Thursday, 4 June 2009

Guest Post: Avoiding Scams

When I began this blog I hoped it would help writers avoid losing their work to vanity publishers and fee-charging agents. Preditors & Editors has always been a useful resource for wary writers and here its editor, David L. Kuzminski, discusses how we can all take steps to avoid scams and protect our work.

Many scams depend upon the victim wanting something a lot and being relied upon to not inspect closely upon being given an offer. The more that someone wants something, the more likely the scam will succeed.

Many of us have seen or heard of the TV scam where someone offers a top of the line TV for a reduced price that would save the buyer a lot of money. All sorts of reasons are given such as the retailer accidentally sent two instead of one to the seller who's willing to share his good fortune by selling you the second TV. He even lets you look at his that’s still in the box so you have no reason to believe that the other identical box doesn't have a TV as well. Besides, it weighs like it has a TV in it and you even get to look through a hole in the sealed box so you can verify there's a TV screen in it. However, the box conceals that it's only an old picture tube and enough bricks to make the box feel right in weight.

Unfortunately, with publishing it's more difficult to inspect ahead of time because the physical product isn't going to be immediately available because it's your work that's to be published. In fact, the emergence of the Internet has made the process even more difficult because you have no idea where the other party is located or whether they can even deliver on the promise. This is made more difficult to discern between legitimate and scam operations because you're faced with the same problem from both. So, how do you know who to avoid and who to trust?

The first rule is never pay anything up front to publishers. Legitimate publishers do not charge writers to publish their work because they make their money from selling your work to readers. In fact, legitimate publishers pay you, the writer, and many of them even pay an advance while all of them assume the actual risks of publishing your work. Those risks are what make publishing so difficult to achieve because publishers aren't in business to lose money. They want written work that the public is willing to pay for. Consequently, they inspect what they're buying. If your writing isn't up to their standards or fails to fit the niche they fill within the marketplace, they're very likely going to pass off on your work.

The same advice about not paying anything up front to a literary agent is also true. Likewise, it's difficult obtaining an agent because they're taking a financial risk on your work from the moment they agree to spend some time reading your query. They don't have days with more hours than any of us and they have to use that time wisely. Therefore, they ignore anything that fails to interest them or anyone who proves to be too difficult to work with which could range from ignorance of the publishing industry to poor writing to unreasonable demands.

The second rule in avoiding risk is to conduct an inspection of your own. Look in a bookstore to see if the publisher you feel is worthy of publishing your work actually has any titles on the shelves. Don't just accept a listing in Amazon as sufficient because Amazon might be big, but it's not the entire market. Besides, readers still like to browse and that's not quite as easy to do online. Yes, it can be done online, but some publishers won't permit online browsing within their products. That's not a good sign. If the publisher is unwilling to permit the reader to see the first few pages, it could mean the publisher has something to hide such as poor or non-existent editing.

When you inspect a literary agent, look to see what the agent has represented before. Legitimate agents are quick to reveal their successes. Scams generally don't have any successes, though there are a few exceptions where agents found it was easier to just charge fees and not bother with doing any actual selling because the first couple of real sales turned out to be hard work. So that means you have to ask or check on when those sales were last made. If the agent can't point to any sales within the last twelve months, then you're better off without them on your list of who to trust.

Remember that the moment you seek publication, you're placing yourself in the ranks of professionals who get paid for their work. That makes you a target for scams so it's important that you question and research any and all claims anyone makes to you before you trust them. By the way, the really legitimate publishers and agents won't make claims about what they can do because they have more than enough offers coming in to them that they don't have to seek out manuscripts.

The third rule is to never spend money where your publisher or agent suggests. It's their job to see that your work is good enough to begin with before accepting it for publishing or representation. If they even bring up the subject of having you get your manuscript edited by someone else, then they don't have your best interests in mind. It's their job seeing that your work is shopped around to publishers or readers. It's not your responsibility to make a tour at your expense or to purchase promotion services.

The fourth rule is that their contracts must share the risks equally. They don't get to recoup their costs before you see any profit for your work. You're not in the business to support only them. You're entitled to fair compensation in the form of royalties aside from any advances which have to earn out first.

So far, we've ignored contests, editing services, and promotional services. Let's get to those now.

