Publishing Company? Printer? Web Developer?

I’ve written before about how critical it is to watch your step when hiring a professional to help you edit your book or design your cover (See “Is the Professional You Hired Doing the Professional Job You Expect?” posted 12/26/14), and we all reaped the benefits of publisher Gordon Williams’ insights in his two-part interview (posted 2/2/15 and 2/5/15) on the various publishing options available to writers.

Still, there are a few things I need to get off my chest on this topic. My mental machinery nearly blew a brain gasket several months ago when I first learned about a new company, a publishing company I thought, and when I decided to look into it, I got flamed for my effort. I went into the inquiry thinking the company might be a nice match for what I need; might be a good place to refer those of you who look to the ellenbooks blog for recommendations…. but that’s not how it turned out.

The Web site wasn’t very helpful and the response to an e-mail I sent seeking clarification just sent me back to the very Web pages that didn’t answer my questions in the first place. I posted a question to fellow writers and self-publishers on a forum to find out if anyone had experience with the company or could help answer my questions. Apparently asking questions was the wrong thing to do. To make a long and sordid story short, the owner of the company ended up answering all of my questions through his online behavior. To this day I appreciate fellow forum members who came to my defense.

I learned a lot in the exchange, although most of what I discovered wasn’t about the company I originally wanted info on.

To add to Gordon’s terrific advice about sorting out the good from the not-so-good when it comes to companies who want to “publish” your book, I’ll offer these items:

  • Check their Website for credentials related to *publishing.* It might sound obvious, but you’d be surprised how many companies out there are actually *web development* companies, not publishers. Look for information on the staff, then check to see how many staff members have experience in editing, book production, graphic arts, and other areas related to book publishing. If the experience cited is all about marketing, promotion, or web development, then you’re dealing with a company that can help in some ways, but they are NOT a publishing company.


  • Read carefully to see what they will do for you. In the case of the company I was researching, they devoted paragraph after paragraph to describing a process that had nothing to do with editing or publishing and everything to do with popularity contests. If your book got enough “votes” (or something like that) then when you reached a certain level, the company *might* extend a contract offer to you. This has nothing to do with the quality of your work — only with how popular it is.


  • While you’re reading, ask yourself, “Does this business model work in their benefit or mine?” In the case I referred to above, the author ends up spending a lot of time getting people to vote for their book, all in hopes of getting a contract. That doesn’t benefit the writer, it benefits the company. They get to see a groundswell of support before they invest in you. Of course every company needs to make some money, and the more confident they are in their investment upfront the better. But what will they be doing *for you?* So far, you’re doing all the work and they’re not doing anything for you except provide a platform for garnering “votes” — support you could be building on platforms you already use.


  • Watch for vague language and terms. Using the same company as an example, I found lots of hemming and hawing in the way they described how their business model worked: if you got to a certain level of support for your book, they *might* offer a contract. If you decide to invest in editing or a professionally-produced book cover, they *might* reimburse you. Don’t pretend you don’t see those words. “Might” and “will” are not the same thing, you know.


  • Pay attention to who’s paying for what. Every publishing or printing company worth its salt is very clear about what they will cover for you and what they won’t. No secrets. No pretending. No slight-of-hand, no smoke-and-mirrors. Believe me, I’ve waded through real-life, reputable book publishing contracts, and they are very clear. In my case, my publisher paid for all editing, the cover, the book blurbs, even postage for sending out review copies (not to mention the cost of those review copies), for example. Nothing said they “might” pay for that stuff.


  • If something isn’t clear, ask questions. “This says you might pay for the cover art. What’s your criteria for your paying that cost? Can you give me an example of when you did cover the cost? Can you give me an example of when you didn’t with an explanation of why?” Reputable companies want you to understand the business — you’re a better client if you do — and they have nothing to hide. So if you ask questions but don’t get clear answers, WALK AWAY.

I hear a lot of writers claim they’ve been “ripped off” by some publisher or another. I always wonder what they signed — what their contract actually said. Yes, buyer beware. If you’re willing to tolerate wording like “we might pay for your cover art, if we decide to reimburse you” then don’t complain when they don’t. Instead, tell them you want a contract that says they *will* pay for it. They’ll either agree to that or they won’t, but you’ll be better off for having gotten it straight.

