Elm Hill Books: Another HarperCollins Vanity Press Bewares

HarperCollins now has another Christian vanity press subsidiary with five-figure publishing packages, but this time the Big 5 publisher is also pimping out its sales reps and distribution network to sell the idea to novice authors. Elm Hill Books was launched last year and is the brainchild of Pete Nikolai – the longtime Director of Publishing Services at HarperCollins Christian Publishing. And both have form when it comes to exploiting writers.

Learning from Author Solutions at WestBow

In 2009, Pete Nikolai was working for HarperCollins subsidiary Thomas Nelson when, together with its CEO and Chairman Michael Hyatt, he partnered with Author Solutions to create WestBow Press. WestBow is a white-label Christian-flavored vanity publisher, pretty much the same any other Author Solution vanity imprint, just with a few crucifixes dotted around the place.

While Michael Hyatt subsequently reinvented himself as some kind of greasy life coach, Pete Nikolai ran WestBow as its Publisher, overseeing the sale of sub-standard publishing packages and countless, worthless marketing packages costings thousands of dollars. These marketing packages were sold using high-pressure sales tactics to unsuspecting newbies who had no business purchasing them, and little chance of recouping their investment. Not that you would know this from the kind of glowing coverage that Publishers Weekly gives WestBow.

Those marketing packages were usually sold in the most disingenuous ways too, dangling impossible dreams in front of vulnerable writers who had no idea how this industry worked. Here’s one example from the dozens of different packages available from Pete Nikolai’s WestBow Press:

Book trailer package $4799

Here’s another:

$1299 press release package

And another (I really could do this all day):

$8799 book signing package

Class Actions & Deceptive Practices

Successive class actions against Author Solutions – which operates WestBow on behalf of HarperCollins behind the carefully constructed facade – detailed exactly how these marketing packages are sold. A typical plaintiff described how she was contacted by an Author Solutions consultant who explained that her yet-to-be-published book had been nominated for an award (one wholly invented by Author Solutions). But to move forward for consideration she was told by Author Solutions that she must purchase a marketing package.

These deceptive business practices led to an outcry among writers, to the point where several companies – such as The Bookseller, Writer’s Digest, Bowker, and Barnes & Noble – all terminated partnerships with Author Solutions, no doubt mindful of the increasing reputational damage from engaging in such author unfriendly practices. But some large publishers like HarperCollins have gone in the opposite direction.

Pete Nikolai worked closely with Author Solutions over the last nine years as Publisher of WestBow Press. He obviously liked what he saw because he decided to build something in its image with Elm Hill Books. While there are some differences with the typical Author Solutions clone, that is where things get truly worrying for anyone who wants to keep clear lines between vanity publishing and its traditional, legitimate counterpart.

Elm Hill Books

The approach from Elm Hill Books is nothing revolutionary, despite its bombastic claims. Publishing services are powered by FastPencil and Accurance, and offer the usual sub-par services you can find at other vanity presses it works with. In other words, HarperCollins staff won’t be editing your book or designing your cover.

Marketing services are the typical selection of questionable services you will see at any vanity press too. You can get a “web-optimized” press release, in a phrase neatly cribbed from Pete Nikolai’s pals at Author Solutions. You can get an “Amazon Preview” – which is really just the Amazon Look Inside program that Amazon does for every book.

You can become a “Professional Certified Author” — a meaningless, invented badge which will do nothing more than mark you out as a certified victim of a vanity press in the eyes of real pros (people who make a living from writing, a category unlikely to include anyone published by Elm Hill Books). That’s one of the “Revolutionary Services” offered by Elm Hill Books which includes bleeding edge innovations like “your title will be listed on Goodreads” – another service publicly provided by Amazon to any author, free of charge.

Publishing Packages

These marketing services are bundled with the publishing packages themselves, which start out at $1,399 for a bare bones package – one which doesn’t even include editing – right the way up to a staggering $13,499 for one of the top-tier “Gold Leaf Packages.”

While the basic publishing packages are overpriced for what would be a terrible way to publish your work anyway, it’s the higher-end packages which attract the most concern. And this is where HarperCollins’ hands get really dirty, and where the usual arms-length denials will hold no water.

The $13,499 package is full of all sorts of execrable crap like those aforementioned “web-optimized” press releases, which no one will ever open, let alone read or act upon; “advanced reflowable ebook formatting” which is a completely standard (and very cheap) service; free-to-anyone items like a Google Books preview or Amazon’s Look Inside or a listing on Goodreads; and a “Premium Seven-Page Website” – cookie cutter affairs of laughable quality.

