What are the legal implications of publishing an unauthorized biography? That is one of the topics covered in this month's AskALLi Member Q&A with Michael La Ronn and Sacha Black.
Other questions include:
- Help! Amazon canceled my preorder!
- How do I get reviews for my books?
- Are Scrivener or Jutoh suitable apps for indie authors?
- If my poems are printed in the local paper, does that make them “previously published” for other submissions or contests?
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Find more author advice, tips, and tools at our self-publishing advice center. And, if you haven’t already, we invite you to join our organization and become a self-publishing ally. You can do that at allianceindependentauthors.org.
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About the Hosts
Michael La Ronn is ALLi’s Outreach Manager. He is the author of over 80 science fiction & fantasy books and self-help books for writers. He writes from the great plains of Iowa and has managed to write while raising a family, working a full-time job, and even attending law school classes in the evenings (now graduated!). You can find his fiction at www.michaellaronn.com and his videos and books for writers at www.authorlevelup.com.
Sacha Black is a bestselling and competition winning author, rebel podcaster, speaker and casual rule breaker. She writes fiction under a secret pen name and other books about the art of writing. When Sacha isn't writing, she runs ALLi's blog. She lives in England, with her wife and genius, giant of a son. You can find her on her website, her podcast, and on Instagram.
Read the Transcripts: Unauthorized Biographies and More
Michael La Ronn: Hello and welcome to the AskALLi Self-Publishing Advice and Inspirations podcast.
I am your host, Michael La Ronn, joined with my lovely co-host, Sacha Black. How are you, Sacha?
Sacha Black: Hello! Hello! I'm back, I missed you last month.
Michael La Ronn: Yes. Well, okay, so the question is, how was your vacation?
Sacha Black: Paris was lots of fun. Disney was definitely the best part of Paris, I think, but yeah, it was good, it was fun. We did very typically touristy things, if I'm honest.
Michael La Ronn: Yeah, well it's good to get away, especially when it's gloomy and cloudy, probably, in England. It's nicer weather in France, I imagine.
Sacha Black: Absolutely. Yeah, like a little bit, but yeah, we're trying to hold off the snow here. We had snow last week and snow on my birthday, which I was very upset about because I don't really like snow, but this week we are just about holding it off. So, I'm hoping for better weather.
Michael La Ronn: Well, we got like six inches where I live a couple of days ago.
Sacha Black: You poor thing.
Michael La Ronn: Yeah, exactly. But hey, we'll stop talking about depressing weather. Glad you're back, we got the band back together again.
So, the point of this podcast is to answer your most burning self-publishing questions. We've got a good number of questions lined up today. The first question, it's actually, there are two questions that are very similar, and we're just going to kind of lump them together.
What can you do if you’re having problems with your Amazon author account?
That question is, what to do when you have issues with Amazon?
So, the first question was around someone who had a 70+ author charity for Ukraine, and they had a lot of pre-orders going on, and lo and behold, whatever the circumstances were, their pre-order's been cancelled by Amazon, and they're in a position of trying to get Amazon to refund the pre-orders and restore their pre-order capability for their account.
The second question was around some issues that happened with Amazon thinking that this person was or was not, involved in some fraudulent activity, and having some issues just getting Amazon to even respond to their questions.
So, the general tenor of this question is, there are going to be things that happen with Amazon, what do you do when this happens, and how do you get them to communicate with you and get your account back?
Do you have any thoughts, Sacha?
Sacha Black: I mean, it depends whether or not you are locked out of your account, but if you're not locked out of your account, then the first instance is to always go through the contact help desk and to submit any evidence that you've got, any evidence of ownership over things, any sort of justifications you've got, ISBN accounts, those kinds of things, to prove your rights.
If you're in America, you are more likely to have copyright filed, and so if you have filed copyright, you can and send those things.
But other than that, I'm not entirely sure. Most of the issues that I have had, I have managed to deal with inside of the dashboard.
I think it's different if your account's been cancelled.
Michael La Ronn: Yeah, I mean, I think that the best thing that you can do is just continue to write to them and make your case, and if you're an ALLi member, we do have a service where you can certainly write us in confidence and explain your issue, via our contact form.
