GUEST POST FROM BRIAN WHIDDON
Brian Whiddon, the new Operations Manager at WritersWeekly.com and BookLocker.com, recently went undercover to try to get some hard-to-find answers from some POD publishers. We think you’ll enjoy some chuckles while reading about his experience!
At BookLocker, we have a specific set of standards for vetting manuscripts. Unfortunately, not every manuscript we receive meets those standards. The authors of manuscripts we do not accept must then seek another publisher. WritersWeekly’s POD Secrets Revealed Series attempts to help authors avoid publishers who participate in business practices that we feel are unfair to authors. These practices include charging excessive fees, upselling authors on worthless services, requiring the author to surrender rights to their own work, holding an author’s production files hostage, and many other disturbing industry shenanigans, including burying authors in advertising emails.
As the “new guy” here at WritersWeekly back in May, I was assigned a little ‘secret shopper’ mission:
“Email this list of publishing companies, and use your pseudonym when asking them these questions…” Angela said to me.
Oh goodie!! A “Secret Squirrel” mission my very first week on the job!!
My task was to email these two questions to the publishers:
1. Do you offer a discount to authors of multiple titles?
2. Do you offer a discount on fees for their second book, or any other specials for returning authors?
The fact is, if an author has been through a publisher’s processes once, the next time should be faster and easier. And, the author should not only get a discount for this, but should also be rewarded for their loyalty to the publisher. For these reasons, BookLocker believes returning authors should get perks.
The purpose of this exercise was to determine, first, IF they would give me a straight-up answer to the questions – and second, if they would then spam me, I mean SPLAM me, and how badly. (More on that below.)
So, I emailed the following online publishers under my pseudonym, and asked the two questions. (FYI: BookLocker offers a $112 discount to authors on their second and subsequent books.)
Infinity Publishing – NO DISCOUNTS for returning authors
Lulu – NO DISCOUNTS for returning authors
CreateSpace – NO DISCOUNTS for returning authors
Llumina Publishing – NO DISCOUNTS for returning authors
BookBaby – NO DISCOUNTS for returning authors
Trafford – NO DISCOUNTS for returning authors
iUniverse – NO DISCOUNTS for returning authors
Outskirts Press – NO DISCOUNTS for returning authors
Xlibris – NO DISCOUNTS for returning authors
AuthorHouse – NO DISCOUNTS for returning authors
Dog Ear Publishing – NO DISCOUNTS for returning authors
Xulon Press – Claims to offer a discount, but never told us what it was.
I’ll report my findings on each of these in order. But first – a few clarifications:
Legal Note : Federal law describes SPAM as solicitations sent to you “unsolicited.” However , if you initiate contact with a company, federal law says they are welcome to bathe you in unwanted email, provided those emails include specific criteria. Well, I initiated contact with these publishers but I didn’t ask to be “bathed” in their marketing messages. I only asked two simple questions. We call this pathetic practice “SPLAM.”
“SPLAM” is repeated emails of an advertising nature sent by firms who want your business. Some firms force you to agree to accept their “Splam” simply by providing your email address to them through a form on their website. (i.e. By providing your email address to us, you agree to receive emails from us, etc., etc. )
Think of it as a combination of legal spam and …. BLAM!! For example – “Thank you for contacting us with a question, and….BLAM!!!! – here’s a ton of emails for you to sort through, none of which answers your question(s) but, hey, by the time we get finished Splamming you, and by the time we’ve emptied your wallet, perhaps you’ll have forgotten your original questions anyway!!”
Remember, Angela asked me to EMAIL these firms. But, some of them don’t provide an email address at all. That’s not an oversight. They want you to fill out a form on their site, probably so they can make you click that box, thus agreeing to get SPLAMMED by them.