Crappy web site picture

But it’s the most heavily touted aspect of those top tier packages which are most troubling, and which pose serious questions for HarperCollins and Pete Nikolai. The incredible cost of the three “Gold Leaf Packages” – an obscene $7,799, $9,499, and $13,499 respectively – are justified by the dangling of access to bookstores.

$7799 Gold Leaf Package 1

This sounds good on the surface – the point, I guess – until you look a little closer. HarperCollins sales reps won’t be pitching your book to stores, let’s be very clear about that. At best, you’ll be buried in some catalogue. No one will be selling your book to stores. This is a chimera, explicitly designed to hook newbies who don’t know how this business operates. For any of them reading reading, let me explain how it actually works: HarperCollins will publish over 1,000 titles this year and the sales reps won’t even have the capacity to push all those in-house titles, which HarperCollins has actually paid money to acquire, let alone any dupes from Elm Hill Books.

Think I’m wrong about that? Elsewhere on the site, Elm Hill Books inadvertently reveals the true nature of what these packages entail: mere inclusion in the industry-wide Edelweiss catalogue, a service you can purchase elsewhere for a few hundred dollars.

$9499 Gold Leaf Package

An extra two grand to be slapped in a foreign rights catalogue? That takes some brass balls – especially when Elm Hill Books is grabbing half your foreign rights anyway. Yep, buried in the small print on an obscure page is the most hideous rights grab. Not only does Elm Hill Books purloin 50% of foreign rights/translations, audio rights, film/TV rights, and every other subsidiary right they can possibly think of, it also asserts the power to sell those rights without reference to the author, and without their permission. Grim stuff.

Horrible rights grab of 50% of all subsidiary rights, with forced sale clauses

Back to the “Gold Leaf Packages.”

$13499 gold leaf package

OK, I don’t even know WTF this is but it seems to cost an extra four grand for reasons that escape me, and I have a professional-grade imagination. It seems you can pick one city where HarperCollins sales reps will pretend to sell your book, you get some kind of… ebook which is, no doubt, packed full of advice cribbed from elsewhere, and then there is mention of some kind of exclusive selling window which is supposed to be a good thing?

I sincerely hope everyone was getting super high at this point and then just got distracted by pizza arriving because Elm Hill Books hasn’t even made a basic effort to pretend there is any kind of value in these packages.

Exploitative and lazy. Solid work all round.

Big Pimpin’

How do HarperCollins sales reps feel about being pimped out like this? It’s not just the sales reps, but the HarperCollins name too. Even the marketing plays off this. Here’s a Facebook ad I saw this week.

Thomas Nelson FB ad for Elm Hilll

We’ve seen examples before of Author Solutions playing up its links to Simon & Schuster or Penguin Random House, hoping to fool newbies into springing for their shitty packages.

But that excuse can’t be made here. Pete Nikolai, Publisher of Elm Hill Books, is a HarperCollins employee – the Director of Publishing Services at HarperCollins Christian Publishing. It’s clear that Pete Nikolai ran Westbow in such a manner which afforded him free rein with Elm Hill Books. This is what he decided to create – and Pete Nikolai is happy to pimp out the HarperCollins name, run Facebook ads under the Thomas Nelson handle, it doesn’t matter. Whatever ensnares those novice authors.

Publishers like HarperCollins like to present themselves as guardians of literature and arbiters of taste and also writers’ champions, but I believe they show their true faces here.

As for Pete Nikolai…

31 Replies to “Elm Hill Books: Another HarperCollins Vanity Press”

  1. Congratulations. You always have a bloodhound’s nose to the unpleasant smell of Author Exploitation. Well displayed like a dead pheasant offered at our feet!

  2. A great post, David. Hopefully, your extensive and detailed efforts exposing these money-grabbing charlatans who operate in Christian disguises will reach a wide audience of unsuspecting but eager-to-publish individuals.

  3. Back in the mid-1980s, I worked for Thomas Nelson Publishers for four years. It was an independent house then and operated as a legitimate, faith-based publisher. That was a long time ago. Now they’re just part of the predatory industry designed to relieve aspiring writers/dreamers of every cent they can…

  4. David, as always, a lucid explanation of a massively corrupt operation. Great work on trying to clean up the Wild, Wild West known as contemporary publishing.And of course there are some human beings behind this story who will gather up their savings and buy a package because in their hearts they believe in the dream. Not to forget the imprint has the imprimatur of a christian (small c intended) publisher. And this is the US of A so positive (read magical) thinking will make your dreams and wishes come true. Unless you ally yourself with completely unethical, soulless husks of humanity represented by this crew. Humorous and sad essay, a lot like life. . Reason #765 why all the talented young people I know have their sights set on the video game industry as a creative profession. One day their publishing slush pile is going to dry up because as the Bible tells us, “He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind.”

