February 14, 2019

Publishizer: Do Authors Really Need a Crowdfunding Literary Agency?


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:
Publishizer is a crowdfunding platform that matches authors with publishers. Authors write proposals, readers pre-order copies, and publishers express interest to contact authors. Publishizer queries publishers based on pre-orders milestones at the end of the campaign. The author receives a range of offers, and selects the best one.
As near as I can figure (Publishizer's FAQ and Terms of Use are annoyingly non-specific about the details of the process), here's how it works. Authors post their proposals on the Publishizer website, offering perks and incentives, Kickstarter-style, to encourage readers to pre-order. If the campaign reaches 250 pre-orders, Publishizer pitches the proposal to its independent publisher partners. A 500 pre-order benchmark garners a pitch to traditional publishers (which Publishizer defines as high advance-paying publishers that don't charge fees). Below 250 pre-orders, the pitch is to "hybrid" and "service" publishers (i.e., companies that do charge fees).

Campaigns are active for 30 days. Once they end, Publishizer releases pre-order income to the authors (authors keep the money they raise, regardless of how many pre-orders they generate). Authors are then responsible for fulfilling the pre-orders or persuading their chosen publisher to do so--or for refunding backers if the author chooses not to publish (Publishizer's 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.

Next, Publishizer's 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.)

Or 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.
"Many Have Satisfying Experiences"

As of this writing, Publishizer makes this promise on its homepage:
Clearly, that claim is not accurate--at least as to the "traditional" part. When I contacted Publishizer to ask about it, a company representative told me that 9 out of 10 Publishizer clients land "a" book deal, but acknowledged that the current wording of the claim is misleading and promised to flag it for the team's attention.

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.

Conclusions

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.

Postscript

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.

17 comments:

  1. You are envious again Victoria. Your bitterness is overflowing. Mind your own cat business. Just Meow!

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  2. I need some tartar sauce, something smells rather fishy here.

    They need over 500 preorders to get access to a publisher that won't charge them fees? Ah, so it's a vanity press operation!

    If a writer can get 500 preorders they don't 'need' any help, slap a cover on it and drop it on Amazon for $2.99 as an ebook and the 500 will pay them an easy thousand - and they still have all of their rights to their books.

    That was in reading just the first few lines - a hull breach below the water line - the rest of it was simply watching the boat sink lower and lower in the water ...

    I see poor 'Anonymous' up there doesn't like you pointing out just how bad a deal this will be to most writers. ;-)

    Keep going. If you save just one poor writer from this joke then it's all worthwhile.

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  3. Victoria, get yourself grounded with your pathetic hallucinations. You can never stop authors to publish and market their books. You will forever be...a trying hard underdog. If I were you, I'd change the covers of my tacky books. Get a life!

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  4. The two "anonymous" criticisms have nothing to do with the content of the post, but only are personal attacks. Let's ignore the grammar errors. The article mentions the data. If there is one thing that Victoria's post is not, it is some silly "argument from authority" from an "expert" who probably charges big bucks for seminars and podcasts and online courses, or owns Publishizer.

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  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  6. Hi Victoria,

    Excellent article! Thank you for covering Publishizer in your blog. It is a great way to keep us accountable, and to show us our shortcomings. We are not perfect, but we are continuously working on being better. As I mentioned to you before, we are in the midst of revamping our site to improve our service to authors, and will investigate the list of questionable service publishers you provided to us. Thank you for also highlighting our painfully outdated FAQ. We are most definitely an agency with agents working closely with our authors to help them with their proposals, campaigns and contracts.

    Additionally, I'd like to point out that the quality of our publishing deals are improving. Our most recent agented deal was for Neil Schaffer’s “The Business of Influence.” Neil not only ran a successful preorder campaign, he also signed a traditional advance-paying deal with HarperCollins Leadership.

    Finally, I'd like to address Allen F's comments. Firstly, tartare sauce is an excellent condiment for fish and chips, but 500 preorders is a conservative ballpark figure that publishers themselves gave us. Many authors cannot get 500 preorders, and some not even 100. We help our authors design their proposals to pitch to publishers, and a really great campaign to garner preorders, more than they ever believed they could sell. Those that don't need us, don't use us - there are plenty of other crowdfunding sites we simply do not compete with. We help authors who want to help themselves.

    I hope you will visit our site again after our overhaul, and I thank you for looking out for authors. Have a lovely day!


    Yours, Tian

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  7. Hi, Tian,

    Thanks for your comment, and for dialoguing with me last week. I will certainly keep an eye out for your overhaul, and update this post with any new developments. Please feel free to contact me anytime with questions about publishers' reputations--I'll be glad to share with you any information that's in Writer Beware's files.

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  8. Paula Powell2/19/2019 2:41 PM

    Victoria is a sour, old woman of envy. I can help fix your hair. I can help fix your wrinkles. But I can't help fix your bitterness in life. :) ;) :)

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  9. Sorry, 'Paula Powell', but pointing out facts isn't a sign of bitterness, envy or being sour. Perhaps those are your feelings that you're trying to project onto her?

