How to Spot a Scam

snakeWelcome to the cyberverse. There are plenty of hucksters, scammers, con artists, and assorted seedy characters looking for every opportunity to move some money from your pockets to theirs. Some writers have spent thousands of dollars following the path of promises, misrepresentations, and “expert” recommendations made by some very bad people. They’re out there. Learning how to recognize them is your best protection.

There are a couple of very good watchdog resources every author should know: Writer Beware and Preditors & Editors. Both these sites do an outstanding job of tracking the latest scams and bad behavior in the publishing industry.

Indies Unlimited is not a watchdog site. Part of the reason is that we know these shadowy scammers can (and do) easily change their names and open up under a new banner whenever they are outed. Trying to compile a list of suspicious actors becomes a never-ending game of whack-a-mole. But a leopard cannot change its spots. If you know what to look out for, the name of the beast doesn’t matter.

Here are some guidelines which will help you identify scammers, no matter their name:

Vanity Presses and Hybrid Publishers
Legitimate publishers make their money from the sale of the authors’ books, not from selling services to the author. If the publisher charges for an array of services they provide to their authors, you can be sure that is how the company makes its money, rather than by selling authors’ book.

Vanity presses have been around a long time. These guys simply run off as many print editions of your book as you are willing to buy. The cost per book is often exorbitant. These operations may originally have served the purpose of producing books in small batches for special events such as family reunions. They were certainly never a realistic alternative to mainstream traditional publishing, as they never had any distribution channels, or any intent to sell your book to anyone other than you.

Somewhere along the line, vanity presses morphed to exploit the near universal desire of people to see their names in print. They began aggressively marketing not only their print services, but a whole array of other services to naive aspiring authors. The most notorious of these operations are America Star Books (formerly PublishAmerica), and Author Solutions.

The term “vanity press” is eschewed now in favor of the more friendly-sounding “hybrid publisher.” We will not go so far as to claim that all hybrid publishers are predatory in nature, but they should not be confused with the small-print presses and independent labels that operate in the more traditional manner of NOT CHARGING YOU to actually produce your book.

Literary Agents
Legitimate agents make their money as a percent of the deal they get for you with a real publisher. So-called agents who charge money for readings, evaluations, critiques, administration, marketing, or submitting your work to publishers are not doing business in a legitimate manner.

Some agents are not scammers, but merely lazy or inept. Many of these use a shotgun- type approach, blasting your manuscript out to every publisher in the book rather than doing the work to find publishers in the market for what you write. Publishers quickly become irritated with these practices and your association with this type of agent will not only be frustrating and fruitless, but ultimately may become a professional liability.

Beware solicitations
If you are receiving solicitations from a publisher or agent, beware. The indie authors who have broken through to traditional publishing first sold many thousands of copies of their books before attracting the attention of publishers. Real publishers are extremely risk-averse. They are NOT interested in taking on any unproven talent.

Consider the Source
Disregard the testimonials on websites. Of course a lot of websites with services to sell are going to post customer testimonials. In some cases, those quotes are taken out of context, or completely fabricated. Get your information from another source.

Do your homework
It is your responsibility to protect yourself. After all, YOU are the one with something to lose. Use the internet to check up on any companies that have made offers to you. Google the name of the company+scam and see if anything comes up. Check Writer Beware and Preditors & Editors to see if the company has popped up on their radar. Check consumer websites like the Better Business Bureau and Talk to the other authors they’ve signed and see if they are really satisfied. Look at the Amazon rankings of those authors’ books and see how well the publisher does for them. Ask around in your social media circles.

As indies, we may be on our own, but we are not alone. There are a lot of valuable resources at your fingertips. Ultimately though, no one can protect you better than you can protect yourself. Do the research, take nothing at face value, and always ask around.

