Years ago, I was on the verge of purchasing a self-publishing package for $20,000. For some reason, I put off the decision. In the meantime, I had a financial difficulty, and I didn’t have the money to buy the package.
That financial difficulty turned out to be a blessing. It saved me a lot of money because that company went out of business, and their reputation was trashed. Since then, I’ve learned that I can do everything myself for less money and end up with a better book by doing my own research and contracting with professionals.
What are the marks of a publishing scam, and how can you avoid them?
What Makes Something a Scam?
Over Promising and Under Delivering
Nearly all scams make sweeping promises about your success and their commitment. But they do not deliver on those promises. They don’t even intend to.
A company may lie about their product, services, or methods.
Unlawful or Unethical Methods
Publishing scams often violate the terms of service for companies like Amazon. They may try to cheat Google’s algorithm or cheat another company.
Price Doesn’t Necessarily Indicate a Scam
The price alone doesn’t make it a scam. Scribe Writing offers very expensive publishing packages, but they are legitimate. They work with a specific kind of author. For $100,000, they help CEOS of large companies write and publish their books. CEOs are busy people, and they’re happy and able to pay a legitimate company to write and publish their books.
The book becomes a tool to help sell the other aspects of the CEO’s business. Scribe Writing is honest and upfront about who they work with and how they do it.
Vanity publishers make money whether you succeed or not. You pay them to self-publish your book, but then they may require you to buy hundreds of author copies. They make money off your purchase of your own book.
Readers Digest borders on scamming when they offer to publish your book for $8,500. Editing will cost you an additional $.09 per word on your 90,000-word book, which adds another $8,100. It’s not a scam because they’re upfront about what they’re giving you, but when you can do it all yourself for far less than $16,000, it borders on a scam.
Fake Literary Agents
Absolutely anyone can call themselves a literary agent. Some agents are bozos and just don’t know what they’re doing yet. Bozos have only been agenting for a couple of months and have no connections in the publishing industry. They’re not trying to deceive you. They just don’t know what they don’t know. Their incompetence may accidentally hurt you.
On the other hand, there are frauds. These fake literary agents are out to deceive and prey upon aspiring authors who aren’t familiar with the publishing industry. Predatory agents intend to deceive and hurt you by charging you for their services. They have no vested interest in selling your book because you’ve already paid them. If an agent wants money from you, they are a fraud. Run. Flee. Do not pay them.
A legitimate literary agent, like a real estate agent, makes money only when you make money. They get a percentage of the sale of your book, so they don’t need to charge for their services.
Since their income depends upon the sale of your book to a publisher, they are motivated to present your project to as many publishers as possible and to negotiate the highest advance for you. A higher advance for you means their cut is higher as well.
Real literary agents are members of the Association of Author Representatives. If their members violate the guild’s code of conduct, they’re kicked out of the guild.
Take the initiative to research any agent you’re considering. Find out if they’re a member of the Association of Author Representatives.
Signing with an agent is like marrying your business to theirs. You’d never marry someone without getting to know them first. If they do sell your book, you’ll be working with that agent for as long as that book is in print, so choose wisely.
Check references. See if they’ve had success in the past with other authors. Find out if you have the same philosophy on business and writing. Is the agent someone you get along with well? Your agent should be someone you enjoy who is excited about selling your book.
Blog Tour companies offer to have their team of bloggers write about your book for a fee. You give each blogger a book and pay the company to organize it. Then the bloggers write a review of your book on their blog. The trouble is, no one is reading those blogs.
Some of the bloggers have created a blog so they can get free books through these blog tour companies. They have no readers and don’t intend to reach anyone.
When you pay for a blog tour, it’s as if you’re buying a billboard on a road where no one drives.
A legit PR company that gets you featured on popular blogs can be totally worth the cost. One popular blog can be worth 10,000 unpopular blogs. The difference is unbelievable.
