Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Caveat Emptor: Don't Get Hosed!

By:  Kimberly Hitchens is the founder and owner of Booknook.biz, an ebook production company that has produced over 2,000 ebooks for over 1200 authors and imprints.

Wow!  I was originally going to post tonight with more breathtaking episodes of book-making stuff, like "this is what a Table of Contents does in an ebook," but when I logged on tonight and saw LJ's post on "Done is Better than Perfect," preceded by Gayle's opening paragraph on "A New Year, A New Story," I knew that the Fates had told me to post a vehemently emphasized, "ME, TOO!" for both posts.  I have a second post, below, another topic altogether, about not getting ripped off by certain so-called "publishers" or "editors" or other scam artists.  Less cheery--but if you're not a natural-born skeptic, please read it.  I know my post this week is longer than usual, and I apologize, and ask for your forbearance. 


Just today, I spoke to a client, at some length, both on LJ's topic (keep writing!  Stop editing!) and Gayle's opening comment, that achieving more books achieves more success, in terms of critical, public, and financial recognition.   This client has spent four heartrending years on his labor of love; even now, he has asked me about what he can do, after he's given me the book, "when" he wants to make changes.  In discussion, it turns out he feels compelled to stop and polish every single line, before he goes on to the next.  So I did something that I normally don't; I proffered, rather sternly, unasked-for advice.  I told him to stop writing and rewriting this book, and to work on the next; to not get stuck in the unending loop of instant gratification if typos appeared, detected by sharp-eyed readers; and that success would come, in large part, after his third book--not his first. 

Now, as it happens, this book has three full-length novels, combined in one anthology-like ("boxed set") "container," so after discussing it, he's decided to drip-release the books separately, one each month, and the "boxed set" as well in a fourth release.  He will, in one fell swoop, achieve the "magic number" of 3 books--the number that seems to be critical not only for authors to be taken seriously, but for so many other things, as well.  This client, then, is already fortunate.

I see numerous books come back to us for new endings; new introductions; new prologues, new chapters...it's excruciating to watch.  If this is you, I encourage you to buy Annie Lamott's Bird-by-Bird, and commit to memory her section on "Shitty First Drafts."  I think they are words to live by.  Get that "shitty first draft" out of you--but then, as we say here often on CFC--polish, polish, polish.  Once the book is published, do NOT look back; unless you've given away the ending in Chapter 2, or done something truly unlivable. Pretend you printed 10,000 copies, and keep hammering the keyboard on your next book, so that you can, as Gayle mentions, sell more books by writing more books

Being Hosed--The Caveat Emptor Segment

I have a story that makes me cringe in sympathy.  We have an older client, probably in his 80's, maybe 90's, who did 11 ebooks with us, back in 2010 and 2011.  At the time, of course, we had not added print production to our repertoire of available products.  Well, as it turns out, this client had another book in him; a memoir, with about 40-some odd images, about his life in music in the late 40's-50's-early 60's. 

He called me recently, desperate.  He told me he'd done this new book, with another company.  But he was extremely upset about the ebook versions he'd been given.  I was a little surprised he didn't come back to us for those--but he said, not unreasonably, that he'd needed "editing," plus layout for print, plus a cover, plus the ebooks, and he thought it would be best to get them "all in once place."

And so he did.  For a mere $5,850.00.  PLUS, for the company that did this, a percentage of all his royalties, forever.  
$5,850.00.  For an 89K word memoir, with 40 images.
I took a look,  and he was right:  the ebook work was atrocious.  The print work was ludicrously cavalier of the client's printing costs versus sales pricing. 

