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What You Should Know (in Less Than 400 Words)

photoIn the last couple of months, I’ve received emails from a few readers feigning harassment over my lack of posts here at Suess’s Pieces. So maybe an explanation is in order. I mean, it’s certainly not my intention that this blog lie stagnant for much longer.

You see, since the end of July a lot’s happened here. I quit one job, started another, put my home up for sale, and moved out of state. (Still waiting on that house to sell, so mortgage and rent right now. Hooray!) And all of that came at me just a couple of weeks after my top-secret Vegas wedding and vacation were canceled due to the death of a dear family member and the hospitalization and death of my 13-year-old dog.

I say that not to get your sympathy—we’re doing okay now—but to remind everyone out there that a real person dedicated all that free time to yanking chains at Author Solutions. And since that was a time-sucking, money-burning endeavor, continuing with regular updates about a company I despised didn’t even rank on my list of priorities.

Besides, with the announcement of the lawsuit against Author Solutions, it seemed like a good time to leave the rest of the investigating and exposing to the pros. The work to warn writers about predatory self-publishing companies continues on sites like Writer Beware and Let’s Get Digital, and the archive of anti-Author Solutions posts remains for anyone with an itch to do consumer research before they hand over their credit card info.

I’ll certainly continue to post juicy updates here and link you to relevant industry info, but it will no longer be the sole focus of this blog.

So, here’s what’s up. I am going to get back to discussing more enjoyable things on Suess’s Pieces. Things like books and writing and libraries and reading and education. I’ll also be welcoming content from others. And I don’t mean guest posts, per se. I mean adding contributors (though those contributors may write for Suess’s Pieces once or a hundred times, depending).

Submission details will be coming soon, but I can say this right now: there’s no money to be had writing here…for you or me! Ha!

The Dangerous Allure of Self-Publishing: 5 Real Lessons from a Fictional Character

by Philip J Reed, of Noiseless Chatter:  television, film, literature, music, and everything else you shouldn’t be wasting your time with

peepshowheader

I’m a huge fan of Peep Show.  It’s a British comedy that’s been running for eight seasons (so far), and a huge part of its appeal is just how painfully awkward it is.  Its two main characters — Mark and Jeremy — aren’t sympathetic at all…and yet they still manage to be extraordinarily relatable.  Watching the show is often a deliberately uncomfortable experience, but it’s never cheap; it’s always married to razor-sharp writing and two brilliant performances.

The most recent batch of episodes, however, managed to make me uncomfortable in a way that the others hadn’t.  That’s because in an installment entitled “Business Secrets of the Pharaohs,” Mark, the put-upon introvert of the show, gets swindled by a self-publishing house.  And while the details are pretty different from what I went through (I’ve been interviewed about it by this very site, if you’re interested) the way the episode explores Mark’s mindset, and the way it makes clear to the viewer what Mark himself is too hopeful to acknowledge, reminded me, uncomfortably, of my own foray into the world of self-publishing.

So I reached out to Emily and asked if I could put this together, in the hopes that an episode like this (which is on Youtube in its entirety, should you decide to look for it…) might help somebody, at least one person, somewhere, keep a level head in the face of the seductive promises of self-publishing.  Hopefully Mark’s embarrassment — and mine — can spare you at least a little of your own.

peepshow1

1)  Don’t Fall for a Glitzy Image

While the episode is about Mark self-publishing his book, Business Secrets of the Pharaohs, his roommate Jeremy has a thematically-similar plot:  he’s enrolling in a fly-by-night training program to become a life coach.  Interestingly enough, each of the two friends sees exactly what’s wrong with the other’s situation…but neither will admit it about their own.

When confronted, Jeremy shows Mark the same pamphlet that won him over, and explains that “It’s proper.  They’ve got a website.”

Mark’s response to him is one that he — and anyone interested in self-publishing — would be wise to keep in mind:  ”Oh, well, I’m sorry.  If they’ve got a website then the people running it definitely have fingers.  And a computer!  Or at least the address of an internet café.”

Anyone can produce a nice pamphlet, or a flashy website.  Anyone can slap up some customer testimonials.  (When’s the last time you’ve checked one to make sure it was genuine?  Where would you even begin if you wanted to?)  What you have to remember is that pamphlets, business cards and websites are just things.  Anyone can appear successful and can entice you to want to work with them, but ultimately that means nothing.  Or, rather, that means that the person took the time to mock something up.  Genuine or not, that isn’t where your research about the company should end.

