Publishing Scams and Schemes

Although the publishing industry is generally honest, it has its share of scammers. It also has plenty of folks who don’t do anything illegal, but who prey on writers’ innocence, ignorance, or illusions.

A complete list of publishing scams and schemes would fill a small book. Here, however, are the six most common ones:

Vanity presses masquerading as royalty (i.e., real) publishers. Vanity publishers make money not by selling books, but by taking money from writers. There’s nothing wrong with selling writers services such as editing, book design, printing, binding, warehousing, publicity, etc. But when a company misleads writers—or lets them mislead themselves—into thinking they’re being published by an outfit that’s selective in what it publishes, has a sales force, and is capable of selling thousands of copies of each book, it’s a form of slight-of-hand. If someone tells you any of the following lies (and they are indeed lies, though the speaker may actually believe them), they work for a vanity press:
• It’s normal to pay to publish your first book.
• This is how publishing works in the 21st century.
• Without a track record, you can’t get published by a royalty press.
• The big publishers aren’t interested in you unless you’re already famous. (Actually, there’s some truth to this. But what’s wrong with dealing with small or midsize royalty presses?)
• Once you publish your first book—even if you foot the bill for it—it will be much easier to publish your next.

Manuscript critics posing as agents. Anyone can declare themselves a literary agent by setting up a website and printing stationery. However, legitimate book agents make their money by selling books and earning commissions of 15% (TV and film agents earn 10%). A handful of so-called agents make their money otherwise: they require you to buy a critique of your manuscript, for which you will also get the “privilege” of being considered for representation. These ostensible agents rarely make any actual publishing (or film or TV) deals.

Literary agents who charge fees. Any agent who wants money from you to read or submit your manuscript is very likely a scammer. The one exception is an agent who asks you to reimburse them for small, reasonable business expenses, such as the cost of photocopying manuscripts.

Agent/editor scams. The scam goes like this: Wanda declares herself an agent, creates a website and some stationery, and gets listed in some writers’ reference books and/or online agent databases. Her friend Bill, who has some minor editing skills, sets up shop as a freelance editor or “book doctor.” Wanda then encourages new writers to send her their work. She responds with great enthusiasm to each manuscript she receives, telling its author that the book might be a bestseller—and, perhaps, a blockbuster movie starring George Clooney and Julia Roberts. All it needs is some editing, Wanda explains, and she knows just the person: Bill. Wanda urges the writer to get the book edited as quickly as possible, so she can get it swiftly into the hands of editors and film producers. Hopeful and excited, the writer contacts Bill, who offers to do the editing for the special bargain price of $3000 (or $4000 or $5000). Bill does a minor editing job on the book—what a more principled editor might do for about $500. Giddy with dreams of fortune and fame, the writer rushes the book back to Wanda. Wanda responds with a brief, sad email explaining that she won’t be able to represent the book after all; during the few weeks that the editor was at work on the book, the market completely changed. In an even cheesier version of this scam, Wanda doesn’t even bother to do this, but simply refuses delivery of the edited book.

Writing contests with entry fees. Many of these contests are little or nothing more than sponsors’ way of lining their own pockets. Entering a particular contest may be worth your while, IF: entry fees go to partially subsidize the full-fledged publication, promotion, and publicizing of a book; and you’ve got a project that’s a perfect fit for the contest; and the entry fee isn’t exorbitant. But many writing contests offer winners nothing more than small cash prizes—and the losers get only condolence emails. You’re almost always far better off simply submitting your work for publication; this costs you nothing, and puts you in a situation where there are many winners (i.e., everyone whose work is published), not just one or two.

Anthologies of short poems. Dozens of legitimate poetry anthologies are published each year. So are dozens that are built around the following scheme: someone (we’ll call him Hubert) creates a company with a name like The American Society of Poetic Excellence. Hubert places some ads in writers’ websites and magazines that announce the upcoming publication of an anthology with a title such as America’s Finest Poets. The ad encourages writers to submit their work. Hubert responds to every poem (except those that are highly pornographic or violent) with a congratulatory letter or email, explaining that the writer’s poem will be included; that they will not receive any payment or free copies; but they can purchase copies of the anthology at the special pre-publication price of $45 (or $50 or $60) each. Hubert does in fact print and bind this anthology, which contains 3400 short poems printed in tiny type. Most of these poems are terrible. Typically, the anthology isn’t available in any bookstore or other retail outlet, and it doesn’t even have an ISBN or a bar code. Its only purchasers are the contributors themselves.

How can you identify such a scheme? The dead giveaway is that your poem must be no longer than 20 (or 30 or 40) lines. (After all, in order to maximize Hubert’s profits, each poem must take up as little space as possible.) If the call for submissions appears in a display ad rather than in the “Manuscripts Wanted” section of a publication or website, that’s also a sign that this scheme is probably at work.

Caveat scriptor. (Let the writer beware.)