The story is thus:  He'd paid one woman $2,850 to have his book "edited."  Now, when he said that, I was pretty outraged, because she claimed she'd also "helped" with the print layout.  As it turned out, when he said "editor,"  he meant "transcription service that removed all his 'uhs' from the dictation," because he hadn't typed his book--he'd dictated it.  Now, I can't speak expertly to what transcription services run these days (it's about $70/hour, apparently), but for 89K words, by all transcription standards, (1 page = 350 words, no rush--she had the manuscript for more than 6 months), he should have paid about $1500.00, +/-.  Not an additional $1300 more.  I presume, then, that this extra money was for the alleged "help" in laying out the print book.  There certainly does not seem to be $1300 worth of editing, when I read it; tenses swap in sentences, and there are many choppy sentences where a simple comma would have smoothed out the flow of a sentence--that type of thing.  So:  where's the (editing) beef?

She then referred him to a colleague (they are Tony Robbins and Mark Victor Hanson grads/acolytes, etc.), who then charged him $2,500 for the print layout and ebooks and another $500 for the cover.  For the record, this book is laid out identically to a fiction title, with some images of music figures interspersed, on their own pages--nothing fancy.  Now, I don't think that there's anything particularly wrong with the final print layout itself, other than the "crime" of using 1.5-line spacing, to make it look like 407 pages, which of course will significantly increase--probably double--his printing costs per POD book.  If you don't care about how much money your client will lose by being cavalier with adding printing costs, hey, it's just laid out fine. 

Then the icing on the cake:  the ebooks.  This person--the layout person--who used InDesign, which could have been used to produce an ePUB that at least would have been somewhat usable, with some rework, chose not to do that.  Instead, he took that PDF that had been produced for print, and fed it to Calibre, a free program available on the Internet.  (The same program used by Smashwords, and called "the meatgrinder.")  Calibre did what it always does with PDF's used to make ebooks; it made every single line in the print book its own paragraph; it messed up the line spacing between those "paragraphs," and of course, there's broken lines in the middle of the lines on the page/screen, where the end of each "paragraph" is coded.  The first ePUB given to the client?  This guy didn't even know enough to remove the running headers and page numbers.  The "revised" one?  He still didn't even know to fix all the broken paragraphs--or even that he should--so left them. 

The worst crime?  He then fed this trashy, beyond-amateur ePUB to Amazon, as the final file to be published and distributed there, and hit "publish."  The book on MOBI was an utter abomination.  Replete with all the same broken paragraphs, this forced lines to run off the right-hand-margin of the page, rendering the text literally unreadable.  There was no TOC, as required by Amazon standards.  When the client called this person, and said, "well, wait, I've had ebooks before, and they never looked like this," he was dismissed with "We're EXPERTS," and his concerns blown off.

My heart breaks for this client.  We're fixing his eBooks, (for about $100.00, mind you...no extra zeroes at the end, there, mostly because I just FEEL for him), and I've provided him with screenshots and other evidence for him to use to try to get that money back--at least half of it.  If he'd gone to Createspace for editing, layout, distribution, cover design and even a Kindle book, once the manuscript was transcribed, he could have had the entire enchilada for about $2300.00.  (Including his extra images).  Actual editing, layout, cover art, distribution, printing, and a Kindle book (okay--not as great as ours, but, still), for $1750, plus my guesstimate of about $600 in additional images.  So even if the transcription had indeed cost $1500, his total "done and dusted price" would have been $1500 + $2300 for Createspace = $3800Not $5,850.00, and he wouldn't have received shoddily done and utterly unacceptable ebooks. 

Oh, and WAIT--I forgot the best part.  Not only that, these people are his "publishers" and receive almost all the monies from all sales, paying him a tiny "royalty" on each sale of his print and ebooks.  After all this--after taking ALL this money from him--now they're dipping their hands in his pockets for his SALES revenues, as well.

These two have a nice racket.  They travel around the west coast, lecturing on how to maximize your potential (Dare To Be Great!), and one of their pitches is this "self-publishing dream" deal.  He refers clients who need editing to her; she refers clients who need production and publishing to him.  If you review their websites carefully, you can see that most of the testimonials are canned letters from public figures, and the "books" that they've done are each OTHER'S.