  5. Thank you for such detailed information. There are way too many of these companies out there, so it must be worth their while. I just wonder what they have done with their consciences. I had a new approach made to me recently. I came home from a holiday to find a message on my answering machine, but I couldn’t understand where she said she was from. She informed me of an e-mail she had sent and that she would call again. I got the e-mail but didn’t realize it was connected to the message, and I deleted it because of the source. She did call again and informed me she was from XLibris. She said I had requested information about their publishing options just a few days previously. I informed her I did no such thing. She asked if anyone in my house (I’m the only one) was writing a book. I said I was but that I had no intention of going that way to publish and would never ask for such info. I told her I intended to use CreateSpace. She informed me they no longer had their editing services, etc. I told her I didn’t need them. Then she had the audacity to tell me that they would charge me $500.00 for a book! I let her know that I’m not stupid enough to fall for that lie. She kept trying to convince me, but that she or anyone else will find impossible. Even when I told her I had absolutely no money for that sort of thing she still pushed. I finally got rid of her – hopefully for good. But I have no idea where she got my e-mail address or my phone number. Obviously they are trolling on social media etc. and taking info for their sales department.

  6. I know there’s a sucker born every minute, but I’d love to know how many people fall for this. The offerings (and prices!) seem so outlandish. But I guess people do…

  7. One of those interesting situations where the answer to WWJD is: start plaiting a whip. As the good Lord said, you can’t serve both God and money – and it’s pretty clear which way this cat jumped. One can only hope they will be convicted of their sin, if not of crime.

  8. Thanks as always for alerting in particular new authors. My first book (Toxic Capitalism) was done with authorhouse, a bad experience, the least to say. I am now ready to launch my second book in the next days, all by myself, and through Amazon Kindle. I learned so much from David’s books and I can only recommend the following: buy his books – keep an eye on his blog!

  9. thanks for keeping up on all this crapola. (Not that I would go with these guys, anyway.)
    I wonder if there’s a more vulnerable group for scams than newbie unpublished writers.

  10. Thanks for the information. I am a newbie with aspirations and would have been drawn in to some of these type adds. I have no idea what my next step should be and who is legit and who isn’t. How do I find out the truth and the actual best path for me? Everybody wants a fee to help me figure that out.

    1. Hi Sarah. Don’t use any of these “self-publishing services”. The better ones are simply a bad way to publish your work. Those at the other end of the spectrum are full on scams.

      Publish your work yourself. Go straight to Amazon with your book, don’t use a middleman. There are 100s of articles right here on this site covering every aspect of the process – all free.

  11. The one thing missing from David Gaughran’s post and the comments on it, is input from anyone who has published a book with Elm Hill, Westbow or other Harper-Collins self-publishing imprints. Here I hope to correct that imbalance, having recently published my book “What is Man? Adam, alien or ape?” through Elm Hill. Let me set out my credentials and reasons for using Elm Hill.
    1) I am not a “newbie”, having published ten major Christian books over the past 40 years but all in UK where I am located. I am a scientist with two doctorates in physics and was for 20 years Chairman of a small UK publishing house. My last book published in 2009 (“Who made God? Searching for a theory of everything”) has sold over 40,000 copies (not including an unknown number of e-books) and has been translated into five foreign languages. So why did I turn to Thomas Nelson’s Elm Hill to publish my latest book?
    2) Firstly, I acknowledge that the Elm Hill packages are expensive but on balance I believe I have received value for money. The ms checking, editing and interior design were done promptly to the highest standard, comparing well with my experience of ‘mainline’ publishers. I am in my mid-eighties and needed all the help I could get with the ‘leg-work’ of preparing a 340 printed-page ms for publication. The first offering of cover design left much to be desired, but Elm Hill co-operated promptly with my request for changes and a satisfying result was obtained within days.
    3) My 40 years experience of publishing in UK had shown me how difficult it is to get a UK book noticed and sold in USA, which is potentially by far the biggest market for my kind of books. I decided to seek a USA publisher on this occasion. Again, however, I encountered an anti-UK bias, being told by one well-known US publisher that my book was “too English” to appeal to a USA readership, and by another that the title “What is Man?” (a quote from the Bible’s Psalm 8) was politically incorrect. Another well-established US Christian publisher still had the ms under consideration but after months of asking for more and more commendations (which I provided) still couldn’t reach a decision. I decided to go with Elm Hill which seemed to offer a level of support and promotion that would meet my needs.
    4) One great advantage of my agreement with Elm Hill was an unusually high author’s discount on books I buy personally. Since one of the best outlets for this book is sale at conferences, this was very helpful since I could sell them well below the retail price to conferees and still make a profit. This is proving very successful so far.
    5) Overall, including these ‘private’ sales, I have recouped value approaching one-third of my initial outlay in under six months since publication. (I say “value” since it is my practice to allow conference organizers to retain proceeds from sales of the books to support their own ministries rather than return the cash to me).
    6) Retail outlets in USA include Barnes and Noble and Walmart in addition to Amazon and other mail-order suppliers … all as a result of Elm Hill activity. The book is also being advertised for retail sale in UK, Australia, India, Japan and South Africa as a result of Thomas Nelson activity.
    7) The website set up for the book by Elm Hill was done very professionally and is proving most useful.
    8) Pete Nikolai, who you attack so egregiously in your article, has been a tower of strength throughout … advising, solving problems with supply chains, handling issues with Amazon, and always being personally available to assist authors. You owe him an apology.

