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How one author got ripped off and how you can avoid it

“Renegade writer” Linda Formichelli is a book business veteran.

She has written or co-authored more than a dozen traditionally or self-published books. She knows how the business works and what it takes to get her books into the hands of the people she writes them for.

But like so many of you, Linda really and truly just wants to write.

So she decided to outsource much of the marketing for her newest book, How to Do It All: The Revolutionary Plan to Create a Full, Meaningful Life – While Only Occasionally Wanting to Poke Your Eyes Out With a SharpieShe selected the firm she hired because she felt it would be able to introduce her book to readers outside her existing network.

It didn’t work out too well, as she details in this recent blog post. In fact, hers is a tale of how one author got ripped off.

Linda overspent; her vendor undelivered (and that’s being kind).

She called me for a reality check once she realized she wasn’t getting what she paid for. She wanted someone outside the situation to tell her if she had good reason to want to see more for her money, or if she had expected too much of the service provider.

The more she told me, the more frustrated I was on her behalf. (Be sure to read her story. ) She definitely didn’t get her money’s worth. What’s more, what she’s certain she did get was almost worthless.

Then, instead of working with her to fix the situation as best he could, the business owner did some pretty unprofessional things (all documented in her article).

Answer these questions before signing a contract

I’d like to help you avoid a similar mistake by addressing what to look for and the questions to ask before spending thousands on a consultant.

This list isn’t all-encompassing and the questions aren’t foolproof, of course. But if Linda had taken some of this into account, she might have had a different outcome for her $6,500.

1. Does the firm describe the service you need on its website?

The website for Linda’s vendor emphasizes its publishing services, but there’s little information there about that, even. References to book launch services are linked to email opt-in. There’s no “services” page or anything close to that. There’s barely any information of any substance at all on the site.

These are red flags, people. Red. Flags.

In contrast, one of my favorite book publicists, Author Marketing Experts, tells you what it can do for you on its website. There’s no mystery about the services it provides.

2. Has the firm promoted books in your genre or a similar genre?

With fiction, you want someone with a track record promoting novels. That’s because publicizing fiction takes more creativity and effort than publicizing nonfiction. It requires the same skills, but with fiction, a publicist needs to know how to ferret out the news hooks and run with them.

Similarly, the Amazon optimization process is the same for nonfiction and fiction, but someone who understands what works for fiction will do a better job than someone who has only worked with nonfiction — and vice versa.

In Linda’s case, the book launches her consultant features on its website are for business books that are essentially “lead generators” that help the authors sell e-courses or coaching. The authors have massive email lists, as do their internet marketer buddies.

I suspect that the authors’ networks contributed more to their books’ success than anything else. They tend to be high-profile internet marketers who are constantly promoting each other’s books and programs. (I know this because I’m on their lists.) It would be hard for a book to fail under those circumstances.

There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s really smart. But Linda’s book doesn’t fit that model.

3. Who is on your team?

. . . and what’s their background?

Linda presumed that because the owner of the company she hired is an entrepreneur, like her, she could trust him. She’s trustworthy, after all.

Her business partner was impressed with his military background, thinking that made him honorable and trustworthy. She recognized his marketing mumbo-jumbo for what it was, though.

Me? I wasn’t impressed by any of it. What’s this guy’s book marketing experience? Where’s his longevity in the industry? How does he know how the business works? Everything about his site shouted internet marketer, not savvy, experienced, book marketer.

I want someone with directly relevant experience — and not just experience marketing their own books. I want to know what they’ve done for others, too. Linda’s consultant might have that experience — I just couldn’t find it on on the website.

In addition, is the person you’re dealing with on the proposal the person who will be doing the work?

If yes, what’s that person’s experience promoting books? If no, who will be doing it, and what’s that person’s experience? You don’t want to be sold by a pro only to be turned over to a novice or worse, an intern.

Yes, some of the work can be done by someone with less experience, but they have to be supervised by someone with a solid track record. Make sure you know who is doing what, what level of supervisions is involved, and so on.

