Scammers

Finding a cover artist and covering your butt

Today I’m going to cover something that’s been on my mind because of a situation I’m dealing with: finding a cover artist.

There are a lot of resources out there for finding cover artists. A lot of author databases that you can go through and hope to find someone who’s good. I don’t bother with any of that stuff though. Not when I know of a great artist community that has a job board specifically designed for people seeking commissioned art.

That site? The Deviant Art jobs forum!

Finding an artist

This is the easy part. Create your own account on DeviantArt and post on the forum letting people know what you’re looking for. You’ll quickly be inundated with artists who are looking for work, and they’ll continue to stream in for a couple of days as people check the forum.

From there it’s a matter of sifting through the various offers you get. I maintain a note that I’m constantly updating when I find an author who looks promising. In that note I include the artist’s name, a link to their profile, and information about what they charge if they make that available.

You’re going to get some people who clearly aren’t up to the standard of what you need for your cover. You’re going to get people who are amazing and clearly out of your budget.

Here are a few things I look for when settling on an artist:

  1. What kind of styles do they work in? Is it cartoony? Full realistic renders? Realistic but with some exaggerations? Does their style fit what you’re looking for?
  2. Does the art flow? Are they able to do multiple poses and different scenarios? Is it stiff at all? Are they able to do men and women or is it clear that they’ve been drawing sexy ladies or sexy men since middle school and never bothered to learn how to draw anything else?
  3. Do they have a lot of work on display? I’m wary of artists who have newer profiles or don’t post all that much on their DA profile. Not all of them are scammers, but it is suspect.
  4. Do they have comments on their profile from people who’ve worked with them? Are those comments positive or are their complaints that they’re scammers?

Those are just a few things to consider. Look for an artist who has a varied portfolio and clearly is good at what they’re doing. Compare between several artists until you find one you like, and then start negotiating the price.

Settling on a price

Give serious thought to what your budget is for this project. I wouldn’t recommend including that budget in your initial post because that’s going to encourage people to come in at whatever price you offer even if they would’ve started lower. This is a negotiation even if you are going to pay the nice artist what they are worth.

We’re looking for a sweet spot. Someone who clearly has the ability to do what you need but comes in at a price you can afford. You need to go into this with the attitude that you’re paying a business associate for a service. You want to get paid for your writing, and you should be willing to pay a reasonable sum to an artist as well.

I can’t reiterate that enough. Good artists who are responsive and deliver good work in a timely manner? They’re unicorns, and you should treat them like the precious and valuable resource they are.

If someone is amazing but they’re a little out of their price range then don’t be afraid to ask them to come down just a little. This is a business transaction, after all. The worst they can say is no.

Don’t be afraid to work with someone from halfway around the world. If you’re in the U.S. or Europe then that exchange rate is pretty favorable if you’re working with an artist in, say, Asia or another place where USD or GBP or the Euro stretches pretty far.

If someone is coming in with a quote that seems too good to be true then that’s probably because it is. I’ve been burned a couple of times by artists who had amazing work but ghosted once they got their payment. Again you’re looking for a sweet spot, and someone who comes in too low is probably trying to lure you in.

Covering your ass

There’s no way to guarantee completely that you don’t get scammed, but there are some things you can do to protect yourself while searching for an artist.

Social proof – A serious artist is going to have lots of happy comments from people who commissioned them. Look for these. Don’t be afraid to ask the artist for references. This is a business transaction, and if they aren’t willing to provide references then you should run for the hills.

Half and Half – Whenever I make a job offer I make it clear that I’m paying half up front and half upon delivery. This makes the cost of the commission hurt a little less, and it also is likely to scare off some scammers. Not all, but some.

Use protection – A lot of people will want you to pay with a PayPal money transfer. Don’t do this. There are no buyer protections built in with money transfers. What you’re going to insist on is that the artist invoices you via PayPal, and only then will you make your payment. This means you have PayPal’s buyer protection if they ghost you.

Other considerations

Contracts – You can do a contract if you want. There are indie author sites out there that offer boilerplate contracts. I tend not to mess with them. I have a paper trail of email conversations where expectations are clearly laid out and make sure the invoice include exactly what’s being bought and paid for. Including considerations like copyright transfer. If a contract makes you feel better then by all means go for it, but I’m not an IP lawyer so I’m not going to comment on them other than to say I don’t use them.

