Columns > Published on December 22nd, 2011

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. 

About the author

Rob Hart is the class director at LitReactor. His latest novel, The Paradox Hotel, will be released on Feb. 22 by Ballantine. He also wrote The Warehouse, which sold in more than 20 languages and was optioned for film by Ron Howard. Other titles include the Ash McKenna crime series, the short story collection Take-Out, and Scott Free with James Patterson. Find more at

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