The Dark Side Of The Publishing Industry: How To Avoid Scams


In every industry there are amazing people who are full of passion, dedication and honesty.

And then there are scumbags looking to prey on your hopes and dreams so that they can separate you from your wallet.

For our purposes, I want to talk about the Nigerian 419 scammers of the publishing industry—the vanity presses, the fake literary agents, and the scam contests—all designed to inflate your ego just enough so you don’t notice their hand in your pocket.

With just a little caution, research and common sense, you can protect yourself. Here are the three most common types of scams, and how to avoid them.

Vanity presses

A vanity or subsidy press charges you money to publish your book (which is sort of the opposite of how the publishing industry works). They provide things like editorial work, cover design, marketing, and other services—usually at extremely high prices. And once they get you in, they spend the rest of their relationship with you upselling. Because your book would be so much better if you used gilded page numbering at only an additional $5.99 a page (that’s not a real thing, but you get the point). 

This is different from self-publishing, in which you do most of the work yourself, and hire out for the stuff you don’t know how to do.

I know a guy who published a book through a vanity press. Just from looking at his cover I knew he didn’t get his money’s worth. Not everyone is a designer, but I think anyone would know this wasn’t a good piece of art. He told me about the difficulties he had dealing with them, and red flags were popping up all over the place. Especially when he mentioned their latest upsell: If he paid them something like $2,000, they would turn his book into a movie script, pitch it to a Hollywood agent and get it made into a movie.

That is a scam, despite the assertion on the press' website saying it wasn't (they doth protest too much).

The more I learned about this company, the more I realized that they are a bunch of assholes. For example, they offer a Social Media Marketing Setup Service for $799. That gets you a blog, some Facebook and Twitter stuff, and pages on networking sites like Goodreads and Shelfari.

You could do all of that for free, in two hours, while eating a sandwich. And granted, not everyone is tech-savvy, but there are plenty of people who are, and you won’t have to sell of a kidney to hire them.

For the publishing noobz, here is the Schoolhouse Rock version of publishing a book: Write the book, edit the book, query an agent, the agent requests a read, the agent loves it and takes you on, the agent sends it to publishing houses, a house makes an offer, YOU GET PAID AN ADVANCE.

You don’t pay money to get published. Unless you self-publish. And even then, the costs are negligible if you’re smart. You certainly don’t need to pay some jerk $800 to spend five minutes setting up a Twitter account.

Not only that, but some of these companies, they own the rights to your work. And they tell you how much you made, instead of providing your with sales reports, so you just sort of have to trust them.

My advice, however much it’s worth, is even if you’re going to self-publish, hook up with a good editor, preferably someone you have recommended to you. If you can’t design a cover or digitize a book, hire out for it. Again, someone recommended. 

A couple of well-placed professionals can get you through the process .That means you maintain control of your work, you keep the profits, and  you won’t be dicked out of $4,199 for some bullshit Book Launch Premier Pro package.

Fake literary agents

Most literary agents are the awesomest, coolest people ever (like, for real, the coolest, and could I send you this query letter?).

Then there are a few people out there who pretend to be agents, and they suck.

How do you tell the difference? Easy. If they ask you for a bunch of money up front—for anything besides negligible paper copying fees (which is very rare)—run.

Many agents are members of The Association of Authors’ Representatives, a professional organization for agents whose members abide by a stringent code of ethics. It’s important to note that not all reputable agents are members, and newer agents don’t qualify right away, but it’s always a good place to start.

The most important thing you need to know is this: You do not pay an agent, not out of your own pocket (unless you’re lavishing them with gifts). An agent sells your book to an editor, and then they take a percentage (roughly 10-20 percent) off the top. That’s how they make their living. When you get paid, they get paid. Nice incentive, right?

Scam agents will tell you that your book needs some editing and if you just pay $1,000 to their preferred editorial service for feedback, then it’ll be ready to be pitched to publishing houses. Worse, they may refer you to a vanity press. 