Copyright – One of the conditions of commissioning your work should be that all copyright to the work transfers to you. Full stop. I wouldn’t work with anyone who isn’t willing to do this. Some people will charge a little extra for this and some will throw it in. I’d recommend indicating you want the copyright transfer in your initial post and seeing what the artist says.

This is something that you need to have spelled out in your conversations with the artist and in the invoice so it’s clear on the off chance they try to come after you later. It’s also an area where it might be helpful to get a boilerplate contract from somewhere on the Internet, but again I’m not a lawyer and this isn’t legal advice.

Price Increases – I’ve heard a few horror stories over the years about artists who commissioned a cover, then when their book did very well the artist turned around and jacked up the price for future covers. This can lead to situations where book releases are delayed while things are renegotiated.

I’ve never had this happen to me before, but if it did then I would politely tell the artist to go and pound sand. I believe that artists deserve to be paid a fair amount for their work, but if someone raises the price by some exorbitant amount because they think an author can cover it they’re essentially trying to hold future releases hostage. That’s not someone I’d want to work with, and there are plenty of other artists out there who’d be able to do a new cover.

Having said that, there are instances of artists who raise their fee as they get more popular. That’s to be expected if they’re making a go of making a career as an artist. In that case you’ll have to decide whether or not the slowly increasing rate is worth it, but that’s a completely different scenario from someone trying to extort an author because of some success.

Lettering – Cover artists make cover art. Letterers do lettering. There are some people who have both skills, but not necessarily. Ask your cover person if they’re comfortable doing lettering, and if not then look for someone who can do this and expect to pay a little bit for it. Good typography on a cover is every bit as valuable as the art beneath it.

If the artist can do typography then be sure to get a copy of the art without all the lettering on it.

Timeliness – Figure out what your release schedule is going to look like. Then figure out whether or not your artist can keep up with that schedule. Art can take time to complete just like it takes time to write and edit a book, and if you have a release schedule that doesn’t match up with what your artist is able to do then it’s time to find someone else for your project.

Wrapping up

Finding an artist! There’s a lot of stuff to consider if you want to find someone who’s good, reasonably priced, able to complete their work in a timely manner, and isn’t out to scam you. The good news is that it’s not all that complicated so much as it’s time consuming. That’ll be time well spent when you get that perfect cover that drives the sales to you though!

Kindle Unlimited snafu: scammers, suspended accounts, and page read reductions

There’s a minor to major snafu going on in the Kindle Unlimited author community right now depending on who you talk to. Naturally the authors who are getting letters from Amazon about suspicious activity on their accounts, or getting their accounts suspended, are more inclined to think it’s a big deal.

Basically the issue is that the Kindle Unlimited system has a problem with scammers. There’s money in them thar hills, and like with every gold rush there are unscrupulous people looking to make a quick buck. In this case the quick buck is made by uploading “books” that are stuffed to the maximum page count and then using click farming operations to page through those books to generate page reads for an account and sponge up that sweet, sweet Kindle Unlimited money.

This is causing a few problems including:

KU payout problems

Kindle Unlimited operates with a pot of money that is paid out to all participating authors at the end of a month. So Amazon will have a pot of, say $20 million and they divide that by all the authors who got page reads in a month. The rate per page read usually hovers around $0.005 per month depending on how much money Amazon pumps into the system and how many pages were read in a month.

Seeing the problem yet? Yeah, if there are a bunch of click farmers out there who are artificially inflating the page counts with their stuffed books that means they’re taking away money from other authors. It artificially depresses the payout by crowding out legitimate authors with their ill-gotten page reads.

Authors (unfairly?) targeted

There’s another more low key and potentially more insidious side effect hitting authors over the past couple of weeks. See those scammers know that it would look suspicious if the only books their click farms paged through were their overstuffed books. So what they do to make their operations look more legitimate is they target other bestselling books and page through those as well.

By targeting legitimate books it makes their click farm accounts look more legitimate. The problem for authors is if their book happens to be targeted by one of those click farm operations it suddenly makes their book look more scammy to whatever automated bot Amazon has trawling their site looking for suspicious activity.

The upshot of all this is legitimate authors have been targeted by scammers to lend scammer accounts more legitimacy, and now those author accounts are being targeted by Amazon as scammers with consequences ranging from sternly worded emails accusing them of scamming the system to outright suspensions. There are also authors who are reporting that their page reads are being retroactively revoked for previous months. Presumably these are page reads that were generated by click farm accounts.

Who to believe?

