Up Front Money

Not long ago, (but before the lockdown) I was invited to speak at a library down in Mason, just west of San Antonio. That little south Texas town was where Fred Gipson lived, one of my favorite authors who wrote Old Yeller and Savage Sam.

They put me up in a quaint old hotel down there in the hill country, overlooking the town square that wasn’t much more than an intersection of two lane roads. It was one of those little perks I enjoy as an author. I spoke that night and signed my latest novel, then retired to the balcony and sipped a gin and tonic under the stars, thinking about an elderly woman who came to me after the talk, asking if I could help her with a problem.

I’d signed my last book and was getting ready to leave when she took a chair beside me. “You’re a famous author.” She spoke with a German accent, which isn’t unusual in that part of the Lone Star State. The German-Texan culture began here in 1831, five years before the Alamo fell, and significantly increased after the close of the Civil War. It’s estimated that over 40,000 emigrants moved to Texas by the close of the nineteenth century.

“No ma’am. I’m far from famous, just a pretty good writer who entertains people.”

“Well, you surely have an agent.”

“I do. She’s my second agent. I fired the first.”

“Oh, you’ve already fired one.” She pressed her pearls and looked around at her husband who stood slightly behind her as silent as a bodyguard. “Why, I can’t get anyone to even look at my work, and I already have a book out.”

“Well, congratulations. That’s an accomplishment. What’s it about?”

“My time in Germany during the war. I was sent to the camps and am the only survivor in our family.”

My throat caught and I studied the tall, slender woman with unruly white hair. Her wrinkled husband with equally white hair nodded, as if to confirm her statement.

“I’m sure it’s a powerful novel. Is it written as fiction, or non-fiction?”

“Oh, it’s nonfiction. It’s the story of my survival. It’s done well here in town. I think I’ve sold almost a hundred and fifty copies.” She nodded to punctuate the statement, pleased with her success.

“So you got it published without an agent.”

“Yes. It’s self-published, and that’s my problem. I need an agent to tell me what to do with all these books.”

I didn’t know where was she was going, but I had an idea. “Well, you’re kinda doing this backwards. You might have a hard time finding someone to represent works that are already out there.”

“Can you help me then?”

“I might offer some advice, but I’m far from an expert in this field.”

“I just need someone to tell me what to do with all these books that keep arriving.”

Alarm bells went off. “I’m not sure what you’re asking.”

“Books arrive each month and I have to pay for them. My garage is almost full.”

“Did you sign a contract saying you’re required to buy a certain amount each month?” I couldn’t believe anyone would agree to such a deal, and hoped I misunderstood what she was telling me.

“Yes. They keep coming in, and I’m running out of money.”

She explained it was a company that charged her to print the books, then required her to buy a specific number each month. Living on a limited income, she spent a fortune on the first run and after exhausting her list of friends and family, she tried to sell them from her trunk.

Bookstores in that part of Texas are about as rare as hen’s teeth, but she managed to get a few on the shelves of an antique store, and a couple of small independent bookstores within a fifty mile radius. However, she had more than she would, or could, ever sell.

There was no way to break the news to her in a gentle way. “Ma’am, I’m afraid you’ve been taken. I don’t know what you can do.”

Her face fell. She knew it, but had to hear those words from someone else. “You have no such contract?”

“No ma’am. I’m traditionally published.”

“You don’t use your own money to print the books?”

“No, it doesn’t work that way with a traditional publishing house. People pay me, not the other way around.”

“They won’t let me out of this contract. I’ve asked several times.”

“You might find a literary attorney to break the contract.”

“That will cost money.”

“Yes it will, but it’s the only solution I know.”

I suggested a Texas Writers Association that might be of some help, and gave her the names of two agents down here who were also authors. She thanked me, rose with an effort, and took her husband’s arm. He supported her as they made their slow way to the door and I had to swallow a lump before I could gather my things and leave.

That’s why I was drinking gin alone on the hotel balcony.

