Tuesday, March 6, 2018

The Dark Side of #Indie Publishing by Leah St. James

There was a time in the not distant past that being self-published labeled an author a pariah in the book world, not good enough to cut it with the big boys (traditional publishing). Those days have changed, and today, most readers know the publisher of a book (big company or self-published) doesn’t predetermine the quality of the book.

I have read many, many wonderful books by “indie” authors. I am an indie author. Several of our Roses are indie authors. The ranks of indie authors are filled with brilliant writers who have produced compelling and entertaining stories with fascinating characters that make me want to read more and more.

However – you knew a “however” was coming, right? – there are still too many poorly written books being released via self-publishing. I’m not saying this as a reader. I’m saying it from several years’ experience as a local book columnist/review coordinator for the news organization where I work.  We ran monthly lists of new releases, “reviews” (although not critical reviews, more like book reports), author profiles and a weekly calendar of local book signings. As you might imagine, I received books and pitches daily, and the majority were from authors who had self-published their stories.

Some of them were very well done, great stories, and I was happy to share with our readers. But too many were just bad – amateurish formatting and cover design, little or no evidence of proofreading or sometimes even the most basic skills in writing.

I often worried about this latter group of authors. They were the ones who hadn’t done the hard work it takes to learn the craft of writing. Neither did they educate themselves on the business side of the craft and were easy pickins for companies happy to take their money, sometimes lots of it, to help them see their books in print.

I’ll give you a perfect example that happened just the other day. (While I no longer write the column, I still get calls and emails from authors and publicists.)

Caller: Hello, uh, I wrote a book and need some help.

Me (feeling a prickling of unease at the back of my neck): What kind of help?

Caller: Well, it’s almost ready to be published and they said it needs to be proofread.

Me (red brain-flags waving): Are you self-publishing?

Caller: Yeah. I know I gotta pay, but can you proofread for me, or tell me someone who can?

Me: What’s the genre?

Caller: It’s called a manuscript.

Me (heart sinking...rapidly): Right, but is it fiction, like a story? Non-fiction, like a how-to book? Or maybe a memoir?    

Caller: Yeah. That’s it. A memoir.

It turns out he contracted with one of those notorious companies (once known as vanity presses)  that rake in dollars from naive authors. They offered to proofread for him, but the cost would be $2,000 (yikes!!) for his 388-page manuscript. He’s disabled, living solely on disability, and can’t scrape that kind of money together. Worse, when I asked him what the $2,000 covered, his response was, “Uh...that’s a good question.” All he knew was that it was an add-on buried somewhere in the contract. He’d already given them a lot of money and now they were asking for another couple grand before his book would see life.

For a nanosecond I considered whether I could help him out, but I was worried the manuscript would be a mess (I'd seen how some of these companies "edit"), and I knew I wouldn’t be able to muster the energy it would take to do a good job. 

Instead I gave him the names of a couple local writing groups and a nearby writing center with a great reputation. I hope he followed through, but I’m worried that somehow he’ll find $2,000 and get ripped off even worse. It’s bothering me.

So this is a plea for new authors who are thinking of self-publishing:


  • Do your homework before you hand over money to anyone, whether an editor, cover designer, book formatter...any author services. 
  • Join a local writing group and/or an online group like the Alliance of Independent Authors where you can network with others and learn from their experiences. Here’s a list of writing organizations by state. Here's a list of national groups. I’m sure neither list is exhaustive, but it’s a start.
  • Take writing classes and hone your skills. Check your local community college for opportunities. Listen to constructive criticism.
  • Please, hire a real book editor. Your best friend/cousin/brother-in-law who’s really good in English might be cheap, but book editing is a specific skill. Being “good in English” doesn’t make someone a good book editor.
Lastly, please don’t let my cautionary tale throw cold water on your dreams, but pursue them with your eyes open, and your wallet closed until you know what you’re buying.


Leah writes stories of mystery and romance, good and evil and the power of love. Learn more at LeahStJames.com, or visit her on Facebook.



Christine DePetrillo said...

