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General Guidelines & Tips on Avoiding Scams

by Andrew Burt (Critters, P&E)

There are too many scams out there, so as a reduction of my experiences running Preditors&Editors, here are some general guidelines and tips to keep in mind when searching for publishers, agents, artists, contests, editors, etc.:

  1. Yog's Law: Money flows to the author.
  2. Generally speaking, people who hope to make money from sales of your work — should pay you.

    Be careful with your assets — your money and your publication rights. Don't part with either too easily. This definitely applies to self-publishing as well.

    Publishers/agents that charge fees to publish/read your work are to be avoided. Publishers should pay you; not the other way around. Agents get paid when they sell your book; you shouldn't pay them.

    Well, let's back up a bit: First, know what your goal is. For most authors, the goal seems to be "to make money." That's reasonable. That's what being a professional author is about. In which case, see above. However, if your goal is, "I don't want money, I just want to get as many people as possible to read my work," then you may be comfortable paying. In which case, see point 2 below. In academic circles, a goal may be "to show a strong record of publishing in prestigious venues to get tenure, get a promotion, raise, etc." Many academic publishers charge authors, possibly because they have very small circulation and can't cover costs otherwise, or possibly just because they can get away with it. Again, in this case, see point 2 below.

    If your goal is to make money, then see how much money you're going to get from the publishers. Big publishers pay money up front, called an "advance," and pay "royalties" on each sale (typically a percent of each sale). The advance is pre-payment of your per-sale royalties, and is often their best guess how much money your book will ever make (and thus you may never "earn out" and get more money). Smaller publishers may not pay advances, just the royalties on each sale. Smaller publishers may pay higher royalty percentages (larger publishers may feel the prestige of being published by them means they can pay lower royalties). In any event, the money should flow toward you. Reputable publishers don't charge you fees. They do the work at their cost, and hope you both make lots of money from sales. It's not uncommon to submit to the highest paying markets first, and work one's way down to the smaller ones (including self-publishing, wherever you calculate that fits in).

    Actual book preparation is not difficult, so marketing is one of the most important tasks the publisher does for you to generate sales. Marketing is very difficult and not guaranteed, but in general the more marketing a publisher does for you (that you don't pay for), the more sales you're likely to have. (Viewed in this light, it is essentially marketing when a major publisher gets copies of your book placed on tens of thousands of physical bookstore shelves where passing reader eyeballs may see it. They may do more marketing if you're lucky, such as sending out copies to reviewers they hope will write reviews, paying for store displays, ads in appropriate places, book tours, etc.) Smaller publishers or self-publishing typically can't accomplish all this. (But may offer a larger royalty percentage, so that over the sales lifetime of the book you may see fewer sales yet earn as much or more — predicting what's best is an extremely difficult question.) What marketing they'll do for you (at their cost) is a large part of why you choose one publisher over another. Thus, a publisher asking you to pay for marketing or other costs is a huge red flag.

    Editors: If they work for the publisher, the publisher pays them; not you. However, if you decide you need to hire an outside editor (one who doesn't work for your publisher) because you feel your work needs help, you would have to pay them. (In which case see point 2.) But note that most professional authors don't hire outside editors; they do their own writing and editing.

    Be especially wary of publishers who suggest you hire some specific outside editor or other type of service. (Note this is different than if an editor/publisher rejects your submission and says they don't believe your work is ready for prime time, and you need help, but they don't recommend anyone. Then they have no financial interest in who you hire, so that would smell legit.) If a publisher tries to steer you toward specific other services, then they may have ulterior motives not in your best interest. A common ploy is "I'll publish your book if you just pay editor XYZ to make it better." Many people have been scammed by paying (a no-no in itself), then the publisher backs out (adding insult to injury).

    Cover artists: As with editors, if you work with a real publisher, the publisher pays for the cover work, not you. If you are self-publishing, you pay. (Move on to step #2...)

    Movie producers who want to make a film of your work: Should pay you for the right. You don't pay them. Watch out for "if you pay to hire a scriptwriter..." — nope. Filmmakers hope to profit from making a movie out of your story, so they pay you.

    Contests: Don't pay an entry fee. Unless it's a highly reputable contest with amazing prizes. (Even then...)

    Publicists, and other non publisher/agent services may charge fees if you choose to use them. (Since they don't earn money from the sale of your work, they have to get paid somehow.) For example, if you're going to self-publish your book, and want to hire a cover artist, you have to pay. (If you work with a publisher, they pay.) But be wary of people who stand to make money off a recommendation.

    Workshops: There are many excellent free ones. Some others charge. If the free ones don't do it for you and the pay ones check out, that's your call.

    Okay, if Yog's Law is in order, then:

  3. Verify that they have a solid track record.
  4. If you're hooking up with a publisher, see if you recognize any of the names of the authors they publish, look at what books they've published, and check out how well they sell: Amazon's "Sales Rank" is a useful tool here.

    The sales rank is in the info section about the book. The bestselling book is #1, and they go into the many millions. As of this writing, ranks under a million are selling some copies. No rank means no copies have sold yet. Foner Books has an article that estimates sales based on the ranking.

