The Business Rusch: A Warning To All Writers Who Need Help Indie Publishing
From the beginning, I have warned readers of this blog away from services that promise to publish your e-books for a percentage of the royalties. I haven’t done so in a while, and I really need to again.
These businesses will harm you and your career. Best case, they’re run by well-intentioned idiots who have no idea how a business works. Worst case, they’re scams.
Most of the ones I’ve seen are scams.
This particular topic came up this week in a strangely roundabout way. I have my Facebook e-mail notifications shut off, but every now and then one slips through. On Thursday, I got one in which a friend of mine mentioned me and Dean in a comment on a bestselling writer’s post. I was rather stunned that my friend, also a bestselling writer, knew the bestselling writer in question. My friend’s a military sf guy, and she’s a romance author. Neither reads each other’s genre. But, I figured as I clicked on the link, that shouldn’t get in the way of friendship.
His comment was rather strange. It said that he had self-published five e-books and he would never, ever pay anyone 15% of those royalties. Then he told the bestselling romance writer to look at my blog and Dean’s blog for his reasons why.
When I clicked on the link, his comment was gone. There were 30-some other comments, but none from him, and none negative.
The post he was responding to was also strange. It purported to be from the bestselling romance author. She listed a service—which shall go nameless here—that was now e-publishing her backlist. She recommended everyone use it because “e-publishing isn’t as easy as everyone makes it out to be.”
Okay, fine. I know that for some people the learning curve is high and it frightens them. I know that others simply don’t have the time to spend on indie publishing. I figured she was one of those.
But as I scrolled through the comments, I noticed something else strange. She responded to every five comments by linking to that e-publishing service’s website. The language of her posts was odd as well. It was riddled with typos and other mistakes that she didn’t make anywhere else on her Facebook page.
And the posts didn’t sound like her.
I never did find my sf friend’s comment. Someone had deleted it. If anyone had responded to it by agreeing with my friend (and I have no idea if anyone did), then that comment was gone as well.
Here’s the thing that started me on a slow burn, however. The original post mentioned the e-service six times. It never once mentioned the title of any book by the bestselling romance writer.
Those of you who have writers among your Facebook friends should understand how fishy this is. After all, when we writers have a new book out—or a backlist book out—we mention it. We put a link to the place to buy the book. We might even mention who published it, but never ever do we mention the publisher without mentioning the book.
I had to scroll through nearly a dozen Facebook posts supposedly by this romance writer to find any mention of the titles that the e-service was publishing for her. I found countless mentions of that e-service, however.
Because I’ve never hired an e-service, and because I’m really anal about controlling my career, I would never let anyone post anything under my name. But when you sign with that e-service, you agree to let them handle all of your social media. Of course, you can still make the occasional post, but you never have to look at social media ever again if you don’t want to.
Until last week, I thought that idea little more than a shrug. If some people wanted someone else to Tweet in their name, fine. That’s their business. The problem is that whoever is running the social media for this bestselling author is promoting the e-service, not the author. And doing so in ungrammatical, misspelled prose.
This writer has multiple New York Times bestsellers published at more than three per year for at least twenty years. She has sold 35 million copies of her books. She can afford to pay someone a flat fee to put her out-of-print backlist up as e-titles. She can afford to pay someone with real experience to handle her social media for her.
Instead, she gave it all to a start-up for 15% of royalties earned.
Because I read it. And from the beginning, I started screaming at the computer.
Then the next point says this:
The Service will evolve over time, and accordingly this Agreement may need to change over time. We reserve the right to change the terms of the Agreement at any time in our sole discretion. Changes to the terms of this Agreement will be effective on the date posted at the Website, unless we specify otherwise.
So let’s say I missed the changes. Most people would. We would be subject to this in the same provision:
Your continued use of our Services after we post changes will constitute your acceptance of these changes.
And in the next clause, the one on termination, there’s this:
All provisions of this Agreement that, by their nature, are intended to survive the termination of this Agreement will survive.
The key phrase is “by their nature.” What the hell does that mean? It means that they don’t have to spell out which terms continue to apply. It means that in court they could argue that all the clauses in the contract, by their nature, still apply.
And then this POS gets even worse. Let’s say you do cancel. Do you get the e-pub or MOBI files of your e-book, the one that you paid for through 15% of your royalties? Nope. Those files are proprietary to this service.
By the way, the service doesn’t pay for copyedits or proofreading, and so you get charged for those services by a flat fee separately. If you read the bestselling romance writer’s supposed Facebook post, you can see why this service doesn’t do copy edits. But really, there’s no one at the service who knows how to design covers either, certainly not covers worthy of a New York Times bestselling author.
And speaking of that author, she’s spending thousands for a service she’s tied to at 15% of royalties earned. If she cancels, she gets nothing.
She might actually get nothing anyway.
If you are not in breach of your obligations under this Agreement, for each eBook sold to an end user through the service, [this POS company] will pay you the applicable royalty set forth at [our website], net of refunds, bad debt, any applicable taxes charged to a customer or applied with respect to sales to a customer (including without limitation any VAT or sales tax) and our fee for managing the sale of your eBook through the Service (the “Management Fee”) as set forth at [on the FAQ page]. If your List Price for an eBook is higher than permitted by us or at any Retailer, we or that Retailer will be entitled to deem it modified so that it is equal to the maximum List Price permitted when calculating Royalties.
