Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Writing Scams

In my previous post, I talked about how important validation is for writers. There are many reasons why.

Writing a book, even a bad book, is a big accomplishment. You spend months, or years, creating an entire universe. It's hard work, lonely, egotistical, empowering, magical, mysterious, fulfilling, and depressing. When you finally write THE END, few things in life compare with that feeling.

Naturally, you want others to recognize your efforts. Perhaps even pay you for them.

Most first books aren't very good. Because personal opinion plays a part, it is harder to judge the quality of good writing. Paint an apple that looks like an apple, and you will be considered a decent artist. Play a song on the piano without messing up, and you will be considered a good musician. Finishing a book does not mean you will be considered a good author.

Most first authors don't know this.

Rather than treat publishing like a business (as they should) some authors treat themselves like artists, and then look for a way to legitimize their efforts. Even neophyte writers know this means:
  1. Getting an agent
  2. Getting published

With most artistic endeavors, there is a learning curve. Writing has one as well, but it is harder to see.

I've written at length about how screwed up the publishing business is. But the business is a result of years of evolution and attrition. As problematic as it may be, it has become a way for writers to prove their worthiness as artists. It proves that there are no easy routes to getting an agent, or getting a book deal.

Authors that break in must meet some minimum requirements. They must tell competent, salable stories, based on the opinions of professionals who work within the industry.

It is hard to impress these professionals.

As such, since publishing became big-business, another type of big-business arose--validating the writer through alternative means.

A book is an intensely personal thing. Rejection is hard. Many new writers cannot get validated through the NY publishing scene, so they seek alternative methods.

Here are a few, and why they are bad.

FEE CHARGING AGENTS - An agent is someone who earns 15% of the rights sales she makes on behalf of a writer. Agents need no license, no degree, no training. Anyone can call herself an agent.

Getting a good agent is hard to do, because they have high standards. Even though they work for the writer, they have all of the control at the beginning of the relationship.

Some authors don't think that they have any choice in the matter--they're stuck with whatever agent accepts them. Read the writing tips on my website for more about good and bad agents.

When a cow is slaughtered, there is a lot of blood and extra bits and pieces that are of no use to the slaughterhouse. But this waste has spawned cottage industries that buy the offal and use it in pet food, fertilizer, and many other things.

This is what happened in publishing.

A bad agent can't stay in business--no sales means no money. But even bad agents were swamped by needy writers, begging to be represented. So the bad agents came up with a plan. They would charge the writers a small fee.

A struggling writer craving validation will happily pay $50 a month (supposedly for costs related to running an agency like Xeroxing, phone calls, messenger service) to have an agent.

Do the numbers. If a fee-charging agent has 100 clients, she's making $5000 a month for doing nothing.

How hard is she going to work to sell your book? Not very hard at all.

The bottom line: never pay an agent money. Visit "Preditors and Editors" "Writer Beware" and "Association of Author's Representatives" to find good agents and avoid bad ones.

WRITING CONTESTS - It's hard to publish short stories. There are only so many markets, and they tend to be picky.

Along came the contest. Pay $5, or $10, or $50 for a chance to win $500.

Do the numbers. If a 1000 authos pay $10 each, the person running the contest makes $10,000. They pay $500 to the winner, and pocket the rest.

The legitimate contests don't charge fees. And there's no guarantee winning the contest will do anything for your career. I could put in a query letter "I won the Randolf Award, the Zimmer Prize, and placed second in the Zamboni Fellowship" and the editor won't care.

The story is what matters, not the number of awards the writer has won.

If you have a good story, submit it to a paying market, or a contest that doesn't charge any fees.

PAID ANTHOLOGIES - Here's another quick scam. You submit a poem, and it gets accepted into an upcoming poetry collection. You get excited, tell all your friends and family, and then get a letter in the mail saying that you can purchase the anthology at $40.

Naturally you buy a copy, and so does Mom, and so does Aunt Grace and your best friend Phil. When you get the anthology, you see it is 700 pages long, and your wonderful poem is crammed on a page with seven others.

Do the numbers. If there are 3000 poems in the book, and each writer in the anthology bought at least one copy, the publisher made $120,000.

