Rip-Offs, Terrible Advice & Zombie Memes

It’s been a while since we had a link party, so let’s dive right in to this seething mess of rip-off publishing services, terrible self-publishing advice from “top” literary agents, and the reappearance of a zombie e-publishing meme. And that’s just for starters. Hold on to your hats!

Reaching Out To Readers

My (almost) weekly column for is live, and today I’m Reaching Out To Readers. For the click-lazy, it’s about getting beyond your writer-filled Twitter stream and connecting with the people who will not just buy your work, but champion it.

On that note, I’ve created a safe place where I can meet readers with similar interests where they won’t get assailed with sales reports, pricing strategies, or shop talk. It’s called and here’s a taste of what’s going to be happening over there:

Don Juan O’Brien left Baltinglass in 1811 as plain old John O’Brien, earning his new moniker in Buenos Aires, not due to disproportionate amorous exploits, but from the city-dwellers propensity to localise everyone’s name, making even an Irishman from Wicklow sound exotic.

Emigration was common in Ireland; some left to find work, some to escape a criminal charge, and some to avoid the terror of deportation to Australia. Many left to escape religious persecution, others to raise an army, hoping to return and free their native land. But O’Brien left Ireland at the age of twenty-five to plough a different furrow.

Read the rest here: An Emigrant’s Tale: The Ballad Of The Irish Don Juan.

Zombie E-Publishing Memes

Giving Dean Wesley Smith a day-off from myth-slaying duty, Joe Konrath steps up to the plate to take on a recurring meme, one that just want die no matter how many logic grenades are lobbed in its direction: that the digital revolution will impoverish writers.

Joe does a good job of skewering this meme, and the post (and the comments) are worth reading in full. Now, start your watches, this should reappear again some time in December.

Terrible Self-Publishing Advice

Some people are optimistic about the future, some are pessimistic. The digital market is new enough, and changing often enough, that none of us can be sure. However, most would agree that conditions are pretty favorable right now for indie writers.

That is, unless you are a literary agent:

Do NOT drink the kool-aid on E-publishing. It’s too early to be making sweeping statements about any of it. We’re all learning this as we go and the right answer to almost everything is “we’ll see what happens.”

Again, Joe Konrath does a good job of taking this down and I won’t repeat what he said. I’ll just add that I think this agent has it exactly backwards.

Right now, I would be cautious about accepting a publishing deal. Unless it was life-changing money and I could front-load those payments, I would have questions about the long-term health of the company.

After all, it’s going to be a minimum of twelve months before your book hits the shelves, more likely eighteen, and possibly even more. Will the company be around then, or could something awful like this happen?

And it’s not just the smaller presses you need to be careful with, the larger publishers’ business model is under attack from all sides. There will be cost-cutting. Your editor could be made redundant, leaving your book “orphaned”. That promised marketing push could evaporate as belts tighten. Or worse: your publisher could go bankrupt or be taken over by a competitor – one that refused your book in the first place or has competing titles.

On top of that, the larger publishers are facing two potentially huge lawsuits, one alleging the chronic underpayment of royalties (another reason to give you pause), and another alleging the price-fixing of e-books, which is now gaining pace.

So yeah, I think the agent has it backwards. If a publishing deal was one of my career goals, I would shelve it for a couple of years, maybe more, unless it was with a progressive outfit who has embraced the digital future, instead of running scared from it, or there were so many zeroes in the advance that it made my head spin.

Rip-Off Self-Publishing “Services”

Some agents can’t get their heads around e-publishing at all. And the discussion on agents moving into publishing is just going to run and run.

I’ve made my feelings on that quite clear in the past, so I will just focus on one particularly awful “service” that’s being pushed by one publisher, seems to have the backing of a couple of supposedly prestigious agencies, and has been given uncritical, glowing coverage by the New York Times.

The Perseus Books Group has launched Argo Navis Author Services. Their site is just a holding page for now, so we have to rely on the scant details from the NYT. In short, their service is pitched at literary agencies whose authors have books they can’t get published, or backlist titles they would like to bring out themselves.

But here’s the kicker: in exchange for formatting, uploading, and “marketing” your book (writing the product description on Amazon), they are going to take 30%.

That’s not a typo.

The New York Times paints this as “a favorable revenue split that is unusual in the industry”. Yeah, right. Have you heard of self-publishing?

If you are unwilling or unable to learn it yourself, I know top formatters who will take care of your book for less than $200. And you really don’t want to hand over the uploading to someone else. You want that Amazon account in your name, and those checks coming to you first.