Next installment: Indie Pitfalls

Author: Administrators

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26 thoughts on “How to Spot a Scam”

  1. Thanks for this great post and information. I had my bout with Author Solutions a while ago and could hardly shake them off. They were, for me, bad news, and I’m so lucky I never signed up. So many are climbing on the bandwagon to make money from wannabe authors.

  2. Allow me to add that your checking up should include googling the name of the outfit with words like “complaint” or “fraud”, see what falls out. Then google with “absolutewrite” in they keywords. Victoria and her colleagues can’t keep up with all the players, and often watchdog sites are restrained by fear of legal action from mentioning players that are on the bubble of scamming. But there’s a good chance it will have been chewed over on the vast absolutewrite forums and you might get some interesting, and fairly balanced reading on the topic.

    The big ones have largely been identified. (Not that there aren’t idiots who go with them anyway.) You get somebody like xLibris paying people to post pimpin’ on social media, you have to figure to stay away.
    But there are all these little ones that keep popping up. Some danger flags:
    –If they offer to mail you a nice brochure, forget them. That gets them your address, and the money for that print job and snail-mailing comes from somewhere–namely shearing writers.
    –If they say some form of, “we formed in order to help writers”, RUN! There are actual altruists in the world, but this is not where they clump up.
    –Offset printing. If they want to run off a bunch of print books for you, get the hell away from them.

    1. Anytime I Google a company’s name and add “fraud” to the search, a lot of slanted posts for said company come up, basically saying, “is this a fraud? NO WAY! It’s the best…blah, blah, blah.” Basically stuff written by said company to cover that aspect of it.

      1. That does happen. The other thing to consider is that some sites publish complaints without doing any investigation. Some such complaints may be unfounded, or even made by a competitor company. However, there are pages and pages of results on the worst offenders. At some point, you have to believe where there is that much smoke, there must be fire.

  3. Well…it is not just publishers and agents! I wonder if we are have having the same psychic awareness because I just posted a blog about the smaller scams we indie authors are subjected to. Everybody wants a slice of the author. I’m a minnow in a very big pond…I have to look out for myself and I don’t like to be cheated–no way, no how, no time. Promotion site owners lie about the size of their audiences, online digital publishers lie and authors lie, too. When I got my first Kindle I went about downloading bestselling authors…they said so right there on their webpages and FB pages and in their promos and in their Author bios on Amazon. Best sellers. NOT. A year ago, I didn’t know how to find out the skinny. Now I do. I call ’em on it, too. Well, I’ve gotten fearless in my old age. I’d leave a blatant link to the blog piece, but that might be discourteous. So I won’t.

  4. Thanks Stephen, I appreciate the clarity of your post Vanity is the villain of the piece, but the more respectable sounding Hybrid, especaily when used by authors with traditional and self-published works to describe themselves causes confusion.
    I totally agree with you on the final point, doing the homework is crucial! We have to look out for ourselves and there are a lot of helpful self-published authors out there willing to share their knowledge with the new kids on the block.
    We may be independent and on our own but definitely not alone, well said!

    1. Yeah, when new writers started flooding into the self-publishing field, there was a scramble to come up with “oh, we’re not some awful VANITY press” scenarios. “Hybrid press”, “subsidy press”, “royalty paying” (well you damned well should if the writer paid for the printing), “co-op publishing”,”co-publishing”, “joint venture publishing”, etc.
      The further they get from the classic “give us thousands of dollars and we’ll give you a garage full of books” model, the murkier the lines get. One firm line would be if they want up-front payment for production, then take a share of your sales. One way or the other is legit–both is a scam.

    2. Thanks for your comment, Martin. I don’t think that ALL hybrid presses are necessarily outright scam operations. Some were probably started by indie authors trying to help other indie authors and offsetting some of the cost of operation by frontloading the expenses of editing, formatting, and cover design in order to preserve a certain quality for the label. The problem is, indie authors don’t need publishers who do not have extensive distribution and marketing channels. Unfortunately, that is what is most frequently lacking from many of these operations, whether founded with good or malicious intent. Having a publisher’s imprimatur on your work does not guarantee its sales. Publishing houses who can make money by selling your book don’t need to charge you for editing, formatting and cover design. THAT is why they pay lower royalty rates – the cost comes out of the back end. Either way, you pay, but with a trad publisher, at least they have a motivation to try to sell your books.

