The Perils of Author Mills

When first-time author Maria Harrison (not her real name–the names of authors quoted in this article have been changed to protect their privacy) decided to try and get her romance novel published, the first thing she did was to submit to the publishers of her favorite authors. Rejections quickly followed. Other publishers wouldn’t consider unagented manuscripts. Looking for alternatives, Maria turned to the Internet.

One of the first publishers that popped up in a Google search looked perfect. No agents, no upfront fees, a big catalog of published books available at Amazon and other online booksellers, and a firmly-stated commitment to helping new writers realize their dreams. There was even a miniscule advance.

Maria decided to submit. When, a day later, she received a cordial e-mail offering to publish her novel, she was over the moon. At last, she was going to be a published author!

Thus began more than a year of frustration and disillusion. For Maria hadn’t signed with a commercial trade publisher, like Harlequin or Dorchester. She’ad been recruited by an author mill.

Anatomy of an Author Mill

An author mill turns the basic publishing equation on its head. Instead of selectively acquiring a limited catalog of books and seeking to sell large numbers of every title, as commercial publishers do, an author mill acquires a large catalog of writers, expecting to sell only a few books from each.

Unlike vanity publishers, or self-publishing services such as AuthorHouse or Lulu, author mills present themselves as “traditional” publishers. They don’t charge upfront fees, and claim to be selective. Some, like Maria’s publisher, even pay a tiny symbolic advance. In reality, though, the business models are much the same.

Like self-publishing services, author mills tend to exclusively rely on digital technology, to have wholesale and online distribution only, and to impose high cover prices. Due to the need for a big catalog, editorial gatekeeping–if it exists at all–is minimal. One of the most prolific author mills, which claims to carefully screen all submissions, uses a quota system: So many manuscripts accepted per day, with rejections beyond that cutoff point.

Editing is equally rudimentary. Some author mills don’t edit at all, beyond putting manuscripts though a spell-check process (often inserting additional errors), while others do light copy editing of dubious quality. There’s little meaningful marketing or promotion, and authors who attempt to self-promote quickly discover that author mills’ limited or nonexistent returns policies, short discounts, and of course those very high cover prices, make bookstores reluctant to deal with them.

Author: Sell Thyself

So how do author mills sell any books at all? Simple: they rely on their authors.

Most author mills seek to turn their authors into an unpaid sales force, heavily emphasizing the importance of self-promotion. Not so different from your average small press, perhaps–but author mills can be very deceptive about this, encouraging writers to believe that new authors can’t hope for marketing even from big publishers like Random House, or that even best-selling writers like Nora Roberts must go door-to-door begging bookstore managers to stock their titles, or that hawking books out of the trunk of your car is a good way to build a career. They may pressure authors to spend money on ads and other promotional items, and scold those who don’t set up enough book signings or travel to enough conferences.

Author mills also encourage their authors to become their own best customers. Many bombard writers with special offers (holiday discounts! Buy two, get one free!) designed to spur self-purchases. Others use quieter methods, such as regular reminders of the importance of “keeping a supply of books on hand.” For writers, who may have chosen the author mill precisely because it didn’t charge a fee, this is a kind of back-end vanity publishing–they don’t have to buy books, but the pressure is so relentless they may believe there’s no alternative. For the author mill, it’s a closed loop, ensuring that it never has to look for sales beyond its own doors.

“I hadn’t even had the chance to see a proof of my book before I was being asked to place an order, and encouraged to hurry because it was a ‘special offer.’” Maria Harrison says. “I would later learn that I would be inundated with ‘special offers’ on a weekly basis.”

Most writers who sign up with author mills sell few books beyond those they buy themselves or hand-sell to others. Sales for the average author mill title are around the same as for the average self-published title: fewer than 200 copies.

The Appeal of Author Mills

Author mills come in many flavors. Some have thousands of authors, some just a few hundred. Some focus on general fiction and nonfiction, others on genres such as romance or fantasy. One of the biggest targets students and academics. Author mills can be print-based, electronic only, or both. And then there are the anthology companies that run free contests for poets, crowding thousands of poems into a single close-printed volume.

What they all share, besides the business model described above, is their focus on new, inexperienced writers.

It’s no accident that first-timers make up the bulk of most author mills’ catalogs. New writers are less likely to know how publishing ought to work, and may be daunted by the complexity of the submission process and the number of publishers that won’t consider unagented manuscripts. Many author mills’ websites are specifically targeted to new writers, with plenty of encouraging verbiage about the exclusionary practices of the big New York publishers, and front-page invitations to submit.

“[The publisher’s] website…made the whole process of publishing seem simple,” says Margaret Perry, who published two books with one of the largest of the author mills. “I should mention that I was not terribly familiar with the Internet…And I also knew very little about how publishing works.”