Here’s the problem. Whenever something like this happens there’s a lot of confusion and a lot of rumors that get spread around. I’ve deliberately kept the details in this post to just the facts, ma’am, but if you’re inclined to go looking at some of the rumors then it’s easy enough to find the uproar on KBoards.

The difficulty when something like this happens is all we have to go on is the word of the author on the one hand that they aren’t doing anything scammy, and the stonewall from Amazon on the other side. There are probably some authors out there who did legitimately grey hat things to generate page reads on their books and now they’re complaining along with everyone else on the bandwagon about how they’ve been unfairly targeted. There always are when there’s a smackdown targeting the KU scam du jour.

On the flip side there are enough authors complaining about these issues that it seems highly unlikely that all of them have been partaking in click farms, wittingly or unwittingly. The thought of being labeled a scammer and having your account suspended because your books were targeted by a click farm to lend their scam legitimacy, something that you absolutely cannot control, is terrifying.

With zero transparency from Amazon about exactly what is going on and conflicting reports from authors it’s difficult to say exactly what is happening, but it seems safe to assume that there are legitimate author accounts being unfairly targeted as part of a crackdown that is casting a net that’s gone a little too wide.

What to do?

It’s a difficult call. There are a lot of authors who are talking about pulling out of Kindle Unlimited entirely and going wide. The problem with this is if your whole author strategy so far has been to rely on the ease of Kindle Unlimited then you don’t have an audience on other platforms which makes it difficult to go wide.

On top of that there’s the issue that there simply are some genres that don’t do as well wide as they do in Kindle Unlimited. A lot of authors who have come to rely on KU money are going to have a difficult time and take a severe hit right in the pocketbook if they make the precipitous move of taking their books out of KU. On the other hand if an author is facing a suspension because of illicit KU activity they have no control over there’s really no choice. Better to be out of KU with no KU money and have your Amazon account intact than in KU and risk having your account suspended and you’re out KU money and royalties.

I’d advise caution for authors reading posts from other panicked authors. If Kindle Unlimited is a significant portion of your income then be smart about whether or not you want to withdraw. Especially if you’re relying on that money. Take the time to build yourself up on other stores and build up alternate revenue streams. Don’t do something precipitous that’s going to leave you unable to pay the bills and put food on the table because you’re making a decision from a place of fear.

Parting thoughts

Amazon should be more transparent about what is happening. That’s not likely to happen, but authors should take comfort in the knowledge that Amazon does tend to do the right thing by legit authors in the long run when these crackdowns hit. I think that right now there is a bot or some automated system that is inappropriately flagging some authors, but if those authors make noise and they aren’t actively participating in scams they’re going to be okay in the long run.

It always sucks when something like this happens, but crackdowns at Amazon are hardly new. There are always people who will push the extremes, and often the response swings to the opposite extreme before the dust clears and authors get on with writing. This has all happened before, and it will all happen again. Take a deep breath, remain calm, and come at this from a business perspective rather than from a place of panic and fear.

And maybe consider working on your wide game so you don’t have all your eggs in one basket for the next panic.

The importance of researching online retailers

I have a cautionary tale for you today and a moral.

I was looking to decorate a corner of my basement in a Godzilla theme about a month back. I got autographs from Haruo Nakajima who played Godzilla in the original and many subsequent movies as well as Tsutomu Kitagawa who played the Big G in Godzilla 2000.

As part of that redecoration I ordered a nice looking wall sticker from SmackMyTeeUp.com that featured a silhouette of the Tokyo skyline with everyone’s favorite lizard stomping through it. I was excited. It was going to look awesome.

It never came.

I did some digging after a month had gone by with no sticker. They said it was supposed to be there in a week or so. They sent me a tracking number that never ended up tracking anything. And in doing that digging I realized that the website was a fly by night operation that had already gotten in trouble and closed up shop under one name before opening SmackMyTeeUp. There are numerous complaints out there about them doing exactly what they did to me to other people as well.

I tried getting in touch with them but they didn’t answer emails. Go to their website now and it’s a parked GoDaddy domain. Obviously they were looking to hoover up as much money as they could from people before disappearing and starting over again at a new site.

I initiated a chargeback with my bank and the lady there sent them a few emails that they never answered. I got my money back through the chargeback, but it’s annoying to have to mess with that in the first place.

The moral of the story? Always check out the reviews on a retailer before you order from them. It’s not something I’ve had to think of since I usually order from older established sites with a record, but a simple search in this case would’ve revealed I never should’ve ordered from those assholes in the first place and I would’ve saved myself some time.

Always do your research online. Especially where money is concerned!