A Few Ideas About How to Avoid Being Scammed in Publishing
Be cautiously optimistic, listen to your gut, and do your due diligence
I love working with writers, because I get to learn so much about worlds I’d never have otherwise experienced. It’s not unlike reading in that way. Many, if not most, of my clients also have good intentions: They want their books to make a difference in the lives of others.
Unfortunately, wherever there is a strong desire—for example, to be published, or even to be of service—there are unethical businesspeople (at best) and organized-crime scammers (at worst) eager to exploit that desire and make a few bucks—at the would-be author’s expense.
Commercial nonfiction authors are typically memoirists and subject-matter experts. Aside from journalists and those who work in academia, many of my clients don’t see themselves as “writers,” and they may not be as familiar with commercial publishing pitfalls and detours as those who have dreamed of writing a novel since grade school. Because writing is a solitary act, aspiring authors are extremely vulnerable to misinformation and scams. When you’re working on a book—any book—it’s important to see yourself as part of the writing community and to become familiar with the resources available to other genres of writers.
What follows are a few of the easiest ways to protect yourself. This is not a comprehensive list, but it’s a start. If you have any tips to add, feel free to share them in the comments.
Follow Writer Beware
One of the best ways to avoid being scammed is to read the blog Writer Beware, sponsored by the Science Fiction Writers of America, which benefits writers of all stripes.
Since the early 2000s, and quite possibly earlier, author Victoria Strauss, along with her co-founder Michael Capobianco, has taken it upon herself to make writers aware of the many, many scams out there. From fake agents and agencies to predatory publishers or ‘contests’ that simply take entrants’ fees and disappear, she is right up there with Jane Friedman as a “must follow” publishing industry expert.
Writers query agents, not the other way around
In 2023, there’s virtually no situation in which a legitimate literary agent will email a random stranger out of the blue to offer representation. It just doesn’t happen. Again, unfortunately, some people are so desperate to be published that they’ll jump at any opportunity… even one that turns out to cost them serious money without delivering anything.
Caveat: If you’ve had a viral article or video (more than 5 million views), or any New York Times essay (Modern Love, etc.), then you may well be approached by legitimate agents. These are not necessarily scams—heck, it’s one of the reasons so many people want to write Modern Love columns—but I encourage you to vet each one thoroughly.
Second caveat: I know of a few writers who met their agents or found a small publisher in the course of their daily lives (e.g., at a farmer’s market or concert). That’s awesome! And also, if this happens, do your research to make sure this person has your best interests at heart.
Agents get paid when you do
No reputable agent will charge you a fee to submit materials for consideration.
Agents make money from their clients’ books. For example, the only money my agent has earned came from the advance for P.S. I LOVE YOU MORE THAN TUNA. If and when I ‘earn out’ (earn enough royalties to repay the publisher for my advance), she will receive 15% of TUNA royalties after that, but unless Mayim Bialik or Taylor Swift falls in love with TUNA, that’s probably not going to be much more than coffee change. My agent has worked with me for six years, and so far, she’s earned less than one week’s salary from my work. That must suck for her, yet that’s often the reality of being a literary agent.
I repeat: No reputable agent will charge you a fee
to submit materials for consideration.
There are a handful of legit agents who moonlight as editors or publishing consultants, and they may charge for reviewing your materials—as long as they are not considering you for representation. Otherwise, this is considered a conflict of interest.
If an agent asks you to pay money to read your manuscript after you send a query, run away! Fast! There are plenty of legit agents out there. Keep going. (If this happens with an agent you found on QueryTracker, please report them.)
(Once you’ve signed with an agent, they may ask you to reimburse them for office expenses related to your manuscript or book, but that will be outlined in the contract you sign with your agent. No legit agent will ask you to pay for representation.)
