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How to Avoid Scams

I'm not a suspicious person by nature, but I do try to rely on common sense when it comes to the business end of writing. I think one of the most important adages to remember when you're trying to get published is this:

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Now, what do I mean by that? If someone is promising you the moon and the stars, if someone claims they can make magic happen in your writing life, if someone offers you a shortcut -- suspicion should be the first emotion you register.

And here's the problem. New writers who aren't plugged into the community don't know any better. It isn't their fault. Well, it is their fault, for not using their common sense and researching the hell out of every sweet deal they come across. But I've seen person after person get taken in by promises, and it's driving me nuts. Unsavory characters prey on ego, and the fallacy that you're a gifted writer right out of the chute with the very first thing you've ever written.

How do I know??? Well, I've been the victim of a couple of scams myself, and had to learn the hard way.

So I thought we could cover some of the basics here, and if you wonderful Red Room readers could chime in on the back blog to give your instances, maybe, just maybe, we can avert some serious heartache for those new writers around us. We need to rise up and educate our new writers so they don't get their dreams shattered. Loud, public dissent will help.

I've wanted to do this column for a long time. In the past two months, I know three people who've been victims of major scams perpetrated by unsavory agents, publicists and so-called publishing houses.

The first was a friend who wrote a book, a memoir, and submitted it to a local agency. She came to me after they'd offered her a contract, saying "Guess what! XXXX says they are going to publish my book!" I've been in this game long enough to know that when an untried writer is accepted on their first pass with an agency no one has ever heard of, something is fishy. And that isn't a slam on this particular writer's ability, it's just common sense.

So I asked for more information and I looked them up. The first thing I noticed was they were literary representation, not a publishing house. So my radar goes off big time, because any agent who guarantees that they'll get your book published is pulling your leg. Agents can't guarantee anything. Just like publicists can't guarantee anything. If an agent says "I'm going to work my ass off and do everything in my power to present your work to as many editors as I know who would like to read such a book," you're golden. "I'll get you published?" Warning bells.

So the site looked pretty legitimate. I went to source number two -- Publisher's Marketplace. I know there are agents who don't report their deals, but the ones who do are legitimate. Or so I thought... this agency had a deal listed with a major house. (Wow, I thought. They might actually be for real. How about that. My instincts were off.) So with cautious optimism, I asked her to show me the contract.

Cue screeching brakes.

I've never seen something as scary as this contract. Remember that this is with a literary agency. (Many do their deals on a handshake rather than a contract.) The contract started off standard but quickly devolved into a horror show. The things they asked for were so far out of bounds... Not only do they charge fees, including travel for the agent to meet with prospective publishers, they ask for power of attorney, to be named beneficiary on the individual's insurance policy, require rights to be transfered to the agent's heirs in case of death, and take all rights to publicity. I burned my finger dialing the phone to tell her NOT TO SIGN IT.

And then I turned them over to Preditors and Editors, because that's all I could do.

That's one of the most egregious examples I have for you today. Another was a friend who was approached by a publicity firm who were lining up her book tour and speaking engagements, and wanted several thousand dollars in cash up front. Little problem. The book hasn't been written, much less agented and sold. Yet this agency was more than willing to take the author's money and book a tour. Um... yeah. Unsavory, at best.

I ruined another woman's life this past weekend when I unveiled that her brand new publishing contract actually meant that she'd just self-published her book. I don't want to get sued, so I'm not going to mention the name of the company (there's already a massive class action lawsuit against them) but here's the tip. If you send a manuscript to a publishing house and they send you back a contract to sign, be wary. That's just not how it works. And I felt horrid, because she'd gone into her morning thinking that she was the bomb, that she'd published, and when I told her how self-publishing actually works, that as long as you have an ISBN you can be listed at Amazon, that you buy the books from the publisher and have to hand sell them, that the vast majority of bookstores and chains won't touch self-published and vanity presses because of the returns issue... suffice it to say she was crushed. "What can I do?" she asked. "I already signed the contract. I had no idea." Then she started grumbling, "I thought it was too good to be true."

Folks, word to the wise. Have an experienced entertainment lawyer look over your contracts.

Better yet, get an agent and let them do the heavy lifting. Many agents are lawyers, and you've got it all wrapped in one nice package.