Agents don’t charge reading fees, either. This used to happen but professional agents’ trade groups have since prohibited it.

So how do you know if your agent is the real deal? Do they have a real website? Do they have a business card on nice cardstock and not scribbled on a napkin? Can you find them with some Google kung-fu?

Also, ask them about their client list. A reputable agent will be happy to share his or her list of clients, and in some cases, even let you talk to some of those clients. An agent-author relationship is a two-way street, and you’re vetting them as much as they’re vetting you.

You can also use websites like Agent Query, which is huge database of reputable, established literary agents.

Contest scams

Here’s an embarrassing story about me: When I was in high school I wrote a poem and sent it into a contest and it won! Even though it was an angsty, obnoxious thing, it was going to be published in an anthology!

Yes, I still have the poem. No, you can’t see it.

Unfortunately, the only way to read it was to buy the anthology in which it was published, for something like $60. Even my under-developed high-school brain knew this was shady.

If I ordered it, here’s what I probably would have gotten: A book that was poorly printed and bound, stuffed full of poems from other writers who were tricked into paying $60 to see it printed on a page.

Contest scams are prevalent in the publishing world. Sometimes they’re meant to sell you crappy books. Sometimes they’re meant to upsell you on editorial and representation services that a legitimate agency wouldn’t make you pay for anyway. Regardless, the idea is to suck you in with praise—why, yes, you are good enough!—so that you can be milked for cash.

Now, some contests charge negligible entry fees. So how do you tell the difference between the good ones and the bad ones?

Again, research. Do people talk kindly of the contest? Is it run by a reputable group of people? Then by all means, take the plunge. 

There are also websites and groups—like Winning Writers—that compile lists of contests and agencies to avoid. (Which means this helps on the previous point, too!)

In summation

The reason these scams exist is because we want, so bad, to be published.

Writing is a long, solitary, depressing process. Sometimes it's demeaning. Do you ever feel like that? When someone asks you how the novel is going and the look in their eyes says, Aww, it's so adorable that you're still doing that.

You can keep at it for years before seeing something come of it. And these scams, they’re the snake in the garden offering that bite of the publishing apple.

Even if our lizard brain knows it’s a hoax, the romantic part of us believes that maybe, yea, this is the break we’ve been looking for.

I’ll leave you with this: An excerpt from an interview I did with Andrew Vachss over at The Cult. When I told him I was “trying” to be a writer he put me in my place, and what he told me is not only applicable to this, but encouraging as well: 

If you're a writer, that's what you are. And if the borderline is, are you published, that's why vanity press has succeeded all these years, because people fell into that trap. Being a writer doesn't mean you're published, it doesn't mean you're any good at it. You certainly know of unmitigated slop that sells year after year, right?

What I'm saying is, it's not a fight, with two guys going inside some ropes and one guy gets his hand raised at the end, it's not that. You never get to meet the enemy. People have gotten published because they're sleeping with this person, or they know this person or their cousin knows this person, and blah blah blah blah blah. I wrote my first book at least a dozen years before I got published.

No one has the right to define what you do except you.

Well said. Now stay safe out there. 

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Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading a lot more during the quarantine December 22, 2011 - 2:57pm

I find your lack of faith disturbing, Rob.

Rob's picture
Class Director
Rob from New York City is reading at a fast enough pace it would be cumbersome to update this December 22, 2011 - 3:16pm

I find your face disturbing. 

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading a lot more during the quarantine December 22, 2011 - 5:48pm

And well you should. I have a giant chicken head for Christ's sake.

Dan's picture
Dan from Santa Monica, CA is reading Beautiful You by Chuck Palahniuk December 24, 2011 - 2:34am

Loved the quote at the end. Personally, I've always never called myself a fiction writer unless I've been published. Now I might think otherwise...