The exercise and objective here was simple – to find out if each online publisher would answer a couple of simple questions from a potential customer directly without over-slamming that potential customer with marketing material. Angela’s standard for measure was Booklocker’s practice of 1) Answering each author’s question directly via a personal email from Angela or Richard (the owners) or by me, 2) politely offering further assistance and giving additional information, or a link to a page on their website with more information, and 3) then leaving the person completely alone unless they voluntarily reach out to BookLocker again in the future.
BookLocker does not have a marketing email list of authors, and never has. Whenever they write to an author, it’s in response to a message received from that author. And, all those emails are one-on-one. If an author doesn’t respond to BookLocker, they never hear from BookLocker again, either. Angela and Richard DETEST spam, telemarketing calls, and junk mail. And, they have far better things to do with their time (like helping their existing authors, and promoting books) than to spend it splamming potential authors.
So, with all that said, here are my findings:
Infinity Publishing (2 SPLAMS; NEVER ANSWERED MY QUESTIONS) – I got a very exciting automated email reply from Infinity Support about a minute after I sent my initial email, advising me that a Gold Support Account had been set up for me!! Imagine that! A GOLD SUPPORT Account! And I hadn’t even done anything yet. WOW!! All I had to do was click on a link they gave me in order to activate the Gold Support Account. No answer to my two very simple questions…..but MAN!!!! GOLD SUPPORT!!
Then, right on the heels of that Gold Support email, I got another one. This email was to acknowledge that we have received your request and a ticket has been created. It went on to say, A support representative will be reviewing your request and will send you a personal response. (Usually within 24 hours).
Holy Cannoli!! A GOLD SERVICE account AND a ticket – all in less than two minutes!!
What service! What efficiency! ………What B.S.
It just so happens that WritersWeekly hired me from a very large corporate entity that was heavy in the I.T. realm, and whenever we’d call in with a computer issue, the invisible IT people we never got to speak to in person (so we couldn’t strangle them) would “create a ticket.” This didn’t fix our problem. It just gave the personality-challenged IT help-desk person an easy way to tell you three weeks later that they weren’t any closer to fixing your problem…..by saying “there’s a ticket in on that.”
Note the GOLD support account. It sounds like they are offering me something really special…..to make me really want to hurry and click their link and sign up for their services before shopping around. It’s a marketing ploy. I haven’t gotten a reply from Infinity Publishing yet to answer my two very simple questions. And, I sent my email on May 4th. However, on the positive side – they didn’t over-splam me either.
Since they never answered my questions, we can only assume they don’t offer returning authors any discounts on their services.
LuLu (3 SPLAMS; NEVER ANSWERED MY QUESTIONS) – Lulu came back right away with a pretty generic auto-reply email promising an answer to my question within four business days.
Nine business days later, I received an email from a woman who I’ll call “L.” She wrote that she was happy to assist me today, and apologized for the delay. She went on to express how happy she was that I was interested in self-publishing with Lulu. She then moved on to this teaser:
“The best place to start publishing is here:
http://www……” and continued to dish out instructions on how to use the site. More on this later.
I wrote back to “L” and asked if “FREE” included formatting, ISBNs, cover design, etc. Always the lady, L’s reply was a warm-hearted “thank you” for my reply and a reassurance that “YES, indeed it is free to self-publish with Lulu”, but if I wanted help with cover design, or formatting, <silly> I would have to choose buy their “publishing services.”
Please note that BookLocker also offers a D.I.Y. service but they’re completely up-front about the cost of their services if the author can’t provide ready-to-print files. They don’t try to lure authors in with the old bait and switch promise of “free.”
I have a sales background. I recognize sales tactics when I see them. Notice when I ask a direct “YES or NO” question, I get a deflecting answer and an invitation to click a link that will give me better information (read “sell me their service”).
Let me give you an example. Let’s say I’m a car salesman. You ask me “How low can you go in price on this car?”
I reply “You know, we are running a special today only. Come sit in my office and let’s talk about your options.”
I know I can’t give you a bottom price because I still haven’t hooked you on the car yet. So, I need to get you into MY territory and surround you with MY information…then give you MY price.
