Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware
Publishizer bills itself as "the world's first crowdfunding literary agency." What does that actually mean? From the company's FAQ:
Terms make it very clear that they do not get involved in this process). Publishizer keeps a 30% commission (a good deal higher than other crowdfunding sites; Kickstarter's commission, for instance, is 5%).
All in all, Publishizer sounds less like a literary agency than a crowdfunding variation on the manuscript pitch sites of old, where writers posted proposals and book excerpts for publishers and literary agencies to sort through in search of new properties and clients. Most of these sites, which were billed as replacements of, or at least competitors with, the old-fashioned system of gatekeepers, no longer exist, for a simple reason: publishing professionals never really embraced them. (For a discussion of some of the reasons why, see my 2015 blog post.)
Publishizer's pre-order component does add a contemporary element, in that it could suggest reader interest to a prospective publisher (indeed, that's one way Publishizer promotes the site to publishers). But what kind of publishers actually look for authors on Publishizer? One of the historical problems with pitch sites has been that, even if they could recruit reputable users, they were just as likely to attract questionable and marginal ones. Do high-level, reputable publishers--the kind you might need an agent for--actually use Publishizer?
The answer, as far as I can tell: not so much.
A Look at Publishizer Book Deals
Take, for example, Publishizer's list of member publishers. They're categorized as traditional (no fees, high advances); independent (no fees and no or modest advances); hybrid (fees); and service (self-publishing or assisted self-publishing). There are some agent-only publishers in the first two categories--but also many that authors can approach on their own, no agent needed. Of more concern is the fact that both the "traditional" and "independent" categories include a number of publishers that are nothing of the sort: they either charge fees or have book purchase requirements. (Publishizer is aware of this: see below.) Perhaps the most egregious of these mis-listings: the one for Elm Hill, HarperCollins Christian Publishing's fantastically expensive assisted self-publishing division, which shows up under traditional publishers.
case studies of authors who found publishers via the site. Included are some solid independents (several of which accept submissions directly from authors), and an imprint of the Big 5. However, there's also Austin Macauley, an expensive vanity publisher that I've written about here, and Harvard Square Editions, a small press that pays royalties on net profit (at substandard percentages) and at one point was requiring authors to get their mss. "externally edited".
Next, the testimonials hosted on Publishizer's homepage. These too mention a number of genuine independent publishers--but also Koehler Books, which offers "co-publishing" contracts costing several thousand dollars (yet is listed by Publishizer as an independent publisher). The testimonial that cites HarperCollins turns out actually to mean expensive self-pub provider Elm Hill (see above).
It's much the same for the "Browse Recent Deals" animation at the top of Publishizer's homepage. Alongside reputable independents are acquisitions by fee-based companies including Morgan James Publishing (like Koehler, listed as an independent publisher despite its 2,500 book purchase requirement), Lifestyle Entrepreneurs Press, and i2i Publishing, plus at least three publishers that have managed to issue only one book to date: Sage & Feathers Press, Time Traveller Books, and Christel Foord. A book purportedly published by "Harper Voyage" [sic] turns out to be self-published (and no wonder: every single one of the companies that expressed interest in the writer's campaign are fee-chargers or self-publishing service providers).
Browsing recently completed campaigns makes it even clearer that pay-to-play publishers, marginal publishers, and assisted self-publishing services are major users of the site. Take a look at the publishers that expressed interest in this campaign, which I picked at random. Two have questionable contracts or business practices (Black Rose Writing and Anaphora Literary Press--I've gotten complaints about both). Two are vanities (Morgan James Publishing and Koehler Books). The rest are either fee-charging "hybrids" (I put that in quotes because most so-called hybrids are either vanities or jumped-up self-publishing service providers) or assisted self-publishing companies. Just one is a genuine independent (The Story Plant). (The author chose Morgan James.)
this campaign, also picked at random. There's interest from two independent publishers (Karen McDermott, about which I know nothing, but which, based on its self-description, would not seem to be appropriate for the book on offer; and SkyHorse Publishing, an established indie), plus one that has misleadingly listed itself as an independent but is actually "shared risk", a.k.a. pay-to-play (ShieldCrest Publishing). Also one questionable publisher (Anaphora again); four fee-chargers (i2i Publishing, Isabella Media Inc., WiDo Publishing, and Prodigy Gold Books, about which I've received reports of unprofessionalism); and five assisted self-publishing services. (The author chose to self-publish.)