PLEASE:  if you go seeking people to "one stop shop" your work; if you struggle with the idea of being your own publisher, and are looking for someone to "do it all for you"--well, they're out there.  That's what my former and back-again client got:  someone to "do it all" for him.  But this man was, flatly, ripped-off.  He received work for twice what he should have paid for it, even IF it had been done correctly, and it wasn't.  It took these two nearly a YEAR to produce what he did get, and now he's had to come to me to fix the digital books--and I haven't even told him what the print book is going to cost him to produce, printing-wise.  Their websites look nice and respectable...except that they have very, very few produced books on display.  If you look closely, you can see, as I said above, that most of the "work" on display is work that they've purportedly done for each other.

If you seek a company like this, ASK FOR REFERENCES.  Demand to see a list of their work.  Go to their "authors" page, and their "produced books" page.  Don't just take their word for it--go to Amazon and download the free samples, and SEE with your own eyes what you'd be getting.  Don't forget Preditors and Editors; Absolute Write, etc.  Ask around in the Writer's forums.  Don't fall prey like my former client did. 

--Here endeth the sermon--.  I'm sorry I've been long today.  If it saves ONE person from making the same mistake--then all this typing has been worth it. 

Until next time,



  1. Hitch, thanks for the warnings. I've been lucky in that I usually know someone I can ask before I leap, and don't mind looking ignorant—especially if I am. For others, this might be difficult, so posts packed with good anecdotal information are critical.

  2. A must read for anyone considering self-publishing. I would generally advise people to stay away from one-stop shops. You'll get better quality for each service if you seek an individual with a specialty—who doesn't have to price gouge to keep the boss or the business happy. It make take a little more time to find those individual experts, but it's worth it. And once you find them, they'll often get the work done faster and include you in the process.

    And anyone reading this: Hitch is the best formatter in the business. You don't even have to look around.

  3. That poor man. I suppose he could try to get out of his contract, but at his age, they could just string him along with promises to correct things and hope they outlast and outlive him.

    A friend of mine said recently that there are more people out there making money off of writers than there are writers making money. We all need to be vigilant about hiring people to help us get our work published.

    I'd love to talk more, but I've got some writing to do. LOL

  4. LOL, Gayle--you go, girl! Keep pounding that keyboard. LJ, thanks for your kind words, but you have Amazon formatting your work now, since you're big time! Peg: I think knowing what you don't know is one of the most valuable things in life. I always look for it in people I hire; people that are willing to say "I don't know." It's worth its weight in gold.

    Yes, I was so angry when that "ePUB" came in that I actually had to leave for the day. I was crushed for that poor man, who is the nicest guy on earth. I wish I could rip their webpages off the Net and stomp them into smithereens. :-o


  5. Omigod! That poor man! And other naive writers like him, who are desperate to get their books in print and end up trusting the wrong people! "Publishers" like this are nothing less than scam-artists, in my opinion, vultures preying on unsuspecting hopeful clients. Totally inexcusable and unethical, to boot. I agree with LJ's advice - forget the vanity publishers and one-stop shops and do your research to seek out the best, most reliable, professional, conscientious and talented editors, formatters, and cover designers. Check their references and final products. It's so well worth the time spent! As Hitch says, go to Amazon and check out the books they've "produced." Read the first 20 pages or whatever. Look for typos and odd formatting, and just careless writing, at the very least. Read the reviews. (I'd better stop ranting now!)

  6. Or just ask the folks at booknook for suggestions. I agree with LJ, Hitch is the best formatter around, don't bother to look further.

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  8. It's sad that so many are trying to make a profit by taking advantage of unsuspecting authors not yet familiar with the process, and it seems they keep popping up--often in the most unusual places.

    Another suggestion is to check with Predators and Editors (www.pred-ed.com), a website that keeps tabs on unscrupulous "publishers" and the like.


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