    Look at the sales rank for books that you know and love that sell well (or comparable to how you envision yours selling), and note what kind of numbers they are. Look at the sales rank for a bunch of books from the publisher you're considering. If the publisher isn't able to sell many copies of their books, think what that suggests for your book.

    If they're brand new to the scene with no track record, you're really just rolling the dice. Consider that only a small percent of new businesses make it.

    Agents: Same thing — see who they represent (anyone you recognize?), what books they say they've sold for them, and how those books are doing on Amazon. (If they only sell books to small publishers who don't get many copies sold, what does that imply if they represent you and your book?)

    Editors: If you're paying an outside editor because you really feel you need to, again, see what books they've edited and how they've done.

    Movie producers: What films have they actually produced? Anything you've heard of? How'd they do at the box office?

    Contests: If you're thinking of paying an entry fee, what do you find about the past winners of the contest? How have they and their winning books/stories done?

    Publicists, etc.: Same drill: Who have they helped (anyone you recognize?) and how have they done for them?

    Cover artists for self-publishing — look at samples of their work, other covers they've done.

    Check out the reputation on the web of places/people you intend to work with. Lots of reports of problems is not a good sign.

  5. Price shop.
  6. If you've decided to pay for a specific service and you identify some reputable places, compare prices. They can vary wildly for the same service. (Likewise, shop around on royalty rates from publishers, which can also vary wildly.) If all your candidates are high quality, paying more is no guarantee of better results.

  7. If there's a lot of money on the line, try to start small and have milestones.
  8. If some place you're thinking of working with checks out #1-3 above, still be wary of putting a bunch of money and time up front. See if you can start small. This is hard with a publisher you're choosing (they can't publish part of your book), but for outside editors you feel you need to hire, or publicists, etc., see if you can do small bits for small bucks to see how it works out.

    Try to set milestone payments, if you can. Maybe a little up front (but not too much, in case they do nothing for you), a bit more on completion of some middle tasks, and the balance after completion.

    For example, if you really aren't able to edit your own writing and feel the need to hire an outside editor, that can cost a lot of money. Try to pay by chapters they do, for example, so you can see the quality of their work. For cover artists for self-publishing, milestones might be preliminary sketches, nearly-but-not-completely done art, etc.

    Set deadlines for each step, and keep an eye on those deadlines for services you work with. The worst case is to pay a bunch of money up front and get nothing for it.

  9. Have a concrete, signed, written agreement.
  10. P&E hears many horror stories from authors who started with some service, such as an editor, the the editor (or whoever) is slow to respond, they say it's more complicated than they thought, they say in order to finish they need more money...

    Don't be one of those stories. If you have a concrete agreement in place before you start, written and signed, you're less likely to have issues.

    An agreement also helps ensure both parties understand the expectations of the other. So be sure your agreement covers what each party will do, when, and for how much. If they balk at getting specific, red flag warning.

    If a lot of money is involved, it should spell out what cases let you terminate the agreement or even get a refund.

  11. A note on "Hybrid" publishers.
  12. A current trend seems to be for publishers who charge authors money (or otherwise profit from authors, recommend specific services, etc.) to call themselves "hybrid" publishers. Everything said above applies to "hybrid" publishers too. If the author is paying them money (in whatever form that takes), the publisher is losing their incentive to make money from sales. Let's be clear, this is all about risk management: The publisher who has to foot the bill for all the production and distribution work is the publisher who has to hustle to sell copies of the book to recoup their investment and make a profit. Remove the risk of losing money, and the need to hustle to sell copies (how the author makes money) goes away.

    So publishing with a hybrid means when push comes to shove, they don't have to try to sell your book, no matter what they say or how much they hope to.

    When P&E talks to many of these hybrid publishers and asks why they are hybrid instead of 100% aligning with the author so you both earn money only from book sales, to sink or swim together, their frequent reply is, "But we couldn't make money if we didn't charge authors. We'd go out of business." Er, right, that's the problem. If the publisher really doesn't anticipate making money from selling copies of your books, that means they don't anticipate you'll make money either.

    Despite best intentions: A publisher who must sell copies for authors in order for the publisher to make a living is going to earn authors more than one who only wants to sell the author's books.

    The hybrid model is good for the publisher—not for the author.

    (On the flip side, the publisher who has their skin in the game because they paid for all the costs is also a publisher who has to be much more selective: They will want to choose books they think they can make money on, and say no to books they don't believe they can make money on. However, if an author can't find a non-fee-charging publisher, it would make sense for that author to explore self-publishing, and paying competitive flat rates for specific services they don't want to do themselves. The hybrid model appears to be the worst of both worlds: paying costs up front and giving up a share of royalties from sales.)

    Just know what you're getting into, and be wary of "hybrids." There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.

  13. Remember there are scammers out there, hoping to part fools from their money.
  14. Don't let dreams of bestsellerdom blind you to some scammer's wiles. Hopefully the information elsewhere on the site and the web can help you sift the wheat from the chaff.

    Getting published and selling a gazillion copies isn't easy, but it's a lot easier if you avoid the obvious pitfalls. Good luck!


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