Looking Before You Rush In Where Angels Fear To Tread, and Other Mixed Metaphors

The following is a writing editorial originally penned for the Writers' Circle, on how to spot a scam:

You don’t need an agent.

Whoops, I already lost you, didn’t I? Get your buns back here and finish reading. Yes, I know. I heard that one a hundred times when I was an unpublished author striving for a crumb of reassurance that I was not kidding myself, and I discounted it as quickly as you just did. The agent opens the door to New York Magic, right?

The publishing world is huge and strange, and follows its own rules while making up new ones as it goes along. It is difficult to navigate it. But an agent makes it no better. And a bad agent can make it worse.

I’m starting off with agents because they are the easiest scam among those preying on authors. Here’s the way it works: Jimmy P. Sleaze with a Chicago or New York address contacts Beth, an unpublished writer. He says, “Hey, I love your work. Send me more and maybe we can do business.”

Beth sends in her work, happy and excited – someone has Discovered her! Then the letter comes back from Jimmy: “It’s very good, but it needs a polish before we send it to the three publishers I have dangling on a hook for it. We can send it to Janie Smith, she’s a friend of mine. She’ll do it for a fair fee.” Beth is disappointed that her work needs work, but still excited – after all, there are bumps on the road to success! She forks over the money. She also pays the bill from the agent for phone calls, copying charges, postage…

What Beth doesn’t know is that Jimmy Sleaze and Janie Smith are actually in this together and always have been. Jimmy has no connections in New York and Janie has no intention of doing anything substantive with the novel.

When Beth finally gets sick of being bounced back and forth between Jimmy and Janie, they’ll bring in Pat. Pat runs a “publishing” house, you see. It’s really just a web site and a P.O. box. Beth will happily sign a contract with Pat, satisfied that finally her investment of time and money with Jimmy and Janie has succeeded – she is an author at last!

While Beth is celebrating with family and friends, Pat has sent a badly-formatted PDF of her book, unedited and unread, to a POD chop shop somewhere in the U.S. Pat might put the book up on his web site, but I wouldn’t bet on it. There will be no ISBN. It will not be listed on Ingram or Baker & Taylor. You will not see it on Amazon.com. And of course, Beth never gets a penny. Depending on how carefully she read Pat’s boilerplate contract, she might not get the rights back to her own book for years, if ever.

You’re sitting there thinking, “It can’t happen to me.” Of course it can. When you get a moment, go to Brian Keene’s blog (http://hailsaten.blogspot.com) and scan down to his entry last week about how a man who ran around in a stork thong at conventions managed to convince several highly-respected horror authors – people already published by New York, mind you – to sign with his small press. And then proceeded to never pay them a cent.

Intelligent, published authors with savvy and the advice of brilliant survivors like myself have signed contracts with total losers and con artists, seeing their books vanish without ever breaking the surface of this publishing sea. It can be something as simple as never publicizing a book, “publishing” it without actually sending a copy to anyone. It can be as complex as Publish America, that enormous POD service that billed itself as a real publisher until the massive lawsuits convinced it to admit it accepts anything sent to it, unedited. You know how they finally caught Publish America? A group of respected authors sent them a “novel” in which each chapter was written by a different person, with no idea what the others were writing. One chapter was the same sentence, cut and pasted a thousand times. It was a shambles – and Publish America accepted it without reservation.

Let’s be clear – there is nothing wrong with a printing service. Lulu.com, CafePress… these folks are not publishers. They are printing services. If what you WANT is self-publication, go for it. This is not a treatise on self-pub vs. paid publication. That’s a different column.

What I’m talking about are people who pretend to be real, paying publishers but are actually scam artists using POD technology to masquerade as publishers. As far as I’m concerned, scammers who target unpublished writers have to be among the lowest on earth. If you’re going to scam someone, scam someone who actually HAS money.

So how do you tell? After all, POD is no longer the catchword to stop you. Most reputable small presses have managed to stay alive by using POD services. It’s simply cheaper to hire a good POD to do runs as small as 25 books at a time, rather than invest in a 2,000-book run that may or may not sell out.

For agents: your first stop is the Association of Authors’ Representatives (http://www.aar-online.org). Check to see if the agent talking to you is a member. If s/he is an AAR member, s/he has to abide by the organization’s code of ethics, and you can be assured s/he’s a real agent with real connections who is out to help your career, not scam you. Now, there are some reputable agents who are not members for whatever reason. That’s your first question: why aren’t you a member of AAR? Then you proceed to a list of questions helpfully available under the FAQ of AAR’s web site, mostly concerning their business practices. You ask these questions after establishing that this person is interested in representing you and BEFORE you sign anything. Honestly, if the agent found you on W.com, odds are it’s a scam.

