Avoiding Scams Aimed at Writers

by Jan Geronimo on August 17, 2009

Holly JahangiriBeware of agents, “book doctors,” ghostwriters, and vanity press publishers who prey on the hopes and dreams of aspiring writers. It is estimated that between 80-90% of all people want to write a book. Most of these would-be authors won’t put forth the effort to finish a book, and only a small percentage of those who do will produce something that’s really marketable. Everyone in between – including those eager young novices who might do better, but lack the confidence and patience to see it through – represents a huge potential market for the unscrupulous entrepreneur. The unsavory predators quickly figure out how to employ a deadly combination of flattery and sales technique to bilk starry eyed authors out their hard-earned savings.

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Imagine: You’ve just finished writing your first book. You’ve heard how hard it is to break into publishing; you’ve read tons of market listings that say “no unsolicited submissions, please!” This notion of “getting published” seems as far-fetched, some days, as winning the lottery. In fact, according to your inner critic, you might have a better shot at winning the lottery. You decide that it might be worth your while to hire an agent, so you begin searching for one who is willing to represent new writers and eager for fresh new talent to promote.

Here’s where you begin to make your first mistake – deep in the back of your mind, you crave acceptance. You want your manuscript to be loved unconditionally. You do not want to see it with the jaded eye of a bean counter, analyzing its sales potential in today’s literary marketplace. You are ripe for the picking.

A successful, busy agent may well turn you down if he or she feels that your work isn’t marketable, or if he or she doesn’t have the time to market it properly. Another agent may love that same manuscript, may be hungry for new clients, and may have contacts in different markets. A different agent may see something in your work that says “This is the next bestseller! I have to have a piece of this!” That’s a business reality. Of course the best agents can afford to be picky – imagine being Stephen King’s agent! (I wish.) Now, imagine being Stephen King’s first agent, back before he was earning scads of money. What you need is a visionary, not a scam artist.

If an agent calls you and tells you how promising your work is and how eager he is to represent you, of course you’re inclined to listen. That is exactly what you’ve been hoping to hear. But you need to really listen. Do the compliments come with strings attached?

Some agents will ask for a retainer fee, up-front marketing fees, reading fees, or other fees from the writers they purport to represent. Beware! A reputable agent makes money from selling your work, period. You may be expected to pay some or all of the reasonable costs of marketing your work: phone calls, photocopies of your manuscript, and postage, not glossy brochures and nationwide ad campaigns.

For some authors, getting sucked in by a scam artist is a crushing blow, both emotionally and financially. If you have been scammed, realize that the scam is a business scheme – it doesn’t necessarily mean that their compliments on your writing were mere flattery and lies! One writer said, “What I guess disappoints me the most is that I knew better. I’ve done my research and I know about these scams. But at the time, when emotions are high and you think that FINALLY you may have a chance and a door is opening for you…. You said it though: They prey on aspirations and dreams.”

Intellectually, you know. Emotionally… you want to believe. That’s why vanity press operations are so hurtful. They’re so good at the flattery. When a talented poet receives their marketing lit, it sounds great. When that talented poet learns that the guy who submitted something his cat typed up got the same letters, it hurts. It doesn’t suddenly mean that the talented poet is on a par with the cat, but that’s how it feels. The truth is that these people prey on everyone’s hopes and dreams; they don’t discriminate. What a feather in their cap it is to sucker in someone who actually has some talent or ability! These folks would dearly love to get hold of a naive John Grisham to lend them an air of legitimacy. Persistence will pay off, in the end. Keep the faith.

Before doing business with an agent, editor, or publisher, check here to learn if other authors have had good or bad experiences in dealing with them:



Holly Jahangiri is a professional writer with over twenty years’ experience in technical writing, freelancing, fiction, poetry, and editing. She blogs at It’s All a Matter of Perspective: Mine (http://jahangiri.us/news)

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  • Just a thought, addressed to Jan, the birthday boy :D

    Have you ever registered any of your writings at our National Library?
  • Should I? You know something I don't know, Minnie? Please tell me. The
    answer, of course, is no - I haven't registered my writings.
  • Oh, I just remember a classmate from graduate school that we can actually register our writings (poem, short stories, etc) to the National Library, and have it copyrighted. Wouldn't it be great to have one of your works copyrighted? :)
  • I guess so, they already have online inquiries Jan. :) Good luck!
  • That's nice. Thanks for the infomation, Minnie. :)
  • I'd look into this. I hope National Library has internet presence already
    so I can make inquiries online. :)
  • I think the best thing to do to avoid scams is to approach the right people. I am planning to publish my book once I am done with it and so now I am already doing my homework. And Norway is not a big country so it's easier for me to get to know people that have the power to help me out plus most of the big international publishing companies have local branches and agents here.
  • Tsk tsk. There will always be bad guys. The best defense, it seems, is to be well informed of the scam artist's tactics. This post does that nicely. And like you said, really listen.
  • Well, Luke. Being good friends with you and Dee is a blessing. Dee for her
    legal expertise and you with your expertise being the Sheriff of the
    galaxies. :)
  • lol. Deputy Sheriff only.
  • Ah well, it's the deputy who's always the workhorse - solving cases - while the top gun takes the credit. :)
  • zorlone
    I think there is this vanity within us that these scammers feed on. They know which buttons to push and what words to say to keep the lure on innocent writers. Heck, this may even apply to any profession in that matter.

    Like Reyjr, I was scammed too. A group of my friends and I took the bait of this, so called reputable agency, then poof! Php 20, 000 went to the pockets of these scums.

    Lesson learned: Be more critical!

    Reading from the comments, I felt a bit guilty in not putting pressure in my writing. I was supposed to submit a review on a medical journal weeks ago! I better shape up or lose another opportunity to finish this work.

  • Hello Z,

    He he he,, give me 20,000 and I'll publish your book...he he he...wala lang. (Kidding) Holly, the difficulty of publishing a book, really is inconsequential to the cost.

    Now my pockets are ready to be burned...(crying). But I have given my word. I hope they'll not be expecting glossy , colored pages .

    There will always be a second issue...lol..right Doc Z?
  • To address the first part of your comment, now, Z (after administering the kick to the seat of the pants to finish that review!) - you're partly right. What it is isn't so much "vanity" as it is an insecure need for validation through flattery. "You OWE it to the world to publish this! Of course, it needs a bit of polish - let us put you in touch with a great editing firm, first. Then, for another $2,500, we'll give you 100 copies of your book..." If it sounds like flattery, odds are, it is. If it sounds like someone wants to BUY your work, at no cost to you, that's publishing. And if you want to self-publish, just go straight to a reputable printing company and see if you can afford to have it done right, or go to a print-on-demand middleman like Lulu that offers a la carte services and doesn't require you to pay a cent.

    Bottom line, you kind of have to give your ego a nice box of chocolates and send it off to gorge itself on that while your more rational side conducts business.
  • Z, that's serious stuff! ABC! Apply Butt to Chair - and write!
  • Roy
    what a great follow-up to the previous post!

    didn't know there are scammers eyeing on writers!

    good thing I didn't meet one... unfortunately though, I met a 'fireman' who doused me with 'cold water' haha!

  • Don't they always prey on those whose hunger for something is greater than their common sense?
  • We are not lacking in supply of evil scammers in the Philippines either. I've been a victim once or twice myself. :p Not the publisher scammers of course, a different kind.

    I like your pragmatic look at getting published.
  • reyjr, it's not a national thing, it's just economics and lack of morals. I don't imagine there's a country in the world that doesn't have its share of scammers, and the beauty of a global economy and a global Internet is that you get to meet them ALL! The sad thing is, it makes cynics of most of us, sooner or later - and we have to consciously remind ourselves that there are good people in the world, people who can be trusted.
  • I have a question Holly, what do you consider as a "book"? Should it be hardbound? or would the pocketbook sizes and soft bound books qualify?

    Thanks and take care.
  • A book is a book. Could you find it in a library or buy it in a bookstore? If so, it's probably a book. (For the argumentative reader's sake, I do realize bookstores are starting to carry a whole wide range of merchandise now that cannot be called "books.") If it is commercially printed, has bound pages (more than a "pamphlet") and a nice cover made of heavier stock, it's a book.

    If you want to be able to sell it on Amazon, it needs an ISBN and possibly some added distribution services. This part does have a cost - to you or to a publisher. No getting around that. If you are thinking of self-publishing for yourself and friend, or you're planning on selling it only in person or through the Internet on your own web site, or on a site like Lulu.com (where the storefront is provided at no cost to you), you don't need these extras. But without them, you may also not be able to get your book into libraries or book stores - they use ISBNs for ordering and cataloging purposes.