In business, we call this “due diligence.” Like it or not, you’re now in business. Performing due diligence isn’t an option — its your best protection against getting taken advantage of. Considering a coach to get you through the publishing catacombs? Not a bad idea — just make sure you perform due diligence on the coach!

Writers Roundup

It’s been a chilly winter in much of the US — and a blanket of thick hail on an Los Angeles area beach had people playing in the “snow.” The Ohioan in me loved that the locals called the hail “snow” — one youngster even built a snowman — “hail-man” I guess, to be technically correct. So if the weather has blossomed into stunning temperatures, luring you outdoors, that’s all well and good.

Just don’t forget to give a few minutes a day to your writing addiction. To help you along, here are a few more resources that should help you get motivated to read, write, edit or publish your book.


We’ve always known it: reading is good for us. Reading novels is even better than reading nonfiction. Now we have the science to back us up when we say that it’s also good for us. Writing for Psychology Today, Christopher Bergland — in “Reading Fiction Improves Brain Connectivity and Function” — tells us “reading a novel has the power to reshape your brain and improve theory of mind.” Fascinating stuff.



Most of us would love to sit down with an author we admire, a successful author whose steps we’d like to follow, and soak up whatever tidbits of advice he or she cared to share. Elmore Leonard left us more than a year ago, but he left a pithy summary of his writing advice. Chris Robley revived “Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules for Writing” in a post for BookBaby. If you’ve never seen it, you should read it. If you have, you should read it again.


Getting Published

Curtis Sittenfeld is ten years and four novels into his career as a novelist, and he’s made a great list of “24 Things No One Tells You About Book Publishing” for BuzzFeed. I agreed with nearly every item on his list, would have added a few more, and believe everyone thinking of publishing should read it. That includes you.


Book Covers

Sandra Poirier Smith, President of Smith Publicity, delivers an excellent checklist for your book cover in her article for the BookBaby blog, “Judging a Book by Its Cover: What Book Publicists — and Media — Want to See on the Outside of a Book.” Take the time to click through her links to the best and worst self-published covers.

The best covers link from The New York Times is worth a look, as I mentioned in the previous entry. I’m pulling it out here because even if you don’t look at the worst covers (afraid yours might be in that particular Top 10 list?!?), you MUST look at the best ones. If you do, you might just notice what I did: these covers have minimal images and are all about the typography. Simple is better.



It’s way past New Year’s now, but not too late to share this terrific post at Future of Ink on “How to Run a New Year’s Book Giveaway” by Justine Schofield. As a matter of fact, if everyone who saw this article back in late December decided to run a giveaway over the New Year holiday, the crowded field should now have thinned, making your giveaway easier for participants to find, right? (You’re welcome. It was my pleasure to procrastinate promoting this post.)

Joel Friedlander’s “7 Email Marketing Secrets Every Fiction Writer Should Know” at The Book Designer appeared last November. Good suggestions, but they do make me think of some things I’ve done in the past with e-mail lists that are free and worked really well that he doesn’t touch on here. Hmmm… sounds like I should write a post about this…. Anyway, Joel’s a pro and will get you started.

Book Club Reviews — A Dilemma

You’d think being asked by a book club leader if your book can be read and reviewed by its members would be a slam-dunk, “Yessirree, I’m all for that” easy answer. Turns out it wasn’t so simple, at least in my case.

Of course, I have the habit of making things more difficult that they have to be, of turning something simple inside out and upside down until I’m not sure what it is anymore. This could have been one of those things.

Let me tell you what happened, and you can let me know if you think I’ve really done something idiotic.

I received an e-mail from a woman who said she managed a book club that did reviews and had selected “Pea Body” among the 20 books her club would read and review over a three-month period. All I had to do was lower the cost of my e-book on Amazon to 99 cents for those three months.

She went on to say that while she reads the entire book, “it is suggested that authors read at least 10% of the book to write an honest, genuine review.” Authors?

