Navigating Self-Publishing, Interview with Victoria Strauss

Lisa Abbate of Wordmountain.com has done a terrific  interview about self-publishing with author-advocate and co-founder of  Writer Beware, novelist  Victoria Strauss. Ms. Strauss outlines some of the hows, whys, and best-practices writers should be aware of when they’re investigating self-publishing options, for Absolute Write’s readers.

Self-publishing is a perfectly viable model for a number of writers and a number of niches, but the various business models out there introduce a whole set of complications and dangers for any savvy writer to be aware of. In addition, it’s important that anyone planning to self-publish understands what they’re looking at, in terms of distribution and sales numbers:

Writer Beware often hears from authors who believe they’ve been scammed by self-publishing companies, when in reality it was their expectations that were the problem—they didn’t realize that the average self-pubbed book sells fewer than 200 copies, or that the wholesale distribution offered by most self-pub companies is only half the distribution picture.

Read the whole interview here!

Victoria Strauss is the author of seven fantasy novels for adults and young adults, including the Stone duology (The Arm of the Stone and The Garden of the Stone) and the Way of Arata duology (The Burning Land and The Awakened City). She has written hundreds of book reviews for magazines and ezines, including SF Site, and her articles on writing have appeared in Writer’s Digest and elsewhere. In 2006, she served as a judge for the World Fantasy Awards. She maintains the popular Writer Beware website (www.writerbeware.com) and blog (www.accrispin.blogspot.com). She received the Service to SFWA Award in 2009. Her personal website is http://www.victoriastrauss.com/

Lisa Abbate is a nonfiction author’s coach, writer, and editor for many innovative technology companies. She’s been a longtime contributing writer at Absolute Write and editor at Coyote Wild. Her website is www.wordmountain.com. She is also the founder and executive director of an environmental organization, visionforsalem.org.

You can find more interviews with Victoria Strauss on these websites:

FMWriters interview

Writer’s Write interview

WOW (Women On Writing) interview

Previous Absolute Write interview

Navigating the Self-Publishing Waters: An interview with Victoria Strauss

By Lisa Abbate

For so many writers—fiction or nonfiction—the completion and publishing of a book is the fulfillment of a great dream. Completing a book is no small feat, and neither is getting it published. Some aspiring authors choose to seek out an agent and traditional publisher, while others opt to self-publish. Technology and competition has brought self-publishing to a new level and has offers some solid benefits—writers can get their books out sooner, have a bigger chunk of book sales, and participate in every step of the process. But you’ve got to do your due diligence and remember: Writers that approach publishing options more with their business mind and less with their emotions (even though it’s exciting to achieve your goals!) will ultimately be happier with the outcome.

photo courtesy of Victoria Strauss

To that end, I want to introduce you to Victoria Strauss.

An active member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Victoria is Vice-Chair of the Committee on Writing Scams, and co-founder, with Ann Crispin, of Writer Beware, a highly-respected publishing industry watchdog group that provides information and warnings about the many scams and schemes that threaten writers.

Abbate: There are so many self-publishing choices out there, with new companies emerging constantly. What are some key aspects that a writer must consider when shopping for a self-publisher?

Strauss: There are plenty! One is how long the company has been in business. Several years in business indicates stability (for example, the company is less likely to suddenly vanish without a trace—always a risk with a brand-new startup).

Another thing you want to see is a large catalog of books, and a steady output. Again, this indicates stability and experience. Look the company up on Amazon, and sort the search results by date. This will give you a sense of how many books the company has published, and you can check to see if there are any suspicious hiatuses. For instance, if the company has been producing books at an average rate of a several dozen a month, but the numbers suddenly dropped or stopped a few months ago, something might be wrong.

There’s also price and packages. These vary from company to company, which makes comparison shopping especially important. True DIY companies like Lulu and CreateSpace charge nothing upfront; more elaborate services, which include extras like custom cover design, can charge upwards of $20,000.

Make sure that what the company offers is a good fit for your budget and your goals.

Abbate: What about look and feel of the books?

Strauss: Physical and design quality matter too. Many self-publishing writers design their own covers—something they may not have the expertise to do—so there are nearly always poor-quality covers on a self-publishing company’s website. But the company’s cover templates should at least look professional (comparable to what you’d see in a physical bookstore). It’s also a good idea to order a couple of books from any company you’re considering, so you can assess paper, binding, and interior design. Print-on-demand books can be indistinguishable from their offset-printed counterparts, but some self-pub companies skimp on paper and cover stock.