    1. That’s completely false, Edgar. I’ve written many articles about Author Solutions imprints such as Westbow which contained voluminous research documenting dozens and dozens of complaints I personally received from those who had actually used Author Solutions services (including Westbow). Those articles were also based on dozens and dozens more complaints received by other bodies such as the SFWA, Writer Beware, the Alliance of Independent Authors, and more. Those articles were also based on court documents in two class actions that were filed against Author Solutions and Westbow, as well as depositions taken of key executives such as the Senior Vice President of Marketing, Keith Ogorek, under oath, and other documents and testimony from that case. Finally those articles were also based on internal documents and other leaks from current staff at Author Solutions/Westbow, as well as former employees who I personally interviewed.

      Which is to say your assumption is 100% false. If your personal experience was different to the 100s of complaints that I have received or read in my research, I am genuinely happy for you, but it’s not typical. Although I should say it is fairly typical for Author Solutions to have one Potemkin Author at each imprint…

      And Pete Nikolai is a dick.

    2. And I don’t want to pick on you personally, but you have advanced your book and website as an example of the excellent quality of Elm Hill’s work and evidence of their value for money.

      With respect, I’m not seeing that here: https://what-is-man.com/

      The website looks like a cheap website from the 1990s. Aside from the drab aesthetics, I had to hunt around for the Buy links, which is very poor from a usability perspective. Clicking on the book cover should take me to a retailer or a sub-page on the site with retailer links, instead it just displays a horribly blown up version of the cover with no links at all. Terrible design.

      The cover itself is sub-standard. The image choice is very bland and the level of typography is poor.

      Checking the book on Amazon indicates some metadata errors and the Look Inside seems to indicate some strange formatting choices.

      So, no, I don’t think your experience is strong evidence of Elm Hill doing a good job. How much did you pay for that publishing package?

  12. looks like Edgar Andrews book is doing quite well, based on his standing with Amazon sales
    Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,150,528 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
    #81 in Books > Religion & Spirituality > Other Religions, Practices & Sacred Texts > Theism
    #2125 in Books > Christian Books & Bibles > Ministry & Evangelism > Evangelism
    #64824 in Books > Christian Books & Bibles > Christian Living

  13. I have to admit, seeing stuff like this makes me nervous. Without spilling all the details I would like to ask for opinions. What is the fallout to self publish with something like KDP in addition to what was submitted to a vanity press?

    I ask because I bought a package from a vanity press at the recommendation of a trusted friend. The book is fiction, and 5 months in, the publisher requested changes to the title and content (including the nature of a fictional character) that compromises the remaining story line. If I still own the rights can I also self publish the story as it was written, and what do you think the fallout be with the “vanity publisher”? General Public? Hope for landing a literary agent? I don’t want to poison any relationships and I am fine to receive what I purchased (not requesting my money back), bc I did pay for certain perks. Do you think anyone would take issue if I try to go publish the book as it was written, parallel to what they are asking?

    1. I’m not exactly sure of the question here. Are you asking if you can yank your book and publish it yourself? The contract between you and the vanity publisher should determine that. Usually there is something like a 30-day notice period required, but they may have additional time to sell any stock (i.e. paperbacks) that have been printed up on a non-exclusive basis.

      And if you haven’t actually published yet, you should just be able to terminate the relationship. Whether you will get some or all of your money back really depends. It can be tricky, but not impossible. Often success there will depend on what contracted services have already been fulfilled (and to what level of quality, I guess).

      Or are you asking whether you SHOULD terminate the relationship, given that you have paid already? Are you asking what the downside is in publishing with a vanity press given that you have already paid and are unlikely to recover that outlay? Are you asking what the harm is in proceeding in such a situation?