There's no promises, but certainly we could do our best to try to advocate for your behalf, or at least try to move the situation to a resolution. I think that's a great perk of ALLi membership, but again, you really want to rate the terms of service and just make sure that you've complied with everything that needs to be complied with, and that you continue to communicate with them and try to figure out what the root cause of the problem is. But that is certainly an option for ALLi members.
Sacha Black: Yeah, because nine times out of 10 it is something very small, the user error honestly, I've done it myself and they give very little detail. So, if you can go through a process of elimination, you can usually find the cause and if you can correct it, they will nine times out of 10 restore anything that was taken away.
What counts as ‘previously published’ when submitting to contests or magazines?
Michael La Ronn: Yep. Agree. Okay, next question is from member Sharon, and she asks, if my poems are printed in the local newspaper, does that make them previously published for other submissions or contests?
So, to give some background, if you're wanting to submit your poems or short stories off to other literary magazines, magazines often have a requirement that you cannot have a story that has been previously published, because they want the right to exclusively publish work in their magazine.
So, the question is, if it's a local newspaper that is probably not going to have a whole lot of circulation in terms of reach or people seeing it, does that count as previously published?
Sacha Black: I mean, technically, yes. As far as I'm aware, published is published, which is why you always have to be careful with giving away the first rights, the first print rights.
There's a certain terminology, I can't remember quite, it's first something or other.
Michael La Ronn: It's your serial rights.
Sacha Black: Yeah, and then you have to look at the terms and conditions on the competitions, because sometimes they'll take second or previously submitted, but published is published.
So, even things like on people's blogs or websites, that is technically published. It depends if they're talking about print publications, then that wouldn't necessarily count, but you do have to be very careful because published is published.
Michael La Ronn: Yeah, that's exactly right. I would also say that I think most magazine editors would say the same thing. They would say that unfortunately, yes, published is published. It's the same as self-publishing it or publishing it on Patreon, even. Patreon is also a place where you're going to be considered published when you publish work there, even though it's behind a paywall.
Okay. So unfortunately, I know Sharon, probably not the answer you wanted to hear, but we would probably consider that to be published. But when in doubt, ask the magazine editor.
How often can I use the IngramSpark discount code?
Okay. So, the next question is, I think this is an important question, it's from June, and I'll just read the question in its entirety, and that's that Ingram Spark account holders can use each monthly promo code up to five times per month, with an annual maximum of 50 uses per IngramSpark account based on the anniversary date. What is the anniversary date? Is it the date that you joined ALLi, or is it the date that you joined IngramSpark?
All right, so I have to caveat this question and just precede it with just saying that this is just our interpretation of the IngramSpark guidelines. I think when in doubt, go to Ingram and ask them this question.
But our understanding of the anniversary date is that it is the date that you first use your IngramSpark code. So, if you join ALLi, and then on February 1st you use an IngramSpark code, then it's going to reset on March 1st of the following month.
Now, again, don't quote us on that. That's just our understanding of how this works, but we would really highly recommend that you verify that with Ingram. I'm sure that if you sent an email to them, they would be happy to clarify and answer any additional questions that you have on that.
Does putting a poem on Facebook count as it being ‘published’?
Sacha Black: Yeah, there's been a clarification come through in the comments asking, what if you put your poem on a Facebook page, does that mean previously published? My answer remains the same, published is published. So, if you are putting it anywhere where either customers, audience, or members of the general public can see it, then it is published. Arguably, that's a digital version of publication, but this is why we're saying you have to check the rules, and there are definitely some competitions that will be much more flexible and others that aren't.
So, it's no good asking us, really, you have to ask the award committee or the competition committee to get clarification from them. If it were me, and I were on the committee, published is published. So, I know that's a tough stance to take, but published is published, and so this is why.
Michael La Ronn: Yeah, you don't want to irritate editors, because if you screw this up, your editors are not going to forgive you for it, you're going to go on a blacklist, and the community is very small, so you don't want to have to deal with that.
Sacha Black: The one caveat I might give to that is, if you had, for example, a 50-line poem and you shared one line, I would say that would be fine. But if you are sharing the whole poem, then it's published.
