Thursday, October 15, 2009
Recognizing the Scams
Recognizing the Scams
By Jeanne Lyet Gassman
A writer's burning desire to be published can make him the target of writing scams, those too-good-to-be-true opportunities that cost time and money. There are many ways to get published these days; unfortunately, there are just as many ways to get ripped off. The most common writing scams tend to fall into three categories:
The traditional and larger publishers usually prefer to work with an agent rather than directly with the writer, but what if you are considering a small press, an independent press, or a university press? How do you know if the press is legitimate or someone's hobby in a garage? What warning signs should you look for?
The publisher asks you to pay them. Commonly known as a "vanity press," these publishing venues cater to the writer's ego. Printing costs can range from a low of several hundred dollars to more than six thousand dollars--for copies of books that will be shipped to you to sell to your friends and family. Most writers never recoup their investment and seldom sell more than 100 books. No brick-and-mortar bookstore will carry their products. Remember, not all small presses are vanity or subsidized; some just operate on a very limited budget. Many of the small presses pay no advance but do pay their authors royalties, a perfectly acceptable practice. Just be sure that the royalties are paid on the retail sales price of the book, not on net.
Royalties that are paid on net follow an old Hollywood movie bookkeeping trick: No profit for the company. No royalty payment for the author.
The publisher sells their books online but not in bookstores. Unless you are working with an e-publisher (who sells everything online), beware. This could be an indication that the publisher is either a vanity press or has problems with distribution. It's a wonderful feeling to have a published book, but if your readers can't find the book, then it does you no good. Make sure your publisher has a clear plan for distribution and marketing beyond your personal efforts. If you have doubts, contact some of the publisher's authors and ask questions: How was the quality of the book as a whole? Were the books distributed as promised? Did the publisher do any copyediting before publication? Did the publisher get the book reviewed or promote the book in any way?
Some people think that all writing contests are scams, but this isn't true. Some of the better-known contests can bring you cash awards and prestige. How can you tell a good contest from a bad one? Some things to consider:
The entry fee is more than ten per cent of the top prize. This is often an indication that the contest sponsors are funding the prizes via entry fees only. Contest awards should be funded independently of the fees. Otherwise, what happens if the contest doesn't receive enough entries to pay for the top prize? Are all the entry fees refunded? Is the money "lost" in the costs of sponsoring the contest? A similar scam offers to split the collected entry fees among the top prize winners without specifying an exact award amount.
The contest is sponsored by an unknown organization or magazine. It's quite possible that the contest is legitimate but you've never heard of the sponsor. The best way to find out if the sponsor will stand behind its contest is to Google the contest name. Do any news stories show up about previous contests/award winners? Are there any posts on the writing watchdog sites about the contests? Do you recognize the names of any of the winners? A contest that refuses to divulge the names of the judges is also suspect, as it may mean the winners are pre-determined. If the information about the competition is too sketchy, it's best to steer clear.
If you are seeking publication with a traditional publishing house, you will probably need an agent. A good agent functions as a salesperson (to the publisher), an accountant (for your earnings), a hand holder (for your nerves), and an advisor (for your current and future books). A bad agent can be worse than having no agent at all. What are the warning signs of a bad agent?
The agent loves my book and wants to represent me but says I need to hire a critique/editing service first. This is a common back-door scam. The agent agrees to represent your book but then refers you to a critiquing or editing service that charges an outrageous fee. The service is usually owned by the agency, a clear conflict of interest. Another version of this is the agency that charges a "reading fee." Remember the old adage: "Money should flow toward, not away from, the writer.
I can't find any books/authors that the agent represents. This could mean that the agent is publishing books only with vanity presses (another form of back-door fees). It could also mean that the agent is new, inexperienced, or semi-retired. A successful agent is proud to show off the books he has sold and often has thumbnail photos of book covers on his blog or site. An agent with something to hide will be vague about previous clients and sales.
The best advice I can give to avoid being taken by any writing scam is to do your homework. Read the blogs and writing watchdog sites. Always ask questions if something doesn't make sense. Google names and titles to find out what people are saying about the publisher, contest, or agent. The more you know, the less likely you will be disappointed.
Some writing watchdog sites:
Writer Beware (Be sure to look for the list of the top 20 WORST agents.)
Preditors and Editors
Writers Weekly (This is a good place to go if you haven't been paid for your work.)
Newsletter contributing columnist Jeanne Lyet Gassman is an award-winning writer whose fiction and nonfiction has been published in numerous magazines, newsletters, and anthologies. The recipient of artistic grants from the Arizona Commission on the Arts and the Creative Capital Foundation, she is currently studying for her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in Phoenix and teaches writing workshops and classes in the metro area.
Visit Ms. Gassman at her Web site:
Or her blog: