Avoiding Author Scams
While attending a well-respected book festival last fall in Austin, I visited with university presses and such at their booths not far from the grounds of Texas’ state capitol building. As fun as that was for a bibliophile and book development expert, I was shocked afterword to discover that two publishing service vendors at this long-standing event were on watch lists as potential scammers; one had the largest, most impressive booth there, with at least two tables showcasing client book examples.
That these literary sharks could get into this event shows how careful writers need to be when considering hiring anyone to help with the multiple steps of getting a book out the door. But beyond using word of mouth from other writers (whose experiences can vary), what can you do to scrutinize a publishing service provider?
The good news is, author-related organizations such as the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers Association (SFWA) have online information on many types of scams out there, and name some names to steer clear of, as described below. These groups may charge exorbitant prices for services, or provide limited if any services.
Keep Your Thinking Cap On
Doing general due diligence at the start can go a long way regardless of such details, though. For instance, a family friend got tripped up by one category of author service that Writer Beware doesn’t cover. He called me after becoming thrilled to have found an online site that would hook him up with a narrator (for an initial audio book) at a cheap cost and teach him to create his own future audiobooks. When I looked at the organization’s site, though, it screamed marketing manipulation.
The biggest red flag was that the organization prominently placed what visually looked on first blush to be a legit newspaper article about the audiobook business. Only the article was penned by someone who was listed as a “former contributor” to the major national news outlet whose logo was prominently displayed with the article, and throughout the site. Former
contributor could mean anything from writing one article for that media outlet, to writing for
their advertising department, or something else. The “article” also only touted the benefits of the company’s services, rather than bringing up any cons, providing outside commentary about their services, or mentioning any other businesses offering similar services. Traditional journalists would normally do some of those things to provide a balanced perspective—but the content was, in essence, an advertisement written to read like a newspaper article (called an advertorial).
That treatment made the placement of other well-known media outlets’ logos on their website suspect, and their business model as well. I also warned him that some companies will “take your copyright” as far as ownership of the content produced, which should go to the mind behind the content. This could happen, for instance, if the company insists that they purchase ISBN numbers used to distinguish your book from all others (though some legitimate editors and other providers will provide this purchasing service for clients, they will specify in writing that you get to retain the ISBN rights).
The moral of the story? Don’t go in blind when considering writing services; that’s tricky when the idea of getting published gets you so excited that cautionary steps are ignored that you might normally use to check out a home roof installer, for instance. The opposite extreme can happen too, such as writers not being willing to share their draft manuscript with an editor in advance, which is required to make a decent estimate of the cost for the work (as SFWA confirms is legit in the content below).
Dig In to Specific Providers
Beyond the above cautionary advice, there are broad author scam tips available from The Authors Guild, and I've listed specific guidance from Writer Beware (which covers beyond the U.S) and some added resources below. Because predatory companies will sometimes change their name when word gets out, it's wise to check the appropriate list with any new hire:
On how to vet editors, when they’re needed, and more.
How to find legit literary contests and literary award competitions you could enter (which is one way to gain readers by upping recognition for your book). Be sure there's wording that you get to keep the copyright of any content you enter, with writers talking about how some scam contests are now collecting material to apply AI to for generating content that they'll repurpose, as one example of how scams can evolve.
Why reputable literary agents won’t charge you to look at your work, and more to look out for when picking a literary agent.
A beware list of so-called literary agencies tagged for predatory practices.
How to take the measure of small presses.
No-no publishing houses.
Meanwhile, the Independent Book Publishers Association has developed criteria for professional hybrid publishers (there are legit hybrids that writers pay to get some of the services traditional publishers normally provide for free, e.g., if the author can’t get interest from pub houses; I’ll blog about the ins and outs of hybrids later).
In the end, learning the rules of publishing and to build a healthy community of professionals to turn to is part and parcel of being a successful writer.
By Barbra A. Rodriguez
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