Notice my two questions were never answered.
But that’s because self-publishing with Lulu is totally free – right??
Sure…if you do your own 300 dpi cover art design, acquire your own ISBN, register your own ISBN, get your own barcode, format your book yourself, convert the word processing document file into PDF with all fonts embedded for yourself, etc., etc. You also MUST purchase a copy of your own book. Lulu doesn’t mail you a free copy to check your and their work. Heck no. If you don’t want or know how to do all that…then you can click on their lovely link and choose from their “services” – which are not free. In fact, their “bundles” start at $1000. (Note: BookLocker.com, which owns WritersWeekly.com, is FAR less expensive.)
To be completely fair, I’ve heard nothing else from Lulu since my conversation with “L.” So they didn’t SPLAM me – which is more than I can say for some of the other publishers listed here. The only exception would be an unsolicited email they sent asking me to rate my experience thus far. I think that’s fair. I initiated contact with them and set their marketing machine in motion, and apparently someone at Lulu wants to know how the marketing team is doing. So, no harm there.
Lulu also never answered my questions so we can only assume they don’t offer returning authors any discounts on their services.
CreateSpace (5 SPLAMS; NEVER ANSWERED MY QUESTIONS) – Okay, I’ve read lots of complaints about CreateSpace. But I’m an honest guy – and I honestly don’t have much to tell about Createspace.
I immediately received that obligatory automated response email saying how Createspace couldn’t wait to work with me, and letting me know that they would call or email in the next few days. Six days later, I got an email stating, “We tried to reach you recently, but we missed you.” – meaning that they tried to actually call the phone number I gave them.
The rest of the email went on to tell me to connect with them at their toll-free number, and talk about my book. As you may expect by now…my questions were not answered in the email. (Remember the sales tactic?– “Come on back into MY office and let’s talk about YOUR new car!!”)
CreateSpace also gets my “Thumb up with very little SPLAM on it” nod because they did not totally unload their SPLAM-cannon at me. But, they also never answered my questions. So, we can only assume they don’t offer returning authors any discounts on their services.
Dog Ear Publishing (14 SPLAMS; NEVER ANSWERED MY QUESTIONS) – Here’s a little advice, dear readers. Don’t let your dog anywhere near Dog Ear Publishing – because it will be flattened by all the SPLAM being launched by them!
My initial email consisting of TWO SIMPLE QUESTIONS was apparently received by a woman I’ll call “M” in their marketing department. M turned the SPLAM Cannon my way and BLAM!!! – just let me have it!! I swear, I’ve bathed extensively and I still SMELL like Splam!!
The first day I sent the initial email, I got two emails back – one greeting me and promising me a response soon, and then a second asking me to
“Please use the confirmation link below to verify that you give us permission to send you email.”
Haaaa Haaaa, M. Dog Ear worded it wrong! It SHOULD have read:
“Please use the confirmation link below to give us permission to open up the SPLAM DAM and flood your email box.”
So I clicked it. (Don’t try this at home, folks. I’m a trained professional and understand the risks I’m involved in.) In two days, I received this from M:
Thank you for requesting information from Dog Ear Publishing – I hope we’ve answered your initial questions. If not, I apologize – please give me a call toll-free at 1-800….
(No, M, you actually DID NOT answer my initial questions.) Once again, I must point out the sales tactic of deflecting my direct questions and then wanting me to call them so they can pitch me and close me.
So, two days later, I got this:
“You requested information from Dog Ear Publishing a while back – and I just wanted to make sure we got that to you and that you didn’t have any additional questions.”
(I don’t have any additional questions at all, M. I still have the original TWO QUESTIONS I asked in my very first email, which you still haven’t answered.)
The NEXT DAY, I got this:
Save $500 on the hottest publishing package yet – the Critic’s Choice
(How about just answering my original two questions?)
The NEXT DAY, I got this:
OK – hopefully you’ve been patient with us over the past few days as we’ve sent various pieces of information to you.