I have no experience with self-publishing, but can only offer this suggestion to those who are considering this non-traditional way of getting into print. Writers need someone to review legal documents with an eye toward minimizing their financial risks. Get yourself a good literary attorney to review any contract before signing your name. It might be expensive at the outset, but a bad publishing deal can hound you for years and ultimately impact your career as an author.

And because I’ve never self-published (though I have friends who are successful at it), I’d like to hear from those of you who took this route. You comments might help someone else. Please, and thank you.

I’m still haunted by that poor survivor who was taken by an unscrupulous publisher.

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About Reavis Wortham

Two time Spur Award winning author Reavis Z. Wortham pens the Texas Red River historical mystery series, and the high-octane Sonny Hawke contemporary western thrillers. His new Tucker Snow series begins in 2022. The Red River books are set in rural Northeast Texas in the 1960s. Kirkus Reviews listed his first novel in a Starred Review, The Rock Hole, as one of the “Top 12 Mysteries of 2011.” His Sonny Hawke series from Kensington Publishing features Texas Ranger Sonny Hawke and debuted in 2018 with Hawke’s Prey. Hawke’s War, the second in this series won the Spur Award from the Western Writers Association of America as the Best Mass Market Paperback of 2019. He also garnered a second Spur for Hawke’s Target in 2020. A frequent speaker at literary events across the country. Reavis also teaches seminars on mystery and thriller writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to writing conventions, to the Pat Conroy Literary Center in Beaufort, SC. He frequently speaks to smaller groups, encouraging future authors, and offers dozens of tips for them to avoid the writing pitfalls and hazards he has survived. His most popular talk is entitled, My Road to Publication, and Other Great Disasters. He has been a newspaper columnist and magazine writer since 1988, penning over 2,000 columns and articles, and has been the Humor Editor for Texas Fish and Game Magazine for the past 25 years. He and his wife, Shana, live in Northeast Texas. All his works are available at your favorite online bookstore or outlet, in all formats. Check out his website at www.reaviszwortham.com. “Burrows, Wortham’s outstanding sequel to The Rock Hole combines the gonzo sensibility of Joe R. Lansdale and the elegiac mood of To Kill a Mockingbird to strike just the right balance between childhood innocence and adult horror.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review) “The cinematic characters have substance and a pulse. They walk off the page and talk Texas.” —The Dallas Morning News On his most recent Red River novel, Laying Bones: “Captivating. Wortham adroitly balances richly nuanced human drama with two-fisted action, and displays a knack for the striking phrase (‘R.B. was the best drunk driver in the county, and I don’t believe he run off in here on his own’). This entry is sure to win the author new fans.” —Publishers Weekly “Well-drawn characters and clever blending of light and dark kept this reader thinking of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.” —Mystery Scene Magazine

20 thoughts on “Up Front Money

  1. Rev, what a cautionary tale that is. We do, however, need to make the distinction between today’s self publishing and the old vanity press model. The latter ‘s what happened to that poor woman. She got taken by an outfit that knows how to reel in the fish, and has an iron-clad contract to wrap them in.

    A true indie is someone who does not pay to be published. They have no contracts to sign. They pay to have their work checked and designed and (in some cases) a small percentage to have an aggregator distribute the work.

    In the “old days” self publishing meant a vanity press that made its money on cheap hardcover print runs the author had to pay a mint for and could never hope to place in bookstores. Thus, the infamous “garage full of books.”

    Today, vanity publishing has changed with the times, and there are scads of companies charging huge sums to prep and publish your book, with the promise that it will “be available on all platforms worldwide!” They’ll take your money up front, and a chunk of whatever you sell, too.

    Successful indies do all that for themselves, and reap the 60-70% royalties

  2. Rev, this makes me sick but unfortunately is not uncommon.

    Victoria Strauss, Writer Beware, is a watchdog who alerts writers to such predatory schemes. https://victoriastrauss.com/writer-beware/

    The Authors Guild provides legal review of contracts to members (although it doesn’t sound as if this poor woman meets the eligibility requirements). https://www.authorsguild.org/join/eligibility-criteria/

    If there is a Legal Aid-type organization that offers services to seniors, she could consult them.

