover price and marketability. A run of books is less expensive to print per book so the publisher can set a lower cover price to be competitive and still make a profit. However, there is an upfront cost to do it this way and there are warehousing costs. The publisher must be confident that there is a large demand for the book to take this risk.

Also, Print-on-Demand carries a stigma that bookstores aren’t crazy about. They will be more interested in hosting events and stocking your title if your books are printed in a run.

There are many people who call Print-on-Demand the wave of the future. There are book vending machines being created where you push a button and a book is printed, bound and popped out. Right now, the costs are simply too high to compete with brick and mortar stores and printing books in a run. Maybe in the future POD will become a more cost effective way to create books but at the moment, commercial publishers and printing a run of books are the way to go.

What will my cover price be?

Get the cover price in writing before you sign anything. Now go to your local bookstore and find books in your genre that is the same binding (hardcover or paperback) and have the same number of pages. What are those cover prices? If there's a difference of 10-20%, you're still in a competitive range. If your book is double or triple the price of similar books in the bookstore, your publisher thinks you aren't going to sell many books and they are jacking up the cover price to increase their profits.

If you want to be a best seller, run away from jacked up prices. If you just want to sell to family and friends, this is OK if your friends and family are comfortable financially. For a high cover price, make sure you're not paying any upfront fees such as cover design, electronic set up or distribution charges like a subsidy publisher asks.

Are you going to charge me for editing?

A traditional publisher will either turn you down because of your editing or they will cover the expense to clean up your manuscript themselves. Publishers that offer in-house editing services for a fee offer it to make more money.

Think of it as a conflict of interest. A publisher who is offering editing and other miscellaneous services at a charge will be less inclined to focus on selling your book and more inclined to sell you side services. You want to work with a company that is motivated to help you sell copies of your book. If they receive payments from you that help keep them in business, they do not need to focus on selling your book.

The other issue I have is that these companies don’t always hire top of the line editors. If I had a dollar for the number of times I tell an author about typos and he or she responds that they paid for editing through their publisher, I would be a wealthy person on my own island snorkeling every day! If you have to pay for editing, find an independent professional worth the fee.

How will you publicize my book?

A traditional publisher will put time and money into publicity. The amount will depend on the size of the publisher of course but they have a vested interest in high book sales. For there to be high book sales, the general public needs to be aware of a book and feel the need to read it.

The first thing I suggest is getting in writing whether through Email or directly in your contract the detailed steps the publisher takes for publicity. This is called a marketing plan. Get it in writing as this is insurance for the future if you find out they aren’t doing what they said they would do.

If the publisher asks for a list of your friends and family to notify about your book, then expect little else publicity-wise from them. This is the first sign you will be doing a lot of your own legwork and you should consider an outside publicist. Honestly, you have probably already told everyone you are publishing a book. Why do you need the publisher to duplicate your efforts?

If they tell you they are contacting your media, make them be specific in writing exactly what their efforts will be and how many hours they will spend on your book.

A particular Publish-on-Demand company declares they are a “traditional” publisher but the only media contacts they perform is sending a flyer to your local media notifying them of the book. There is no follow up. There are no targeted media groups contacted nationwide. Most authors find themselves told months after publication they should consider hiring an outside publicist if they want to see more sales. By that time, it can be too late for a truly successful publicity campaign.

Ask for the marketing plan the publisher developed for your book. A commercial “traditional” publisher will at least have a general outline of marketing efforts created before they officially take on your book.

Large traditional publishing houses are promoting your book months before a single official book is printed. They send out advance review copies or galleys to the top reviewers like The New York Times and other venues targeted to your book’s topic. If your publisher isn’t sending out free galleys for publicity months in advance of your release date at their own cost, they aren’t a truly traditional commercial publisher.

What are the distribution responsibilities of the publisher? What are my responsibilities?

I represented an author who published through a supposed traditional publishing house. It would stand to reason that the publisher, who should have a lot of experience with distribution, would guarantee that the book was listed correctly with all major sales venues before the release date.  This includes Amazon.com, BN.com, Barnes and Noble stores and both distributors Ingram and Baker and Taylor.

The book wasn't listed on Amazon on his release date. It was not correctly listed for a week after his book was released. The book wasn't listed with the distributor Ingram at all and Baker and Taylor had incomplete records until I started giving the author ammunition to get the publisher to do something about it.

Four months into his publicity campaign you still couldn't go to Barnes and Noble and order the book much less find it on the shelf. Since Barnes and Noble can’t order it, the locations wouldn’t host an event with the author. His whole campaign was crippled because the publisher did not do things correctly. Unfortunately, there was no clause in the contract stipulating the publisher's responsibilities.

