Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Publishing scams

So you’ve written a book, or you’re writing one, or you’re thinking about writing one. You’re an artist. You’re a visionary. Or you’re at least very excited about the idea of creating something beautiful in writing and looking into getting it published. What do you do?

Ah, well, a lot of opportunistic companies out there are interested in you. Rather, they’re interested in your money, and in exploiting your idealism and naïveté to make you think you need their services. Or that their services are a legitimate, authentic road to becoming a published writer. Guess what? They aren’t.

I’ve written about The National Library of Poetry (and whatever else it's changed its name to nowadays), and how they try to rip off poets by praising their poetry and then trying to sell them a book containing their poems (and others’ poems collected the same way) for exorbitant prices. These publishing and editing services are in the same camp.

There are many scams out there to try to trick writers into thinking it’d be prudent to pay for some service. Now, editing services exist. (Might I recommend Taryn?) And I recommend having your novel heavily edited, even if you have to pay for it. But if you see someone charging reading fees to be considered for agency representation, offering to take your money to rep you to publishers, or praising your work (sometimes without seeing it!) and offering you vague statements about their “connections” which they will put to use for you for a small fee, run. The websites Preditors & Editors and The Absolute Write Water Cooler are excellent resources for writers trying to research the legitimacy of any professional in the writing industry. But here are some specific things you should know about these misleading services.

Sometimes vanity/self-publishing services will try to get your attention by openly claiming not to be vanity/self-publishing services. Sometimes they’ll just call it something else, and assure you that they are legitimate. If they are legitimate, they don’t have to say so. If they are saying so, it is probably because they have been called into doubt.

Sometimes vanity/self-publishing services will attack the Big Five or the mainstream publishing industry, and claim that they actually have a “secret” that will make your book very popular if you sign with them. They don’t tell you what it is, because it’s a secret. 

Actually, it’s a scam.

Sometimes these services have lots of testimonials from nobodies—many of whom are actual customers—but no lists of sales or numbers to back it up. If it’s an “agent” trying to look legit, sometimes they will claim that they can’t publicly divulge who their clients are. That’s bull. Legitimate agents always have a list or partial list of their clients. They can show you their success.

Dishonest services respond to queries with glowing praise and quick acceptances. They are looking to flatter you and make you think you were actually chosen for something. Well, you were. You were chosen because now you’re going to open your wallet. If you have had an experience with a “publisher” like this and you’re still unconvinced, try approaching with a different name and a different idea that is sincerely worded but terrible. See if you don’t receive an identical form letter. You may even try Googling one of the phrases from your acceptance letter and see if someone else got the same one. Protip: Rejection letters are often forms. Acceptance letters? Not so much. If a human has read and loved your book, they will explain why, and probably love on you pretty hard without the use of buzzwords. Their acceptance letter should leave no question about what they liked about your book in language that couldn't be applied to literally any other book.

Dishonest “publishers” often ask you to pay a fee for editing. Mainstream publishers, after accepting you, have their own editing departments and they don’t charge authors for their use. Authentic publishers are investing in the product and want to shine it up. Vanity services are out to make money only from the author; they will not be helping to sell your book for you, though they may have a special (discounted!!!!) promotional author website you can have hosted on their site or a marketing package you can purchase (and implement on your own, of course).

Scammy services frequently give authors tips on how to promote themselves, and pretend that promotion is solely the author’s job. I assure you that mainstream publishers are not going to stick you with the entire responsibility of grass-roots promotion. They know how to advertise, and while (especially with smaller publishers) you are expected to promote yourself, you are not the entire marketing department.

Scam services and non-legitimate agenting services frequently have terrible spelling and grammar on their sites and poorly managed digital presences. Scam agencies and publishers will sometimes actually tell authors that their manuscripts will be accepted as long as they have the manuscript professionally edited first. By this specific editor. Who works for them. If you refuse to agree to the edit, which you must pay for, you’re declined.

It’s not just publishers and agents who are posing as legitimate companies to get your money. One day on 43Things.com (a “goals” website where I had “publish a novel” listed as one of my goals), I was contacted by a stranger about how she could help me because she’s been helping emerging writers get published for years, and how I should look at her profile for more information. Of course, my first thought was “b.s.” Sure, people wandering around 43Things LOOKING for people who want to publish could be doing so out of the goodness of their hearts, but jadedness required me to say, “They’re selling something.”

Nevertheless, I looked at her profile, and I checked out their website. It appeared to be offering the services of a small group of people, claiming to be able to help you prepare your manuscript for submission to publishers and agents. Okay. And of course you have to dig a little bit to find the part about the money, and pretty much all they say is stuff like “Our rates are low” followed by more stuff about how every writer needs a second pair of eyes to read stuff no matter how great they are.

