Who Do You Trust?

Between the empyrean heights of traditional (corporate) publishing and the fetid swamp of self-publishing lies the broad swath of prickly undergrowth where lurk the monsters of the indie press. I’ve been looking at a few indie websites this week, and reading cautionary tales. I did actually end up submitting a query to one of the indies. Perhaps inadvisedly. More on that below.

If your view of indie presses is through rose-colored lenses, you may want to jet over to Writer Beware. The material on that site will surely fill you with both fear and loathing, and that would be healthy for both your sanity and your literary prospects.

Many things can go wrong when an unsuspecting author signs a contract with an indie. Your book may be published with the wrong cover, or with chapters bound in from some other book. It happens. Your royalty checks may never arrive. When the publisher goes out of business, you may be unable to get the rights to your book reassigned to you — and yes, that can happen even if your contract specifically says you get the rights back.

Some indie publishers provide a decent service. Some of them have good intentions but lack a good business model. Some of them are jut plain crooks. I’m not going to trot out a check list of warning signs; read the Writer Beware site for that.

The publisher I decided to submit to has several things in its favor. First, it has been in business for eight or ten years. This indicates a certain level of stability. I used Amazon’s Look Inside to read the opening pages of a few of this publisher’s books, and the writing seemed well above average. The staff appears, with names, photos, and bios, on their website. (Never trust a publisher whose identity remains hidden.) Most important, perhaps, this publisher charges the author no fees up front. Instead, it pays royalties. That is, it’s not a vanity or “hybrid” publisher.

In general, I would strongly recommend against paying a publisher to publish your book. There may, however, be legitimate reasons why you would pay a publisher up front. For instance, the publisher may offer a combined package that includes cover design, interior layout, and e-book formatting, none of which you’re equipped to do yourself. The publisher may also offer in-house editing services, and if their editors are good (no guarantees on that score!), your work may be the better for it.

The problem with this business model is that once you have sent the publisher your fat lump of money — and we’re talking several thousand dollars — they have no incentive to follow through on any of those promised services. Their “promotion and marketing” may consist entirely of sending out a mass email that nobody reads. Their “editor” may be a recent college grad who knows less about editing fiction or English grammar than your Aunt Martha.

What you want is not a publisher that makes money selling services to authors. You want a publisher that makes money by selling books to readers.

After submitting my synopsis and opening chapters to this publisher, though, I went back to their website and thought a bit more about their personnel. The Editor-in-Chief claims to have years of editing experience, but her bio doesn’t mention a single company she has ever edited for, or a single book project with a major publisher that she has ever seen through to publication. She apparently spent ten years on the board of a volunteer-run non-profit dedicated to helping writers. As a credential, that’s pure piffle.

Her bio, the bio of her second-in-command editor, and the bio of the editorial assistant all mention their pets. This is undoubtedly intended to make the staff seem more human or approachable, but when you mention your cat’s name and don’t mention any paid position you have ever had in the publishing world, nor anything of your own that has ever been published … well, that’s not a good sign.

It’s also the case that the gal who is designated the copy-editor for this particular publishing outfit lists no qualifications whatever for her position. Having been a professional copy-editor myself for more than 25 years, I may be able to teach her a thing or two. Publishing should be a two-way street, after all.

And this is the company that rose above the pack to the point where I went ahead and sent them a query.

Now, I want to be clear about this. This publishing company may be both effective and entirely reputable! I may end up signing a deal with them (if they offer a reasonable contract), and it might work out very well for both parties. All I’m saying, to switch up the metaphor with which this essay began, is that indie publishing is a bit of a minefield. If you’re not watching your step, something may go boom.

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