This Is The Modern Publishing Business

asandfriendsnewScammers used to operate at the edges of the publishing business, but have wormed their way into its heart. And the entire industry is in denial.

An unintentionally revealing aspect of the tiresome Amazon-Hachette dispute was a series of statements from an organization purporting to advocate for authors’ rights. One of the heinous crimes Amazon was said to have committed was treating books like toasters.

With such a claim, Authors United was attempting to tap into a current of feeling about the commoditization of literature – as if Amazon was the first company to put a price tag on a book, and writers around the country were hitherto living off laurels and kudos. It’s tempting to suggest that other entities in the publishing business might be doing as well as Amazon if they also treated books like toasters and attempted to sell the bloody things, but I digress.

What this characterization by Authors United highlighted was that most precious of things: how the industry likes to view itself. Publishing, you see, is far above the rough and tumble of everyday capitalism. Publishers may make profits now and then, but only as an accidental by-product of their true pursuit: the promotion of literature. Without publishers there would be no books, of course, and we should thank the heavens that an eagle-eyed intern plucked Beowulf from a slushpile or the world would be very much the poorer.

It’s all bullshit, of course. Publishing is a business just like any other, something which is quite obvious when you look at the companies which now own the publishers. Some in publishing now accept this, while looking back at the so-called golden days with increasing fondness. The days when Bennett Cerf would edit a novel at Random House in the morning and regale America with his urbane witticisms on What’s My Line? in the evening. But that’s bullshit too. Bennett Cerf’s all-too-willing hagiographers quickly skip over the decade-long episode where he was a central player in the biggest writing scam of the 1960s.

The Famous Writers School was exposed by Jessica Mitford, and she was prompted to investigate them after reading Writing Rackets by Robert Byrne – which was published back in 1969. Byrne’s book details a whole host of tawdry scams and dirty tricks that new writers are subjected to when trying to break into the industry: unscrupulous literary agents with reading fees, fabricated writing contests with exorbitant entry costs, fraudulent vanity presses, horrendously expensive correspondence courses… any of this sound familiar?

Little progress has been made in the last fifty years. Anyone familiar with Writer Beware knows that all of these wheezes are alive and well. However, it’s the differences between today and the sixties which are most illustrative, and disturbing. Scammers used to operate – with a few notable exceptions – at the fringes of the industry. Today, whole swathes of the publishing business is geared towards shaking down aspiring writers.

From exploitative vanity presses owned by respectable, mainstream publishers, to writing contests with egregious, grabby terms being run by well-known newspapers, to exploitative book display services being run in conjunction with famous book fairs – none of these practices are at the fringes anymore.

Some of the biggest names in publishing are participating in horrendous schemes which deliberately exploit the inexperience of those entering the industry. And what do established authors do? Shrug, or blame the victim.

“They should have done their research,” is the accusation – when someone gets screwed out of thousands after using a company owned by Penguin Random House, run by Simon & Schuster, and endorsed by the Authors Guild.

We shouldn’t be surprised that inexperienced writers get duped. The scammers are advertising in the New York Times, given glowing coverage in Publishers Weekly, and appear proudly at the London Book Fair. And instead of working to expose the shady operators, the industry has been legitimizing them, partnering with them, even purchasing them outright so they can cut out any middleman between them and the giant pile of dirty cash.

This is the modern publishing business.

About David Gaughran

David Gaughran is Irish, living in Prague, and the author of Mercenary, A Storm Hits Valparaiso, Let's Get Digital, Let's Get Visible, and this here blog.
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49 Responses to This Is The Modern Publishing Business

  1. rchazzchute says:

    Reblogged this on C h a z z W r i t e s . c o m and commented:
    Beware.

  2. Idelle says:

    Thank you, David. You are doing a great service for us first-time self-publishing authors. I am always worried about being scammed when I find out about a service.

  3. Good post, David. Publishing is a business as you point out so clearly. Since I started self-publishing two years ago, I’ve discovered that the ones making the big bucks are not the writers. It’s everyone else that’s involved in the business: the editors, printers, distributors, and the promoters. Not sure how this money pie can be shared more equitably. I guess, as you point out, it’s writer beware.

