For 16 middle schoolers in Haltom City, Texas, the expected publication of their debut book in May 2010 was certain to be one of the biggest thrills of their lives.
These sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders planned for their novel, Locker Letters, to be unveiled at a signing party in late May at the Barnes & Noble bookstore at North East Mall.
The book was to be the debut project of the Birdville school district’s new Rising Authors program. Teachers, parents, students and school staffers invested more than $2,000 to print it and buy promotional materials and first editions. But something went terribly wrong.
Weeks later, they still aren’t here.
Here’s a letter the company sent the teacher:
From: firstname.lastname@example.org [email@example.com]
Sent: Wednesday, May 12, 2010 10:13 AM
To: Hedgecock, Carolyn
Subject: Book Release
Thank you for approving your book.
You’ve successfully completed your part of the Publishing process.
Here’s what happens now:
Your book information will be sent to Bowker’s Books In Print. Once they approve it, we’ll upload your title to our distribution network. If there are any problems at this stage, you’ll get an e-mail from us within 2-3 weeks. Otherwise, it should be smooth sailing.
Then, you wait, as patiently as possible. In about 8 weeks, you can go to http://www.bookfinder4u.com, search on the ISBN assigned to your book, and see if you’re in the system yet.
So for now, sit back and bask in the glow of your approved book.
Congratulations, you’re now a published author.
Your five free copies will be shipped to you in a few days; you’ll get an e-mail from us when your books are shipped.
The Staff at Four Star Publishing
A police detective in Anderson told me that he fears that the students may be crime victims.
Carolyn Hedgecock, a North Oaks Middle School English teacher who spearheaded the project, told me the experience has been a horror for her. Hurting children is the worst, she said.
Throughout the weeks-long ordeal, Grant promised that everything was fine. “Congratulations,” said one company e-mail to the school. “You’re now a published author.”
Grant said he bought an international standard book number for the book, but Hedgecock said she learned that he never properly registered it.
Grant insisted in e-mails that he printed the book and shipped copies to the school, so Hedgecock asked him for the postal tracking number. He changed the number several times, she said.
Police Detective Mitchell Carroll told me that he made two visits to the company’s office, at a mobile home park.
He knocked on the door of what he described as a “ramshackle trailer” and found Grant, who said he knew nothing about a shipping problem.
“He said he was going to check his records,” Carroll said. “But he doesn’t look like a guy in that business.”
“The scope of the investigation is getting larger,” he said. “The U.S. Postal Inspection Service in Indianapolis intends to speak with Grant, too.”
My e-mails and phone calls to the company were never returned.
Its website is no longer up, but I found an archived version that made this promise: “We strive to publish the highest quality book available, and we go the extra mile to give our authors the best opportunity to succeed and gain recognition as a published author.”
Hedgecock said she spent $1,300 of her own money to publish the book. School officials spent $770. Parents ordered more copies through Four Star.
Fortunately, most of the money was paid through Pay Pal. Oftentimes, it can refund money to buyers when wrongdoing is found.
Last week, Grant or someone else using the e-mail address firstname.lastname@example.org told Hedgecock that she could not use the ISBN or the planned book cover because they were property of Four Star.
“We will sue you and the school for copyright and ISBN infringement,” the e-mail said. “You have 10 days to comply.”
Hedgecock sent me a copy of the e-mail with a note: “This is unbelievable!”
Carroll wrote to Hedgecock that such Internet cases are difficult for municipal police departments to investigate: “Historically, law enforcement has hedged to take on these cases as they pose monumental problems. First, the sheer number of cases is mind-boggling. Secondly, there are jurisdictional problems. Would you, your students and their families be willing to travel here to Anderson for depositions, and later for a criminal trial? All costs would be incumbent on you.
“Lastly, our prosecutor (as most) rarely agrees to take on these cases. Internet retail has grown so quickly that law enforcement has been unable to keep pace. Accordingly, those transactions are guided by caveat emptor.”
However, because children are involved, the detective added in his note, “My chief concern is getting your money back.”
Jerry D. Simmons, a self-publishing expert in Arizona who writes the Tips for Writers from the Publishing Insider newsletter, said in an interview that such situations happen all the time to new authors who want to self-publish through small companies.
Publishers get novice authors to pay several hundred dollars to start the process, he said. Later, authors learn of costs that were not previously disclosed.
“Once they get you for thousands of dollars, you can’t leave them,” Simmons said. “You’ve already invested that money.”
Barnes & Noble held the book signing party anyway. Hedgecock distributed compact discs of Locker Letters to the 50 or so people who attended.
Store officials gave all the students gift certificates as a consolation and promised to hold another book signing if the book arrives, Georgette Radford, store community relations manager, told me.
Hedgecock says there will be a book. She is now working with North Texans to produce it again. She hopes it will be ready when school resumes in August.
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Writer Dave Lieber created his own publishing company in 2003 and shows other authors how to produce their own books. After many requests, he created a how-to self publishing manual that many authors have used to create their own publishing companies and live their writer’s dream. You can learn more about the manual here.
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Self Publishing Tips
* Reputable publishing companies have a website that lists detailed information about company officials, their background and publishing experience.
* Check Amazon.com and other book-selling websites to see if books claimed to be published by a company are actually for sale.
* Check to make sure contact information for a company is real before making a purchase.
* Check references with other authors who used the company.
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Dave Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is the founder of Watchdog Nation. The new 2010 edition of his book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, is out. Revised and expanded, the book won two national book awards in 2009 for social change. Twitter @DaveLieber