On Publishing Scams

So you’ve written a book, or you’re writing one, or you’re thinking about writing one. You’re an artist. You’re a visionary. Or you’re at least very excited about the idea of creating something beautiful in writing and looking into getting it published. What do you do?

Ah, well, a lot of opportunistic companies out there are interested in you. Rather, they’re interested in your money, and in exploiting your idealism and naïveté to make you think you need their services. Or that their services are a legitimate, authentic road to becoming a published writer. Guess what? They aren’t.

I’ve written about The National Library of Poetry and how they try to rip off clueless poets by praising their poetry and then trying to sell them a book containing their poems (and others’ poems collected the same way) for exorbitant prices. These publishing and editing services are in the same camp.

There are many scams out there to try to trick writers into thinking it’d be prudent to pay for some service. Now, editing services exist. And I recommend having your novel heavily edited, even if you have to pay for it. But if you see someone charging reading fees for agent reviews, offering to take your money to rep you to publishers, or praising your work (sometimes without seeing it!) and offering you vague statements about their “connections” which they will put to use for you for a small fee, run. The websites Preditors & Editors and The Absolute Write Water Cooler are excellent resources for writers trying to research the legitimacy of any professional in the writing industry. But here are some specific things you should know about these misleading services.

Sometimes self-publishing services will try to get your attention by openly claiming not to be self-publishing services. Sometimes they’ll just call it something else, and assure you that they are legitimate. If they are legitimate, they don’t have to say so. If they are saying so, it must be because they have been called into doubt.

Sometimes self-publishing services will attack the Big Six or the traditional publishing industry, and claim that they actually have a “secret” that will make your book very popular if you sign with them. They don’t tell you what it is, because it’s a secret. Actually, it’s a scam.

Self-publishing services have lots of testimonials from nobodies—many of whom are actual customers—but no lists of sales or numbers to back it up. If it’s an “agent” trying to look legit, sometimes they will claim that they can’t publicly divulge who their clients are. That’s bull. Legitimate agents always have a list or partial list of their clients. They can show you their success.

Self-publishing services respond to queries with glowing praise and quick acceptances. They are looking to flatter you and make you think you were actually chosen for something. Well, you were. You were chosen because now you’re going to open your wallet. (If you have had an experience with a “publisher” like this and you’re still unconvinced, try approaching with a different name and a different idea that is sincerely worded but terrible. See if you don’t receive an identical form letter.)

Self-publishing services often ask you to pay a fee for editing. Traditional publishers, after accepting you, have their own editing departments and they don’t charge authors for their use. Traditional publishers are investing in the product and want to shine it up. Self-publishers are out to make money only from the author; they will not be helping to sell your book for you, though they may have a special (discounted!!!!) promotional author website you can have hosted on their site or a marketing package you can purchase (and implement on your own, of course).

Self-publishing services frequently give authors tips on how to promote themselves, and pretend that this is part of an author’s job. I assure you that traditional publishers are not going to try to train you in grass-roots promotion. They know how to advertise.

Self-publishing services and non-legitimate agenting services frequently have terrible spelling and grammar on their sites and poorly managed digital presences.

Scam agencies and publishers will sometimes actually tell authors that their manuscripts will be accepted as long as they have the manuscript professionally edited first. By this specific editor. Who works for them. If you refuse to agree to the edit, which you must pay for, you’re declined.

It’s not just publishers and agents who are posing as legitimate companies to get your money. One day on 43Things.com (a “goals” website where I had “publish a novel” listed as one of my goals), I was contacted by a stranger about how she could help me because she’s been helping emerging writers get published for years, and how I should look at her profile for more information. Of course, my first thought was “b.s.” Sure, people wandering around 43Things LOOKING for people who want to publish could be doing so out of the goodness of their hearts, but jadedness required me to say, “They’re selling something.”

Nevertheless, I looked at her profile, which contained an e-mail address and website. I responded to her note with this:

I appreciate the offer, but it seems more like you’re geared toward helping people who either haven’t written their book yet or don’t know how to approach publishing. Maybe I’m wrong about that but there isn’t much on your profile to show me what kind of help you’re talking about. Forgive me if that vagueness makes me skeptical.

