Wherever money is to be made, scammers are scheming to take it from you. They promise income, exposure, and freedom from your day job. They brag about off-the-charts successes. If your books are not selling well, you will be tempted to listen to them in hopes of finding the secret formula for success. In all fairness, some of these companies are selling myths rather than scams. They deliver the listing, the blog tour, the tweets, or other services they promise, but the boost in sales never happens. Myths are a waste of money, just like scams. If you are under 25 or over 65, you are a prime target for scammers and aggressive salespeople. Younger people may not have the experience to recognize a con or a pressured sale, and older ones may not ask questions for fear of appearing out of touch, out of date, slow, or cranky. When someone is asking you to part with your money, don’t let them intimidate, entice, or guilt you into buying a service you do not need, or into paying above-market prices. You have the right to ask as many questions as you want. You have the right to say no. You have the right to hang up on them. Go ahead. You’ll enjoy the feeling of control.
What to Watch For
1. Companies that charge for services that are virtually free. For example, US copyright registration costs $35 plus two copies of your book, and takes about ten minutes. I cannot see paying someone $150 or $200 for the service. For the same reason, I would not pay good money to someone to upload my manuscript to CreateSpace or KDP, which is free; or to set up a Twitter, Pinterest, or other social media account for me, something I could do myself for free. I have no problem with a company charging clients for these services to help them save time, as long as the clients understand they could have uploaded their manuscripts or set up their social media accounts themselves at no cost.
2. Algorithm-busters Offers for software and services to enhance discoverability on Amazon, Google, and other sites come from companies that claim to have cracked Google’s and Amazon’s algorithms. But much of their advice is speculation and available free on various blogs. There’s no need to cough up $49 or $99 or $199 for this kind of service.
3. Companies that offer you a chance to sign books at their tables at prestigious book fairs for a mere $1,000 and up. You might be “invited” as part of a select group. Before you jump at the opportunity, look into the book fair. If you team up with a few other authors, you might be able to get your own table at the fair at a fraction of the price.
4. Literary agents or publishers who charge reading fees. Legitimate literary agents and publishers do not do this. Avoid any agent or publisher who charges to read, review, prescreen, or evaluate your work.
5. Self-publishing service companies (I call them SPSCs) and vanity presses that mislead. Some SPSCs are, or border on being, scams. I am not talking about charging exorbitant fees. That is bad enough, but if the company is up-front about its fees and writers sign on anyway, then the writers have some responsibility for their own gullibility or laziness. However, if an SPSC promises services it does not deliver, performs substandard work (delays count), charges hidden fees, claims exclusive or perpetual rights to the author’s work, or fails to report and pay royalties honestly, then that SPSC is a scammer, if not worse. I include in this category any SPSC or vanity publisher that pretends to be selective about the projects it accepts, as if it were a traditional press. Such companies convince unsuspecting writers that they have achieved an honor, but the prize is to part with their hard-earned money and sometimes their copyright.
6. So-called religious presses. Most religious SPSCs and presses are legitimate. But I have seen websites for so-called Christian SPSCs that are laced with comfort words like values, trust, and community, yet have the most egregious and overreaching contracts, including provisions that appropriate people’s copyrights. This is the lowest form of scam—hiding behind a religious façade. Don’t be fooled.
7. Companies that say they’ll get you on the list. I’m not talking about a bestseller list here. These are lists that supposedly give you a competitive edge. For example, for $50 or $250 or $3,500, you could get on the list of hot book-group recommendations, or popular school visitors, or compelling public speakers, or new and noteworthy releases. Some of these lists are miles long.
8. Radio and media companies eager to interview you. Do not be surprised if you get a call or e-mail from a purported radio program or media company that promises to interview you and feature your interview in hundreds of media outlets, because they love your work. There’s a catch. To get any more than the basic Internet interview, you will need to cough up a media promotion fee, which may be as high as $5,000.
9. Bogus advice sites. Some sites pretend to provide legitimate, unbiased information to help you choose the right SPSC for your book. But look at each site carefully, especially the fine print at the bottom. The site could be operated by an SPSC. For instance, chooseyourpublisher.com, e-bookspublishing.com, and poetry-publishers.com are all owned by Author Solutions, a large SPSC that has been sued for misleading marketing practices and breach of contract.