Agree. When in doubt, I think be conservative. It's better to treat it as published than to not treat it as published and then irritate or anger an editor, because it's hard enough to get accepted into literary magazines.
So, you go through the process and then all of a sudden you get accepted, oh my gosh. It's like winning the lottery and then, oh, nope, sorry, you can't actually get the poem published. I don't recommend it.
Does ALLi have any discounts for Scrivener or Jutoh?
Okay. Next question is from Ben, and the question is, do you have any discounts available for Scrivener or Jutoh for drafting or formatting eBooks?
Okay, so I did my due diligence and I logged into the member website, which is allianceindependentauthors.org, and I navigated approved services and then discounts and deals, because I wanted to check. On the day that I checked, which I believe was about a week ago, we didn't have discounts for Scrivener or Jutoh, I think that's how you said it.
Michael La Ronn: Yeah, Jutoh, it's formatting software.
Sacha Black: Yeah, so we didn't, but what I would say is that discounts and deals are being added and removed all of the time. So, your best bet is actually on the day that you are looking for that discount or deal, or wanting it, go and check, because there are things being added and removed all of the time. So, I would just go and check.
Michael La Ronn: Yeah, absolutely, and that was going to be my answer. Unfortunately, we don't have discounts for those at this time, but who knows, when you're listening to this, you could be listening a year or two years from now, maybe there will be something.
How do I get more reviews for my books?
So, good stuff. Okay, next question is from Barbara. Barbara asked, when I upload both my paperback and eBook to Ingram Spark, I never got any reviews or never knew how reviews would come to me once I sold to bookstores, the only thing I got was a royalty. How do I get the information around reviews that are coming through my book on Ingram?
Sacha Black: Okay, so, this is an interesting question, because I did read this and they were also concerned that they didn't know who their books have been sold to, and unfortunately, when you don't sell direct, that is not data that you can get hold of. Amazon are the distributor and the sales platform. Therefore, the customers are Amazon's customers, not yours. The only way that you can get sales data is when you sell directly from your website. So, if you sell an eBook or a paperback, you will have customer information.
Now, in terms of the reviews, the only information that you're able to get is what is posted onto Amazon's site or Goodreads, or any of the rest of it.
So, none of us know. We are all subject to the whims and fancies of all of the distributors. So, I think the real question is actually, how do you get reviews? And that is in one of a plethora of different ways. What I would recommend is that you read the free guide that ALLi has if you are a member, or you can purchase a copy in our bookstore, but the guide is called Your First 50 Reviews.
You will get lots and lots of advice, because ultimately the way that you get reviews is to have more people read your book. There's an often-quoted statistic, I don't know how true it is because I haven't done the statistical analysis on it, but what I would say is that for every 100 sales of your books, you are likely to receive about one to two reviews, and that is something that we tend to see as a metric that people share. Of course, there are people who get more than that, but that's an average.
Lots of methods that people use commonly to get reviews are to build a street team, so to build a group of readers who read in your genre, to send them an early copy of your book before it's published and ask for them to leave an honest review.
You cannot control their opinion of your book. You hope that they'll enjoy it, but there are no guarantees, and actually you don't want all five-star reviews anyway, because it makes your book look unbelievable.
Other things that you can do are do a free run or a discount on your book, and then try to drive traffic to your book through things like paid newsletters AMS ads, Facebook advertising, that will generally increase the number of sales, which obviously then by default increases the number of reviews.
If your book is free, you are likely to get a considerable number of reviews if you can drive traffic to that page, but also bear in mind that you are then capturing a wider audience, and so the quality of the reviews or the number of people who love the book are likely to be slightly less.
But the summary is that, in order to get reviews, you need to market and sell your book. So, you've got to do the hard bit.
Michael La Ronn: Yeah, the hard bit, that's the million-dollar question, right? That's the challenge, but no, you answered that perfectly.
What are the legal implications of publishing an unauthorized biography?
So, we can move on to the next question, which is from Jenny, and the question is, what are the legal implications of publishing an unauthorized biography?
I can take this one if you want, Sacha.
Sacha Black: Oh yes, please.
