Authors 'falling into traps' with online publishers

By Melissa Nightingale

Sean Colenso (pictured) has not seen his books available to buy anywhere except online. Photo/supplied
Sean Colenso (pictured) has not seen his books available to buy anywhere except online. Photo/supplied

Author Sean Colenso's decision to use an online company to self-publish his first book "turned a dream into a nightmare" and left him $11,000 out of pocket.

Now he is using his experience to warn other new authors to be careful choosing a self-publishing business.

Colenso put together a photo book of pictures he had taken around his home town of Twizel, and found US-based company Xlibris to help him self-publish it.

After forking out $8000 for publishing and a further $3000 for marketing, Colenso was repeatedly asked for more money for marketing purposes, despite him saying he had sunk all his money into the project already. To date, he is not aware of any marketing having been done for his book, The Heart of the Mackenzie Country.

Colenso used US-based company Xlibris to self-publish his book. Photo/supplied
Colenso used US-based company Xlibris to self-publish his book. Photo/supplied

While Xlibris was putting it together, there were a number of issues with chapters being put in the wrong place and spelling errors not being fixed.

After Colenso had signed off on the book, he was told any errors found would cost $460 and $4 per error to change.

While he was told the book would be sold online, from retail stores, and sent to libraries and book fairs, Colenso has only seen it available online.

It is currently listed on Amazon for $77.66.

He has since terminated his agreement with Xlibris and asked for the $3000 he paid in marketing costs to be returned to him, but has not had any luck and cannot get in touch with the head of marketing he was dealing with.

While Colenso is aware 50-60 of the books have been bought by friends online, he has not received any royalties yet.

According to his contract, he is entitled to 10 per cent of the suggested retail price if the book is sold in print format from Amazon.

He was expecting payment by August. His contract states he will not be paid royalties until they exceed $100.

He has not been given information on how many sales there have been or when the sales were made.

Colenso hoped to have his book published by a different company, but discovered they all wanted money up front, and he had already given all his savings to Xlibris.

He had hoped to go around the country and make photo books for different areas of New Zealand.

"It's just left me absolutely screwed," he said.

"I'm at a loss as to what to do. It turned a dream into a nightmare."

Sophia Egan-Reid, of NZ-based self-publishing company Mary Egan Publishing, said she had heard "one too many horror stories" about authors' problems with publishing companies, and Colenso's was one of the worst.

"I'm very surprised his book is listed at $77, that is very, very high for a book like his," she said.

"That immediately shows Xlibris don't know the market.

"The book should be priced at $45 max, but no NZ bookshops would take it anyway in its present state. It doesn't look like a designer has worked on it."

Egan-Reid also said self-published authors would normally received royalties around 30 per cent.

"It is self-publishing after all, the company shouldn't even be paying royalties if Sean was paying for the services," she said.

The New Zealand Society of Authors say they are finding out about "increasing" numbers of authors "falling into the trap of paying large sums of money to get their book published, only to find their expectations are not being met".

Sean Colenso put together a photo book of areas around his home town of Twizel. Photo/Sean Colenso
Sean Colenso put together a photo book of areas around his home town of Twizel. Photo/Sean Colenso

"The NZSA wants to increase awareness of the issues at stake before writers enter into an agreement that could see them handing over thousands of dollars to a publisher they found on the internet," a spokesperson said.

How to recognise a publishing scam is one subject that will be covered during the National Writers Forum which will be held in Auckland this weekend.

"There are honest, reputable self-publishing services that can help a writer who wants to self-publish but who doesn't feel confident about doing it alone," NZSA president Kyle Mewburn said.

"Unfortunately there are some rogue offshore organisations charging large fees to do very little. They misrepresent their services in order to profit from writers."

A writer should be wary if the publisher tells them their book has been selected but that they will need to contribute or cover the cost of the publishing because they are untested, he said.

The publisher might also ask for a fee to read, edit or publicise the book and the writer may be obliged to buy a fixed number of copies. The contracts often take rights the publishers do not need and offer a low royalty rate.

The NZSA gives contract advice to its members but they are hoping to reach a wider audience at the National Writers Forum, an event specifically for writers to learn more about the art, issues and business of writing and publishing.

"The writers being scammed are generally new to writing and don't know where to find sound advice. This conference is suitable for anyone writing a book, whether their first or their fiftieth," said NZSA chief executive and National Writers Forum director Jackie Dennis.

She said writers needed to research companies before entering into agreements with them.

"We used to get maybe one call a month, now we're getting them a couple of times a week."

Xlibris has been contacted for comment.

- NZ Herald

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