Abbate: I know that there are some self-publishers out there that market themselves as the more traditional publishers, but are really in the market of selling books back to the author at an inflated price. What should people watch for?

Strauss: Book price is critical. POD-printed books are expensive to produce, so cover prices will generally be higher than for offset-printed books, especially at longer lengths. Some self-pub companies let you set your own price, but others don’t give you a choice. Make sure the cover prices are not unrealistically high, and be aware of what your own book is likely to cost. Visit Amazon and your local bookstore and compare prices in your book category.

Abbate: I always go by the guideline that you shouldn’t offer a deal or contract that you wouldn’t accept yourself, knowing all the variables. What should self-publishing writers be mindful of in contracts?

Strauss: Look for a nonexclusive contract that covers only digital
rights (POD and electronic) and can be terminated at will. Your share of the proceeds shouldn’t be less than 20% of net price, or 75% of profit. Beware of any self-pub company that demands exclusivity, or puts a claim on subsidiary rights.

Then there’s reputation. You can find complaints about just about any self-publishing company, if you Google it. But some companies are the focus of more complaints than others, and that can be a warning sign, especially if the complaints all mention similar problems. There are resources at Writer Beware to help you assess a company’s reputation. Don’t bother with the Better Business Bureau; writers rarely complain to the BBB.

Abbate: What are some of the emotional aspects that a writer can get caught up in when looking at self-publishing, or being “accepted” by a company? It seems that some companies present as having an application process, when the reality is that they just want the money and really aren’t discerning.

Strauss: Straightforward self-publishing services, such as Lulu or Infinity, may sometimes present an overly-rosy picture of the benefits of self-publishing, but they don’t pretend to provide any sort of vetting process or quality filter. Anyone who can pay will be published, and that’s made very clear.

The problem arises with the more deceptive companies, which present themselves as “mainline” or “traditional” publishers despite charging fees, or call themselves “subsidy publishers” rather than vanity publishers or self-publishing services and say they don’t accept just anyone. For writers who are frustrated by multiple rejections, or who can’t get publishers or literary agents to pay attention to their queries, or who’ve been searching for so long that they’ve begun to believe they’ll never succeed, a contract offer from a company that claims to be selective is a huge validation, and can be a major incentive to ignore warning signs.

Abbate: It’s that point where the business decision is driven by emotion, perhaps without seeing the facts clearly. Every writer wants the satisfaction of seeing their work in print.

Strauss: Absolutely. But any time you are required to lay down cash in order to be published—whether it’s an upfront fee or a purchase requirement of some sort—you must abandon the idea that you have been chosen on merit. Yes, some fee-based publishing companies are at least somewhat selective—focusing on a specific market or genre, excluding manuscripts that are too long or short, rejecting those that are egregiously ungrammatical or poorly-spelled. But the fact that their profit is built on authors’ fees means that they can’t afford to exclude too much. So even if a company isn’t lying about picking and choosing (and some do lie), whatever selection process you’ve been subjected to isn’t rigorous enough to provide true validation of your work. (Conversely, it doesn’t condemn your work, either. A fee-based company will as happily publish a good book as a bad one.)

Another emotional pitfall comes with not doing your research. Many writers who decide to self-publish make the decision based on incomplete or faulty information. Writer Beware often hears from authors who believe they’ve been scammed by self-publishing companies, when in reality it was their expectations that were the problem—they didn’t realize that the average self-pubbed book sells fewer than 200 copies, or that the wholesale distribution offered by most self-pub companies is only half the distribution picture.

Abbate: Many people think that they have distribution—that the fact that they self-publish a book means it’s easy to get a book into a bookstore or on Amazon—when nothing could be further from the truth.

Strauss: As noted above, there are two pieces to the book distribution picture. There are wholesalers (such as Ingram, Baker & Taylor, Bertrams, and Brodart), which provide warehousing and fulfillment services for publishers and self-publishing companies. They keep publishers’ books on hand (in either physical or virtual form, depending on the publisher’s business model), fill orders as they come in, and accept returns. Distributors (such as PGW/Perseus, Independent Publishers Group, and Consortium) do everything a wholesaler does—plus, they maintain a sales force to sell publishers’ books directly into bookstores.

Self-publishing companies (and fee-based publishers in general) offer only the wholesale piece of this picture. That means that your book will be available at most online booksellers, and can be ordered in bookstores if someone asks for it. But it will not actually be stocked in stores, because without the direct sales component provided by a distributor, the stores won’t know it exists. For volume sales, you need a balance of online and offline presence—and for wide offline presence, you need a distributor. Many writers don’t realize this.

Abbate: If you were going to self-publish a book, what would you walk away from in a contract?

Strauss: Exclusivity. Any claim on subsidiary rights. Any contract that wasn’t terminable at will. A share of less than 20% of net price, or less than 75% of profit.


Victoria Strauss is the author of nune fantasy novels for adults and young adults, including the Passion Blue duology (Passion Blue and Color Song), the Stone duology (The Arm of the Stone and The Garden of the Stone) and the Way of Arata duology (The Burning Land and The Awakened City).

She has written hundreds of book reviews for magazines and ezines, including SF Site, and her articles on writing have appeared in Writer’s Digest and elsewhere. In 2006, she served as a judge for the World Fantasy Awards. She maintains the popular Writer Beware website and blog. She received the Service to SFWA Award in 2009. Victoria Strauss has a Website

Lisa Abbate is a nonfiction author’s coach, writer, and editor for many innovative technology companies. She’s been a longtime contributing writer at Absolute Write .

You can find more interviews with Victoria Strauss on these websites:

FMWriters interview

Writer’s Write interview

WOW (Women On Writing) interview

Previous Absolute Write interview

Writer Beware: Sharks in the Literary Waters

By Victoria Strauss

There are sharks out there in the literary waters. 

Be wary: literary deceptions abound, from fee-charging agents to dishonest book doctors to fraudulent subsidy publishers to fake contests. Some of them are staggeringly successful. Edit Ink, for instance, a book doctoring firm that engaged in a kickback scheme with disreputable literary agents, and established its own bogus agencies to send yet more business its way, made millions of dollars before writers and writers’ groups finally blew the whistle. The owners of Edit Ink have been indicted, and ordered to pay massive fines as well as reparations to the writers they defrauded. But the vast majority of literary frauds go unpublicized and unpunished, leaving unscrupulous individuals free to deprive unsuspecting writers not just of their cash, but of their hopes and dreams. The good news is that you can protect yourself. Below are some tips and resources to help you be wary.

When You Should Be Suspicious

If a literary agent requires an up-front fee. 

This means a fee of any kind: reading, submission, contract, processing, or anything else. Up-front fees are absolutely not legitimate. Reputable agents make money solely from commissions on the sale of literary properties. Anything else is non-standard practice, no matter what you may hear.

Fee-charging violates the basic premise of the author-agent relationship: a shared financial interest in the sale of the author’s manuscript to a royalty-paying publisher. If an agent makes money right off the bat, his/her interest has been served, but the writer’s hasn’t. This is where the problem arises. Since a profit has already been made, the incentive to submit to a legitimate publisher is diminished. In fact, many fee-charging agents — some of whom have hundreds of paying clients — never bother to send out manuscripts at all. With writers becoming more educated about reading fees, questionable agents are increasingly taking to calling their up-front fees something else. For instance, you may be asked to pay a “marketing” or “submission” fee — supposedly, a share of the office expenses required to sell your manuscript. This is no more legitimate than a reading fee. While many reputable agents do pass on certain non-routine expenses to their clients (courier fees, extra galleys, overseas phone calls and the like), they do so after the fact, not up-front. And reputable agents absorb basic office expense as part of normal business overhead. They’ll never charge you for things like paper goods, local phone calls, or routine photocopying. Alternatively, you may be asked to pay an “evaluation” fee. In this version of the up-front fee, you’re promised not just a reading, but a critique. Once again, this is not legitimate. Reputable agents don’t double as paid editors. If they think they can get your manuscript published they’ll accept you, if not they’ll reject you; either way, they won’t charge you for their opinion. (These quickie critiques are rarely worthwhile, anyway. Most are worded so generally they could apply to any manuscript, or are padded with generic “how-to” advice.)

If a publisher offers you a contract that requires you to bear all or part of the cost of publication.