  4. dernhelm6 says:

    Reblogged this on Indie Lifer and commented:
    History repeats itself. Aspiring writers are still getting fleeced. Thank God for sites like Writer Beware and for David Guaghran, who continues to bring attention to these shady practices.

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  6. Reblogged on https://tahenryauthoress.wordpress.com
    Thanks for opening my eyes a little wider.

  7. sjstevens5 says:

    Great article! Publishing has neglected the people making them money–writers–for too long. It’s no small wonder why indie has taken off.

  8. Sara says:

    You have to keep bringing this up regularly, David, lest it get pushed to the back of the reading pile! It is imperative that everyone who aspires to get published (never mind write!) know what a blatant scam the traditional house publishing industry has become.

    I think it would also be a good idea to do an article on Amazon, Smashwords and other indie publishing sites, including Wattpad, which appears to be a place to post an excerpt from a new work. My sister suggested Bookbub to me as another place to get an audience. It is hard work to promote your product, especially when you’re just starting out and don’t have a lot of ‘product’. The more we know about indie publishing, the better off we will all be.

    In regard to the subject of your article, if they weren’t running scared, they wouldn’t be squeaking in fear.

  9. Reblogged this on Ed James and commented:
    Wise words, as ever…

  10. Reblogged this on The Norse King and commented:
    David Gaughran’s latest post is a quick and insightful read on how the legitimate publishing industry often supports illegitimate publishing scams. All new, indie, and aspiring authors need to read this!

  11. Thank you for yet another great post, David, which I reblogged to my own section in the cyber-woods. I think one of your future posts should tackle the next important step in the world of scamming: Now that many authors know what’s going on in the industry, what can we do about it, both individually and collectively? Is a new type of union or guild perhaps in order?

  12. It is what it’s always been, a minefield we tiptoe through. Thanks for your perspective.

  13. brouwerpk says:

    > It’s tempting to suggest that other entities in the publishing business might be doing as well as Amazon if they also treated books like toasters and attempted to sell the bloody things, but I digress.

    I’d love to read more about this digression.

    • Simply put, publishers have been engaged in a lot of negative practices to try and slow the changeover to digital – which has had the side effect of pissing off readers. Things like windowing, price-fixing, adopting a go-slow approach to digitization, etc. Their general approach to pricing is to treat books as some kind of luxury good. If they treated books more like toasters, and focused on trying to sell as many of them as possible (instead of spending their energy trying to convince readers that their higher prices are worth it), and removed the BS emotive arguments about pricing, they would sell a lot more books – as proved by the huge market share more competitively priced indies have grabbed in the last few years.

  14. R. E. Hunter says:

    Authors must have previously been living on laurels and kudos, since publishers don’t pay them enough to live on! 8^)

  15. Reblogged this on Gabriella West and commented:
    Trenchant insights on the exploitative tendencies of the “traditional” publishing industry from a successful indie writer…

  16. This is one reason I’m experimenting with indie publishing with no middle man — not even Amazon. http://wp.me/p3sx1Q-1hu It stuns me that the industry’s business model still has room for exploitation of earnest talent …

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  20. gordonrhorne says:

    This is a conversation we’ve been having for years and years and years, but in the last week I’ve heard a new twist from two different people.
    “PRH and S&S also have imprints where the author is required to finance the initial print run. They are legitimate publishers, therefore this is the way legitimate publishing is going, therefore pay-to-play is how publishing now works. It does not make companies that practice it any less credible.”
    In some people’s eyes, the association of traditional publishers with infamous scammers has not damaged the reputation of the publishers, but rather the glamor of the publishers has normalized the scams.
    So sad.

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  22. alexakira69 says:

    Thank you for this valuable article David. I recently got a shock when I introduced my illustrating skills on freelance sites Freelancer.com and Upwork.
    There were tons of clients looking for writers to churn out fiction for Amazon ebook publication.
    The terms.. need lots of writers, plenty of work and long term engagement were used. The prices were American abysmal, but there were a huge amount of bidders and a huge amount of ads.
    I was appalled, but it was an eyeopener on how the self-publishing side of the biz when from promising to overcrowded in less than eight years.
    I’d gotten used to the fiverr cover art deals, but this one really torn out a piece of my heart.

