A message from a writer in Japan changed my plans for today's post. It's been a while since I posted a warning about all the scams out there that capitalize on a writer's desire to be published.
Back in October, 2006, I wrote a post titled "Red Flags For Writers." In that post, I listed a series of warning signs that should make a writer slow down and look for more information.
Every couple of years, a writing scam will surface. The big "reveal" usually begins on a writing loop with a writer asking a question about a publisher or agent s/he has been working with. Initially, some writers will come forward with reassurance, saying they are also clients of ABC Agency or XYZ Press. Others will argue that they've heard bad things. Occasionally a sock puppet will pop up, insisting the company is entirely legitimate.
Over time, the writers who started out just asking questions or suggesting there was some kind of misunderstanding begin to realize they've been scammed. Gradually their protective wall of denial crumbles, their confidence wanes and their hope diminishes. Almost all of them eventually acknowledge there were red flags they ignored.
Hindsight is, of course, 20/20. We're going to look at some red flags here:
1) Everything you read on the Internet is not gospel. As an example, don't forget that anyone can post to Wikipedia. It sometimes takes a while for the overseers there to catch and edit the false entries.
If you are going to search for information, it is up to you to be an informed consumer. Scam artists plant people in loops and chat rooms to talk up their services. Sometimes the scam artist himself acts as a sock puppet, using a pseudonym to praise his own operation. A common ploy is to pretend to be a writer and give rave reviews to a site that is really run by a rip-off artist.
Ads in magazines should always be viewed with suspicion. Ads are paid for. Most magazines DO NOT screen for the validity of the ad; they just take the money and run the ad. Just because you see a company in an ad in Writers Digest or Publishers Weekly doesn't mean it's legitimate. I quit subscribing to Writers Digest years ago because of my disgust over some of the ads they continued to run from scam artists.
You should ALWAYS check Preditors and Editors here and Writer Beware here. You should ALWAYS Google for information on any recommendation you receive. Google it in several ways: first with the word "complaint" in the search string. Again with just the name of the agency. And finally with just the name of the agent or acquiring editor.
2) Examine the agent, editor or publisher's website carefully. Look for obvious problems. Poor grammar, poor spelling, a lack of professional voice--all of these are warning signs. If the agent, editor or publisher is claiming to be a legitimate member of an industry in which words are her business, she should be able to write a coherent, error-free sentence.
3) Examine the website's claims. At a minimum, they should list the writers or the books they represent. But don't stop there. I recently received an email from a newbie asking about an "agent." He hadn't found anything alarming in a Google search; actually there was very little at all on the Internet about this agent beyond her website address. She wasn't listed on any of the warning sites either. I went directly to the site, looked up the authors listed and did a search on each of their books. ALL were printed by vanity presses or a print-on-demand press like Lulu. No one needs an agent to self-publish. That's a big red flag.
4) If you don't subscribe to Publishers Marketplace (PM), make friends with someone who does. A search of that database will turn up deals made by the agent. Granted, this is not foolproof. Some agents don't report on PM. However, when you are investigating an agent, you are looking for both positive and negative feedback. A list of deals made can go in the "positive" column.
5) If you can't find deals listed on the agent's website or on Publishers Marketplace, ask them directly to give you a list of the books they've sold. Then follow up to make sure these were REAL deals and not more self-published stuff. If they claim to be a new agent without deals yet, this can be a red flag. Ask where they worked previously and google that. Lots of editors go out on their own to become agents. However, you should be able to find information on the publisher they worked for and the books they edited. You also need to decide if you want to be the first client of a new agent. It may work out; it may not. The skills sets needed to be an agent or editor are similar, but not identical. My own agent is a former editor, but she's been an agent for a long time.
6) If the agent demands an upfront fee, RUN. No matter what they call it--retainer, reading fee, advance--RUN. Legitimate agents do not request money from clients. They earn their income from the deals they make and the royalties and advances paid to the writer by the publisher. Money should ALWAYS flow to the writer, not from the writer.
7) Occasionally a writer will be approached by someone claiming to be an agent who read the writer's blog and is interested in representing the writer because of the marvelous quality of his work. While this might happen, it is less than likely. Most agents have their hands full with submissions. They don't need to go trolling for clients.
8) Another red flag is fulsome praise. Everyone wants to be validated. However, when the praise goes over the top, red flags should be raised. Any time a writer is told he is the next Mark Twain, Stephen King, Nora Roberts, or John Steinbeck, he needs to take a deep breath and consider the source. I know your mother thinks you're a good writer, but come on. Try to stay in the real world. I suspect the people who get taken by this scam write in isolation and are not in critique groups. Good critique partners will teach you humility. Mine do every day.
9) Beware of anyone who pushes you for an immediate decision. A legitimate agent is looking to build a relationship. Someone who threatens that the offered contract will be withdrawn in eight or forty-eight hours (usually coupled with a claim that they are working with a publisher who needs an immediate decision) is trying to get you to ignore those warning bells in the back of your head.
10) If you hear warning bells, slow down. Talk to writers you personally know and trust. DO NOT go back on the loop where you found the agent and ask there. There are likely to be sock puppets lying in wait to reassure you. The other problem is you may find writers who are being scammed, but who haven't realized it yet. Go to Absolute Write here and post a query. Jenna Glatzer and Victoria Strauss give great advice.
11) If the agent says he will take your manuscript if you have it professionally edited, take a deep breath--especially if they give the names of specific editors. Legitimate agents DO NOT refer to editors by name; they say you need editing. I blogged several months ago about a writer who thought an agent was on the up and up because she was given three names of potential editors. Turned out all three names had the same IP address. Go back and read my blog for 12/08/05 here ("Anatomy of a Writing Scam") about the "agent" who scammed writers by using different names for herself as agent, editor and publisher.
Remember: publishing is a business. Agents are business people who do not take on clients unless they believe they can sell the work. Publishing houses are business operations. They do not take on manuscripts that they don't believe will sell.
Advice for wannabe writers. Stop blaming agents and publishers for not contracting your work. They don't owe you anything. Saying they are only in it for the money makes you sound like an idiot. Would you say a doctor is only in the business of healing for the money?
There are NO shortcuts. If you are going to get impatient or depressed during your search for an agent or publisher, maybe writing isn't for you. Real writers keep writing UNTIL. They have no choice. They can no more stop writing than they can stop breathing. They plug away, year after year--taking workshops, getting critiques, attending conferences, and learning about the industry. Remember what Joe Konrath says: "What do you call a writer who won't give up? Published."
Impatience and arrogance won't help you get published. They will only make you a target for scam artists. Crooks prey on people who are too impatient to wait or too unwilling to subject their own writing to a critical eye. I see examples of this every day. The writers start out with the right mindset but, after four or five rejections, they get impatient and angry and start talking about self-publishing.
Four or five rejections? Try a hundred. Lots of well-known writers racked up triple-digit rejections before they finally were published. If you want to be a published writer, you need to pay the dues. There's no other way. Write, write and write some more.
Finally, to any writer who has been taken in by a scam, I know you feel awful. I know a few of you may even be thinking about walking away from the business altogether.
Don't do it. Take a break. Write something new, or give yourself some time to recover.
Scammers take advantage of your eagerness to be published. That doesn't mean you will never be published. It just means the time (or your manuscript) isn't right yet.
Never give up. Never give up. NEVER GIVE UP.