Michael La Ronn: Okay. So, here's the problem with biographies. There are three, well, in my opinion, there are three types of books that can get you in the most legal trouble as an author.
The first is True Crime, so writing books on crimes that actually happened. The second is memoirs, and then the third is biographies, which happens to be the subject of this question.
They're so risky to write that if you ever wanted to purchase insurance for your writing endeavours, these would be the first questions that insurance companies would ask you, do you write any of these three books? And if the answer is yes, you're probably not going to be able to get insurance coverage.
So, these three types of books scare the crap out of insurance companies because people put things in these types of books, true crime, memoir, and biographies, that sometimes people don't want out there, and you can get sued for libel.
So, libel is your biggest potential exposure, and again, this is not legal advice, but sometimes things that you don't think would be libelist, could end up being libelist. So, even if you keep it positive, even if you stick to the facts, you could still find yourself looking at a lawsuit.
So, when you're talking about an unauthorized biography, this is a biography that is not authorized by the person you're writing about. So, if that person is still living, they didn't authorize this biography, and there could be materials in there that could potentially be a legal risk to you. So, I think that is your number one exposure.
Sacha Black: What happens if the person's dead?
Michael La Ronn: If the person is dead, it gets more complicated, but that doesn't necessarily mean that you can't be sued.
Sacha Black: Right, okay.
Michael La Ronn: Just because somebody's dead, yeah, I mean, there's the adage that you can't slander, or you can't defame the dead. That's typically bandied about, but I don't know, I think clever lawyers would be able to disagree with you because it depends on the details.
So, there's always a risk when you're writing an unauthorized biography and so what I would tell people to do is that, if you are considering this, I would highly recommend talking to an attorney just to verify what your exposures are, how you can handle it, and some best practices, because there, there may be stuff where your attorney says, no, don't write that, don't put that in the book, take it out.
So again, it's not to scare people, but just to give you a very realistic understanding of what you could potentially get yourself into.
What’s the best mailing list strategy for children’s books?
Okay. Next question is from Steven. Steven is currently working on publishing books number three and four in his children's book series while working on improving his newsletter and reader magnet strategy, and he says, I'm having trouble figuring out if the same strategy, which applies to non-fiction and fiction, would apply to children's books. What is the best strategy to build a list for a children's book author?
Sacha Black: So, I am not a children's book author, so this is educated conjecture essentially, but what I would say is that a mailing list is always beneficial, always. But what you need to remember is that the mailing list you're building is the parents, it's not the children.
So, that may change your strategy and the type of content that you're sharing. You may also be able to send less or fewer emails because the parents aren't necessarily going to be getting any, unless you have, I don't know, helpful content that you are helping parents to come up with fun games for their kids, or you are helping them with reading techniques with their kids.
Unless you are going to spend a ton of time doing content marketing through your mailing list, you are probably able to do less work on your mailing list, and just send launch information and a little bit more, than somebody who's writing in a fiction genre that has adult readers.
But always have a mailing list, definitely. It's also harder, I would say, to build your mailing list. I would say that you are likely to find it harder to build.
But one of the other best bits of advice I can give you is to read our children's advisor, Karen Inglis's book, and I believe it's How to Self-Publish and Market a Children's Book by Karen Inglis. It's fantastic.
She recently, I say recent, time is a lie, I feel like it was last year, it might not have been last year.
Michael La Ronn: It was recently enough, let's put it that way.
Sacha Black: Yeah. She redid a second edition, and it is a chonky book. So, there is stacks of advice in there.
Michael La Ronn: The official title is Self-Publishing Children's Books: ALLi's Guide to KidLit Publishing for Authors.
Sacha Black: That's Ally's guide. Karen also has a book herself. So, there's two books there that you could go and read. There's ALLi's book and then Karen's.
Michael La Ronn: Karen's individual book as well. So yeah, choose your own adventure.
Okay. Yeah, I would say that parents being the customers is the big thing. That's a hard thing to get around, and I'm sure Karen has probably got some good information in her book about how to think about that.
