Authors, especially new ones, often struggle to get their work published. There are thousands of authors out there and publishers accept only a few new writers each year, preferring to stick with authors who have an established track record of sales. In some cases it is literally “dead men’s shoes” when trying to get your work published. Most mainstream publishers don’t accept manuscripts (MS) direct from authors because that would entail employing people to read them and they prefer getting someone else to do that for free. The person who does the free reading is the literary agent.
The agent sorts the wheat from the chaff and then works on behalf of the author to find a publisher. It goes without saying that agents are just as choosy as publishers, as they rely on their reputation for spotting “winners” to get them through the publisher’s door to make a deal. So it’s also very hard to get an agent even if your book is a good one with a chance of being popular with readers. Once you have an agent they earn their income by taking a commission from the royalties due to the author. That is very important, as you will come to see later in this blog.
The internet has somewhat revolutionised things for the author. On-line publishing companies have sprung up like weeds, promising much but not necessarily delivering. With that has come the sharks who seek to make a buck by exploiting struggling authors, which is the subject of my blog this week.
Now, I have to say up front that the majority of publishers, whether they be mainstream or the on-line type, are completely honest, as are the vast majority of agents. This blog is not about them. This is purely about the small minority of sharks.
Although what I am about to tell you is true I have no desire to be sued for libel so I have to be very careful what I say and the names I use. The particular publisher and agent combination I refer to is real, but I will be referring to them by the names of the Imaginary Publishing Company and an agency by the name of the Jane Doe Literary Agency. Any connection with any real company or person going by those names is purely coincidental and unintentional. The same caveat applies to Made Up Name Industries and Fancy PR Company.
I was curious about the fact that Imaginary Publishing don’t accept MS direct from authors. That is what on-line publishing is supposed to be about, cutting out the middle man (or woman). Instead they actually direct the author to a particular literary agent, Jane Doe, to which submissions should be sent. This is not normal practice in any part of the publishing industry, as the agent is supposed to be independent of the publisher so that they can broker the best deal for their client, that's the author. Obviously some agents favour a particular group of publishers, but that's usually either a genre specific thing or it stems from a track record of successful partnerships. The agent still works for the author, not the publisher(s).
it is a long established principle that the agent is the employee of the author and should always act in the author's best interest. The Code of Practice of the Association of Authors' Agents makes this clear. It also makes it clear that the agent can't act for both the author and the purchaser (the publisher) unless they have notified the author of their financial interest. Here's the link, para h sub para 1 applies: Code of Practice. Para m relates to acting in the client's best interests.
For my American readers, the equivalent organisation in the USA, the Association of Author's Representatives, has similar conditions in its code of ethics. In fact they are even more specific. In para 5 they say that the agent shall not represent both the author and the publisher, though they do add caveats to that.
Of course if Jane Doe isn't a member of the AAA then he or she isn't bound by their code of conduct, but that would worry me even more. After all, why would he or she not wish to be a member of the professional body that represents their profession?
I also found it interesting that Made Up Name Industries, who own Imaginary Publishing, are listed as an engineering firm who are solely owned by a single individual and are registered at the same address as the Jane Doe Literary Agency, which is a private house somewhere south of Milton Keynes and east of Heathrow Airport. I then looked at the ownership of Jane Doe Literary Agency and guess who owns it. Yes, Made Up Name Industries.
I then took a look at Fancy PR Company, the PR company that Jane Doe says she works with to promote your books and those of other authors. Guess who owns them and where they are registered. Yes, you’re spot on. If you want to promote your books through the Fancy PR Company then additional charges apply.
Note. The promotion of books is normally the role of the publisher, not the author or agent, though many authors do promote their own books to some degree or other.
I'm not saying the Jane Doe Literary Agency is doing anything illegal. I just find it curious that their contact address is the same as the contact address for Imaginary Publishing and Fancy PR and all three companies are trading names for Made Up Name Industries. Are they Jane Doe literary agent, or are they Jane Doe, employee (or maybe more) of Made Up Name Industries? More importantly, is the author effectively paying them twice or even three times for the same work?
This is starting to sound like the plot of a detective novel! I just had to try to find out what was going on.
I was going to submit one of my own manuscripts to Jane Doe just to see what was said (it's a very bad MS, not fit for publication) but then I discovered that a charge of £50 was levied up front.
The Writers' and Artists Yearbook (2014 version) says at the top of page 433 that caution should be exercised with agents who charge a fee up front, as agents normally only charge for work once they have found a publisher for the book and therefore the author will start to earn money. I assume the 2015 version says much the same. The AAR in the USA goes even further and says such charges are a serious abuse. I know that Jane Doe says the money will be refunded once a publisher has been found, but that caveat is crucial.
What got me wondering was that Jane Doe asks for the MS in paper format. There's nothing actually wrong with that, except that most agents now want submissions in e-format as they don't then have to pay for photocopying. They send out copies to publishers and editors by e-mail and therefore don't incur postage charges either. We are in the 21st century after all. The book has to be submitted to the printer and Amazon KDP in electronic format, so why mess around with paper in the first place? Unless, of course, you want to charge the author for photocopying and postage! I note that the £50 is only refunded if the book is accepted for publication.
Now, I wonder how many MS's Jane Doe receives at £50 a pop and how many don't get the green light for publication? Jane Doe only has to have a few books a year published to establish credibility, which is all most agents achieve anyway, to avoid accusations of fraud and that isn't going to be difficult when your literary agency is owned by the same business as the one that owns the publishers.
Let's say Sam receives 20 MS's a month (probably a very conservative estimate) at £50 each and accepts one book a month for publication. That makes 19 x £50 = £950 per month for not doing very much. It takes an agent about an hour to read enough of an MS to be able to advise a publisher if it’s worth following-up, so £950 per month for 20 hours work - nice work if you can get it. There is no proof whatsoever that Jane Doe actually copies the book and sends it out by post to publishers, editors and proof readers, which is the reason she gives for levying the charge. Given the number of obvious errors in the books published by Imaginary Publishing that I have seen Jane Doe and Imaginary Publishing don’t spend much money of editing and proof reading. My author contact told me that he had to actually correct the editor's edits because they were so wrong.
Jane Doe can make far more money out of rejecting books than by actually getting them published. Not that I'm saying that that is happening of course. It's just a hypothesis
I am reminded of the plot of the Mel Brooks film The Producers, where accountant Leo Bloom points out to producer Max Bialystock that he can make more money by putting on shows that fail than he can out of shows that are successful. It works with books too. An author published by Imaginary Publishing would have to sell more than 5,000 copies for Jane Doe to make £950 in commission. Sales of more than 1,000 copies would be a considerable success for a new author published by a small on-line publisher.
I was also concerned when I found out that the author I had been corresponding with, and who had inadvertently triggered my investigation, had been asked to sign up for a five book publishing deal. This is very unusual for any publisher, but for a small on-line publishing house it’s unheard of. What if the book doesn’t sell? The publisher is stuck with the author for four more books and vice versa. Even established authors are normally on a book-by-book contract unless they are being paid an advance and you have to be a pretty well established author before you are offered an advance, unless the publisher is pretty sure you can deliver the goods.
What it meant for my contact was that if he is unhappy with the Imaginary Publishing Company then he can’t move to a new publisher for another four books, which could mean him investing hundreds of hours in writing for very little return. He could publish under another name, of course, but he runs the risk of being sued for breach of contract if that is discovered.
Now, I’m not saying that Made Up Name Industries, Imaginary Publishing Company, Jane Doe Literary Agency or Fancy PR Company are doing anything illegal. In fact I would go so far as to say they probably aren’t, but they are behaving in what appears to be an unethical manner, ignoring established codes of practice and charging for things for which charges are not normally made.
It is possible that Jane Doe is acting fraudulently if she is charging for postage and photocopying and then not actually doing it, but it's a hard one to prove. These people (probably just two or three of them in reality) are sharks swimming among the innocents of the publishing world: new authors who are desperate to get their work published and who may be too naïve to ask the right questions.
Are they actually delivering what they say they will deliver? I don’t know, it’s far too difficult to find that sort of thing out if a book doesn’t appear in a Top 100 listing, which applies to only a few hundred out of the many thousands of books that are published each year. However, I have to say that I have never heard of any of the authors published by Imaginary Publishing and my contact came about through a Tweet direct from the author suggesting I take a look at his book. In other words he found me and he was doing his own marketing, which is what his publisher is supposed to be doing.
If you are an author or if you know any authors, then please share this blog with your friends so that they are aware of the basics:
1. Agents and publishers shouldn’t make charges up front so be very wary of dealing with any that do. They are supposed back their own judgement and make their money from sales of your book.
2. Agents are supposed to work on behalf of the author, so beware of any that have close links to a particular publisher; they may not be working in your best interests.
3. Do some research on both the agent and the publisher before paying any money or signing a contract.
4. Don’t sign a multi-book contract unless you are very sure that the publisher will deliver on their side of the bargain. If the publisher is really keen on you, rather than just keen on your money, they will agree to a book-by-book contract.
The story was then picked up by TV news programmes and appeared to be taken seriously. But is it true? Well, not according to Fortune. This is an influential magazine aimed at business people. I won’t repeat the article, if you’re interested you can read it here http://fortune.com/2015/09/24/ebook-sales/
Basically the article says that hard copy publishers only rate sales of e-books against the sales of the same hard copy book. But if the book was only published in e-book format by independent publishers, as many thousands now are, they aren’t counted and their sales are rising according to Amazon, who actually sell the books.
Publishers are also seeing sales of high priced e-books falling as people are switching to lower priced e-books by less well known authors. I can vouch for this. I am a big fan of Bernard Cornwall, but the Kindle version of his latest book is priced only £1 below the price of the hard back book. So I will wait until the paperback is published and the Kindle price comes down and then I’ll buy it. Bad luck publishers, here’s one mug you’re not going to crack.
Many of the authors I am now reading are only published in e-book format and regular readers will have read my reviews of these books, which reflects my changing reading habits.
So why is this story from Waterstones now circulating again? I suspect it’s a PR puff piece aimed at trying to persuade e-book readers back to hard copy. “The fad is over.” They are saying, “So come back home to Momma”.
Kindles and other e-readers do appear to be a Marmite sort of thing; you either like them or you don't, but to paraphrase the late Charlton Heston, speaking on behalf of the National Rifle Association (I never thought I would ever say that) you’ll have to take my Kindle “from my cold, dead hands”.