How to Spot Self-Publishing Scams

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self-publishing scams

Bad players in our industry prey upon unsuspecting independent authors by disguising themselves as traditional publishing houses and using deceptive marketing tactics. Here are four ways to identify self-publishing scams.

Looking for a service to help you self-publish your book can be tough. I’m happy to report that BookBaby is just one of a number of reputable self-publishing companies in the industry. But there are also a few bad players that are only interested in one thing: scamming you out of your money.

Take, for example, the “Hollywood” package offered by one of these less-than-reputable companies. They promised to send authors’ books to prominent Hollywood agents upon publication with the idea that those books would then get optioned for movies. But of the 300 books sent in by self-published authors —  who paid over $11,500 each for the privilege  —  two got optioned. Meanwhile, this company took in $3.5 million. This is just one example of the unscrupulous tactics being used against indie authors.

Companies like this prey upon unsuspecting independent authors by disguising themselves as traditional publishing houses and using deceptive marketing tactics. They hound and harass authors with high-pressure sales tactics. They take advantage of new authors’ naïveté, peddle false promises, sometimes even swindling them into signing away the rights to their manuscripts. Then, they leave the author with a fat bill.

As an independent author, you need to be aware that companies like this exist. Sometimes they can be hard to spot, but there are tell-tale signs you can look for to help identify them.

#1 They manage several different imprints offering the same services

If after reading this you were to do a quick Google search of “Publish my book,” you would likely see a handful of sites pop up that look the same and offer the same things. These sites could be imprints of the same company.

These companies do this to fool you. The thinking is that if you pass on a package offered by one brand, you might purchase a similar package from one of its other imprints.

But that’s just where the scamming starts. After one of their multiple self-publishing websites obtains your contact information, they will call you and harass you with intense, high-pressure sales techniques. Even if you tell them, “I’m not interested,” they will simply hand your name off to the next imprint, and one of their reps will call.

They want to make you believe you’re dealing with somebody brand new each time, but they all share the same resources, the same people, and the same goal: getting your money.

#2 They make big sales guarantees

Another hallmark of scamming companies is that they make promises they can’t keep. For example, these companies will often promise that if you pay for their expensive promotional packages,  they will make your book a New York Times or Amazon best seller.

Reliable self-publishing service companies help you put out the best book possible. They don’t make sales guarantees or promises related to popularity because it’s impossible to guarantee success, and the scammers know it.

#3 They make outlandish discount offers

Similar to making promises they can’t keep, scamming companies often make offers that sound too good to be true. That’s because they usually are.

If you come across a company offering you 50–75% discounts on their package of services, as opposed to a more reasonable 10–15%, you can be confident they are after your money. That discounted rate is still expensive when you don’t get anything meaningful in return.

Here’s another tactic to watch out for: Some companies will host faux writing or book contests for big cash prizes or the chance of a lucrative publishing contract. These contests are usually a front for piracy or for trying to get their marketing hooks into you. Don’t buy into them.

#4 They offer packages that are not customizable

When you go to buy a car and the salesperson on the other side of the empty-coffee-cup-and-sandwich-colored desk is offering you things like a rust-proof undercoat or steering wheel polish, you can be certain he or she is simply trying to squeeze more money out of you.

Self-publishing scams try to do the same thing. They’ll pack on extra fees for things that sound fantastic but that you don’t really need.

A package of services can be great, but reliable companies allow you to pick and choose if you want. At BookBaby, if you just want help with cover design, we’ll offer that alone. If you just want to publish eBooks, we’ll set you up to do that.

Scammers, on the other hand, actively try to tie you up in a confusing tangle of commitments and extras that are usually unhelpful. It’s a sign they’re not looking out for your best interests.

It might seem like a daunting reality, that the waters of the self-publishing world are riddled with sharks. But there are plenty of ways to avoid a bite.

Associations like The Alliance of Independent Authors rate, review, and compare self-publishing companies to help authors identify which are scams and which are reliable. There are also reputable firms like Trustpilot that review companies and allow independent authors to do the same based on their experience.

