On Writing,  publishing

The New World of Publishing: The Scams

As we ramp into 2011, I figured that besides all the goal-setting talk, it might be a good time to give a few warnings as well. And maybe set a clear work goal as well.

Electronic publishing is the hot topic and traditional publishing is struggling to change to the new world. Indie publishing is becoming the term, and indie writers are vocal and all over the web. Us old-timers who are paying attention to the changes are rushing to get up our lost backlist and reverted novels at the same time as traditional publishers are moving quickly to get all their inventory into electronic form.

And everywhere I look there are electronic-book readers for sale. 2011 will be looked back on as the big switch in publishing, as electronic publishing left twenty years of promise and hype and became a reality and a major percentage in publishing. And by 2012 the traditional publishers who haven’t made the shift will be in cash flow issues.

Brick and mortar bookstores are also moving quickly to the new world, trying to find ways to be included in the electronic revolution. Those that can’t make the switch will have to change their business models or perish. We’ll see a lot of both in 2011 and 2012.

As for writers, we’re in a new, wonderful golden age. Content is king and everyone is needing more and more content fed by more and more readers going electronic and wanting more and more books and stories.

Sure, at the moment some traditional publishers of print books are tightening and putting themselves into death spirals of cutting inventory and editors and other workers instead of pushing into new ways of increasing sales and titles, just as Borders Bookstore is in a death spiral of cutting inventory and stores and expecting income to go up. Nope, never works that way. But so many new publishers and imprints are starting up it’s difficult at times to even try to note them, let alone keep track. And agents are becoming desperate as their business model starts to break down under their self-created problems and the electronic publishing change.

On another side, suddenly short fiction has made a fantastic comeback as the new market for stand-alone short fiction is just off the charts due to the desire for shorter work to read on phones and electronic devices.  And in longer work, the relaxing of genre guidelines and the relaxing of length requirements that electronic publishing has allowed makes it possible for writers to find an audience for their work even if some New York publisher doesn’t think it’s close enough to a vampire/romance/fantasy set in an English boarding school with Da Vinci Code feel.

But, with all this new freedom and new ideas and new delivery systems to readers comes problems for many writers. The changes (as in the past) will cause thousands of writers to just vanish from the business. So I’m going to try to detail out some trouble areas and the reasons behind these problems in hopes that I am blunt enough to help one or two writers stay out of the quicksand of lost dreams.

Underlying Large Problem

Fiction writers, as a class, are fantastically lazy. Not all of us, but 99% of all fiction writers who want to be professionals have bought into so many myths about writing, the bottom-line result is that the writers become lazy writers. And lazy writers, when faced with something new, turn to shortcuts. And therein lies many problems.

First off, why do I say fiction writers are lazy? Oh, let me think…

—What other international profession leads you to believe that if you work one hour per day you can be successful?

—What other art in any form leads you to believe that your first practice session or sessions should make you rich?

—What other international occupation celebrates slowness and writing so dense and convoluted that can’t be read by the average reader?

I can’t begin to tell you how many times I see online and on Twitter and Facebook how tired a writer was after working hard for two hours and managing to get three whole pages done. Sorry, just makes me snort in laughter every darned time. (Sure, I know, all writers are different, but being lazy sure is different from me, that I must admit.)

Back in the pulp era and through into the 1960’s, working writers were known for their ability to write long and hard and produce vast amounts of product. Guess what, that’s coming back with all these changes. The prolific writer will, for the most part, again be the rich and acclaimed writers of our time. (You know, Stephen King, Nora Roberts, James Patterson and so on.) Product is needed even more now and growing by the month and the more that 99% of the writers buy into the working-hard-one-hour-a-day myth, the more product will be needed from the writers with a real work ethic.

But sadly, very few writers will be able to jump past the built-up myth structure, so as more and more product is needed, and systems change, there will be, of course, people to help out the lazy writers. People who want to take a cut of the sales for doing little or nothing.

Second Major Problem Area

Writers are famously backward, with many writers even taking pride in using manual typewriters or writing longhand while at the same time bragging about these traits on Twitter. These writers will be quickly left behind for a number of reasons. First, these types are ripe for the scams, for people to step in and “help them” with all this “technology” that seems so scary or doesn’t “fit” their writing style. Of course, the writer will think it beneath them to bother to even understand what the “help” is doing, so will get taken. We see this thousands and thousands of times with agents right now. This problem will only get worse in this new world of electronic publishing. And I’m not even going to get into the scams of contracts and selling electronic rights, at least not in this post.

