When those “dreams come true” are publishing scams…
by Anne R. Allen
Because I have a lot of articles out there on publishing scams, I get frequent messages from writers who fear they’ve been ensnared by a scammer.
I hear even more often from their friends. These friends or relatives see something iffy going on, but don’t want to be the Debbie Downer who brings unnecessary negativity into a hopeful writer’s life.
The friend usually has a reason for being suspicious. Whether the “dream project” is a dodgy anthology, an overpriced no-name contest, a vanity press masquerading as a real publisher, or a junk marketing scheme, a lot of people will have a feeling the project isn’t passing the smell test.
But if they don’t know much about the publishing industry themselves, they hesitate to rain on a newbie writer’s publishing-fantasy parade.
Their writer friend is happy for the first time in forever, floating around on Cloud Nine, sure they’re about to realize their life-long goal of being a successful writer.
So the friend emails me and asks — what should a friend do?
I say if you’re close enough to that person to have their trust, then you need to tell them about your doubts. If you don’t think they’ll believe you, a mutual friend might help you convey the message.
You also can break it to them gently by urging them to do some research on their own. Here are some things you can suggest. Remember Google (or your favorite search engine) is your friend. 😊
Google the Company
It’s amazing how many people don’t do a simple web search of a company before forking over their money (and their dreams) to unknown, unvetted people.
So put the company’s name in the search window. Do you find any search results that aren’t their own website or social media pages? No? You’re probably in publishing scam territory. A legit company will have links from other companies. And there will be links from the blogs, websites and social media of successfully published authors with good sales and reviews.
“But they’re a brand new company” your writer friend says. “They just started up two months ago. That’s why they’re inviting authors to get big discounts and join them on the ground floor.”
Signing with a new company with no track record is never a good idea in publishing. There’s a very small profit margin, and a lot of legit start-ups don’t make it. (I’ve had two of my publishers go under.) But chances are good they’re an old scam with a new name and new branding.
And if there are “discounts,” that means there are fees. If there are upfront fees, you are likely to be in scam territory. (Not always. Legit hybrid publishers do ask you to pay up front. But hybrid publishers must be carefully vetted.)
If You can Find Names Associated with the Company, Google Them.
Often the same person will move from scam to scam. As I said above, a “brand-new company” may be perpetrating a very old scam, only with a different name. There may be a slightly different cast of characters, but the head honcho will probably be the same.
Google the Company with Words like “Scam” and “Bogus”
This seems like a no-brainer, but when a person is in that blissed-out zone where they think somebody loves their work and they’re on the threshold of fame and fortune, they don’t want to invite that kind of “negativity.”
So you might have to do it on your own. And don’t stop at the first page of search results. Especially if the first page consists entirely of sponsored links to the company’s own website.
If the company is listed at Writer Beware, Reedsy, or Alli as “not recommended,” get out now. These industry watchdogs make it their business to vet all sorts of publishing industry outfits. If they find a company has a number of legitimate complaints, they add it to their “beware” lists.
You may also find links to forums on Reddit or Absolute Write (once AW is back up on its new platform) or another writerly forum where unhappy authors register their complaints. A complaint doesn’t equal guilt of course, and people on these sites can be whiny and alarmist, but they’re worth checking out.
Also, I’ve been surprised at how many publishing scams get the okay from the Better Business Bureau, so don’t consider their endorsement a safe recommendation.
Is the Website Professional?
- Is there an “about us” page? One with real people listed as members of staff with photos and bios? A legitimate publisher, marketing company, or literary agency is going to be run by actual human beings, who will be proud of their resumes and their work record. (Unfortunately, some scammers have bogus “about us” information full of lies and stock photos, but it’s still worthwhile to look.) You do NOT want to get involved with a company who won’t even tell you who they are.
- Do they advertise books by their successful clients? Successful publishers, marketers, and agents do.
- Does the website look like an ad for a fad diet instead of a publishing professional? Do they have “testimonials” from “happy” authors who talk about how nice the book looks instead of sales? Major red flag. No real agent or publisher needs testimonials. Good reviews and great sales are all the recommendations they need.
- Do they tell you they’re not like other outfits who are just out for money and they want to help you because…art? Um, said no real publishing professional ever. Nobody goes into business to lose money.
Be Aware of the Most Common Publishing Scams
Some of these scams have been around since Gutenberg. They constantly reappear, with techy variations.
1) Anthology Scams
These have been around for at least a hundred years. Since the 1920s, scam poetry anthologies have run little ads in the backs of magazines.
a) The Poetry Anthology
I almost got taken in by this one when I was 12. I sent them a poem and they LOVED it. They were going to put it in a book! Luckily my mom explained how these anthologies work: everybody gets an acceptance, no matter how awful their attempts at verse. Then all the “poems” get printed in a huge anthology and every participant is urged to buy the vastly overpriced copies. (Makes a great gift!) Nobody else will buy the books of course, because bookstores don’t sell overpriced collections of bad poetry.
The saddest thing is this scam is still going strong. Recently I heard about a neighbor who fell for it and was proudly crowing about being a “published poet.” Nobody wanted to burst her bubble.