Sacha Black: Yeah, and if you have kids, if I were to put myself in that position, what would I sign up for? If you want strategies or ideas, what would I be willing to give my email address for? Well, it would be things like somebody who collected together. I don't know, the best children's books in particular genres, or discounts and deals. So, it's actually not that dissimilar to a normal mailing list, but it would be tailored to that market. So, let me make it easier for you to read with your kid. That's what I would want somebody to do as a parent if I'm going to sign up. That's the kind of thing I'm after.
But you know your audience, if you write humorous children's books, maybe you're going to send parents jokes or funny things for the kids. So, just think about your audience and your brand, and tailor the mailing list around that.
Michael La Ronn: Yeah, because that's the thing you've got to do.
I mean, I'm thinking of, what is it, there was some commercial or it was a call to action, and whoever it was, like a cartoon, but the narrator said something like, be sure to tell your parents to go to blahblahblah.com and sign up for the mailing list.
Because the kid is going to be reading the book, so it's kind of weird that the parents are the customers, but the call to action almost has to go to the kids to let the parents know that your mailing list exists, so that when you have a new book your mom can go out and buy it, or your dad can go out and buy it.
It's definitely an interesting problem, but I'm sure there's a solution, and I'm sure that Karen Inglis and some other children's authors have figured out a way around the problem.
What are the downsides to running pre-orders for my book?
Our next question is from Vicky, and the question is, I'm thinking about offering a pre-order for my third in series via Amazon. From ALLi's experience, is there any reason I shouldn't do this? I'm aware they need to be organized and intend to schedule it, but just want to know what the downsides potentially are.
Sacha Black: So, there's a couple of things to understand. Amazon deals with pre-orders differently to the other stores, and in fact, each store deals with it just a tiny bit differently, and a lot of that is down to how far in advance you have to upload the final files.
What I would say is that for Amazon, if you are after a bestseller little orange flag on Amazon specifically, then having a pre-order isn't necessarily going to help you do that, because on Amazon's store the day that, let's say you publish on the 1st of January, and that's the day your book goes live. If you've got pre-orders running from the 1st of December and people buy on the 1st of December, the 2nd of December, the 3rd of December, that's the day that the sale counts, that's the day that your rank will change because of that pre-order. So, when the books all get de delivered to the readers on the 1st of January, you're not going to see any benefit from that, other than the royalty coming in. So, it depends on your goal.
The other thing that I would say is that pre-orders on the wide stores are often more beneficial because they almost count it twice for you. So, the day that the pre-order is made, it will count in terms of your ranking, exposure and visibility. And then on your day of launch, it will count again. Obviously, you only receive one sale per pre-order, but in terms of your ranking, it will count again.
So, pre-orders are really beneficial for people who are wide and less beneficial for people on Amazon.
The other thing that I would say is that, added to that, if you are in Kindle Unlimited and so you are exclusive to Amazon, then you are even less likely to be able to secure pre-orders, because people who are members of Kindle Unlimited cannot pre-order a book, they can only purchase a sale of that pre-order, so they can't borrow it in advance and it won't deliver to their Kindle. So, they only want to download on the day of launch or afterwards. So, a lot of authors who are in KU do very short pre-order periods just for those readers who aren't in Kindle Unlimited.
But in terms of any reasons for not doing it, only if your goal is to get a bestseller tag, and you don't have a massive audience, then your best chance of doing that is to just go live and announce.
Michael La Ronn: Yeah, and you said it, Sacha, Amazon does pre-orders differently than everybody else. So, if you're a wide author, and maybe your goal is to be a bestseller, but you don't care about the orange tag, you want to go after one of the big lists, then a pre-order maybe could help you.
Or it could help you get sticky at the other retailers a little bit sooner than you would otherwise. I know that other retailers tend to like pre-orders a little bit more than Amazon does.
Sacha Black: Yeah, although the USA Today's gone now, and that was the big one that most indies got.
Michael La Ronn: Yeah. So, that's not probably viable anymore. So, to me, I think if you're going to do a pre-order, you probably should do it for the fact that you want to do a pre-order and get the book out there, as opposed to trying to hit a particular profit goal.
Sacha Black: Yeah, I think pre-orders are always better or, I take the word better back, I think pre-orders are useful for later books in the series. It's less useful for book one, but it's more useful if you are releasing book two or three or four, because then you are securing that sale from readers who have already read the first book.