Such contracts are known as subsidy, joint-venture, or co-op contracts. Supposedly, what you pay is only a portion of the publication cost; the publisher kicks in the rest, and in addition provides warehousing, marketing, and distribution services. In reality, most subsidy publishers charge inflated prices that not only cover the whole cost of producing a book, but generate fat profits for the publisher. Such publishers routinely renege on their marketing and distribution promises (and even if they try to fulfill them, subsidy publishing is so poorly-regarded that it’s unlikely that booksellers or critics will be interested). Books may be shoddily-made, with badly-printed covers or missing pages. Subsidy publishers may also lie about print runs: you may think you’ve paid for 2,500 books, but in reality only the 100 copies you were given to distribute to friends and reviewers were ever printed. Subsidy publishers frequently pitch themselves to new writers by saying that the risk involved in publishing an unknown makes cost-sharing necessary, and it’s normal for new writers get their start this way. Don’t believe it. The new writers getting a start are those published by advance-paying publishers willing to put editing and marketing dollars behind their product. Subsidy-published books are not regarded as genuine publishing credits.

Subsidy publishing isn’t confined to print. An increasing number of electronic publishers offer pay-to-publish services. They’re much cheaper than print subsidy publishers, and less likely to be fraudulent (though they are, often, deceptive in billing themselves as self-publishing services). But subsidy publishing is subsidy publishing, in print or online: you’ll face the same difficulties with marketing, recognition, and respect.

If an agent or publisher refers you to a service for which you have to pay. 

The basic idea behind the quest for publication is for the writer to make money. If instead the writer is asked to pay, there’s something fishy going on.If you’re referred to a specific outside service — a book doctor, for instance — it’s likely that a kickback arrangement is involved. Either the agent or publisher has been promised a fee for each referral, or s/he receives a percentage of what you pay for the service (Edit Ink, mentioned above, is a good example of this). Some subsidy publishers also engage in kickback schemes, offering agents a finder’s fee for each client they persuade to accept a pay-to-publish contract. Sometimes the agency or publisher itself will own the service to which you’re referred, which enables them to make an even bigger profit from your use of it. For instance, a publisher may own a fee-charging literary agency, which is recommended to writers who send in manuscripts. Or a literary agency may run a separate editing branch, to which rejected manuscripts are routinely referred. An agency may even own a subsidy publishing company, into which clients are funneled once they’ve racked up enough rejections to become desperate.

Be wary, therefore, of any agent or publisher that also runs a paid service — even if you’re not referred to it. There’s a serious conflict of interest inherent in such arrangements, and they are an open invitation to abuse. How can a referral that makes a profit for the referrer really be trusted? And how can a writer have confidence in an agent or publisher who is willing to support him/herself by such profits?

If you’re asked to buy something as a condition of publication.

Occasionally, unethical publishers attempt to duck the subsidy label by shifting their charges to something other than printing. For instance, you may be required to purchase a large number of books for “promotional” purposes. Or you may be told that the publisher doesn’t have a big budget for publicity, so you must hire a publicity firm (from a list the publisher provides, of course). On the surface, this may sound more legitimate than a straight pay-to-publish contract. But the bottom line is that you’re still paying to see your book in print.

Be wary of poetry and short story “anthologies” that require writers to purchase the anthology in order to be included. These vanity anthologies often solicit business via a faux contest, in which just about everyone who submits becomes a semi-finalist. Some companies also bombard writers with offers for expensive extras, such as having a poem mounted on a plaque, or having a story made into an audiotape, or buying membership in an authors’ registry maintained by the company.

Because vanity anthologies employ no editorial screening, publish anyone who is willing to pay, and never see the inside of a bookstore or library, they aren’t considered a genuine literary market. As with a subsidy-published book, inclusion in an anthology will not count as a professional writing credit.

If you’re solicited.

Reputable agents and publishers are overwhelmed with submissions, and have no reason to look for more. In general, the only people who actively solicit writers’ business are those who want to fleece them. Some questionable agents, publishers, and book doctors purchase subscription lists from writers’ magazines. Others solicit writers who register their copyrights. Still others cruise writers’ forums and bulletin boards on the Internet: be wary of submission requests from agents or editors you’ve never heard of.

On a related note: reputable agents and publishers rarely advertise. Beware of ads you see online, or in the backs of writers’ magazines.

If reasonable requests for information are refused. 

It’s your right to ask an agent or publisher about contract terms, commissions, marketing, distribution, and so on. Reputable agents and publishers are glad to answer, since they have nothing to hide. Questionable agents and publishers, on the other hand, have quite a lot to hide, and are often very reluctant to provide information. Be especially wary of the agent who tells you that his/her sales list is confidential. Reputable agents are proud of their track records, and will have no problem giving you this information. An agent who refuses to do so is probably trying to conceal something, such as the fact that s/he’s never sold a book to a legitimate publisher.