Now please don't flame me because I'm not a proponent for self-publishing. I think that if you have a book that you're interested in your close friends and family reading, and you aren't trying to start a career writing multiple books that will be carried in bookstores and pay you royalties, then that's a fine way to go. But if you're a new writer who wants to write more than one book and get paid for doing it, DON'T DO IT. Even if you hate the idea of a traditional New York Publisher, think you'd rather not go to the trouble, there are several incredibly great small indie presses that are worth investigating. Poisoned Pen Press, Busted Flush Press, Bleak House, Capital Crimes -- all of these are wonderful houses that any author would be proud to be published by.

So here are the rule to live by:

  • The money always, always, always flows to the author, not the other way around. If you have to purchase your books from the publishing house for distribution, run away.
  • Do your research. Google the name of the agency or publisher with the word "warning" in the search. That will give you an idea of whether they're legit. Familiarize yourself with Publisher's Marketplace and see who's making deals, and with what houses. Those are the people you want on your side.
  • Find a lawyer, or at the very least an established writer you trust to tell you the truth.
  • Join the major organizations for your genre, and invest in a membership with the Author's Guild, who have free legal advice for their members. Most of the major organizations have a listing of royalty paying publishers who are legitimate. There are publishers who aren't on those lists who ARE legit, but you'll need to do your research to make sure before a submission is made.
  • For agents, go to the Association of Author's Representatives to see their members and read their Canon of Ethics. Not all legitimate agents are AAR members, but ALL legitimate agents abide by the canons. If they don't, or won't openly discuss their list of authors with you, or want $1500 up front to get going to cover their expenses, look elsewhere.
  • Hear what's really being said, not what you want to hear.

The biggest problem new writers are faced with is desire. You've worked so damn hard, have slaved away writing your book, and you WANT to get it out to the reading public. We understand. We were there once too. But DO YOUR HOMEWORK! There are several easy steps you can take to ascertain whether the offer you've been approached with is legitimate. Because that's the problem with scams. The veneer of legitimacy can be shiny and obscuring.

Like I said, I've been faced with scams. I had an agency agree to represent me, give me some editorial advice, and then ask for $2500. They wouldn't release a listing of their clients, which is a big no-no. And when I Googled them, WARNINGS appeared everywhere. NOT.

My other mistake was less obvious. I met an "agent" at a festival. She took me to dinner after a session, told me she was new to the game and was looking for hungry authors to work with. She dropped everything and helped me make a submission to an editor I'd met at the festival. And then, nothing happened. It wasn't that she was doing anything wrong, she just wasn't doing much of anything... but she burned up my time - calling me daily, lamenting her disintegrating marriage and her desire to quit agenting and start over as an actress. I kept coming up with places to submit, no letters would go out. When a friend got me in front of a big time NY editor, this pseudo-agent was supposed to send the manuscript under her name. Never happened. By the time I realized that and sent it myself, the editor had lost interest. I severed all ties immediately and started over fresh. Thankfully, I only lost a couple of months. I'd continued to write while all that went down, and had new material. I followed my own advice above and started looking for someone legitimate.

One last little piece of advice. This can be a tough, humbling business. There will be times when you're down, when you're vulnerable. At this moment, there are people who will latch onto you who are horrifically negative and suck every ounce of your lifeblood away. These emotional vampires are everywhere, ready to bring you down the moment you open your mouth to complain. And they are especially dangerous because they come in the guise of friendship, then systematically dominate your world with their petty problems. These glass half empty people are EVERYWHERE, and it would serve you well to avoid them. There's commiseration, and then there's an unhealthy view of life. You know exactly who they are. Excise them, and you'll be a happier person all around.

Just as I finished typing that last paragraph, a friend sent me this email. Perfect illustration of the above point:

One evening an old German told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people.

He said, "My son, the battle is between two "wolves" inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.

The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his Wise Old German Grandfather: "Which wolf wins?"

The old Grandfather simply replied, "The one you feed."

Ain't that the truth.

I know I've missed some great tips and warning signs, so I'd be most appreciative if the established authors, agents and editors out there would chime in. Let's stop these piranhas before they gnaw anyone else's dreams into oblivion.

Wine of the Week: Cakebread Cabernet Sauvignon Another suggestion from a friend, and wow, is it good!

Stop by J.B. Thompson's blog today for a chance to win the newest title by one of my favorite authors, Robert Fate!

2 Comment count
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I am so thankful you wrote this.

And here's the problem. New writers who aren't plugged into the community don't know any better. It isn't their fault.

This guidance is sorely needed and incredibally beneficial. While we can provide the technology it's when authors take the time to post a little advice, that we really fulfill our duty and core mission.

Thomas Dotson - Red Room Staff.

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