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Sharks in the Water: Old Publishing Scams for the New Millennium

Writers have a dangerous voyage in the best of times, but as we start a new millennium, even more sharks are gathering in the water. Old-style scams are coming back in unfamiliar forms, taking advantage of advances in technology and an ever-growing population of writers.

As James Fisher, a former FBI agent who investigates literary crimes, told the Washington Post, scam artists cost writers more than $50 million a year. This is not an isolated phenomenon- Fisher estimates that more than 10,000 writers are taken in every year.

In this article I'll profile a few of the most common scams and their modern counterparts. To protect the privacy of the authors who generously shared their personal scam stories, I am not using their names. But the stories are all, unfortunately, true.

Agent Scams

There is no licensing of literary agents, so anyone who wants the title just has to print up some business cards. Unfortunately, with legitimate agents more and more providing a "gatekeeper" service for publishers (that is, many publishers will look only at agented material), many writers searching for publication are getting tangled up in the webs of false agents. In fact, the vast majority of people billing themselves as agents do not make their living through the difficult job of selling books on commission. Here's how they generate income instead:

Reading Fees: In this scheme, an "agent" will agree to read your manuscript... but first you have to pay a fee ranging up to $500. The deceptive part is that most of these people have no intention of representing your manuscript or anyone else's, no matter how brilliant it might be. They make a much easier living collecting those reading fees. It's easy enough to do the math- if they get only 10 submissions a week and collect $100 for each, they can live well without ever sending a book to an editor. With rejection so common in this industry, most who are taken by this scam never realize that their manuscripts probably weren't even read.

There are some successful agents who say their reading fees are meant to weed out submissions, and who will rebate the money if they take you on as a client. Usually the reading fee in this case is $50 or less. But distinguishing a legitimate fee-charging agent from a scammer takes considerable research, so it might be wise to submit first to those you know won't be asking for money.

Sometimes even a great reputation can be deceptive. One romance writer was willing to pay for a "read and critique" because she knew the agency represented many bestselling authors. What she didn't know was that all those authors' agents were in a separate division. The division which had solicited her book was in the business of collecting reading fees. "All I got for my $400 was a couple paragraphs of generic comments with the character names inserted here and there," she recalls.

Expense Charges: Most legitimate agents do not charge their clients for routine business expenses like postage, copying, and phone calls. The investment they make in an author is all the more incentive to sell her book.

But many false agents not only charge for these items, they demand "reimbursement" or "advances" far in excess of any expenses they might incur. Victoria Strauss, who runs the Writer Beware page at the Science Fiction Writers Association Web site, explains a common technique: The agent agrees to represent a book, and asks for "30 copies or $250 to make copies." The writer figures that 30 copies will cost more than $250, and so sends a check. But Strauss points out, "No agent needs that many copies; two or three is plenty, or maybe six or seven if there's to be an auction." Of course, back at the agency, those 30 copies never get run- where would they store them? Instead, they pocket the money.

One agency charges a fee per publisher-submission: $175 for submission to ten publishing houses, $275 for submission to twenty publishing houses, with all postage prepaid by the author.

Savvy writers will recognize the fallacy here- very few books have a potential market of ten or twenty publishers, and it's the agent's job not to ship the manuscript out to every book publisher listed in Writers Market, but to find the four or five editors most likely to love it. Even if the agent actually does mail out the manuscripts (and how would you know?), publishers are unlikely to value the opinion of an agent who markets so promiscuously.

A Monthly "Representation Fee": This fee (usually $30-100) is charged for every month the "agent" represents your work. One writer recalls, "At first I thought it made perfect sense, like paying an accountant or an attorney a retainer. But then it occurred to me- they have no incentive to sell my book. In fact, the fee is a good reason to keep me hanging on for months without even submitting the book."

It bears repeating: Agents are useful only if they sell your book, so they shouldn't be paid until they do- and then only a commission (10%-15%) of what you earn. Any other charges act as a disincentive to marketing your book.

Referrals: The agent likes your story! Only it needs a little "tweaking". And she knows just the person to help you tweak- an editing service or book doctor (see below). She even helpfully provides the address and phone number and suggests you re-submit afterwards. Unfortunately, after you pay several thousands of dollars to the book doctor, the agent still doesn't quite love the book enough to represent it.