Great advice, Leah! Self-publishing can be so exciting, but it's important to not get taken for a ride in terms of services you might need to pay for. Joining groups and going to conferences is a great way to learn from the experiences of others.

Jannine Gallant said...

I got ripped off close to 20 years ago. I submitted to an "agent" who accepted me and only wanted money for postage. This was back when people mailed manuscripts to publishers. I paid them $150 before I realized my book wasn't going anywhere. It was a total scam. And I wasted 2 years thinking it was being shopped to publishers. You really do have to do your homework when it comes to all aspects of the business. Great post, Leah!

Leah St. James said...

You're right, Chris. Conferences are a fantastic way to educate yourself, and make friends!

Leah St. James said...

Ouch, Jannine! I almost did the same about 20 years ago. I'm not sure what held me back (probably accountant hubby), but I got lucky!

Alison Henderson said...

That's a sad, but all too common, story, Leah. I'm glad I didn't make the switch to self-publishing until after I'd published three books with a small press and learned about the business. You're so right about the erratic quality of indie-pubbed books. I recently went to a signing by a local author at the bookstore that carries my books, just to show support. We had a lovely chat and, of course, I bought one of her books. She'd had a professional cover made but clearly hadn't paid for editing. I couldn't read past page three.

Leah St. James said...

I did the same, Alison (started with a small press). It was a great experience, and I met so many wonderful authors and editors (like our own Alicia Dean!). Authors today are blessed in the sense that we have so many options available, and so many resources. We just have to do the work and put in the time! (Now selling...that's a whole other animal.) :-)

Vonnie Davis said...

I majored in English/Professional Writing in college. Retired as a technical writer. I knew how to craft a sentence. What I did NOT know was the craft of writing. Things like opening hook, character development, story arc, GMC, point of view (didn't everyone write in omniscient?) and writing good dialog. Talk about learning in my sixties!!! I took online classes. I joined a writers' group. Talked to other writers and learned from some great editors at TWRP. When a newbie or wanna-be writer starts talking to me, I ask them if they realize the work involved in learning and writing and rewriting and deleting whole chapters. They look at me like I'm nuts and, well, we all know I am, but we don't need to go there, do we? Awesome post!

Leah St. James said...

You have really worked hard, Vonnie, and as one of your fans, I appreciate it! And you're so right...this "writing" this is so much more than anyone realizes until they try it.

Diane Burton said...

Great post, Leah. Margo and I went to a writers' event a couple of years ago. At one of the workshops, Margo heard about this woman who'd paid $3,000 to get her book published, then they wanted more money. In the end, I think she paid over $9k. I wanted to cry just thinking about that writer getting ripped off. I published 2 books through small presses. So glad I had that experience. I self-pub now and am truly happy to be in charge of my books. Can you say control freak???

Jannine, I had a similar experience with an agent, though I did't pay her money. She asked for printed copies of my stories. Even being allowed to use my employer's copier (my paper) and the company discount to ship, I put out quite a bit of money. I don't know what she ever did with the copies, but as far as I could tell she never sent them to editors. What a waste of 3 years. I think she might have been a frustrated editor since all she wanted to do was tell me what was wrong with my manuscripts and how to fix them, and how being published by a small press hurt my chances of ever getting published by the Big Boys.

Writers beware!

Rolynn Anderson said...

All good points, Leah...and why we sought out help from each other early in our careers. I hope new authors take heed of your advice. If I'd only known then what I do now...but I don't fret much, because the writing world has changed so much since I jumped into the fray. And it will change some more. Hang on to your hats!

Leah St. James said...

I think many of us know someone who got ripped off big time by these companies, Diane, and it makes me want to cry, too. That must have been so frustrating to continue sending copies of the MS. But I'm glad you found your way with indie pubbing. :-)

Leah St. James said...

The writing world is changing, Rolynn. We have to keep on our toes -- continue learning and networking and all that good stuff. :-)

Alicia Dean said...

Wow, this is a fantastic post! You nailed exactly what those who are planning to self-publish need to know. I'm sharing this with my online self-publishing course I'm teaching.

Brenda Whiteside said...

A fantastic post, Leah. I love all of your please points. So important!