Posted in Book publishers, Publishing, Self-Publishing

The dumbest publishing decision I ever made

dumbI’ve made some great decisions about my writing and publishing through the years, but I have also made some less-than-impressive ones.  I’m going to share with you the dumbest thing I’ve ever done.

Once upon a time…there was a young woman who had wanted to be a writer ever since she read Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca way back in junior high school.  That young woman – me – worked hard at her writing over the years until many years later she actually had enough expertise to write a non-fiction book that she was actually able to sell to a trade publisher.  That was a good decision and allowed me to take off the training wheels.

I happily continued to write (but never left my day job as a communication professor), hone my skills and sell a few more books (six) to a variety of other publishers.  But, like many bona fide non-fiction writers out there (at least that’s what I was told by a tetchy literary agent one time), I wanted to write fiction.  More than that, I wanted to see it published.

Caught by the historical fiction bug, I meticulously researched and wrote a novel about a 12th century Catholic nun in Germany (Hildegard of Bingen if you’ve ever heard of her).  I finished the manuscript and set about finding an agent.  I ran head-long into a wall of rejection, including one from the aforementioned agent who prefaced her rejection by saying, “If I had a dollar for every bona fide non-fiction writer who wants to be a novelist, I’d be rich.”  She wouldn’t even read my fiction.  I suppose I ought to have been flattered that she considered me to be the real deal in non-fiction, but that didn’t support my passion to publish my novel.  So I decided to take a different route.

I researched what was then the budding self-publishing industry.  An entire industry of so-called self-publishing companies was springing up before my very eyes.  One of them – quite new at the time – was one whose name you will know if you’ve dabbled in this area yourself.  It was iUniverse.  I was about to make the worst publishing decision of my life.

The cover I dislike.
The cover I dislike.

I scoured their web site for information about editing, file set-ups, cover design, distribution and marketing.  I knew from experience in traditional publishing that editing was crucial, and that I’d need professional help.  So I selected what I’d now refer to as a supported self-publishing package and knew that Grace Note would be a reality before long.  This much was true.  The process, however, has haunted me for years.

I was assigned a “publishing consultant” who would take me through the editing and production process.  The book was edited, but then I received an email telling me that the book was good enough to be a part of their “editor’s choice” program.  All it needed was a second edit – which would cost more. Then it was chosen for the “rising star” program.  More services required.

Wanting the book to be the best it could be, and perceiving that there might be marketing advantages to the “rising star” program, I agreed.  At the end of the editing process, I had a good product; that much I knew.  Then we were on to production.

The book cover had to be one that their designers produced – they didn’t like my ideas.  In order to remain in this marketing program, I had to agree to that cover.  I always felt uncomfortable about the cover, but I knew that even with traditional publishers, the cover issues could be fraught.  (Read my post What’s in a book cover? (Part 2): The Whole Damn Thing!)  So, I was stuck with this cover.

The book was published, and then the real sales pitches began.  Hardly a week went by when I didn’t receive a call or an email from my “marketing consultant.”  They wanted to sell me book trailer development services, book review services, and then there was the offer of the movie treatment services. (Read about this debacle at Finding a home for the next book.) This went on for months regardless of how many times I told them to stop calling and emailing.

By this point I had come to the conclusion that their business model was based on selling services rather than on selling books (although that would be nice, too, since they do take quite a chunk of the royalties).

The worst thing about this dumb decision on my part is that it’s so difficult to retake control of the book.  I’d dearly like to change the cover.  I’m told that this will cost me $140.00 even if I do it myself or hire a talented cover designer to do it.  My contract with them (yes, you have to sign a contract that gives them very specific rights to the book), indicates that I can get out of it with notice, but it’s difficult to find anyone to discuss this with who won’t try to sell me another service that I don’t want.

In 2013 US-based law firm Giskan Solotaroff Anderson & Stewart LLP began “investigating the practices of Author Solutions and all of its brands (AuthorHouse, iUniverse, Trafford, Xlibris, Inkubook, and Wordclay). Authors using Author Solutions have complained of deceptive practices, including enticing authors to purchase promotional services that are not provided or are worthless, failing to pay royalties, and spamming authors and publishing blogs/sites with promotional material.”[1]  Although there doesn’t seem to have been much progress on the development of a class action law suit, it does speak to the widespread discontent of authors who have purchased these services.  Upselling isn’t actually illegal, just annoying and a bit disingenuous.

I am going to try to retrieve my rights (and dignity) when I have the time.  Until then, iUniverse gets a big chunk of any sales and the cover is still hideous.  It’s a good book though!

So, this was my dumb mistake.  I offer it only as a cautionary tale.  We all have to make our own mistakes!

dumb happens


Posted in Backstory, Book covers, Publishing, Self-Publishing

Finding a home for the next book: Traditional or self-publishing is the question

Film StripI received an email yesterday from my editor at the University of Toronto Press with the news that we’re now embarking on the cover design for my new book.  Although this is good news (I had been wondering where we were in the process after I sent him the final edits back in January before I went on vacation, it got me thinking yet again about the traditional book publishing process .

