How not to get burned

Scam artists make their living by telling people what they want to hear. And what unpublished writers want to hear most is, “We want to publish you.” An intense desire to be published combined with lack of knowledge about the publishing industry leaves novice writers vulnerable to scam artists, from the “We’ll publish your book!” vanity publisher ads in the backs of magazines to full-scale rip-off artists posing as agents.

Educate yourself

The best way to protect yourself against scams is to educate yourself about the publishing industry. Read the articles on this site and other legitimate author sites. Read the books we recommend that appeal to you. Be sure you are getting advice from either real authors whose books you can find in a bricks-and-mortar bookstore, or real editors with major publishers: that is to say, people who are truly experts in their field because they live it every day. Find out how the industry works, find out the rules of the road, and use the information to help you get published.

Along the way you’ll run into many people who will tell you that the advice we’re giving here is bunk, and that they know the “real” secret to getting published. Some of these are well-meaning but naive people who may have had a bit of luck to begin with, perhaps a nibble from an agent, or a book “published” by a vanity publisher that has sold a few dozen copies. Others are professional scammers. Both can get you into trouble and cause you to waste time and money on fruitless pursuits.

It’s also wise to educate yourself about the scam artists that are out there. We recommend these websites:

  • Preditors and Editors (yes, that is how they spell it, for alliterative purposes): an extensive site with information on many, many editors, agents, book doctors, publishers, and more.
  • Writer Beware: a service of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Association.

Never, ever pay for “publication” or representation

Real publishers pay YOU for the right to make your work public. Real agents get paid only when they sell your work. Any company calls itself a “publisher” but wants your money is a vanity press. Any agent who wants you to pay a “reading fee” is a fee-charging agent and is suspect.

The exception to this rule is if you want to self-publish. In that case, you MUST learn everything you can about self-publication before you begin. Research printing and publication services, find out how to get a copyright, learn where you can buy an ISBN number and bar code, find out about distribution, develop a business plan and a marketing plan, find a good copy editor, and be prepared to promote and market your own book.

Fee-charging “publishers”

Vanity presses have a long history in the publishing industry. They usually take out ads in writer’s magazines, with glowing text such as, “Get published now!” or “Authors wanted!” Strictly speaking, a vanity press is one that charges fees and has little or nothing in the way of editorial selection. You send them the book, you shell out several thousands of dollars, they may create the cover art, they do the layout, they ship you several boxes of books, and there you sit with your books and no place to sell them.

The line between vanity presses and legitimate self-publishing blurs a bit when it comes to print-on-demand (POD) services. Some of these services are straightforward print shops for people who want to self-publish. They may offer a range of services, from layout to cover design to printing. The best ones allow you to use the name of your own imprint (your own publishing company). Many PODs, however, put their own imprint on the book. A few PODs have gained the respect of major booksellers, but most are still nothing more than vanity presses. PODs with free or low-cost packages can be useful if you plan on producing small numbers of books, such as collection of family memoirs that your relatives all want copies of. Before using any POD service, do an online search on the phrase “POD reviews” and find the latest reviews on POD services. A few companies are very good, but most are mediocre to dismal, so do your research thoroughly before signing anything. If you want to self-publish, you’re better off avoiding vanity presses and PODs, creating your own publishing company, and finding a good printing and distribution service such as Books Just Books.

One of the worst cases of a fee-charging “publisher” was the case of “Press-TIGE” publications, owned and operated by scam artist Martha Ivery (who also operated as a fee-charging scam agent under the name of Kelly O’Donnell). In 2005, Ms. Ivery wasindicted in federal court for multiple charges of fraud. In short, over the course of more than a decade, Ivery promised the moon, charged thousands, and delivered nothing, bilking people out of their savings and creating only heartbreak.

Even POD services that do not charge fees may not be worth an author’s time. Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America’s “Writer Beware” pages warn about PublishAmerica, a POD posing as a “traditional” publisher but with next to no selection criteria. See their review of PublishAmerica. PublishAmerica has also been named in a lawsuit by several of its authors, who charge that the company engages in misleading practices.

Fee-charging agents

We once read a post from a fee-charging agent on a writer’s board saying that the publishing industry has become so competitive, and there are so many agents out there competing for fewer and fewer publishing slots, that the only way that agents can make it in today’s market is to charge fees. That agent is now long out of business, so perhaps this agent simply couldn’t make it at all, fees or no. However, consider what this agent was telling authors: “I’m not very good at selling manuscripts, so I’ll charge you money instead of making a living on the commissions I get from actually selling your work.”

Is this an agent you want working for you?