I re-read her note more closely. Though it’s not clearly stated, what she’s actually doing is organizing a massive review swap. I’d be among twenty authors in the particular time period who’d also be responsible for reading 19 books (or at least 10% of the book) and posting “…about two reviews per week.”

The businesswoman in me went into high gear. I’m being asked to:

1. Lower my e-book price to about 1/3 of its normal price — affecting all of my sales, not just the 20 author-reviewers who’d be purchasing it.

2. Spend close to $19 for the 19 other books on the review list. I didn’t even know what the books were — what if they were the types of books I never read because they don’t interest me?

3. Give up untold hours reading and writing these reviews, maybe on books I didn’t like at all but felt obliged to find something nice to say about (after all, that’s what I’d be hoping they’re doing for me, right?).

4. Risk reviews from readers who might not understand the genre I’m writing in and bash the book because it doesn’t fit some inappropriate standard.

Before you jump on me for this last one, let me point out that #3 and #4 are closely related. Let me give you an example. I don’t read young adult fiction. I don’t read vampire, horror, paranormal, or romance. I don’t read science fiction. And I don’t read any combination of those. Yet many self-published titles I’m seeing these days fall into those categories.

I wouldn’t be a good reviewer for any of those authors or books. I wouldn’t. I don’t know the conventions of the genres, so it would be as if the reading/review club had flown me to southeast Asia or someplace, dropped me into a teaming city, and told me to have a good time and let them know what I thought. Ikes! Don’t speak the language, don’t know my way around… It’s not likely I’m going to have a positive experience, is it?

When I offer to review books for others, I’m careful to offer those reviews for books in categories I’m comfortable and familiar with. It’s only fair to the writers.

So I turned the offer down. I was grateful the group’s manager had spent some time explaining how the arrangement worked but told her I’d rather have a few reviews from readers who like the type of book I write than readers who are participating mostly to get reviews of their own novels.

Yes, I turned down a possible 20 sales, but at a dollar each, I’ve already made up for those lost sales. And I’m not wading through a lot of books I wouldn’t necessarily have chosen to read. Now that I think of it, however, I might just send her a note to see if she’d mind sharing the titles and authors of the books anyway…. Isn’t she missing out on giving those writers a bit of free advertising by only sending that information to the select group of twenty?

Anyway, what do you think? What would you have done? Have you heard from groups like this one? Have you participated? What did you gain from the experience? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this review-swap model!

Men of Honor

Most of us who write novels watch a lot of movies. Movies, unlike novels, are stories told with pictures rather than words. If you don’t believe me, ask Clint Eastwood. Even early in his career he went through his scripts and eliminate line after line of dialogue. Acting is gesture and expression — so much more than memorizing lines and reciting them. As for other aspects of the story, like setting, a movie just needs a well-chosen shot to give us the location, the season, whether it’s day or night, and even set the mood for us. Movies are a visual medium.

Even so, we writers who work with words can learn a lot from movies, especially when it comes to character and story. Commercial movies are a great way to watch the three-acts unfold: sometimes you can set your watch by them. In many 90-minute movies, the set-up takes about the first ten minutes. At about the 20-minute mark, the triggering incident occurs, with the main character making a choice or getting pushed into making one. The next 40-50 minutes are the bulk of the plot, with the main character trying to achieve his or her goal only to be thwarted. In the last ten minutes or so the plot is tied up, the hero wins or loses. You can almost set your watch by it.

Even when there’s a pattern, I’m a sucker for a happy ending. Intellectually I appreciate the value of a realistic ending, a conclusion where things don’t always end up hunk-dory (its the literary-trained writer in me), but I still like it when the hero survives to triumph another day, the bad guys are punished, and the underdog wins.

“Men of Honor” is an older movie featuring Rober DeNiro and Cuba Gooding, Jr. It’s based on Carl Brashear’s real-life pursuit to become not only a Navy Master Diver (a feat in itself) but to overcome the racism and defeatism that surrounded him when he started out in the 1940s and 1950s. It’s an amazing story, made all the more wonderful by the actors’ powerful performances.


