Writer Beware of Scammers and Scares
Learn about common literary scams and how to avoid them.
There’s nothing more exciting than getting a message from a publisher or literary agency saying that they’re interested in something you’re working on. It can feel incredibly validating and like a dream come true, especially if you’ve been working hard on your authorial career and not seeing much success.
But that dream can quickly become a nightmare if you fall prey to literary scammers, who make entire careers out of exploiting dedicated authors like you and me. Scammers can ruin savings, jeopardize careers, and break hearts in a few clicks, so how do you keep yourself safe from them? Well, you stay vigilant, you take off the rose-colored glasses, and you keep your eye on Writer Beware. Let’s explore what that is, why you should be keeping up with them, and how you can protect yourself from common publishing scams.
Writer beware, you’re in for a scare!
What is Writer Beware?
Writer Beware is an organization created and sponsored by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association (formerly Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America). It was founded in 1998 and despite being funded by a genre-specific organization, caters to every aspect of publishing in an effort to make the book industry safer. The main goal of Writer Beware is to serve as a watchdog, protecting writers and other publishing professionals from scams and bad-faith “businesses” trying to take money or information from unsuspecting victims.
The organization works on three different fronts:
- The Writer Beware website, which has an ever-updating list of known scams and scam companies alongside details on how to protect yourself from them and a place to report scams as they arrive
- The Writer Beware blog, which offers detailed coverage of different scam types as well as industry news and advice
- The Writer Beware Facebook Page, which acts largely as a discussion forum so writers can go to each other for help with identifying scams
All of these outlets are volunteer-run; the site is paid for by the SFWA, but no one is being paid to run it or to post on it. This means that there’s little if any bias beyond a passion for wanting to make sure that writers stay safe.
The founders of Writer Beware are Victoria Strauss and the late Ann Crispin. According to Strauss, she and Crispin didn’t start the company out of personal experience with scamming, but out of a keen awareness that the internet could be used to shine a light on some of the darkest parts of the industry they both loved. Crispin was at the time working to establish a Committee on Writing Scams for the SFWA (she was the Vice President of the organization at the time); she and Strauss were put in contact by a mutual connection and their goals aligned so well that they decided to combine their efforts to create a database of all known scams and dangerous businesses and individuals in the publishing industry, which was, of course, a massive undertaking. Over time, though, it became an invaluable resource.
“I was at first fascinated, and then horrified, by this fraudulent shadow-industry. Here was a whole slimy publishing underworld that I’d had no idea existed.” - Victoria Strauss
Writer Beware has quickly become one of the industry’s most trusted and reliable sources of information; if a scam ends up on their list, it’s likely to fizzle out quickly and hurt as few people as possible. On a personal note, I will say that Writer Beware is one of the places I check first when researching publishing options for myself and my clients; I believe that passionate writers looking to protect other writers for no profit on their part are a beautiful thing worth respecting.
Writer Beware’s list of questionable business traits
Writer Beware has a very specific and detailed list of traits they deem questionable when reviewing scams and fishy companies sent their way for inclusion on their “Thumbs Down” lists. The traits they list are:
- Unusual, unexpected, or directly exploitative fees
- Conflicts of interest (such as recommending their own editing services or other self-publishing services without disclosing that they make money from these.)
- Contract terms that are either not up to industry standards or directly abusive (such as inexplicable copyright claims or demands for inappropriate financial interest)
- Practices in their business that are unprofessional or deceptive, especially those that are directly exploitative
- Failure to deliver on professional obligations and a lack of provable previous successes after being in business for multiple years
- Inappropriate, inadequate, or nonexistent experience
- Lies, false advertising, or false claims
This is, of course, not an exhaustive list of potentially questionable traits, but it’s a good standard for considering if the professional you’ve contacted or been contacted by is really a reputable agent, or representative of a small press. Are they worth investing in, whether that’s time, or money?
If you have questions or wish to tip them off to potential scammers not listed on their site, they can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Common literary scams and how to avoid them
While I highly suggest keeping up with Writer Beware on your own terms, I also think it’s valuable for writers and all other publishing professionals to be aware of and wary of common scams in the literary world. So, let’s review what some of those scams are and how you can identify them before you run as quickly as possible in the other direction.
Vanity presses are possibly the most well-known scams in the publishing industry. Let me set the scene for you.
