How Much Should Writers Pay To Be Published?

The title to this post is Admiral Ackbar’s greatest fear:

It is, indeed, a trap.

Because the answer to this question is obvious: you shouldn’t pay anything to get published.

Now, classically, this was pretty easy to uphold and understand because authors had mostly one way to get their books into people’s EYEBALLS, and that was through the Legacy Traditional Old-School Publishing System. Which is to say, you sent your precious baby manuscript out to agents, and then when you snagged an agent, that agent sent your precious adolescent manuscript out to publishers, and if you snagged a publisher, your all-growed-up book got a job on a bookshelf somewhere in America selling itself like a piece of prime narrative beef.

And in that chain, the author was routinely warned not to pay anything. Don’t pay reading fees to agents. Don’t pay publishers to publish you. Don’t pay booksellers to sell your book. They will make their money off of your book — that’s how they get paid, and that’s how you get paid.

The saying went, and still goes —

It’s money in, not money out.

Money flows toward the writer, not away from the writer.

The rise of self-publishing has changed that equation… sorta. In the OLD WAYS OF THE ELDER PUBLISHERS, you didn’t pay for things like cover, marketing, editing. They did that because they are the ones backing the book and the ones with the ecosystem to (ideally) help that book not just survive, but thrive. They did that shit, because that shit was their job.

As a self-publisher, that shit is now your job, but it is of course unreasonable to demand that a single author is also simultaneously really good at cover design, e-book design, marketing, editing, and so on. Which means you have to hire people to do this thing for you, which somewhat disrupts that whole “no money out” rule, yeah? Though the core truth remains: paying for these things are not you paying to get published. Meaning, you could literally write a book (or any equivalent steaming diaper fire that consists of words), upload it to Amazon or wherever, and boom, YOU GOT PUBLISHED. No fees. No nada. Paying out money is therefore to make your existing product better — not get the product to shelves.

And so, it would seem then that the rise of certain bundling services is an attractive option — they bundle together editing, cover, marketing, liquor purchases, grief counseling, and other vital services — and then you pay one price and that gaggle of book-wizards turn your self-published book into something that looks better than the aforementioned diaper fire. It’s sensible enough — if you’re going to pay for these services individually, then if you find a trusted service-bundler, more power to you.

Of course there the question becomes, do you trust said service-bundler? Do they have the experience necessary to make this work? Do they hire the best, or do they just have a van full of chimpanzees they call upon to do their work?

In this interstitial gap of paying money, you start to find people whose intentions might be impure toward you and your manuscript. Or, best case, their intentions are well-meaning but their actual actions are either exploitative or simply incapable and inept.

Which brings us to A&M Publishers.

I cannot speak to their intentions or whether they mean to exploit authors.

They may be incredibly well-intentioned.

But let’s pick it apart. (And note: this is all just my humble opinion, kay?)

Let’s look at their new author program.

They provide the following services:

A&M Publishers will provide the following services necessary to launch a new writer’s book & career:

  1. Story Editing and Copy Editing.

  2. Cover development: Coordinated between A&M and the author.

  3. ISBN and copyright.

  4. Printing of books.

  5. Ebook set-up and placement.

  6. A&M Distribution of hardcopy books.

  7. Marketing.

  8. A&M will represent the author as a Literary Agent in an attempt to sell their work to a larger publishing house, if they so desire.

So, okay. Story editing is, I assume, developmental in nature. Everything else is fairly straight-forward, at least in terms of understanding what they mean.

Let’s dig down.

Editing —

Just because we’ve accepted your manuscript doesn’t mean it’s ready. The difference between A&M Publishing and self-publishing entities is the talent. After we’ve read and accepted your book, we want to take it from good to great. The process begins with a consultation with NY Times best-selling author Steve Alten and editor Tim Schulte, who have worked together since 2007, producing several best-sellers (The Shell Game, MEG: Hell’s Aquarium, Grim Reaper: End of Days). After the final edit has been made, we’ll assign the manuscript to one of our copy editors for spell-check, sentence structure, etc.