It was a great escape on a rainy night, but it also reminded me of something that will (hopefully) help my characters as I write: everyone has something at stake, a goal that’s put in jeopardy, or something treasured they could lose. Not just the hero. Every secondary character too.

I won’t give away the part of the movie where this struck me with such clarity, but I will say that when Carl is facing tough times, his wife gives him an ultimatum. She isn’t doing it, we realize, to be mean or selfish. She has her own life to live, and it isn’t going in the direction she expected. We know she has his interests at heart, but she reminds him — and us — her own goals are important too.

And so it is with our characters — all of them, not just the main characters. Ask “What does this character want more than anything?” — not just of the protagonist and the antagonist, but of any characters who have significant interaction with the main characters. If you do this, you’ll discover new tensions that present themselves.

Here’s an example. Let’s say the main character (MC) in your YA novel is struggling to get through high school and into college despite boyfriend and peer problems (the conflicts and barriers you’ve already set up for her). She has many interactions with her mother in the novel, but those scenes are missing something, so you ask, “What does the mother really want?” and decide the mother really wants her daughter to stay home, get a job in town, help out around the house.

Yes, that definitely adds another source of tension, but there has to be some reason for the mother to want this, or she’ll just seem petty. What if the mother has just found out she has cancer, but doesn’t want to burden her daughter with that news — instead, she subconsciously sabotages her daughter’s efforts to get into college?

Wow. Now that’s a plot. And those are very believable, and sympathetic, reasons for the mother to want to keep her daughter nearby.

So… If you’re stuck, pull out a sheet of paper and start asking: What does this character want? What does that character want? How do those goals conflict? Do they offer points of convergence instead? Where can these goals take your plot from here?

Well, don’t just sit there. Write!

Writers Roundup

A belated Valentine filled with helpful articles and great resources, just for the writer in you!


You can’t write (at least not well) without reading. Voraciously. Brenna Clarke Gray’s “40 Tiny Tasks for a Richer Reading Life” at BookRiot can get you going if you’re having a tough time integrating reading into your life. Great tips. I read a lot, but will probably adopt a few of these anyway! (Note: if you’re considering #16, make sure it’s your own book, not one you’ve borrowed….)


What about the idea that only “real” writers write every day? Ava Jae takes issue with it and lays out a beautiful tribute to those of us who are more sporadic in her “Confessions of a Binge Writer” post at Writability. Thanks, Ava!


Quick quiz: what’s the difference between a professional manuscript evaluation and developmental editing? How is substantive editing different than developmental editing? If you don’t know, but you’re thinking of hiring an editor, then you could be headed for disappointment. How will you know you’re getting what you want? You won’t. So read Andrew Doty’s informative series on the various professional services he offers (as well as other editors) at his Editwright blog. Be informed. Invest wisely. It’s not like you have lots of money to just throw around, right? (Okay. If you do, spend it blindly. See if I care.)

Market Analysis

For number-crunchers, a report like the one completed by the National Endowment for the Arts on arts engagement — including who’s reading what — is a rich vein of data for mining. We know more women read fiction than men, but in which state do most readers live? What are people reading less of than they used to? Are young people reading? We all know the Internet is having an impact on reading, but how? Quentin Fottrell gives us the nitty gritty summary in “The huge difference between what men and women read” at MarketWatch. As you design your marketing plan for your book, knowing who and where your readers are is important. This article gives you the big picture.

Now that you have the broad view, here’s a deeper dive into what sold in 2014, courtesy Publishers Weekly, in Jim Milliot’s “The Hottest (and Coldest) Book Categories of 2014.” See breakdowns of adult fiction and non-fiction categories and juvenile fiction and nonfiction categories. And they include how these numbers shifted from 2013. Cool!

Marketing and Promotion

What are the 130 most important words you’ll write for your book? Nope, not the first paragraph or two. Not the blurb on the back cover. What then? Your Amazon description, of course. Why 130 words? Maggie Anton explains it all for us in her article for Publishers Weekly.


How much can you make? Popular question. David Kudler tackles it for the HuffPost, and you might not like the answer. But there it is.