You've just been victimized by the referral-scam. The agent probably never considered representing the book, but she gets a kickback from the editing service for each rejected writer she refers. A new variation is a referral to a Web-based "manuscript display site" where there's not even the promise of editing- just the promise that your book will be put on display, presumably to attract any editor or agent who happens by. At least one of these asks for referrals "unpublishable submissions" in return for 50% of the "monthly maintenance fee", and boasts that an agent with a lot of referred rejectees could make up to $10,000 a week.

Unfortunately, some formerly reputable agents have given in to the promise of such riches. So even if the agent is generally well-regarded, beware of any suggestion that you use a book doctor, especially if the agent refers you to a specific service. It's entirely possible that kickbacks are involved. This sort of kickback is illegal in many states, and in one case, Edit Ink, has led to state-sponsored lawsuits in New York, the center of the publishing industry.

Editing Services and Book Doctors

This is another scam that piggybacks on a legitimate profession. There are reputable free-lance editors (aka book doctors) who will help you polish a manuscript... but there are many more who will take your money upfront and do little or no work.

Often these book doctors work secretly with agents, who refer them rejected writers. The SFWA Web site warns, "Unscrupulous book doctors (and the less-than-reputable agents who refer to them) often prey on the anxieties of beginning writers by saying that publishers won't look at manuscripts unless they've been professionally edited.... This isn't so. ....Your submission needs to be finished, polished, and properly presented, but no one will hold it against you if you accomplish this yourself."

Sometimes the false agents themselves moonlight as book doctors. One writer describes his experience: "She told me that she'd see to it that my book was edited and then she'd represent it. It would cost me $4 a page, for two complete edits, and I should write a check for $1800 and they'd get going right away." Fortunately he was warned off before he wiped out his life savings. "I thought if all that stood between me and writing success was $1800, it was a small price to pay. But now I see they were just ripping me off."

Another writer found that every time she rewrote according to the agent/book doctor's suggestions, she was charged yet again for another "review". She found the suggestions were so generic she couldn't be sure the supposed book doctor had ever read the book.

Most legitimate free-lance editors have actually worked for major publishers and can supply real industry references. Be wary of any editor who asks for the entire fee upfront, before they do any work. And ask around to find out what a standard rate is. One writer paid $1000 per chapter before learning that the standard fee is closer to $3 a page.


One of the oldest and most popular ways to scam writers is to promise publication... for a fee. In this scam, a writer answers an ad proclaiming "Wanted-- manuscripts!" or submits to a company listed in a writer's magazine or guide. The publisher might require the writer to pay a reading fee (which should be an immediate tip-off- no reputable publisher charges reading fees), or insist that he buy several "sample" books before submitting.

The scam-publisher makes a pretense of considering the manuscript, but generally anyone who submits is sent a contract, usually obligating the author to pay thousands of dollars to subsidize the cost of production. (These publishers are known as subsidy publishers.) Usually this fee is much higher than the actual production costs. The author might think that the promised marketing and distribution are worth the money, but in truth, none of these publishers has a viable marketing or distribution system. They might have a sham catalog with photos of a few covers, but they're unlikely to waste money trying to sell books, as few bookstores order from subsidy publishers. The books, if any are ever printed, will molder in the warehouse.

Some scam-publishers claim they do not charge for production costs; instead the contract obligates you to buy, at an inflated price, thousands of copies of your own book. (That way they can molder in your garage.)

A more sophisticated scam is called co-op publishing or sometimes a joint venture. The publisher agrees to print and market a book, and pay royalties on the sales, just like a real publisher. But first the writer must show her dedication to the project by making an equal contribution to the production costs. This "equal" amount turns out to be more than the entire cost, but the writer might never find this out.

Scam-publishers are now showing up on the Web, promising electronic publication in return for a setup-fee and a monthly "maintenance" charge. One writer describes the come-on she got when she first responded to an ad from a "literary agent" who, it turned out, was starting his own publishing site: "A writer could pay to post his/her own work for a nominal monthly fee. The publisher would then get a small percentage of each book sold. For a few select writers, there would be no charge. The publisher would get a larger percentage of each book in this case." When the supposedly no-charge publication suddenly required payment for cover art, she decided to design the cover herself. But her suspicions were raised, and she soon withdrew the book.