Look online.  Find actual reviews from actual past clients.  Ask for copies of books that they’ve published in the past.  Any reputable publisher should be happy to show off their work; if they treat your request like it’s ridiculous, take a moment to wonder why that might be.

It’s great if the services listed on their website line up very well with what you were hoping to see, but bear in mind that their site exists only to sell to you.  It’s no gauge of quality, reliability, or ethics.  Dig deeper.  You might not like what you see, but that’s better than seeing it too late.

peepshow2

2)  Be Realistic About Your Work

The screengrab above shows the faces of two people who’ve just heard what Mark’s book is about.  Do people look like that when you start describing your own work?  Then you may have to face a difficult fact:  it might not have an audience.

It’s easy for a writer to develop an inflated sense of the value of his or her own material.  I know, because I am a writer, and everything I produce is fantastic.

But you have to be realistic.  Mark, by this point, has spent eight seasons trying to interest a publisher in Business Secrets of the Pharaohs.  And while it’s always possible that a struggling author just hasn’t found the right match for his material, it’s also possible that it’s the material that’s the problem.

Would anyone want to read about your interpretation of the presumed negotiating tactics of a long-dead civilization?  Nobody wants to read Mark’s…but he doesn’t want to admit that to himself.  At one point he even describes it as “an important work of world literature.”  Spoiler:  it’s not.  And it’s important that you can view your own work through a realistic lens as well.

If you can’t find an agent or a publisher for your manuscript, it may be worth looking at the manuscript.  It may be worth looking at your query letters, your sample chapters, and anything else you’ve been sending out.  The answer isn’t to pay somebody to publish your work…it’s to refine your work so that somebody wants to publish it.

Believe me, I know this can be a difficult lesson to learn.  I spent years shopping around a manuscript that went nowhere.  I tried a few approaches, but ultimately came to accept that even if it was a great book, it wasn’t something that many agents or publishers would take a risk on.  I could pay to publish it (there’s always somebody that will be happy to take your money), but instead I decided to work on another project, one that would be more marketable, and serve as less of a risk.  If that gets published, I may be able to find some interest in my earlier manuscript.  But even if it doesn’t, I feel good about taking a constructive approach to the solution.

And you will, too.

peepshow3

3)  You Need to Do the Work Yourself

At one point in the episode, Jeremy finds Mark at his computer, typing furiously away, unaware that he’s had caps lock on the entire time.  But it’s okay, the friends figure…a publisher would surely correct something like that before going to press.

Obviously this is funny for one very obvious reason, which is that your manuscript needs to be in absolutely perfect shape before you start soliciting.  There aren’t second chances, and you’d be foolish to assume that a publisher who saw a caps-locked screed land on his desk would give you a chance to fix it up later, after you’ve signed a three-book, twenty-million dollar deal.

Then again, Jeremy does have a small point:  if they wanted Mark’s book, truly wanted it, wouldn’t they be willing to make at least a few editorial corrections?

The answer is yes.  Of course they would.

Unless they’re a self-publishing company, in which case that’s an add-on service, and you’ll pay for that.

Whether it’s editing, formatting, promotion, or even a simple spell-check, self-publishers will charge you for everything they do.  And while that may sound like a nice idea for folks who can afford it, it bears repeating that paying for a service isn’t necessarily paying for quality.

My experience working with a self-publisher to fix errors in my book was a nightmare.  It actually ended up making things worse in the final product.  Money well spent, right?

If you’re going to self-publish, you need to make sure that you can handle all aspects of the process on your own.  Don’t count on them to get things right, because there’s no self-publishing agreement in the world that will force them to make good on unsatisfactory work.  The contracts are drawn up to reflect their interests, not yours, and they have nothing to lose if your book fails; they’ve already been paid.  When nobody buys your book, you’re the one who will feel foolish; not them.

You need to do everything on your own.  It’s not enough to be a great writer, or even to be an impeccably careful writer.  You’ll also need to promote the book (assuming its final form is even something you’d want to promote).  Can you do that?  Because if you can’t, self-publishing might not be for you.  You can always pay an exorbitant price for a Promotion Plan…which is usually a pack of simple fliers and a listing in a proprietary magazine no human being will ever read…but unless you’re keen on doing any and all legwork for the life of your book, you’d be better served by a traditional publishing house, which does have an interest in your success.