Not entirely clear what that means — like, “story editing” seems to be a consultation more than en edit, and the copy-edit doesn’t give a sense of how many passes they’ll do, or who the copy-editor is, but okay.

Cover —

After brainstorming different concepts, we’ll select from a pool of dozens of artists who will submit covers. While the author maintains final say, our production team will offer our years of experience to help you determine what design might sell best. Not as eye-catching, but just as important, is the interior layout. Chapter headings, font choices, and any maps, graphics, or images can earn points with your readership. Every author receives a final e-file of their book for approval.

Fine, sure, I guess?

Printing costs —

While final costs are determined by page count and volume, A&M’s prices are far lower than self-publishing houses. Average Printing Costs: Paperbacks $2.25. Hardbacks $3.85. Prices do not include shipping and handling. A&M Publishing does not offer print-on-demand, as the quality is substandard.

All right, so they’re laying out what it’ll cost per printed book.

E-book Set-Up And Placement —

Your e-book will be sold on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, and other e-book outlets. Royalty split: Author receives 75%; A&M receives 25%.

A little vague. No mention of Kobo, iTunes, Google Play, etc. Also, there’s a royalty split which I would assume is the split after the e-book distributor takes its cut. Also, this should be a first sign here that this isn’t really just a bundling service, but they are acting as publisher. Which isn’t a surprise, given they call themselves a publisher — but it’s vital to start seeing that difference between we perform services and we are your publisher.

Distribution of physical books —

A&M Publishers will attempt to leverage Steve Alten’s presence in bookstores in order to place the new author’s books. However, no publisher can guarantee this service. Distribution goes hand-in-hand with demand, and demand depends a lot on marketing.

We’re getting more ambiguous, now. Their plan in distribution seems to be:

a) we will somehow use the magic name of this bestselling author to get an entirely different author’s books onto bookstore shelves, which I don’t think makes any sense at all. I mean, I’m a bestselling author (/humblebrag), and I don’t think I can get your books on shelves? I guess maybe in one or two stores where I have friends working, I could be like, “HEY, ORDER ESMERELDA BOOPENSTEIN’S BOOK, THE DRAGON OF DINGLEBERRY STREET, BECAUSE IT IS LEGIT GOOD.” But I also wouldn’t qualify that as a ‘distribution plan.’

b) none of that matters because *insert shrug emoji here* — I mean, I guess I appreciate their honesty that they’re saying WE CAN’T PROMISE SHIT, SO START DRINKING.

Marketing —

From Steve Alten: The importance of marketing cannot be overstated, but it does require a lot of bullshit-repellent. In the last 17 years, I have spent (and wasted) tens of thousands of dollars on publicists, 95% of whom charge for ACTIVITY vs. ACCOMPLISHMENT. At A&M, I’m going to direct you to the individuals and companies I trust with my own marketing campaigns, then we’ll work together to create and implement a marketing strategy that will include:

  • A quality, well-scripted book trailer (see trailers at SteveAlten.com)
  • A P.R. campaign utilizing press releases that actually are read by reviewers and producers.
  • A social media campaign.

Printing 1,000 books and sending a book to every Barnes & Noble so it can be lost on a shelf and returned in four months is not our goal. We believe finished books are necessary to obtain reviews and generate publicity as well as to sell in stores; however we prefer to design a marketing strategy that will coordinate regional P.R. with book placements and national P.R. with generating on-line sales. As an example, a new author plans to launch his book in his home town. Working with A&M and our P.R. team, we arrange radio, local TV, and newspaper articles two months in advance, book the author for several local book signings, and ship books to these stores to support the local event. Now the author has a better chance for success, and signing the shipped inventory prevents returns. From here, we expand the sales territory while we gather reviews and increase distribution based on publicity and demand.

Mmm. Okay?