I didn't cherry-pick those two examples, by the way. I looked at at least twenty recent campaigns, and all showed a similar pattern.
Most revealing is the list of 268 books that have been published as a result of campaigns on Publishizer. As a Publishizer representative pointed out to me, many of these campaigns are from the company's early years, when it was strictly a crowdfunding platform. But of the approximately 195 that have been published since Publishizer's publisher-matching component was launched in 2016 (and yes, I looked at every single one):
- At least 16 books have been acquired by vanity publishers, including Morgan James, Austin Macauley, and Koehler Books. (Koehler has snapped up so many authors via Publishizer that it has a special page for them on its website. It even offers "a discount".)
- More than 130 additional authors have chosen either to self-publish, or to pay for publication through so-called hybrids or assisted self-publishing services.
- Of the remaining 45 or so books, most have found homes with smaller presses to which the authors could have submitted on their own--not all of them desirable, as noted above.
- Only a handful--fewer than 10--have signed up with bigger houses.
As of this writing, Publishizer makes this promise on its homepage:
I asked whether Publishizer is aware that its lists of traditional and independent publishers include a number of fee-chargers. The representative indicated that Publishizer does know this. "It is no secret that some traditional publishers also offer hybrid deals or even accept payment to publish a book - it just isn't publicised. We have had hybrid publishers sign traditional deals with some of our authors."
Leaving aside other issues--including the false (but unfortunately quite common) idea that traditional publishers often engage in secret vanity deals, and the fact that publishers that rely on author fees rarely provide high-quality editing, marketing, or distribution--this obviously doesn't square with how Publishizer defines traditional and independent publishers: both, it says, "do not charge costs". When I pointed this out, the representative asked for more information. I've provided her with a list of the companies that I know offer fee-based contracts.
Finally, I asked why Publishizer believes writers benefit from having their books pitched to hybrid publishers and self-publishing service providers, which not only require payment but don't typically work with middlemen. "While we do our best to educate [authors] on the differences between self-publishing, hybrid and traditional publishing, we do not choose for them," the representative responded. "Not every book can get a traditional deal, but a lot of books have been realized through Publishizer because we present a range of publishing options that are available, and authors can choose what's best for them...as we are very invested in our authors' success, many have satisfying experiences with us."
All of which is no doubt true, but doesn't really address the question of why it's worth handing over 30% of your crowdfunding earnings for pitches that include companies that are likely to take even more of your money, and that you could just as easily approach on your own.
All in all, the information above suggests that if you post a proposal on Publishizer, the majority of offers you'll receive will likely not be the kind of offers you may have been hoping for, especially given how Publishizer presents itself.
So what does Publishizer actually do for authors? Certainly it helps to generate pre-orders, and some authors have been able to raise substantial sums of money. But Publishizer's poorly-vetted group of publishing partners, top-heavy with fee-chargers, is no boon to authors--and even if the questionables were purged and the misleading listings corrected, you don't necessarily need a middleman to promote your book to independent publishers. You especially don't need an intermediary to pitch your work to fee-charging hybrids or self-publishing platforms or other types of "non-traditional publishers".
As a crowdfunding platform, Publishizer may be worth considering, despite its sizeable commission. As a "literary agency," though, it suffers from the same flaw that doomed the manuscript pitch sites of the past: top-flight publishers are scarce, while marginals and predators roam free. The company representative with whom I corresponded assured me that Publishizer is working to expand and improve its pool of traditional publishers. However, authors who are considering Publishizer for more than raising money should carefully consider how what the site currently appears able to deliver--as opposed to what it claims to deliver--dovetails with their own publishing goals.
Despite labeling itself a literary agency, both on its website and in search results, and touting coaching during book campaigns by "our agents", Publishizer includes this disclaimer in its FAQ:
So...not an agency then. Got it.
I'm also curious about the claim that "many agents" use Publishizer. I'd be interested to hear from agents or authors who can confirm this.