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Avoiding Writer Scams - How Not To Be Ripped Off In The Quest For Publication

Updated on March 5, 2013


More and more people are trying to get a book published these days. It's a competitive field. Sometimes, it is even a dangerous one. There are sharks in the water, and even some well known professionals will admit to having been bitten a few times. Navigating the path to publication requires dedication, hard work and writing talent. It also requires a good eye and ear for when something is not right.

Scam #1: The Vanity Anthology

How exciting! Your poem or story has been accepted for publication. There's no payment, but they will gladly sell you a copy of the anthology for a nice discount. As many copies as you want, in fact. Perhaps they even sweetened the pill by telling you you earned an Honorable Mention in their contest.

Further research, though, indicates that everyone you know who entered earned said Honorable Mention. Made infamous by (defunct for a while, but now rearing its ugly head again), the vanity anthology scam is based around a simple premise. They accept everything sent to them, and then sell the books to their contributors. Everything gets an "honorable mention" and there is absolutely no editing. The production values on the books are often poor and the price may be excessive. The true cost of this scam, though, comes in the embarrassment when you realize you have, indeed, been "had." Furthermore, these people will keep you on their mailing list forever and keep trying to get you again. I do mean...forever.

Scam #2: The Over-Priced Writing Contest

Many legitimate writing contests charge entry fees. These can range from up to about $10 for a short story and even as high as $50 for a novel. When it turns into a scam is when the entry fee is simply not proportionate to the value of the prize.

In a legitimate contest, the entry fee, minus a small amount for administrative overhead, pays for the prize. Some of these contests are highly prestigious and pay out huge amounts of money. Gambling $20 to possibly win $10,000, or an expensive conference or retreat Is a judgment call, but the contest is legitimate and the prize is real.

In these contests, the prize is generally either 'bragging rights' (nothing) or of extremely low value. For example, they might charge a $10 entry fee and have the grand prize be publication in their small, low circulation magazine for one cent a word. Or the prize might be a cheap trophy or certificate. In reality, rather than running a real competition, these publishers are looking for a quick influx of cash into their business.

The moral is not to enter a fee-to-play contest unless you feel the prize is worth the money being risked.

Scam #3: The Rights Grab

The most common form of rights grab is another contest scam. The contest is almost always put together by somebody prestigious...major newspapers are, sadly, often the perpetrators here. A large prize is offered and there is no entry fee. It looks too good to be true - and it is.

Buried in the fine print of the terms and conditions is a clause like this "All entries become the property of X, and may be used, published or reprinted by X in perpetuity," or "X shall retain the copyright of all entries." In plain English, that means they have the right to use all entries, not just the winner, and not to pay the entrant a penny for them. On top of that, the writer can't use the work anywhere else because it now belongs to the contest holder. Suddenly, that nice prize they're offering is a bargain. Look at all the content they're getting for it. This kind of rights grab is also often seen in photo contests.

The other rights grab that is sometimes seen is a publisher stating they take the rights to all submissions and then give them back when they reject. This may not be a scam so much as an ill-informed attempt to avoid simultaneous submissions, but the problem for the writer is simple; if the publisher goes out of business, or never responds, they are out their rights. Also, this means they don't have to give you a contract.

As a general rule, do not sign over any of your rights without a publication contract that contains a sunset clause (if they don't publish it within a reasonable amount of time, you get your rights back). Do not sign away full rights to fiction (non-fiction can be, and almost always is, a different matter) unless you are doing a work for hire gig and are getting a lot of money for it.

Scam #4: The Sleazy Vanity Publisher

The publisher has a great web site. Their information contains the heartening words "We know how hard it is to be published. Let us help you."

The submission guidelines look legitimate. They aren't taking your rights, they're asking for the same format as other publishers. When you submit, they are enthusiastic. They love your book. They'll be glad to publish it.

Then the contract arrives, and contains a clause in which you agree to pay for all or part of the costs of publication.

You have met the sleazy vanity publisher. There are good, honest vanity publishers out there. They are up front about what they charge to publish a book and what they can do for that book's writer. There are writers, and projects, for whom going with a vanity publisher is the right thing to do.

The scam vanity publisher, however, masquerades as a real, royalty-paying publisher. They hook the author with promises of publication and then hope when they see the bill, they'll be so glad to have a publisher they will pay it. They have no distribution and the only thing they will give the writer is that bill, and a stack of books for the writer to sell (that in most cases will sit forever in a garage or a closet). Because they have already been paid, by the writer, they have no stake in the success of the book. They will, in fact, just take your money, hand you the print run and then go on to the next victim.

