Writer Beware: Sharks in the Literary Waters

By Victoria Strauss

There are sharks out there in the literary waters. 

Be wary: literary deceptions abound, from fee-charging agents to dishonest book doctors to fraudulent subsidy publishers to fake contests. Some of them are staggeringly successful. Edit Ink, for instance, a book doctoring firm that engaged in a kickback scheme with disreputable literary agents, and established its own bogus agencies to send yet more business its way, made millions of dollars before writers and writers’ groups finally blew the whistle. The owners of Edit Ink have been indicted, and ordered to pay massive fines as well as reparations to the writers they defrauded. But the vast majority of literary frauds go unpublicized and unpunished, leaving unscrupulous individuals free to deprive unsuspecting writers not just of their cash, but of their hopes and dreams. The good news is that you can protect yourself. Below are some tips and resources to help you be wary.

When You Should Be Suspicious

If a literary agent requires an up-front fee. 

This means a fee of any kind: reading, submission, contract, processing, or anything else. Up-front fees are absolutely not legitimate. Reputable agents make money solely from commissions on the sale of literary properties. Anything else is non-standard practice, no matter what you may hear.

Fee-charging violates the basic premise of the author-agent relationship: a shared financial interest in the sale of the author’s manuscript to a royalty-paying publisher. If an agent makes money right off the bat, his/her interest has been served, but the writer’s hasn’t. This is where the problem arises. Since a profit has already been made, the incentive to submit to a legitimate publisher is diminished. In fact, many fee-charging agents — some of whom have hundreds of paying clients — never bother to send out manuscripts at all. With writers becoming more educated about reading fees, questionable agents are increasingly taking to calling their up-front fees something else. For instance, you may be asked to pay a “marketing” or “submission” fee — supposedly, a share of the office expenses required to sell your manuscript. This is no more legitimate than a reading fee. While many reputable agents do pass on certain non-routine expenses to their clients (courier fees, extra galleys, overseas phone calls and the like), they do so after the fact, not up-front. And reputable agents absorb basic office expense as part of normal business overhead. They’ll never charge you for things like paper goods, local phone calls, or routine photocopying. Alternatively, you may be asked to pay an “evaluation” fee. In this version of the up-front fee, you’re promised not just a reading, but a critique. Once again, this is not legitimate. Reputable agents don’t double as paid editors. If they think they can get your manuscript published they’ll accept you, if not they’ll reject you; either way, they won’t charge you for their opinion. (These quickie critiques are rarely worthwhile, anyway. Most are worded so generally they could apply to any manuscript, or are padded with generic “how-to” advice.)

If a publisher offers you a contract that requires you to bear all or part of the cost of publication.

Such contracts are known as subsidy, joint-venture, or co-op contracts. Supposedly, what you pay is only a portion of the publication cost; the publisher kicks in the rest, and in addition provides warehousing, marketing, and distribution services. In reality, most subsidy publishers charge inflated prices that not only cover the whole cost of producing a book, but generate fat profits for the publisher. Such publishers routinely renege on their marketing and distribution promises (and even if they try to fulfill them, subsidy publishing is so poorly-regarded that it’s unlikely that booksellers or critics will be interested). Books may be shoddily-made, with badly-printed covers or missing pages. Subsidy publishers may also lie about print runs: you may think you’ve paid for 2,500 books, but in reality only the 100 copies you were given to distribute to friends and reviewers were ever printed. Subsidy publishers frequently pitch themselves to new writers by saying that the risk involved in publishing an unknown makes cost-sharing necessary, and it’s normal for new writers get their start this way. Don’t believe it. The new writers getting a start are those published by advance-paying publishers willing to put editing and marketing dollars behind their product. Subsidy-published books are not regarded as genuine publishing credits.

Subsidy publishing isn’t confined to print. An increasing number of electronic publishers offer pay-to-publish services. They’re much cheaper than print subsidy publishers, and less likely to be fraudulent (though they are, often, deceptive in billing themselves as self-publishing services). But subsidy publishing is subsidy publishing, in print or online: you’ll face the same difficulties with marketing, recognition, and respect.

If an agent or publisher refers you to a service for which you have to pay. 

The basic idea behind the quest for publication is for the writer to make money. If instead the writer is asked to pay, there’s something fishy going on.If you’re referred to a specific outside service — a book doctor, for instance — it’s likely that a kickback arrangement is involved. Either the agent or publisher has been promised a fee for each referral, or s/he receives a percentage of what you pay for the service (Edit Ink, mentioned above, is a good example of this). Some subsidy publishers also engage in kickback schemes, offering agents a finder’s fee for each client they persuade to accept a pay-to-publish contract. Sometimes the agency or publisher itself will own the service to which you’re referred, which enables them to make an even bigger profit from your use of it. For instance, a publisher may own a fee-charging literary agency, which is recommended to writers who send in manuscripts. Or a literary agency may run a separate editing branch, to which rejected manuscripts are routinely referred. An agency may even own a subsidy publishing company, into which clients are funneled once they’ve racked up enough rejections to become desperate.

Be wary, therefore, of any agent or publisher that also runs a paid service — even if you’re not referred to it. There’s a serious conflict of interest inherent in such arrangements, and they are an open invitation to abuse. How can a referral that makes a profit for the referrer really be trusted? And how can a writer have confidence in an agent or publisher who is willing to support him/herself by such profits?

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

Occasionally, unethical publishers attempt to duck the subsidy label by shifting their charges to something other than printing. For instance, you may be required to purchase a large number of books for “promotional” purposes. Or you may be told that the publisher doesn’t have a big budget for publicity, so you must hire a publicity firm (from a list the publisher provides, of course). On the surface, this may sound more legitimate than a straight pay-to-publish contract. But the bottom line is that you’re still paying to see your book in print.