You’ve just written your first book, and you’re rightfully proud of it. You want so badly to get it on the shelves of your favorite stores, but you’ve had little or no luck with agents and big publishers, and you’re not sure about the whole self-publishing thing. So when you hear about this awesome indie press that will let you keep control over the publishing process while still providing all the services you need to get your book out there, you jump at the idea! So what if it’s a bit of a hefty investment in the production costs for their editing and cover design package? So what if they ask for the marketing budget upfront? They’ve got all of the connections to make it worth it, right? And they ask you to buy 500 copies of your book before they can start selling them, to “build your inventory,” but that’s normal, right?
But then you get the proof back for your book and…it looks terrible. The editing is minimal at best, the book cover looks amateur, and the formatting is all wrong. You try to bring it up with the representative you worked with and get shot down, told that this is normal and “how it should be.” You buy your 500 copies, then reach out to ask when the book marketing team will get back to you about the book tours, podcast appearances, book reviews, and press releases they promised…and you hear nothing. For weeks. Your book never appears on bookstore shelves, and you can’t even publish it yourself because of the contract you were rushed into signing before you could read it in full.
Vanity presses business model revolves around preying on confused, naive, or fed-up writers who dream of being a published author, but don’t have the knowledge or experience to self-publish completely on their own and build a business as an indie author, and don’t have the reputation to get a traditional publishing deal quickly. They promise insane packages of full-service publishing from beginning to end at exorbitant prices claiming that they’re doing you a favor and helping you “cheat” the publishing world. But these presses never deliver what they say they’re going to, and even if you do somehow end up with a decent-looking book with fine editing, you’re going to be roped into an exploitative contract that takes your rights from you and offers you a pittance in return. Vanity presses will often ask for huge cuts of the profit from your books and leave the onus of actually selling any books at all entirely on you.
Now, there’s a caveat I’ve got to put in here: not all author service companies are vanity presses. Hybrid publishers will offer editing, formatting, and design services to authors for a reasonable market fee. The difference is that a hybrid publisher is selective about who they take, and will make sure they’re working with you throughout the process to make sure your book reflects well on them. Vanity publishers will take anyone and everyone if they can squeeze money out of them, and they don’t communicate well on purpose.
Here are some red flags to look for to determine whether you’re looking at a real hybrid publisher or a vanity press:
- They ask for a huge upfront investment / require purchasing pricy publishing packages, AND they take a cut of your royalties.
- They have few or no legitimate examples of past publishing successes on their website. No testimonials, or those they have are of dubious quality and authenticity.
- Constant, unsolicited emails or phone calls.
- It’s difficult to find any concrete information about the leadership structure of the business or its employees.
- No one listed as an employee for the press has any publishing credentials, or they have minimal credentials at best.
- They charge a reading fee before you even get a contract.
- They try to rush you into signing a publishing contract before you have a chance to review it thoroughly, or they dodge any questions you have about the terms of the contract.
- They make massive promises - about international rights, movie or television adaptations, guaranteeing a spot on the NYT bestseller list - without any basis or proof.
- They promise that you will make your money back in book sales immediately.
- Solicitation for and pressure to purchase add-ons outside the scope of the original agreement, like working with some new marketing services that were not mentioned before.
“Easy for someone who knows what they’re doing”
So this applies more to content writers and editors than it does to authors, but it’s another important set of literary scams to be aware of. If you run across a listing for contract work that includes any of these phrases, run for the hills:
- “Easy for someone who knows what they’re doing.” This is a trap phrase that is used to lure in insecure or new professionals excited to prove themselves as “good enough.” It’s a sign that the person hiring doesn’t want to invest too heavily in the project they’re assigning, either because they mistakenly assume that a job with fewer words or an “easy” subject is going to take minimal time and still get a great result, or because they are actively trying to underpay the person they hire to get good work for cheap.
- “Pay to increase after X number of pieces.” While there are some models that use a growing payscale - usually offering a reasonable training or testing period rate and a reasonable full rate - most jobs that offer to pay you a wildly higher number after a certain number of pieces completed will find a way to make sure you never complete that number of pieces or reach that progression milestone. It’s another tactic for getting cheap work.
- “Lots of work available!” or “Thousands of pieces at $2 per 200 words!” This is usually a content mill, which means it won’t pay particularly well and you’ll be expected to meet a high quota with strict guidelines and requirements that make each piece take extra time to complete.
- “I need your [payment information of choice] to verify your identity.” This is a phishing scam - do not hand over any personal information! At most, your client needs your direct deposit information, and that will be only after you have a signed, legally binding contract in place.
As an added note, if you are planning to post a job, please try to avoid using any of this phrasing - you may end up getting reported by cautious workers.
Fake agents and publishers
This one is relatively simple, but can also be devastating if you don’t know what you’re looking at.
