Like all artists, writers want to be loved. We want to be praised and complimented because we toil away in solitude for so long, dreaming of the day we can present our work to the world. Sure, we put on a show of modesty, often hiding behind our characters and worlds like stage moms living vicariously through our creations, but we want that validation just the same. We need to know that all that time and effort hasn’t been for nothing and that we can live up to hopes of all those who wished us success throughout our lives. We’re hungry for others to recognize our talent and offer us success.
I’m no different.
I came of age in the pre-digital age of publishing, when authors needed an agent to open doors for them and “self-publishing” meant shelling out big bucks to the scam artists who ran vanity presses so you could buy terrible-looking copies of your own book to give out to friends and family. I took writing courses, I joined writing groups, and I listened when all the guest speakers told us the same thing: “Never pay to get published.” In short, I considered myself an above-average amateur, in as much as I had never been professionally published, but I had learned the ropes and was just waiting for that lucky break.
My first experience came after I gave up on trying to land an agent after several years of trying. Instead, I began sending queries directly to publishers big and small, despite knowing that most were destined for the slush pile. However, I got lucky and got a positive response from a small company called Tekno Books. I was ecstatic! It wasn’t much of an advance, of course, but it was real money from a real company and it was what I’d been waiting most of my life for. After going through editing and being ready to see my precious book in all its hardcover glory, I received an email stating that Tekno was discontinuing the Five Star line under which my novel was scheduled to be published. I got to keep my advance (lucky, since I’d already spent it) and the rights to Ancient Blood reverted back to me, but I wasn’t going to be published after all.
Saddened, but renewed by my near-miss with success, I re-queried my top pick agents with the news that my novel had been proven good enough to sell and was ready to go. Still no interest. I began to fear that Ancient Blood would meet the fate of many author’s first works and gather dust while I moved on. I did move on, of course, and kept working on a new novel that built on everything I’d learned while writing Ancient Blood. However, I had a bad falling out with the friend I was living with, and wound up homeless and unemployed for a while. I lost a lot of my stuff and had to leave most of my friends behind to move back home with my mom, who wasn’t exactly thrilled to have me dependant on her again.
So, there I was: depressed (without meds), lonely, broke, unemployed, and discouraged. I decided I had nothing to loose now, and having heard of the boom in digital publishing, I self-published Ancient Blood on Amazon. I figured I could at least have the satisfaction of seeing it in print and, who knows, maybe people would actually buy it. Nobody really did, not even my family and friends, but my meager promotional efforts on Facebook caught the attention of someone I’m going to call T.
T messaged me on Facebook to tell me how much she loved Ancient Blood and how cool the premise was, which was music to my ears. It turned out that T had recently taken over a small indie publisher and was looking for good material to help build the company. She wanted to publish Ancient Blood! I would have to pay the costs for an editor and cover design up front, which did set off red flags, but T was offering so much for the price: professional editing and layout, a book trailer, a blog tour, promotional materials, and swag. Most importantly, however, she offered a non-stop flow of praise for my work and my talent as an author. I was invited to her company’s Facebook group, where all the other authors were so friendly that I ignored my misgivings and signed on—not because I thought I was going to make a fortune, but because T and her “family” atmosphere very quickly made me feel like I belonged to a close-knit group of friends. There were endless chats about various topics, loads of encouragement for everyone, and lots of fun events. We were always hosting Facebook release parties for one of our authors or talking in private about our lives. T was able to make me feel as though I was an intimate friend within a week or two of knowing her. She seemed so open and I responded in kind, pouring out all of my fears and hopes and problems; she was always sympathetic.
So, Ancient Blood was released officially under its new banner. To be fair, I got the edit, a less-than-professional cover design, and the book trailers (cut together by T herself using copyrighted images from the internet, but I was told not to worry because T put a disclaimer on the trailer). The blog tour turned out to be a few interviews with other authors of the company who had blogs. Still, I kept an open mind, thinking that I was supporting a fledgling company that would eventually build up.
Jump forward a month and, amid a lot of awkward references to comments and conversations that I hadn’t been privy to, T sent out a general letter to everyone telling us that the company was folding. She was heartbroken, but there were just too many debts left by the previous owners for her to cover. All contracts were null and void. I had yet to receive a single royalty check or statement and had just given T $70 for an order of author copies for promotional purposes. I talked to T, of course, and she promised that everything would be taken care of and I was understanding and supportive. It was tragic, of course, but no one’s fault.