This marks the ninth time (ten if you count a second edition) that I’ve been through this traditional publishing process where control is largely given over to the publisher.  The truth is that I’ve been more or less happy with the outcomes as I look at them winking at me from the top shelf above me; the process, however, has not been without considerable frustration.  I’ve also gone the self-publishing route three times now, and I’m kind of at a crossroads.  I have a new book ready to make the rounds – and have queried a couple of agents already – but I’m still wondering if I should do it myself.

This reflection on my publishing adventures resulted this time from my editor’s simple statement in his email: “…Time and budgetary restraints being what they are, we’re unable to ask our designers to come up with a cover completely from scratch. Rather, it falls to you (and to me)…” and then we’re to send this to the so-called designers.  It seems to me that a designer should be doing the designing, and if he or she isn’t doing the designing, what in the world is he or she being paid to do?

This might seem to you to be the moment in time when I make that decision to move to self-publishing for that next book, but I’m also reeling from yet another telephone call from iUniverse – an attempt to sell me yet more services thinly disguised as a wonderful opportunity for me.

Here’s what happened earlier this week.

At dinner time one evening (they are always at dinner time when I’m feeling just ready to punch the next telemarketer who calls despite being on the do-not-call list) the phone rang.  The caller was a “marketing specialist” or consultant or manager or some such thing; iUniverse seems to either have an enormous staff or massive turnover since this is the third or fourth such person to whom I have evidently been assigned.  Several incarnations ago I asked them not to call me with marketing ideas ever again.

Grace Note Cover PaperbackIf you’ve read my blog for a while, you know that my avocation is writing historical fiction – I do love that research and the need to shed everyday life to get into the head of characters from long-ago times and places.  Grace Note: In Hildegard’s Shadow was published by iUniverse a couple of years ago now.  It was selected as an Editor’s Choice book (meaning that since I’d paid to have it professionally edited and I didn’t sound like a moron it would get this stamp), and thereafter chosen as a “Rising Star” (not sure how high up the scale of non-moronic a book has to be to receive this elevation).   All of the editing etc. that was done made the book more polished and professional to be sure, but it did not come cheap.  And make no mistake, every time anyone called after that to extol the virtues of my book, they were indeed trying to sell me services.  This time it was that it is so good that it should be a movie.  Would you be interested in having it shown to Thruline Entertainment?

I told him to send me an email and hung up (I was more polite than that, but that’s the edited version of the story).

The email arrived in due course (read; immediately).  Here’s what he said in part:

I called in earlier today to inform you that your book, “Grace Note” can be adapted into a motion picture.

Hollywood Coverage: Your book has all the elements Hollywood wants — an exciting plot, well-developed characters and fresh content — yet there’s still a crucial piece you need in order to be taken seriously by established entertainment executives.

We would like to know if you’d be interested to have your books presented to our newly acquired partner, THRULINE Entertainment. THRULINE is a Hollywood production company and they are basically looking for good books to adapt into a movie.

The contract has just been sealed last August and basically we want to impress our new partner. We don’t want to provide them with a “just-an-ordinary” material. We are putting our best foot forward because we want to prolong this contract.

If you’re interested, your book just needs a Script coverage in order for us to present this to production companies and producers. That is the basic tool that they would look for instead of reading the whole book.

He then went on to tell me that the two-part script coverage would be done by a professional who has done this before etc.  What he did not tell me was the price or any reference to the fact that he wants to sell me a service, but I knew that this was precisely what was happening.  And indeed research on Thruline uncovers a company with self-described ties to the Hollywood machine that works with self-publishing companies to part authors from their money.  Well, they didn’t’ say it that way but I can read between the lines!

Of course, if your book is really adaptable as a movie, you can send it to an agent who does this kind of thing.  Options on books can and are taken from the book itself.  And doesn’t it make sense that someone who is actually interested in adapting your book might actually have to read the book?  Yes, script “coverages” are done, but really?  I actually had an earlier book optioned and learned that the vast majority of optioned books never even make it to treatment phase.

The iUniverse price for this script coverage is $859.00.

This is what I said in my response to the email:

Thanks for this.  Don‘t bother telephoning me.  I’m not paying upwards of $900 for any more service from iUniverse.  If you think the book is good enough to be sold to “Hollywood” then I think you should be willing to put up the money for a percentage on the back end.  Otherwise, we have nothing to talk about.  I’m an accomplished writer – I can do this myself.

I think it’s time iUniverse took a different tack when it comes to ‘services’ for writers.

But call he did.  This time I didn’t answer. So where does this story lead me?  Well, this morning as I checked my Twitter feed I came across a link to a blog post titled “Publishing 101 – Money” on The Passive Voice blog whose author considers whether or not the price of self-publishing is worth it.  She and I agree that it is, but it does seem to me that there is a limit to what one should reasonably spend.

Self-publishing requires an author to be a writer, editor, interior book designer, cover designer, marketer and promoter.  So is this so different from traditional publishing these days?

When an editor at a traditional publishing house tells me that he is “unable to ask [their] designers to come up with a cover completely from scratch…” it seems that the two publish models are getting closer together.

So, am I any closer to a decision about my next book’s home?  Not really.