Scammers have been targeting creative types for a long time – maybe even since the first time somebody drew a pictograph on a rock. For the past few decades at the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America’s website, Writer Beware has been fighting the good fight against scammers on behalf of authors. Author Victoria Strauss, who co-founded Writer Beware, has agreed to climb into the hot seat for this month’s LynneQuisition.
Lynne: How did Writer Beware get started, and how did it end up at the SFWA?
Victoria: People often ask me if I got involved with Writer Beware because I was scammed. The answer is no–by and large, my publishing experiences have been positive. But, like many writers, I was pretty ignorant when I began to seek publication–and while scams weren’t anywhere near as common as they are now, it was luck more than anything else that prevented me from falling into questionable hands.
Around the time I first went online, in the mid-1990s, several major scams were just beginning to implode, in part through writers sharing their experiences on the Internet. I was at first fascinated, and then horrified, by this fraudulent shadow-industry, which I hadn’t known existed. When I saw a call on the SFWA website for a volunteer to create an online resource on publishing scams, I jumped at the chance, and began to put together the website that would become Writer Beware.
At the same time, Ann Crispin, who at that time was SFWA Vice-President, was working on establishing a Committee on Writing Scams, with the mission of educating and protecting writers from publishing fraud. Neither of us was aware of what the other was doing until a mutual acquaintance put us in touch. Our efforts dovetailed perfectly, and we decided to join forces, merging the Writer Beware website with the Committee and its activities.
Ann and I worked together on Writer Beware for nearly 15 years. We became not just colleagues, but close friends. Ann passed away this past September after a battle with cancer. I miss her terribly, but Writer Beware will continue.
Lynne: My condolences, Victoria. But I’m glad to hear the work will go on, because it seems like every day, there’s another scam designed to part writers from their money. Has it always been this bad, or has the internet made it worse?
Victoria: I think the Internet has definitely made it worse, because it’s so easy to advertise and find victims online.
Once upon a time, writers’ access to publishing information was limited mostly to a few print books, which you had to either buy or go to the library to consult. Scammers like Commonwealth Publications found their clients by advertising in print publications, or by slipping through the very loose filtering in industry “bibles” like Literary Marketplace. But the Internet lets anyone slap up a professional-looking website, and post messages in writers’ groups, and promote via social media, and gather email addresses to solicit–to name just a few free, easy strategies. If you’re a scammer, you can present the appearance of prosperous professionalism even if you’re running your scam on a shoestring out of your basement.
Interestingly, the Internet and the digital revolution have also transformed the nature of publishing scams. When Writer Beware got started in 1998, agent scams were the most common, followed by vanity publisher scams and editing scams. These days, thanks to the rise of self-publishing and the growth of small press options, writers no longer see literary agents as the be-all and end-all of a writing career, and agent scams have become relatively rare. Vanity publishing scams are rife, however, since it’s so easy these days to set up a publisher–all you need is a website and an account with CreateSpace and KDP. And scams aimed at self-published and small-press writers have exploded, many of them focused on editing and marketing.
Scams aren’t the only thing writers need to watch out for. Amateurism is just as damaging–from agents with no knowledge of the publishing industry, to publishers with no publishing experience, to publicists whose idea of marketing is spamming on Twitter. Writers need to be careful–and, just as important, informed.
Lynne: I could phrase this more diplomatically, but I won’t: What was Pearson thinking when they bought Author Solutions? Did the damage it could do to their brand ever occur to them?
Victoria: Long-term, I don’t think it will do any damage to their brand. The outrage over the AS acquisition is confined to writers and publishing professionals–which, after all, is a very small universe. In the wider world of readers, consumers, and the many businesses with which Pearson deals, I think few people know or care. Or else they see the acquisition as a canny business move.
A Penguin insider told me something interesting: reputation aside, AS has some of the best technical systems around, and that’s one of the things (along with how lucrative AS-style services are) that made Pearson want to buy the company. One of the areas where traditional publishers are expanding is in bringing their out-of-print backlists back into circulation, in both ebook and print form; it could be of real benefit to Penguin, for instance, to be able to do POD in-house.
I had a faint hope, when news of the acquisition first broke, that Pearson/Penguin would make an effort to clean up Author Solutions, the way Amazon did with Booksurge, which had a terrible reputation when Amazon bought it in the early 2000s. I don’t see any sign of that happening, though (nor does my Penguin contact).
Lynne: Do you have some rules of thumb indies could use for evaluating, say, a pretty website or an enticing offer to be a “published author”?
Victoria: For literary agents: there should never be an upfront fee, and the agent should never charge for editing or circulating clients’ manuscripts. The agent should either have a track record of sales to publishers you recognize, or, if new, should previously have worked in publishing in some capacity, or trained at a reputable agency (literary agent is not an entry-level position; job training or experience is required).
Beware of the growing number of marginal agents who specialize in placing clients with small presses that accept most of their manuscripts directly from authors. You don’t need an agent to approach such publishers, so why give up a 15% commission? The true test of an agent is her ability to open doors that you can’t open on your own.
For publishers: unfortunately, the warning signs often don’t become apparent until you get the contract. That said, watch out for a website focused on recruiting authors rather than enticing readers. An author-focused website is often a sign of a publisher that charges a fee of some kind. Beware of a publisher that touts its own services by presenting fallacies about traditional publishing (such as the common notion that traditional publishers don’t allow authors any say in editing)–the publisher may not be a scam, but it probably doesn’t know much about the business of publishing, which can be just as bad.
Be careful of a publisher that says it’s got some kind of revolutionary new model or paradigm–odds are, it’s either trying to bamboozle authors or hasn’t done enough research to recognize that it’s attempting to re-invent a very tired wheel. And always be wary when you see the word “hybrid,” as in “a hybrid of the best of traditional and self-publishing.” This nearly always means a fee or a purchase requirement of some sort.
For other professionals, including editors, cover designers, illustrators, etc.: Look for professional experience (and be wary if you can’t find that information, or if the professional won’t provide it). Evaluate the professional’s work: order a book they’ve edited, check out a variety of their cover designs. Contact one or more of the writers the professional has worked with; are they satisfied with their experience? Do a web search to see if any problems or complaints come up.
Self-published authors should be especially on guard against marketing schemes and scams. There are hordes of so-called publicists or PR agencies that do little more than send out spam, and charge you a premium for things you can do on your own (such as social media setup). There are sham blog tour companies that’ll take your money and disappear, or only post your author interview on “blogs” they themselves own. There are review services that charge big money for barely literate reviews. The list goes on.
Last but not least: visit the Writer Beware website (http://www.writerbeware.com/ ). There’s information there about all of the above, including warning signs, how to protect yourself, and links to helpful online resources. You can also write to us at beware [at] sfwa.org. We have a huge database of schemes and scams, built over the years thanks to writers and others who’ve contacted us with reports, complaints, and documentation. We’ll check our files to see if we have any information we can share.
Lynne: That’s great to hear. Anything you’d like to add?
Victoria: If I could give just one piece of advice to every writer, it would be this: EDUCATE YOURSELF! Scammers (and amateurs) profit from writers’ inexperience and ignorance; they count on the fact that you don’t know you shouldn’t have to buy your own books as a condition of publication, or that real literary agents don’t charge to edit their client’s manuscripts, or that an email blast is one of the least effective ways of marketing a book. The more you know about how publishing works, the less likely it is you’ll be taken advantage of. Knowledge is both your greatest ally and your best defense.
This goes just as much for authors who want to self-publish. I can’t count the number of writers I hear from who are leaping into self-publishing without having researched it at all. There are many good reasons to self-publish–as indeed there are to seek traditional publication–but it’s a choice that should be made on the basis of knowledge, not hype or hearsay. You need to understand and evaluate all your options, including the ones you may think you don’t want to choose. You can’t make an informed choice unless you’re informed.
Lynne: Spot on, Victoria. Here at IU, informing indies is one of our missions, and you’ve added a ton of good info to our knowledge base today. Thanks again for being here.
If you’d like to know more about Victoria’s books, you can visit her website: www.victoriastrauss.com.