Monday, March 10, 2014

How to spot a dodgy publisher

This cautionary tale is a long story, but may be useful for writers.

A friend of a friend in Auckland wrote a chick-lit novel, went on the internet and searched for publishers who would accept unsolicited manuscripts. Guess what? There are many such publishers out there, and they all say they are keen to hear from unknown writers. One in Hongkong seemed good so she sent them the manuscript. They said they liked it and early last year offered her a contract. She was thrilled, and told our mutual friend. He knew that I had spent 20 years advising writers on contracts for the NZ Society of Authors so knew a bit about dodgy publishing practices and had seen many rip-off contracts, so he suggested that she ask me to have a look at hers.

It took me less than a minute to see that the publisher was crooked but four hours to do internet research and properly annotate the PDF of the contract so she could see exactly what was wrong.

This is an edited version of what I emailed her:
The skinny: this outfit is really crooked.They say they attend the US Book Expo and Frankfurt Book Fair – but they are not on the list of exhibitors at BookExpo America, and they were not at Frankfurt this year.They do not have a street address on their letterhead or website – any firm that operates only by email is 99% likely to be dodgy.I looked at some of their books and they seem unedited: they are listed at Smashwords so have a look at this one, All the Cardinal’s Men. They didn’t even bother to put the apostrophe in the title on the cover. Another book uses straight rather than curly quote marks all through; this one has a mix of both. They all look wretched. I’d say this text is what the writer delivered – unedited and unproofed. Unprofessional.As for [UK agent found on the internet], their books are better designed and edited and the firm looks kosher enough – at least it has a physical address – but I do advise great caution when dealing with a publisher and editor whom you won’t and can’t meet. In that situation you are powerless when something goes wrong.

When I was doing this stuff for NZSA, there were two publishers in Wellington like this who caused our members a lot of grief – they both had a PO Box and email but no physical address. The first sign of a crook.

The publisher went on:
SUBMISSION: The Author is well-educated, but writing inexperienced. The work, in first person is extremely well handled. The structure is unusual, the storyline coherent – she appears to almost live the saga. First person is frowned upon in the marketplace but is the epitome of storytelling. It is also the most difficult to achieve. The work requires restructuring in a number of minor, and one major area. There are small sections of reworking, and a few paras redundant to the storyline, however the submission is professional and the story good, particularly given the lack of chapter structure. The MS has been read by a senior editor and a 18yo intern with the expected different reactions, however both liked the story and found it well-considered. The storyline is age appropriate and emotive issues are well handled.

So, some flattery but a suggestion it needs more work. And the publisher can help with that, for a fee:
ASSESSMENT SUMMARY: The full assessment runs to three pages in file.

The assessment is not provided to the writer.
The MS is closely plotted however the first person prose has both negatives and positives. I ultimately became fond of the style but marketing potential may suffer - a basic four stars. Tightening in places is required, and I liked most of the impact of the opening pages. As the assessors stated, there is a requirement for a careful copy-edit overall and a line-edit in some minor areas where the writing becomes lazy. Overall it is not publication ready but can be with some effort. I recommend we offer publication on the basis that we put it to controlled external edit and minor restructuring as necessary at the authors cost, in order to bring it to publication-ready status.

So, more expense for the writer.
To bring the Manuscript to a publication-ready level acceptable to the Publisher, the cost will require the Author to contribute a sum of $US900 on a Pay-as-we-Produce basis as under.
Under our Pay-as-we-Produce policy, the sum would be payable on the following timetable:
 • On acceptance $US150
 • January 15, 2013 $US250
 • February 15, 2013 $US250
 • March 15, 2013 $US250

Yes, that’s right, the author pays the publisher. Now this is fine when dealing with a reputable publisher – many name authors have funded the publishing of their own books. But the authors I know who have done it have dealt face to face with the publisher, knew their track record and knew where they lived. Under this deal the author pays for the editing but wait, there’s more:
The publication of a title requires a range of services to be provided by the Publisher:
• Editing and revisions to the manuscript in line with the edit assessment with copy and line-editing to be provided by the Publisher as necessary. MS work to be made available to the Author from time to time and the Authors views are to be taken into account at all times during the preparation process.

Meaningless. There is more about design, ebooks and stuff like that. Nothing remotely resembling what a contract from Random House or HarperCollins would include. And then:
The Author is expected to purchase at cost a quantity of books for local promotion as later described.

So the author must buy their own books. As for ebooks, the publisher promises to:
 • Promote both editions through industry standard publications, book fairs and promotions  including the Frankfurt and London Book Fairs, and Book Expo in US.
 • Promote to other areas such as the US and Euro Library markets.
 • Promote and distribute commercial runs to bookstores and other outlets in sufficient quantity to maintain adequate distribution at the discretion of the Publisher.

Lies. This also sounds awesome but is lies:
 • Establish worldwide marketing outlets for both Print and eBooks including Amazon US,
 UK, Europe, India, Japan & Italy; Barnes & Noble; iBookstores; Borders, WE Smith,
 ABE; Target; Wal-Mart, Google Books, Dymocks and other Hong Kong, Australian, USA,
 Canada and United Kingdom physical and internet distributors and catalogues. More
 than 25,000 US and UK retail outlets buy stock through catalogues. The title will be introduced to expanding English-language markets in China and other parts of Asia and
 South America.
 • Promote both editions through industry standard publications, book fairs and promotions  including the Frankfurt and London Book Fairs, and Book Expo in US.
 • Promote to other areas such as the US and Euro Library markets.
 • Promote and distribute commercial runs to bookstores and other outlets in sufficient
 quantity to maintain adequate distribution at the discretion of the Publisher.

This publisher doesn’t go to Frankfurt, doesn’t go to London and doesn’t go to Book Expo. Last month I attended the Taipei International Book Exhibition, the Asian equivalent of the Frankfurt Book Fair. This publisher was not an exhibitor there either. Taipei is about an hour away from Hongkong.

Then follow clause after clause of nonsense about rights and royalties – there won’t be any royalties. Because the publisher will take the writer’s money and not even try to sell the book. Oh, and does this inspire confidence?:
We invoice and accept payments only through Paypal, requiring you to open a free PayPal account to facilitate both payments and future receipts. We normally try to minimise exchange costs by billing in local currency equivalents. Royalties and other income when disbursed will be paid into this account. We can assist in opening an account, if needed.

Do Random House, HarperCollins, AUP, VUP etc pay via PayPal? No.

All first-time authors are eager to see their words in print – an eagerness the crooks trade on. As above, I’ve spent 20+ years dealing with distressed authors ripped off by outfits like this. Usually the books get printed at least  - but not edited, not proofread, not designed. The worst example was a nonagenarian I knew from Tauranga, a lovely man who wrote his life story and was devastated by how shoddy the production was from one of the Wellington address-free outfits.

So: beware the internet. If anyone is interested in seeing this annotated contract in full I’ll do an version in Word, taking out anything that may identify the writer. Email me at [first name].[surname] at

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