I appreciate the problem of accomplishment versus activity, in that a publicist cannot promise result, and yet you’re paying for it. That seems a bit at odds with their talk of book distribution, though, which basically says, “We don’t promise anything.” But that’s okay because they’re not charging the author any money, right? [/AdmiralAckbar]

They mention a book trailer, which… okay, book trailers are of dubious value and maybe you don’t want one? And if I’m going to be honest, looking at the trailers at the link the publisher provides is not the best example, because — though this is just my opinion! — those trailers look like a scorching smattering of barf-spatter. Some of them look like they might’ve used footage from VHS tapes? And not in an ironic hipster found-footage way? Your mileage may vary.

A PR campaign utilizing press releases that are “actually read” is a weird thing to promise. Maybe Steve Alten personally goes to each reviewer and “producer” (?) and holds their nose against the press release until they promise to read it? And then what happens when they read it?

A “social media campaign” is vague. Details, man. Details.

Then the example of printing is like, WE WON’T PRINT A TON OF THESE, JUST ONES FOR YOUR HOMETOWN BOOKSTORE AND THAT WILL START A WELL-SPRING OF SUPPORT — I guess a guerrilla grass-roots campaign is not the worst idea, and again it’s not like they’re asking for a ton of money to do this for you! [/AdmiralAckbar]

Profits and Royalties —

A&M distributes our books through Ingram, Baker & Taylor, and several other companies. The following are AVERAGE EXPECTED ROYALTIES based on the retail prices listed:

Hardbacks: Retail ($24.99) Profit per book ($8.00) Author receives 85%, A & M 15%.

Paperbacks: Retail ($9.99) Profit per book ($4.00) Author receives 85%, A & M 15%.

*A 20% reserve will be kept on all hardbacks distributed into stores. Reserve covers S & H on returns.

Royalties will be paid in May (covering June – Dec. sales) and November (covering Jan. – July sales).

They’re laying out theoretical math here, but okay.

And they only pay royalties twice per year? (Self-publishers enjoy payments every month. My YA publisher, which is Amazon-owned, pays royalties every month, and a lot of publishers pay quarterly.) You would think a small publisher could at least pay royalties quarterly — monthly would be ideal. And again, this is another clear sign that this is not just a service bundler — this is a publisher who is publishing your book. They handwave away that some of this is your choice, but a lot of this is pretty well cemented. And very much in their favor.

Agent option:

At A&M Publishers, we want you to be successful. In the event your book takes off and you’d prefer to work with a big publishing house, we’ll be happy to represent you as a literary agent to negotiate the best deal possible.

It’s probably a good time to point out that a literary agent’s job is to be the firewall between you and your publisher, and so it is rather substandard to have a publisher who then is also your literary agent. Their idea here is, I gather, to be the agent when negotiating with a larger publisher — at which point you should ask, wait, why do I need the smaller publisher then if we’re aiming for a bigger one? Bigger publishers, unless your book is a slap-bang success, will not want to touch your book currently being published by these guys.

Also, again, this is a spectacular conflict of interest.

Cost to author —

A&M Services: $7,995.00

Book Trailer Production: $1,000 – $1,500, paid directly to producer (A&M will work with author to develop a script and edit).

Publicity: Paid directly to either 2Dream Productions and/or Ascot Media.

See, I told you that they weren’t charging the author —

*does double-take*

*does spit-take*

*eyes pop out of head on springs*

Whoa-ho-ho-ho there.

Eight grand for “services.”

Which does not include book trailer production — no, that runs you over a grand, which presumably will make you a trailer like this one for SHARKMAN. *coughs into hand and winces*

Then unspecified costs for publicity.

Let us revisit, for a moment, the part where the publisher rails against paying for ACTIVITY versus ACCOMPLISHMENT — isn’t this exactly that? “Pay us a dumpster full of money and we will promise you basically nothing.” I mean, no publisher can promise you success, but let’s be clear about that: my publishers make no promise and still pay me money. Like, I don’t give them cash; they give me cash. The only time the money flows away from me is when my agent takes her well-deserved slice out of the pie before handing me the rest of the delicious pie.

