Scams for Every Writer

The Complete Writer
Section VII: Publishers and Self-Publishers

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Scams for Every Writer

Plus ça change . . . As a young journalist and book author, I was often invited to speak at writers’ conferences. There I first observed that people who yearned more than anything on this earth to be Writers with a Capital W were subject to the most astonishing scams.

In those days, it was harder to get yourself published. Still, if you couldn’t persuade a publishing house to take you on, you could pay a vanity press to print up your golden words, which would make you feel entitled to go around calling yourself a Writer. The fee was hefty.

There were various fake literary agencies, too, that would charge you a “reading fee” to tell you how brilliant your undistinguished novel was. Here a scam, there a scam, everywhere another scam.

But now, when anyone can “publish” by posting whatever they please on Amazon, publishing itself is a kind of scam. And it breeds scamlets as cats breed kittens. The entire book industry is overrun with scams.

The ego gratification game

At lunch the other day, a dear and talented friend, self-publisher of an urban fantasy that’s been getting good reviews and selling reasonably well, reported that she’d found a place where you could sign up to get free reviews. And hallelujah, sister! You could enter your gilded book in a CONTEST! For a small fee . . . Reader’s Favorite, said she: one of her friends won first place in his book’s category. So worth it!

ding ding ding ding ding ding ding ding

The old scam alarm went off inside the head. Where had I heard about writer’s contests with big prizes and prestige that cost just a few bucks to enter your book? Yeah . . . that one is old as the hills.

A little snooping around on Google, that treasure chest for cynics, brought up a rumination from Writer Beware,[23] one of my favorite no-bullshit sites. As you might expect from a hustle that’s been around for so many years, there’s now a vast array of “contests” that will put you in the running for “awards,” in exchange for fees. Once you’ve won a Reader’s Favorite “award,” you get to spend more money flying to Florida, and you’ll have even more opportunities to spend money on any number of bits and pieces of merchandise.

These profiteering “contests” are only one of many types of grift aimed at wannabe writers.

Really, e-book publishing itself is exactly that: a form of vanity press that looks like it’s free but is not.

Back in the Day, my feeling was that if you couldn’t persuade someone else to publish a book, it likely wasn’t worth publishing. Never would I have paid somebody to publish something I wrote: people paid me to write, not the other way around.

That, you see, is the definition of a professional writer.

The self-publishing grift

Today the landscape has changed—publishing has been “disrupted,” we’re told. But how much has it changed? That still remains to be seen.

Out of curiosity, I decided to try self-publishing on Amazon and waypoints. It’s free, after all. In a way.

But it’s not free, because publishing and marketing, when you get right down to it, are publishing and marketing.

If you have half a brain and no real-world publications experience, you will hire an editor to advise on your book’s quality and to copyedit, and you’ll hire a graphic artist to design your cover.

Editors cost money. Graphic artists cost money.

If you’re not very techie or if your book contains even slightly more complexity than a table of contents and a few chapter headings, you will need to hire an e-book formatter.

E-book formatting costs money.

If you wish to publish your book in print, you will need the graphic artist to redesign your cover to accommodate a back cover and spine.

Graphic artists cost money . . . again.

And you will need a graphic artist or a professionally designed template to lay out the interior content.

Graphic artists cost money . . . again.

Alternatively, book layout templates cost money.

Then you will need to print the thing.

Printers cost money.

Once you’ve “published” the book (“posting” is probably le mot juste), you need to sell it. That means you need to let the world know it exists, through advertising, social media marketing, consignment, and face-to-face pitches.

Advertising costs money.

Navigating the shoals of the intricate and by and large opaque social media platforms requires a professional.

Professional social media marketers cost money.

Persuading retailers—especially bookstores—to carry your book costs money.

Amazon as scam

One could argue that, for most authors, the whole publishing industry is a bit of a scam, at least for those who don’t understand their real occupation will not be “author” but “ad copy hack and self-employed marketer.” That’s most egregiously true for people who style themselves “indie authors” and self-publish on Amazon.

Case in point: a report from Laura Jane Williams over at The Financial Diet.[24] She shares some straight talk about the economic facts of life enjoyed by a number-one best-selling author—that would be one published through a real publisher that pays a real advance (yea verily, a Big Four publisher). Without going into detail, let’s just note that she’s trying to support herself as a part-time nanny.

Very few writers ever make earn a living at their craft. Publisher’s Weekly, the sine qua non of trade journals for the publishing industry, reports that most authors’ earnings fall below the poverty line,[25] and what is more, author income has been dropping since 2008. reports optimistically that 1,340 writers earn over $100,000 a year,[26] and half of those are indies. This revelation is extracted from a mind-numbing aggregation of data gleaned from Amazon. AE claims, probably correctly, that the share of the market for books sold on Amazon is increasingly going to independent (i.e., self-) publishers. This is no doubt true: publishing on Amazon is the hot new thing to do. But that you are in a market does not mean you’re making any money in the market.

1,340 authors

Let’s think about that. It’s not very many, when you consider that Amazon has 14 million books online. If half of those six-figure writers are indies, then only 670 writers in the whole world are making a credibly good living at their trade.

Amazon sold 22 million copies of Kindle books alone in 2010.[27] Imagine. How many authors are required to produce 22 million sales?

Amazon itself deems only forty self-published authors “successful.”[28]

Between Amazon’s price-fixing practices and the enormous saturation of the book market, independent publishers and all authors face daunting challenges.[29] Getting a self-published book on the shelves of a real, physical store is not easy. The other day I learned that the pre-eminent independent bookstore in my state charges indie authors $300 for shelf space—and I can assure you, your chance of selling $300 worth of books there is almost nil. By and large, sources through which real-world bookstores order their stock do not carry self-published books. You can get access through IndieReader and Ingram Spark . . . assuming you can afford to pay for it. Additionally, attracting media coverage from recognized mainstream newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters is extremely difficult: indie authors just don’t get no respect.

I’m often told that instead of clinging to my pessimistic view of life—the view from which one is never disappointed—I should try to be an optimist.

The optimist, then, would say about those forty “successful” authors, Why shouldn’t I be one of those?

But I can’t get past the realist’s challenge: Why should I?