You get a message out of the blue from a literary agent or a publishing representative saying that they’ve heard about your book and are interested in it. Once you reach out to them, they’ll tell you that they’d like to refer you to their trusted colleague to get some additional editing done or to create a screenplay to pitch. If you do this, you’ll be asked to pay upfront and then you’ll be ghosted.
The red flags here are enormous:
- Real agents don’t solicit clients out of nowhere - you as an author have to contact them first!
- Real publishers won’t be vague about where they’ve gotten a recommendation for you from. They’ll name names and give information.
- Real agents and publishers have good grammar and spelling - if the email is riddled with typos, it’s a scam.
- They may claim to represent an imprint you’ve never heard of, and when you do a Google search, they have minimal or no internet presence.
Please remember that it’s extremely, extremely rare to be handed anything in the publishing industry without working hard for it and that only happens to those who have already made a name for themselves. As excited and rosey-glassed as you might feel, as flattered as you might be, don’t let hollow compliments and big promises hurt you.
Republishing scams might be the easiest to recognize. A scammer will contact you out of the blue to say that they found your new book on Amazon, loved it, and would like to help you get a Big Five publishing deal - but, of course, your book will need to be repackaged before that can happen, and lucky you, they have a sale going on right now!
First of all, legitimate “republishing services” straight up don’t exist. There are author service companies and freelancers that you can contact to revamp your book if you’re planning to aim for a Big Five deal, and there are companies and freelancers that your agent might recommend to clean books up during the querying process, but there are no services that can guarantee you a Big Five deal with just normal sprucing-up services, and once again, these companies don’t solicit clients out of the blue with no prior contact.
As with any other industry, there are always going to be a few people that take “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” too far. Impersonation is a big issue in the publishing world, especially as spoofing emails and digital vocal manipulation get easier. It can be difficult to spot a fake “offer” or “response” before it’s too late - trust me, I fell for it once, and pointing these things out is part of my job.
Luckily, there are a few things you can look for and do to make sure that the person you’re talking to is exactly who they say they are.
- Check for initial contact. Did you reach out to this agent or publisher with a query? Have you met a representative for them at a book fair or other event? Have you talked to them before, or interacted on social media? If not, be wary; as I’ve said above, it’s very unlikely that publishing professionals will message you out of the blue.
- Check for grammar, spelling, and syntax. An agent or publishing professional of all people should have good grammar, especially in their professional correspondence. If the email is riddled with typos, formatting errors, disjointed syntax (meaning sentences that don’t quite make sense), or strange punctuation or capitalization, it’s likely a scam.
- Always verify the email. First, go to the agent or publisher’s website and look to see if the email that’s contacted you is listed as an official point of contact. If you can’t find it, be wary!
- Check that the email is valid. If you find the email as an official point of contact, then verify that this actually is the email it says it is. You can do this using various online tools like Hunter, Breadcrumbs, or Snov. If it comes back as invalid, catch-all, or a cloaked email address, run!
- Get outside verification. Check to make sure that the “agent” who contacted you actually works for the agency they claim to work for and the “publishing assistant” is listed as an employee for the publishing house they’re supposed to represent. Find the official sites for the person sending the email and email them separately, asking for verification. If it’s real, you’ve confirmed their identity and can celebrate. If it’s not, you’ve alerted the publishing professional to the scam and you can keep people from getting hurt.
- Get inside verification. Ask to meet with the agent or publisher face to face or in a virtual meeting with cameras on. If they decline, try to make excuses, or claim “technical difficulties” without doing anything to resolve them (such as rescheduling), you’ve got a red flag and probably shouldn’t trust them.
- If they ask you for money, run! Agents and publishers will never ask you for upfront payment for books, especially if they aren’t completed yet. They take percentages of royalties and other earnings once the book is already out. If they’re asking you to pay large sums upfront for “handling fees,” “reading fees,” or other nonsensical charges, they’re not a real agent or publisher. Additionally, if they ask for sensitive information like banking information or passwords, they’re a scam.
Scammers can make you lose faith in your industry, fast. If you happen to fall into their traps, they can leave you financially burdened and feeling like a failure. But you’re absolutely not; these people make it their lives to take advantage of people like us, who are willing to at least try to eke out a legitimate living in one of the hardest-to-crack professions in the world. They’re the ones to blame for manipulating and exploiting you - you didn’t do anything wrong and you shouldn’t blame yourself for their bad faith.
Try to stay as safe as you can out there. Get verification, stay cautious, and remember that if it looks too good to be true, it usually is. By working together as a community the way Writer Beware does, we can help each other and drive at least some of these bad actors out of our industry.