Author SolutionsIf this isn’t Rule One of self-publishing, it should be:

You should never, ever, ever pay someone to publish your work for you. Full stop. End of sentence.

Now, it’s fine to pay for useful services, of course. If you can afford it, it could be a good investment to pay someone to edit your work, or to design your cover art, or even to format your book for you if you don’t feel confident of your own skills in that regard. (Though I’d honestly recommend paying $40 for Scrivener and spending a few days learning how to use it instead. It produces clean, professional-looking EPUBs that pass validation checks. You don’t need more than that for most projects.)

But when it comes to actually publishing the work, reputable places will publish it for you for free, then take their money as a percentage of the book’s retail sales. For example, Amazon will either take 70% or 35%, depending on which program you go with and which price point you set. Even if you let them take the lion’s share, that’s still a better deal than you’d get from a traditional publisher. Even if you’re self-publishing in print, when you have free-to-use print-on-demand programs like CreateSpace, there’s absolutely no reason to pay setup or advertising fees.

Have you ever stopped to think about what an incredible bargain that is? Ten or fifteen years ago, the only way to self-publish was to pay for your books to be printed and then hand-sell them. While a few people like Robert Ringer or Christopher Paolini were able to make that work, for most people it was effectively an expensive sop to their vanity—hence the derisive nickname “vanity publishing.” But now you can publish a story for cash money with just a little more effort than slapping it up on a free Internet writing circle. (I really should get around to that myself one of these days.)

But there are still vanity scam-meisters around. One of the big ones is Author Solutions, who did so well scamming authors that they were bought by Penguin. I you ever needed proof of how traditional publishers are no longer authors’ friends, if indeed they ever were, well, there you go. A Big Five publisher bought one of the scammiest vanity presses around…and happily continues to operate it. And other major publishers, such as Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, and Harlequin have vanity imprints Author Solutions runs for them. What’s more, many bastions of the traditional publishing establishment continue to support them.

For example, there’s this little piece by anti-AS agitator David Gaughran, pointing out that Publishers Weekly (who still accepts advertising from AS) was happy to report on indie booksellers aggrieved that the LA Book Festival had dared open affiliate membership with Amazon…but not a word did they say about how Author Solutions continues to be a welcome guest there, scamming authors to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars that they may never end up making back.

Of course, as Paul noted last month, The Bookseller recently stopped taking ads from Author Solutions, though Writer’s Digest continues to do so. It’s incumbent on us to get the word out, and put pressure on organizations that continue to support these scam artists. And to warn new would-be self-publishers: Don’t pay one red cent to someone to publish your book for you. Don’t pay for advertising or signings either—or if you do, at least contact the publication directly; don’t go through a middleman. If you want to arrange signings, contact the bookstore yourself. Odds are many of them will be happy to do anything that might bring more readers in.

(Found via The Passive Voice.)


  1. Good advice, but I’d suggest that savvy authors make a distinction between Amazon’s CreateSpace print-on-demand publishing and its Kindle ebook arm.

    * IngramSpark/LightingSource still offers Amazon stiff competition in POD, so Amazon actually pays better, per printed copy, than Ingram. The downside is that Amazon’s cover templates (merely images) are so poor, they make creating a cover harder than it needs to be. And there’s another chilling downside. If Amazon is able to crush Ingram in the POD market, those better-than-Ingram markups are likely to disappear. Amazon only behaves when it has competition.

    * That said, for some very good reasons, many bookstores and online retailers won’t buy printed edition if the only source is Amazon. So, if you want to reach a large, global audience, also publish with IngramSpark/LightningSource. You can use the same PDF interior file and the cover design is easier. Ingram even prints your books in places like Australia, saving your readers on shipping costs.

    * For ebooks, include Kindle in your circulation, but offer it on other platforms and do your best to steer readers to those other outlets. That will increase your income. Why?