There’s probably no point in telling a friend they’ve been scammed this way after the fact. Unless they’re likely to do it again.
Lots of variations of this venerable con have proliferated in the Internet age. In the late ‘90s the “Poetry dot Com” scam was a biggie. Not only were all “winning” contributors offered a chance to buy a ridiculously overpriced book, but they could get mugs, tee-shirts and tote bags crowing about their “win.” Ca-ching, ca-ching.
b) The Inspirational Anthology
There are many wonderful charity anthologies out there with great writing that benefits a good cause. I’ve participated in several myself. But heartless scammers are mimicking them and pocketing the money.
A charity anthology is a personal essay anthology, usually with an inspirational “Chicken Soup” type of theme. The authors contribute a piece free of charge, promote it to their readers, and the proceeds go to charity. The authors get exposed to each other’s fan base, plus they’re contributing to a good cause.
Not so with the scam charity anthology. With a bona fide charity anthology, authors may be asked to contribute to cover art and self-publishing costs, but the contribution won’t be more than 50 dollars or so—after all, self-publishing doesn’t cost much in the days of Kindle and POD.
But with a scam anthology, the “contribution” will be hundreds. That’s how the scammers make their money. They’ll also depend on the authors to buy copies and do the promotion. If the contributors are newbies, the book probably won’t sell enough to be much help to the charity.
But the organizer pockets a bundle.
c) The Boxed Set
Again, this scam has been hijacked from a legitimate type of promotion. The organizer will invite authors to contribute novels to a themed “boxed set,” like witchy paranormal cozies, vampire romances, women sleuths, or whatever. As a collective, the authors will be expected to chip in for the publication and promotion costs. These costs are usually covered by the first month’s royalties.
Sometimes these boxed sets, if priced cheaply, can reach the bestseller lists, and many indie authors have become “USA Today bestsellers” via a well-promoted boxed set.
Enter the scammers. They put together as many as 15 or 20 authors into these boxed sets, often “guaranteeing” USA Today bestseller status. But the “buy-in” to join in this set is exorbitant — often into the high thousands. And the authors don’t see a penny in royalties (because all the proceeds need to go to promotion, sez the organizer) And usually nobody gets onto that coveted USA Today bestseller list.
2) Overpriced No-Name Contests
These have been around a long time, too, but they’re bigger and more profitable in the age of self-publishing.
You pay $20 to enter a poem in a contest and if you win, the prize is $50. Your big triumph is announced in a newsletter that goes out to the 200 people who entered. Nobody else. Somebody’s making money ($3950) and it’s not you.
The worst of these are the self-published book contests. Yes, you have a good chance of winning a prize if the entry fee is $200 and the prize is $500. Only a handful of authors will enter with such a puny prize.
But hey, if you win, you get a shiny gold sticker you can put on your book cover that says. “Winner of the Hieronymus P. Snively Memorial Book Award.”
Save yourself a lot of money and make your own sticker. 🙂
3) The Bogus Agent or Fake “Literary Scout.”
This one has been around since the 1980s at least. Anybody can call themselves a “literary agent.” There’s no degree. Good agents get their training by interning at successful agencies.
But bogus agents just hang out a shingle. Thing is, they have no contacts in the business, so they’re very unlikely to be able to sell your book. Instead they make their money by charging a “reading fee,” charging for “incidental fees: — which used to be postage and copying — but now are even murkier. They also may offer pricey “editing services.”
This scam faded with the self-publishing revolution, but it’s making a comeback. The new scams are even more outrageous than the old ones.
Some scammers even impersonate well known literary agents or claim they’re “scouting” for Big Five publishers. Be very, very wary of a self-styled “literary scout.” Especially if you’re not already a wildly successful indie author. (In which case, why would you need this person?) And never, ever pay one up front.
An agent who charges a fee is bogus. Agents make their money when they sell your book to a publisher. Full stop.
4) The Vanity Press Masquerading as Something Else
Scammy vanity presses are everywhere right now — masquerading as traditional publishers, “hybrid” presses, or “self-publishing assistants.”
The main thing they have in common is that their services are overpriced, and so are the books. They cost so much more than traditionally published or self-published books that nobody but your Aunt Susie will buy them.
They may offer to copyright your manuscript for a ridiculous fee (It only costs $40 to copyright a ms. in the US.) They’ll offer you hugely expensive editing (often simply a pass through spellcheck and grammar-check software) and they may give you a cover that makes you cry. They’ll tell you they’ll “make your book available on Amazon” as if that isn’t a simple thing to do yourself in the age of KDP.
a) You Probably Don’t Need Pricey Assistance to Self-Publish.
Even cybermoron Boomers like me can self-publish their own books. There are plenty of inexpensive sources of information. I recommend David Gaughran’s book Let’s Get Digital, which he offers free on his website. You don’t need to pay an overpriced vanity press to help you self-publish. Just read a few books and follow people like Mr. Gaughran.
b) Don’t get Bullied into Self-publishing if You Want a Traditional Career.