    I can see you've run into the book snobs. They can be just as bad as the blog snobs - folks who want to tell you what is and what is not a "real blog." It's sad the way others will try to limit your creativity because theirs is limited to begin with. The only part some of them get right is the notion that a lot of writing out there is poorly edited and poorly presented - try to make sure that no matter how you publish your book, it's a credit to you out there in the world.
  • Now, I'm getting discouraged Holly, ...kidding.... I've got to publish that book, ..really..GTG , so I could attend to it.
  • Scammers are scum! Plain and simple. They exist in every shape, form and in every market.
  • I could not agree with you more, Jhay. Thanks.
  • Indeed, Jhay. It seems you've a fair amount of visitations from them? :)
  • Hayz... naalala ko tuloy ang paggawa ng thesis... well pahirapan saka madugo pero yun nga as much as you want to have a great quality paper mukhang di masyado nangyayari dahil kulang sa oras. well unlike writing a book or something, wala naman talagang definite time frame kaso ang problema lang is ang publisher at kung may worth pa ba ang book mo the moment marelease na ang book na gawa mo... jejejejejeje...
  • Sometimes, we have to create what I call "artificial deadline pressure." If we're not self-disciplined enough to set our own deadlines and stick to them knowing that no one else cares if we hit or miss, then we have to ensure that we create consequences for NOT sticking to them. A few ideas:
    - Tell a friend about your deadline or announce it on your blog (this only works if you genuinely care that friends and strangers know you can't stick to a deadline you set for yourself, and if you forbid yourself from ever writing up creative excuses for why you missed it).
    - Commit to donating slightly more than you can comfortably afford to charity or an educational institution if you don't make your deadline.
    - Vow to do 40 or more hours of volunteer work (with a literacy program, perhaps), if you don't meet your deadline. (It's good if your consequences are inconvenient to YOU, but have a positive effect on others and make you feel better about yourself - rather than spending too much time kicking yourself in the behind for "failure.")
    If the subject matter is very timely, consider submitting it to a magazine, where publication cycles are shorter and the need for fresh and timely material is constant. It can be challenging to write a book on a topic that has limited shelf life, especially when you haven't already proven your ability as a previously published author.
  • Don't worry, Jaydee. Your comment went in. Jaydee, you're not exactly writing a time-dependent book, are you? If it comes to that? There's no time frame involved when it comes to themes or topics for the book you might have it mind. Keep to the timeless themes and you can't go wrong. Take it from my wealth of experience as an unpublished book writer. lols
  • Holly, how long was it before you found your publisher? Did you meet her through an agent? How many rejections you had to go through before your book saw the light of day?
  • Well, here's the thing... the best way to find a publisher is probably through networking. And I met mine before she started a publishing business. Before she even thought of starting a publishing business, I think. When she opened up 4RV Publishing, and started looking for titles to publish, she asked if I still hadn't published Trockle, a story she had read and critiqued for me. (Her initial reaction had been, "You HAVE to publish this!" And of course I did my usual thing of sticking it in a drawer and not submitting it. So in a sense, it was just waiting for her.)

    Most of the freelance work I've done has been for people who knew I could write on tight deadlines and meet their editorial needs, often filling in for others who couldn't. That gets you repeat business.

    Another great source of info is the Writer's Market: http://www.writersmarket.com/ (You can buy the hardcopy - some editions include a subscription, or you can just subscribe online.) Whatever you do, when submitting your work to a publisher, FOLLOW DIRECTIONS. Every publisher has submission guidelines. Don't get cute and fancy and submit a manuscript in Gothic Script 10pt purple or Comic Sans 20pt chartreuse just to get attention. It'll get attention, all right - the kind that gets it THROWN, not just dropped, into the trash can.
  • Well, I have a first hand look how you can write on tight deadlines. I asked for a guest post and you gave me a three part-post. I accepted only two, of course, as someone might spread a rumor I've bolted this blog. Ahehehehe. Darn - you didn't suffer through rejection slip after rejection slip? But that doesn't make for a good telenovela, Holly. :)

  • And that is really all there is to it, if you already have a proven track record with the editor or publisher or you have references that they know and trust.

    Sure, I've had some rejections - the only people who don't have lots of rejection slips are those who aren't working or who aren't submitting anything. (I tend to fall into the latter category. With a day job and a family and the patience of a small insect with a three day life cycle, putting a manuscript in the mail and waiting two to three months for a rejection slip just doesn't seem that satisfying. It's not that I mind rejection, when it comes - it's the waiting for it.) A few successes are all it takes to realize that the rejections mean nothing more than the times you walk by a store shelf, look at some item, pick it up and think about taking it home, and then - for whatever reason you do NOT have to explain to the shop keeper - you put it back and walk out without buying.
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