Social Media Packages
Many companies offer to Tweet to 10,000 people, put together Facebook images, post your book on their Facebook page with 50,000 followers, and such. Then they tell you they can’t measure success, and they’re right because using social media in that way does not drive book sales. Only a fraction of a percentage of those 50,000 people will even see the post about your book, and the ones who do will not usually buy it.
I have not seen a social media package I would pay for.
Advertising campaigns on social media are a different story. Social media ad campaigns are measurable and can be worth your money. There are several companies that can run strategic ad campaigns for you.
Some PR campaigns are legitimate and worth paying for. A PR campaign that can get you on radio, TV, and podcasts is likely worth your time, but they are typically expensive.
When you research a PR company, find out how many New York Times bestselling authors they have worked with. If they haven’t worked with any, be skeptical.
If a company offers to get you on TV, radio, and podcasts for the bargain price of $299, you can know it is a scam. You’d be better off spending $299 educating yourself on how to do those things.
Legitimate PR firms have spent years building relationships, contacts, and trust, so they can charge $50- $100 per hour. Making media contacts and coordinating appearances takes a lot of time and experience.
Promising to Get Your Book in Bookstores
Scam companies promise to get your book into bookstores, and aspiring authors envision their book sitting on the shelf of a retail bookstore. But those companies have no intention of putting you on the shelf. They will simply put your book in the bookstore’s computer. If a customer should happen to ask for your book, the bookstore can order it, but your book will not be displayed in the physical bookstore.
You can put yourself into the bookstore’s computer for free through Amazon, so do not pay for this kind of “service.”
Pay to Enter Writing Contests
Paid contests are probably the most common scam for writers.
If I wanted to make a quick buck, I could host a Novel Marketing Writing Contest and charge writers $100 to enter. The grand prize winner would get $500, and I’d get the rest. It’s basically a Ponzi scheme or a lottery. In most contests, no one even reads your book. They just pick a winner and deposit the cash.
However, there are legitimate contests in the writing community. Look for how long the contest has been running. If it’s only been around for a year, that’s a red flag. When Writer’s Digest runs a contest and flies the winner to New York, that’s real and easy to verify.
Even if a contest has been around for ten years, check out their winners list. If you’ve never heard of anyone on their list of winners, and their books on Amazon have only five reviews, it’s not a legitimate contest.
Some writer’s conferences run legitimate contests where the prize is the feedback the winner receives from a reputable editor, agent, or publisher. I attended a small writers conference where the contest prize was a $10,000 book contract from a reputable publisher. Real contests do exist. They typically don’t cost much to enter, but the money grab contests are expensive.
If you suspect something is a scam, ask your fellow writers in our AuthorMedia.social group whether they’ve had experience with a certain contest or company. You can warn other writers if you’ve been scammed.
General Rules of Thumb
Find a Happy Customer First
Whether you’re having a website built or looking to work with an agent or publisher, don’t work with anyone until you’ve talked with a satisfied customer.
Ask For the Numbers
If they say they can’t measure the effectiveness of their work, be careful. Ask for an average ROI for the past few people they’ve worked with.
Ask Lots of Questions
Can you give me the names of some of the people on your sales team? Traditional publishing companies have a whole team of salespeople who visit bookstores to get their authors’ books on the actual shelves. A scamming publisher doesn’t have a sales team.
What is the name of your last book to hit a bestseller list? You can ask agents, publishers, and marketing companies about their history of success.
Where can see examples of your work? If they can send you to a gallery, a list of websites they’ve designed, or verified samples of their work, they’re probably legit. Scam companies don’t usually go to the work of faking samples of their work.
Who are the names of the people doing your work? You want to know who they’re using when they outsource your work.
Read the Fine Print
Arbitration clauses are good, but only if the arbitrator is picked by a third party. Scammers often have an arbitration clause, but the contract says they get to pick the arbitrator. If that’s the case, you’ve given up your right to sue if they harm you. Long contracts with lots of fine print are more likely to be hiding something from you.