Author mills also offer acceptance to the most vulnerable of writers–those who are frustrated by multiple rejections, who can’t get publishers or literary agents to pay attention to their queries, who’ve been searching for so long that they’ve begun to believe they’ll never succeed. For these writers, a contract offer from a “real” publisher is a huge validation. It can also be an incentive to ignore warning signs.

“To be honest, I chose them because they said ‘yes,’” says Michael Francis of the author mill that accepted his fantasy novel. “I’d been shopping my novel around for a while and hadn’t had any luck. I actually had shelved it for a while until I heard about [the publisher]. I sent it in expecting another rejection, and when they said ‘yes’ I think I was a little too excited and blinded to really take a look at them.”

From Publishing Dream to Publishing Nightmare

Writers with modest sales and/or career ambitions can be satisfied with an author mill, as long as it does a decent job of book production and isn’t too extreme about cover pricing. Not so for others, who are recruited by one of the more exploitive author mills, or who believe they’ve been chosen by a “traditional” publisher, and quickly discover otherwise.

Problems can start early. Authors who expect editing may be surprised not to get it. When Maria Harrison received her proofs, “I was shocked to note wording on the inside cover that [the publisher] was allowing the book to remain exactly as the author wrote it, without any changes…Weren’t they going to edit it at all? That was one of the experiences I was looking forward to.”

Rita Lohan, who signed with one of the smaller author mills, had a similar experience. “I had never spoken to an editor and when I received my galley it was in the same condition as I had sent it in…I had to use an outside editor to clean up the manuscript for publication and make the story smoother. Once I sent it back, [the publisher] was furious because I had made so many changes.”

Other writers may be dismayed by the editing they do receive. “[P]ages were left out (64 in the first draft),” says Nicole Warren, “and words/paragraphs were missing or put back in the wrong place.” According to Sarah Jones, “The argument started when they refused to remove some [manuscript] errors, and due to some software glitch they even added a few hundred errors extra.”

Nicole and Sarah are with the same publisher, which is notorious for incorporating mistakes into the process of editing and formatting, and for refusing to correct them. But this is a risk with all author mills, which keep expenses low by employing underqualified or inadequate staff. Another frequent complaint, for the same reasons: Poor or inappropriate cover design. One author mill promises all its writers a “unique” cover, but uses the same stock images over and over.

For authors with print-based author mills, cover price can come as another nasty shock. Digitally printed books are more expensive to produce than their offset-printed counterparts, and tend to cost more. But some author mills inflate prices even beyond that point, charging higher-than-hardcover prices for trade paperback-size books. Says Maria Harrison, whose trade paperback of less than 200 pages was priced at $24.95, “Why would anyone want to buy an overpriced book from an unknown author when they can buy a wonderful book by a best-selling writer for less than ten dollars? I wouldn’t and I couldn’t expect anyone else to either.”

To support the image of a genuine publisher, author mills claim to market their titles. But since their own authors form their core customer base, they have little incentive to invest in publicity and promotion. “The contract said they’d do publicity,” says Sarah Jones, “but all they did was send out a cheap-looking press release trying to get my friends and family to buy my book.” Some author mills don’t even do that much–a website listing may be all the author gets, or promised marketing support may turn out to be a set of promotion tips on the publisher’s website.

As noted earlier, the same things that make booksellers reluctant to deal with self-publishing services make them wary of author mills. Some author mills try to divert attention from this problem by making much of the fact that their books are “available” in bookstores. But what they don’t say, and what inexperienced writers often don’t realize, is that this simply means the books can be special-ordered by customers who pre-pay–not that they will actually be stocked on shelves.

Like self-published writers, persistent author mill authors can sometimes successfully convince bookstore managers to carry their books (though they may have to buy the books themselves and let the store sell them on consignment). But the effort can be bruising, as Maria Harrison discovered.

“Ever the optimist, I thought I might be able to get my book on my local bookstore shelves. I prepared some materials, gathered my courage and headed for Borders with a copy of my book in hand (and several more in my trunk, hoping they’d say, ‘Yes, we’ll put your book on the shelves’). I never even made it to the manager. The person behind the counter had me pegged before I even walked in the door. I started my little spiel while she picked up my book and immediately turned to the inside page where the publisher is listed. ‘We don’t stock books by this publisher,’ she said.”

The problems don’t end here. Other common complaints include difficulty communicating with staff, unexplained publication delays, difficulty ordering books, sudden and arbitrary policy changes (such as increases in shipping costs or price hikes), questionable royalty accounting, and browbeating or harassment of writers who question or complain. One author mill is known for its habit of threatening its authors with legal action if they speak out about their problems.