Let’s parse this thing.
2. But let’s assume that the 15% remains 15%. It’s 15% of what? It’s 15% of the cover price that you theoretically set minus “net of refunds, bad debt, any applicable taxes charged to a customer or applied with respect to sales to a customer (including without limitation any VAT or sales tax) and our fee for managing the sale.” And before that there’s this lovely phrase, “If you are not in breach of your obligations under this Agreement.”
There are a lot of obligations for the writer under this agreement, and remember, those obligations could change at any time. They could say something like “We expect all writers who use our service to wear pink on every alternate Tuesday” and if you don’t, then you’re in violation of the agreement. Think I’m kidding? I’m not. I’m just using an outrageous example to gain your attention. But this service could add anything at any point to guarantee that you’re in violation of this agreement.
Then there’s this: If they don’t like the cover price you set, they can change it. If they’re not making enough at 15% of your books, they can raise your prices until they do make the kind of money they want.
Scared yet? You shouldn’t be. Because it gets worse.
There are these lovely clauses:
If we terminate this Agreement in whole or in part because you have breached your representations and warranties or our Content Guidelines, you forfeit all Royalties not yet paid to you with respect to the eBooks subject to the termination….Our exercise of these rights does not limit any other rights we may have to withhold or offset Royalties or to exercise other remedies.
Okay. Those Content Guidelines? They’re also on the website—in a different place than the Management agreement and the FAQ—and subject to change at any time. So again, the service can change the guidelines to hang onto your money after you’ve terminated the service.
Still want to sign with a company like this? At least five New York Times bestselling romance writers have. And 700 people at last count clicked the “like” button on that bestselling romance writer’s Facebook page.
My god. The scams multiply.
But here’s the sad thing. Sadder than those 700 potential victims of this service, sadder than a writer I had respected signing on with this company.
Nothing in this agreement holds the e-publishing service to anything. They don’t have to publish your books. They don’t have to return your books. They don’t have to pay you. They have no liability if they leave out twenty-five pages in the middle of one of your books or put someone else’s name “accidentally” as the author of that book.
They have no liability if they rewrite the entire book and keep it under your name.
Here’s the truth, people. Scam artists proliferate in the places where the most vulnerable populations live. Right now, writers are vulnerable. Writers don’t want to learn how to run their business. They don’t want to pay any money up front if they can’t handle e-pubbing or POD on their own. They don’t want to pay flat fees – even if they can afford the fees. They want to give it to someone else and not bother their pretty little heads about it.
Well, those pretty little heads are getting royally screwed.
Think this company is alone? It’s not. And, in fact, unlike many of these companies, it’s pretty upfront about the variety of ways it can screw you. You can find out how they’ll screw you by doing exactly what they ask you to do in their FAQ. Here it is again:
And then you’re already screwed.
Remember, you agree to this before you sign on with them, before you pick any projects, before you even send them an e-mail.
I’m appalled that a writer I respect has signed with this company and has given them permission to Tweet and post under her name.
I’m appalled, but I’m not surprised.
Because here’s the thing about this company. It is, as I said, up front about the agreement. So many writers are giving 15% of their royalties to e-service providers to format their books without signing any agreement or contract at all. It’s either done by e-mail or worse, by phone or in person.
If the whole thing breaks down, then it’ll be a he-said she-said in court.
Think these things won’t go to court? Of course they will. The services are too new right now for any case to hit any docket. By 2020, we’ll see a bunch of these cases, or we will know people who have sued such and such company and lost their writing time down the rabbit hole of legal troubles.
If you don’t have the time to self-publish and you don’t have the money to pay someone up front, then don’t do it. That’s so much better than signing with one of these scam artists.
And quickly, what should you look for in a fee service? One that will let you pay up front only for the services you need. The fee should be a flat fee. One price for copy edits, one price for the cover, one price for the uploading.
When that company is done uploading your book, then they’re out of the picture forever. You own the e-pub and mobi files. You get the royalties from each sale—the full royalties—directly into your bank account, no middleman.
If the technology changes, gosh darn it, you’ll have to hire the company again for a flat fee to give you the new supercool file for the new supercool book sale site.
You know how much you’ll pay. You know that you’ll never have to go back to that company again if you don’t want to. And you’ll own the e-files or the POD files or whatever else that company does for you. The copyedits, the proofreading.
Please, please, please, people. Be smart. Don’t sign with any company to design your e-books and handle your social media for a percentage of royalties.
And please, please, please read all the agreements that concern your books before you sign or click “agree” on anything.
Make sure you understand what you’re agreeing to, and if you don’t understand it, ask an uninvolved third party like a lawyer to help you understand. Don’t call the e-service and ask them to explain their agreement to you.
They’ll tell you not to worry your pretty little head about it.
And if you listen to them, the mistake is yours.
I write these blog posts in the hope that writers will become responsible for their own careers. Will you make mistakes? Sure, we all do. But I hope this blog will drive you away from the most costly errors.
I do take time from my fiction writing career to do these posts, however. I make the bulk of my money at fiction, so the blog must pay for itself. That’s why I have a donate button below. Please click on it if you got anything of value from this or previous posts.
And thanks to everyone who has supported me either through comments, e-mails, links, and/or donations. I appreciate it.
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“The Business Rusch: “A Warning To All Writers Who Need Help Indie Publishing,” copyright © 2012 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.