When I was a brand publicist for a large corporation, we only hired small boutique agencies because that ensured that if the owner wasn’t doing most of the work, he or she was at least closely guiding and supervising the person who was.

4. Does the firm’s proposal for your book contain specifics?

This one is tricky. As someone who used to do this, I can tell you that publicists and others providing marketing services walk a fine line between telling prospects enough, and telling them so much that the potential client can take the proposal and execute it herself or perhaps worse, give it to a competing firm with the message: “I want you to do this, but for less money.” (Yes, that happened to me.)

You want a proposal that tells you what the agency will do for you.  Leave the how up to the staff.

The “what” should be specific enough to give you a sense of scope, offering specifics on target categories — mom bloggers for a virtual book tour, for example — and quantities — say, 25 of the most appropriate mom bloggers.

That level of specificity lets you assess whether they’re on track.

You’ll note that Linda shared some of the “specifics” from her plan in her blog post. The problem with them is that they don’t tell her enough to know if they’re going after the right audience. For example, the company said it would “Conduct promotional outreach 30 – 60 days out from launch. Arrange podcasts, blogs, and other promotional opportunities with the help of the Client.”

That bullet point in the proposal should have specified the target audience for those blogs and podcasts. As it turned out, the firm pursued business and writing outlets that wouldn’t reach the target audience for Linda’s book. Had they been that specific in the proposal, she would have been able to say, “This is wrong.”

You need that level of detail, too. The agency you’re talking to doesn’t need to give you the names of the blogs and podcasts, but it needs to provide enough information to reassure you that they know who you want to reach and how they should reach them.

5. Will they provide you with references?

In an ideal world, you’ll want a couple of references in your category or niche but when that’s not possible, you want to talk to a couple of clients who are at least nonfiction if that’s your thing and fiction if it’s not.

Here are a few questions to ask:

  • Were you satisfied with the work they did for you? Why or why not?
  • What did you like the most about working with them? And the least?
  • How responsive were they to your questions and requests?
  • Would you recommend them?
  • What advice would you give me about working with them?

In addition, does the company’s site include author testimonials?

6. Are they willing to work collaboratively with you?

I always advise authors to be collaborative with consultants and publishers when they have them.

How can you divide up the work so that you’re handling what you’re good at and they’re taking on what they do best? This is appropriate if you’ve got the time, skills, and interests, as many do. It will also save you money while freeing the agency up to focus on fewer tasks on your behalf.

This isn’t for everyone, of course. Some authors want to outsource every piece of the promotion process. That’s okay, too. But if you’d like to collaborate, you’ll want to work with someone who welcomes your participation.

7. What is your gut telling you?

I think Linda’s gut was telling her repeatedly that it was seeing a lot of red flags that she was ignoring.

There was something about this guy that she liked — he is probably charismatic, and she was understandably impressed by the fact that he works with some of the “big guys” in the internet marketing world. (Who wouldn’t be? ) But she responded to that, rather than to her gut.

Listen to yours. It will never steer you wrong.

Based on your experience, what would you add to this set of guidelines? Please comment below. 

UPDATE, JULY 7, 2016: John Doppler, the “watchdog” for the Alliance of Independent Authors, wrote a thoughtful, objective summary of this situation that examines “how transparency, accountability, and respect are critical to service providers.” I recommend reading “Opinion: The Cautionary Tale of Insurgent Publishing,” for additional insights into what to expect from anyone providing you with a book-related service.

Tip of the Month

author got ripped off 4I always share a “Tip of the Month,” a free resource or tool for authors, on the last Wednesday of the month.

If you’re self-published, you probably know that bookstores will only sell your book on consignment. Consignment means that you are paid your “commission” for books sold only after the book are purchased.

It’s important to know how this works if you plan to approach your local bookstores about carrying your book. Stephanie Chandler explains the process and offers a free downloadable bookstore consignment agreement in her article, “How Authors Can Sell to Bookstores” on the Nonfiction Authors Association blog.

Read it and take action!