    Or she could simply stop paying the slimy publisher. What are they gonna do? Sue her? What judge and jury would find for the publisher after they bilked a Holocaust survivor?

  3. Back in the day (pre-Amazon), a member of my local RWA chapter had said she was having her book published by one of these presses, and after we warned her away, she swore she had “researched them and they were reputable.”
    I don’t know what came of her venture, but I imagine it wasn’t good.
    Money flows FROM the publisher, not TO it.

    • Some of these “publishers” create phony review sites that recommend them, complete with “satisfied customer” letters. There are also a variety of semi-legit companies that charge less and/or have a second tier that screens books first and charges them on a more reasonable scale. These are for people who do not want to do their own marketing. Results may vary. Buyer beware.

  4. Ditto what Jim said.

    And in the off chance that someone is reading today who is unfamiliar with indie publishing (or self publishing), I would recommend two books:
    How to Make a Living as a Writer, by James Scott Bell
    and Successful Self-Publishing, by Joanna Penn.

    Thanks for the reminder, Rev, that there are those out there who need to be warned.

  5. Heart-breaking story, Rev. I’m very sorry she was taken advantage of by that vanity press. Years ago at the library a twenty something woman came up to me at the reference desk and wanted to know why we didn’t have her two books that had been published. I looked them up online and discovered they’d been printed by a notorious vanity price infamous in the science fiction and fantasy author community at the time. She’d also purchased quite a number of them through the press.

    I’m self-published, as Jim noted, and that’s a quite different thing then paying money to a vanity press. I don’t pay to get published–I do pay for covers and editing, and what advertising I might choose to utilize. I format my own eBooks using Vellum, but there are those who will do it for an author on a contract basis. My books are available via Print on Demand. I pay nothing up front, only a portion of the book sale to cover the printing and distribution costs.

    The vast majority of my income is via eBook sales, but I do have books in print in libraries, and have sold a few online here and there. Again, no print runs. And no returns for physical books. I collect 70% in proceeds for each sale for ebooks priced at $2.99 and up. Print is less, it depends on the price I’ve set above the print cost.

    The Alliance of Independent Authors would be a good organization to refer folks like her.

    Hope that lady got some help and was able to get her books actually self-published. Have a great weekend!

  6. “I just need someone to tell me what to do with all these books that keep arriving.”

    As soon as you read that your heart sinks because you know she’s been scammed. Thankfully, while these predators still exist, indie/self publishing has managed to recover from the stigma associated with this predatorial type of business. It seems I heard these predator stories much more often several years ago–not as much now.

    I’m sorry to hear she got taken. I hope she was able to finally get out of that contract.

  7. Yikes, Rev. That poor woman. I understand how she’s haunted you.

    I had a similar interaction with a children’s book author who asked, “How do you afford to print so many different titles?”
    Befuddled, I said, “Huh?”
    “I have only one book out in print. The publisher’s pushing to me to write a sequel, but I can’t afford it.”
    After asking her a flurry of questions, I realized she paid a vanity press, who along with charging enormous printing fees also forced her to buy bookmarks, cards, flyers, posters, etc.
    I told her the same thing you did. “The publisher should pay you, not the other way around.”
    Well, my advice fell on deaf ears, because I ran into her about a year later and she had stayed with the vanity press. What a shame.

  8. Another scam are these “services” that offer to do all the submissions work for authors. They take the author’s money, then send the same spammy email out to all the agents and/or editors on their list. These emails either go directly to the spam bucket or are put their by their recipients, without reading them. I’m not sure they’re as plentiful now as they once were – I haven’t seen the ads, but in these days of “targetted” ads, I probably wouldn’t get them as I report them all as scams.

    Anyway, at my first meeting with a face-to-face critique group, I was horrified to see a young writer who had “applied” to one of these services, and was so excited that it looked like she was going to be accepted “and they only accept authors with promise”. The others in the group were encouraging her. I took her aside afterwards and tried to be gentle as I explained it to her. Her face fell, she sighed and said she knew it was too good to be true. I felt so bad for her… though I’m sure I would have felt worse in Rev’s place.