Michael La Ronn: It doesn't even have to be a book and a series. I mean, just pre-ordering for books for readers that already know you I think is helpful.
So, I mean, pre-ordering your first book is probably not going to be that helpful in the grand scheme of things, but once you've got multiple books out, even if it's a different series, it might not hurt to pre-order a book one, if you've got existing readers.
Can I market my print on demand books as eco-friendly?
So, the next question is from Michelle, and the question is, can I put an eco-friendly label on my print on demand books from KDP print, for example, since they create less waste than traditional publishing?
Sacha Black: I don't think so.
Michael La Ronn: Yeah, I wouldn't do that. Just to be honest, a blunt, honest answer, what does eco-friendly mean, and how do you really know that print on demand services are more eco-friendly than traditional?
I mean, maybe that is true, but I don't necessarily know that you can prove that. I just think putting that label on your book raises more questions than it potentially answers.
Sacha Black: Yeah, that would be like saying that Bitcoin is eco-friendly just because it's digital, when we all know that the carbon emissions are huge for it. Unless you are a hundred percent assured of that fact, which I don't think any of us are, then I don't think that's something that we can say.
Michael La Ronn: Well, it's like saying natural flavours I've got natural flavours on my food. Natural flavours in some respects can be worse than artificial flavours. So, you don't want to generate those types of questions in reader's mind. I think I understand the intent behind it, and I think it's a noble intent, but I just think it doesn't work.
Sacha Black: Too risky.
Michael La Ronn: It doesn't work for what we're trying to do as authors.
Where do I start if I’ve never self-published before?
Let's see. Next question is from Jim, and this is actually our last question, and it's that, my wife is writing a specialized niche cookbook. I'm a graphic designer who's designing it. I'm looking for any kind of advice on self-publishing companies, distribution, marketing. I am not on Facebook, so I can't use the ALLi forum. So, to generalize this and put a bow on the question, where do you start if you have no prior knowledge of self-publishing?
Sacha Black: Yeah, so we have a guide, that I can't remember the specific name of, but it's about using partner services and we will get the name for that.
Michael La Ronn: Choosing a Self-Publishing Service.
Sacha Black: Choosing a Self-Publishing Service. Oh, look at that, aren't we a great team?
Michael La Ronn: Yes, we are, and that is an ALLi guidebook, by the way. So, ALLi members can get that free.
Sacha Black: Yes, by logging into allianceindependentauthors.org and navigating to publications. So, that's the first thing that I would say is to look in that book, read that book cover to cover.
The other thing is that we have a partner directory, which again, if you log into the member site, you're able to navigate to approved services or also the partner directory where you can search for a service. You can be assured that anybody that you find in there has been vetted by the watchdog in order to even appear on that list. So, you can be assured that they are legitimate and they're not going to scam you.
So, those are probably the two biggest bits of advice, really, is to read the book, which explains everything, expectations, how to work with them, and then use the partner directory, because that's what it's there for, it is there to give you a listing of high-quality service providers.
Michael La Ronn: Yeah, that's exactly it, and I was just grabbing the names and stuff so we can put those in the resources. But yeah, our guidebooks really should be your first port of call because, we've put those together as ways for people to develop shortcuts.
I also wrote a book for ALLi, it's another free guidebook. It's called 150 Self-Publishing Questions Answered. That will also answer some questions that you might have about working with an editor, or what to do when you run across issues with editors, or what should the distribution decisions for your books be?
John's book is going to teach you how to choose a self-publishing service, but what about where you publish your book? How should you price your book? These are all things that are answered in that as well. So, we'll make sure that we include links to these resources in the show notes for anybody who wants to look those up and engage with them further.
Sacha Black: Superb.
Michael La Ronn: All right. Well, Sacha, that's another episode, can you believe it?
Sacha Black: I can't, I can't believe it.
Michael La Ronn: Yeah. So, we'll be back in April to answer any other questions that folks have, but in the meantime, this has been the Self-Publishing Advice and Inspirations, Member Q&A podcast, and we will be back next month. Take care everybody.