Hetch Litman's picture
Hetch Litman from Somewhere in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest is reading The Violent Bear it Away by Flannery O'Connor December 26, 2011 - 2:39am

Great article Rob. Thanks for that. Great Vachss quote too. I love that guy.

jennydecki's picture
jennydecki from Chicagoland is reading The Foreigners May 16, 2012 - 7:33am

The quote at the end was the best post summary I've ever seen.

jordanstratford's picture
jordanstratford May 26, 2012 - 11:23am

For the publishing noobz, here is the Schoolhouse Rock version of publishing a book: Write the book, edit the book, query an agent, the agent requests a read, the agent loves it and takes you on, the agent sends it to publishing houses, a house makes an offer, YOU GET PAID AN ADVANCE.

This is the best publishing advice 1998 has to offer.

It excludes about 99% of all authors.  Genre fiction, industry publications, academic authors particularly.  There just isn't enough cash in the publishing model above to get author's books to market, and the gate-keepers are just too good.  Some of the best novels of the 20th century are buried in the pre-recycling strata of landfills, unopened and unread.  You catch the reader on a bad day, the editor on a bad day, or the publisher in the same quarter as when they've committed to a book in the same genre. Timing. Even then, it's almost unheard of for indie presses or academic presses to offer an advance.  No, you're talking in the example above of the 1% of the 1% who made it into the system.

Now, I'm not one of those anti-publishing axe-grinders. I'm one of the writers with an agent and publishers. Some deals work very well for tiny percentage of authors. Many deals work well enough for some authors.  But this "write it and if the agent likes it and the publisher likes it they will take care of you" is overwhelmingly naiive.  

Publishing is a business, and all business has risk. If you self publish, or if you ARE an indie press, you need to hire an editor and a cover designer and a book block designer and a publicist.  That's cash-out which you hope to recoup.  I don't think you make a real distinction between that and "vanity press" in this article (aside from one throw-away line where you assume that you'll do "most of the work yourself.")  You take just as big a risk signing with an agent or a publisher. Maybe you don't get an advance (or you get 10% of what advances were a decade ago) and maybe you find your publisher is selling e-books they don't have the rights to.  Maybe they change the title to something stupid and put an idiotic cover on it.  Maybe they basket your royalties so your best-seller is still paying off that other title the publlisher was unable to market properly, and you don't get paid. Risk.

The freelance editors, cover designers, and publicists and printers out there are not simply scam-artists taking your money.  They are professionals whom you need to make your book any good as a saleable product.  To say that an author with no experience could replace these services in two hours on their own while eating a sandwich is absurd and insulting.  Authors need to treat their book like a business, and make informed business decisions. You can't do that by assuming the entertainment lawyer you hire, or the screenwriter you hire for the adaptation, is a crook.  What the hell *should* an experienced, professional screenwriter make for an adaptation, if not more than two grand for their efforts?  Who's scamming whom here?

The era of collecting 100 rejection letters is over.  Authors can connect with readers, build their brand, and sell their product to the market.  But it's a business, and that means expenses.  Telling writers that business expenses is a "hoax" is irresponsible.

Do your research, have a plan for your book, do your due dilligence and talk to other authors who have used the services (whether that's agents and publishers or printers and designers) that have made your short-list.  But sending out 100 query letters to agents while saying pretty-please?  That's not necessarily the only legitimate business decision for your book.

I get your overall point: caveat emptor.  But you are unfairly criminalizing an entire industry of freelancers and small presses who are trying to do their best for their author-clients at a reasonable, professional rate.



Suzie Queue's picture
Suzie Queue May 26, 2012 - 12:15pm

"When someone asks you how the novel is going and the look in their eyes says, Aww, it's so adorable that you're still doing that." lol I laughed by ass off after reading that. I get that look from my family all of the time.

Misha Burnett's picture
Misha Burnett May 26, 2012 - 3:42pm

I would agree with Jordanstrafford's comments above.  The book publishing business has changed, much like the music business and for many of the same reasons.  Yes, one should always investigate any service before you send it any money, but the equation of fee-based services and scams is unfair and harmful for both publishers and writers.  

There are probably still publishers that will cut an advance check for an unknown author and then do all the work of typesetting, book design, marketing, and so forth, but unless your work is an expose of a major political figure or such I wouldn't count on it.  

