Author Beware — A book publishing horror story

By Sharon Hill

In 2001, my co-author and I signed a contract for a nonfiction book. I was a freelance writer/editor with my own business, and my client-turned-coauthor had come to me with a request to produce a brochure for his corporate clients. These executives were being hounded by requests from employees to implement telework into their firms and they needed guidance. Bill, an employment counselor, asked me to ghostwrite a booklet about implementing and managing telework.

Once we started the table of contents we realized the topics that needed to be covered were far too vast for a booklet. It became a book. One publisher friend suggested my credentials warranted my being named as co-author. Bill agreed. Then started the hunt for a publisher. I bought the latest version of Writer’s Market and started through the pages of business publishers. I came up with a list of 50 and painstakingly wrote queries to all. From those 50 letters came four encouraging replies. At the request of these four we sent sample chapters. We signed a contract with the first publisher who offered it. We discussed the wisdom of this, but being first-time authors, we were afraid that another offer might not come along and this one would go away if we dallied. So, after asking a few — too few, it turns out —questions, we signed the contract approximately two weeks later.

Then came the marketing questionnaire. At the publisher’s request we researched and listed 200 business people who should receive marketing materials — press releases, etc. — from the publisher. We also gave the publisher’s marketing rep an extensive list of business management and human resource management conferences that might be good places for us to showcase our book.

In the middle of writing and submitting subsequent chapters to the assigned editor, our publisher downsized and fired our editor. We got an e-mail after the fact but no name of the replacement contact. Our e-mails went unanswered for a couple of weeks. In fact the notification of the editor’s dismissal didn’t even come from the publisher. It came from the dismissed editor, who now had no obligation to even tell us. He, luckily, was just a nice guy who wanted to let us know since nobody responsible was going to.

Ultimately, our book was delayed one year. Our editor was replaced twice, and for quite some time we had no known publisher contact. We started looking at our contract with more observant eyes. We discovered that there was no deadline in it — no date by which the publisher had to have the book in print, or nullify the contract and return all rights to us. Our royalty checks were paid only once a year, so the book’s publishing delay also delayed our payment for another full year.

Nor did they offer any writing or publishing guidance. Several months after the contract, and well over a year into the writing I asked them about forwarding to them the e-mails that gave us permission to quote. It was then that I learned we had to have original signatures on all permissions. Neither e-mails nor faxes were acceptable. I had to go back to each company and person and send her or him the form to sign and have it mailed back to me. Some didn’t remember talking with me, some remembered but didn’t know what they had said and wanted to see it again, or update it. Some were no longer employed at the firm, so I had to get new quotes and permissions from their replacement.

Once the book was finally published we were informed that our mailing list was out of date (whose fault was that?), that they no longer sent announcements to 200 — 20 was now the maximum — along with review copies to 10-20 trade journals. When were they going to tell us all this if I hadn’t asked? Once again we perused our contract. Nowhere did it address the publisher’s marketing obligations.

We had also committed ourselves to creating the index — a task neither of us had ever tackled before.

Worst of all, we allowed the contract to include the provision that this publisher had the right of first denial on our next book. Even though we had now decided we never wanted to work with this publisher again we had to give them the opportunity to decide if they were going to publish our next book before we sought another publisher.

Our book has been out since last December. Our royalties are to be paid sometime between the end of October and the end of December. The cut off is the end of June — this month. Each month end we get a statement about the number of books sold. For some reason they are late with May’s report, but as of April 30th we’ve sold a total of 183 books — devastatingly few. In fact, far fewer than pay for our time, expenses and efforts.

So, what did we learn from all this? Well, it’s not as tragic a story for me as it is for Bill. As a writer, whether profitable or not, a published book helps get me in many doors. And I am attempting to launch a speaking career about telework. I’ve also been able to resell the topic, with notes and research gathered during the writing of the book to many periodicals and sites. But I’m surely not going to get rich off the royalties. In fact, it’ll be a long time before I’m out of debt.