At the end of the day, you have to be aware of scammers and learn how to avoid them. Like everything else, it’s buyer beware, so do research on any company you’re considering before signing any sort of contract.

Make sure your self-publishing service provider guarantees every one of its products and services  —  and puts it in writing. At BookBaby, we work with far too many authors who come to us after negative experiences with self-publishing scams. Don’t let yourself be another cautionary tale.

The End

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Steven Spatz
Steven Spatz is a writer, marketer, and the President of BookBaby, the nation’s leading self publishing services company. Spatz’s professional writing career began at age 13, paid by the word to bang out little league baseball game stories on an ancient manual typewriter for southern Oregon weekly newspapers. His journalism career continued after graduation from the University of Oregon at several daily newspapers in Oregon. When his family took over a direct marketing food business, Spatz redirected his writing and design skills into producing catalogs. The Pinnacle Orchards catalog was named "Best Food Catalog," received dozens of other national awards, and the business grew into one of the nation’s largest gourmet fruit gift businesses. After the company was sold, Spatz continued his direct marketing career with Fortune 500 companies including Mattel and Hasbro. He joined AVL Digital in 2004 to lead the direct-to-consumer marketing teams for music industry-leading brands Disc Makers, Oasis, and CD Baby. After serving as Chief Marketing Officer, Spatz was tapped to lead the company’s new publishing division in late 2014. In 2019, the AVL Digital Management team purchased the New Jersey brands, including BookBaby. The company is headquartered in Pennsauken, NJ (just outside Philadelphia, PA) and meets the printed book and eBook needs of thousands of self-publishing authors around the globe. Spatz lives in Glenside, PA with his two children, a demented cat, and some well-used bicycles. Steven loves to hear from authors, editors, and publishers in the BookBaby community with tales of publishing trials and triumphs. To tell him your story, write to steven@bookbaby.com.

17 COMMENTS

  1. I have a transcript ready to be publish also the book cover and back as well, i guess my question is can you take the transcript and print the book with the necessary editing.

  2. I’d add that dubious companies charge you high fees to update your cover or to update copy.

    These updates are automated, so do not cost the company any time or effort to provide as a service to authors who’ve already paid their fee for distribution.

    The best companies allow authors to update covers as the market changes. It’s in the company’s best interest for the author to have improved sales, but some charge upwards of $100 for such updates. It’s that sort of thing that sends authors to change companies.

    • Hi Shawn,
      Thanks for the comment.
      But i have to say that automation isn’t a given in self publishing.
      Let’s consider a change on an eBook file.
      We have to retrieve the files from 60+ different stores. It’s done manually as each store has different protocols.
      Then we have to open the eBook file – both ePub and .mobi files – and make the changes manually.
      Next we resubmit the new updated files back to the 60+ bookstores.
      Finally we verify that the new and updated file is indeed the one that is available for sale.
      So as much as we would like to make this an automated, automatic process….there’s actually a lot of time and effort that goes into it.
      Hope that helps!

  3. This is a great post, Steven,
    Sadly, the story board above tells the truth and is not a scam!
    In 2012 I had experiences with a “publishing company” that were exactly as #4. It cost me $12,000 for zero returns after great promises.
    In fact, I am still waiting for 5 complimentary copies of my book that never arrived after I paid the $12,000 for various ‘packages’.
    Another scam #1 was when they wanted my credit card number to continue ‘hustling’ me late at night. I said “No thanks”. A week or so later, I found they were grabbing thousands of dollars from my account, using various incognitos in different countries, making it difficult to spot. They tried to extract $40,000 from me. It was a nightmare.
    #2 The company promised to get my book advertisement into Readers’ Digest and sales would boom! I still shiver when I think about this company.

  4. This is what scares me about self-publishing. It’s taken me three years of research to find the best outlet to publish with. Not to mention the amount of money that is required to put out a good book. I have 18 heard of poems hiding in my shelf because I don’t want to get scammed and lose.