If there’s a double standard 

An agent may tell you that she usually charges a reading fee, but because your query was so terrific, she’ll read your manuscript for free. Or a publisher may tell you that, while it usually enters into traditional advance-and-royalty contracts, for new authors it offers a special joint venture deal. Or a book doctor may tell you that he usually charges $5.00 per page, but if you send in your manuscript right away, he’ll give you a 20% discount. Don’t be fooled; be wary. You aren’t receiving special treatment, just a calculated marketing pitch. The agent thinks that if she makes you feel you’re getting a freebie on the reading, you’ll be more likely to pay the $500 marketing fee she plans to ask for later on. The publisher thinks that if you believe it’s a legitimate small press, you’ll be more likely to go for the expensive subsidy contract, which is probably the only kind it offers. The book doctor thinks that if you’re convinced you’re getting a bargain, you’ll be more likely to make a quick decision to purchase his editing services — which only cost $4 per page to begin with. Reputable agents, publishers, and editors don’t employ double standards or issue discounts. If an offer sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

be wary if you encounter any of the following:

Rudeness or chastisement
Especially in response to requests for information. Questionable agents especially are fond of browbeating writers who ask too many questions.
Extravagant praise and/or promises
Reputable agents, publishers, and book doctors don’t indulge in hyperbole — at least not to unknown authors — and they know better than to make guarantees.
A claim to specialize in new or unpublished writers
There are exceptions, but agents and publishers who are actively searching for new writers are usually doing so because new writers’ inexperience makes them easier to defraud.
Correspondence and other official documents containing typos, grammatical errors, and the like
This may sound obvious, but a publishing professional should be able to write correctly. It’s amazing how many questionable agents, publishers, and book doctors send out correspondence or maintain websites full of such mistakes.
For agents: if they don’t maintain membership in the Association of Authors Representatives (AAR).
AAR membership guarantees that the agent has been in business for at least 18 months, and has made a minimum of 10 sales to legitimate publishers; it also prohibits reading fees, referral fees, and other abuses. Most successful, top-selling U.S. agents are members of AAR. Non-membership doesn’t necessarily mean that an agent isn’t reputable — some agencies are too new to qualify, or have other reasons for not joining. However, you’ll be safest if you focus your agent search on AAR members.
For book doctors:
The statement that manuscripts must be professionally edited before a publisher will look at them. A reputable book doctor won’t make such a statement, for the simple reason that it isn’t true. Your manuscript needs to be finished, properly formatted, and as polished as it can be, but no one will hold it against you if you accomplish this yourself.
For publishers:
If there’s a reading fee. As with literary agents, no reputable publisher will ever charge you to read or submit your manuscript. Last but not least: remember the cardinal rule of writing. Money flows toward the writer, not away. The only place you should ever sign a check is on the back! Be wary about payment demands for services.

Resources to Help You Protect Yourself

Writer Beware http://www.sfwa.org/beware/
I maintain this website-within-a-website for the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. There’s more detail on each of the issues discussed above, plus links to many online resources.

Absolute Write’s Bewares, Recommendations & Background Check

E-mail Writer Beware beware@sfwa.org
Writer Beware staff have collected documentation on more than 250 agents and publishers who engage in the practices identified above. Send us a name, and we will research it for you.

Association of Authors Representatives
This website hosts a list of AAR members.

Publishers Weekly Online http://www.publishersweekly.com/
Knowledge is your best defense. Publishers Weekly is an excellent source of information on all aspects of the publishing business.

Examples of the Schemes Discussed Above

Edit Ink
The whole Edit Ink story.

The Case of the Woodside Literary Agency
A fee-charging literary agency that fought back when writers blew the whistle.

Management Alternatives
The story of Commonwealth Publications, a now-bankrupt subsidy publisher that’s being sued by the writers it defrauded.

The Deering Literary Agency
A fee-charging literary agency that owned a subsidy publishing company, and took millions of dollars from writers who never saw their books in print.

The National Library of Poetry Page
The National Library is the largest of the vanity anthology companies.

—VS
©1999 Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is the author of nine novels, including SF and Fantasy, and YA, and is a co-found of SFWA’s Writer Beware, the publishing industry watchdog group.

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