    Is it because she's getting too close to the truth and you can't dispute her facts? Perhaps the first step in correcting this is admitting that what is being done isn't for the good of the writer but to make money off of them. Most writers can't afford wasting their money on a vanity press. (And before you protest too hard, the definition of vanity press is if 'any' money leaves the writer's hand to the publisher then it's vanity press - doubly so if you're just the middleman getting their cut.)

    Rather than call names, please point out where Victoria was in error - though I have a feeling you and the anonymous' don't have a leg to stand on.

    @ Tian

    If the writer is already well known - or has enough readers - to gather 500 preorders I wondered why they'd need to go through your little company. (I'd also love a list of which publishers you point writers at, both over - and under - that 500 mark.)

    As you've told Victoria you're changing your tunes, we'll wait and see if your company becomes more or less writer friendly (as things stand you'll understand that I think you're on the 'less' side.)

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  10. @Victoria - We have already changed the listing on some of the mislisted publishers, and will continue to improve the criteria for publishers. I appreciate the thorough investigations you have done, and commend you for your hard work!

    @Allen F - Yes I do understand your view. It's a complex process, so it's quite hard to fully understand unless you've been through the process. We have authors who already have an existing platform use our site precisely because we give them access to a range of publishers. But we also help many unknowns who lack author platforms by providing resources and coaching them through the processes of writing a proposal and running a campaign.

    The list of publishers we have is on our website, and they are categorized as Service, Hybrid, Independent or Traditional. Proposals are pitched to them based on the criteria set for each category, but our agents also do contact publishers they think are a good fit, even if a campaign does not hit the 500 mark.

    We've always been on the side of our authors, but it takes time to find out what they need and how we can try to meet those needs. Currently, the team is also working on a categorization matrix that will more clearly define publishers, and the publishing deals they offer. Hopefully it will make things clearer for everyone! :)

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  11. @ Tian

    "Currently, the team is also working on a categorization matrix that will more clearly define publishers, and the publishing deals they offer."

    Pointing out the vanity press / Author Solution knockoffs you're suggesting to the writers would be very helpful.

    We'll see how you do.

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  12. @Allen F Thanks for your suggestion! Authors are informed on the sort of deals they receive, and we do clearly differentiate between those that require an investment and those that do not. We have service publishers on as we have some authors who choose to self-publish no matter the outcome, but we will definitely remove the ones that are scams!

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  13. @Allen F I wonder if your mama really loves you. If you are literally broken and ' broke' and living in your realm that you don't need to pay anything for your book to be published and marketed, this is 2019! You are not the only author in the world. I am confident that you are not a traditionally acquired author because you smell like your sauce. You breathe sourness in life and questions in your head that are unanswerable. Your paranoia is obvious.

    @Victoria, Keep up with your life bugging authors and publishers. You've been doing this forever and Author Solutions is still rocking! How does it feel? How about these stories of success? Legally Blonde, Still Alice, The Elfhunter Trilogy, The Long March to Freedom, Losing the Light, etc: https://www.authorsolutions.com/Our-Authors/Being-Discovered/Acquisitions/
    I don't see any point why you keep doing what you've been doing. I know you have no time to take care of yourself. Your skin sucks. Your hair is messy and ugly. Your wrinkles are like the lines of the dilapidated wall. I suggest you spend your time better-- do some gardening, wash your face off with hot water and have a designer re-work your books. It's a shame you've been knocking your head on the publishing walls yet you can't even manage your own books

    @Tian Ignore this page. This is the loneliest and most bitter site on the planet. I actually have more than 500 pre-orders already and will be selecting the best offer from the publishers. @Allen F, learn from the happy authors, not from the loser like Victoria.

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  14. Hey "Paula". Was it an accident that you linked your fake name to one of the Philippines-based publishing and marketing scams that I've been warning about lately? Inquiring minds want to know.

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  15. Paula, congratulations on your preorders, I wish you every success! But u also think Victoria is very thorough and professional. She clearly has authors interests at heart and I think that’s commendable. :)

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  16. Actually Paula, me mum loves me lots - and she's happy I'm taking care of her.

    And no, I never said it costs nothing to publish, just that there's no reason to pay con-artists and/or vanity presses for the privilege. And 'cost' is a funny thing, it can mean spending money or it can mean spending your own time. Take covers for example, you can pay an artist or spend a little time learning how to make one yourself (we keep hearing that a picture is worth a thousand words so it's the same idea.)

    For those (like me!) that can't draw there's plenty of other ways to make art. One of the 'free to try/play with' ones is DAZ 3D Studio https://www.daz3d.com/daz_studio

    Editing can be harder to get done right, but that's a problem a writer faces no matter the route as the wrong editor can make a real mess out of what could have been a good book.

    @ Victoria - I doubt Paula is anything at all, a real author would/should be able to point out our errors, not just toss insults. Personal guess is they are one of those 'get rich quick while doing little/no work' types that don't like how fast people see right through them (and hate it when those people then warn their marks!) ;-)

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  17. Thank you, Tian and Allen.

    I doubt that "Paula" is really a Publishizer author. I'm guessing that "she" is one of the publishers I say uncomplimentary things about in my post.

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