Like it or not, you’re in business when you start selling stuff, whether online or in a bricks-and-mortar building. And there’s a lot to know about setting up your business accounts. Amy Lynn Andrews makes it easy, though, in her “11 Things To Do Before You Start Making Money Online.” Required reading.

Professional(?) Cover Designs

Rachelle Gardner recently used a site called “99 Designs” to get a cover designed for her nonfiction book. It cost her $299 (their LEAST expensive option) and she confesses that although she got 104 potential designs, “I honestly couldn’t say I loved any of them.” Don’t just read about her experience, read the comments. In some ways, they’re more enlightening than Rachelle’s original post.

And then, of course, there’s the matter of whether the the reader’s face should appeal to the book cover, right? Odd idea, but a Dutch artist has created a book that uses facial recognition to “decide whether you are worthy of reading it.” Yep. Alyssa Bereznak has the full story for Yahoo! Tech, and includes an embedded video of how it works. I’m sure you could get this for your book, too (everything has a price, after all).

Up to $1500!

I saw a billboard in front of an auto dealer the other day, and it said:


“Plenty of people must fall for those words, ‘up to,'” I said to my husband.

Someone could go to the trouble of hauling the piece of junk from their yard (oh, didn’t I just write about those too, in a recent post?!?) all the way into town to the dealer, who’d tell them they could only give them a dollar for it. A dollar is, after all, “up to $1500.”

Or maybe they wouldn’t get even that. Zero is also “up to $1500.”

We were in a 2014 Jeep we bought less than a year ago. “Up to $1500″ might also mean they wouldn’t offer us more than $1500 for our nearly brand-new Jeep if we had a notion to trade it. Right?

So what does this have to do with writing?


During a recent exploration of a new publishing company — to see if I would recommend it here, which I’ve decided not to do — I saw they offer royalties of “up to 50%.”

You’re thinking, “50%! That’s great!”

Wait just a minute. They didn’t say *you* would get 50% royalties. “Up to” is not “equal to.”

“Up to” could mean they’ll pay you 1%. It could also mean they WON’T PAY YOU ANYTHING in royalties. “Up to” means anything less than, right? So the possible range is ZERO up to 50%, and everything in-between.

If you’re reading past numbers like this when you’re investigating a potential publisher, you should NOT beat them up when you get a royalty statement that delivers you pennies on a retail price of several dollars. It’s not their fault. YOU were the one who fell for “up to.”

And you wouldn’t be alone. People fall for this sort of come-on all the time, or you wouldn’t see it used.

You’ve heard it before, but now you know why: you should always bet the specifics of your royalty percentage in writing. Make sure it has a specific number, not something as vague as “up to 50%.”

Even then, you have to be careful. Yep. You can’t leave it at that. Let me give you an example to help explain.

Let’s say your book retails for $10. Let’s say they said they’d pay you 50% royalties. You do your happy dance. You buy a round of drinks for your friends. Then you get your first royalty check and it’s still pennies on the dollar — much less than the $5 per book you expected.

You call them, angry. They tell you, calmly, that the royalties aren’t based on the retail price, but the wholesale price. Or some other pricing threshold you didn’t know about.

What they’ve done is PERFECTLY LEGAL. Maybe not very ethical, but legal.

So…. Make sure your contract stipulates whether the royalty percentage is based on wholesale or retail cost. The custom is to pay against the retail, but when it’s not specified…. well…. it could mean anything, right? Could mean they’ll pay you 1% royalties AFTER your book earns THEM a certain level of income. Or it could mean something else entirely, something even I can’t imagine.

So find out the specifics. Find out the specifics BEFORE you enter into any legal arrangement with a publishing company, printer, or other professional you’re hiring.

If you don’t, shame on you.

I see it all the time in forums and blog posts: nefarious publishing companies who cheated some innocent author. Yes, it happens. But sometimes, nothing illegal occurred: the author just didn’t pay close attention to the details of their arrangement.

Don’t be a victim. Arm yourself with some knowledge about contracts and your rights as an author before you sign something you’ll regret.