This is the final piece.
OK – did you get that? M promised me that this was the “last piece” of SPLAM that Dog Ear was going to send me …Yayyyyyy!! Because by now it’s filling up my shoes!!
Guess what I got the NEXT DAY……
“OOPS! I screwed up… Race Into Saving up to $1000 in May”
Yep, M – you screwed up alright. First of all, you totally ignored two very simple questions asked of you by a potential customer, then you SPLAMMED them to death. I got THREE more SPLAM emails besides these.
Final Dog-Ear rating: Total thumbs down!! They not only ignored my inquiry, but they used my inquiry to overload my email box with crap I wasn’t the least bit interested in.
Like the others, we can only assume they do NOT offer discounts to returning authors. On the contrary, their prices are sky high.
Xulon Press (16 SPLAMS; CLAIMS TO OFFER DISCOUNT TO RETURNING AUTHORS, BUT NEVER SAID HOW MUCH) – Xulon Press wins my “SPLAMinator” award.
Is your email box empty?
Are you feeling lonely?
Do you feel like no one even knows you exist?
Just fill out Xulon’s request for more information…and your email box will be FULL UNTIL THE SECOND COMING OF CHRIST!!
Seriously, the very first thing I noticed on Xulon’s website is that there is absolutely nowhere for you to send in a question via email. On the home page, there is a form they want you to fill out to “receive your publishing guide, occasional email newsletters & updates from Xulon Press.” Again….double check that fine print. “…occasional email newsletters and updates.” (Translation – we’re gonna splam the Hades right out of you.)
I looked way down at the bottom of the home page and did find a “Contact Us” link that led me to their address in Maitland, FL and a phone number you can call.
Now, being a fair guy, I’ll admit that there may be plenty of people out there who appreciate a company that only wants to do business by phone and Snail Mail. Indeed, getting an answer over the phone is much more comforting and convenient than typing out an email. I would have called and tried my two questions, but I’m not good enough at making Secret Squirrel calls without laughing yet. However, what I suspect is happening here is the old tried and true method of using every phone call and question as a sales opportunity.
(Also, keep in mind that any promises made by a salesperson over the phone are impossible to prove later in the event of a disagreement. For this reason, we always recommend all correspondence with these outfits be made in writing.)
So I signed up for my publishing guide, in hopes it might come with an email address attached that I could then send my two questions to, and see how Xulon personnel would reply. Within minutes, my WELCOME TO XULON PRESS email arrived from “K.”
I said to myself “Ah-HA!! Success!! And, I gleefully sent an email containing my two questions to continue my investigative report. What I received was a bounce-back error from that insufferable MAILER DEAMON saying that my email message could not be delivered to the email they’d provided.
Then the SPLAMinator came crashing into my word like a cyborg on a murderous mission to drown me in irrelevancy. Xulon has sent me 16 SPLAM emails since my May 13th initial inquiry. And NOT ONE has answered my two simple questions.
I did get an email from them saying that they tried to call me and that the phone number I gave them wasn’t working – which is odd. It seems that I accidentally gave them a phone number that was close to mine. (Oops!) But, I called the number and it worked just fine. As it turns out, the number goes to a very popular restaurant full of scantily clad and often well-endowed women who serve chicken wings and beer all day. Oh, believe you, me…the number works!!
UPDATE – Again, to be fair in my reporting, I tried a second time sending my email and did receive a direct reply. Here it is:
Yes, we do offer a discount for multiple books. I would love the opportunity to talk with you about your books. Please letm e (sic) know what number I may reach you at, along with a day and time that will work best for you.
So, to their credit, Xulon came through with a real live human reply. However, it’s a tad vague, lacks detail, and is followed up with an attempt to get me to call so they can close me on a publishing package. I won’t call back, because I’m not interested and I’m not here to tie them up on the phone and waste their time (or mine).
Xulon did however really give me the heebie-jeebies in a couple of ways:
One, while marketing itself as a Christian company, it managed to out-SPLAM all of the others I contacted.
