I love to write.
The act of bringing to life a story and characters glimpsed only in my imagination is something hard to describe. Every story starts with an idea. Sometimes it’s vague and obscure, other times it’s distinct and highly detailed. Regardless, if you’re doing your job as a writer, that idea eventually gives birth to surprisingly complex characters, places and events. By time you’ve spent months banging out the details and additional weeks editing them into a usable form, they become every bit as familiar and real as your own family and friends; the world they inhabit as rich and alive as any place you’ve ever visited. Sometimes even more so.
Freaky, but true.
I finished my first novel in 1995 – all 245,000 words of it. I later broke that monstrosity into two volumes. Unfortunately, it wasn’t salable at the time, so I wrote a stand-alone prequel, which I finished in 2005. That book is titled “Rise of the Dragons”, and up until a few days ago, it was slated to go to print later this month. More on that in a minute.
As many of you know, I spent the intervening years since 2005 attempting to publish my work, first seeking out interested agents and then contacting a few willing publishers directly. But the cold, hard fact of the publishing world is that there’s just way too many manuscripts and too few publishers (or readers, for that matter).
Given the massive volume of material available from all the writing hopefuls of the world, publishers and agents alike can choose at will from what they regard as the best of the best…while forgetting the rest, you might say. And of those lucky few who are able to publish, untold numbers remain unable to make a full-time living from their writing even after publishing multiple novels.
Because publishing success is so unlikely and monetary reward so slim, I’ve never had a driving “need” to be published. If it happened, that would be wonderful, but for me the more significant aspect would be the validation – a professional in the industry declaring my work worthy of an audience.
So I’ve bided my time, edited, re-edited, and re-re-edited. I’ve also studied the market and best practices for writing and submissions. And while the major publishers only accept agented manuscripts, more and more small publishers are opening their doors to direct submissions from new authors, which brings me to my encounter – and contract signing – with Pegasus Books (detailed in prior blog posts).
Hold that thought…
I’m going to pause in this story just long enough to clue in the newbies and the uninitiated to a few key points concerning the publishing world. There are basically three broad ways to publish:
- Traditional Publishing – A publisher secures the rights to publish your work for a set period of time, invests in editing, packaging and marketing of your manuscript, and then pays you a royalty on sales. Unfortunately, in today’s market, an author will still be responsible for the lion’s share of marketing.
- Self Publishing – The opposite of traditional publishing. A writer packages and directly markets their own work, footing the bill for every aspect of the publishing process and providing for their own editing, cover creation, ISBN, distribution, formatting, etc. While there are many methods and avenues, this is a massive uphill battle that statistically yields little (if any) sales for the vast majority of writers pursuing this path. Hundreds of thousands of titles are published this way every year, often purely as ebooks.
- Vanity/Subsidy Presses – These are companies that will do the heavy lifting of publishing for a writer, but they typically charge hefty fees to do it. And while they often provide (or at least promise) marketing assistance, in reality such services are highly suspect because such companies make their money (or at the very least cover their costs) from selling services and books to authors, not necessarily by making book sales to the public (such sales are gravy, you might say).
Okay, now that you’ve got the gist of publishing 101, back to my story…
Because there’s so much volume and so many people desperate to see their name in print, business is booming for any publisher throwing up a sign. Unfortunately, along with the many reputable small presses, there are quite a few charlatans and predators. I’ve run up against many of these over the years and rejected their overtures outright.
Some vanity presses provide a legitimate service, but many others masquerade as a legitimate traditional publisher. It’s only later, after all the paperwork has been signed, that the various fees and author requirements suddenly emerge. If you’ve already guessed that all of this perfectly describes my experience with Pegasus Books, then you guessed correctly. Read on…
The Pegasus Process
Before signing on the dotted line, I read everything I could on the company, examined every page of their website, read their blog, asked a lot of questions. Everything looked solid. They seemed genuinely interested in publishing my work and their contract had none of the red flags I’ve long since learned to look for. The only fly in the ointment was an article they sent sometime prior that encouraged authors to buy copies of their books, with a variety of reasons why this was both a good and beneficial thing to do.
Once we got into the actual process of editing, however, little things began to creep up…
First, their editing was rather haphazard. While my editor, Christopher Moebs, did a decent job of improving the work and explaining why he made the edits he made while allowing me to approve even the tiniest change, his work was often fraught with typos and mistakes, which required me to edit his editing. Fortunately, he was always forthcoming, gracious, and easy to work with.
Next, while they didn’t directly charge for editing (I later learned that they normally do), they recommended a third-party final galley polishing by a company they work with (Rumpelstiltskin Editorial Services) that costs $75. While I was put off by this – an author should never be charged for editing by a legitimate traditional publisher – it seemed a reasonable enough fee (which, to their credit, they later waved) and having a third party give the manuscript a final read seemed prudent.