Some scam-publishers use subterfuge and deception to make themselves look reputable. One British scam-publisher called itself "Avon Books Ltd", aiming to be mistaken for the well-known legitimate US publisher Avon. Others have claimed membership in industry organizations or subsidiary status to major publishers. One Web-based scam-publisher claimed to be able to post electronic books on the major bookstore sites (which do not actually display entire books). The test of truth is a simple one: If they charge to publish and market your books, they're not associated with any major legitimate publisher or organization. Period.

Here are just a few ways scam-publishers can cheat authors:

(Note: It's important to distinguish subsidy publishing and scam-publishing from self-publishing. Self-publishing can be a viable alternative for some books, especially those in niche markets too narrow to interest the major publishers. When you self-publish, you work with a printer to format and print the book, but you retain all rights and control the marketing and distribution. If you decide to go this route, however, you should do the same type of research and comparison-shopping that you'd do for any small business.)

Web Publishing and Display Sites

The relatively low cost of transferring text to the Web has made it possible for almost anyone to set up business as a publisher. Inevitably, the vast majority of these are probably scams, promising to offer the book for sale or will display manuscripts for review by agents and editors (the latter is known as a "display site"). But most customers for electronic books deal with the established, reputable e-publishers, and as for the display sites, very few agents or editors have the time or need to scour the Web looking for manuscripts- they've already got a stack waiting on their desk.

These Web sites often practice the old con of "bait-and-switch," enticing writers with what sounds like a good deal, but turns out to be unavailable. For example, they will offer free or low-cost "showcasing" of unpublished work. A writer will sign up for a basic form of the service, perhaps a few months of "free" display, and once she's formatted and sent in her disk, she'll get a notice that the free offer is oversubscribed. But for a small fee, she can have the premium service!

Or the basic service is free, but the required formatting costs hundreds of dollars. Or the setup is free, but there's a monthly maintenance charge.

Scam-publishers on the Web come complete with a set of high-tech problems:

Anthologies and Contests

For many years, unscrupulous publishers have run "contests", promising a cash prize or publication to the winner. But they actually make their money off the contest entry fees sent in by thousands of unwitting authors. This is a classic example of the bait-and-switch scam. After you've sent in your fee, you are notified you didn't win the cash prize, but you've won honorable mention or second place (they won't tell you every entrant also placed). The prize is... publication! All you have to do is pay for a copy of the book (if it's a print contest) or for the display of your work on the Web.

Pacific Stars and Stripes editor Allan R. Andrews describes an infamous poetry contest scam: "To have a copy of this book, the winners were urged to send in $49.95, plus $4 for postage and handling. For an additional $20, the publishers would add a short biographical note about the poet. This note was allegedly designed to bring the writers to the attention of the media and the public. Later, these ersatz poets were offered a chance to have their poems mounted under Lucite on a walnut plaque, an offer costing $38. Furthermore, they could have their poems recorded on a cassette tape for $29.95."

Now this trick has been taken onto the Web. One Web site is running a contest with a prize of $10,000 for the best novel. It's possible this prize will actually be awarded... it's also possible it will be awarded to the owner's brother. What's certain, however, is you'll never know (unless you win yourself) that the prize went to a real contestant. And the promised "publication" isn't really publication when it's just your manuscript thrown up on the Web with a hundred others.

Occasionally reputable publishers run contests, usually when they are opening a new line and want to attract submissions. Usually, however, there is no entry fee, because (remember the mantra) real publishers make their money by selling books, not by charging authors.

The Best Defense

The best defense against scams is information. Here are some guidelines for avoiding the sharks:

Know Your Purpose

Many writers who get taken in by scam artists don't have a well-defined goal beyond "getting published". Do your research, and work out a plan based on a realistic analysis of your book and the market. Every time you get any kind of offer, check it against your plan. Does it further your goal? Does it make financial sense?

Check It Out

Call your writing organization and ask if there are complaints against this person or company in the Professional Relations file. (And please, if you've been the victim of any scams, report it to the organization. Your name will usually be kept confidential.) Check the websites below. You might also call the Better Business Bureau and State Attorney General in the state of residence, but that's often hard to determine with Web-based businesses.

