iUniverse Complaints: Interview with Philip J. Reed
Today’s interview with iUniverse customer Philip J. Reed is a must read. He published not one but two books with iUniverse (Her Life Will Be Set to Music and God Ran Out of Faces).
I offered to include links to Philip’s books, but then he reminded me that he wouldn’t see a penny of the money from the sale anyway and told me it wasn’t necessary. So here’s a link to his blog instead: Noiseless Chatter.
ES: What initially made you decide to publish with iUniverse?
I ran into a friend of mine, with whom I hadn’t spoken for years. She was a poet and I had been writing fiction for about as long as I’d been alive, and she had just had a book of her work published through iUniverse. I didn’t then know what a subsidy publisher was (which I think was how they were marketing themselves at the time, though I could be wrong) and I’m not sure she did either. We were young and I think she thought she was being legitimately published. When she presented it to me as an option, I then also thought of it as legitimate publishing. Word of mouth worked very well in their favor in this regard, but it didn’t do much for us getting the right information. It wasn’t until I had already started submitting my own manuscript that I got a copy of her book, and found it to be full of errors…both grammatical errors and printing errors. That should have tipped me off then, and I feel rather foolish that it didn’t.
ES: You published two books with them, so there must have been something you liked that drew you back to the company for the second book?
That’s a good question, and a fair assumption. But I wouldn’t really say that there was something I liked about it – apart from, maybe, the speed and ease of publishing – so much as I convinced myself that I could have a better experience than the first time. With my first book, it was full of errors. It looked awful and cheap. And while I’ll certainly allow that most of the errors – read on for why I don’t say “all” – were my own, even the basic packaging and presentation of the book were subpar. It was cheaply made with smeared ink and bleeding colors. While I know it’s unfair to blame the publisher for the content of the book, I don’t think it’s unfair to blame them for the shoddy approach to their basic printing duties.
So why did I go back? It’s almost embarrassing to admit this, but I went back because I HAD to have a better experience the second time. In most businesses if you are treated poorly, you can choose not to return. That’s the end. But with publishing, your name is out there. It’s on a book. People can find that book easily. And if it’s a book you’re not proud of, it never goes away.
I needed a second book out there that could be found instead, one that wouldn’t reflect quite so horribly on me. So I deliberately published something shorter and less complicated, which would hopefully then be subject to fewer mistakes. I was right…I’m much more happy with how the second one turned out. But it doesn’t change the fact that it was a reactionary approach meant to bury the mistakes of the first.
I actually pulled the first book out of production a few years ago, but every so often I search for it and find that it’s still available for purchase. It’s hard not to draw unsavory conclusions from that, but, hey, what do I know.
ES: What part of the process turned you off?
A few things turned me off, but I only realized them later. With my first book, for instance, I know that a lot of the errors are mine. I corrected as much as I could – or thought I did – before submitting. Then I got the proofs back and went over them carefully…only to find that they were absolutely riddled with errors. At the time, I thought I just did a horrible job proofreading it, but, hey, I still had another chance here to correct it.
So I spent days correcting everything, and I sent it back. At the time, this was part of the basic process, and didn’t cost more money. By the time of my second book, any changes made to the proofs WOULD cost money.
Due to the nature of the proofing process, however, this just created more mistakes. You had to describe changes, rather than make them yourself. For instance, if you had a sentence reading “He chased the bus,” but it was supposed to read “She chased the bus,” you couldn’t just add an S. You had to fill out a form explaining where in the manuscript the error was. In other words page number, line number, sentence…something to that effect. I can’t remember for sure, except that it was more clinical and less intuitive than one might think.
So you’d fill out a form specifying that there was an error on page 219, paragraph 7, line 3, word 1. The error is that it says “He” but should say “She.” That’s it. No context. Which means that you’d better be damned sure the people making the changes are interpreting your instructions correctly. If they misread a number or miscount something, the wrong word will get changed.
Sure enough, the wrong word got changed a LOT in my corrections. From there, you were allowed to specify 50 changes for free, and any more than that would cost more money. I genuinely think this was something of a racket, as for every change I specified, not only was the original typo still there, but now they created another one. I specified my 50 changes (though it needed a lot more that I couldn’t afford at the time), which were also then made incorrectly, and was stuck with a novel in which my original errors had multiplied like cockroaches.
And, honestly, part of me wonders if some of those original errors weren’t inserted on the publisher’s part, to juice me for the correction fees. That’s admittedly just me being suspicious, but nothing I’ve heard about them – or experienced with them – would lead me to believe that they wouldn’t do that.
ES: Why have you decided to give up on this method of publishing?
As I mentioned, my second attempt went much better. I provided a thoroughly vetted manuscript as free of error as was humanly possible, and did not specify any corrections to be made. (I learned that lesson.) I was happy with it, but it was a comparative happiness, compared to the trainwreck of my first experience.
Soon afterward, and I mean probably days afterward, I attended a reading by Jeffrey Eugenides, who was then promoting his brilliant novel Middlesex. I met with him both before and after the reading – I was fortunate enough to strike up a conversation with him without realizing who he was! – and we talked about fiction for a long time, and even exchanged book recommendations. He was – and is – a humble and excellent man.
Toward the end of the night I told him that I had just self-published my second book, and he took me by the arm and said, “I don’t want to detract from what you’ve done. Finishing any kind of project on that scale is impressive. But I will tell you now, because it sounds like nobody else has told you: stop self-publishing.”
And I was done.
ES: Is there anything else about your experience you want to share with others considering using iUniverse?
Sure, I’ll share that they hound me to this day. It’s been many years since I’ve so much as logged into their site or worked with them, but I can count on a phone call from an unfamiliar number or an email from somebody I’ve never heard of before, telling me they want to update my information, or confirm what they have on file. I don’t know how they manage to track me down every time – I’m several states and phone numbers away from where I was when I worked with them! – but it gets annoying. It’s particularly telling, I think, that it’s a different person contacting me every time, always introducing themselves as the account liaison (or some such thing) for my books, so I guess they have a pretty high turnover rate. I’ve asked them not to contact me anymore, but, in fairness to them, the people I ask keep getting replaced with new people so I guess they don’t know that.
Also, I’d be surprised if I made $300 profit, total. That’s nothing to do with iUniverse, but it’s something I feel compelled to mention, lest anyone out there think that self-publishing might be a shortcut to success.
I regret self-publishing, and I’m currently seeking a literary agent to represent my much better manuscript. It may take me years to find one, but that’s okay. It’s worth the effort, because the manuscript is great. If it weren’t great it wouldn’t be worth the effort, which should probably tell me something about how unnecessary self-publishing really is. Regardless, I’m doing it the right way from now on.
The only way.