It Just Might Be an Author Mill

Author mills aren’t as common as vanity publishers or amateur small presses (both of which also pose hazards for writers). But there are enough of them that writers need to be careful.

The problem is, most author mills present themselves as genuine publishers, and some do quite a good job of it. Also, poor editing, bad cover design and limited distribution are features not just of author mills, but of many small presses, and one of the hallmarks of author mills–pressuring writers to buy their own books–is something writers usually find out about only after the contract is signed.

How, then, to recognize an author mill before it’s too late? Following are some suggestions. Not all author mills have all these characteristics–some are at least somewhat selective, or spend more time on editing and design. But if a publisher exhibits three or more of these warning signs…it just might be an author mill.

- A huge output of new books by mostly new authors. Large commercial publishers have big catalogs too, but most are backlist titles. They put out only a limited number of new titles each year, and only a few by debut authors. Author mills, by contrast, may issue hundreds or even thousands of new books a year, most by first-timers. (A handy way to track output: plug the publisher’s name into the Advanced Search function on Amazon, and sort by release date.)

- Book output disproportionate to staff. Some author mills boast thousands of authors, but not all are so gigantic. The smaller ones may look a lot like respectable small presses. However, book output needs to be proportionate to staff. 50 new books a year may not sound excessive–but if the publisher is a one-person shop, or has only one or two staff editors, that’s way too many to carefully acquire, edit, and market.

- For a new publisher, a catalog of dozens or scores of books before the publisher has opened for business. A smart new publisher starts slow, with a limited number of titles. This ensures quality control, and also careful editing, design, and promotion. If the publisher hasn’t even opened its doors, and already has dozens of books in the pipeline, the odds that it’s lavishing time and attention on each one are slim. The odds that it’s an author mill, on the other hand, are high.

- A website targeted to writers rather than readers. With their need for author volume, author mills must actively recruit writers. Many have websites designed specifically to appeal to writers, promoting the publisher’s services and urging writers to submit. Real publishers, by contrast, want to recruit readers. Their websites promote their books, and submission information may be difficult to find.

- Advertising or direct solicitation. Real publishers don’t advertise in writers’ magazines. They don’t buy sponsored ads on Google. They don’t send unsolicited e-mails claiming that they’ve just discovered your work and are eager to publish it. They don’t troll for submissions on writers’ message boards or listservs, or on Craigslist. Author mills, on the other hand, regularly use these methods (another thing they have in common with vanity publishers and self-publishing services).

- Lightning-quick acquisition. Authors chafe at publishers’ long response times, but a reputable publisher needs to carefully evaluate each book it takes on. This isn’t true of author mills, which need a high volume of authors and thus can’t afford much editorial gatekeeping. If you get a publication offer just days after submitting, be wary. Ditto for a new publisher that seems to be accepting almost everyone who submits.

- Bookstore problems. While a lack of bookstore presence is typical of author mills, it’s also true of many respectable small presses. But if the store can’t even order the publisher’s books–or, worse, if it has a policy against stocking them–the publisher may be an author mill.

- Badly edited, error-filled, overpriced books. Again, something that author mills share with vanity publishers and self-publishing services, and an obvious warning sign under any circumstances. This is why, if you can’t find the publisher’s books in stores, it’s a good idea to order one or two and check them out.

- Complaints. The bigger the author mill, the more unhappy authors it is likely to have. The more unhappy authors, the more likely they are to talk about it. The two biggest author mills are the subject of a large amount of negative online discussion, which can easily be found by Googling the publishers’ names. If anyone asks, the publisher may try to pass this off as a smear campaign organized by disgruntled writers, or to emphasize how many authors haven’t complained. But where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire.

Sadder But Wiser

Many writers who have had bad experiences with author mills feel they should have known better.

“I would like to place all blame with them,” Michael Francis says, “but I don’t think I was completely duped. I think I ignored some warning signs early on because I was blinded by the excitement of someone wanting to publish my work.”

Maria Harrison agrees. “I wouldn’t have classified myself as someone who could be taken for a ride so easily, but the emotional attachment I have to expressing myself through the written word and my desire to be a published author clouded my vision immensely. When I thought a publisher was interested in my work, all rational thought seemed to fly out the window.”

In the quest for publication, writers can be their own worst enemies. Author mills (along with the many other schemes and scams aimed at writers) thrive on frustration, desperation, and ignorance. Writers need to be alert, to stay informed–and to research publishers before submitting, not after, so that their judgment won’t be compromised by the thrill of a quick acceptance.

First published in Romance Writers Report, 2010

Copyright © Victoria Strauss. MAY NOT BE REPRODUCED WITHOUT PERMISSION.


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