  5. Thank you! “Agents”: I once sent $75.00 dollars for an “agent’s” editor to check out my manuscript. It is a picture book of Aesop’s Fables for Goodfellas. I basically rewrote a bunch of those fables by mixing in mafia characters with the animals.

    They just used some software without reading it or even looking at it. Their suggestions? “The Wiseguy and the Hard Working Ant” should be about 20,000 words longer. “The Don and the Mouse” should be about 15,000 words longer, etc.

    Yeah, because a three paragraph fable is going to stretch into novelette size.

    It took a lot of heavy threatening, but I got my money back.

    What an awesome post. I’m glad I found this site. You guys are really cool.

  6. Stephen, book idea: Whoever that pompous ass is (sorry) that writes occasional blogs on here needs to make a collection of some of his—er all you guys’ collective posts and put them into a book. Write it in that guy’s voice, though!

    Would be a great help book for writers, and entertaining read.

  7. All i want to say this morning is thank you for looking out for all of us…it is a great service you do and I for one am mucho grateful for all the effort and care that goes into these posts…

  8. The most dangerous ones are what I call the “borderliners” These are much harder to spot. Companies that will accept your book, not charge you for anything and send you a proper contract. It all seems fine. But get someone who knows what they’re doing to scrutinise that contract and they’ll soon tell you its not worth signing. Try to suggest changes to the contract and they’re not interested.
    You get ridiculous royalties, no promotion, and you get listed on their website which sells no better than the Amazon slushpile. But if your book does happen to take off, its them who get the money – not you. I nearly got sucked in by one of these and it scared me so much I immediately self-published.
    It was Whiskey Creek Press.

  9. All well and good, BUT: I got scammed for plenty by a big name marketer. She assured me my book had all the makings of a winner–cover, content, etc. All I needed to do was buy a marketing “plan” from her, and I would be on my way. Of course these assurances came with the usual caveat: nothing is ever guaranteed in the book biz. OK, understood. But after I forked over my money and the “plan” was put in place for my book with the great cover and great content, not one sale resulted. As in zero. My point? There is probably nothing that can protect against scam artists. Not when big names in the book marketing business turn out to be duds.

    1. Barry, it is true that you can’t always see it coming and new scams get invented all the time. It is also true just because something didn’t work out as you hoped doesn’t mean it was a scam. HOWEVER, if your big-name marketer plays this game a lot, some previous clients will know about it and would probably be more than willing to share their experiences. I think it is always a good idea to ask for success stories and client lists. Even if you don’t directly contact those previous clients, you can look at their book rankings on Amazon and see if they’re flying high or flopping around on the bottom.

  10. I didn’t realise this thread is ongoing, but I’m glad it is. I was approached this week by a PR person for a new author service. I can enroll for free for 6 months. After that it’s 30$ a month…It boiled down to a read and review site. If the site wants to compete with NetGalley–good for them. But! The site is not yet open for business. It had the covers of some books. One with 37 reviews, mostly one and two star. Next was a title with 640 reviews. I asked if they were not yet open for business, how did they manage to snag that author 640 Reviews. They did not! It is just inferred. The site also tells you to sign up for the book when it goes free. So they just grabbed a book off of Amazon and popped it their site. The PR person insisted when they are open for business they have some new and unique ways to promote books. Pffft. There ain’t any. Since I told her that dog don’t hunt, I haven’t heard a word.

    1. Yeah, if they’re not open for business yet, but they ARE accepting money… probably not a good sign. Sounds like a little sleight-of-hand with the reviews too. Thanks for sharing, Jackie. 🙂

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