Subscribe to the free Build Book Buzz newsletter and get the free special report, “Top 5 Free Book Promotion Resources,” immediately!

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  1. So helpful, Sandra. I’m posting this link on our WiDo website. Thanks so much for all the great information you continue to share here! We will continue to recommend you to our authors.

    1. Thanks so much for the support, Karen. I really appreciate it. I know that Linda wrote her article to help others — and the comments reveal that she’s been successful! — and I’d like to amplify that with my own lessons learned. I am so grateful to her for sharing her experience with us.


    2. Thanks so much for sharing this, Karen, and for the recommendation. I really appreciate all of it!


  2. Sad story. Sounds a lot like my experience with the marketing firm associated with Abbott Press. I spent about the same amount (around $6,000) and received very little by way of marketing and publicity. They did do a book-related website (since abandoned), and they set up a twitter account, but the sales from their efforts were virtually nil. Most of my sales came from individuals and groups I contacted myself. I now have a new website that was set up for less than a fourth the price of the other.
    I will never again pay anyone (or any company) to do marketing. It’s really up to the author these days to do their own marketing.

    1. JoAnne, in case it makes you feel better…I talked to one author who paid his “publisher” $6500 for a press release sent to an in-house media list (rather than a list created specifically for that book) and an audio interview the author could post on his website. This stuff makes me nuts!


  3. Sandra,

    It is very difficult to vet service providers before plunking down $$$, especially when you like the people involved and they have received glowing testimonials.

    I respect Linda Formicelli and know she’s an experienced, smart, and successful author/freelance writer. She has offered many successful programs helping aspiring authors, so it is especially heartbreaking to read that she was taken by this company. In spite of the hurt and lost $, I’m happy she chose to disclose her experiences in detail on her blog so we can all benefit.

    We all need to pay attention, do our due diligence, and heed red flags before engaging book promotion and marketing services. It’s a proven fact that no one cares about our books and success as much as we do. That’s why authors often do the best job at marketing/promoting their books. And yet, we are super busy writing, blogging, speaking, etc.

    Linda is fortunate to have you to offer her sound advice.

    I’m happy she learned some valuable lessons, and delighted that she is now working with what sounds like a great service.

    1. Thanks so much for stopping by with your wise perspective, Flora. I will admit that sometimes I might make what turns out to be the wrong choice simply because I don’t have the time/energy/stamina/patience to investigate and explore all of my options — I go with the bird in hand if you know what I mean. Maybe that was a factor here, too.

      In any case, I have always admired and respected Linda, but my admiration has increased as I’ve watch her move through this situation with such grace. She has been incredibly professional throughout, and now she’s showing great bravery by telling her story in the hopes that others will learn from it, too. It’s all pretty impressive!


  4. Sandra, thank you for your post. All of your advice is spot on, but especially reminding folks to watch for and react to the red flags.

    One point I’d like to correct: I did not say I was impressed by Tom’s military service, merely that it was the one positive I could see and I hoped that he had the same sense of duty and honor my own Marine brothers have in their civilian lives. Perhaps I wasn’t clear enough on that post, so I’ll put it this way: it was the only positive I could muster. The amount of money she was paying bothered me, the services he was to provide seemed nebulous, and I got a definite Internet huckster vibe from him, which was/is a kiss of death for me. However it was her money, her decision, and like the old saying goes, “You can lead a horse to water …” Some people on other boards have pointed out that I did little to stop her, but Linda’s an adult, she makes her own decisions, and short of stealing her checkbook, there was little else I could do except hope for the best and be a supportive friend to her. Had this been a joint project? Different story. Hell would have frozen over before I’d have agreed to spend money on “platform development” of our business. Thank you again, Sandra. 🙂

    1. Thanks so much for the clarification, Diana. That’s important information so I’m glad you shared it. I have to say, though, that I’m surprised that people have suggested that you should have stopped Linda. As you noted, she’s an adult — she doesn’t need your supervision. And, oh yeah, you’re not the boss of her as my kids would have expressed it! Yes, you’re business partners, but it’s her book — you didn’t co-author it.

