As prospective authors, we know how enormously difficult it is to land a traditional publisher, yet we are so eager to get one. When the Inbox shows a reply from a publisher we’ve submitted our manuscript to, we excitedly click on it, hoping upon hope that it won’t be a rejection.
If it turns out to be a contract offer, we do cartwheels – well, depending on our age and dexterity. Yes, we say, “Send me the contract. I’ll sign, I’ll sign!”
And that, dear author, is our downfall. Publishers are aware of our vulnerability – and the unscrupulous ones take advantage of it. I don’t know how many of these nefarious characters are out there, but from the stories I’ve heard and read, the number is not small. I am a victim of one of them.
How My First Book Got Published
For my first novel, in 2010, I went with iUniverse, the print-on-demand publisher. It did nothing for me – except bestow upon my book the honor of Editor’s Choice, a designation that had no discernible impact on sales. But it hadn’t promised any support, so I was not disappointed.
Shortly afterward, I again chose iUniverse for a short memoir that I’d ghost-written, shepherding the book through the publication process. The publisher praised the writing, but decided the book didn’t have wide enough appeal for the editor’s honor.
I Went Looking for a Traditional Publisher
In 2014, I finished my second novel, Murder in Palm Beach: The Homicide That Never Died, and regarded it well enough that an agent might be interested. A number of agents asked for partial or full manuscripts, but no cigar (though a veteran New York agent gave me high marks for my writing and dialogue).
So I decided to submit to small and medium publishers that didn’t require an agent. After a few weeks, one offered me a contract, and another offer came a day later.
I consulted my editor and the ex-agent who wrote my query letter. They checked the website of the larger publisher, who claimed to turn out 100 to 150 books a year, and recommended I go with him. After all, the website seemed knowledgeable about marketing and its importance.
For my first novel, neither I nor the publisher had done much in the way of promotion or publishing, and the results showed it. I was impressed, as were my consultants, with this traditional publisher’s emphasis on marketing. What I and they failed to discern, due to the nebulous manner of writing, was that the website never mentioned any marketing that the publisher would do.
Though the boutique outfit offered much more generous royalties than the larger publisher, I deemed the greater income less important than what I thought were the more abundant marketing resources of the larger house.
I Ignored the Red Flags from My Publisher
I did find it odd that the list of authors numbered only 26, and wondered how 100 books per year were possible from so few authors. Instead of quizzing the publisher about it, which might have seemed confrontational, I tossed my misgivings aside, figuring there simply wasn’t enough space to show all of the authors and their photos. If I’d heeded this red flag, I would have avoided what is now almost two years of hell that this publisher has put me through.
Once I signed the contract, my first realization that something was amiss was when the book cover designer informed me that I had a choice of a free basic design or a custom design, for which there would be a charge. Traditional publishers do not charge for the cover design. However, I told him I wanted to use the mock-up cover from my website, which was created by the designer. I just wanted the centerpiece, a house, changed, but I supplied the other two photos in the cover. He charged $35, though the invoice read Basic Design.
The editing was outsourced to a service, which vetted 10 pages and gave high marks in five categories, the only shortfall being too many adverbs. I removed many of them, and the in-house publisher’s assistant then perused the manuscript, putting quoted material in italics without consistency, and changing the structure of paragraphs. I’d been a journalist for 35 years, and knew what she did was wrong. I ever so politely objected, anxious that I would harm our theretofore amicable relationship.
Writers Beware: It Only Got Worse…
Next, I received an email from this assistant advising that it was time for me to order at least 50 books. It was posed as a requirement – again, a violation of the tenets of traditional publishing. But I needed the books for signings I’d scheduled, so I didn’t object – until I was told the price: $1,000 for 100 books, or $620 for 50 books.
Against my objections that the price was too high, the publisher had set the retail price of the paperback at $18.95, insisting that was the going rate. I knew that I couldn’t charge more than $15 at the signings, and probably less, for a modest profit.