The vanity press scammers love to tell you “nobody” can get a traditional Big 5 publishing contract these days. But the truth is plenty of new writers are landing agents, signing nice deals, and making the bestseller lists. Look at Delia Owens with Where the Crawdads Sing, which was her first novel.
There are wonderful small presses, too. If you’re interested in a small traditional press, I suggest you subscribe to the Authors Publish online magazine. It’s FREE and full of info on publishers who don’t require an agent.
c) Not all Vanity Presses are Scams
Not all vanity presses pass themselves off as anything but what they are. Some people like to use a vanity press for a personal keepsake book. It can be a good choice for a collection of recipes or family history to gift to relatives and friends, a collection of poetry or reminiscences, or a memoir that doesn’t have a big audience outside the family. They often produce beautiful books that will be treasured.
d) But if you Want a Professional Career, Stay Away
If you’re in the writing business to make money, you never want to use a vanity press. The books are priced so much higher than traditionally published books that bookstores won’t carry them.
Plus most of the bogus publishers will keep your information and harass you for years trying to get you to buy some of their junk marketing packages (see below).
5) The Junk Marketing Scheme
This is where the big money is in the age of self-publishing. So if you’re an indie author, these are people to watch out for. I find them in my inbox every week. You’ll also see their ads all over social media. And many will cold-call any indie or small press author whose phone number is available to them (And most of our phone numbers are out there. Thanks, Mr. Zuckerberg.)
These companies charge huge fees for sending Tweets about your book. (Tweeting hasn’t sold books since about 2011.) Plus they will advertise it on their website — a website which is only visited by other victims of their schemes. Or they may sell you an ad in a magazine that is read by nobody.
a) Conference and Book Fair Scams
Junk marketers and vanity publishers often offer ridiculously expensive spots in their booths at book fairs and conferences. You pay $1000s and maybe sell three books. Plus you have your travel and lodging expenses. A very bad business model. (Luckily the pandemic has put that one on hold.)
But there are new, COVID-era publishing scams soliciting writers for virtual conferences. Conferences that don’t exist. What the scammers really want is your personal information, including your bank information (so they can “pay” you for your participation.)
If you haven’t heard of the conference and can’t find it with a Google search, report the solicitation as spam.
b) Paid Review Scams
Never pay for an Amazon book review. If you do, not only will the review be removed, but you may very well be kicked off Amazon…for life. Other paid reviews often only appear on the review company’s website, where nobody will see it.
And there’s a new horrible scam just reported by Victoria Strauss at Writer Beware: criminals are extorting writers by sending obscenity-laced messages threatening to give your book 1000s of one-star bad reviews if you don’t pay them for good reviews. This is apparently happening at Goodreads right now. Another reason for authors to give Goodreads a wide berth.
Good marketing is a hands-on project. Your marketer will work with you to help you connect with readers, but you must participate. Mindless spam and fakery don’t sell books.
c) We’re Gonna Put You in the Movies!
There are any number of Hollywood scams. The most recent has been the one where you’re asked to pay big bux for a screenwriter to turn your book into a screenplay. Some of these junk marketing outfits offer this “Hollywood option.”
Paying somebody to write a screenplay based on your book “on spec”— that is, without a contract with an actual filmmaker — is absurd. This service costs around $15,000 and does absolutely nothing to get your book made into a film.
Every restaurant server and parking lot attendant in Southern California has a screenplay. Having somebody write one for you doesn’t give you any more chances than these folks have in selling it to a studio.
Was the Writer Solicited by the Company, Either by Email, Phone, or Through a Social Media Group?
Legitimate publishers and literary agents don’t cold-call unknown writers or send mass-emails.
And good marketers should know how to market themselves.
If they’re contacting you in a spammy, sleazy way, is it likely they’ll be classy or clever when selling your book? Unfortunately the cold-call phone solicitation is back in style for a lot of publishing scams these days. Especially junk marketers. I’ve had some of them phone me. They can be pretty hilarious. But I’m sure they can be convincing to a newbie.
If you want to hire a marketer, ask around in writer groups. Hire the one who’s made lots of money FOR the author, not FROM the author. Which leads me to…
The Most Important Thing to Keep in Mind: Real publishing professionals make money FOR their clients. Publishing scams make money FROM their clients.
by Anne R. Allen (@annerallen) May 16, 2021
What about you, scriveners? Have you ever fallen for any of these publishing scams? Do you wish a friend had warned you? Has any of these scammers approached you recently? Have you had to tell a friend that their “dream come true” was probably a scam?
BOOK OF THE WEEK
The Author Blog: Easy Blogging for Busy Authors
Just named one of the Best 100 SEO Books of All Time by Book Authority
Only $2.99 for the ebook
(A lot cheaper than paying a marketer to tell you to blog 🙂 )
“This is, as far as I’m concerned, THE definitive guide to the author blog.” Joy V. Spicer
“Her pragmatic approach is clear, ethical and encouraging.” Julie Cordiner
“Best £2.30 I ever spent on Kindle and I’ll certainly follow up on further publications by Anne Allen. Happy to give 5 stars.” A Word in Your Ear