Some agents also say that they use fees to “screen” their manuscripts, stating that fees assure that only serious authors send their work. This is pure bunk. While a fee may indeed deter some authors, it is no guarantee that the manuscripts that are sent are of better quality. Poor writers can be serious about getting published as are talented, experienced writers. And talented, experienced writers have no use for fee-charging agents.

An agent who charges fees has already made money from your work. The agent has far less incentive to actually market your work than the agent who works strictly on commission. A true commission-based agent works hard to sell your manuscript. A fee-charging agent might work to sell your manuscript, but if he or she needs money, it’s a whole lot easier to take out an ad in a magazine and harvest more fees. Who would you rather have working for you: an agent who is hungry to sell your work, or an agent who is hungry to collect more clients and their fees?

One recent case of a scam agency was the Helping Hand, a.k.a. Janet Kay & Associates agency, run by George Harrison Titsworth and Janet Kay Titsworth in San Angelo, Texas. The “agency” collected up-front fees for their services, but did very little for their clients in return. If they did anything, it was to send out blanket, untargeted, inappropriate submissions. According an article on Writer Beware, at least one editor begged the agency to stop sending manuscripts, and no records exist of any actual sales. When the office was raided, law enforcement agents found hundreds, if not thousands, of manuscripts still sitting unopened in their envelopes, long after they’d been received. The Titsworths were indicted by a grand federal jury in December of 2004 on multiple cases of fraud.

Red flags

When submitting, you always want to ask yourself: Is this publisher or agent legitimate or not? Here are a few red flags to look for:

  • Fees: Anyone who charges fees for “publication,” or who charges anything more than incidental copy or postage costs for representation, should be avoided, except in the case of printing services for self-publishers.
  • Advertising: Legitimate publishing companies and agencies have many, many more manuscripts than they can possibly use. They don’t have to advertise in the back of magazines to attract authors. When publishers take out ads, it’s in the form of full-page ads in Publisher’s Weekly and other industry journals to advertise their new books, not to fish for authors. (Ads for very good printing services for self-publishing, on the other hand, can also be found in the back of writers’ magazines.)
  • Quality of published material: If you suspect you’re dealing with a vanity press posing as a legitimate publisher, see if you can find excerpts from books on their website. If you’re serious about using their services, try to get at least one copy of an actual book as well, so that you can judge the quality of the materials and binding, especially if you’re working with a POD. If they seem to publish just about anything, and the quality of the writing, materials, or both is poor, it’s a vanity press.
  • Disparages “traditional” publishing: If the agent or publisher has disparaging things to say about “traditional” publishing (that is, selective publishers who pay you for the rights to publish your work), and wants money from you, run away.
  • Agencies that do not list agents’ names: If you can only find the name of the agency on the website or agency literature, and cannot find the names of individual agents, you’re probably not dealing with a legitimate agency. At best, it’s an agency that simply makes copies of your work and sends it out indiscriminately. Real editors deal with agents, not agencies, and they know the best agents by name.
  • The agent refuses to disclose a list of recently represented, published books: In the name of “client confidentiality,” scam agents may refuse to give you the names of any books they have represented. Agents who have represented books that have done well in the market usually want to advertise the fact. If the agent won’t tell you which books she has represented, perhaps she hasn’t represented any at all.
  • A publisher who is not listed in the Writers Market: Some small presses and even some large ones choose not to be listed for various legitimate reasons: they’re already overrun with manuscripts, they are very specialized, or they have some issue with market guides. A publisher that appears to be a large publisher, but is not listed in several year’s worth of writers market guides (check a used bookstore for old guides), may be suspect. This by itself is not a sure test of the worth of a publisher, so check for other red flags as well.
  • An agent who is not listed with AAR: TheAssociation of Author’s Representatives is a national association for literary agents. Agents must adhere to a canon of ethics in order to belong to the organization. Not every legitimate agent joins, and an illegitimate agent or two might slip through for a time, but the list nevertheless serves as a valuable litmus test.
  • Books not found in a bookstore: For this, you must look beyond Amazon.com, because anyone with any book between two covers can get listed on Amazon. This is great for small publishers and self-publishers, but if you’re judging the legitimacy of a publisher, check your local bookstore. Ask if they have anything in stock by that publisher. If not, ask if they can order the publisher’s books from their distributor. Many small publishers may not list with your bookstore’s distributor, so this is not a sure test by itself, just a suspicion. Look for other red flags as well.
  • Negative reviews on Preditors and Editors or Writer Beware: Check out these sites when researching any publisher, and especially if you’re planning to use a POD to self-publish. Writer Beware, particularly, has substantiated alerts.

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