(whispers in a tiny Ackbar voice: it’s a trap.)

Ahem. Okay. Well. Moving on.

Their Example of Result —

Author pays A&M Services ($7,995.00) and orders 600 hardbacks ($2.300) plus a book trailer ($1,200 approx), plus 1 month of press releases used to garner radio, TV, press and reviews. ($1,000).

TOTAL COSTS: $12,500 approx.

The author sells 500 of the 600 hardbacks ($3,400.00) plus 3,000 ebooks sold at $3.99 ($8,975.00).

In this example, the author realizes a small profit after expenses, has established a foundation of readers, and has a book trailer that will continue to garner ebook sales.

This is called a BEGINNING. From here, A&M and the author will strategize on how to increase sales, increase distribution, and evolve a BEGINNING into a potential CAREER.

WHOA WAIT SHIT now they’re telling me it’s $12,500?!

Jesus on a honey badger, that’s a lot of money. And their example of a result is, “You make a small profit,” and then in all caps BEGINNING and CAREER and SHUT UP BECAUSE IT’S GOOD.

My opinion is: that is not good. That is the opposite of good. That is, “You would be better off throwing your money in a toilet full of gasoline and then setting that toilet on fire,” because at least then you’ll have that very cool memory forever. (Who else in this world has born witness to a toilet full of burning money? You could own that. That could be yours.)

The beginning of my career consisted of me:

a) self-publishing a writing book and a short story collection

and

b) having a book published, for which I got paid.

In both cases, I came out having money in my bank account. Which was nice.

And that’s also how it’s supposed to work. I’ll cop to the fact that the beginning of a writer’s career is not necessarily about a big truck backing up to your house and filling your yard with money, but in my experience the beginning of one’s career also looks a whole lot different than what you’re seeing with this publisher.

There’s some other stuff on their website — and you can go and take a peek at the people they have working for them (?).

I’ll note here part of the message as to how they help you “beat the odds.”

So why do we charge you? We’re charging you for services required to launch an unproven author – services that I still pay out of my own pocket. For every novel I hire the same editor, P.R. person, book trailer guy – that’s the cost of success. My job is to teach you the business of being an author so that you ACCOMPLISH your goal; the other guys are more interested in selling you a package of ACTIVITY. Lots more activity in that Diamond package! Pass the bullshit repellent.

Again that message: activity versus accomplishment.

Only problem is, this “publisher” is not offering you accomplishment — they’re offering you activity, and a pretty vague slate of activity, at that. With basically zero track record to show for, excepting the track record demonstrated by their one author/owner, Steve Alten, who had success long before this publisher existed.

And for that, they note the low-low example price of $12,500.

I don’t know if they’re trying to exploit authors — I’ll assume optimistically that this is an author who has characteristically spent a lot of money on his own publishing endeavors and they’ve paid off, so he thinks new authors should do the same. But I’ll note here that presently, authors have two fairly straightforward paths —

One is the same as it always was, and you get paid an advance and then royalties and owe your agent and publisher nothing (and also, hey, your agent and publisher are totally fucking separate)

Or two is that you self-publish and you either pay for services or pay nothing for services and the end result is that your book is yours — nobody published it but you, you own all parts of it, you aren’t forced into any publisher’s ecosystem. And note here that A&M is a publisher, not just a service provider, and without seeing a contract it is impossible to know exactly how married to them you must become.

Both options are great. Try one. Do both. Whatever.

As always, the essential truth remains:

Writers get paid. And that means not paying to be published. Yes, you may pay money for services rendered, but this is very much not that. This is a publisher who is producing books, taking royalties, and controlling several significant aspects of your work — all based on zero track record by people whose qualifications are dubious.

It smacks of a vanity press.

Writer, beware. Not just of this entity, but any entity that would ask you to pay any money — never mind over twelve goddamn grand — for a hearty non-guarantee at success.

Pass the bullshit repellent, indeed.