Do not pay for publication. Unless you are going the true self publishing route, the money should flow towards you, not away.

Scam #5: The Fake Literary Agent

Again, the web site looks very legitimate. The submission terms seem the same as those of other agents. So does the commission they ask for. However, they may also ask for a reading fee. Often a fairly small one. They say this is becoming industry standard practice.

When you submit, you may be accepted or, often, rejected with a nice polite note that recommends a professional editor. Research will reveal that this editor is the agent's cousin, spouse, son, daughter, best friend...or, alternatively, is paying them to refer people.

If accepted, you may find that your agent has signed a contract on your behalf with a vanity publisher, without even consulting you. Or you might never hear from them again, with your agency rights tied up, possibly in that book or, worse, in anything you might write. They may do nothing but spam your book to every publisher on the planet, charging you expenses for each submission and ruining your reputation. (Some new "agents" who only think they know what they are doing may also do this).

You've met the fake literary agent. There are many variations on the scam, but they are all aimed at one goal; to part you from your money and give you nothing in return. Legitimate agents do not charge reading fees and do not sell books to vanity publishers.

The best way to avoid this scam is to check the agent's track record. They should have verifiable sales to real publishers. If they ask for a reading fee, walk away. If the contract asks for 'expenses', then this is not necessarily a scam, but find out in detail what those expenses are. For example, some legitimate agents may ask you to pay for the cost of making a bunch of copies of your manuscript. However, most legitimate agents that ask for 'expenses' will not bill you until a sale is made, and then simply add them to their normal commission. You should never send money to an agency up front. Legitimate agents will not recommend a specific professional editor or offer to edit your manuscript for a fee (they may recommend professional editing in general, but it is a violation of professional ethics to make specific referrals).

Legitimate agents make their money off of sales. That is their incentive to sell your book and do right by you.


All of these are examples of scams and how to avoid them. However, there are a few more general tips for finding out if an agent, publisher, or contest is a scam. One of the best is to ask around on online writers' boards. Find out if anyone has experience with the business concerned. The website Preditors & Editors is another valuable resource, although not always up to date. Sometimes, sending the part of the submissions page or contract you are worried about to an experienced writer or posting it to a writers' board can also help. Most people who have been writing and submitting for a while have a well developed sense for when something is not quite right.


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    • profile image

      Poetic Fool 6 years ago

      Jennifer, there's a lot of great info in your hub. Thanks for sharing it and for your honesty. Many aspiring writers want to be published so badly they become blind to the scams and schemes. Your hub has done us all a service.

    • jenniferrpovey profile image

      jenniferrpovey 6 years ago

      So true, and in fact I've made money writing about scams before...the very fact that there's such a strong demand for information on how to avoid them is proof of how prevalent they are.

    • tsadjatko profile image

      TSAD 6 years ago from https:// online/ hubpages. html

      For every legitimate venture there are more illegitimate scams out there. Sometimes I think USA stands for the Usual Scams of America. When you look at the billions of taxpayer dollars that are scammed from federal programs every year it makes you wonder just how long it will be 'til you get taken, if you already haven't been. My pet peave is how can the FTC allow banks to advertise checking accounts as "Totally Free Checking" when everyone knows if you bounce a check or overdraw a checking account it is no longer totally free. They should be made to advertise "Totally Free Checking until you incurr our fees which will send you to the poorhouse"

    • jenniferrpovey profile image

      jenniferrpovey 6 years ago

      I'm thinking I'm going to do one on navigating short fiction contracts. Sounds like doing one on the publication process might be useful. (And here I am, encouraging my competition. Oh well).

    • rjsadowski profile image

      rjsadowski 6 years ago

      This hub was a good start. I have often wondered about how I might get my poems and short stories published, but I have been weary of all of the scams. Your article reinforced my concerns.

    • jenniferrpovey profile image

      jenniferrpovey 6 years ago

      Mine wasn't that bad. I fell for There. I said it.

      I fell for TWICE.

      There. I said it. Heck, I still have the books. That one got a lot of people. I now do put some effort into trying to protect people and lending them my fairly well-tuned 'scamdar'.

    • catspirit profile image

      catspirit 6 years ago

      My excuese, I was so excited to be "published" that I jumped in blindfoldeded, gagged, and with both feet.

    • jenniferrpovey profile image

      jenniferrpovey 6 years ago

      I am going to be honest and say that I have. My excuse is that I was very young at the time.

    • Vinaya Ghimire profile image

      Vinaya Ghimire 6 years ago from Nepal

      Luckily I have not been intrigued into these scams. Thanks for this useful hub.