How Bad Publishers Make Good Money
It wasn’t until much later, when I was trying to get out of my seven-year contract, that I understood the publisher’s game. By setting the retail price high, and giving a percentage discount to the authors, he was making a sizable profit from selling authors’ own books to them. In fact, it was his chief source of profit. I learned that his cost to Ingram Lightning Source was about $5.
The only marketing he did was to compose a letter for the media and bookstores. He claimed to have sent two copies, two weeks apart, to the 12 largest newspapers in the country. But when he was asked to provide evidence of having done so during a lawsuit under way by three of us authors, he did not respond.
They Made Mistakes and Wouldn’t Fix Them
Shortly after publication, I asked him to solicit Barnes & Noble about getting my book in the stores in my area. He told me that he had spoken with the head of the small-press department, and she would get back to him. I continued emailing and phoning him about the matter for weeks, and he either failed to respond, or talked in circles about the B&N person’s failure to deal with the issue.
Finally, I called three local B&N stores, and their managers told me the book was in their computer as a print-on-demand book that was nonreturnable. I argued that the publisher was not print-on-demand, and the book was available from Ingram, which allowed returns. They said they couldn’t do anything unless the computer listing was changed.
I called B&N’s chief operations officer in New York, and his secretary promised I would receive a phone call within two hours. Sure enough, the small-press person called. She asked me to send a copy of the book to her. Two weeks later, she called to say the staff had reviewed it and they were ordering 42 copies for 12 stores. The publisher had no hand in any of this.
I did all of the work in getting about 20 stories in small-to-medium-sized newspapers and magazines, and roughly 35 signing appearances at libraries, bookstores and civic organizations. At last, the publisher agreed in advance to split the cost of a $260 newspaper ad, then failed to do so.
I contacted a nonprofit legal organization for artists in Miami, which sent him a letter. He paid the $130, and shipped 37 books to me as replacements for the 47 I had mailed to reviewers at a cost to me of $5.75 priority postage for each. I had purchased those books from him, so he lost no money. On the other 10, he made money for books that I had used to get reviews, which produced sales, most of the profit from which went to him.
It Was Time To Get Some Good Legal Advice…
A nonprofit legal organization for artists in California provided an attorney for a mediation session. The publisher said he would let me out of my contract in another year, but I insisted on getting the rights back immediately. He refused. I am certain that he never would have abided by any agreement, because he lied to me countless times.
I contacted about 10 of his authors, all of whom were extremely frustrated with him. Most had stories that were even worse than mine; they even had to pay for editing. Another author, a retired attorney, contacted me about joining a lawsuit, and I recruited a third author. It’s been in progress for eight months as the publisher employs delaying tactics. A classic sociopath, he thumbs his nose at the law.
As part of the legal process, he boasted of having published 100 books. That was an “aha” moment. On his website, he said he’d been publishing since 1999. I did the math: six books per year, not 100 to 150 per year. Those figures were bald-faced lies. If I’d known that in the beginning, I’d have signed with the other publisher.
I Wasn’t The Only One Taken Advantage of by a Publisher
Meanwhile, I’ve spoken with other authors, who have warned that shady practices are endemic in the industry. One complained about issues with the first small publisher that offered me a contract. But those problems were minuscule compared to mine, and he said they offered to let him out of his two-year contract and treated him well.
If I had it to do over again, I would contact some of the publisher’s authors about their experiences. For my next book, I will be wary, doing exactly that, and having no reluctance to probe the publisher about his practices.
Every author would be well-advised do the same in this minefield called book publishing. Whatever you do, don’t ignore the red flags.
Bob Brink is a journalist who worked with the Palm Beach Post, The Associated Press in Chicago, Milwaukee Journal, Tampa Tribune, Joliet Herald-News, and Palm Beach Media Group (magazines). His byline has been on thousands of news stories, features, and entertainment reviews.
He has won numerous writing accolades and several awards, including three for Palm Beach Illustrated, which won the Best Written Magazine award from the Florida Magazine Association after he became copy chief and writer. A freelance writer for several years, he now is writing novels. He has a bachelor’s in English and studied journalism in graduate school.