And in this same area are the writers who feel it would be “too hard” to learn how to put up their own story or novel on Kindle. Oh, my, they would have to learn a program like PowerPoint to do a cover, and read some instructions on how to format their Word file from their normal manuscript look. It will be “too hard” and take up “too much time.” So these writers will also turn to the first person who offered to help them, without any sense of good or bad or even what they are paying for. This is a combination of the “too lazy” problem and the “fear of technology” problem.


First off, I’ll try to outline a few scams I am seeing start to develop in just the short year or so that this transition has been in progress. Then I’ll talk about some ways to look for quality help with your electronic publishing.

Scam #1: I’ll put it up for a percentage of the sales.

This one flat scares me to death for writers because of the problems involved. NEVER, EVER DO THIS. Just the math shows how stupid this idea is.

Let’s take a novel as an example. It takes about two hours to prepare a clean manuscript (already proofed) from Word to correctly formatted Word. Then it takes another two hours of time to do a decent cover, especially if the person is good at a more advanced program such as PhotoShop. And then about an hour to load the book up to the major sites for electronic publication. 5 Hours total.

I have heard rates from 5% of sales to 15% of sales (because that’s what an agent gets). Say the book isn’t a big hit, but sells regularly. Say across all the sites it sells ten copies per month total, and you have listened to the writers without self-respect who put up their books too cheaply, so you have your book up at $2.99. You are making $2.00 per sale or $20.00 per month across all sites. Doesn’t seem like much, but after a year you have made $240 and after ten years at that low number of sales you have $2,400. Say you agreed to 10% of sales to the person who spent the 5 hours. So over ten years you have paid someone $240 for getting the book up. Great, not bad, about $25.00 per hour at that point, except stop and think for a second HOW you paid that person.

Did you pay them a check for $2.00 per month? For ten years? Or did you let them handle all the money and just pay you? Either way is just stupid.

So what happens if your book does better??? Isn’t a bestseller by any means, but sells about 100 copies per month. Suddenly for those five hours work, you have paid the person $2,400 in ten years.

And worse yet, for both examples, you will continue to pay them, since electronic books don’t go out of print. And your heirs will continue to pay the person’s heirs for 70 years past your death. All for 5 hours of work.

And heaven forbid you make upwards of a thousand a month on that book or more. Suddenly that five hours becomes worth hundreds of thousands in very short order.

Either way, this scam breaks down quickly and can only cost you a lot of pain and more than likely lawsuits if your book takes off.

Scam #2: The Agent Scam

This is a side-track of the currant myth that agents take care of you. This one the agent offers to take care of everything for you and just send you a percentage. I can’t begin to even go into the ethical issues for the agent on this, since the agent is becoming a publisher. But since agents have no rules, I suppose they can scam who they want to scam.  Let me say clearly that you just take all the problems with Scam #1 and then add in that the agent gets all the money and paperwork first, and takes a cut over-and-above the normal percentages. Writers trapped in this scam are already complaining that they never see much out of their electronic rights, so they don’t see what the big deal is. Of course they don’t. By the time any money, even from an honest agent, makes it to them, so many hands have been in the pie, there are only crumbs left.

This scam has been in existence for about ten years now already. And more agents are piling onto the bandwagon each week it seems. Writer after writer lately have been saying to me proudly that they are getting their work up online because their agent did it for them. I just shudder. Hopefully not too obviously.

Scam #3: The Cloud or Group Sites.

Again, these are aimed at just making it easier for the lazy writer. Sometimes these sites have the front of helping their writers cross-promote, but that is just a front in most instances for someone to make money. For example, I just got a letter today about how I should look at this new model where some group site will allow writers to put up stories and be voted on, then the good ones are put up as stand-alone books by the “professional staff” and the writer gets a percentage of the sales. Of course, the writer must jump through a thousand hoops and also the “professional staff” get to see all the paperwork and money before sending on the writer’s “fair share.” And this place claimed their royalty rates were higher than what traditional publishers give writers. Oh, my…

Note: A couple writer-run cross-promotion sites that are in existence are fine and don’t fit in this scam because the writers do all their own work first before launching anything onto the promotion site. And they keep all their own money. So those sites are fine. BookView Cafe is an example of how writers can band together correctly.

Scam #4: Pretend Publisher Scam.

