Red flags in publishing and related services

I’m the organiser for a writers group (if you’re in Bristol, come along and say hello). I get asked for advice on publishing, and also get contacted by people wanting to sell their services to the group.

I’ve mentioned a few times about there being a lot of sharks in the self-publishing waters.

Self-publishing appears to be attracting the same bottom-feeders who sell get-rich-quick schemes by market-trading/realty schemes/earn $$$$ working from home/etc/blah blah.

sharks with lasers

So far, no one who has contacted me through the group falls into the conman category (and I’d send them off with a flea in their ear), but I’m getting more who fall into a second category: inexperienced but enthusiastic.

In itself, there’s nothing wrong with that, and sometimes it can even be better. You’re getting in at ground level with someone who is hugely passionate about what they’re doing. Some of the best creative endeavours arise when group of people do something purely for the love of it.

book enthusiasm

But it can also mean that due to lack of experience or naivety, things can go very wrong.

The good news is that as long as you’re informed and know what questions to ask, you can avoid most of the pitfalls – whether you’re planning on trying for a big-name publishing house, a small independent publisher, or self-publishing.

This post will tell you the type of things to look out for, and the questions to ask.

The big question: Who is paying whom? And what are they getting for it?

Very generally, there will be two types of paying when you’re an author:

You pay for services to help you knock your book into shape and you retain all rights (services)


They pay you and in return they get rights to sell your work and make a profit from it (publishers).

If you are paying them and giving up rights, that’s red flag number one.

Whether service or publisher, take a look at the books they have edited or published. There should be a list on their website. If not, that’s red flag number two.

Pick two or three books and search for them on Amazon. Just above the cover, there’s something that says: Look inside this book. Click on it. It will show you the first few pages.

TSD look inside

Are there typos? Is the prose difficult to read or feel amateurish? Is the formatting all wonky?

what does that mean

Yes to any of these is red flag number three.

Scroll down on the Amazon page to Product Details. The bottom line should read: Amazon Best Sellers Rank.

best seller rank

Rankings of more than 500,000 or so (it changes) mean they’re not selling more than one or two books a month, if that. No ranking there at all? That means there have been no sales in some time.

This happens sometimes. Not everything sells. Check a few books to be sure, but if your publisher isn’t selling their own books, that’s yet another red flag that their profit-model may be making money out of you, not out of your books.


So you’re getting editing? Yay. Editing is essential. But..uh.. is that copy-editing, line-editing, developmental editing, or proofreading?

Here’s a quick trick. Divide the total estimated price by the minimum wage per hour and work out how the minimum number of hours your editor can afford to work on your manuscript. Then work out how many of your words that is an hour. Then look at what they’re offering to do for it.

Cheaper is not always better. Sometimes you’ll get lucky and a great editor will have gone independent and be offering slightly cheaper fees in order to attract new clients, but generally you get what you pay for.


I saw one recently that worked out at around 4000 words an hour. No editor, no matter how awesome, is going to be able to do a decent edit that fast. A proof-read? Maybe, assuming there aren’t a lot of errors. But a proper edit? No.


Does it look self-published? Can you imagine it on the shelf at Waterstones? Good quality covers aren’t hard to come by. Plenty of talented graphic designers are making a little extra cash these days by designing book covers. If your service/publisher isn’t using them, that’s red flag number next.


You’re getting marketing? Excellent. Marketing is a pain in the ass. I’d love for someone to do it for me.

But what are you getting for it?

Tweets? There are plenty of twitter accounts with hundreds of thousands of followers who offer to tweet your book, but big numbers do not mean big sales. Often those followers aren’t genuinely interested in getting tweeted book adverts a hundred times a day: they’re fake, only following for the followback (and not looking at the feed), or have muted the feed. I’ve had my book tweeted by accounts with over 200,000 followers and seen no increase in sales.

They’re going to get you into mainstream media? Your book’s going to be in the review section of a newspaper. Which newspaper? How are they going to get it in? And finally, so what?

I’ve heard a number of successful authors mention that they’ve seen no increase in sales from being in mainstream papers or even on the BBC. This isn’t necessarily a red flag, but think carefully whether spending big money on this kind of advertising and know what results you’re likely to get.

Who are the marketing firm? Are they specialists in books, publishing, or journalism? What other books have they promoted? Ask them. I’ve seen people charge quite a bit of money when they have never promoted an actual book before.

Unfortunately, the fact that a service is attached to a well-known name is not necessarily a guarantee that they are a good choice. Author Solutions (owned by Penguin Random House) is well-known within the writing community for offering very little and charging a lot. They’re currently subject to a massive class action law suit.

There are plenty of authors out there fed up with people trying to take advantage of us. Take a look at the Writers Beware page or Preditors and Editors.

If you are trying for a traditional publishing contract, and are offered one, it’s a good idea to consider an agent. They may take a cut, but they know all the legalese and will help get you the best deal. (Unfortunately, there are bad agents out there among the angels, so do your research there too before committing)

Finally, whoever you’re considering working with, do a simple google. Look for complaints. If you can, get a personal recommendation from someone you know. Ask at your local writers group, or if you’re considering self-publishing, there is a particular indie author you admire, ask them who they use. Most authors are happy to recommend the wonderful people behind them. (FYI my recommendations are here)

Finally, remember, the publishing world has suffered a massive upheaval in the last few years. You have plenty of options. If you don’t like what you’re being offered and something doesn’t feel right, you don’t have to take it.