    • kathyswizards says:

      Sounds like the ebook scammers are moving to the next level. My guess is their click-to-the-back-of-the-book schemes must be being shut down, so they’re hiring for “real” writing for bargain-basement prices. If they still click-farm the books to the tops of the charts, they’ll still make their money.

  23. skfigler says:

    So, after reading the great and greatly disturbing article and the less than encouraging comments, the question remains: WHAT DO I DO? Having novel-length manuscripts to publish, what is good, or at least reasonable, option for someone without the money and ready audience to do it all myself? Amazon/Create Space? BookBaby? Something else? Need a word or so of suggetion from fellow writerly strugglers.

    • Publish it yourself on Amazon, in Select for the boost KU books get. Look around for pre-made covers (can be had quite cheaply). If you need extensive editing, that could be a problem, though. Write more books. Practice, learn and research. I recommend reading the Writer’s Cafe at kboards.com. To learn POD, Create Space has two good forums, one for interiors and one for covers.

      I started out with a zero budget, so I know it can be done. Your level of writing skill (spelling, grammar, punctuation) and craft will determine which direction you take. I’ve studied writing since I was a kid, so I’ve got the “million words” thing done. It takes time, because as David said, publishing is a business. It has to be treated as such. But the information anyone needs is out there, and it’s almost always shared for free if you know where to look.

      Good luck!

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  26. Sara says:

    To one and all: I came across a company called Friesen Press by accident. I think it’s located in Canada. You are expected to pay for their services and they seem to change their minds about things with the way the wind blows. I looked for complaints about them, as they seem to be a rather pricey vanity press engaging in ripping off aspiring writers.
    Here’s a link to one person’s experience with them:

    http://www.complaintsboard.com/complaints/friesen-press-lied-to-by-sales-staff-c593076.html

    As David has indicated ‘Caveat emptor!’ (Beware the salesman!) The complaints indicate that their purpose was to get more money out of the author of that complaint instead of doing a professional job, by altering the writer’s format and typeface extensively. I’ve never heard of a company doing something like this and thinking they can get away with it, but my guess is that they depend on the naivete of eager writers.

    David, if possible, you might want to add Friesen Press to your list of ‘bad actors’. I’m sticking with Amazon.

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  29. I admit it: I’m a control freak. Publishing services that give me the maximum amount of control with the minimum amount of hassle are on my list. EVERYTHING else is not even on my radar. More work? Yes. More peace of mind? Heavens, yes!

  30. I agree the phrase, “You should’ve done your research” rings pretty hollow. Complaints get hidden a number of ways, by so-called public records that aren’t very easy to access, companies buying each other out and changing names, and complaint sites that aren’t accurate or up to date or where businesses can just buy a membership and magically complaints about them rarely appear. Even black hat SEO services help co’s who can afford it hide their bad reputations. It’s often only after the fact that a person develops the kind of unusual research skills and/or learns by networking how many complaints there were. Complaints that didn’t show up on google or were dismissed as ‘resolved’ by business membership orgs when in fact they weren’t resolved at all. Until a person knows what a facade is often put up, they really don’t stand a good chance of finding all the dirt they need to find, in time. Because over and over these co’s tend to turn out to be rip offs, I’ve just decided never to use one.

    One organization I know, that wrote a book, ended up complaining to the state attorneys general’s office about one self publishing company, and got their money back. Had this org realized the company was bought out about the time they decided to use them, they’d have seen the co buying them out had a terrible reputation. But, too late, they learned this, and the self publishing company was horrible to work with, hence the eventual complaint.

  31. ccglazier says:

    Reblogged this on Hot Space Station Justice and commented:
    Fellow writer types – this is worth a read. Art hard and watch your back.

  32. I am sure scammers are on the hunt every day looking to shut down beginning authors such as myself.Thanks for the heads up.

  33. Thanks for another useful post. I’ve spread the word.

  34. James McEwan says:

    This is pure confirmation of the truth of how the publishing business acts. Clearly money is their only true objective. However as writers we should be true to our own objectives wether it is high literature or populous pulp and just write to our own contentment and on the way avoid the scammers. Enjoy your achievements.
    By the way; Would Amazon consider my latest book ‘Burning Ambition” a toaster? Only kidding.

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