Avoiding Writing Scams

By Laura Bell

Let’s just get real for a second. There probably isn’t a way to get around them completely. As negative as this sounds, they are growing by leaps and bounds. The use of the Web in advertising writing jobs has just made it all that easier.

Here is the latest one that I fell prey to. I read about this new “citizen journalism” site. The story about the background of the founder, she had covered politics, impressed me. That was my first mistake. Frequently, you see promises of shared ad revenues. That sounded o.k. at the time. I went to work posting to get folks to read the work I uploaded. I was impressed with my numbers. I waited and then I waited some more.

There was an excuse about Google, the source of the shared ad revenue. Then there was talk about hunting for new financing. Then finally, there was an announcement late May that there would be a payout at the end of June. The timing was supposedly necessary so that June clicks could be included. Well, to my dismay, I got paid for, according to an email announcement, June earnings. Hmm, doesn’t seem to be what I agreed to.

Avoid sites that don’t specify when and how much you are going to get paid. I have another site acting as agent for my content. Every time he make a sale, he lets me know what my portion is; and, he sends me money when promised.

Print publications are not out of the running for having management deep into skullduggery when it comes to cheating writers. One of my goals has been to get my byline into a national glossy general interest magazine. I found a copy of this at Barnes and Noble years ago. The publisher running this was so good that she convinced Hearst, by use of a great “dummy,” to be her distributor. I got my desired byline, but never saw a penny. It was the first time an editor actually lied to me, saying that a check had gone out in the mail. I never got a dime; nor did any of the contributors. I found out later that nobody, including staffers, ever got paid. The publisher packed her bags and went to a new town and started again.

Then, there was the guy in upstate New York that managed to get many to write more with promises of later payment. He was successful in convincing about a dozen writers before he disappeared. I found out later it turned into a class-action lawsuit. He actually gave me a phony Fed Ex tracking number when telling me when to expect delivery. I spent days on the phone while listening for a truck that never showed up.

Getting Exposure

Many novices are dragged into these schemes because they are so anxious to see their names in print. My suggestion is don’t be anxious. It really and truly isn’t that difficult. There are hundreds of community newspapers throughout the country. What they never have enough of is content. Find one near you and volunteer. Stay long enough to get four or five good clips and then move on. There are also non-profits in every city who would be thrilled to get your help with one of their publications. All writing exposure for newbies does not have to be on the Net.

However, there is one thing that wouldn’t put you into the clutches of scammers, start your own blog. WordPress is easy. Learn how to get the word out on it. Editors are now accepting blogs as legitimate samples of your work.

Cautions that May Help

Any writing post that says “great way to get exposure” means run for the hills. Do not jump into any alleged opportunity that promises revenues or money down the road. There is a very good chance the publication or site will no longer be in business when it comes time for payment.

Join writers groups. Writers talk. Go to yahoo.com and click on the Groups link on the left side of the homepage. Type writers into the search blank.

There are professionals groups that still meet in person. Many now have web pages. You can check that out by using Google or your favorite search machine.

Use your email mailing lists (also known as YahooGroups) as a place to make friends with other writers. Start writing to a few off-list and make arrangements to meet in person when possible. Share your war stories.

Also, take advantage of writers’ newsletters. There are a multitude of them. Find them through your favorite search engine also. Many given warnings about publications and websites that haven’t paid or are paying late.

Team up with one or more of your writing pals and check out possible gigs together. If you are both dealing with same editor, then there will be strength in your numbers. I had this help many times, and we got out just before a couple of sites dissolved into ashes.

Check out www.well.com if you really want to have a gateway to writers and the ups and downs in their life. This ISP started out as a BBS and has been around since 1985. Its main core has always been writers, editors and artists. I have been a member since 1996. There are conferences for both editors and writers. You have a chance to hear the other side of the story.

One last thought on the subject, well at least for the moment—when checking out a print magazine as a pending market, check out the contributors. Have you heard of any of them? Just perhaps, you can find their email addresses with a little digging. I have used this trick more than once to find out if someone else was waiting on money.

Unfortunately, the publishing world is even harder than breaking into Hollywood some days. You have to learn how to look out for your rights. I guarantee no one else is going to do it for you. Amazingly, I still find there is more to learn after almost 30 years.

Laura Bell has been a published journalist since 1979. She has over 350 bylines to her name along with five years of self-publishing history. She has been a columnist five times and her work has appeared in: the Los Angeles Times, the San Jose Mercury News, Small Business Opportunity, the Los Angeles Business Journal, the Pasadena Star News and the Pasadena Weekly, to name a few.

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