Writer Beware

There are sharks out there in the literary waters. Literary deceptions abound, from fee-charging literary agents to dishonest editors to deceptive vanity publishers to fake contests.

The good news is that you can protect yourself, with a little information and a healthy dose of caution. Following are some tips and resources to help you do so.

When You Should be Cautious

If a literary agent requires an upfront fee.

Reputable literary agents derive their income from commissions on the sale of literary properties, and not from upfront fees.

Asking for money upfront violates the basic premise of the author-agent relationship: a shared financial interest in the sale of the author’s manuscript. An agent who profits only when the author does is highly motivated not just to place a manuscript with a paying publisher, but to obtain the best possible deal. An agent who makes money right off the bat has already made a profit, diminishing the incentive to submit to legitimate publishers.

There are three kinds of upfront fee you may encounter. The first is the reading fee: a request for money just to read your manuscript. It’s not hard to imagine how this practice can be abused, which is why most professional agents’ associations prohibit it for their members. No reputable agent charges reading fees–in fact, they’re so discredited that very few fraudulent agents charge them either.

The second kind of upfront fee is the evaluation fee. Agents who charge evaluation fees promise not just to read your manuscript, but to provide a critique. But evaluation fees are as easy to abuse as reading fees–which is why they too are proscribed by most agents’ associations.

The third (and by far the most common) kind of upfront fee is the “marketing” or “submission” or “administrative” or “handling” or “retainer” fee–supposedly, a share of the expense of marketing a manuscript.

Confusion arises here, because most reputable agents do expect clients to bear some of the cost of submission. However, a reputable agents will pass on only unusual expenses (expenses incurred on the client’s behalf over and above the ordinary cost of doing business, such as photocopying, postage, long-distance calls, Fed Ex, etc.–with so much business done electronically these days, these expenses are usually minimal), and to either accrue them and deduct them from the author’s advance, or bill them after they’re incurred.

Questionable agents, by contrast, want expense money right away–usually as a lump sum on contract signing, but sometimes as a monthly or quarterly allowance, or a per-submission fee. They may also expect clients to pay not just for the unusual expenses described above, but for every file folder, envelope, and paper clip, or for unnecessary extras–photos, business cards, marketing plans, fancy bindings.

Some agents who charge marketing fees are con artists. Most, however, are simply inept, and can’t keep their businesses afloat without putting their hands in their clients’ pockets. Either way, a marketing fee, like a reading or evaluation fee, is a warning sign–if not of outright dishonesty, then of an unsuccessful business.

If a publisher offers a contract that requires you to pay for publication.

Such publishers are variously known as vanity, subsidy, joint-venture, co-op, or partner publishers.

Often, you’re told that what you’re paying is only a portion of the cost, with the publisher kicking in the rest or providing additional services of substantial value. In reality, most pay-to-publish ventures charge inflated prices that not only cover the whole cost of production, but generate fat profits for the publisher.

There are vanity publishers that will deliver what they promise, but others are dishonest–concealing their fees, advertising services they don’t provide, lying about producing print runs (you may have paid for 2,500 books, but only the 100 copies you were given to distribute to friends and reviewers were ever printed), failing to pay royalties owed…the list goes on. Plus, because vanity publishers will publish pretty much anyone who will pay, books from such publishers have a bad rap with readers, booksellers, and reviewers.

Vanity publishers often pitch themselves to new writers by saying that the risk involved in publishing an unknown makes cost-sharing necessary, or that making an “investment” in your book proves you’re serious about a writing career. Don’t believe it. The publisher is just trying to make you feel better about handing over a large amount of cash.

If an agent or publisher wants you to pay for adjunct services.

One of the objects of getting published is for you to earn money. If instead you find yourself reaching for your wallet, something isn’t right.

If you’re referred to an outside service–such as a publicist or independent editor–it’s possible that a kickback arrangement is involved. The agent or publisher may have been promised a finder’s fee for successful referrals, or a percentage of whatever you wind up paying for the service. Some vanity publishers also engage in kickback schemes, offering agents a bonus for each client they persuade to accept a pay-to-publish contract.

Alternatively, the agency or publisher may own the service (possibly under a different name, so you won’t spot the connection). A publisher might steer writers to its own critique or evaluation service. A literary agency might run a separate editing branch, and require writers to obtain a critique as a condition of representation. Or it might own a vanity publisher, into which clients are funneled once they’ve racked up enough rejections to become desperate. All of these are serious conflicts of interest: if the recommendation to use a service can make money for the recommender, how can a writer trust that his or her best interest is being served?

