Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Five reasons to warn writers about scams

Why do watchdogs like Writer Beware warn people about literary scams?

Why not allow those people to either indulge their publishing fantasies with a stealth vanity press/fake agent, or do the research and get away? That way, the savvy writers will be fine and the rest will get to play pretend. Most manuscripts are unpublishable anyway, so for many of those writers the vanity press may be their only chance to see their names in print.

This is a paraphrase of an argument I once read. The idea is to practice the literary equivalent of Social Darwinism, allowing scams to cull the naïve or inexperienced from the herd and operating on the assumption that such victims are unpublishable and always will be unpublishable. So it’s no loss.

This idea has a surprising number of proponents. But what’s the problem with this again?

1. A crime is a crime.

If it’s wrong to rip off a brilliant and experienced writer, it should also be wrong to rip off a naïve person who can’t string three words together. That the latter may be easier to do doesn’t change the fact that something unethical has been done.

2. Who gets to decide?

A lot of writers produce unpublishable slush when they first start out. I know I did. But does that mean that these writers will never improve, and therefore it’s all right for someone to sucker them into a scam?

I don’t think so.

No one has the right to decide that a writer, any writer, is so unskilled and so incapable of improvement that he or she deserves to be saddled with illusions and empty promises (and debts, in the worst case scenario). If the writers sign up with a questionable agent or a vanity press knowing what to expect and aware of potential problems, that’s different. But even if they’re naïve or desperate, they still have a right to hear the truth.

No writer deserves to be taken advantage of.

3. You don’t know what you don’t know.

Writers don’t emerge from the womb with a copy of Ten Percent of Nothing in their chubby little fists (and even that book doesn’t cover all the myriad forms a literary scam can take). They have to learn. Some learn from actual publishers or from experienced writers, but some learn from a scammer or that scammer’s defenders.

If writers don’t know any better, they may take that as the truth. Scams are nothing if not slick and plausible.

4. The truth doesn’t stay hidden.

”I believe you sincerely are trying to be helpful, but you are… taking away the sense of a fulfillment and accomplishment they should be feeling for being in print by focusing on what REAL publishers do for REAL writers.”

The problem is that this sense of accomplishment won’t last long. Vanity presses – especially the kind which try to pass themselves off as real publishers – give writers a feeling of success, but this feeling is unlikely to survive contact with bookstores, impartial reviewers and the writer’s first royalty check (or lack thereof). Writers soon realize that their books have no sales other than what they provide. They realize that the glow of gold at the end of their rainbow was the luminescence of radioactive waste.

And the letdown is all the worse as a result. The hard work and frustration involved in polishing one’s writing and getting rejections is nothing compared to knowing that you were taken for a ride, that you believed the lies, and that others knew it but said nothing.

Finally, there’s no such thing as a REAL writer/fake writer distinction. We’re all writers.

5. The argument from self-righteousness.

It’s easy to think, “I would be too smart to fall for that. Therefore you deserve what you got.” Sometimes it’s genuinely difficult for experienced writers to see how anyone could not do the research and learn about the scam.

But when you’re down-hearted from too many rejections and someone says they believe in your work, that produces an emotional high which overrides caution.

Even doing the research doesn’t always work as it’s supposed to. Someone who’s unfamiliar with publishing may not understand why established publishers are safer than “getting in on the ground floor” of an eager new company. I once contacted two writers who had been with PublishAmerica originally, but had moved on to self-publishing. I said I was looking for a publisher for my first novel, and did they have any suggestions?

They both recommended PublishAmerica, without a hint of any problems that I would face by following their suggestion.

Anyone can be deceived under the right circumstances. That’s why we warn writers about scams.


DRC said...

I was nearly taken for a ride when I was younger. Young, over-eager and naivety played a huge role. It was a good job I did some homework before hand or things could have been heartbreaking. It was a New York agent who was open to submissions. I checked them out and the seemed legit. I sent my work; they accepted it and sent a contract. I even had a lawyer friend look over it and they couldn't see anything wrong with it - so I signed a 6 month deal at no cost (playing safe with 6 months). They read my work and even though there were issues that needed editing, the overall critique they gave was brilliant! Then they asked for $100 for binding and administration fees. That's when alarm bells rang. I never paid, never renewed the contract and never contacted them again - even though they did, a year after the contract

It was a huge scam and a big experience for me but I was lucky I had my head screwed on before parting with money.

Marian Perera said...

I'm glad you got a good critique out of it, anyway. :)

And yeah, if they had told you about the fee upfront, that wouldn't have made them a good agency. From what I've heard, the only legit agency which ever charged a reading fee was Scott Meredith's, and I'm not sure they do so any longer. Plus, it was known that authors who entered the agency through the "Fees Charged" door seldom if ever made it to the part of the agency which had significant sales.

But the fact that this agency tried to sneak the fee in after you signed the contract makes them a scam.