If you can be more specific about the sort of help you’re offering, I can be more specific about whether I think you can help me!


Deciding to go a step further, I checked out their website. It appeared to be offering the services of a small group of people who claims to be able to help you prepare your manuscript for submission to publishers and agents. Okay. And of course you have to dig a little bit to find the part about the money, and pretty much all they say is stuff like “Our rates are low” followed by more stuff about how every writer needs a second pair of eyes to read stuff no matter how great they are.

They had a long mission statement pretty much trying to convince you that no writer can prepare a perfect manuscript alone, and that with the market as competitive as it is today you can’t expect a manuscript with errors to get past the first round of cuts. This I understand, and I actually agree that most writers who think they’re ready to submit ARE NOT. (I’ve edited a lot of stuff where the authors say they want me to give it a once-over before they start shopping it, and in my opinion it’s at first draft level!)

But I’m not one of those people, and I’ve had friends—both lovers of literature and people who are writers themselves—read my stuff, giving me opinions from their points of view, and I didn’t have to pay them. And I know that not everyone has someone like that or has people whose advice can be trusted, but then we come to that.

“You need a perfect manuscript,” blah blah. Okay, yeah, what if that idea sold me? Do I want to put my manuscript in the hands of people whose website has these errors, then?

  • You can count on expert advise [ . . . ] (Oh, you mean advice?)
  • Editors at publishing companies reject superbly written manuscripts everyday. (Oh, you mean every [space] day? “Everyday” is an adjective.)
  • Let a professional help make your story great – a story that agents and publishers want (I guess periods are passé? And hyphens are dashes?)
  • We specialize in emerging authors; those of you who have the drive to put you lore onto the page for the world to read and enjoy. (Is it just me or does this sound like it was written by someone who speaks English as a second language? Not to mention “specializing in emerging authors” is something predators often say. And what the hell is “you lore”?)

So I looked at a couple more pages of their site, and it just kinda made me wanna puke. They spent so much time on the page trying to kiss your ass and convince you that your writing is special and your special story needs their help to become refined and be perfect. They discussed the necessity of realistic dialogue in writing, but the example they gave was so horrible and cliché I wanted to pop them one—they suggested for an uneducated young “bad guy” that you give him a particular way of talking, such as “Hell no I ain’t gonna do dat! No way, man. What, you’s think I’m a freakin’ idiot? You really on my nerves, man. Hey man, I gotta a gun that’ll fit in yer fat mouth real good, if you’s don’t shut up.” Yep, that’s the example of GOOD dialogue. Let’s just see if there’s any possible way to get more offensive and cookie-cutter than that.

And as mentioned, a lot of the site sounded like its author struggles with words, like this one: “Having written and edited over 500,000 pages so far, and responsible for the publication of many of our clients, we are equipped to help you get there too.” Or this one: “All of the markets are studied on a daily basis so that we can pass on to you the most up to date information for your success.”

Not to mention that their site was hosted with some netfirms service that puts ads in a banner on the top, and all of their pages said “New Page 1” on the window bar, and some of the links didn’t go anywhere. Beware terrible websites on suspicious servers. These are supposedly the people who are representing you. If they know what they’re doing, they know how to look good.

I’m sure glad there are people out there who will give me such expert advise to get my work published so I can be successful so I can have great success, you know?

Bottom line: If you self-publish, you have no evidence that your book was deemed quality by people who are in the business of finding quality, and that is why self-published books have such a poor reputation. It doesn’t mean a self-published book can’t be good, but most people think their writing is excellent and most people are terrible at being objective and most people are not experts. If you wish to take publishing into your own hands, you’re going to be navigating a world that is not going to be very kind to you and may already be prejudiced against you because of the form of publishing you’ve chosen. But if you encounter a service that is trying to convince you that you must pay for services like theirs before you can get published, run. Run far, far away.

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