Take Your Time

As one writer said when he turned down an offer from suspect agent, "Better to be patient than swindled." If it's legitimate, the offer won't disappear. No reputable publisher, agent, or Web site would object to a delay while you consult advisors, or refuse you a copy of the contract, or "forget" the names of their satisfied customers.

Request References

Agents sell manuscripts. Publishers sell books. If they're doing their job, they should be able to provide examples. But remember, con men and women know how to manufacture these. Any agent can claim to have represented a successful author, and it would take a lot of research to prove otherwise. Ask instead for a reference from an editor at a major publishing company - and call the editor to verify her name isn't being used deceptively. Membership in a professional organization like AAR is an indication of conventional business practices, but be sure and call the organization or visit its Web site and make sure the membership claim is legitimate.

Don't Trust Market Guides and Magazine Ads

No one can check out every claim made by an agent or publisher, so most of the information is self-reported. Just because an agent claims to have sold twenty books last year, or to be a member of the Association of Authors' Representatives (AAR), doesn't mean it's true.

Ask Around

The various writers' lists and links are a great source for networking. Ask if anyone's had dealings with this person or if a deal you've been offered sounds fishy. The collective knowledge of hundreds of writers will go a long way to combatting the deception fostered by scam artists.

Join a Writer's Group

During her stint as chairperson of the Romance Writers of America Professional Relations Committee, Lynn Coddington observed one characteristic united most of the members who complained about having been scammed. "It was clear that the people who aren't members of a writer's group or local chapter are most susceptible to scams. If they're not in continuous contact with other writers, they often lack the information needed to identify a scam."

Do It Yourself

Editing is part of writing, and it will be of longterm benefit to learn to do it yourself. A critique group will give you much more help than a book doctor will- and by critiquing other manuscripts, you'll learn how to evaluate your own.

If you are interested in self-publishing, you don't need a subsidy publisher who will charge for mythical marketing and distribution. Join the Publishers Marketing Association and learn from veteran self-publishers how to work with printers to format and publish your book. You'll save thousands of dollars.

Don't Throw Good Money After Bad

Even if you've already started paying an agent or a book doctor or a publisher, cut your losses the moment they start abrogating the original agreement.

. . . And never forget the Writer's Rule of Thumb: In the standard publishing practice, money flows one way -- to you. The publisher pays you; you don't pay the publisher. The agent siphons off 10 or 15% of what she earns for you and passes the rest onto you. You don't pay a retainer, a representation fee, or anything else. Whenever someone offers a deal outside of this very basic equation (money goes to writer), it's time to step back and re-consider.

While the Internet is the source of many scams, it can also provide the information needed to ferret out illegitimate agents and editors. Here are some sites which can help:

From the RWA National Web site you can join RWAlink and/or PANlink, the listserves made up of RWA members.

The Writer Beware page on the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Web site lets you email Victoria Strauss, the fraud investigator.

Another SFWA page, Preditors and Editors, profiles the more notorious scams.

Delphi forum Eclectics Too is a good place to ask about the legitimacy of agents and publishers. (You will have to register for a free Delphi membership.)

Todd James Pierce keeps track of successful agents at his Guide to Literary Agents website.

Epublink is a Onelist newsletter for authors interested in electronic publishing. This is a good place to go for information about this new market.

The Association of Authors Representatives site displays its membership requirements and lists member agents. There is also a sample of a standard agency contract.

At the Agent Research and Evaluation site, you can submit any agent's name for a thumbnail account of her/his reputation. The site also sells complete reports on agents and scams.

If you're interested in self-publishing, a good place to start your research is the Publishers' Marketing Association, an organization of small presses.

Alicia Rasley is a 13-year member of Indiana RWA, a writing teacher, and a RITA-award winning Regency author. She teaches at Painted Rock .

Copyright 1999 by Alicia Rasley

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Go to previous articles:

The Publishing Journey

Lest Ye Be Judged: Contest Judging for Writers

Setting and Character Interactions

Developing the Dark Moment

The Promise of the Hot Premise

Outline Your Novel in Thirty Minutes

Subtle and Sensual

Plotting Without Fears

Structuring the Story

End Thoughts

Details, Details

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