Wait, you said I didn’t need an agent! That’s right, you don’t. I’m onto my fourth published book and I don’t have one. Most of the authors I know don’t have one. Most of the work you’ll do for your first few books you can do yourself, and without giving up 20 percent of what little money you’ll make. The cruelest joke is when an author has published a book or two and is tired of the constant marketing and sell-sell-sell required to make it in small-press publishing, so she signs with an agent. And discovers that agents don’t DO marketing. They do your contract negotiations and leverage you a better deal with New York. That’s it. Bookstore signings, conventions, web site, online promotion… it’s all on you, folks. But that’s also another column.

For publishers: First thing is to check out what they’ve already published. Buy a book. Contact the author and ask him or her how they were treated. What kind of promotion did they do? How heavy-handed was the editing? How long have they been in business? Can you find Piddledydump Books on Amazon.com? On Shocklines or other respected online booksellers? I wouldn’t worry too much if you can’t find them in Borders – getting into bookstores is a whole mess in and of itself, and many reputable small presses can’t get the big stores’ attention. Their loss. But if you can’t find their books ANYWHERE, including on their own web site, run away.

Then you read over the contract. And then you find a published author to read it for you. If you know a lawyer who has publication-rights experience, beg them to review it. You’re looking for things like who owns the copyright, because you should ALWAYS keep the copyright. Look for exactly which rights they get and which you keep – never sell all rights. Look for your royalty and how it’s computed – on net or gross, paid quarterly or biannually, etc. Look for provisions about your advance, author copies, discounts on future copies, etc.

A word about advances. Don’t be surprised if you don’t get offered one. That does NOT signal a scam. Most small press can’t pay royalties in this brave new world. They will offer you some free author copies, so take them and smile. The good news is, that means you’ll be getting checks from the first book you sell.

What you’re really looking for when scam-proofing your upcoming book deal is any sign that you will have to pay for ANYTHING. There’s lots of ways the bad guys will try to sneak past your Super-Deluxe Scam Blocker. They’ll tell you it’s totally free to you – but if you want an ISBN, you have to pay a little “extra.” They’ll say you can have a dull beige cover – or color artwork by an artist if you’re willing to pay a fee.

Run away from these people. They are scam artists. Pure and simple.

Rule No. 1: You Pay For Nothing.

The publisher signs the contract with you and gives you your advance (or not). The publisher pays for the typesetting, layout, setup fees, ISBN, artist fee, listing in various distributors, access fees to Amazon.com, everything. You. Pay. For. Nothing.

Exceptions: Your own marketing efforts – which better be legion if you’re going to have a prayer – and registering the copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office. Also, you’ll pay a highly discounted fee for your hand sales – selling the book yourself. That’s it.

(A word about copyright, while we’re on the subject: You keep the copyright, which is why you get to pay the copyright fee. Sometimes they’ll do it for you, if they’re nice, but sticking you with that fee is NOT the sign of a scam. But do not register your copyright until final publication. You’ll just end up having to do it again. Do not succumb to the paranoia of modern thievery that says if you don’t copyright your work someone will steal it. You own your work from the moment you put pen to paper, and no one you’re dealing with is going to steal it – it’s cheaper for them just to buy it than take the risk of swiping it.)

Now, remember our friend Beth? The one who fell into Jimmy and Janie and Pat’s well-laid trap? Well, it’s possible that Beth’s work isn’t totally perfect, you know. She might need a little help. So once she has wrested her manuscript away from them, she might end up sending it to a real agent – who tells her it needs editing before it can be published.

Beth goes running into the woods! Not again! Wait a second. Because this is a real agent, who didn’t tell her she had to send it to This Particular Editor. No scam here. There are plenty of editors out there who are perfectly capable, ethical and willing to help you turn your work into something salable. I do it myself – my editing service charges $1-4 a page, depending on the level of editing the customer wants. There are others, charging various fees for various services. If you do enough poking around, you can find someone capable of helping you. Look for experience in editing, not writing – any writer can claim to be an editor, but look at the typos in some recent books published by New York and you’ll know that’s not necessarily the case.

The moral of the story: Don’t jump at the first offer you get. Wait for the good ones. Do your homework. Ask around. Ask ME – I’m always willing to do a quick scam-check on contracts, services and agents. I’m not infallible, but I’ve got good connections. Or do it yourself – the Science Fiction Writers’ Association runs an invaluable service called Preditors and Editors, hosted by Anotherealm.com. It is your very first stop upon getting an offer from anyone. (http://www.anotherealm.com/prededitors/)

And remember: You. Pay. For. Nothing. That’s why they call it PAID publication.