Sadly, there are more shell games in the publishing world than Cinderella stories. Scam artists like young and inexperienced writers in particular. Teenagers might have more hair than us old folks, but they’re not nearly as good at knowing when something just smells funny.
The hucksters can be hard to keep track of. One sham company might operate under a dozen different names. Some approach high school creative writing teachers, getting them to get their students to submit writing, and add another layer of legitimacy to their bullshit. But here’s a few of their tricks, so you’ll know what to look out for...
The Anthology Scam
A young poet stumbles on an announcement of a poetry contest. The first prize is huge! He submits his latest masterpiece, Ennis the Emo Unicorn (Oh, to stab myself dead/ With this horn afixed my head.)
A few weeks later he gets a letter and Ohmygod! They loved his poem! While it didn’t win first prize, they’ve decided to print it in their up-coming anthology, Really Deep Poems About Way Important Stuff.
And since our young poet is a contributor, he can get his copy of the anthology for only forty five bucks. In fact, if he buys one copy for forty five, they’ll let him buy additional copes for thirty. After all, won’t Grandma and Grampa and all his aunts and uncles want their very own copies?
Here's the thing: Nobody ever wins first prize, but everybody gets published in the anthology. It doesn’t matter if your poem is good or bad, if words are misspelled, or if it even makes sense; everybody gets in the anthology. They sell the book to contributors at an absurd price, pocket the cash, then move on to the next batch of chumps.
Really Deep Poems About Way Important Stuff will never show up in stores or any legitimate review column. Maya Angelo will never read it the plight of Ennis. (If she ever did, though, I’m sure she’d be moved to tears.)
The Author Mill
Despite being burned by the anthology scam, our young writer struggles on. In fact, he expands Ennis the Emo Unicorn into a novel in verse (My woodland friends dance and sing not/ The hunter came, and they’ve been shot.)
He sends it out to publishers and never even hears back from most. But just when his dreams of literary stardom are starting to fade--Oh, happy day!--somebody wants to publish his work!
This publisher doesn’t offer advances, but hey, it’s a foot in the door, right? That’s more than those other publishers have offered him.
Of course there are editing fees, but the publisher assures him these are perfectly normal. And typesetting fees. And a small fee to get the color cover instead of black and white, but it’s totally worth it.
Then Ennis’s big day finally arrives. Except the final book is riddled with just as many typos as it was when our young author sent it off. And the cover art is ugly. And since they can’t return it, most bookstores won’t order copies.
Our young writer had been had again. If he complains, the publisher will try to convince him to throw good money after bad. He’s already made a big investment, they’ll say. He can’t back out now and see it all his dreams go to ruin. And for a very reasonable fee they’ll place an ad for him in the New York Times. That’ll bring customers running!
Author mills have been around for years. They’ve only gotten more prevalent in the age of the internet. Even after our poet finally untangles himself from these lowlifes (and people have spent ten thousand dollars and more before wising up) there’s no point in threatening to sue. Their contracts are iron-clad. They know exactly what to say and how to say it to keep themselves just this side of legal. (For instance the ad will be in the Times. It’ll just be an inch high and crammed with the names of a dozen or more writers.)
The Scam Agent and the Book Doctor
But the muses sing to our young writer. He cannot let the tale of Ennis to go untold. (I’m a magical creature/ A curly horn above my face/Why won’t Katie let me past second base?)
He decides he needs a literary agent to help him navigate the publishing world. He starts sending his manuscript out to agents. Most send back polite rejections, but there’s one nibble. They say he’s got talent, but his manuscript needs polishing. Why doesn’t he send it to a “book doctor,” an editing service that will fix it up for a fee. And hey, they just happen to know a great book doctor at such-and-such address.
What they mention is the kickback for every client they send the good doctor. (Or that they are the doctor with a different P.O. Box.) But if our budding poet does pay for the editing service, then sends it back to the agent, they’ll be happy to represent him (I bet you know where this is going) for a fee.
And just like the scam publishers, once the scam agent’s got him on the hook, they have a fee for everything. Reading fees, representation fees, fees for copying and postage. They'll keep him going until he wises up or goes broke, whichever comes first.
How to not end up a sad, sad unicorn
First, remember this:
Even if an anthology or magazine can’t pay you for your poem (or short story or butter cookie recipe) you should get a free copy.
Real publishers don’t charge fees. They're supposed to pay you. While some may not offer an advance, all of them take on the publishing costs and financial risks. (And most won't accept submissions until you have an agent to represent you, anyway.)
Real agents don’t charge fees. Not to read your stuff and not to represent your stuff. They make their money by selling books and taking a percentage of the profits.
Second, do your research:
The staff of Writers Beware and the forum dwellers at Absolute Write do an excellent job of keeping track of scam artists.
Wind Publicationshas a list of poetry anthology scams. And every year, Winning Writers hosts the Wergle Flomp contest, which awards “the best humor poem that has been sent to a ‘vanity poetry contest’ as a joke.” (Check out the 2008 winners to truly understand how bad you can be and still get accepted.)
Third, remember this too:
Once you realize something is a scam, move on immediately. Delete the email, throw away the letter. These people will promise the world, play off your insecurities and ignorance of publishing, and try to convince you they are your only friend in the industry. They are experts at dangling those dreams just out of reach, making it seem so tempting that you forget common sense.
I know because they got me once. Luckily, I never got in too deep, since I had more experienced writer friends who told me how they operate. (Actually, they told, You stupid little moron, you couldn’t get any stupider if we cut your stupid head off with a chainsaw. But same difference.)
Just as bad as the money I lost was the realization that I’d been rooked. After all the rejection I’d already dealt with as a writer, to get my hopes built up then suddenly smashed... I wanted to quit writing altogether.
It was a horrible feeling and an expensive lesson, and I hope other young writers won’t have to pay it.