To charge 30% for a half-day’s work is an absolute rip-off and to put your Amazon account in the hands of a company like this, letting them receive your royalty checks first, is just stupid.

I’m going to be kind and assume that the reporter has no idea what they are talking about. You guys do. So please, spread the word about this awful, awful deal and make sure no writers fall for it.

Point them towards Passive Guy’s excellent post on the subject, where he covers the issue in a lot more detail including the disturbing information that Janklow & Nesbitt Literary Agency have already signed up with Argo Navis, Curtis Brown are about to do the same, and twelve further agencies are in talks.

If I had an agent that recommended a service like this to me, I would fire them on the spot. No question.

Dean Wesley Smith points out another problem with services like this and the whole question of agents moving into publishing that I haven’t heard addressed before. In short, where are agents going to find the time to do all this publishing?

We constantly hear agents grouching about the fire-hose of submissions, and how they can no longer take the time reply to all queries (or even, increasingly, bother to send a rejection on a requested manuscript).

The average agent might have fifty clients. If they all have, say, five titles they want to self-publish tomorrow that agent suddenly has 250 books to convert, edit, design covers for, proof, format, upload, write blurb copy, then promote.

As Dean rightly asks, how the hell is that going to work? It’s going to take forever.

This company, Argo Navis, even if only a couple of the agencies they are in talks with sign up, that will be all the clients of all the agents in all four agencies who all want their books up tomorrow. It’s a logistical nightmare and corners will be cut.

And that’s before you even get to sorting out which author gets what royalties out of all those titles. It’s going to be a real mess, and we need to steer authors away from it.

Happy Wednesday! (It is Wednesday, right?)

David Gaughran

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time spent outside. He writes novels under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership with his books, blogs, workshops, and courses, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.

56 Replies to “Rip-Offs, Terrible Advice & Zombie Memes”

  1. Ha! Great links, David. That Argo Navis deal (if it is what the NYT is reporting) needs to be *skewered* by the publishing world. I’m sure it’s going to be seen as some strange, progressive step forward, instead. *sigh* That’s alright. Leave it to those of us out here, writing away, looking to the future, instead of the past.

    Good luck with the new site!


    1. It was pretty widely reported elsewhere (Bookseller, PW I think etc.) but they all might have been drawing from that piece. The worst bit is we don’t even know if that is 30% of list price or net. And the “marketing” services are hilarious: they will place a product page for your book on all the major retailers. Um, that’s called uploading. It happens automatically and the retailers charge nothing for it.

      I’m sure people will go for this deal. Those who need the “validation” of going through a self-publishing services company that only accepts agented writers will have the whiff of exclusivity about it that some writers, for some bizarre reason, crave.

    2. Sounds like the used car place I walked into about 15 years ago. Scarier than a Halloween story.

      Dave, great post! I loved it.

  2. “Happy Wednesday! (It is Wednesday, right?)”

    HA, I know that feeling! 😉

    By the way, another big scam to watch for is going to be, well, scammers setting up shop as “agents” and saying:

    1) I love this, let me try to sell it… (24 hours later)… Congrats, Joe Blows Publishing loves your book and for a $299 fee, they’ll publish it as an eBook and POD trade paperback! Congrats!

    2) I love this book, this is SO good, screw New York, let me publish it for you and you can be one of those cool indie authors… for this fee.

    It’s obviously a variation on the many common “agent/publisher” scams that flourished for a long time and I wouldn’t be surprised if someone is already doing it…

    1. Yeah that’s not a new one, and it’s probably coming back too. What qualifications or license do you need to call yourself an agent again? Oh, yeah, that’s right…

      We are only at the beginning of what will probably be a Golden Age for scammers. The clearly defined places in the publishing value chain – author, agent, publisher, distributor, retailer, reader – are all starting to blur into each other with publishing agents, retailing publishers, authors doing some or all of it, retailers moving into publishing and so on.

      It’s going to be easier than ever for scammers to pick off confused writers – and there is going to be a hell of a lot of those. That’s why I urge writers to at least try self-publishing something, even if it’s just a short story. They will learn so much from the experience that will serve them well in the future. At the very least, they will know when agents or publishers offering “services” are just talking complete BS. It will save them money in the long run, whichever path they choose.

      1. It goes without saying, I’ve always had a special kind of dislike for the people who prey on new authors. The agent scams, the publishing scams, etc. I’ve seen them come and go over the last 20 years and it makes me really wonder about humanity some days.

