The Shiny New Devil You Know: Intro

A Series on Independent Publishing Start-Ups

Stealing souls

From Complot. Click on the image for his portfolio.

For some time now my Michigan-based writers’ group has been discussing small independent publishers, particularly local ones.

Because many of the people running our local indies have almost no experience in publishing – we’re talking no more experience than I have, so pretty close to zero months’ worth – most of our discussions have been of the “Who falls for this?!” variety.  Some of these publishers have been on my radar for less than six months and I’m already hearing horror stories.  People are in danger of burning their writing careers to the ground before they’re even established by turning their manuscripts over to unscrupulous or incompetent independent publishers.


Several established professionals have taken on this topic in far more detail and from a place of far more experience than I can offer.  Some of my favorites are the articles written by Kristin Kathryn RuschDean Wesley Smith, and the SFWA. They all have excellent things to say about when to consider independent publishing services and how to protect yourself and your work.  I recommend that anyone reading this visit those sites before taking any of my advice.  I also recommend that you think every decision through with an eye toward building a 20-plus-year writing career before making a move of any kind; ultimately, it’s your career and you are the person who knows best what you want and which path is the best for you.

My direct, personal experience with trade book publishing – whether print or electronic – is exactly zero minutes.  My direct, personal experience with trade book distribution is exactly zero minutes.  My qualifications? I am fortunate enough to know a handful of people in the industry; I’m an excellent researcher; I was silly enough to start my own business a month before the Recession; and I somehow managed to survive that brilliant timing.

That’s it.

The only thing I actually bring to the table here is the point of view of someone who’s trying to plot out her own writing career without making too many bad business decisions as she builds up her inventory. If you’re in the same place, then this series may help.  If you’re an established writer with an extensive backlist, it may still help – although perhaps somewhat less.

You don’t know what you’re talking about, got it. Why waste our time?

My initial reaction upon seeing some of the angry Facebook or blog posts written by burned authors was to play my air violin.

All of the authors I know personally who are now complaining about their contracts and the follow-through from these newbie publishers are savvy businesspeople who would never have signed such shady documents for their day jobs; in fact, the NPs wouldn’t have made it through the first sales call. Having been on the receiving end of some of these authors’ shrewd negotiation tactics with my web design business, my sympathy was limited at first.

However, these are talented writers who could certainly do well if their end products – their books – were properly developed, packaged, and marketed; and many other skilled authors I know are so frustrated over the time it takes to find that first publisher that they are actively courting the NPs. Rather than fiddle to myself while some of my favorite clients and best friends torch their own careers, it’s time for me to set down the violin and join the bucket brigade of writers trying to help those who are looking at indie or self publishing make sensible choices.

Southeast Michigan is one massive small town; many of the authors and NPs in the region know one another socially.  At least one of the local authors who’s poured a few thousand dollars down the NP money pit told me that he went with the company in question because the owner is “just so sweet”.  He’s now rediscovering something that he’s said to me repeatedly during our years-long professional relationship: nice has nothing to do with effective business practices.

We can all agree that it’s more pleasant to be around nice people than not, but if my money and my reputation as a writer were at stake it would take me exactly zero seconds to hire the experienced bitch over the darling who’s financing her learning curve with Amazon’s electronic publishing software by charging me three times market rate for “editorial services”.

Several months ago I kicked around the topic of vetting and working with local independent publishers as a possible guest post for a friend’s blog.  To that end, I started researching ways that new, talented authors who either hadn’t or didn’t want to break into traditional publishing could get their books into print (or electronically published) while protecting themselves from scam artists. The guest post was never completed because I soon discovered that this topic is far too large for a single post. Even an detailed roundup of local indies is too much for one blog post, so I’m going to break this down into a few different pieces.

Join me every Wednesday for coffee & kvetching. I won’t be calling out or endorsing any companies by name, and I’m not here to start a fight. This is about dialogue. There are bad and good indies out there, and if we work together we can learn how to recognize the difference.

I’ve long held that southeastern Michigan’s artistic talent is almost unparalleled. I’d like our independent publishers to be in a position to help our writers produce the best books possible. Our sweet NP may honestly think she’s doing right by emerging writers by charging them nearly a thousand dollars for a three-page website. Our wonky NP (we’ll meet her later) may not understand what repeatedly missing deadlines does to a writer’s spirit, health, and significant relationships. An author with stars in her eyes because she’s been told she’ll have a print book in her hands just four weeks after signing a contract may legitimately be colorblind and unable to see just how red that flag is.

The publishing landscape is undergoing exciting changes. My community’s talented writers should have the information and the opportunity to use those changes to build their careers.

Otherwise, we’ll all end up fiddling away in the flames.


  1. Two years ago, I thought I had a handle on the best way to get my WIP published. Now it’s the land of smoke and mirrors out there. I’m very much looking forward to the rest of your posts on this topic.

  2. The first comment! I should come up with some sort of prize for you 🙂

    Don’t panic, Vernie: lots of us are in your shoes. We grew up in an era where the only alternatives to traditional modes of publishing were tiny university presses, terrible mimeographed chapbooks, or runs of 50-100 Xeroxed books (as we could afford them) with sloppy margins and cheap bindings. Stepping outside of traditional publishing was rarely done; it was just too expensive. Besides, the results were often so horrendous that vanity presses and other independent publishers became all but synonymous with bad writing and shoddy production values.

    That doesn’t have to be the case any more — but when inexperienced publishers pair up with impatient authors, the end result is still going to be a messy product that no one wants to buy. In the worst cases, authors get taken for tens of thousands of dollars along the way.

    I’m hoping this series will help emerging authors learn some of the warning signs of publishers whose contracts will destroy your career and whose end products are more likely to be half-assed, as well as the indicators that an indie publisher is well worth pursuing. There are other options as well, but we’ll get into those in later posts.

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