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Self-Publishing Writers Should Beware Percent-of-Royalty Publishers

scamtruckIs self-publishing too “hard”? Some people seem to think so, even as other people quite happily trundle along dealing with all the hard stuff. And, as with any case where something hard for one person is easy for someone else, businesses have sprung up to take advantage of that in return for a cut of the royalties. Such businesses may seem innocuous, but on her blog The Business Rusch, author Kristine Kathryn Rusch sounds the alarm bell about one such (carefully left unnamed) publishing business that seems to have ensnared a bestselling author friend of hers, taking 15% of royalties in return for handling the publication of her “self-published” books.

First of all, Rusch warns, this publisher’s terms of service empower it to take over the social network account of the author in question and use it for posting publicity statements—which would be fine, except the posts seem to mention the name of the service itself a lot more than they mention any of the author’s new or upcoming books. And they’re rife with spelling and grammatical errors, which no writer ever wants to have associated with herself. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Rusch goes on to dissect the terms of service in detail, pointing out a number of traps to ensnare the unwary. There are several such traps, but what they boil down to is an attitude on the company’s part that “we can change whatever we want, and the only way you’ll notice is if you’re paying attention to our terms of service on the site.” In addition to 15% of royalties, it seems, the author is actually mortgaging her literary soul.

For example:

All provisions of this Agreement that, by their nature, are intended to survive the termination of this Agreement will survive.

The key phrase is “by their nature.” What the hell does that mean? It means that they don’t have to spell out which terms continue to apply. It means that in court they could argue that all the clauses in the contract, by their nature, still apply.

Furthermore, the publisher doesn’t even provide all its services for that 15%—it charges add-on fees for copy editing and proofreading. And it holds onto the e-book files it creates, not sharing them with the author. And if the service finds the author is “in breach of [her] obligations” they can simply not pay her anything at all.

Rusch adds:

Nothing in this agreement holds the e-publishing service to anything. They don’t have to publish your books. They don’t have to return your books. They don’t have to pay you. They have no liability if they leave out twenty-five pages in the middle of one of your books or put someone else’s name “accidentally” as the author of that book.

They have no liability if they rewrite the entire book and keep it under your name.

And this is not the only such company, and indeed by how open it is in its terms of service (and the FAQ in which it encourages authors to read and understand them) may actually be one of the more respectable companies that occupy this niche. Scam artists prey on the vulnerable, Rusch reminds us, and in this time of sea-changing uncertainty a lot of authors are feeling vulnerable as hell right now.

Rusch advises writers who must pay for services to look for services that charge flat fees only and provide them with the completed work that they paid for—the finished e-book files of the books. And also to be sure they understand what they’re agreeing to when they sign or click through anything.

Of course, it seems as though fly-by-night operations have long preyed on writers. Even before self-publishing became “respectable,” vanity presses were trying to take anyone they could for whatever they could. Donald E. Westlake wrote about this as long ago as 1967 in his novel God Save the Mark. So in that respect this is nothing new.

But it seems that with every new twist of technology, someone comes up with a new way to use it to fleece people out of their money. Hopefully most self-publishing writers will take the time to recognize that so many shortcuts have tiger traps in them.

Photo by jepoirrier.

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Gary McCoy September 3, 2012 um 9:27 pm

In an industry that is so used to having every contract be specifically customized to each deal, it is very difficult to come up with standard terms of service that are acceptable to a broad range of writers and publishers. That being said, it’s no excuse for having predatory terms of service. Our approach was to work on standard terms with a variety of editors, writers, and publishers to *try* and arrive at a set of terms that most would find generally agreeable. We’re also experimenting with having specific elements of the terms customizable on a book by book basis (specifically when it comes to the extent of rights that an author or publisher gives to readers who are participating in online communities centered around their work).

Even though we have a number of books that have been published on our platform, we haven’t formally launched yet so we’ll see how it goes.

Thanks for the article.


digital reader fan September 3, 2012 um 11:54 pm

CA can be purple.

Mandy Trouten September 4, 2012 um 3:55 am

Use Calibre, available at It’s relatively easy and will allow you to publish your own e-book, thus saving you the financial, psychological, legal, etc. cost of dealing with companies that will cheat you.

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