The publisher needs to have distribution set up and ready before a single book is printed. Make sure you have a stipulation in the contract detailing what the publisher is going to do for your distribution. Ask questions to find out what that leaves for you to do.

What if I am unhappy with your services? Are you going to sue me if I complain on a public forum?

I have been hearing rumors that some contracts stipulate you cannot complain about the company on any public forum. This includes Internet forums or blogs. Unfortunately, you don't read about this sort of thing because the writer is liable to be sued if he or she makes “defamatory remarks.” Watch closely for anything in the contract impeding your First Amendment right to state your opinion about your experience with a publisher. (Of course don't take that as the right to spread lies.)

The only exception I am inclined to make is if it is a traditional publishing company with best-selling authors on its published list and you are being published through their main imprint for a huge advance. Then you are dealing with a professional company and expect to go through professional routes to clear up any grievances.

Another facet to this scam is a company trying to intimidate authors who complain about their services. I worked for an author who published with a certain notorious company that scams authors. She didn't read the fine print or research the company so the realization that she wasn't going to sell millions of books was hard for her. She complained to the company about their business practices and she got an Email demanding an apology for her opinions! I'm proud to report that she didn't apologize for stating her mind. Intimidation to keep authors in their place is not a flattering tactic for a publisher to use.

Make sure you don't sign anything with any language implying you can be sued for stating your opinion on their services and if the contract has a clause like that, consider a different publisher.

What will the quality of my finished product be?

This is a very important question but a hard one to get a straight answer that you will understand. One author sent me his book that was subsidy published and the margins were horrible. You couldn’t read the book without breaking the spine. The reality is margins matter.

I just received a telephone call from another author who published through a vanity press before she realized what she was doing. She recently ordered 25 books for a book party. When she received her order, she flipped through one of the books. To her horror, the margins were different all through the book. On some pages, the writing went almost off the page. On other pages, you had to break the book’s spine to read the words.

This happens to vanity and Print-on-Demand customers more than these companies would like to admit.

I worked with another author that thought he had a traditional publisher but it was actually a subsidy imprint of a larger label. I read through his final book and the printing quality was horrible to the point that letters were missing from the middle of words. If half of your letters are illegible, it will frustrate readers and you risk losing fans. The print quality matters.

If you choose to pay for an in-house cover designer, you may not be getting a professional graphic artist. Some companies give you a selection of template covers to choose from. Others assign a cover designer. In the end, once you decide on a cover, get outside opinions from people that will give you honest answers.

I worked with an author who hired the in-house designer to create a cover and he was thrilled with the end product. Unfortunately, it was a juvenile cover that turned people off immediately. Book reviewers stated in their reviews they wished he had a different cover. If your cover doesn’t excite people, tell the cover designer to redesign.

If you want sales, make sure you get honest opinions about your cover and even if you like it, it’s the general public’s opinion that matters when it comes to sales. People still judge a book by its cover. The cover design matters.

How long until I see my book in print?

This is a big tell about the size and status of the publisher. A traditional publisher will tell you expect a year or more unless your book is in answer to a topic that is current in the news. They have an editorial schedule to follow and your book will be put at the end of the line behind established authors.

The exceptions are for manuscripts that deal with the legacy of someone famous that just died such as Michael Jackson or a topic such as insider trading when a celebrity like Martha Stewart is accused of the crime. A seasonal book can be delayed until the next year; a fiction book can be released at any time. You will only get bumped to the front of the line if you deal with a topic that is all over the news and the publicists can get you tons of media time if the book is released immediately.

The publisher needs to give their in-house editors and support staff time to go over your work with a fine-tooth comb and eliminate any typos and inconsistencies. Part of the year lead-time could be spent with you, the author, rewriting a chapter or two that aren’t smooth. Authors need to have patience when dealing with top publishers. They will work very hard to make your book the very best is can possibly be. They know what they are doing so let them have time to do their jobs.

If you are told you could see your book in print in a week or as soon as a couple of months you have probably found an “author mill”. The companies who will spit out a book that fast don’t care about the quality of each book but rather the quantity of books they can publish each month. This is a poor sign for best-seller hopefuls and sometimes make-a-buck authors. If you are a posterity writer, this may be acceptable depending on the answers to the other questions.

In the end, your publishing experience is in your hands. Remember to keep asking questions until you feel comfortable. If the answers to the questions you ask make you uncomfortable, you have the right to walk away. Choosing the right publisher will make your publishing experience much more pleasurable.


You can  contact Sabrina by email today at sabrina@sabrinasumsion.com to schedule her to present to your group.

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