The Subsidy Author's Bill of Rights

by | Jul 27, 2011

Okay, I’m going to come right out and say it:

We need subsidy publishers.

The problem is, we don’t need many of the big subsidy publishers we already have. And I include all those subsidy presses that have sprung up in the last year like the spawn in Alien taking root inside the body of a regular publishing company.

Why? I’m sick and tired of hearing stories about authors who got hosed, taken for a ride, abused, run over and left for dead, robbed and forced into $5,000 “marketing programs” and “author education seminars” and all the other tricks these predatory companies use to trap and fleece the uninformed author.

Given that, you might ask why I think we actually need subsidy publishers. And you would be right to ask.

The reason is reality. In reality, many people who want to publish, who could actually be helped by publishing, simply don’t want to do it themselves. They don’t want to take on all the work and cost of setting up a publishing company, hiring contractors, learning about distribution and fulfillment.

They don’t actually want to be publishers at all. They just want the book in print.

And so they go looking for someone who can help them. That’s when they find the ads, which are everywhere, for these subsidy publishers.

And the ads play on people’s deepest aspirations and the very human desire for expression.

Here’s a comment that was left on my blog today:

I made a critical mistake using [big arm of mega-subsidy publisher] to assist in my self-publishing. Although the internet is full of warnings, the sales representative assured me that all those complaints were a thing of the past. Wrong. Calls go unanswered, emails are not responded to and my book, which is already on various book selling websites as available, is being held hostage with no where to turn to. Despite assurances that I was to get dozens of copies of my book, I can’t get one unless I pay retail.

I’ve got a client right now that I’m trying to extricate from a contract with one of the “boutique” subsidy operations that’s inside a very spiritual independent publisher. Thousands of dollars for books that will never sell. In fact this author is being asked to pay the subsidy publisher over $700 just to receive the InDesign files of her book. Files that she already paid thousands of dollars to have made. What do you think the $700 is for, postage?

Look, I’m not going to go into every single abuse that can be perpetrated by these companies. But please, understand one thing if nothing else:

Subsidy publishers make money from authors, not from selling books.

So What Subsidy Do We Need?

There are probably lots of small companies out there who do all the things I think a subsidy publisher should do. And their clients are lucky to find them. But let’s face it, these small companies cannot compete with the giants of subsidy publishing.

I’m going to try to find and profile some of these companies for the benefit of readers. Education is your most powerful weapon in this case.

The things that I’ll be looking for are embodied in what I call:

The Subsidy Author’s Bill of Rights

“I chose to pay you to publish my book for me. That doesn’t give you the right to take advantage of my lack of experience in book publishing. Without authors, you wouldn’t exist. As an author, as your customer, and as a human being, I deserve, and will only do business with, companies that respect the following rights:

  1. The right to be treated with respect, honesty and transparency.
  2. The right to maintain control of my publication and decisions on formatting, design and editing.
  3. The right to know, and talk to, whoever is editing or designing my book.
  4. The right to know the retail price of my book before signing a contract.
  5. The right to a fair and true wholesale price on books I buy.
  6. The right to all the native application files and other elements (exclusive of copyright-protected fonts) created to produce the book, promptly and completely at my request.
  7. The right to cancel my contract without penalty if you fail to live up to deadlines or other contractual obligations.
  8. The right to receive an honest effort to market my book without inflated costs, if I choose one of your ‘marketing packages.’
  9. The right to a complete and open accounting of the expenses and income associated with my book, including any contribution by the publisher.
  10. The right to have the rights to my work returned to me without penalty at my request.”