    Another friend of mine was published by a certain SF publisher. It was a traditional publisher, one you didn’t pay to publish and whose books were in bookstores everywhere, but they insisted their authors pay for “publicity packages” that included blog tours and book signings. The authors didn’t *have* to buy these packages, but they were spammed with phone calls and emails and such with these wonderful “offers” that the authors would have to be silly not to take. My friend has moved on to another genre now, but I still feel bad for him.

    I heartily endorse Writer Beware, whom Debbie mentioned. There used to be a wonderful resource called Preditors and Editors, but I think they’ve shut down. As a note: Writer Beware can always use donations towards legal bills they sustain both fighting for writers and being sued by the bad guys.

  9. A sickening story and all too common. But underlying this is the policy of publishers not to consider books that have already been self-published. This policy may partly be due to the fact that vanity books have been, as a rule, drivel, but it still persists today in regard to indie works. In my opinion this is a tacit admission on the part of publishers that their ability to market books is no better than the average indie.

    • You can move to traditional publishing from self-publishing, but they like massive bestsellers. Hugh Howey’s WOOL series took that route. Surprisingly, really successful self-pubs have been courted by traditional publishing, but once they read the contract and see how little money they will make and how much control the publisher has they say thanks but no thanks. Their need to be published traditionally isn’t worth this crap.

  10. Most state bar associations offer references to pro bono literary and creative attorneys who will help in situations like this. If you have this woman’s contact info, you may want to call the bar association and see if you can connect an attorney with her. She sounds like the type who would have difficulty setting this up. Your state’s Attorney General might also help. AGs hate scammers, and he/she may contact the AG in the state where these scum are set up to help put them out of business.

    On to a funnier but annoying subject about so many books. One of my dearest friends in writing for almost 20 years was Ronda Thompson. We only talked online but she was awesome, brave, and had one of the biggest hearts I’ve ever known. When fast moving cancer killed her, it about killed me, too. My only presence on the NYT’s bestseller list was one of her books with its dedication to me.

    Anyway, Rev, you would totally know her type. She was born and bred in Texas, wore big puffy hair, was a former rodeo queen and barrel racer, and she had the dry sarcastic wit of that TV diner waitress who has seen everything and done everything and takes no crap from anyone. Anyway, she was a very success historical and contemporary romance writer and could write anything from a good ol’ girl Harlequin romance to witty Regencies to really, really funny paranormal novels.

    Most of her career was spent with Leisure, the scummiest pile of poop in romance publishing. They paid their authors almost nothing and used the same tactics as an abusive spouse. You are worthless, no one really likes your books, no other publisher would want you, etc., etc. Sadly, many of the authors believed this crap, took the abuse, and never went anywhere else. Such soul-sucking abuse. Ronda escaped, though, in the last years of her life and wrote for St. Martins Press.

    A bunch of authors won some kind of lawsuit with Leisure where their contract terms had been ignored so Leisure in its evil wisdom paid these authors in their own books. Ronda woke up one day to a trailer load of books that ended up filing her two-car garage. She was still finding ways to get rid of them when she died. Scum behavior, not just for scammers.

  11. I was stunned by this story.

    I realize that there are thieves and scammers out there but here, it seems, writers-especially the novices like me who’ve got a few miles on them-are putting themselves out there exposed like the lady who bore witness to her time in the camps.

    Taking advantage of a Holocaust survivor is the worst sort of criminal behavior.

    I hope some kind person in the area will help this woman set up a blog page or website and sell them herself.

  12. This reply is to all of you who responded to today’s post. We’re out of town and my phone has been acting up. It’s almost five years old and the built-in self destruct mode might be in operation. Thanks to everyone who wrote and I think your responses might help those who might be considering the old school vanity press option. Even today, it’s buyers beware, though self publishing is a viable option for many. Now, on through Virginia tomorrow from Texas to spend a week with my dear friends, the Gilstrap’s. It’s worth the technological hiccups to see them.

  13. I am outraged. Surely there must be some legal recourse for this woman. Rev, I hope you can contact her and put her in touch with the Texas AG.

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