Two, they sent me a couple of emails encouraging me to “Celebrate Memorial Day” (?!?!) by taking advantage of their big sale. As a combat veteran and a 16-year cop who attended too many heroes’ funerals, I don’t “Celebrate” Memorial Day, and I really find the commercialization of it to be rather offensive. I would expect a “Christian Company” to have a little more respect for the meaning of that holiday.
Many Blessings, Xulon – but I’m really not impressed.
Xulon claimed to offer discounts to multiple authors, but never provided details on what those were. Xulon charges among the highest fees of the firms mentioned here so any discounts aren’t likely to be that impressive.
Bookbaby (2 SPLAMS; DOES NOT OFFER A DISCOUNT TO RETURNING AUTHORS) – I did receive a real, human answer in two days from “M” at BookBaby. M told me that they have no discounts that can be applied “at this time.” So, BookBaby gets a Thumbs-Up from me as far as giving a live and direct response. I also only received only one other email from BookBaby, asking me to rate my experience. So I also give them a Thumbs-Up for not splamming me into submission.
Conclusion: Does NOT offer returning authors any discounts.
Author House (5 SPLAMS; NEVER ANSWERED MY QUESTIONS) – I got five replies from “T,”, a “Publishing Consultant” at AuthorHouse. “T” apparently tried to call me. So, hey… Thumbs Up for the live response!
However, the response was basically this:
“Let me call you and ask you questions. Based on your answers, I’ll let you know what we can do.”
(Translation – “Come into my office so I can sell you on our services.”)
Let me make clear, I don’t consider any business’ attempts to gain a new client as unethical or somehow shady. I understand the importance of an active sales program in any business operation. However, in this day and age of emails and websites – I know, as a consumer, that when I ask a simple question, it is infuriating to have someone deliberately deflect that question and redirect me to “Call” or “Look here on our website”, or “Start an account” to find out what the possibilities are.
Based on AuthorHouse’s non-response to my direct questions, we can assume they do NOT offer returning authors any discounts.
AuthorHouse (along with Xlibris, iUniverse, Trafford, and others) is owned by Author Solutions, which has been the target of two class-action lawsuits. Their marketing tactics were mentioned in the lawsuits.
Xlibris (3 SPLAMS; NEVER ANSWERED MY QUESTIONS) – I’ve read several complaints about Xlibris. I’m sure I’ll be writing more about them in the future. But I digress…
“M” from Xlibris replied to me in what appeared to be a very pre-prepared form letter, stating that she had tried to call me and couldn’t reach me. She didn’t answer my questions. (Again, to deflect me.) And, she wanted me to call. (Again, to close me on a package.) I got three of these emails, each with a rather deceptive heading in the subject line like “Can you tell me something about your book?” or “When did you want to get published.” – when in fact it was the same form letter that simply said Hey, call us.
Based on Xlibris’ non-response to my direct questions, we can assume they do NOT offer returning authors any discounts.
Trafford (3 SPLAMS; NEVER ANSWERED MY QUESTIONS) – Finally, “S” from Trafford Publishing did pretty much the same thing as the last few.
After receiving so much similar splam from all these companies, this is how I interpreted her email: Hi. We tried to call but couldn’t get through. Thanks for your interest in publishing with us. Please call us so we can talk about all the wonderful ways we can separate you and your money. In the meantime, check out our website that will make “self publishing” sound fun and easy. By the time you realize all the work that really goes into it, you’ll gladly fork over half your IRA fund for our wonderful publishing packages……and we’ll be here for you all the way.
Like almost all of the others, Trafford didn’t answer my questions so we can only assume they don’t offer any discounts to returning authors.
Well, there you have it. This was just a peek at the marketing tactics you, an author with a manuscript and some money, can expect to face out there.
This one exercise cannot tell you all about whether any of these companies are good or bad. But, it reveals how they can twist and turn to avoid a simple question, in an attempt to get you on board.