10. Contests. Many contests are legitimate and prestigious. However, most contests require an entry fee, and whenever money is involved, there are sharks. Your inbox will be flooded with invitations to enter contests. The sponsors run full-color ads in writers' magazines. They also advertise on Craigslist. Search any contest you’re considering on Goodreads, Library Thing, and/or other online writers’ communities. If there’s no mention of the contest winners, the contest probably lacks prestige. Also, check out each contest’s reputation on forums such as Absolute Write Water Cooler, Predators and Editors, and Writers Beware. Here are some questions to help you sort the good contests from the bad and the ugly:
- Who is the sponsor? Is the sponsor a live person or a publication? If the sponsor is a “media” company, such as J. M. Northern Media (which seems to do nothing but sponsor writing contests with sizeable entry fees), you will gain no prestige by winning.
- How high are the fees?
- Who are the judges? Some contests are “judged” by reader voting, a recipe for cheating.
- How many categories are there? The more categories there are, the more likely it is that the contest is merely a money maker.
- Does the contest offer you anything for your money besides a chance to win? Some contests offer written critiques or reviews, which could make the entry fee worthwhile.
- What are the prizes? A roll of stickers? A certificate printed on someone’s inkjet? An invitation to attend a book “festival” at your own expense? Can you find online photos of this festival actually occurring?
- Are you giving away any rights by entering or winning? Read the fine print, particularly about commitments you are making. I have seen online contests that ask you to post the first 5,000 words of your book. The small print says you are granting the contest sponsor the right to use those words any way it pleases, even in advertising, without your consent or knowledge.
- Does winning mean being offered a book contract? If so, does the winner have to grant the sponsor first publishing rights? And who will be the publisher? Is it a legitimate press with a catalogue of books? Or is it a self-publishing service company or a vanity press? Do you have to use that publisher if you win, or can you take a cash prize instead? You would hate to have committed your book to one of these contest sponsors if a traditional publisher wants it.
Don’t let ego affect judgment. Flattery softens resolve. If a vendor is overly flattering, give your wallet to someone for safekeeping, particularly someone cynical. If anything seems too good to be true, it is too good to be true. Be skeptical of companies that justify higher prices by promising more than their competitors offer. If they were that good, they would be too busy to handle your business. Beware of braggarts. They could turn out to be all talk and no action. Read testimonials. Are they from the same three people? Or from one person (the owner)? Search those names. Do these people exist? Have they sold a lot of books? Does the company have a physical address and phone number? Are you being pressured to decide immediately? If the sales pitch is a one-time offer good for today only, call the bluff. Or better yet, walk away. This sales technique is called “hot boxing” and is an unfair business practice. See what comes up when you do an online search of the company name plus words like scam, or complaints, or sucks. What you find may be eye-opening. Find out how long the company has been in business. Did it ever operate under another name? Search any other names and the names of any people involved with the company. If you see a long string of company names, that is a bad sign. Search websites such as Predators and Editors, Absolute Write Water Cooler, and Writers Beware. They perform a tremendous service by outing disreputable companies. Develop a good sense of humor. Laugh off offers from scammers. You know better.
Contest Fine-Print Pitfalls
Provisions of Amazon’s behemoth Breakthrough Novel Award for 2013 can serve as an object lesson when you’re considering contests. The italics are actual excerpts from the contest rules. By submitting an Entry and if you are selected as a Quarter-Finalist or Semi-Finalist, you grant Amazon Publishing the exclusive first publication rights to your Entry in all formats …
Translation: If you are a quarter-finalist or a semi-finalist, you cannot sell your book to another publisher or publish it yourself if Amazon publishes it. The agreement goes on to say: If you are not a Winner and Amazon Publishing notifies you that it wishes to publish your Entry, you agree to negotiate the terms and conditions of a publishing agreement exclusively with Amazon Publishing for a period of 30 days after you receive notification from Amazon Publishing. If you and Amazon Publishing have not reached agreement after 30 days, you may offer the work to other publishers on the condition that before you enter into an agreement with another publisher, you will afford Amazon Publishing the last right to publish your Entry on the same terms and conditions offered by any other publisher, plus an advance against royalties 10% greater than the other offer.
Translation: Even if you don’t win, Amazon gets a second bite of your apple. And you may find that traditional publishers lose interest in a work burdened by Amazon’s right to match other offers. Finally, entering the Amazon contest means agreeing to stop submitting your manuscript elsewhere during the six-month contest period. Six months! The 2013 Amazon contest had 10,000 entries (the cap was imposed by Amazon), and the Grand Prize winner and First Prize winner each received cash advances and a publishing contract—with an Amazon-affiliated publisher. This might be the breakthrough opportunity of a lifetime. But then so might the sale of your book to some other publisher with wider distribution. As of this writing, many independent bookstores refuse to carry books printed by an Amazon imprint, so the winners of the Amazon Breakthrough Award are unlikely to see their books in brick-and-mortar stores. All in all, it seems you’d be giving up a lot in exchange for a 1 in 10,000 possibility of winning.