And that’s where you should be looking.  It won’t be an easy road…but it’s the only road.

peepshow4

4)  Treat Red Flags As Red Flags

It’s very easy to get swept away by the allure of being a published author.  It’s what we all want, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of.  Unfortunately that’s exactly what self-publishers prey upon.  Poor Mark lacks confidence, he can’t get a publisher interested, and he feels as though he’s a failure.  So when British London accepts his book, he’s ecstatic.  Why wouldn’t he be?  His dream is coming true.

Or, at least, he wants to believe that his dream is coming true.  And so did I.  And so would you.  But we can’t be blind to reality.  It’s important to stay grounded, because if we don’t, we’ll get swept away.  Remember that self-publishing houses are not staffed by agents and editors…they’re staffed by sales people.  They will find out what you want, convince you that self-publishing is the way to get those things, and do anything they can in order to obtain a sum of money.  That is their job.

Throughout the episode Mark fails to notice red flags.  Not because he’s a fool — and you wouldn’t be a fool for being taken in, either; these are very good sales people — but because he doesn’t want to admit that this might be anything less than he wants it to be.

When the representative from British London asks to meet him at a food truck on the side of a highway, it doesn’t even register with Mark.  He even looks at the table of condiments and thinks, “This must be the greatest quantity of squeezable mustard ever present at a literary lunch.”  He’s thinking it in awe…but he should be thinking it in fear!  He sees a red flag, but interprets it as a good sign.

As Mark discusses his book with his representative, it’s clear that the man hasn’t read Business Secrets of the Pharaohs.  It’s equally clear that he doesn’t care about its quality…though Mark interprets this, again, as a compliment, since he has “no notes at all” on the material.

If a publisher has “no notes” on your material…forgive me for saying this…that’s not a reflection on how miraculously brilliant and utterly perfect your first-draft was; that’s a reflection of how little they care about the quality of the pieces they publish.

Does that sound like a compliment to you?

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5)  Admit to Yourself You’ve Been Taken

It happens.  You were seduced.  Part of you knew better, but you were able to keep that part quiet long enough to complete the PayPal transaction.  And now you hold a copy of your book.  Your book!

Only your book is full of errors.  The text disappears into the binding.  Your name is spelled incorrectly on the cover.  You’re heart-broken.  It’s too late to go back.  You’ve humiliated yourself in front of everybody you’ve been bragging to about the publication…and you’re not getting your money back.

This is what happens to Mark, and it’s not any kind of exaggeration at all.  Self-published material is often shoddy.  Somebody makes you big promises, but what you hold in your hands is a physical manifestation of artistic disappointment.

Here’s what I want to tell you about that:  it’s okay.

Really, it is.

You’re not an idiot.  You were taken.  And that’s okay.

Why do I say it’s okay?  Because if you don’t believe it’s okay, you’ll try to convince yourself otherwise.  You’ll convince yourself that next time it will go better.  In short, you’ll do it all over again.  This is why you need admit you have made a mistake.

Mark gets so swept up in the excitement of his impending publication that he spends more time deciding what kind of nuts to serve at his self-financed launch party than he does thinking about whether or not he’s working with a reputable publishing house.  But when the book arrives, with that misspelt name on the cover and the text printed in an unreadable format, he owns his mistake.  He lets everybody at his own launch party know that the book is a disaster, a tragedy, and proof of a broken promise.

His money isn’t coming back, and neither is his pride, but at least he won’t lose more money and pride by trying again.

You’re a human being.  You have desires, needs, and goals.  If you’ve lived long enough to consider yourself a writer, then you’ve lived long enough to know that there are those who will exploit your ambitions for their own personal gain.  In fact, there’s an entire industry out there designed to do exactly that.

Watching “Business Secrets of the Pharaohs” was something I had to do through laced fingers.  Mark’s an intelligent guy who just wants to believe that the universe has offered him a break.  I remember that feeling well.  It’s a nice thought…but it’s no substitute for reality.

Be careful.  Be honest with yourself.  And, for heaven’s sake, keep your wallet in your pocket. You’ll thank me later.

Author Solutions Rep to Skeptic: ‘All I Can Tell You Is The Facts’

Author Solutions Penguin: Liar, LiarGot an email today from an author, Kevin, who had an entertaining exchange with an Author Solutions rep calling himself Eric Emlinger.