The reality is that almost all of these “Self Publishing” companies do NOT offer the discounts I asked them about. (BookLocker DOES offer discounts to returning authors.) Most publishing services firms are focused on quantity, not quality. They want as many authors as they can reel in buying up their publishing services (ranging in cost from $999.00 to $2,845) and they really don’t appear to care if those books sell even one copy. If a book DOES sell well, great! They are getting residuals from that. But, they are always going for the new sign-ups. If they were more selective about what they published (some aren’t selective at all!), and had an author who generated good work that came BACK to them – they could afford to offer a discount to that author because they would know that they could expect to make it up on the back end in sales.
Full Disclosure: I knew Angela and Richard Hoy, the owners of WritersWeekly and BookLocker, for several months prior to their decision to offer me a position with the company. I got to watch their operations and see the business model long before we discussed me moving here from the cold, corporate, cubicle world in Tampa. Booklocker rejects many authors’ manuscripts each month because of sub-standard quality. Of course, this leaves some authors walking away mad. But, they are walking away with their wallets intact. Personally, I find that far more honorable than taking $1000 from that author, knowing that he/she is only going to sell 2 copies tops – one to themselves and one to their mother.
At the end of my Secret Squirrel investigation, it would have been refreshing to get just one email that went something like this:
Hi, I tried to call you, but got some wing place. But, that’s okay because we really don’t care if you can write or not. We just want you to buy our publishing package.
No, we aren’t going to discount you anything for two or more books, because we really don’t care if your books sell or not. That’s your problem. So, we have to get our money up front. And, once we’ve sold you the publishing package, we’re also going to sell you some “press releases” and maybe some coffee mugs with your book cover printed on them that no one will buy either – but man, they will they look great in your cupboard!
So give us a call at 1-999-PIKPOKET so we can tell you how great your book idea sounds, tell you all the possibilities out there (like your book becoming a “hit movie” – ha ha ha ha ha!!!) and a bunch of other sales jargon, and then let’s talk about how much lighter YOUR wallet could be by self publishing with us!!!
NOTE: BookLocker.com has published more than 7,000 titles since 1998. It DOES offer discounts to authors of multiple titles, and they’ll happily tell you that if you ask. If you send them a message, a real human will respond, and will answer your questions. They won’t ask you for your phone number, they’ll never call you, and they never splam. If you don’t reply back to the email that answered your question, you’ll never hear from them again. BookLocker does not have an email list of potential authors, and never has. Angela and Richard are selective about what they publish. They won’t waste their or your time sending garbage. Finally, BookLocker does NOT have a sales staff. When you contact them, you’ll hear back from one of the owners directly, or from me, Brian. At Home Office, they are calling me “Squirrel” as I am already involved in a new undercover investigation. Man, this job is FUN!
At BookLocker.com – setup fees for your first black and white interior paperback book:
Setup fees for your second and subsequent black and white interior paperback book:
Those prices include interior formatting assistance and conversion, ISBN, barcode, original cover design, basic epub/mobi (ebook) formatting/conversion/listing, distribution, listings on Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com, Chapters.ca, BooksAMillion.com, and much more.
Brian Whiddon, the Operations Manager at WritersWeekly.com and BookLocker.com, lives and works on his Hunter Legend sailboat on Tampa Bay in beautiful St. Petersburg, Florida. He is also a freelance writer and researcher, and is currently working on two new books. In his past life, he was an Army MP who patrolled Seoul, Korea, guarded nukes on a secret facility in the states, and saw combat in Somalia during Operation Restore Hope in 1993. He later continued with a civilian law enforcement career. In all, Brian served behind the badge for 16 years before starting an aircraft detailing business. This experience led him into the sales world, where he found a niche in the healthcare market prior to being discovered by BookLocker and WritersWeekly. Contact him HERE. His dream is to continue his work for BookLocker and WritersWeekly while exploring the Caribbean and South America on his sailboat full-time.