We all have a stake in the effort to educate prospective authors. If I’ve missed something, please leave a note in the comments and I’ll add it to this post. And if you’re thinking of subsidy publishing, please read through some of these articles first:


Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America: Vanity and Subsidy Publishers
Preditors & Editors: A guide to publishers and publishing services
Writer Beware: Two-Thumbs Down List
Absolute Write: Bewares, Recommendations & Background Checks
Pete Masterson: How the scam works Moira Allen: The Price of Vanity
Ivan Hoffman: Subsidy Publishing Agreement
Fern Reiss: 5 Things Your Subsidy Publisher Won’t Tell You

Photo by Joe Shlabotnik

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. charles d'arrigo

    hi i have 2 books 1 in italian 1 in inglishe my books are abaut my life they are autobiograpis the titol of my inglishe book is from hollywood stars to hell and back and the italian is dalle stelle di hollywood alle stale della australia ritornai i need sum profecianal pepol to help me market this books as i dont have exspirience on this the books are olredy in book form and redy to sale

  2. symptoms of uti

    “The Subsidy Author’s Bill of Rights — The Book Designer” Strange this post is totaly irrelevant to the search query I entered in google but it was listed on the first page. You lucky sucker!

  3. darnzen

    Can I use that bill of rights and incorporate it into my terms of service? WritelyDone is not really a subsidy house, but it shares a lot of common ground.

      • darnzen

        Thank you! I’ll do just that.

  4. Don Horne

    Quick question to the group. Could writer’s groups do more to help new writers? Our last group meeting here in Dallas (DAWG) was a critique night by four published authors. I saw the would be writers receive positive instruction on what to do next they could use, rather than being panhandled by a “services” company. Could more be done at this level? Thank you, Joel, for your honesty and integrity.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Don, of course writer’s groups could do a lot to help educate people about the advantages and disadvantages of various ways of getting into print. But the tide is strong the other way.

      Today in the NY Times there was a pretty good-sized article about self-publishing, and subsidy publishers were well represented, quoted, and pretty much equated with other ways of getting into print. I think I’ll send the author a link to this article. Thanks for your comment, Don.

  5. Darby

    Joel, great post and I agree with the bill of rights. For the design of my novel (shamelessly available on Kindle and on Nook, I needed assistance with the cover design and layout. I spent a lot of time researching and weeding through the subsidy publishers until I found thebookdesigners, who offer a number of services , ncluding printing. I went with Createspace for that aspect, but there are no hidden fees/gimmicks with them. You own the files. Everything is up front. Hopefully this isn’t too much of a plug but more an FYI for others in my position. They would be a good group to profile Joel.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Darby, thebookdesigners group is an outstanding source of book design and particularly cover design. Oddly enough, they are also located in lovely San Rafael, home of this blog. Good luck with your book.

  6. Thomas Burchfield

    Great post and an excellent discussion of the general direction things need to move in. I’ve managed to dodge the subsidy houses entirely and go on my own and it has many satisfactions, BUT, it has its own set of limitations, which I plan to touch on in future post on my Curious Man website ( In short, marketing and distribution remain the biggest hurdles independent authors/publishers have to climb, as far as my experience so far.

  7. Leonard D. Hilley II

    Finally, after several emails and over six weeks of waiting, Outskirts no longer has a hold on my books. I pulled them from their publication and went through Createspace. I wish I had done this over a year ago.

    My final straw with Outskirts Press was the royalty set for my third novel with them. $1.57 per book (they priced at $16.99 each). That’s half the royalty of what I made per book with my second novel. AND, both books have almost 78,000 words each.

    Here’s what I discovered by going with Createspace, which cost me no money to have my book and cover set up. And, if you follow the directions given for uploading the book and cover, it’s not that difficult at all.

    Back to lesson learned.

    While both books have approximately the same word count, there was a 70 page difference in the books. Instead of setting the line space to 1.15 for a thinner, cheaper book, they set the line space to 1.5. This is why the third book was higher in price and lower in royalty. They made more money. I made less.

    Here’s the beauty of Createspace. I now have all three novels with my own publishing imprint. And I set my books up in Kindle and Nook formats, too. I have sold more books this route with Kindle and CS in six weeks than I sold in over a year and a half with Outskirts.