Now, Kevin was pitched by iUniverse back in the day, but decided not sign on the dotted line because they failed to answer all of his questions satisfactorily. Basically, Kevin sensed something sleazy was afoot and walked away.

Well, he recently received another email from Author Solutions. It was their typical spiel.

Read Author Solutions' Email Pitch

Kevin,

Thank you for requesting publishing information from iUniverse, one of the most established and respected brands in the independent publishing industry. In a recent study, iUniverse sold twice as many books in the retail channel as other leading self-publishing brands.

iUniverse offers the most extensive variety of publishing services to help individuals publish, market, and sell fiction, poetry, and nonfiction books. Our company utilizes print-on-demand technology, and is one of the largest self-publishing companies in the United States, publishing more than 5,000 new titles each year.

This link will help you with information and details about our Publishing Packages – click here —> [LINK REMOVED]

The iUniverse management team has extensive editorial and managerial experience with traditional publishers such as HarperCollins, Putnam, Simon & Schuster and Holtzbrinck. iUniverse partners with industry leading author organizations, including the Authors Guild, the Harlem Writers Guild, and the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) to bring innovative programs to their members. iUniverse has strategic alliances with Barnes & Noble, Inc. in the U.S. and Chapters Indigo in Canada and has offices in New York City and Bloomington, IN.

iUniverse was created to be as similar to a traditional publishing experience as possible, while permitting the author to maintain all rights and control of the process.

Another iUniverse author gets a book deal! [LINK REMOVED]

“iUniverse has a thorough process to identify promising new writers, and then invests real dollars in promoting their books. Their editorial review process greatly enhances the quality of the books they publish. The iUniverse Star Program is a great opportunity to discover new authors and bring them to market.” – Barnes and Noble CEO Steve Riggio.

Through our recognition programs and awards, we make real investments to support titles that demonstrate a high level of editorial quality and marketability. These programs open the door to more opportunities for retail presentation and placement. This is the only self-publishing series of its kind established to identify, celebrate and support authors. Our recognition programs include:

The Star Program books are republished free of charge under the Star imprint, presented to Barnes & Noble for in-store placement, and offered to booksellers with attractive retail terms and returnable status.

Rising Star is the only program of its kind to guarantee titles will be presented by a commissioned sales force to national, regional and local booksellers. Each Rising Star title is featured in the Rising Star Special Collections boutique on Barnes & Noble.com.

iUniverse chooses only those titles that have the essential qualities of a professionally published book to be part of our Editor’s Choice program. Books that receive a positive Editorial Evaluation are sent to our Editorial Board for careful consideration.

Editorial excellence is important, but so are book sales. The iUniverse Reader’s Choice designation recognizes authors who have achieved both editorial excellence and sales success.

No other self publishing organization offers the unique and successful iUniverse Author Recognition and Marketing Programs.

First, I would like to know more about you, your book and your motivation to publish. To help me better understand your needs, I have outlined a few questions that I hope you will answer in detail for me:

-What type of book have you written?
-Who is your target audience?
-Are you finished writing the book?
-What computer program did you use to write your book?
-Will your book have images on the interior pages or text only?
-Do you plan to publish those images in color, or black and white?
-How many pages do you estimate that your book will have?
-Would you like to have your book published in softcover or hardcover?
-When would you like to be holding your very first copy?

Author Solutions, the parent company of iUniverse, is now a member of the Penguin Group. Read full press release here.

[LINK REMOVED]

I look forward to speaking with you.

Sincerely,

Eric Emlinger
PUBLISHING CONSULTANT

1663 Liberty Drive
Bloomington, IN 47403
US Toll Free: (800) 288-4677 Ext. 5377
Fax: (812) 349-0747
[LINK REMOVED]

Author Solutions, the parent company of iUniverse, is a Penguin Random House Company.

iUniverse authors win Independent Publisher Book Awards: [LINK REMOVED]

A few points about their first email:

  • Notice how they’re humping that Penguin-Random House association to add an air of legitimacy the Author Solutions name can’t conjure on its own.

  • Notice what B&N’s CEO is quoted as saying about the Author Solutions/iUniverse editorial review process. (So that’s why my B&N closed! Now I get it.)

  • Don’t miss the rest of their corporate name dropping. Plenty of brands to be leery of including: HarperCollins, Putnam, Simon & Schuster and Holtzbrinck, Authors Guild, the Harlem Writers Guild, and the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA), Barnes & Noble, Inc. and Chapters Indigo.

  • Be sure you laugh at the part where they say iUniverse is designed to be “as similar to a traditional publishing experience as possible.” (Where to begin with this…)

  • And finally, check out this line: “No other self publishing organization offers the unique and successful iUniverse Author Recognition and Marketing Programs.” (Except Xlibris, AuthorHouse, Trafford, et al because they’re owned by Author Solutions too.)

At any rate, Kevin picked up on what was going on, and shot an email back to Eric:

Ugh, I didn’t realize this was iUniverse under another name.  I’ll pass thanks.  I’ve heard nothing but horror stories about how little authors get and how you people upsell for next to nothing in return.

To which Eric responded with this gem:

Hello Kevin,

Such horror stories are from websites that are being sued for racketeering, their [sic] essentially hiring people to write bad reviews about big companies. I don’t expect you to believe me, all I can tell you is the facts. We’ve been in business for 15 years, published over 91,000 books, we have an A with the Better Business Bureau, we are regulated by the FCC, and our company is a part of the Penguin Random House group. Many of my authors have even returned in recent months to publish their second and third book. I hope we hear from you again.

Sincerely,

Eric Emlinger
PUBLISHING CONSULTANT

Oh. My. God. That’s so delicious. Racketeering? You wouldn’t be making shit up now, would you Eric?

‘Cause, umm, who’s suing whom?

Author Solutions Sued For Deceptive Practices

author solutions bloomington indiana

Author Solutions, owner of several vanity press brands, has offices located in Bloomington, IN.

On Monday, April 29, I opened an email from an associate at Giskan Solotaroff Anderson & Stewart LLP. It said simply, “We represent plaintiffs against Author Solutions.  I wanted to let you know that we filed our class suit against them on Friday in the Southern District of New York.”

On May 2, I got an email from Anon with nothing more than a link to a Publisher’s Weekly article titled, “Authors Sue Self-Publishing Service Author Solutions.”

Then a couple of days ago, I got an email from Jodi Foster asking if I’d heard about the lawsuit. (If her name sounds familiar, it coule be because she did an interview here last May. See “iUniverse Complaints: Interview with Jodi Foster.”)

Then this morning, I noticed that I was getting traffic from a Forbes article posted yesterday on the subject of the lawsuit.

Although I’ve been tweeting about the suit since I received the first email, I figured it was time I wrote something about the happy news. Something official to include in  The Complete Index.

About the Lawsuit

Here’s an excerpt from the Publisher’s Weekly article in case you’re not familiar with the details:

Three authors have filed suit against self-publishing service provider Author Solutions, and its parent company Penguin, airing a laundry list of complaints and alleging the company is engaged in deceitful, dubious business practices. “Defendants have marketed themselves as an independent publisher with a reputation for outstanding quality and impressive book sales,” the complaint reads. “Instead, Defendants are not an independent publisher, but a print-on-demand vanity press.”

Beautiful, isn’t it?

There are three authors bringing charges: Kelvin James, Jodi Foster and Terry Hardy, and excerpts from the formal complaint read like poetry to someone like me:

“Despite its impressive profits from book sales, Author Solutions fails at the most basic task of a publisher: paying its authors their earned royalties and providing its authors with accurate sales statements.” (Victoria Strauss has posted a PDF of the full complaint.)

The authors are asking for $5 million in punitive damages. Now, I have no idea what kind of true financial impact a win could have on the company. Maybe none at all. What excites me more is the potential deterrent to future customers this lawsuit will bring, as it’s being widely publicized in self-pub circles and the media in general.

Other articles:

Bye-Bye Kevvy!

In related news, Digital Book World reported on May 3 that Author Solutions parent company, Pearson, has appointed one of their own to take over Kevin “Backdating” Weiss’s role as CEO. Penguin exec John Makinson said, “This is a bitter-sweet announcement because we shall be sorry to lose Kevin, who has provided the stability and clear leadership that Author Solutions needed in the year after our acquisition. But I always recognised that Kevin would seek fresh pastures in time and that a new chief executive from within Penguin would connect the business more closely to Penguin’s curated publishing activities.”

I haven’t yet heard where Weiss is heading, but the article says to expect an announcement sometime this week.