Interview with Gordon Williams – Traditional Publisher: Part 2

Last time at ellenbooks, Gordon Williams, publisher at Babora Books, offered some thoughts on why, given all the information and advice that is freely available, so many independently publishing authors have lousy experiences. This time he gives us the nitty gritty on separating the wheat from the chaff. Before you think about signing any publishing agreement, you must read what Gordon has to say.


A lot of indie publishing choices are out there — some good, some predatory. Are there any tell-tale signs an author should look for to avoid the latter?

“Indie” covers a lot of ground — from small press, to DIY self-publishing, to “self-publishing” companies. Any of these streams has its own set of warning flags so I’ll try to be generic as possible about some of the key things I tend to notice.

Baffling Business Schemes:

Publishing is actually pretty simple. The three basic business models are:

  • Traditional: The publisher pays the entire cost of publishing the book under its imprint.
  • Pay-to-publish (aka “self-publishing company”): The author pays the cost of publishing and the book comes out under the publishing company’s imprint.
  • DIY Self Publish: The author owns the imprint and pays directly for whatever services he or she needs to publish the book.

There are variations but if you visit a publisher’s website and it takes you more than about 30 seconds to fully understand which business model a publisher uses, it’s probably a good sign you need to look elsewhere.

Indy Publishers Quick Sniff Test: The “Author discount” on print books

The “author discount” reflects what the author pays the publisher for books for his her own use. One of the best-known “self-publishing” companies offers author copies at 30 percent off the regular retail price. When a reader buys that same book on Amazon, the retailer takes 40 percent of the sale price (the standard retail discount), and publisher pays the author a royalty out of what is left. In the end, this publisher makes more money by selling books to the author than by selling books to readers.


Claiming to be a “traditional publisher” while selling author services:

This is a huge potential conflict of interest. The author seeking a traditional contract can easily be lured into buying services (e.g. reading fees, editing, marketing) in hopes of getting a contract. These services might be provided directly by the publisher or indirectly through an associate that has an interest in the company.

A variation on this theme is what I call the “mixed model” of publishing — a company that bills itself as a traditional publisher while offering pay-to-publish services. This always feels like a bit of bait and switch to me because, again, it brings authors in the door with the expectation they are querying a traditional publisher. The author may get all kinds of encouraging signals, only to be offered a costly pay-to-publish contract at the end of the process.

Brand new in the business – e.g. less than one year in publishing:

Think of your book as having a lifespan of many years. The majority of start-up publishers fail within their first year or two of operation. This has nothing to do with integrity. It is simply a cold fact of being in the publishing business. Having your publisher shut down could leave your book in legal limbo and possibly put you back at square one. If your publisher goes bankrupt you may even have to battle with a receiver company to get your rights back. The best predictor of a publisher’s stability is a proven ability to stay in business for a few years.

Should an author be concerned if a publisher won’t provide a sample contract when asked for one?

Very much so. Not providing a sample contract on request gives the impression that the company has something to hide. While it is true that every contract can be tailored to specific project, common variables like contract length and advances (if applicable) can be blanked out if necessary.

How a publishing agreement is structured can tell you a lot about how the company approaches its authors. How is the company dealing with subsidiary and derivative rights? What recourse do the parties have if one or the other is not fulfilling its obligations? Under what conditions can the contract be terminated and rights reverted to the author? Is there a “save harmless” clause that puts the author on the hook for any potential legal costs?

Any of these items can represent a hidden cost to the author, whether that is giving up more rights than expected or the cost of getting out from under a publishing agreement that has soured.

What are five key things an author should be sure an independent publisher provides before committing to their services?

    1. Everything in writing.
    2. If the author is paying for services, exactly how much each service being provided will cost, and what you are getting for your money.
    3. Contact information for other authors who have worked with the company.
    4. A sample contract.
    5. Time to think about it.

Thank you, Gordon, for your time and patience! This is very helpful information for ellenbooks readers!

Gordon Williams is an editor and publisher with more than 25 years of experience in writing, publishing and communications. A long-time science fiction fan, Gordon and his partner founded Babora Books in 2010.

Babora Books is not actively soliciting manuscripts at this time; your best bet is to take a look at the Babora Books Web site to see if your work fits what Gordon publishes and if they are seeking submissions: