Predators are on the lookout for scammable new or discouraged writers.
by Anne R. Allen
As long as there are writers, there will be writing scams. Hungry predators will always be lying in wait, ready to pounce on any tender young scribe who strays from the safety of the mainstream herd.
And now there are an increasing number of scammers who target the established writer as well—hoping to profit from the discouragement so many indies are feeling as Amazon’s changing policies and algorithms leave them behind.
In the 1990s, bogus literary agencies were everywhere. They advertised directly to writers in magazines and online—often buying ads in prestigious magazines like Writers Digest and Poets and Writers.
They charged huge “reading fees” for submissions, but never actually sold more than a handful of books to publishers. Or they sold manuscripts to bogus publishing operations they owned themselves. Often they’d also send their victims to their own run-through-spellcheck “editing services.” Another trick was to charge ridiculously high fees for “copying and postage” in the pre-digital submissions era.
In the 2000s, writers saw the rise of the bogus POD publisher. Companies like PublishAmerica scammed thousands with overpriced publishing services—often masquerading as traditional publishers. They also made predatory rights grabs—sometimes tying up an author’s copyright for a nearly a decade.
PublishAmerica quietly evaporated last year. But they never gave their authors a return of their rights. Writer Beware reports that some PA books are still selling on Amazon, but the authors get no royalties, because there’s no place to send the money.
Early in the last decade, the most successful vanity and self-publishing companies were bought out by the infamous Author Solutions. AS then managed to get into bed with some of the most respected names in publishing, like Thomas Nelson and Hay House, and even Big Five houses like Simon and Schuster and Penguin Random House.
Their big triumph came when Penguin Random House bought Author Solutions in 2012.
But PRH managed to unload it 2016 after a huge negative backlash.
Beware the Spawn of Author Solutions in 2019
Now, with the slow demise of Author Solutions, offspring of the mega-scammer are reviving its worst practices. Author Solutions has become a Hydra that constantly sprouts new heads.
These spinoffs are hitting our inboxes and phones with re-animated scams from the Author Solutions playbook. There are offers of marketing packages, pricey fake book reviews, and a new one: an offer to republish your self-pubbed book with a “real” publisher. (Bogus agent optional.)
A lot of the new crop of scammers are apparently former Author Solutions employees in the Philippines who have access to the Author Solutions database. This means former Author Solutions victims are being targeted once again
But even established authors are getting the emails. I’ve had a few. Mostly they’re obvious scams full of bad grammar and outrageous claims and promises, but some can look pretty legit.
One tip-off: the scammers tend to assume you have only one book. They often have researched enough to know one of your titles, and part of the pitch is to tell you how badly you’ve marketed it. They’ll also scornfully inform you that the price is too high or too low. (They usually don’t know that Amazon’s royalty shrinks from 70% to 35% if you price below $2.99, because that’s not true in many countries outside of the US/UK.)
Victoria Strauss gives a list of some of the companies Author Solutions has spawned at Writer Beware. It’s a long and fast-growing list. Most were only started in 2018, and I expect many more will sprout up in 2019.
Some of the most tempting targets for writing scams are:
- Veterans of the query-go-round who have begun to think there’s a secret path to publishing success that other people know about, but they don’t.
- Impatient newbies who can be convinced that throwing money at something is a substitute for networking, practice, and hard work.
- Frustrated KDP authors who believe mass quantities of reviews on Amazon will boost sales, and don’t mind breaking rules to get them—usually because they’re told “everybody does it.”
- Naïve indie authors who don’t study the marketplace before they publish, and are willing to pay huge amounts of money for out-of-date, useless, or bogus “marketing” that simply doesn’t sell books.
The most popular current writing scams can be divided into three categories:
1) Junk Marketing Scams
You’ve probably read some of the doom and gloom from big name indies saying that we all need to pay big bux for advertising to succeed these days. Russell Blake wrote one a couple of weeks ago that makes some good, if depressing, points.
But when he’s talking about marketing and advertising, he’s talking about pay-to-play Amazon ads, not throw-spaghetti-at-the-wall marketing.
Paid advertising on Amazon and Facebook as well as email bargain newsletters like Bookbub do get results for a lot of authors. And yes, legit advertising can be expensive—with some Bookbub ads running into the $1000s these days.
But even a Bookbub ad for a $2.99 mystery novel—at a cost of nearly $4000—is not as expensive as these useless junk marketing scams. Some packages run as much as $17,000.
Junk marketing includes: press releases, book fair exhibits, book trailers, catalog listings, Hollywood book-to-screen packages, fake social media followers, and endless Tweets by Tweet-bots.
2) Paid Review Scams
In spite of Amazon’s draconian crackdowns, selling fake Amazon reviews is still big business. I get solicitations almost every day from outfits offering reviews for prices ranging from $30 to $500 per review. Some of them use rude, shaming tactics to try to bully an author into buying their scammy product. They may even use “F” bombs and other insults. Here’s a post about a particularly nasty one called “Black Sun Reviews,” which Victoria Strauss calls “super-dodgy.”
NOTE: If any company promises to put a review on Amazon, it’s a scam. Amazon does not allow payment of any kind for customer reviews.
Unfortunately, the crackdowns don’t seem to keep these review mills from churning out their one-line, grammatically challenged, generic reviews, while legit reviewers are being kicked off Amazon in droves.
This makes it even harder for authors to get real reviews, so even more authors turn to the scammers… and the cycle continues.
In 2018, Amazon made it more difficult to leave customer reviews by requiring that all reviewers buy at least $50 worth of merchandise from the Zon per year. It’s one more way they are trying to thwart the scammers.
Unfortunately, the scammers persist. And the pool of legit reviewers shrinks yet again.
But the crackdowns also make it much more dangerous for an author to get away with paying for reviews. If you’re caught, you don’t just lose your reviews. You can be banned from selling anything on Amazon for life. Not worth the risk.
3) Bogus Publisher Scams
I have only heard from one of these scammers personally, but I have to admit I was intrigued for about half a minute. These people pretend to be literary agents, or “book scouts” who love your work and want to give your book wider distribution than you’re getting from your current publisher or self-publishing business.
This is what a lot of authors are dreaming about these days as the self-publishing bubble deflates.
Some of these people are skilled, and their praise and enthusiasm can draw you in. Until you stop and read carefully. Then you realize the praise is all generic, they don’t have a clue what your book is about and it’s just a mass-mailed piece of spam.
Their English language skills will often be a little shaky for people who are supposedly literary professionals.
These people also target newer unpublished writers, pretending to be legit publishers who are eager for new work.
All of them play the old Author Solutions game, offering publishing services at wildly inflated prices plus junk marketing packages and fake reviews.
It’s just another offspring of A.S. feeding on your dreams as they shatter them.
How to Spot Writing Scams
The number one give-away for a whole lot of these predators is ridiculous promises of huge sales. Nobody can guarantee your book will be a bestseller.
Some pretend they’ve had a previous conversation with you and you’ve already obligated yourself to them in some way. They’ll start with “Did you get my last email?” or “You never got back to me. Are you onboard?”
They sometimes they’ll tip you off by giving themselves improbable names like Trenton Bob Steve or Hans Christian Goldberg (I’m not making those up. I’ve really had spam from people using those names.) Third world scammers have a lot of trouble with English-speakers’ names.
They’ll contact you via cold calls or spam. Always be wary of unsolicited email, DMs, and cold-calls from strangers. Visit the website and look for grammatical errors, over-the-top testimonials, and bashing of the publishing industry or their competitors.
Be especially careful if they’re long on promises but short on specifics. Who are these people? Who have they worked with? Do they have any connection to known legitimate companies? Do they list their credentials? Are the credentials legit?
The publishing business is a fairly small one. Be careful of anything fringey that has no track record. I recently checked out one of these outfits that promised lots of advertising on their website. So I checked the site’s Alexa rating. It was over 10 million. (The lower the number the better.) Only 23 sites linked to them. Basically, they were advertising to crickets. For $35 a month. Yeah. Not exactly cost-effective.
Always Google a company with the word “complaints” and then ask around. Networking with other writers is essential for keeping safe in today’s dangerous publishing environment. If you’re looking for self-publishing help, Alli has a vetted list of self-publishing services reviewed on their website. And never engage with a company until you’ve checked them out with industry watchdog Victoria Strauss at Writer Beware.
by Anne R. Allen (@annerallen) January 6, 2019
What about you, scriveners? Have you run into any of these scams recently? Are you getting offers from paid review mills? Have you been scammed in the past? What drew you into the scammer’s web?
Featured Image: The Big Bad Wolf by Jessie Willcox Smith (1863-1935)
Many thanks to Penny Sansevieri at Author Marketing Experts for naming Anne to her list of 19 Author Marketing Gurus to Follow on Twitter in 2019!
BOOK OF THE WEEK
This is a timeless novel by Anne’s mother, Shirley S. Allen, who taught creative writing for many years at U.Conn. It’s a story of how the west was won, based on the life of Anne’s great, great grandmother, Roxanna Britton
Roxanna Britton: A Biographical Novel
by Shirley S. Allen
“Jane Austen meets Laura Ingalls Wilder”…Mark Williams, editor of the New Publishing Standard
This novel, by my mother, the late Dr. Shirley S. Allen, is a rip-roaring tale of how the west was won. It also happens to be all true. It’s the story of my great, great grandmother, Roxanna Britton, who pioneered the Old West as a young widow with two small children.
It’s got romance, action, cowboys (not always the good guys) Indians (some very helpful ones) the real Buffalo Bill Cody, and a whole lot more!
Widowed as a young mother in 1855, Roxanna breaks through traditional barriers by finding a husband of her own choice, developing her own small business, and in 1865, becoming one of the first married women to own property. We follow her through the hard times of the Civil War to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 to a homestead in Nebraska to her final home in Elsinore, California.
STORY QUARTERLY (the literary magazine of Rutgers University.) $15 ENTRY FEE. First prize $1,000 and publication. Shorts, short shorts, & novel excerpts up to 6,250 words .1) LITERARY FICTION CONTEST: December 17, 2018-February 17, 2019. 2) CREATIVE NONFICTION CONTEST: November 9, 2018-January 12, 2019.
DISQUIET LITERARY PRIZES $15 ENTRY FEE. Fiction, Poetry, and Nonfiction categories. Up to 25 pages for prose 10 pages for poetry. The top fiction winner will be published on Granta.com, the nonfiction winner in Ninthletter.com, and the poetry winner in The Common. Grand prize winner will receive a full scholarship including tuition, lodging, and a $1,000 travel stipend to Lisbon in 2019. Runners-up and other outstanding entrants will receive financial aid. Deadline January 10, 2019.
The Mary McCarthy Prize for Shorter Fiction. $2000 prize plus publication by Sarabande Books and 2-week residency at their Kentucky retreat. Submit a collection of stories or novellas or a short novel of 150 to 250 pages. $29 entry fee. Deadline February 15, 2019.
Wild Women Story Contest $20 entry fee. $1,000 prize and publication in TulipTree Review. Write about “women who are the heroines of their own lives.” Submit a poem, a story, or an essay of up to 10,000 words. Deadline: February 23, 2019.
Glimmer Train Fiction Open: Fee $21 1st Prize $3000. 2nd Prize $1000. Any genre. 3000 to 28,000 words. Deadline: February 28, 2019
SEQUESTRUM EDITOR’S REPRINT AWARD $15 ENTRY FEE. $200 and publication in Sequestrum for one previously published piece of fiction or nonfiction and one previously published piece of poetry. A minimum of one runner-up in each category will receive $25-$50 and publication. Maximum 12,000 words for prose and three poems. Deadline April 30, 2019.
Don’t let those published short stories stop working! Here are 25 Literary Magazines that will take reprints.
7 PUBLISHERS FOR MEMOIRS! And no, you don’t need an agent. From the good folks at Authors Publish