I have a list of things that usually lead me to invoke Filigree’s Rule against a publisher, author, literary agent, or other publishing ‘professional’.
When I look at someone now and mutter “Filigree’s Rule”, it’s a personal reminder for me to disengage and walk away. I’ll happily let other people jump into the discussion. I’m done with it. It means you and I are too far apart, for whatever reason. I won’t publicly call you out on your bullshit, entitled ignorance, wishful thinking, First World problems, or obviously devious machinations. And in return, you should probably leave me alone, too. It’s better for both of us.
This list will infuriate some people, because it’s not politically correct by any measure. But it accurately reflects my experiences in publishing over at least the last five years. It’s inspired by the actual online or in-person gaffes I’ve seen from actual companies and individuals. Nor are they publishing-specific: many of the same factors show up in multi-level marketing, the art world, for-profit education, and other businesses.
Smart & calm people can get out of quicksand. Just like they CAN avoid bad publishers most of the time.*
To recap, here’s the rule: Some authors deserve some publishers, and vice versa, and I will not stand in their way.
The only exception now is if I see obviously illegal behavior that stands to hurt a lot of very innocent people. Then I’ll quietly let the right authorities know.
For the rest, I’ve decided there are very few truly innocent people. Publishing is an odd game no matter what variety an author chooses: true self-publishing, commercial trade publishing, a hybrid mix of the two. But there is now a lot of solid information about publishing available online or at a public library, for anyone with basic reading and research skills. If writers can’t manage that, then they’re probably not publishable authors yet.
I’m now in favor of letting these authors and publishers hook up and waste their time, energy, and money on each other. It may mean slightly less crap in the slushpiles of responsible publishers, and in the catalogs of Amazon and Smashwords. Usually, it just means more obvious crap published, which oddly helps weed out the nonsense, too.
So, the list. One entry here isn’t always a guaranteed ‘caution’, but multiples are.
1. Is this a vanity publisher? Does the publisher make most of its money from its authors – through publishing fees, reading fees, book buying requirements for authors, or any other scheme – instead of from actual sales to wider markets?
2. Has this author published through a vanity publisher before? Multiple times? With different vanity publishers? If so, they’ve probably learned bad habits and/or misinformation about how publishing really works. They are very likely to pick yet another vanity publisher or substandard commercial publisher, shovel wads of money at them, and make the same mistakes again.
3. Is this a vanity publisher founded by an author who was previously disappointed by one or more other vanity publishers, and now thinks they know how to do it ‘better’? Whether they are predators seeing an easy market or genuinely well-meaning but ignorant publishers…avoid, avoid, avoid. These are plague carriers of misinformation and bad practices. They may start with noble intentions. Temptation often looms when they realize they can make more money selling services to authors than in selling books…while still taking a tidy cut of the small income from real sales.
4. Does the publisher’s, agent’s, etc. website or brochure say anything resembling these phrases: ‘We’re here to make your publishing dreams come true. Traditional publishers won’t take unknown authors. We are not a vanity publisher because we don’t publish everything submitted to us. We are a partnership publisher. Authors are their own best sales force.’ Those are important key phrases that often involve misinformation and outright deception. Moreover, responsible publishers rarely make those claims.
5. Is the publisher, author, agent, etc. a vocal and active member of any fundamentalist religion (not limited to Christianity)? If so, their legitimate publishing efforts may be focused tightly on witnessing for that faith, and less on reaching a neutral audience outside it. If you are writing material that doesn’t fit their mandate, you and they might not be comfortable partners. Don’t push to join their club ‘to make them change’, or whatever your social agenda may be. Leave the churchfolk be, and find a club where you and your work are more welcome.
In some cases, the publisher, etc. may be using religion as a smokescreen and a lure to attempt affinity fraud against sympathetic clients. Until the clients realize they’ve been had, there is no point in trying to pierce the cloud of dogma and secret-handshake code words. The victims will only see you as the enemy trying to lead them astray.
6. Is the publisher, author, agent, etc. a vocal and active advocate of certain fringe cultural beliefs? This can include but is not limited to: Flat Earthers, Intelligent Design, Climate Change Deniers, New World Order conspiracy theorists, UFO enthusiasts, and certain New Age healing/lifestyle proponents? They may be literate, intelligent, and a helluva lot of fun in discussions – but a publishing business arrangement might be risky. If they’re crazy, they’ll spread the crazy. If they’re not crazy, you could be joining them in the government crosshairs and information dragnets.
The world is a crazier place than we’d like it to be. But fun as it is, ‘Night Vale’ is entertaining fiction, and George Noory totally bought into a prank call by a bored astrophysicist.
7. Does the publisher, author, agent, etc. show strong indications – in their social media, public appearances, or published material – of a serious neurochemical disorder or physical brain injury? Don’t go there unless you are a trained, licensed medical professional or caregiver doing your job. Unless there are other, less damaged people involved, this is not a good business risk.
