In the Dark, All Cats

I’m sure it’s hard to set yourself up as an indie publisher. What services will you provide to your authors? Will you specialize in some particular genre? How will you promote the books on your list? How will you bring in money? The only thing you can be guaranteed of is that you’ll have no shortage of aspiring authors who would love to have you publish their work.

I don’t like to criticize an indie publisher. That’s not part of today’s agenda. I’m an author, and my main interest is in addressing the concerns of my fellow authors. If you’re an author and wondering whether a given indie publisher might be right for you, there are some things you’ll want to look at.

Some indie publishers charge the author up front for their services. That’s not necessarily a red flag. You may need those services, and their charges may be reasonable. Some indies may want to lock up your literary work by offering you a contract with a long-term rights clause. This is less likely to be sensible, but you’ll want to consult a lawyer. I can’t offer advice.

Before you get to the should-I-sign-this-contract stage, I’d suggest you take a long close look at the publisher’s website. If the site starts tossing up red flags — dead links, pages that fail to load — I’d suggest being skeptical of the publisher’s ability to market your book effectively. Having a strong web presence does not, by itself, sell books, but if a company’s site is slipshod, you’re entitled to wonder how effectively they will handle the other challenges of the publishing business.

I’ve been looking at the web presence of a newish company called darkstroke books. I want to emphasize up front that I know absolutely nothing one way or the other about the integrity or business prospects of darkstroke. The folks who run the company may be absolute gems on their way to a brilliant future. All I can judge by is their web presence.

The darkstroke site does say that they don’t charge authors up front, and that’s good. The site doesn’t tell you who runs the company, however, and that’s one of the things to check when you look at any indie publisher’s site. Most of these companies are very small, so it’s good to know who you’ll be dealing with. darkstroke describe themselves as “an award-winning team,” but there’s no indication what awards they may have won. That doesn’t sit well with me, but maybe they’re just being modest.

On the “Us” page it says darkstroke is “an imprint of Crooked Cat Books,” so I took the extra step of doing a search for Crooked Cat. The Crooked Cat website turns out to be a wildly defective shell. The pages for “The Team” and “Publishing with Us” are blank. The “Our Authors” page fails to load. The link on the main home page banner display takes you to a different book page, not the book shown in the banner. The blog page has a placeholder graphic for the banner, and the only blog entries are from 2016.

What could be the problem? It’s hard to guess. I figured I ought to try to find out, so I emailed darkstroke. After describing the Crooked Cat problems, I said, “I feel I need to ask: Who exactly is running your business? Is Darkstroke being run directly by the Crooked Cat people, or do you have your own staff? Does Crooked Cat have any other imprints? What exactly is going on here?”

I did get an email back from them. Here’s their response: “Thanks for reaching out to us. What you’re seeing is the instance of the Crooked Cat site that remains live in error. I’ll investigate why it is that you’re able to see it. Crooked Cat is the company name, and darkstroke is our imprint. It is the case that, from the beginning of 2022, darkstroke will take over as the primary name.”

Their email was signed “-darkstroke”, and the email address was “Rabbit Hole” at darkstroke.

Again I want to emphasize that I don’t actually know what’s going on here. I’m not going to indulge in any flights of speculation, snarky or otherwise. But consider: Two days after I sent them my email (two full business days having now gone by), the Crooked Cat site is still up, it hasn’t been fixed, and their own site still mentions Crooked Cat. And the person at darkstroke who replied to my email didn’t feel it necessary to identify him- or herself.

darkstroke has a longish list of authors, most of whom will shortly be publishing or have just published their debut novels under the imprint. There are a few older titles in their list; I didn’t take a complete inventory. I did find a couple of bad links on the darkstroke site — book covers that, when clicked, took one off to a different darkstroke book on the Amazon UK site.

Another thing you may want to do with an indie is look at a few of their published books using Amazon’s Look Inside. That can be revealing. I looked at one darkstroke novel. I will say only that it’s not my sort of thing.

I don’t often link to other blogs, but I think this piece on warning signs is worth a read.

The temptation, if you’re a new author, is to rush ahead. The desire to be a published author (!!!) may overwhelm every other consideration. The acceptance letter from the indie may be so gratifying that you decide it would be churlish to carp about trivia. And you may be right. After writing a few books for an indie and seeing them in print, you may be motivated to dig deeper into your craft. The momentum you’ve accumulated may turn you into a fine author. Conversely, if you only write the one book, at least it’s out there, and your family will be proud of you.

All I’m really saying is, there are some things you may want to think about. The publisher’s website will be visible, so that’s a good place to start.

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