There are times when a reputable agent may suggest that a writer hire an independent editor–for instance, for a salable project that needs developmental work that the author, in the agent’s judgment, can’t provide. Such recommendations can be perfectly legitimate–though you should do some careful thinking before deciding to go this often very expensive route. But questionable editing schemes are common, and receiving an editing referral should always make you wary.

If you’re asked to buy something as a condition of publication.

An increasing number of vanity publishers are trying to dodge the vanity label by shifting their charges to some aspect of publication other than printing and binding. Instead of asking you to pay to print your book, they ask you to buy goods or services.

You may be asked to purchase editing, or to fund a publicity campaign, or to hire the company’s own artistic or design staff. You may have to agree to buy a large number of your own books, or to become a salesperson and sell your books prior to publication. You may be asked to buy or sell ads for your book, or to pay to attend the publisher’s expensive conferences, or to purchase the publisher’s other books. The bottom line in all these situations is the same: you are paying to see your work in print.

There are also many poetry and short story anthologies that pressure writers to buy the anthology in which they’re included. Vanity anthology companies often solicit business via a fake contest, offering publication to everyone who submits. Vanity anthologizers may also bombard writers with solicitations to buy other things–their poem mounted on a plaque, their story made into an audiotape, membership in an authors’ registry maintained by the company, attendance at a writers’ conference hosted by the company. Writer Beware has heard from writers who’ve wound up spending thousands of dollars this way.

Because vanity anthologies employ no editorial screening and offer publication to anyone who enters their “contests”, they aren’t considered a genuine literary market. As with a vanity-published book, inclusion in one of these anthologies will not count as a professional writing credit.

If an independent editor claims a manuscript must be professionally edited to have a chance with a publisher or agent.

Dishonest and/or ignorant independent editors often prey on the anxieties of aspiring writers by saying that publishers won’t look at manuscripts unless they’ve been professionally edited. In-house editors, they say, no longer have the time to edit–they want books that are picture-perfect and ready to publish.

Not so. It’s true that in today’s world of big publishing conglomerates, editors can rarely afford to invest months working with an author to shape a promising-but-not-quite-ready work. But it’s false to say that in-house editors don’t edit (they do), or that professional editing is a prerequisite for publication (it isn’t), or even that the name of an editing service on a manuscript will make a publisher more likely to read it (it won’t). Agents and in-house editors know the limitations of editing; they’re also well aware of how many underqualified and unscrupulous independent editors there are. Typing “professionally edited” on the title page of your manuscript, or mentioning it in a cover letter, will not improve your chances.

Your manuscript needs to be as perfect as you can make it–finished, polished, and properly presented. But it’s perfectly fine if you accomplish this yourself–as indeed you should be able to. Self-editing is an essential part of the writer’s craft.

If you’re solicited.

Reputable agents and publishers will sometimes reach out to writers whose blogs they’ve read, or whose articles or stories they’ve seen. However, if you’re solicited out of the blue, it’s far more likely that the person or company wants your money.

Some questionable agents and publishers buy subscription lists from writers’ magazines. Others solicit writers who register their copyrights. Still others cruise websites, blogs, and writers’ forums.

On a related note: reputable agents and publishers often maintain websites, but they rarely advertise. Beware of the literary agent or publisher ads you find the backs of writers’ magazines, or see online. And remember, Google is not always your friend. Typing “literary agent” or “book publisher” into a search engine is guaranteed to turn up scammers.

If reasonable requests for information are refused.

It’s your right to ask an agent or publisher or independent editor about their track record, contract terms, commissions, marketing, distribution, and so on. If they’re reputable, they should be glad to answer. Questionable agents and publishers and editors, on the other hand, are often very reluctant to provide information–for good reason.

Be especially wary of an agent who tells you that his/her sales list is confidential. Reputable agents won’t always be willing to reveal their entire client list, but they shouldn’t have a problem telling you about recent sales (if they have a website or other online listing, the information should be available there). An agent who won’t provide this information may be trying to conceal a poor track record.

If there’s a double standard or a special deal.

An agent may tell you that she usually charges a reading fee, but because your query is so terrific she’ll read your manuscript for free. Or a publisher may claim that while it usually offers advances, for new authors there’s a special “joint venture” deal. Or an independent editor may say that he usually charges $5.00 per page, but if you send in your manuscript right away he’ll give you a 20% discount.