    Apple, bless their hearts, plays a flat 70%, no matter what your price ($0.99 to $199.99) and charges NO download fee. Amazon pays 70% only for books priced over a narrow range ($2.99 to $9.99). Outside that range it pays a measly 35%.

    And inside that range, you’ll never really get 70%, because Amazon charges a hideous download fee (15 cents per megabyte) that can easily reduce your royalties to the 50-60% range. Sell a $1000 worth of books at Apple and you’ll aways get $700. Sell $1000 worth at Amazon and you’ll aways get LESS than that and may only get $350-500. Don’t be deceived by the fact that Amazon sells more copies and thus sends you a larger check. Look at your per-title income.

    Keep in mind that Amazon’s restrictive policies may come back to bite you someday. Suppose you publish a multi-volume novel series that initially sells well at $4.95 each. After three volumes, however, sales began to lag. People hesitate to buy the first volume knowing they may also have to pay for two more. One way to pep sales up would be to offer a collected three-volume edition at a discounted $12.95.

    Apple won’t penalize you for showing that marketing savvy. It will you $9.10 for each sale. Amazon will punish you though and pocket every penny of its punishment. At that same $12.95 price, you’ll only get 35% or $4.55, half as much. And should you elect to sell the book at $9.95 to hang on to that 70% royalty, you’ll get less than $7.00 due to that download fee. And since three volumes-in-one is likely to mean a large download fee, your actual, per sale Amazon income is likely to be closer to $5.00.

    Do the numbers. Sell a thousand ebooks at Apple and at Amazon and you’ll get $700 from Apple but only perhaps $500 from Amazon. I don’t know about you, but I have ways to spend that $200, especially when that ebook looks better on an iPad than on a Kindle Fire.

    And although this article doesn’t mention it, there’s a quite simple way to reach most of the other ebook retailers in the U.S. That’s to distribute through Smashwords. It can reach almost every major retailer but Amazon. The contracts vary, but typically you’ll get 60% of retail, which is better than Amazon typically pays. Smashwords also gives you quite a bit of freedom in how you price and distribute. It doesn’t Amazon’s sneering, “We know better than you” attitude.

    Why doesn’t Smashwords include Amazon distribution? My hunch is that its CEO, Mark Croker, won’t settle for a deal that’s substantially less than what other ebook retailers pay and that comes with a set of meddlesome Amazon-only restrictions.

  2. I don’t disagree with Michael Perry’s comment, but I can’t believe that bandwidth charges are in a significant number of Amazon purchases. Once an owner of a 3g device learns about the extra charges, they learn to download ebooks only through wifi.

    Actually many authors pay legitimate services to format and illustrate their works. Nothing is wrong with that. And marketing services sometimes are a worthwhile investment. And some authors have been able to sell print versions of their books at conferences, workshops, etc…. So at times it even makes sense to buy your own copies. I guess there’s no magical rule about what is right and what is wrong. I guess the only rule is to follow your instincts and try to balance your literary aspirations with the amount currently in your checkbook.

  3. So which is it—never pay or pay only for useful services? Sounds like another troll jumping on the “don’t pay to publish” bandwagon advocated by people with an ulterior motive in driving authors to consulting services or free upload platforms that are littered with amateurish erotica and other junk that few bookstores would carry.

    “Don’t pay” is also the angry battle cry of some indie authors that have been fortunate enough to make some decent money and believe that every other aspiring author should have to do what they did rather than paying somebody for assistance–especially if the indie author is hawking a book on how to be an indie author.

    The lines are becoming blurred between publishing and self-publishing. The desire to have books in stores where 50-80% of the sales still happen and traditional publishers awareness of market trends is spurring the development of hybrid models that are more traditional than indie. In reality, there is a spectrum of options from pure indie to old fashioned traditional. Most authors will probably prefer something in the middle.

    Disclosure: I manage WestBow Press, a hybrid service provider developed in partnership with Author Solutions for publishing inspirational books. We’ve found that many authors prefer having some help creating high-quality books that can be sold and distributed to bookstores.

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