8. Closely related to #7: does the publisher, author, agent, etc. engage in long, defensive, and generally ineffective rants online, when faced with any criticism of their business? This may also be Nature’s way of saying ‘Do not touch’ to the rest of us.
Likewise, if the publisher, etc. has a lot of overtly threatening legal copy about defamation, ownership, and Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) on their website or online comment signatures; or makes out-of-proportion legal threats in response to online criticism. If a publisher, etc. appears to have a history of making legal threats, consult the court system in their locality to discover if they’ve actually initiated legal proceedings against detractors, unhappy authors, and/or business competition. Many less than-scrupulous publishers, etc. attempt to scare their authors into silence with contractual agreements barring the latter from any sort of public ‘defamation’.
9. Does the publisher, author, agent, etc. show large numbers of errors in their website, promotional material, or online social media posts? In their published books? Are these errors obvious, chronic, and wide-ranging? When called on it, do the individuals insist that ‘social media isn’t real business, so accuracy doesn’t matter there’? Do not do business with these folks. A real publisher, agent, or – God forbid – an editor tries to present themselves as professional all the time.
10. Is the publisher, agent, editor, or other service provider running a very small, family-owned or single proprietor shop? If so, they may be vulnerable to losing the business after sickness or disaster. Before doing business with such individuals, check their social media presence for indications of chronic illness, family problems, or multiple past bankruptcies or business failures, failed Kickstarter programs, etc. This could be a danger sign for the future, if the proprietors have not laid out contingency plans. Double danger warning if the publisher, etc. has used health, financial, and/or family emergencies in the past as multiple excuses for not meeting contractual goals.
It’s heartbreaking. Some of the nicest, most talented, and well-meaning people can get caught up in financial nightmares. But here’s the thing: unless you are family, those aren’t your nightmares. You’re just the writer – not the therapist, not the enabler, not the venture capitalist. Walk away when you smell trouble, unless you are fully willing to invest not only your story and money, but possibly your sanity in this business venture.
Likewise, think carefully about engaging with a writer who uses their prose primarily for self-therapy reasons. All writers work at the crucibles of emotion. Some elevate the therapy portion of the exercise as an excuse for sloppy writing, and then take criticism of their work to mean criticism of *them* and denial of their trauma. Misery memoirs still have their place. But there are probably a million trunked or self-published ones, in contrast to the fewer numbers of commercially published similar books that reach a widespread audience. So again, unless you are a caregiver doing your job, it might be safest to stay away from such authors.
11. Check the publisher’s current sales ranks on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. See if their works are available through regional, national, and international distributors. If the publisher has multiple pages of strongly-selling books across a couple of big vendor platforms, they’re probably doing something right. If their best selling book is hovering somewhere beyond 1,000,000 on Amazon, it’s probably not selling well anywhere else. What makes you think they can sell your books? If they claim they are selling most of their books on their own website portal, run their site address through www.alexa.com – and see how much internet traffic is actually going there.
12. Does the publisher or agent insist that a fiction author have a strong, well-developed social media presence as a firm condition of being accepted for publication? Does the publisher use language mandating the author’s self-promotion as the bulk of a book’s marketing? Ask the publisher what marketing of their own are they planning to use, to justify their cut of sales. Or walk away. Those kinds of contract stipulations often indicate publishers who already know they can’t effectively market outside their own author contact list.
13. Is the new/small publisher, agent, etc. narrowly focused on a couple of writing genres, or do they appear to accept many genre categories? If the latter applies, the company may be flinging projects at the wall and waiting to see what sticks. They may not have the in-depth knowledge and industry relationships to be an effective player in all their genres. For genre-focused publishers in the romance, horror, and SFF fields, make sure these companies are aware of and attend at least some of the major or regional conventions devoted to those genres.
If they’ve been around for more than two years and they’re still a small publisher – and still doing this – then they’re just farting around. They may not be a vanity publisher, but they’re probably more committed to making many tiny sales off many authors, than large sales off a few authors. The long tail marketing pattern works well for publishers who keep their marketing overhead low, but not great for authors who are making single to double-digit sales per year, per book.
14. Does the publisher, agent, etc. have a verifiable track record in their field? Publishing is not an entry-level position; most publishing professionals will have solid backgrounds in or closely related to their field. If not, consider this: would you trust a brain surgeon who can’t prove she knows what she’s doing? Why would you trust a brand new, unknown publisher?
15. Does the publisher make use of paid You-Tube ‘testimonials’ to pitch its authors books? Be wary: sometimes these are legit, but filmed by authors still in their happy honeymoon phase with a bad publisher. Sometimes, those testimonials are fake from the start. Go here to AbsoluteWrite for a hilarious and shocking bit of crowdsourced detective work exposing a fraudulent ‘publisher’ who keeps making the same mistakes.
There will be more entries on this list, but those are the red flags I’ve learned to watch for.
* Quicksand warning image courtesy of Wikipedia and Andrew Dunn.
Photograph © Andrew Dunn, 24 September 2005.