Be wary of poetry and short story “anthologies” that require writers to purchase the anthology in order to be included. These vanity anthologies often solicit business via a faux contest, in which just about everyone who submits becomes a semi-finalist. Some companies also bombard writers with offers for expensive extras, such as having a poem mounted on a plaque, or having a story made into an audiotape, or buying membership in an authors’ registry maintained by the company.

Because vanity anthologies employ no editorial screening, publish anyone who is willing to pay, and never see the inside of a bookstore or library, they aren’t considered a genuine literary market. As with a subsidy-published book, inclusion in an anthology will not count as a professional writing credit.

If you’re solicited.

Reputable agents and publishers are overwhelmed with submissions, and have no reason to look for more. In general, the only people who actively solicit writers’ business are those who want to fleece them. Some questionable agents, publishers, and book doctors purchase subscription lists from writers’ magazines. Others solicit writers who register their copyrights. Still others cruise writers’ forums and bulletin boards on the Internet: be wary of submission requests from agents or editors you’ve never heard of.

On a related note: reputable agents and publishers rarely advertise. Beware of ads you see online, or in the backs of writers’ magazines.

If reasonable requests for information are refused. 

It’s your right to ask an agent or publisher about contract terms, commissions, marketing, distribution, and so on. Reputable agents and publishers are glad to answer, since they have nothing to hide. Questionable agents and publishers, on the other hand, have quite a lot to hide, and are often very reluctant to provide information. Be especially wary of the agent who tells you that his/her sales list is confidential. Reputable agents are proud of their track records, and will have no problem giving you this information. An agent who refuses to do so is probably trying to conceal something, such as the fact that s/he’s never sold a book to a legitimate publisher.

If there’s a double standard 

An agent may tell you that she usually charges a reading fee, but because your query was so terrific, she’ll read your manuscript for free. Or a publisher may tell you that, while it usually enters into traditional advance-and-royalty contracts, for new authors it offers a special joint venture deal. Or a book doctor may tell you 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; be wary. You aren’t receiving special treatment, just a calculated marketing pitch. The agent thinks that if she makes you feel you’re getting a freebie on the reading, you’ll be more likely to pay the $500 marketing fee she plans to ask for later on. The publisher thinks that if you believe it’s a legitimate small press, you’ll be more likely to go for the expensive subsidy contract, which is probably the only kind it offers. The book doctor thinks that if you’re convinced you’re getting a bargain, you’ll be more likely to make a quick decision to purchase his editing services — which only cost $4 per page to begin with. Reputable agents, publishers, and editors don’t employ double standards or issue discounts. If an offer sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

be wary if you encounter any of the following:

Rudeness or chastisement
Especially in response to requests for information. Questionable agents especially are fond of browbeating writers who ask too many questions.
Extravagant praise and/or promises
Reputable agents, publishers, and book doctors don’t indulge in hyperbole — at least not to unknown authors — and they 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 defraud.
Correspondence and other official documents containing typos, grammatical errors, and the like
This may sound obvious, but a publishing professional should be able to write correctly. It’s amazing how many questionable agents, publishers, and book doctors send out correspondence or maintain websites full of such mistakes.
For agents: if they don’t maintain membership in the Association of Authors Representatives (AAR).
AAR membership guarantees that the agent has been in business for at least 18 months, and has made a minimum of 10 sales to legitimate publishers; it also prohibits reading fees, referral fees, and other abuses. Most successful, top-selling U.S. agents are members of AAR. Non-membership doesn’t necessarily mean that an agent isn’t reputable — some agencies are too new to qualify, or have other reasons for not joining. However, you’ll be safest if you focus your agent search on AAR members.
For book doctors:
The statement that manuscripts must be professionally edited before a publisher will look at them. A reputable book doctor won’t make such a statement, for the simple reason that it isn’t true. Your manuscript needs to be finished, properly formatted, and as polished as it can be, but no one will hold it against you if you accomplish this yourself.
For publishers:
If there’s a reading fee. As with literary agents, no reputable publisher will ever charge you to read or submit your manuscript. Last but not least: remember the cardinal rule of writing. Money flows toward the writer, not away. The only place you should ever sign a check is on the back! Be wary about payment demands for services.

Resources to Help You Protect Yourself

Writer Beware http://www.sfwa.org/beware/
I maintain this website-within-a-website for the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. There’s more detail on each of the issues discussed above, plus links to many online resources.

Absolute Write’s Bewares, Recommendations & Background Check

E-mail Writer Beware beware@sfwa.org
Writer Beware staff have collected documentation on more than 250 agents and publishers who engage in the practices identified above. Send us a name, and we will research it for you.

Association of Authors Representatives
This website hosts a list of AAR members.

Publishers Weekly Online http://www.publishersweekly.com/
Knowledge is your best defense. Publishers Weekly is an excellent source of information on all aspects of the publishing business.

Examples of the Schemes Discussed Above

Edit Ink
The whole Edit Ink story.

The Case of the Woodside Literary Agency
A fee-charging literary agency that fought back when writers blew the whistle.

Management Alternatives
The story of Commonwealth Publications, a now-bankrupt subsidy publisher that’s being sued by the writers it defrauded.

The Deering Literary Agency
A fee-charging literary agency that owned a subsidy publishing company, and took millions of dollars from writers who never saw their books in print.

The National Library of Poetry Page
The National Library is the largest of the vanity anthology companies.

—VS
©1999 Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is the author of nine novels, including SF and Fantasy, and YA, and is a co-found of SFWA’s Writer Beware, the publishing industry watchdog group.

I footnotes