      Thanks for weighing in!


  5. Thanks for your perspectives, Sandra. Linda (and you)are turning her bad experience into something good for others. I have known and respected Linda’s writing for a long time and I am glad she seems to have found a good agency to work with as she rebuilds from this.

    Your advice about red flags resonates with me at the moment, not to do with book marketing, but with an unfortunate decision I made recently about a move and a lease. A friend of mine who is helping me think through what to do next says in such situations she works on remembering to listen to her inner teacher — a bit of a different perspective on the trust your gut idea. Either way,lessons to be learned and a wise thing to do.

    1. Aw, Kerry, I’m sorry to hear you’re dealing with something so negative. As for that inner teacher or intuition, there are times when it’s hard to hear that teacher or pay attention to that intuition, unfortunately. I hope you come out of your situation stronger and smarter.


  6. Well, I got taken for $3,800. Tried to get some of the money back through Pay pal without success, and i did my homework before signing, meaning I checked Editors and Predators, complaints…the usual. I try to move on. It’s not easy. And now that it’s too late people are whispering about this person’s past. And yet there is nothing official out there to warn other Indies.

    1. I’m so sorry to hear that, Maria. You must be so frustrated. Have you warned others about the company that disappointed you?


  7. Great post, Sandra. I know Linda from message boards and know she as a real professional. It’s a great cautionary tale that bad deals aren’t necessarily easy to spot, even for pros. it should remind us all to do due diligence and more diligence.

    Kudos to Linda and the other writers who have shared here. As a writer I respect once said, “There is no one so smart or cynical that they can’t be taken by the right con on the right day.” By sharing your story, you help us all become less vulnerable.

    1. Thank you, Sarah. I love that quote you shared — it is SO true! “There but for the grace of God go I” and all that, right?

      I shared Linda’s post in a few LinkedIn groups and was surprised by one woman’s comment that Linda shouldn’t have shared her experience in a public forum. My reaction — and that of most of the other commenters in that discussion — was that if we all kept our mouths shut, others would certainly have similar bad experiences. Shouldn’t we try to save our peers from a similar experience? So I apply the Dept. of Homeland Security approach: “If you see something, say something.”


      1. Wow. Totally disagree with keeping quiet, but feel like that’s not an uncommon response. I’ve seen publishers, for example, tell unhappy authors that if they share publicly, they’ll be blackballed, never work in this business again, etc. It’s just an intimidation tactic, but it probably feels pretty scary to the target.

        I’ve also seen authors from the same publisher/agent/service provider pressure their unhappy peers to keep quiet, arguing if there’s fallout, they’ll all go down. Possibly a more realistic scenario, but still not an excuse for enabling shady business practices.

        1. I’d probably pay attention if a publisher told me I’d be blackballed because it’s probably true. Nobody wants to work with a troublemaker, even if they think the person has a case. It’s frustrating.

          Authors often feel powerless because in many cases they are. : (

          I love that Linda took back her power!


  8. Re. publisher blackballing, I’ve usually seen it threatened in the context of small presses that either a) don’t have much of a footprint in the larger publishing world, or b) already have well-publicized issues. In either of those cases, I wouldn’t worry too much about being blackballed.

    Though agree, there are always certain risks to speaking out, which makes the folks who do pretty courageous.

    1. And a thousand “you’re welcomes” back to you, Margaret. I hope it saves authors money and pain.

      Thanks for commenting.


  9. This is sickening, and it’s EXACTLY the reason I started my consulting business, Indie Navigator, to help would-be authors decide whether they want to seek a traditional publishing deal with a legitimate mainstream publisher, or take the self-publishing route, and then — most importantly — to avoid all the scammers who are all too happy to take their money in return for little or nothing of actual value. When I first self-published, it was because my back was against the wall when — two months before my book was to go to press — the publisher I had a contract with went under, and took my book rights with them. I had to fight hard to rescure my publishing rights and then to learn how to self-publish as I did it (nothing like trial by fire!). And I think I fell for nearly every scammy, fake, rip-off scheme there was out there at the time, to try to help myself do it right. In the end, I should simply have trusted my skill set and my ability to think quick and learn fast, because I did end up publishing a regional interest book that was not originally expected to sell even 5,000 copies but has now sold way past 6,500 copies. When the dust had settled, and I looked around me at the newly burgeoning eBook market, I knew there would be a lot more scammers going and a lot more naive authors falling into their traps. Thank God for people like you, Sandra!