Find out who owns your copyright after you sign. You should always maintain the copyright to your work. One vanity press company I know of took ownership of the copyright so that when authors discovered what a terrible company they were, the author had to buy back the copyright to their own book.
How easy is it to cut ties?
One of the habits of highly successful people is to form business relationships around the principle of Win-Win or No Deal. A business relationship should be a win for both parties. If one party can lose, then it’s a no-deal. Find out how each party can exit the business relationship if needed.
It won’t be easy to cut ties with a publisher if your book succeeds because they don’t want you running off to another publisher. Traditional publishers often want first rights of refusal on your subsequent books, so they don’t have to fight with other publishers to keep you. They don’t want you to have options because they don’t want to pay you more.
I highly recommend having an agent if you’re going to work with a traditional publisher.
Look for Financial Incentive Alignment
If you pay a lot of money up front, and they make money whether your book thrives or not, they have no financial incentive to see you succeed. It’s not always a deal-breaker, but ideally, your agent and publisher will make money when you make money.
What are some warning signs that you’re about to be scammed?
Flattery About Your Writing
If someone contacts you out of the blue raving about your writing and they’re selling something, be very suspicious. Legitimate companies don’t have time to read the books of people they haven’t contracted.
Writers are susceptible to this tactic because they’re hungry for affirmation. If you’re insecure about your writing, you’re an easy target.
No Money-Back Guarantee
A money-back guarantee proves they’re not a fly-by-night kind of company.
I have been so impressed with how Alex Newton at k-lytics bends over backward to make sure his customers are satisfied. If they’re not, he offers a money-back guarantee. But you’ll be hard-pressed to find a dissatisfied customer.
Most legitimate companies would rather refund your money than have you complaining about them on the internet. On the other hand, a company can’t refund your money if they’ve already spent $5000 printing your book or building your website.
They’ve Never Failed
Ask about campaigns that have not gone well. If they say every author they’ve worked with has had marvelous results, beware. Everyone fails sometimes. Legitimate companies have setbacks.
Any time a company wants to charge you to read your book, it’s a scam. Legitimate publishing companies don’t charge to read your book.
Upfront Publishing Fees
These can be legitimate fees. If you want someone to hold your hand through the process of self-publishing, it will cost you. A legit self-publishing company should charge you as you go.
Traditional publishing companies, on the other hand, shouldn’t be charging you for anything. They should be paying you.
If they are owned by Author Solutions, run.
Author Solutions has a very bad reputation in the industry. People are very unhappy with what they provide. I do not recommend any of their imprints or services. They own a whole section of the publishing industry, and I would not use any of them.
WestBow Press is the self-publishing arm of Thomas Nelson. Find out if WestBow press is really doing the work or if it is being farmed out to Author Solutions. Thomas Nelson is a great publisher, but their self-publishing arm is a scam.
In fact, if you published through Author Solutions directly, you’d be overpaying for poor service. But if you go through WestBow Press, you’re overpaying twice—once to WestBow and once to Author Solutions—for the same poor and wildly overpriced service.
Pushy Sales Tactics
In order to get information about the pushy scamming company, you’ll probably have to give them your phone number. Once you do, they won’t stop calling you. They will flatter you about your writing and promise to make you famous.
Promising to Make You a Bestseller
No one can promise you’ll be a bestseller. The only way to guarantee bestseller status is to organize teams of people and pay them to buy your book. The strange thing is, this actually works. It’s not a scam on you. It’s a scam on your readers and the system. When authors are caught, their reputation is permanently damaged.
There have been cases where authors have had several bestselling books. When their third book doesn’t sell as well, they pay a team to artificially buy their books. When they get caught, it makes readers question all their bestselling books. They undermine their own reputations.
Promising to List Your Book on Amazon
Scammers prey on the technically-challenged author. They want you to pay them to list your book on Amazon. Many authors don’t realize that it only takes a few clicks to list your book on Amazon. It will be more work to give them your information than it would be to do it yourself.
Publishing Services Thomas Recommends
When in doubt, ask in our AuthorMedia.social group.
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