This one has been around a while now in electronic publishing. They have a writer submit work to them, then “accept it” and do all the formatting and put it up on all the sites and give the writer a small percentage of a small percentage of a small percentage. Again, the writers trapped in this, or with work in one of the early models of this, are constantly complaining they get very little money for their sales. Again, nothing left of the pie by the time it hits the writer’s hands.

Note: Smashwords does not fit in this model. They take a very tiny percentage and have often negotiated with the end electronic stores such deals as the writer can get a better deal going through Smashwords than directly to the online store. And besides, Smashwords is a store and the writer has to do all the work. Smashwords is a model that works in this new world. But at the moment it’s just about the only major one. Caution on the others.


Become a Publisher.

It really is that simple, and yet that hard. Writers, for the first time in fifty years, need to take control of their work again. Sure, send work to traditional publishers, but all of us have books that haven’t sold, or books that have been reverted, or short stories that have sold and reverted after a few months. Or new stuff we want to publish ourselves before sending it to a traditional publisher. All fine. If you don’t fall into any of the scams above.

You have to do the work yourself. You have to be the publisher.

What does that mean? It means being in control. Learn how to do a cover, learn how to format your work, then put the work up on Amazon, Pubit (B&N) and Smashwords. Then go to one of the three POD publishers and learn what they need and do the work.

Is there a learning curve? Yes. Is there frustration and problems at times? Yes. But you take control and it is great fun.




But what happens if you are color blind and have no sense of cover design. (First off, start learning it and open your eyes in bookstores.) But you want to get your stuff up. What can you do without getting into a scam?

The Answer: Be a Publisher.

When a traditional New York publisher needs a cover, what do they do? Duh, they hire one done. And not for a percentage of the profits. They hire it for a flat-use fee. Do the same.

What happens if you can’t follow instructions well enough to fill in a few blank spaces and put something up on Kindle. (First off, let me ask what you are doing in 2011 anyway?) But you want to get your work up, what do you do? Hire it done. And not by the same person who did your cover. Traditional publishers hire people who put things up online, you become a publisher and do the same. Pay them for the five hours. You know, like a hundred bucks or something. You pay out a few of those and trust me, you’ll spend the half hour to learn how to put something up on Amazon yourself.

When I say become a publisher, I mean THINK LIKE A PUBLISHER. Take your lazy-writer hat off, the one that won’t allow you to work more than an hour day and put on the publisher hat, the one that will allow you to work long hours if you need to. Then hire what you can’t do and learn what you can.

There are many businesses springing up that are “Menu-Based” help. For example, you can go to a place and hire someone at a set rate, stated on the menu, to proof a book. Or to design a cover for another set rate. Or launch it for another set price.

Traditional publishers have freelance artists doing covers. They have freelance proofreaders. They don’t give them a percentage or your book. They just hire them for the project for a set amount.

Be a Publisher.

I’m afraid that at the moment, with this new Indie-Publishing world we are stepping into, there are no shortcuts. And part of the learning for writers in this new world is learning how to think like a publisher. (In the long-run for the industry, this can do nothing but good.)

And if you think someone will suddenly appear and take all the work off your hands, it’s a scam. Period. There are no shortcuts in this writing business or in being a publisher. Hiring quality help is fine on a project-by-project basis. But anything else that seems too-good-to-be-true more than likely really is.

Time to take control, writers, of your own work and your own fate. Make 2011 the year of learning to take control. Set that as a goal for the new year. It’s in your control. It’s not a dream, it’s a goal.

Learn how to be a publisher. Learn how to take control of your agent. Learn how to take control of your own work.

It’s a new golden age for writers. But only for those writers who take control of their work and their career. For the lazy writers, this will be a year of torture and puzzlement as they wonder why they were left behind and can’t make a living with their fiction.


Copyright 2010 Dean Wesley Smith

Okay, I admit it, I had issues at first with putting in a tip jar in the Magic Bakery. It was one of the “I have it made, why do I need to support my writing with tips.” A minor myth, sure, but still one that took me a few days and some talk with Kris to get past. And also, this helps me keep control over my work.

And  speaking of the Magic Bakery, this chapter is now part of my inventory in my bakery. (Confused on that, read the Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing post about making money with writing.) I’m giving you this small slice as a sample. I’m giving you a taste, but not selling any of the pie.

If you feel this helped you in any way, toss a tip into the tip jar on the way out of the Magic Bakery.

If you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this chapter along to others who might get some help from it.

And I would like to thank all the fine folks who have donated over this last year. Once this book is done, I will send you a copy. The donations and the comments both after the posts and privately are really keeping me going on this. Thanks!

Thanks, Dean