Don’t be fooled. You aren’t receiving special treatment, just a calculated marketing pitch. The agent hopes that if you think you’re getting a freebie on the reading, you’ll be more willing to pay the marketing fee she plans to ask for later on. The publisher wants you to believe it’s a “real” publisher, when in fact expensive vanity contracts are probably the only kind it offers. The editor thinks that if he can convince you that you’re getting a bargain, you’ll be more likely to buy his services.

And be wary if you encounter any of the following:

  • Rudeness or chastisement, especially in response to reasonable requests for information. Questionable literary agents especially are fond of browbeating writers who ask too many questions.
  • Exrtavagant praise, promises of best-sellerdom, and the like. Reputable agents, publishers, and independent editors know better than to make guarantees.
  • A claim to specialize in new or unpublished writers. There are exceptions, but agents and publishers who are actively searching for new writers are usually doing so because new writers’ inexperience makes them easier to cheat. Established agents’ and publishers’ lists typically include only a small percentage of new writers.
  • Correspondence and other documents with typos and grammatical errors. A publishing professional should be able to write and spell correctly. It’s amazing how many questionable agents, publishers, and editors send out correspondence or maintain websites full of such mistakes.
  • For agents: dire warnings about how hard it is for new writers to make it in today’s marketplace. This is usually just an advance rationale for why the agent will never manage to get you published. A reputable agent or publisher isn’t going to take you on unless she feels she has a good chance of selling your manuscript.
  • For independent editors: one size fits all editing, all comers accepted. Most good independent editors have areas of specialization that reflect their expertise. That’s not to say that a qualifed editor won’t possess different skill sets–but it’s unlikely that one person will be able to edit any and all subjects or genres with equal effectiveness. Also, within the basic scope of services he provides, a good editor will tailor each editing job to the client. Standardized editing services and a lack of specialization suggest an amateur or inexperienced editor.
  • For publishers: a reading or submission fee. No reputable publisher will ask for money to read or submit your manuscript. (Note: this doesn’t include the contests that are sometimes conducted by reputable publishers, which may require a handling or submission fee.)

Resources To Help You Protect Yourself

Writer Beware’s website offers detailed information on the wide variety of schemes, scams, and pitfalls that threaten writers.

Writer Beware’s blog supplements the information on the Writer Beware website, offering lively, up-to-the-minute coverage of scams, schemes, and issues of importance for writers.

Preditors & Editors provides agent and publisher listings, with notations indicating those who are not recommended due to fee-charging and other abuses.

The Absolute Write Water Cooler’s Bewares, Recommendations, & Background Check forum is a popular online writers’ community where writers discuss agents, publishers, independent editors, and others, and post information and/or warnings.

The Association of Authors’ Representatives is the professional trade group for US agents. Its website hosts a membership roster and the AAR Canon of Ethics.

The Association of Authors’ Agents is a similar professional trade group for UK agents. Its website hosts a membership roster and the AAA Code of Practice.

The Australian Literary Agents’ Association is the professional trade group for Australian agents. Its website includes a membership roster, a Code of Practice, and an extensive list of writers’ resources.

Publishers Weekly covers US and international publishing. A prime source for publishing news and information.

The Bookseller offers comprehensive news about the UK publishing market.

Publisher’s Lunch is a daily e-mail newsletter with all the latest news about publishing worldwide. A full subscription costs, but the “lite” version is still free. A feature is the weekly Deal Lunch, which covers recent agent/publisher deals.

Publishers Marketplace is an extensive professional website where many established agents have listings (as usual, though, there are a few bad eggs). You can view the listings without a subscription, but with a subscription you get access to a tremendous amount of news and information about agents, publishers, and recent deals. Membership is pricey–but in my opinion, this is one of the few resources that’s worth the money.

AgentQuery is an agent listing site whose owners are careful about vetting the agents they include (one of the few such listings that Writer Beware recommends).

QueryTracker is a similarly reliable resource.

Researching an Agent’s Track Record. My article suggests a procedure for researching agents’ track records, and offers a number of resources to help.

The Safest Way to Search For an Agent. My article recommends a procedure for agent-hunting that’s designed to weed incompetent and dishonest agents from your query list.

First published in Writer Online, 1999

Updated version copyright © 2012 Victoria Strauss. MAY NOT BE REPRODUCED WITHOUT PERMISSION.