        Now, because technology is involved, they even get to say, “All of this computer stuff is confusing, isn’t it?! We’ll take care of the hard work, you just keep writing books and sipping martinis as the money rolls in!”

    2. Oh, I hadn’t even thought about that aspect. Yeah, I imagine a lot of people are going to be taken in by scams like you’re talking about.

      Such a shame!

      1. Yeah, all we can do is spread the word when a new scammer is spotted and do everything we can to help the new authors who are just getting started in this crazy business. Many, many kind people (authors, editors, and agents) helped me when I was just getting started, and I think it’s important to do the same whenever we can…

        1. I would just like to point out that I don’t think the Argo Navis deal is a scam, just a rip-off – there is a difference. It’s a terrible deal, but there is no question of fraud or deception taking place – just very, very poor value for money.

      2. Oh yeah, when I mentioned scams, I wasn’t posting about anything specific you mentioned. I assumed folks are familiar with the “traditional scams” writers have dealt with over the years. The new electronic versions of those scams will be just as bad, I’m sure.

    1. It truly is. What’s even worse is that these agencies have signed up. How is that looking after their authors’ interests? Sounds like they want to encourage their clients to go down a route where they can get a cut.

  3. Great post, David! I’m new around here, but I’ll definitely stop by more in the future. You’re putting out a lot of great information. I especially enjoyed the part about the agent issue.


  4. My brother and my husband forwarded that NYT article to me, trying to be helpful and encouraging I assume. I used to think self-publishing was an ego issue and wanted no part of it. Now I feel that people who wait around and try to curry the favor of an agent have the ego problem. And this sea change is due to what I have read in columns like yours and Konrath’s. Plus the fact that people in England bought my book.

    1. I don’t think wanting to go the traditional route means you have an ego problem. If you follow Publishers Lunch, there are still thousands of authors making traditional deals and doing okay and many authors are simply very happy with their New York publishers. Whether or not you approve of that, I don’t think it’s fair to say they have an ego problem. Just my 2 cents…

      1. That’s fair. For me, the ego problem is with the authors who are not looking at these deals from a business/career perspective, and instead are merely seeking the validation (or some mystical cachet) that they think such a deal will bestow. There are valid reasons for seeking a traditional deal – access to the print distribution network being the big one (IMO) – but pursuing that route purely because you want to say you are “agented” or a “real” author smacks of an ego trip to me.

        But hey, all writers have egos, so who am I to talk…

      2. No need to apologize at ALL. As someone who has worked with, been friends with, published, edited, and commiserated with thousands of authors over the years, I know plenty of authors with BIG egos… Sorry if my tone was too much! I just meant it as a causal comment. All authors have egos, small or large. 🙂

        1. We all have split personalities. Incredible self-doubt. Outsized ego. Quite the cocktail and all needed so that we have the requisite arrogance to send our thoughts out into the world, and the appropriate amount of self-criticism to select, filter, and edit those thoughts into some kind of readable narrative. It’s a balancing act, and the reason why we always undervalue and overvalue our work (often simultaneously). I find whiskey helpful.

  5. I am looking forward to SouthAmericana. I am always up for a surreal adventure story, though in my experience ALL history when closely observed tends toward the surreal and improbable. I recommend Evan S. Connell’s two books of historical essays: The White Lantern and A Long Desire. I believe South America figures in at least one of them.

      1. This reminds me of an exchange in the great Canadian miniseries SLINGS & ARROWS. One person who failed an audition asks a more experienced actor how actors cope with rejection. Experienced actor says “They drink!”

  6. Okay, so I finally read the whole article about the agent’s speech.

    The head-in-the-sand-ness (that’s kind of a word) of both the agent and the comments is almost painful. Really.

  7. David, best of luck with this next step in the journey–starting and continuing to build your body of work. I’m a half-Irishman who’s been to Sweden and geeks out on history, so I suppose I’d better keep up. Back to the novel.

    1. Thanks James. SouthAmericana is going to be a lot of fun. I have an unhealthy obsession with South American history, probably because it reads like a surreal adventure story. Seriously. I have to tone down some of the history so people will believe it in a fictional work. I’m not joking. Some of the things that went on are crazy. And the characters – moustache twirling villains, cads, scammers, cartoon heroes, zealots, evangelists, crooks, dictators, and revolutionaries – it’s quite an ensemble.