    Writers beware. There are places to get your books published and NOT have to fork over tons of money. Kindle Direct doesn’t take a lot of time and costs you nothing to upload and convert a book at Amazon. Just follow the directions. FREE. Outskirts is offering to do this FREE service for their authors at $299.00. That requires a LOT of sales just to break even. I converted all three of my novels on CS in just a few hours.

    Keep your money, and keep writing!

  8. Judith

    Would like to recommend to all my latest with John Kremer and Rick Fishman, Show Me About Book Publishing … if I was to choose, would probably stir a client to CreateSpace … otherwise, if they can fund the creation of their own imprint, do it, and do it right–create the eBook at same time and then market like crazy via the Author and Book Platform.

  9. Joan Chamberlain

    Joel, I wonder if you’re familiar with Mark Levine’s book The Fine Print of Self-Publishing. I’ve self-published a book and a booklet and yes, it’s lot of work for lots of reasons but mostly because there are so many unexpected decisions to make along the way. But, Mark’s book confirmed what I had already heard from others, it’s unwise to give money and control away for an uncertain result. It was too scary for me. Thanks for your blog; I’ve learned so much from you. Joan Chamberlain

    • Joel Friedlander

      Joan, great point, thanks for that. Yes, I have a copy of the book, and I think Mark Levine did a terrific service by publishing it. On the other hand, not everyone is capable of analyzing contracts, and these companies can change packages, change offers any time they want, which makes it difficult to keep up with them. But as you point out, there is no greater protection than educating yourself.

  10. Liz Alexander

    It’s becoming even more insidious, Joel. I was recently contacted by a consultant with a manuscript who gave me the name of a respected small publishing house that was apparently “pursuing” her to publish her book with them (good!). I went to their website and found that they were now in bed with one of the more notorious subsidy publishers whom Editors and Preditors advises to avoid like the plague (bad!). She wanted me to advise her on what she should do. My response was: try CreateSpace.

    Aspiring authors are always flattered by folks who “pursue” them in this way. Same thing happened last year. One woman, excited like heck that (X — fill in the blank for one of the biggest scammers going) wanted her to publish her book with them. My advice? Let’s just say I notified her of the number of searches that came up, most of which had the word “scam” in them, when I entered this company’s name in Google. Frankly, I couldn’t understand why she hadn’t done this for herself. As I’m not sure why the person writing on your blog believed a sales rep (who is probably on commission only) over all those Internet warnings :-)

    Which brings me to one point that may not be popular but needs to be said. The folks I speak with are professionals. They’re smart and savvy enough to be running their own businesses in most cases. Why, oh why, then, do they not do their due diligence? What is it about getting a book published that has so many of these otherwise highly intelligent people throw caution to the wind and fail to check all their options? Why, in the age of the search engine — when you can find just about anything on anyone — is their first port of call not to Google, to find out exactly what the real gen is? And then believe — or at least double check — the feedback they read?

    For every person who reaches us (usually at the 11th hour) so we can stop them making a big financial mistake, there are hundreds or thousands more who just dive in to their later regret.

    We’ve all heard the phrase, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” Why, then, do so many unpublished authors, who are complete unknowns, not wonder why someone is “pursuing” them to publish their book? Is it a case of you don’t know what you don’t know — or really more a case of being so bedazzled at the thought of having your book desired by someone that you don’t bother to find out?

    I can’t tell you how many times folks have said, “I wished I’d found you earlier” when I give them my low-down (based on 25 years as both a commercially and self-published author) of their options and what to avoid like the plague. But with all that “noise” out there and, let’s face it, no end of resources to help people avoid getting ripped off (like Michael’s book he mentioned) how on earth do we get the message across?

    And the message, in addition to the rights you clearly articulate in your article, should be: “Take responsibility! When someone is asking you for a large sum of money to publish your book, go find out if this the best option. Check them out via Google; join a writers’ group on LinkedIn (there are masses of them) and ask for others’ experiences; speak to anyone you know who has been published to get their take. Don’t believe a sales rep over aggrieved clients.