While we wanted to write another business management book we didn’t want to have to work with the same publisher. So we shelved the next business management idea temporarily in favor of a shorter historical publication completely unrelated to the topics this publisher handles, informed them by mail that we were sure they would not be interested (they weren’t), finished that short publication, and then started on our new business management book with a different publisher. We had managed to avoid the publisher from hell while also avoiding contract violation.

Before we signed the second contract I found a book I highly recommend: Tad Crawford’s Business and Legal Forms for Authors and Self-Publishers. In it we found Form 5, Book Publishing Contract. Not only was it full of good advice but I discovered that as I went through the new publisher’s proposed contract clause by clause, Crawford’s Form 5 followed the same format and addressed each separately, talking about the concerns of the clause and what an author would want to suggest as a preference.

While I don’t want to give this helpful author’s book away, let me give you just a few short examples. One piece of Crawford advice: “If the publisher does not publish within the specified time period, give the author the right to terminate the contract and keep all money received.” (Oh, how I wish I’d read this prior to the first contract.) Another Crawford suggestion: “If the author signs the contract first, a provision might be made to withdraw the offer if the publisher does not sign within 30-60 days after receipt of the contract.” Crawford also suggested that the author should be allowed to deliver a “complete” manuscript, rather than “a manuscript in form and content satisfactory to the publisher.”

Almost every one of the numerous addressed issues in Business and Legal Forms appeared in our contract. We sat the Crawford book down next to our contract, and clause-by-clause made the recommended alterations. We got everything we asked for. All changes were made as requested. I am convinced that the biggest reason for this was that we sounded like authors who knew what we were doing thanks to horrible lessons learned from our first experience, but thanks mostly to Tad Crawford’s book.

In summary, here is what I’ve found most important. The “wish I had known” items:

  • Don’t jump at the first book contract. Shop around. Get advice. Take the time to step back from it and then reread it a few days later.
  • Make sure your contract includes a deadline by which the publisher must publish or return all rights to you.
  • Ask for royalty payments more often than once a year.
  • Ask that publisher’s marketing obligations be included in the contract.
  • DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES allow a first denial clause in your contract.
  • Assume when you start working on your book that your publisher will want an original signature on every interview permission form. Immediately upon conclusion of a face-to-face, phone, or e-mail interview get that form out to the interviewee. Don’t wait more than a week. If you are mailing it include an SASE.

The most important thing to keep in mind, however, is that no matter how great a publisher you sign with, no matter how terrific a contract you have, you — the author — are going to be the person with the most responsibility for marketing your book. Know as you start your authorship that your work on your book does not end with your writing of the last word. From that point you still have a long way to go before your work on your book is completed, if ever. If you are not prepared to market your book, you are not prepared to write it.

Bill and I learned this the hard way. We are still learning it.

Sharon Hill is owner of Yore Write Hand, a business writing/editing and advertising copywriting firm. Specializing in career and seniors issues, she has can be found on Tumblr.

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.

Getting the Scoop on Poetry Contest Scams

By Linda Alice Dewey

“Congratulations! Your poem has been selected for our next anthology.”

Every year, these words bring tears to the eyes of thousands of poets, first from joy— then from anger. Why the anger? Because in many cases, they’ve been swindled.

Submitting work to a legitimate writing contest can be a rewarding experience, but before you send in your entry, there are a few things you should know.

Scams get your money through flattery or something-for-nothing ploys. Many times the prizes go as high as a million bucks. And the big prize-winners? Not legitimate either, often not even real people.

Some contest sponsors aren’t interested in quality writing at all. In fact, you’re guaranteed to be a winner. There’s just one hitch: it’ll cost you. Want a copy of the anthology your poem will be in? Fifty bucks, please. Add your bio—$25. Typesetting? You guessed it. Be included in a future ‘Best of’ Anthology—for a fee. You can even get a plaque or cassette, but not for free.

We’re talking big business here. Consider a company in Maryland that published more than 50 anthologies last year. Say each has an average of 300 pages (most do), with 3-6 poems per page at approximately $50 per poem. You have a little company making lots of cash.