      If that’s the kind of question you are asking, then, yes, I absolutely think you should still terminate the relationship and publish the book yourself. You are giving yourself little or no chance of succeeding if you go through a third party like that, particularly a disreputable one. Aside from the question of the quality of the cover and the edits and the metadata and other production-related questions, and aside from any potential damage to your reputation from being someone who used a vanity press (not a good look among pros in the industry, to be frank), publishing with a third party like this will HUGELY harm your chances of finding readers.

      If you look around my site you’ll see tons of free articles and resources on how to market books. I’d estimate that 90% of the things we all recommend will be closed off to you as you won’t have total control over your book – the vanity publisher has that. You won’t have live sales reports, the ability to make quick changes to metadata or price. You won’t have access to KDP Select, KU, Countdown Deals. You can’t run price promos, or run ads really. A million other things too.

      If you want this book to sell anything, if you want to build a readership and a career, then you have to bite the bullet, I’m afraid.

      1. The question is, what do you see the fallout being (from everyone in the industry from publisher, chance of landing an agent, to consumer) if the book was edited to suit the vanity press (which changes the story line some) and published, AND the book was published through something like KDP (as it was initially written) without the changes? In essence creating two versions of the same story. I ask because the latter is more conducive to a follow-up story line.

        Do you think the move to publish 2 slightly different stories 2 ways would sour the possibility of landing a book deal, or agent, or diminish consumer sales?

        1. A couple of things here:

          1. Having a vanity press published book doesn’t look good on your resume. If you query an agent and say your first book was published by AuthorHouse, for example, they will take that as a sign that you aren’t savvy and don’t know the industry particularly well. You may thing that’s fair or unfair, but there’s no escaping it.

          2. I don’t think it’s a good idea two publish two different versions of the same book.

          3. I definitely don’t think it’s a good idea to publish an unedited version of that book on KDP under any circumstances.

          It really comes down to what you want. If you want to sell books, build an audience, have a readership, you have to take a professional approach. Learn your craft. Study the industry. Publish to a professional level – there is no bush league in books.

        2. …and to answer the last bit which I missed: trying to write some kind of series is definitely the way to go – whether you build off this book or decide to start something fresh with that in mind. It’s a hell of a lot easier to market your books if you have a series. Standalones are much harder to sell.

  14. Thank you!
    I don’t know what I’ll do going forward but I will try to check back at some point to let you know how it all worked out.

  15. Hi David.
    I’m one of those newbies getting ready to sign with one of those self publishing companies. I decided to check reviews first. i must say after reading some of your posts i’m a little apprehensive about signing. Not sure what to do at this point. Is there none out there in the corner of new authors.?

    1. Who were you thinking of signing with and I can give you specific advice?

      Speaking generally though, it’s a poor way to publish your book even if you stumble on one of the few reputable guys. And it’s a dangerous route to take if you have been swept up by one of the scammy guys.

      What I suggest you do is take the path of every single successful self-publisher – and I know thousands of them as I’ve been doing this since 2011 and making a living at it since 2012 – and that is publish directly with Amazon. Don’t use a middleman. Don’t use a one-stop-shop. It’s not the way to do it.

      Happy to provide more info to help you, but just wanted to outline the answer first.

  16. David,

    I have heard it said that you should never publish direct without having someone edit your work. If you suggest publishing direct with Amazon, who would you recommend to provide editorial services? There seems to be a lot of services with different names (line edits, content edits, story line edits, etc.), is there a reputable, comprehensive company that defines and offers all these services with a clear pricing structure? To me, the hardest part would be deciding what you need and budgeting for it.

    1. Hi Janet, there are hundreds of free articles and resources on this site to help you self-publish.

      The basics: don’t hire a one-stop-shop company. They are not a good way to publish. Hire an editor and cover designer and formatter separately, just as you would a plumber or lawyer. It will work out much cheaper, and you’ll get a far better service. Then you upload the books yourself – that part is a doddle – and have complete control over your books. You’ll end up getting paid A LOT more, paid faster, and be far more discoverable by readers.

      This is the path that all successful self-publishers take.

      If you email me here – https://davidgaughran.com/contactfaq/ I’m happy to send you a free copy of my book which will walk you through all the steps, teach you how to find and editor and cover designer etc., and recommend trusted, inexpensive, competent services. It will also show you how to find your first readers and explain how the industry really works. It can all be done much more cheaply than via one of these companies, and you’ll have a far more professional book at the end of it too – to say nothing of avoiding all these scams.

      Otherwise, you can nose around the site and figure it out yourself – there’s enough information here, if you spend the time looking. You just might get to what you need a little quicker via the book.

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