Over the next couple of weeks, however, I began to hear from other authors who’d been involved in the company (most of whom are still friends of mine and terrific people, by the way). They started by hinting at irregularities, but eventually came out and told me how they were being ignored by T, how they’d never been paid or never received most of the things they’d been promised, etc. I won’t go into all of it, because the whole sad aftermath has played itself out across several blogs on the internet if you really want to look it up. Just look for any references to “Mystic Press” or Pheonix [sic] Fire. The real upshot was that, less than two months after “closing,” T started a new publishing company with some of the same people. All groups, websites, and references to the old company had disappeared. My trailers had been taken down.
T invited me to join her new company at a discounted price. I politely refused, seeing as how I still hadn’t gotten any of the money she owed me (I still haven’t). Turns out T’s company never officially existed in a legal sense and I doubt her new “company” is any different. As far as I know, no one who worked with her has ever been paid any of the money they were promised and no one was ever refunded the money they paid up front for the services they never received.
Lesson learned: Never pay to be published. No matter what their story is.
So, what now? After going through an ordeal like that, some authors would throw in the towel and go strictly self-published. A lot of the former authors from T’s company did. Me, I got messaged on Facebook soon after the closing by another small press owner, who offered to take Ancient Blood into her house. As you can well imagine, I was extremely skeptical! However, after a month of asking around and investigation online, I came to the conclusion that my second too-good-to-be-true offer was, in fact, genuine. The friends I’d made during my time with T’s company had connected me to others. For all the mistakes I’d made, word of my novel had circulated, at least enough to catch the attention of a legitimate small press that liked what it heard. Ancient Blood was published again (third time, for those keeping count) and I started over. Within several months, however, the owner became harder to contact and things kept getting delayed. The owner made various excuses about moving and such, but sure enough, I was contacted by one my friends (who I’ll call J) close to the owner and warned that things weren’t looking good.
This time, the process wasn’t quite so painful as the first. This woman wasn’t out to con anyone, but she had no real business sense and didn’t know how to run a company. This time, we were all allowed to seamlessly transfer our contracts to the company my friend J worked for and my book stayed in print with just a change of imprint label. Crisis averted, or so I thought.
After another few months, J left the company and, once again, I started to notice that statements weren’t being sent out, royalties weren’t being paid, and messages were either ignored or responded to with apologies and excuses. Lesson learned, I had already sent my next book to a reputable publisher that had a large client list. I spoke to several of them before-hand and made certain that they were indeed making money with this publisher and getting support. I checked my sources. Within a day of being accepted by them, I could already see the difference in professionalism. This was a business, a professional operation, rather than some well-meaning authors working out of their houses trying to be a publishing company. The benefit of signing with the inept small publisher was that they were equally inexperienced in creating contracts, so I was able to pull my book from them without difficulty and offer it to my new company.
I guess the real lesson here is just to be careful and know exactly who you’re dealing with. There are a lot of scammers out there that know that authors are vulnerable targets. We’re all dreamers and dreamers want to believe the kinds of lies these people craft. There are so many fake services that cater to naïve authors desperate for praise and acceptance, so just beware. If it seems too good to believe, then question it. If someone asks for money prior to delivering any kind of product or service, I’d probably go elsewhere. There are legitimate artists, agents, and small publishers out there, but you have to look closely to identify them. Equally dangerous can be the well-meaning start-up companies that this digital boom has created. Too many authors think that because they were able to self-publish their book on Createspace, that they can be a publishing house. Know who you’re dealing with before you sign anything.
So, how did I do it? How could I just jump right back in after all that grief? Well, I’m not going to pretend that it was easy, but I also can’t tell you how to do the same. All I can tell you is that, deep down after all my soul searching, it came down to the book. My characters, my stories, my world: they wouldn’t let that be the end. No more than they would let me give up all those other times. I feel that I’ve become an actual writer now, not because I’ve been published, but because I’ve come to understand that my stories own me as much as I own them. I can stumble, I can fall, but I can’t stop trying.
They just won’t let me.