  5. This is impressive and informative. I have quite a number of them bombarding me with different options on a different imprints platforms. I have not yielded to any of them because I suspect they might be trying to scam me. Thanks for this great eye-opener information.

    • Hi Isaac,
      Glad you found this post informative.
      My advice: give the different service providers a phone call. That is – if they have phone call hours listed on their site.
      Ask how long they’ve been in the publishing business?
      Ask for references you can look at or – even better – email for proof they really back up what they claim to do.

    • Me too, each week I get letters and offers from agents, publishing co., to Republish my five books, many of the email letters are the same format even with poor grammar or typos, just with different agents or company names! I look up each company and their fees, and then say, no thanks! The latest is now making a movie or promo video of my books. I want it to be legit, and if I must pay I want the bang for my bucks! Been there done that!

  6. HI – OH YES TO ALL YOUR INFO AND ANOTHER ONE. I HAVE TWO BOOK IN A TRILOGY PUBLISHED- THEN LATER WAS CONTACTED TO LET BOOK NO 2 BE MADE INTO A FILM- WHEN i SAID NO BECAUSE UNLESS YOU READ BOOK 1 YOU WILL NOT UNDERSTAND THE WHOLE STORY( WHICH IS BASED ON FACT) XLIBRIS HAS PESTERED ME TILL I FINALLY HUNG UP ON THEM- I have no contract with them re Book 3 so am hunting for another rep- publisher for it and other novels I have ready for publishing- one a poetry book.
    Thanks for all your info it has been so VERY HELPFUL.
    Book 1 HEAR THE SEA SING – Book2 AND THE ISLANDS CRIED- Book 3 ( unpublished) – THEN THE RAINBOW SMILED.

  7. Thank you Stevan for all this help & advice. .also your recent email about your hatred of the scammers. I wish i had known about BookBaby before i signed up with the wrong publisher!
    They have lied to me & ruined my first book. They certainly won’t get their hands on the next three in the series! I am just hoping that i can recoup enough sales to have my first book reformatted, & get back some of the extortionate fees i paid out for advertising. .Best Wishes..VHS

  8. There are a lot more than a few vanity presses scamming authors.
    Even the so called self publishing companies are mostly vanity presses using a nicer name to fool you.

    And while you might have picked one of the very few honest ones, the majority will suck money out of your wallet with a vacuum using their services and extras, which are mostly low quality and worthless.

    THE publisher of a book is the OWNER of the ISBN.
    If you do not own your own ISBN then you were vanity published.

    Even if you use a cheap vanity press that claims you can ‘publish’ for free, they will be trying to get you to buy their useless services and add ons. And all you get is another ebook competing with millions of others getting lost in the clutter and ignored by most everyone except the authors.

    You do need an editor. Everybody needs a final editor.
    You do not need anyone to design a cover.
    If you are smart enough to write a book you are smart enough to DL a template and DIY your own cover.
    Covers are meant to SELL books not win awards for so called ‘professional cover’ artistes.

    Worse is that there are now some trad publishers who also have vanity press imprints under the larger corporation to help them get in on the fleecing of the naifs out there. Doesnt anybody do any research before they sign a contract that obligates them to spend thousands of dollars?

    Buying separate services you know are truly needed ,but you do not want to DIY ,makes sense if you self publish. Editing is certainly one of those. Formatting the book might be another. Anything else is cause you are just lazy or stupid.

    Buying an expensive package of services with no guarantees is foolish.
    The only thing you need to buy is your iSBN; and you should buy a final editing.
    Anything else you choose to hire out is for your convenience not because it is necessary.

  9. And what about those ‘experts’ who promise to turn your book into something irresistible whilst having barely a handful of middling reviews for their own books…

  10. Good post here. I’m going to share with my local writer’s group. I’m self-published and am doing well. I paid for editing and cover, but formatted the rest myself with occasional help from friends. I’m trying to find info on a company called Black Magnolia Books. A friend just won a contest with them. Publishing is their prize. They’ve only be around since last year. So worried for her.

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