Poetry on scam contest websites is sometimes “borrowed” from famous poets to give the site authenticity. One well-known author, while researching scams, was surprised to find his work posted on a site. He promptly sent them a letter, and they removed his piece.

One of the more infamous but still functioning contest websites has a page for posting poetry about the September 11 tragedy, preying on the emotions of a grieving people to further their ends even more. Some specifically prey on children. And it isn’t just poetry they want: they’ll go after short story, essay, fiction and nonfiction writers, too. Authors looking for agents get taken by companies charging up front fees who may also refer you to fee-charging book doctors.

Crooked come-ons lurk in literary magazines, newspapers, online and in writer’s guidebooks right alongside their legitimate counterparts. How can you tell them apart? Well, take heart. Fraudulent contests share several characteristics, and once you educate yourself, you’ll easily spot one from a distance.

Here’s the scoop.

  1. Avoid “free” contests. Surprisingly, legitimate competitions normally charge a nominal fee (up to $35) to cover judging and prizes. The freebies will more often than not respond to your submission with a flattering letter about your wonderful poem. For just X dollars, it could be in the next anthology, it’s so good, etc., etc.
  2. Research background information. Two or more dubious answers to the following questions indicate a possible scam.
      • Who is the sponsoring organization? Does the name sound or look like a well-known publishing house or organization? Is their address merely a post office box or a real person’s name with a physical address? Could this be a one-person organization?
      • View last year’s winning entries. Who were last year’s winners? Try to find out if the names listed are real people. If they are, they’ll have credits, a website, an email address—something. Of course, a few new legitimate contests are born each year, so if they weren’t around last year, that alone doesn’t make them dishonest.
      • Who are the judges? Search the web for more information about these people. If they’re authentic writers or real editors (and again, the worst scams “borrow” names), you may have a legitimate contest.
      • Are contest guidelines clear and concise regarding format, what information to include, fees, prizes, judging, cost-free publication, and what rights you may be relinquishing?
  3. Beware of overly flattering response letters that ask for fees not mentioned up front. Legitimate organizations are businesslike and tell you what the fee is before you submit.
  4. How frequent are contests sponsored by this organization? If often, then they’re either after money or they’re trying to fill up anthologies and magazines.
  5. Are there perks? If so, you shouldn’t have to pay for them.

Want to get published? Want to get exposure? Submit projects to literary magazines that print work similar to your own. Get a few credits, then start freelancing for serial publications. Literary newsletters often relate success stories of how an editor or agent saw a story/poem published in this or that magazine and contacted the author. The rest is history.

In his recent jewel entitled On Writing, Stephen King suggests that one way to catch a publisher’s eye is to win contests. However, he also recommends submitting non-contest pieces on a regular basis to magazines. In the first instance, you pay them an entrance fee at the very least. In the second, you’ll never pay, and it is entirely possible that they will pay you. Now tell me, potential award-winning writer: which would you prefer?

If you’re good enough to win a prize, you’re good enough to get published in a legitimate publication on your own merit. So get out there, get writing, and get published.

Contest Evaluation Resources

SFWA’s (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) Writer Beware on Contests

Writer Beware’s Victoria Strauss on Writing Contests: Facts and Fakes…And How to Tell the Difference

The United States Postal Inspector’s fraud report form

Post and read warnings for writers about deadbeat publications and writing scams on Absolute Write’s “Bewares, Recommendations & Background Check” forum.

Sources for legitimate contests:

Good Luck!

Linda Alice Dewey is the author of Aaron’s Crossing: A True Ghost Story, available in bookstores and Amazon.com. It will be re-released by Hampton Roads Publishing in the fall of 2006. Her current projects include adapting it to a Phantom-like musical and a screenplay about a WWII Mission involving her father, a former pilot of a B-24 bomber, one of a very few to make it back to England after a vicious air battle. You can visit her website at lindaalicedewey.com.

© 2002 Linda Alice Dewey

Editor’s note: links updated 2018