  8. Re: the print distribution thing. What do any of you think of Createspace? A lot of amazonUK customers think it is a good idea and at least one said he sells more paperbacks on amazon. Supposedly it is strictly POD and they take their royalty out of the sale. You set the price. They have a set price per book and nothing upfront. 2 to 3 weeks to deliver paperback to customer. Sounds kind of tempting. One person said book looks chintzy; another said it looks as good as any paperback. What have you heard?

    Or, once again, is this the wrong venue to bring it up?

    1. No, not wrong venue at all! My next title will have a print version, and I’ll be using CreateSpace. There are some advantages to Lightning Source (the other main, recommended POD company), but one of the major ones was erased by a recent Amazon policy shift. CreateSpace is said to be much easier for beginners (which I definitely am when it comes to print).

      Actually, if anyone has some good resources on doing a print version through CreateSpace from start to finish, that would be cool.

  9. “No authors have signed up yet, Mr. Steinberger said.”

    Maybe they’re not so dumb after all.

    1. I saw that. It’s brand new though. Site isn’t even up and running yet. Writers will sign this deal – I’m sure of it. Some writers will do anything their agent says – unquestioningly – you only need to read the sycophantic comments on some agents’ blogs to deduce that. It’s reputable, known agencies that have signed up with them (or are about to) also. If you are a writer that is clueless about e-books and the whole digital revolution, or allergic to the idea of marketing yourself or thinking of your profession as a business, you will lean hard on your agent to guide you through what are probably some pretty frightening changes. And this will be their advice? Ugh.

      1. Am I a bad person for thinking something like….”Fine, if you’re going to be a dumbass, more money for me?”

    2. Christine DeMaio-Rice says:
      October 5, 2011 at 8:32 pm
      Am I a bad person for thinking something like….”Fine, if you’re going to be a dumbass, more money for me?”

      No. I’m right there with ya… : )

      David, thanks for the great posts. I hope the number of responses spur you on to keep doing this blog. Your insight and take on things is so enlightening. Don’t stop.

      Katherine Owen

  10. Another great post, David. I did run over to look at Joe’s blog before I finished your most recent post and I have to wonder what some people are thinking? Joe is right that most people have a TBR list (I am a writer and I have one… also beta reading a book for a friend and working on my own title not to mention proof reading another one of my books which is about to go to the editor).

    In terms of this company NYT is raving about, they haven’t kept good facts about anything in years. I don’t even bother to read them anymore and the company might not be a scam but it certainly is a ripoff. Your blog is a must-read for all indie writers’ out there. 😉

    1. Thanks Danielle – I saw that discussion. People tend to extrapolating from their own habits. Talking to lots of heavy readers all the time, I know that they have huge TBR piles. I don’t know any that don’t. I have a list of writers a mile long and I will read anything they write. But I discover new ones all the time, and they get added to the list too. I make the time to read them.

  11. Whenever I see % cut deals, I sigh. Agents, I understand, because they’re like real estate agents who work on commissions—but that’s also why I only think they should get commissions per sale they personally broker. (And if an agent’s publishing their clients, that publishing should have an out clause, just like a regular publisher—and none of it should have a life-of-copyright clause.)

    If there’s a cap on those deals (time or amount), I’m okay with them, but how many people willingly limit themselves to that?

    I’ve always advised friends against % of cut deals, even though they let you start without capital. If you don’t have the capital for a project, save/scrounge up that capital—in doing so, you (should) learn more about what you’re trying to do and how to do it.

    Seeing artistic friends work their butts off for demanding clients for a % of nothing is sad. *sighs*

  12. The fine print is that the author still has to PAY this company for the conversion. Then, since the deal is through agents (and I have a terrific one who has signed up with this group), the monies will flow through the agents who will take 15% of your 70%. I have all my backlist and new books iPublished (which I think is a smarter term than self-published that has negative connotations of yore). I had the conversions done cheaply (outsourced to India) and they did my previously published hardcovers by scanning. I get 70% directly into my bank account monthly and the sales go up incrementally month by month until there is a nice income stream after less than a year.
    Nobody needs these folks–and they know it–but they are trying to gobble up product before authors wise up. Guess who is the new gatekeeper?

  13. ‘Agent-curated material’ means ‘material’ – aka books – that have had an agency fee deducted. Now, a writer can also pay an agency’s agency fee as well. Which do I prefer, that or just uploading books without any fee? Tricky one, that.

    The stampede of the frightened continues…and boy do they need to be.

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