How to Avoid Writing Scams

In summertime, authors go to conferences, finish projects, and turn their focus to pitching and publication. Some will opt for traditional houses. Others will take an independent road. But all authors – regardless of publishing path or experience – can be vulnerable to scams.

As we move through the “summer conference and selling season,” here’s a reminder about a few things to watch out for*:

Regardless of the career path authors choose, every writer (published, aspiring, or otherwise) needs to be wary of scams. Authors are most susceptible to scammers before publication, but even represented authors should tread carefully and protect their work with a vigilant eye.

As in other areas, knowing what to watch for is key. This week and next week, my publishing legal posts will look at common scams and how to avoid them.

SCAM #1: Unscrupulous “Agents” and “Publishers.”

I put these terms in quotation marks to distinguish between the respectable businesspeople who sell and publish manuscripts for a living and those who make their living by exploiting author’s dreams. Legitimate agents and publishers do not charge reading fees. They do not require writers to pay unreasonable sums for vague promises or claim copyright ownership of authors’ works.

Be wary of agents and publishers who make “first contact” to offer their services to you without being queried. Legitimate agents (and publishers) have done this, but statistically the unscrupulous ones do it far more often. Respond with wisdom. Always check credentials, track record, and references before you send a manuscript, sign anything, or agree to representation or publishing terms.

Don’t even sign a “letter of intent” without doing your homework. (In many states, letters of intent are considered legally binding – sometimes even if the text claims otherwise.) Ask questions. Do research – and don’t settle for the opinion of one source only, especially if that opinion comes from the agent or publisher’s website.

Good research methods include:

1. Internet Searches. Run a Google search for the agent or publisher’s name (in quotation marks if the name contains more than one word). Then run a second search with the name and scam (for example: “Made-up  Publishing” scam). The first search should bring up information about the publishing company (or agent). The second will let you know if websites have accused the operation of running a scam. Investigate the veracity of the sites, and always use caution when clicking through search results (good pop-up and virus blocking software is advisable).

2. Industry Watchdog Sites. Websites like Preditors and Editors and Writer Beware! exist to help inform authors of writing scams and unscrupulous businesses. The Absolute Write forums contain pages of information about agents and publishing houses (both honorable ones and the “not-so-much” type) and the site’s regular members are often very helpful and responsive. Pay attention to personal opinions, but pay special attention to facts.

3. Facebook and Twitter. Does the agent or publisher have a Facebook page? A Twitter account? If so, does it look like the pages of other reputable industry professionals? Social media isn’t a mandatory exercise, so not having a Facebook or Twitter page doesn’t necessarily mean the publisher or agent isn’t legitimate. You can also investigate what other people are saying to or about the agent or publisher in those spaces. A verifiable positive (or negative) account from a living person can provide valuable information – but as always, take opinion with caution and wherever possible verify it with facts.

4. Client Referrals. Who does the agent represent? Whose works does the publisher publish? Find out. Contact those authors and ask their opinions. Trust me, they’ll give them to you. I’m outspoken about my appreciation for Sandra Bond and my confidence in her competence and professionalism. I feel the same about my editor at Thomas Dunne Books. If anyone asked me to back up my opinion with facts I’d be glad to do so, and every other author I know (represented and unrepresented, self-published and traditionally contracted) would be glad to share a candid opinion with anyone who asked.

Incidentally, that’s also true of the writers I know who have had experiences with scammers. Those writers will tell you to run as far and as fast as possible from the companies and individuals who took advantage of their innocence. (For the record, I won’t be naming anyone here because I can’t breach client confidentiality, but I’ll speak with people in private as ethics permit.)

5. Common Sense. If an offer or promise sounds too good to be true…it is. No agent and no publisher can promise you riches, fame, or a single sale. I’ll say that again, because it’s important. Agents and publishers cannot promise you fame and fortune, and no legitimate publishing professional will do so. Authors do not merely bang out a manuscript and land on top of the New York Times Bestseller list. Writers don’t do what they do because fortune is sure to follow. I have friends who earned out advances, friends who didn’t, and friends who never received an advance at all. One thing all these friends have in common – publishers made no promises about the success or failure of the author’s work.

If an agent or publisher’s website uses phrases like “guaranteed income,” “easy money,” “supplement your income with writing” or anything else that suggests publication is anything other than hard work without any promises of success – that’s not just a red flag, it’s a mushroom cloud. Investigate VERY thoroughly and proceed with extreme caution and prejudice.

The good news is that publisher and agent scams are very avoidable. Thorough research will almost always reveal the problem before it’s too late. The key is authors not letting the dream of publication blur common sense or distract them from research. Do that, and you can keep that dream from turning into a nightmare.

*And yes, this is a re-post of the original scam avoidance series I ran 18 months ago, but most of you weren’t reading me then, and for those who were…a refresher in vigilance never hurts.

Have questions about this or other publishing issues? Hop into the comments and let me know. I love to hear from you!

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