Contests are a definite ego trip. Beating out other writers is like winning a race and on occasion it can benefit the writer by influencing others to want his later written work. Of course, scams rely upon all that as well. They know writers have egos and are willing to part with money to enter a contest that might expose their work to more opportunities. However, only a few contests actually can deliver on that expectation. Scams rely upon that knowledge. They don't have to really produce any results other than offer a prize and that could come from the reading fee that many contests charge. After all, it seems reasonable to writers that they can't just expect judges to work for free to read thousands of entries and that's where it starts getting nasty. Many contests don't have knowledgeable judges to determine a winner. Some don't even name their judges. As well, the work is subjective and they can essentially name anyone they choose to be the winner. So long as an actual prize is awarded in accordance with the contest rules, they’re pretty safe from the reach of the law.

Editing services are once more a subjective matter. So long as something is produced in the form of editing, there's little a writer can do as almost all editing services have caveats in their contracts making it clear that they don't guarantee their work will produce an acceptance by a literary agent or publisher. Besides which, the really good publishers have their own editors who do the same thing for manuscripts with minor problems and the publisher pays them, not the writer.

And of course, promoters make the same caveats apply to their work. They can only get the title and author's name out there. Any sales are dependent upon what the public or industry is seeking so it's basically a gamble with better odds for them than any of the games in Las Vegas because they always win. That's one reason why so few books are ever advertised in the media by publishers.

Preditors & Editors maintains a unique and fascinating database for writers. If you want to know if an agent has made any professional sales, if a publisher is worth submitting to, or if a writing competition is likely to cost you a lot more than the entry fee it demands, then you'll almost certainly find something useful in its lists—even if it's not what you want to read. My thanks to David Kuzminski for allowing me to use this article here.


Stroppy Author said...

Preditors and editors is fantastic, and this is full of useful info. It is certainly necessary to be wary. But there are some reputable editorial services and some genuine self-publishing organisations - not everything that charges is a scam.

I'd take issue with the point about not trusting a publisher that doesn't allow online browsing. In the UK, many publishers are still not very tech-savvy and they haven't enabled this because they don't think it's important or they don't know how to do it. It might be more of a red flag with US publishers, but in the UK it's not a big deal. You can't browse Penguin Classics, for example, but that shouldn't make you distrust Penguin!

Sheila Norton said...

I've just discovered this blog and I'm finding it very interesting. As a novelist lucky enough to have been published by a mainstream publisher, I agree that it shouldn't be necessary for authors to have to pay for their work to be published. However, I have tremendous sympathy for those who feel driven to do so. Finding a publisher becomes more difficult every year, and there's no guarantee that if you've written something publishable it will in fact ever be published - unless you resort to self-publishing. That's why I hate the term 'vanity publishing'. Vanity has nothing to do with the natural desire for a writer to see his/her work in print.

This is where sites like 'Predators and Editors'come into their own, in warning writers which companies etc to avoid. Am I right in thinking, though, that the site mainly seems to deal with US publishers and agents?

Interesting blog - will be back!

JP_Fife said...

Nice in depth article covering quite a few topics. I actually haven't heard of the TV scam mentioned, although someone once tried on the 'I've no money but I'll leave my valuable work tools with you' one.

A lot of this advice has been said before but it must be repeated again and again on a regular basis until it sinks in with people. The scammers repeat themselves over and over so fire has to be fought with fire.

Olivia Ryan said...
"Vanity has nothing to do with the natural desire for a writer to see his/her work in print."

Olivia, I think that's the definition of vanity publishing.

Anonymous said...

Dave is a good egg whose heart is definitely in the right place. Rock on, Dave.

pinkgecko said...

As always, very useful and informative. I can think of at least one company a lot of fellow writers have been tempted by (including myself). We all appear to have thought better of it though.

Nicola Morgan said...

This should be required reading for anyone trying to get published. It's come at an interesting time for me because recently I came across a writer who was utterly "had", after not realising that this "lovely, kind publisher" was not a publisher at all but a vanity press after his money with no explanation of how he was going to earn a sou from his work.

Very clear explanation of how to identify the scams. Well done! Nicola Morgan from

Loren Eaton said...

Read it, loved it, blogged it!