Got an email? Look at grammar and punctuation
No reputable publishing professional—editor, agent or publisher—will solicit business from you, aside from through newsletters like this one (and even so, most of us don’t scream, “HEY YOU, HIRE ME!”). So if you receive an email from a stranger offering to help you get published, be wary.
Legitimate publishing professionals in North America have high-level English writing skills. Many, but not all, scam emails include poor grammar or punctuation, inconsistent tense, passive voice or awkward syntax. If something feels off, it probably is.
RESIST THE TEMPTATION to engage with a scammer, even to say, “Ha! I know you’re not legit!”. These are not kids in their parents’ basements; these are organized criminals with enormous financial and social resources, trying to scam money and/or steal identities. Move the email to your junk folder.
Google, Google, Google
Let’s say you get an email from someone who says they’re an agent or an editor at a publishing house. First, check grammar (see above). Then Google, Google and Google some more. Anyone can put together a gorgeous website. Look for other books they’ve sold (agent) or published (in-house editor)—not only on their website, but also on Amazon. Amazon’s publishing info enables you to cross-check any information you see about a book, for example on an agency website.
If you’re uncertain about the individual’s legitimacy, use TinEye or other reverse image search to make sure website photos of the individual are genuine photos of that person, not stock photos.
You can also search the Association of American Literary Agents (AALA), formerly known as the Association of Author Representatives (AAR). Not all legit agents are members of AALA, but all members of AALA are legitimate literary agents.
Beware hybrid publishers that aren’t
Hybrid publishing combines elements from two different sources.
It resembles self-publishing because the author carries the cost and financial risk; thus, it involves an investment of your own capital.
It resembles traditional publishing because professionals, not you, carry out the tasks required to transform a Word document on your laptop into an object called a book that people can buy and read.
It’s like hiring a contractor. You pay the contractor to oversee the design, construction, plumbing, electricity, and so on, because he has the contacts and expertise that you lack or don’t have the bandwidth to acquire. When it’s done, you own the house; the contractor produced it (for a fee), but he doesn’t own it.
I’m writing this particular warning because at least a couple of times a year, I have a client who sees that Hay House (an otherwise reputable, niche small press) has a hybrid “arm,” Balboa . Rather than go into all the detail here, I’ll link to the comprehensive Writer Beware post about Balboa. Although this article is a decade old, Victoria Strauss has confirmed that Balboa is still owned and run by Author Solutions, a for-profit company that has nothing to do with Hay House (or spirituality, for that matter).
The number of reputable hybrids is much, much smaller than the number of predatory or ‘pay to publish’ companies.
A brief list of reputable hybrid publishers
Here are some hybrids that I know to be reputable as of this writing. This is not a comprehensive list, but these are the hybrids I recommend to my clients. The costs range from $8,000 USD to $75,000 USD+. A higher cost doesn’t necessarily mean the company isn’t legitimate.
SheWrites Press publishes fiction and nonfiction by women. Run by Brooke Warner, this is one of the most reputable (and most affordable) hybrids today.
Spark Press (same parent company as SheWrites) publishes fiction and nonfiction
Wonderwell publishes nonfiction; their tagline is “big ideas for a better world.”
Page Two, based in Vancouver, BC, call themselves “expert publishers who publish experts.” I can vouch for the first half of that, and their list demonstrates the second half.
Greenleaf Book Group is the gold standard hybrid for business books, and they charge accordingly. I’ve seen editorial evaluations and marketing plans from Greenleaf and was blown away by both. This is the highest-priced hybrid I’m aware of, but you’re paying for extremely high quality in every area.
Girl Friday Books focuses on fiction for all ages as well as nonfiction books by subject-matter experts. Their editors are well-vetted, and they seem to have satisfied clients.
There may well be additional legitimate hybrids that have a stronger focus on fiction; because my editing practice is almost exclusively nonfiction, these are the ones I’m most familiar with.
When dealing with offers that sound too good to be true, listen to your Spidey senses, do your detective work and process with extreme caution.
Stay safe out there, and keep writing!