They had a long mission statement pretty much trying to convince you that no writer can prepare a perfect manuscript alone--yeah, that much is true--and that with the market as competitive as it is today you can’t expect a manuscript with errors to get past the first round of cuts. This I understand, and I actually agree that most writers who think they’re ready to submit ARE NOT. (I’ve edited a lot of stuff where the authors say they want me to give it a once-over before they start shopping it, and in my opinion it’s at first draft level!)

But I’m NOT an author who submits first drafts to publishing professionals, and I’ve had friends—both lovers of literature and people who are writers themselves—read my stuff, giving me opinions from their points of view, and I didn’t have to pay them. And I know not everyone has someone like that or has people whose advice can be trusted, but then . . . if you do end up needing to hire a professional to take care of this part for you, you probably want to apply some standards.

“You need a perfect manuscript,” blah blah. Okay, yeah, what if that idea sold me? Do I want to put my manuscript in the hands of people whose website has these errors, then?
  • You can count on expert advise [ . . . ] (Oh, you mean advice?)
  • Editors at publishing companies reject superbly written manuscripts everyday. (Oh, you mean every [space] day? “Everyday” is an adjective.)
  • Let a professional help make your story great – a story that agents and publishers want (I guess periods are passé? And hyphens are dashes?)
  • We specialize in emerging authors; those of you who have the drive to put you lore onto the page for the world to read and enjoy. (Is it just me or does this sound like it was written by someone who speaks English as a second language? Not to mention “specializing in emerging authors” is something predators often say. And what the hell is “you lore”?)
So I looked at a couple more pages of their site, and it just kinda made me wanna puke. They spent so much time on the page trying to kiss your ass and convince you that your writing is special and your special story needs their help to become refined and be perfect. They discussed the necessity of realistic dialogue in writing, but the example they gave was so horrible and cliché I wanted to find the person responsible and scream REALLY??? They suggested for an uneducated young “bad guy” that you give him a particular way of talking, such as “Hell no I ain’t gonna do dat! No way, man. What, you’s think I’m a freakin’ idiot? You really on my nerves, man. Hey man, I gotta a gun that’ll fit in yer fat mouth real good, if you’s don’t shut up.” Yep, that’s the example of GOOD dialogue. Let’s just see if there’s any possible way to get more offensive and cookie-cutter than that.

And as mentioned, a lot of the site sounded like its author struggles with words, like this one: “Having written and edited over 500,000 pages so far, and responsible for the publication of many of our clients, we are equipped to help you get there too.” Or this one: “All of the markets are studied on a daily basis so that we can pass on to you the most up to date information for your success.”

Not to mention that their site was hosted with some netfirms service that puts ads in a banner on the top, and all of their pages said “New Page 1″ on the window bar, and some of the links didn’t go anywhere. Beware terrible websites on suspicious servers. These are supposedly the people who are representing you. If they know what they’re doing, they know how to look good. If they themselves don't look good, how are they going to help you?

I’m sure glad there are people out there who will give me such expert advise to get my work published so I can be successful so I can have great success, you know?

Bottom line: If you use a vanity service to publish your book, all you know is your book was deemed quality by people who are not in the business of finding quality. They are in the business of finding money--YOUR money, not the consumers of the product. That is why these services have such a poor reputation. It doesn’t mean a book that is published by them can’t be good, but most people think their writing is excellent and most people are terrible at being objective and most people are not experts

If you wish to take a chance on a service like this--probably after rejections by more established services--you’re going to be navigating a world will not be very kind to you and may already be prejudiced against you. And if you encounter a service that insists you must pay for services like theirs as the only path to getting published, run. Run far, far away.


  1. Julie, thank you for posting this. I had to learn the hard way about publishing scams. Nine years ago, I received a newspaper clipping about Poetry.com. I was a young writer eager to get published and was VERY naive about how things worked in the publishing world. I thought that contests were my tickets to making my dreams come true. The newspaper clipping showed a photo of a woman holding a large check.

    I entered the contest. Poetry.com sent me a letter and certificate saying that I'd won and my poem was going to be published in an anthology. Needless to say, I heard nothing else from Poetry.com.

    One evening I was online and decided to look up the winners. I saw my name listed. My poem was published! Where was my prize? Why didn't they notify me that my poem was going to be published online?

    I was crushed and vowed to never enter another writing contest again. The following year, I decided to Google Poetry.com and sure enough they were listed as a scam.

    I learned a valuable lesson from that contest-do your research first before you enter and don't go sending your out to just anybody promising publication. I know two friends who were also scammed by Poetry.com. I wish that I had known them back then. If it sounds too good to be true, than it probably is.

    1. Yeah--there are real contests that actually do give awards, though many of them have fees--but you should definitely search around to find out if an organization is a scam before sending any of your work to them. Generally these folks make their money by flattering you and making you think you're able to buy the anthology at a discount, but those books are not sold in stores and are just crowd-sourced poetry they make a killing on. I'm sad that they prey on (mostly young) writers. :/