Next, it turns out that my editor was also the company graphic designer. While that’s not terribly strange for a very small press, what was a huge red flag was the fact that he operates his own graphic design firm (Mebzart Illustration & Graphic Design) and through this third party they charge authors for the cover design – again, something that would never be done by a traditional publisher.
My cost: $150 (supposedly Pegasus pays $100 toward the cost and the author pays the difference after choosing from a variety of options).
Such ploys as third-party businesses within the publishing house – often operated by employees/owners of the firm – are the hallmark of vanity presses and incredibly unethical for the industry. The only reason I still considered moving forward was the fact that the graphic work was actually pretty good and the fee reasonable in the bigger picture. Plus, I had already signed the contract – in for a penny, in for a pound!
Next, I spoke with some other writers in their stable in the hopes that we could all cross-promote our work. Unfortunately, each of the writers I spoke with (chosen entirely at random) had horror stories of their own.
The first thing each of them asked me was whether I had already signed a contract as they were hoping to warn me away. Once they learned I had already signed, they then reported at length regarding a multitude of issues they had experienced. Two of them were already consulting lawyers. Their complaints included:
- Coercion to buy copies of their books
- Broken promises to market their work
- Inaccurate and inconsistent royalty reporting
- Innumerable missed appointments and phone calls
- Belligerence, denials and generally unprofessional conduct
Not a pretty picture.
I also learned that, despite Pegasus passing itself off as a medium-sized publishing house, the company was entirely run by Christopher and a gentleman by the name of Marcus McGee, who is listed as the Editor-In-Chief, but who also handles the marketing. I spoke with him once by telephone and he was both hurried and rather unprofessional. He sounded more like a cliche used car salesman than an industry professional.
Even after all the above, I was still willing to move forward with the company. I figured I had come this far and they (i.e. Christopher) had been largely agreeable and professional in our dealings during the editing and design phase of preparing my book. However, I was becoming more and more disgusted with their ethics and practices. And the more I voiced my concern, the more defensive they became.
Next, they burdened my book with an overtly high retail price – $17.95 for a 262 page trade paperback. This was yet another red flag since it’s so widely advertised within the industry that vanity presses tend to inflate the price of their books because they earn their up-front money from sales to authors, not sales to the public. It’s also a fact that book sellers recognize this and tend to ignore such publishers.
After researching the market, I determined that a competitively priced fantasy novel would run no more than about $14.95. When I submitted my findings to Pegasus, they complained bitterly that I was inhibiting their ability to earn a profitable return, but finally offered a slightly lowered price of $16.95. They fired back that if this wasn’t acceptable, they would cancel the contract. Naively, I pushed on.
The last straw occurred just a few days ago. Christopher emailed invoices for book purchases in which the company made no bones about the fact that at least 75 books needed to be purchased (at a 35% discount) for the book to go to print. And the more books purchased, the more they promised to do in the way of marketing. Other paperwork describing the marketing they provide is highly conflicting and contradictory. This is, again, the textbook m.o. of a vanity press – a label they vehemently deny, if you can believe it.
When I said how distasteful this policy was – and reiterated that such practices were the mark of a vanity press – Christopher denied the allegation, said that I was antagonistic and uncooperative, and that Marcus had decided to cancel my contract. He did note that if I really wanted to continue, he’d try to change Marcus’s mind. Instead, I finally agreed that it was better that we part ways.
So that’s that.
It’s back to the drawing board for publishing my book, but I feel lucky for the experience. My book is improved, I have an attractive cover design that I own, I’ve learned a lot, and I come away wiser with my integrity intact and free ownership of my work without being saddled with a parasitic vanity press that may or may not live up to any of its promises. Were I to have continued forward, they would have owned the exclusive right to publish “Rise of the Dragons” for seven years. No thank you!
If you’re a new writer reading this story, I hope you come away better prepared to engage with legitimate publishers. If you would like further details on the industry and its many pitfalls, read this excellent article on the subject. And so that you’re not simply taking my word for it, here is a negative listing of Pegasus Books in an online directory. While there are three different companies going by the name “Pegasus Books”, the listing I’m referring to in the link above is the one that references their “.net” Internet address and refers to them directly as a “vanity press”.
And here’s another article with tips for avoiding publishing scams: http://critters.org/c/pubtips.ht?t1
Note: If you are a writer who feels you’ve suffered damages from either Pegasus Books or a similar predatory publisher, you can contact the following law firm to discuss your case:
Foehl & Eyre PC
Attn: Stacey Main
27 E. Front St.
Media, PA 19063
(610) 566-5926 ext. 117
Because I am receiving so many emails and comments from other writers who feel they have been defrauded, I wanted to include this valuable article. Please read this so that you can begin to understand your rights and options if you feel your publisher (traditional, vanity, subsidy, etc.) has not lived up to their legal obligations: http://www.sfwa.org/other-resources/for-authors/writer-beware/legal/