Writers, beware of book mills!
Things are going along fairly smoothly in life when suddenly a mistake you thought you’d corrected years ago rears its ugly head. No, I don’t mean my ex (ugly as he is!) showed up on my doorstep. That I could easily handle by kicking his butt to the curb. This mistake has to do with one of lowest of pond-scum-feeding con artists who exist in the publishing world—the book mill.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the term, here’s a quick definition. A book mill simply churns out book after book after book with little or no editing or consideration of the material. Any and all topics and genres and writing abilities are fair game because no one at the book mill actually reads the manuscripts submitted. All the book mill wants is for wannabe authors to buy tons of copies of their own books so the book mill can make a tidy profit with little effort. They may promise “promotion opportunities for only $99!” but the author receives little or no sales boost from handing over money to the book mill, and, of course, it’s a non-refundable fee. In fact, the book mill routinely bombards its authors with meaningless communications promising to put their titles in front of famous talk show hosts and radio stars, along with entering the books into prestigious book expos—all for a fee, of course. It’s not hard to see that a running book mill is a great way to scam a lot of money off of anxious writers who have no knowledge of how the publishing world works.
I didn’t realize at the time (well over a decade ago) that I was dealing with a book mill, but it gradually became obvious. I had sold the electronic rights to my novel to an ebook-only press, but I had been asked to sign print books at a book-signing. This is way before the Kindle debuted, so not many people were interested in having an e-book author at a book-signing event. Where would I get print copies to sign? An online acquaintance recommended this book mill, and from his comments I thought they sounded legitimate. The book mill agreed to the print rights only to my novel since I informed them I had sold the e-rights earlier. Win-win, right?
The book mill did a quick spell check for “editing” and then told me my novel was now available for purchase. I bought some copies for the signing, but I was very disappointed when they arrived in the mail. The print books were extremely expensive for the quality of the product. A stock image photo slapped onto a rather sorry solid color with the book’s title printed above in a standard font was the “cover art.” (Even I could have done that well over a decade ago!) But at least I had a book in hand to sign at the event. I was hopeful it would eventually sell well in both print and electronic formats.
Flash forward a few years: With practically zero print sales (none I couldn’t account for personally), I requested my book’s print rights back from the book mill and asked them to pull my title from their web site. Years passed and I never heard a peep from this company. I heard nothing about them on the grapevine either. I figured the book mill must have gone out of business. I felt very relieved to have escaped their clutches.
My novel’s e-rights eventually expired with its first electronic publisher. I revised and re-sold the novel to a publisher of both print and ebooks with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working with for some time now. With fresh edits and a snazzy new cover, I was happy that my “baby” had found a good home. Everything seemed to have come together for this well-reviewed book with its mixed-up publishing past.
Flash forward to a few weeks ago: An email arrives in my inbox from an unknown company saying they’re publishing my novel and that I can pay them money to promote it. What the…? Who are they and why did they pirate my book? I immediately contacted my publisher and then wrote back to this unknown company asking them to take my book down from their site. Immediately the abuse began. I eventually learned that this new company was in fact the same old book mill I had dealt with more than a decade ago operating under a new name. They claimed I had “infringed upon my copyright.”
Say what? Along with other legal-sounding mumbo-jumbo the email stated they’d “return my copyright” for a mere $99. Imagine that! Thing is, if I didn’t pay them right away they claimed they’d take me to court and sue me for the "infringing on the copyright" to my own work. Wow! (I dug out the old contract. There’s not a word about having to pay them any fees whatsoever in their contract or that they would file for a copyright on the work.)
Weirder yet, I had filed for the copyright for my novel with the US Copyright Office many years ago. It’s my book and I registered the copyright, so what nonsense is this? My current publisher said to stop communicating with this company directly, as they’re obviously trying to frighten me into paying them money to shut up. She wisely asked for the book mill’s legal counsel contact information so the two “publishers” could discuss the matter. The book mill seemed to ignore this request.
Weeks later, another email arrives in my inbox stating that I need to buy my copyright back from the book mill since my book hasn’t sold any copies in over a year. Well, of course it hasn’t sold any copies! I told the company many years ago to take it down from their site, and I’d requested my print rights back. Since the “new company” is actually the “old book mill” surely they have this information at hand and could see it was all a mistake, right? I was advised by my publisher to send them a short and simple email to the book mill reminding them to contact my novel’s current publisher as requested earlier, just in case the first email had been missed.
Then all hell broke loose.
The most unprofessional and nasty emails followed. There’s simply no other way to describe the horrid tone of these communications. Personal attacks? Plenty! I must be an axe murderer in my sleep. What an odd sideline for a romance author!
The book mill also sent these insulting emails to my publisher as well, since I had provided contact information. We can only assume they did this for maximum fright tactic/belittling effect. Apart from calling my current publisher every name in the book (how professional!) they continue to insist I’ll be in a world of financial hurt if I don’t pay them. I’m beginning to wonder if they haven’t taken lessons from either Tony Soprano or the Godfather. Needless to say, my current publisher and the company lawyer will be conversing directly with the book mill from now on.
You know what? Even if I win the lottery tomorrow, there’s no way I’ll ever pay these people. Who gives in to a bully? Why would anyone pay a bully for the rights to his/her own work? With further research, we’ve discovered that this book mill has been sued before for employing similar tactics with their authors.
A Better Business Bureau web site says the book mill in question publicly stated that their contracts don’t last more than ten years. My original contract would have ended a few years back then. This might explain why I’d never heard from the old book mill with the new name until recently.
It doesn’t appear they were bought out or sold. It’s simply the same book mill operating under a new name. Why on earth should a business change their name in midstream unless they’ve got something to hide? This is an ongoing nightmare, so I’ll fill you in on any news as it comes available.
The moral of the story is this: Writers beware of book mills! They are not your friends, especially if they constantly request money for so-called services. And never ever forget the old adage: “The money flows from the publisher to the author—not the other way around.” A legitimate publisher takes you on as an author because they truly believe in your book (like my novel's current publisher). You deserve nothing less!
Editor’s note: My husband and I will be leading a panel called “What makes a good publisher?” at ConClave 38, October 10-12, in Dearborn, Michigan. Hope to see you there!