Poetry.com was infamous for this scam. They'd also invite writers to awards ceremonies, at staggering costs to the gullible writer, to receive a worthless award along with 1000 other 'winners.'

VANITY PRESS - In simple terms, a vanity press is a publisher whom the writer pays to get into print. Vanity presses often have contracts that hurt the writer (low royalties, excessive rights,) make false promises about distribution and sales, and deliver an inferior, high-priced product that you have to pay to warehouse and that you can't get into any bookstores.

A traditional press makes money through book sales. A vanity press makes money off the writer.

PRINT ON DEMAND - POD is a type of press that eliminates the warehouse fees by creating single copies of books to order, using a special photocopy/binding machine.

Some call it a technology, which it is. Some call it vanity, which is can be.

If there is a contract between the press and the author which requires the author to pay money and also discusses rights and royalties, it is a vanity press.

POD books are even more expensive that offset printed vanity books. They aren't returnable, and can't be distributed. They don't look, feel, or even smell the same as regular books. Like vanity presses, they aren't edited edited for content, and they publish anyone with enough money. There is no 'weeding out' process like there is in tradional publishing, and so many bad vanity books have been produced that there's a stigma associated with them--and the stigma is well-deserved.

Some well known POD vanity presses include Xlibris, PublishAmerica, iUniverse, and AuthorHouse. Avoid them.

Many writers want to self-publish. If that's your goal, hire a printer and learn about the business. Paying someone else, either POD or Vanity, to publish your work is a very bad idea.

Real publishers don't solicit authors. They don't send spam offering their services. They don't put ads in magazines. They don't mail you brochures. And they NEVER ask for money.

BOOK DOCTORS - After getting many rejections, a writer might begin to think her book isn't as good as she assumes. She'll want to make it better, but is unsure of how to do so.

Enter the freelance editor. Someone who charges a fee between $2 and $10 a page to 'fix' the book.

Some are legitimate, and can be helpful. Some are scammers who charge a few grand and make the book even worse. Like agents, there is no license, experience, or eduaction required to call yourself an editor.

My advice is to learn how to edit yourself. You should be able to do that anyway. But if you need a second opinion, and are willing to pay for it, get references. Know beforehand what you are paying for.

Some unscrupulous agents have worked with book doctors, selling them the addresses of the writers they have rejected. The rejected writer will receive a brochure in the mail, touting the book doctor's expertise.

Some bad agents will also refer writers directly to a book doctor, for a referral fee. Beware anyone asking you for money.

I have published author friends who successfully use freelance editors. I think your time and money are better spent learning the craft on your own. Take a class. Read books about editing. Join a writer's group.

If you really need a freelance editor, ask around. Getrecomendations from your peers. Don't pick one because they have a splashy ad in Writer's Digest.

SELF-PUBLISHING - I think self publishing is an option open to writers, but it involves a lot of time and effort, plus a lot of money. I'll defend self-publishing, but I do not recommend it--even though I know authors who have done it successfully.

Self-publishing is not vanity or POD publishing. A self-published author retains all rights, and doesn't share royalties with their printer. A self-published author creates their own imprint, gets their own ISBN, copyright, and Library of Congress ID, finds their own distributer, allows for returns, and knows up front the cost and effort going into their business.

I believe it is easier to find a traditional publisher than it is to successfully self-publish, and would recommend writing another book before trying to self-publish a book that has been rejected by traditional publishers.

THE BOTTOM LINE - Don't pay anyone any money for anything. If you do, do so knowing the risks involved. Education is your ally. Research is your friend. Ask questions. Seek answers. Trust your gut. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

The best things in life are the things that are earned, not handed to you. The harder you work for it, the sweeter success is when it arrives. Keep at it. Keep writing. Keep submitting. Never say die.

NY publishing is flawed. It's fallible. It wants to reject you. But it isn't an impossible nut to crack. Visit and sign up for www.publisherslunch.com and www.pwweekly.com. Each week there are new deals made with first time writers. It happens all the time.

The true secret to getting published is simple: Write a book that a complete stranger will pay $25 for.