I had another blog post planned for today, but it will wait. I’ve just spent hours advising and consoling a dear friend who’d become entangled in the scams of a vanity publisher. My friend is a remarkable woman who’s battling cancer with great courage while still working hard on her writing, aiming at publishing. Little did she know that the professional arena into which she wanted to move is littered with snake pits full of vipers and the dens of hyena and jackal packs, otherwise known as bad publishers and bad agents, or just plain scammers.
I know a lot of our blog followers are hard-working aspiring writers also. So I thought a blog on how to avoid being cheated out of your life savings and having your heart broken by dishonest, thieving scum might be a good one. If your ambition is to be a published novelist, be aware that the waters you’re swimming in are infested with sharks. That’s step number one—knowing there’s a danger. And it’s not the danger that beginning writers think, that somehow editors might steal their ideas. Ideas are a dime a dozen. It’s what you do with them on the page that matters. What you need to watch out for are the slick, professional-seeming folks who promise you the moon so they can take your hard-earned cash.
Now, let me define terms to begin with. I am not discussing self-publishing here or companies or freelancers who contract with writers to provide certain well-defined services to support self-publishing, such as ebook formatting, editing, or cover design. These are all legitimate business people offering their expertise for a fee. They’re not slick companies pretending to be traditional publishers and promising appearances on national television programs and New York Times bestsellers, while not telling the people whom they fool into giving them big chunks of money that their books will never be reviewed or in bookstores, that they’ll probably only print 50-100 copies of the books, won’t do anything to market those, and after charging many thousands of dollars will still make the author pay bookstore prices for copies of the books they already paid to publish. They’re the companies with a reputation in the experienced writing community for violating contracts, dishonest advertising and sales pitches, rights grabs, and more.
Then there are the “agents” who charge big reading fees (making their money from writers’ fees rather than from selling writers’ work, which is what legitimate agents do) or have an editing service that they push writers to use to make them “representable” (making their money from writers’ editing fees rather than selling writers’ work). Sometimes the bad agents work with bad publishers with both of them taking a hefty bite out of the hopeful writer. It can be a cruel world out there, and writers need to wise up pretty fast.
One of the best ways to do that wising up, of course, is to join a strong, active professional writers’ organization, such as Sisters in Crime or Mystery Writers of America. For example, if you’re a member of either group, you’ll find that the published members are very good about answering reasonable questions. Another way to wise up is to learn all you can about the business of publishing. Because that’s the business you’re in from the time you start submitting your first manuscript. You need to learn how to behave professionally in that industry and what to expect in return. I wrote a blog post last year about all that HERE.
One of the resources mentioned in that post is Writer Beware, a service provided by SFWA and recommended by all the other national writers’ organizations. The folks at Writer Beware take email queries about agents and publishers and investigate problems with them. They warn writers about verifiable bad actors and con artists and provide lists of the worst publishers and agents. So, in closing, I’ll give you that link HERE and recommend, no, beg, you to check with Writer Beware before you sign any contracts with agents or publishers. Save yourself some heartache and humiliation, not to mention thousands and thousands of dollars. There are plenty of good agents and traditional publishers out there, and if you can’t or don’t want to go that way, you can always self-publish with good professional help for much less than these snakes will cost you. I’d love it if my friend were the last writer to be abused in this way. Let’s make it so.