    1. Thanks for taking the time to make such a thoughtful comment, Mary. Linda’s the hero here. It takes a lot of courage to provide this level of detail about a decision that has gone all kinds of wrong. I understand why she had faith in the vendor she selected to market her book — I suspect that many of us would have made the same decision she did — and I love that she took action when she saw that things weren’t unfolding as expected. She took the professional “high road,” but it got her nothing but an additional invoice for work that probably wasn’t done. Her blog post is essentially a public service, and I’m thrilled that so many see it that way.


  10. For probably the first 20 years of my “writing career,” my biggest mistake was trusting wishful thinking instead of (1) my gut or (2) sound business principles. I had to give up on the wishful thinking before I could ever take those quotation marks away and launch a writing career. Writing is a calling but publishing is a business. Linda obviously knows all that and still got ripped off. I get annoyed when any author gets ripped off.

    1. Michael, I’ve been guilty of wishful thinking my whole life…. Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to share your wisdom and our frustration.


  11. This story is so and shows you how people can be heart-less and non-caring. Thank you both for sharing the whole story. Since I am working on my book and will soon be looking at marketing options it’s so helpful to know what and who to lookout for. We all have to be careful of the wolf in sheep’s clothing and shiny object syndrome.

  12. I have a kids-lit book coming out fairly soon and as this is my first foray into publishing, I’m doing a lot of it myself. What many don’t realize is that you can use Squarespace or WordPress to build a professional website (spend some time learning it first and then it becomes easy-peasy), join and engage in Facebook groups to build your profile, use hashtags on Instagram to gain real followers and so on. It’s a lot of work sure, my kid sometimes complains that I look at my phone too much (I explain that mommy is actually working); but it can be done without needing to pay these “shark” companies to do it for you.

    1. Thanks, Ilham. Yes, there’s a lot you can do yourself. There’s also a lot that authors choose to do that extends far beyond what you’ve described. When they don’t have the time, knowledge, or skills to do it themselves, they outsource it. This article is designed to help them select the right vendor for tasks they aren’t in a position to do themselves. And, of course, some people have more time than money while others have more money than time.


  13. I know this is an older post but what do you do if you have a publisher that won’t do #6? “Do what I say or else, and don’t you dare do anything on your own because you will fail.” This feels like a red flag or is it to prevent the author from doing something stupid? I feel like there should be something the author can do to promote the book if they are so inclined.

    1. Sally, you’re paraphrasing, right? What’s the exact language in the contract? It will help me to see that.

      Most publishers expect authors to do the majority of the promotion.


  14. I am seeing this post for the first time. Even though it’s old, I have no choice but to comment. So, you consider AME a great marketing firm. The only thing Penny S marketed with me was herself. That “work” was an absolute slam-dunk. I was naive about book covers and had created one. Instead of telling me how bad it was before went any further, to lock me into the deal, Penny S raved about how great my self-made cover was, and how she saw a bright future for my little novel. She took about $4,000 from me, and–ready?– failed to sell one book. Not one. You won’t need long to come up with what my opinion is of her. That you admire Penny S suggests to me a cozy arrangement among marketers. Please don’t reply with “no guarantees.” I know that. But not one book? That’s a whole different take on “no guarantees,” isn’t it?

    1. Thanks for the feedback here, Barry, even though you’ve emailed me a few times about this already. Penny and I do not have any type of “cozy arrangement.” I’m disappointed that you’re challenging my integrity — and Penny’s too. It’s one thing to do this privately; it’s another to do it publicly.


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