Image: Matthew Loffhagen
For many people, publishing a book is a lifelong dream, but it’s also a struggle. In today’s market, writers also need to be at least partially their own editors, their own agents, and their own marketers, and that means straying into unfamiliar territory. It’s no wonder, then, that there are those out there waiting to scam authors, taking advantage of both their passion and their inexperience.
By successfully impersonating a literary agent for ten years, Dorothy Deering operated one of the longest-running confidence games in American history… she managed to swindle so many writers for so much money over such an extended period. During her decade of infamy, she took more than her clients’ money; she stole their dreams and broke their hearts.
Deering’s scam is one of the most infamous in the publishing industry, but she’s not an anomaly. Unfortunately, there are many swindlers operating under the guise of professional agents and publishers who are lining their pockets instead of helping authors. While some of these scams are easy to spot, others are sophisticated enough to look and sound legit.Self-publishing authors are vulnerable to publishing scams.Click To Tweet
Writers eager to get their work out into the world – especially those not going the traditional publishing route – are a prime target. What can you do to protect yourself from falling prey to a scam? Read on for more about who these scammers are and how they operate.
Know where to look
Two of the most common scams are vanity publishers and bogus literary agents. It’s easy enough to avoid a company calling itself a vanity or subsidy publisher; but, of course, most don’t advertise this fact. So, what is a vanity publisher, how can you spot them, and why should you steer clear?
A vanity publisher, unlike a traditional publisher, charges authors hefty fees up front for publishing services. Jo Herbert explains: ‘The vanity publisher will take your manuscript, take your money and print several (usually poor quality) copies of your book. They won’t consult you and they won’t offer any help marketing or distributing the book.’
Don’t confuse a vanity publisher with a reputable self-publishing company, though. There are many reputable self-publishing companies creating high-quality work and helping authors succeed – in exchange for reasonable fees. These companies give authors complete control over every aspect of the production and publishing process, and they deliver excellent quality. They also work closely with authors to distribute and market the book.Vanity publishers want to take your money for minimal results.Click To Tweet
So, if that’s the difference between vanity publishing and a reputable self-publishing company, what’s the difference between a legitimate literary agent and a bogus agent? Literary agents work for literary agencies, and they represent your book to publishers. Just like a traditional publisher, they are choosy about the projects they take on because they’re not paid until your book starts making money. Any literary agent emailing you out of the blue and inviting you to submit your manuscript is fishy. And an agent asking you to pay a reading fee or charging to edit your manuscript isn’t legit.
Recognize the signs
Now that you know about these primary scams, how can you learn to spot them? Consider the following red flags:
- An agent or publisher unexpectedly inviting you to submit your book. Traditional publishers and literary agents rarely seek out authors.
- A publisher without a footprint. You should be able to vet a publisher, their staff, and their publications without too much trouble. If a publisher’s only online presence is their website, that’s not a good sign.
- A one-man show. No one person can provide a full-scale publishing process. Avoid any person claiming to handle production singlehandedly from start to finish.
- Writing contests without a sizeable online presence. It’s common enough for contests to charge a small entry fee, but you should be wary of a contest that doesn’t boast some kind of online platform or winners from past years. And any contest operator requiring you to assign publishing rights is someone you want to steer clear of.
- Any publisher saying your book is perfect or guaranteeing you a bestseller.
- A publisher who pushes you out of the process. Publishers are professionals, so they will have the last word on some decisions, but any publisher that leaves you completely out of the loop is not worth your time or worthy of your trust.
- A ‘self-publisher’ that takes royalties or makes a claim to your rights. Self-publishing companies make their money up front and give authors 100% of the profits and rights on the finished product. Any company charging you and taking royalties or negotiating for rights on the book is trouble.
Listen to your gut
It might be comforting to think that only the naïve fall prey to scammers, but it’s just not the case. Some of these scams are sophisticated and cunning. Knowing the pitfalls and educating yourself about how to read the signs is important. Ultimately, though, you should take time for a gut check on any business decision you make.If a publishing service or agent doesn’t feel right, trust your gut.Click To Tweet
Writing for Forbes, Adam Rowe points out that agent scams, charges for worthless editing, and vanity publisher scams have been around a long time, but swindlers are evolving alongside the changing industry. Newer scams target indie authors or those looking to work with a small press. And sometimes those are harder to spot:
These scams might include “ripoff promotional services that sell junk marketing” such as press releases or email blasts at inflated prices; “pay-to-play publishers” merely posing as small presses; or contests and awards that only exist to earn a profit due to their high entry fees.
Other common modern-day scams: Organizations falsely claiming they’ll offer an “official” copyright registration for a fee, as well as self-titled publishing experts promising to “divulge the secret, no-fail path to bestsellerdom for a hefty fee.”
– Adam Rowe, ‘Publishing Industry Scams Are Evolving For The Self-Publishing Age’ from Forbes
In this ever-changing industry, it’s inevitable that an opportunistic scammer will find some loophole you won’t have thought of. Sometimes the best indicator that all is not as it seems is a bad gut feeling. So educate yourself on the various paths available to you, weigh your options, and take a pause to make sure everything feels right.
Forewarned is forearmed
Ultimately, your best defense against a publishing scam is to educate yourself. Knowing how the different publishing options work can help you recognize when something doesn’t fit. Now that you know how scammers operate, what signs to look out for, and the need for due diligence, you’re armed to protect yourself.
What questions do you have about scams that I didn’t answer here? What advice would you give an inexperienced author navigating the publishing world about avoiding swindlers? If you’ve seen a publishing scam firsthand, we want to hear about it. For more information you can use to avoid scams, check out What Literary Agents Do (And Don’t Do) For Authors and Everything You Need To Know About Hybrid Publishing.