A writer will do much better assuming up front responsibility--both financial and creative--for book design and marketing services.  

Subsidy publishing is a legitimate business.  A subsidy press functions as a bundler for other services and a legitimate one will let you know exactly where your money is going and why.  They have a working relationship with editors, artists, web designers, and will often get these services for better prices than you would shopping on your own.  

Self publishing is an attractive alternative for authors who understand the business of publishing.  A subsidy press makes self-publishing easy for those who don't know the business.  

Yes, I would love to have a Fifth Avenue publisher decide that I'm the next Sinclare Lewis and shower me with enough cash so that I can retire to my cabin in the woods and think deep thoughts, but in today's economy that's about as realistic as the Hollywood dream of being discovered working in a diner by a studio executive who's going to make me a star, or having a record label agent hear me playing guitar in the subway and offering me a fat contract.  

These days publishers don't have to assume all of the up front costs of getting a book to market and they won't, not unless they are damned sure to make a return on their investment. A author who is serious about making a living at his or her craft has to view writing as starting a business, and that will often mean paying professionals who understand the marketplace.  

Misha Burnett's picture
Misha Burnett May 26, 2012 - 3:43pm

Did not mean to double post.  Apologies.

Rob's picture
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Rob from New York City is reading at a fast enough pace it would be cumbersome to update this May 27, 2012 - 7:41am

jordanstratford, I'm confused, about whether you actually read this article. 

Did I 'criminalize' freelancers when I said you should hire them, or when I didn't call them criminals?

Did I really disparage indie presses by not mentioning them, or is it just tough to mention everything that's ever happened and ever will in the confines of an online column? 

Could it just be that the issues you raised were about a different article, one about the different paradigms in publishing, and they ended up here by accident?

Or did you want to cherry pick one paragraph from this so you could write a bunch of stuff so we would see how smart you were?

Next time read the article and apply some critical thought before accusing me of things I didn't do, is the moral here, I guess. 

jordanstratford's picture
jordanstratford May 27, 2012 - 6:54pm

Next time read the article and apply some critical thought before accusing me of things I didn't do, is the moral here, I guess.

Hmm... okay, so this is your standard response to people who do actually read the whole article and take exception to certain points you make in it?  

We can disagree.  You seem to have one very specific idea of what legitimizes publishing, I present others.  I did acknowledge that you make a distinction between self-publishing-and-hiring-out vs. scam artists, but I honestly reached an opinion as a reader that you blurred the lines, and perhaps irresponsibly.  

So I guess not being allowed to reach an opinion as a reader is the moral here, I guess.

Rob's picture
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Rob from New York City is reading at a fast enough pace it would be cumbersome to update this May 27, 2012 - 8:54pm

Not really my standard response, no. Just the one I give when someone is taking a hard left on what I wrote in the interest of making their own point. The article isn't about the different access points of publishing. Hence prefacing it by calling it the 'schoolhouse rock' version. Look if up, and you'll find it allows for a loose, non specific definition. Next time I'll try to be less subtle.

jordanstratford's picture
jordanstratford May 28, 2012 - 7:41am

You made a point, I took issue with it, and you mischaracterized my response out of some allergy to either criticism or clarification.  Disagreeing with you means I didn't read your article?  Okay then.  Good luck with that whole working on your first novel thing.

Rob's picture
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Rob from New York City is reading at a fast enough pace it would be cumbersome to update this May 28, 2012 - 9:43am


Bob Pastorella's picture
Bob Pastorella from Groves, Texas is reading murder books trying to stay hip, I'm thinking of you, and you're out there so Say your prayers, Say your prayers, Say your prayers May 28, 2012 - 8:22pm

The point of the article was to mention the scams that are out there. Rob also mentioned that what he was talking about was NOT self-publishing. He didn't mention anything derogatory about self-publishing at all. He didn't mention small presses because that wasn't the focus of the article. The focus was to be watchful of the scam artist. 


If a painter sells a work of art, he deserves payment, whether he sells it at a gallery, or exhibit, or his personal website. Writers are artist as well, and can sell their work, through a gallery (publisher) or by their own means (self-publishing.) Either way, and this is what I got out of the article, is that the writer, the artist, receives payment for their art. They don't PAY anyone to publish their art. Surely, if you self-publish, there are expenses, much like the painter's expenses in paint, and brushes, and canvases, etc. 


This was the focus of the article. If you need editorial services, you might have to pay for them, just take care they aren't trying to scam you. If you self-publish, you might need someone to do your cover, and it will cost money. But setting up a Twitter account shouldn't cost money.

Shit, if I knew that dumbasses were paying people to set up their twitter accounts, I would have gotten into that shit a long time ago...JOKE! 


Anyway, great article, Rob. Keep up the good work. 

SarahElizabeth's picture
SarahElizabeth from Pennsylvania is reading All the Light We Cannot See; Monster January 16, 2013 - 12:48pm

I remember reading a column on why you shouldn't vanity publish, and a lot of people in the comments got really upset. One guy said, "Well, I have a message and I NEEDED to get it out there and this was the only way!" I wanted to take his hand and say, "Ok, sweetie, let me buy you a coffee and introduce you to Wordpress, ok?" Or to Amazon's ebook service, or whatever... shelling out $4000 to get published should never be necessary.

For those of us who would love to publish, this article was great! It's good to know the pitfalls before you get out there and start trying to navigate the world of publishing.

As to those who overreacted to the limited coverage this article gave to alternate, legitimate routes of publishing... that wasn't the point. Deep breaths, ok?

Rob's picture
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Rob from New York City is reading at a fast enough pace it would be cumbersome to update this January 16, 2013 - 1:21pm

Aww, thanks Sarah. 

I still get a good laugh at the comments this generated.

Carly Berg's picture
Carly Berg from USA is reading Story Prompts That Work by Carly Berg is now available at Amazon January 17, 2013 - 5:38am

Just a casual observation, but it seems to me there's a fair amount of heckling on the few articles I've read here so far (not just yours), where someone signs up just to put down the article, no posts before or after those comments. ?

Rob's picture
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Rob from New York City is reading at a fast enough pace it would be cumbersome to update this January 17, 2013 - 8:31am

Carly, it happens. We like to promote an environment that fosters discussion. Diverging opinions are welcome and valuable. I love 'em.

Unfortunately, some people are less interested in discussion and more interested in attention. I tend to get a little snippy when someone slags me for no discernable reason. See above. It's something I'm working on. 

Still, nothing beats the guy who tore the hell out of another article I wrote—again, taking things out of context so he could assert his own assumed intelligence—and then turned around and asked us for a job. 

Love it!

Carly Berg's picture
Carly Berg from USA is reading Story Prompts That Work by Carly Berg is now available at Amazon January 17, 2013 - 9:06am

I've often wished for a keyboard button I could push to make people's laptop lids slam down on their fingers at my command. :)


Sanbai's picture
Sanbai from the Midwest is reading The War of Art January 29, 2014 - 1:06pm

Ha Ha! I love your last response to the troll Rob - just a "Thanks!". Brilliant. That's troll poison excellence. 

And it's a very nice "pubs for newbs" column. Felt like I learned something. So thanks for writing it.

Natso's picture
Natso from Mongolia is reading Moby Dick March 16, 2014 - 3:18am

There's this group on LinkedIn called Novel and Short Story Writing Contests. Every month they announce a "festival" or a "contest" but the link always leads to website.

And they ask for $45 to receive 1,000 and 9,000 short stories. The evaluation is supposedly 3-5 weeks. Prize? Winners get their story read by a professional actor and showcased for the world. And Oh, if you want an extra full feedback, you are to pay $100. Ha!

I understand some people are trying to make a living, but here's an example of vanity "get your story read aloud by a professional actor" press.

j4mie32's picture
j4mie32 September 30, 2019 - 11:19am

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