    “And, finally, remember the Klondike gold rush, which the current self-publishing revolution reminds me of somewhat. For the few who made fortunes (in today’s case: Joe Konrath, Amanda Hocking, John Locke) tens of thousands more just got scammed and disappointed. Snake oil salesmen exist today…PLEASE don’t let them dupe you.”

    • Joel Friedlander

      Liz, I think you hit it with “bedazzled,” since to many, getting a book deal, even if it’s a really really bad deal, is just so intoxicating that it causes people to close their eyes to the other evidence. And that’s exactly what I was referring to about the advertising used by these firms. It’s gotten better and better at appealing to that very human desire, and the romance surrounding being an author. Thanks for your practical suggestions. What we can do is keep talking about it.

  11. Judith Briles

    The right NOT to be charged an arm and a leg for a simple change that takes less than 5 minutes.

    I’m afraid there are very little rights in this world. Presently, I’m working with an author who went with Balboa Press because of HayHouse affilitation–a nightmare from the get-go including the surprise that it’s really AuthorHouse in disguise. Total chaos; quality awful; accountability zilch. The stress level for the author in the process of terminating is off the charts. My advice … don’t go down this path–it’s the last resort.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Yes, I have an author who is leaving Balboa because she was being charged $11.50 for her own book, and the “publisher” was making $6 profit on each book sold to the author. Arrggh.

    • Jill

      Hello, Sadly I am in the same boat. I thought I was signing up to work with Hay House a reputable company and after a total disaster with my book I found out that Balboa Press is just an alias for Author Solutions which appears to be a very disreputable company. I would like to terminate with them before they publish my book. Any advice for me?

  12. Trace A DeMeyer

    Your Bill of Rights is right on, Joel. I worked with Lulu on my non-fiction in late 2009 and was not able to talk to them on the phone. Their uploader didn’t work and I ended up mailing them my book on a disk. Their designers must have been young and ruined the layout…But I could not speak with them to make changes. Then the epub I paid for took months and when I complained, they sent it but refunded me. I want to do a second edition of One Small Sacrifice and fix the layout but it will cost me big $$$ again for a design package – which I will hate anyway.
    What happened to the days of actually speaking to someone?

    • Joel Friedlander

      Trace, I’m sorry things didn’t work out for you, and stories like yours are exactly why I keep writing about this. If you look around a bit, I think you’ll find there are many more solutions available now than there were in 2009 and lots of providers who would be happy for a fair price to help you set up as a publisher yourself.

  13. Michael N. Marcus

    An excellent list, Joel.

    At every stage of involvement with a self-publishing company, it’s vital that newbies remind themselves that these companies are in business to sell services to writers, not to sell books to readers.

    If Random House sells a million copies of a book, they make money on the books. If a self-publishing company sells 14 copies, they have to make money selling press releases, copyrights, backup CDs, bookmarks and T-shirts.

    Many of the services and trinkets these companies offer are available for much lower prices — or even for free — if the author goes direct to the source.

    Companies charge $249, $199, $170 and $99 to register a book for copyright protection. An author can easily do it for $35.

    The Library of Congress charges ZERO for a Control Number and it’s easy to get one. For $99, “X” will do the five minutes’ work for you.

    You can pay a publisher as much as 53 cents each for promotional postcards, or pay a nickel each if you buy them direct from a printer.

    The New York Times said, “Xlibris charges nothing for its basic service, but because of the fees it charges writers for things like galleys and copyediting, its chief executive, John Feldcamp, says the company will be profitable even if it never sells a book.” It’s probably very profitable because his company’s publishing packages can cost as much as $12,999!

    (Commercial message) There’s much more in my Get the Most Out of a Self-Publishing Company: Make a Better Deal, Make a Better Book

    • Joel Friedlander

      Michael, these add-on services and fees are also part of what makes it so difficult to compare one company against others. One might look better intiially, but then you discover that the books are actually going to cost much, much more than you thought.

  14. chris

    New business opportunity for you, Joel?



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