Recently, I saw a Youtuber railing against self-publishing influencers, and during this profanity filled tirade he compared certain influencers to MLM scammers. Though I didn’t agree with this, he did make some good points about the way self-publishing seems like a scam. I have to admit, every time I log into Facebook, I am bombarded with ads for writing courses, Patreon solicitations, and even expensive writing retreats. This can be exhausting and annoying but publishing professionals have a right to make a living, that doesn’t make them scammers.

Typical ads in my Facebook newsfeed

I believe people are quick to call self-publishing a scam because it still has a stigma attached to it because back in the day, it was only done by authors who couldn’t get signed with a traditional publisher. Self-publishing services were dubbed, vanity presses a term that meant the books produced were vanity projects and nothing marketable. However, today self-publishing is a viable way to make money granted, if you stay away from unscrupulous people.

On the flip side MLM scams require people to sell products that are already in abundance like supplements, leggings, or makeup. You know, ordinary stuff you can find at any store. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with supplements or leggings, but to sell anything successfully, you’ll need to build a business and scale it. It’s hard to do that with those kinds of products.  The same can be said with self-publishing, I mean books are everywhere and you can even get them for free at the library. Nonetheless, books can be scaled because they can be turned into movies, courses, and even merchandise. Books are intellectual property and that is a business asset, leggings however, are not.        

Still, I want to answer the question today: how does self-publishing compare to a scam?  Believe it or not, there are similarities…

Similarity #1: You Have To Get Your Friends & Family Onboard

In MLM marketing schemes you are required to reach out to friends and family to sell a product. After all, “Your network is your networth” according to their mantra. However, what they fail to tell you is eventually, you run out of friends and family, so there goes your business. The same goes for self-publishing, marketing gurus will ask you to badger your friends and family to buy your book and leave reviews. However, most of them won’t and so authors have to learn to build a real business.  

Similarity #2: There Are Only A Few People At The Top

Pyramid schemes are designed for only a few to succeed, but it seems like a lot of people don’t succeed at self-publishing either. So is it a scam? The short answer is no. Self-publishing is a business and most businesses fail in the first few years. This is often due to a lack of education, mismanagement, or even bad luck. However, the same goes for traditional publishing, there are only a few authors who make six figures or more. The rest usually have to get a day job to support their writing habit. It takes tenacity and business savvy to climb your way to the top and many authors don’t have that.

Similarity #3: Authors Peddling Everything But Their Books

Publishing isn’t a 9-5 and so to keep afloat, authors diversify their income and create courses, blogs, or seminars based on their books. And guess what? There’s nothing wrong with that. On Facebook, I saw one author being attacked for advertising her marketing course. The comment section was riddled with remarks like, “She’s always selling something” and one person even called it a scam.   I completely disagree with these attitudes, as long as the person giving the course is providing a professional experience, and helping people reach their goals, it’s fine. Would you like someone with no experience to teach you about publishing? I wouldn’t. As long as their course isn’t called: How to Become a Kindle Millionaire I’m not bothered by it. And yes, there are books and courses with those titles.  

MLM scammers are the same way, if a victim isn’t doing well, they’ll offer bonus training in the form of live conferences or webinars. (None of this is free by the way.) At the conference, they’ll do a hard sell for even more worthless products and call it a business opportunity. You see, even scammers are diversifying their income!

Similarity #4: The Blame Game

One of the shadiest things about MLM scams is the lack of support when a person fails at selling a product. Sadly, in MLM scams you’ll be told to hustle harder. After all, their part is done, you bought into the scam and now they’re onto the next victim.    

I saw a lot of this as well right after the Kindle Goldrush. As the headlines in the media were declaring the Kindle store dead, gurus were spinning their wheels. Sadly, they didn’t understand that the market had corrected, and the Kindle store was far from dead. Of course, it’s always easier to make money in an emerging market but as more competition enters the space, you’re forced to compete.

Instead, the indie gurus told authors to write faster in order to produce more books. They were blaming the Amazon algorithms and declared that you had to put out more product. Suddenly, courses popped up teaching authors how to write a novel in a month, then one month turned into 7 days and finally 2 hours. No, I’m not kidding and no, this is not a good business strategy. Putting out more product that already isn’t selling won’t help generate sales. Yes, Amazon’s algorithm rewards newer titles but it rewards new titles with sales.  It was clear that none of the gurus knew how to run a business and weren’t ready for the curve. Thankfully, most of those people aren’t around anymore.

Similarity #5: Selling The Idea Of ‘Passive Income’

If you’ve been online lately, I’m sure you’ve seen a lot of talk about passive income. It seems everyone and their mother is trying to earn extra money. Much of the advice includes sensible things like buying stocks or investing in a rental property. However, it’s the advice to write an ebook to earn passive income that bothers me. Let me be the first to tell you, there is nothing passive about publishing. Once you write something, you have to figure out how to distribute it and sell it. There’s nothing passive about that!  

MLM scams are the same, they often lure people in with the idea that you can make money while in your pajamas. They sell people the dream of being their own boss but owning a business is not passive and never will be.

Similarity #6: Roping Others In

Some self-publishing gurus have gotten so desperate that they now recommend hiring a cheap ghostwriter so authors can produce more books. I call this the rope-a-dope method because only a dope would write a book cheaply and only a dopey author would hire them. Case in point, in 2019, a Brazilian lawyer turned author, was accused of plagiarism by bestseller Nora Roberts. According to Roberts, several paragraphs were sampled from her book as well as other famous works. The Brazilian author denied the claims saying she hired a ghostwriter on Fiverr to write her book. She claims it was the freelancer that sampled the paragraphs from Roberts’ book. Currently, that author is being sued by Roberts. So as you can see, you get what you pay for. By the way, professional ghostwriters typically charge thousands of dollars and they deserve it because as you know, writing a book is hard. 

Scams often work the same way, they incentivize victims with referral fees if they can bring in someone new into the scam. That’s when the victim becomes the victimizer and starts selling the scam to others. They’re not just selling crappy products anymore, they’re actively recruiting more victims (usually, friends and family) for the scammer. This will not end well for anyone but the scammer.

A Final Reassurance

Many scammers are convincing due to the fact they incorporate legitimate business tactics into their scams. They’ve studied the business world and learned the jargon. They also understand the pain points of their victims and can get inside a person’s head, so it’s easy to get conned. The funny thing about publishing is that if you talk to an author they will tell you it’s a tough business and may discourage someone from entering it.  I know I have, especially, if that person has unrealistic expectations of getting rich quick.

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