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Publishers, Tramps and Thieves: How Not to Get Ripped Off By Author Scams

We just got back from Baltimore, where we were representing Beastsellers at Marques Ogden’s Ogden Speaking Academy, a two-day workshop and networking opportunity for budding professional speakers. We met some terrific people, but we also heard an infuriating number of stories about new authors who had been scammed and ripped off by unscrupulous operators whose business models are built around screwing starry-eyed writers out of their hard-earned cash by preying on their dreams of the bestseller list.

That makes us angry. We care about writers and hate to see thieves take advantage of them. Unfortunately, this sort of thing is sadly common. Why? Because for millions, writing and publishing a book is fraught with emotion. It’s a lifelong dream, a calling, or part of a new life path. When they come into the world of writing, agents, publishers and book marketing, they’re eager, naive and vulnerable—easy pickings for scammers selling worthless marketing packages and guaranteed bestseller strategies.

We take that sort of thing personally. So let’s look at the ways that new authors get ripped off, so that it won’t happen to you. And if you know someone who’s writing a book, share this with them so they can avoid the scams, too.

Scam #1: Sleazy Vanity Publishers. Also called subsidy presses, vanity presses will flatter you and tell you your book is wonderful, insist that it has bestseller potential, sell you a suite of overpriced editorial and marketing services, produce a crappy-looking book that they’ll overcharge you for, and never do anything to get your book in bookstores. In fact, you might not even get your books at all.

Vanities don’t have selection criteria for their books other than whether or not the author’s check clears. Some vanity presses are even part of larger legitimate publishers, such as Beacon (part of Hay House) and Archway (part of Simon & Schuster), and those houses can provide decent value for watchful authors. But vanity horror stories abound, with well-known names like Tate, Commonwealth, Vantage and more suddenly ceasing operations amid lawsuits and fraud accusations, and leaving many authors thousands of dollars poorer and without the books they were promised.

As with most areas of life, when someone is kissing your backside, you can be sure they’re also reaching for your wallet. Check out the invaluable Writer Beware from the Science Fiction Writers of America for lots of details on who to trust and who to avoid.

Scam #2: Agents who charge a fee. Other than a publishing deal, what every writer craves is a literary agent. After all, agents are the gatekeepers to the giant New York publishers that dominate the bestseller lists. They’re invaluable allies. They know the business, screen work for quality and commercial prospects, and know the players. A good agent is an author’s best friend.

However, the hunger of many authors to “get an agent” leads to abuse. We recently talked with 3 novice authors who paid “agents” $3,000 or more to have their books allegedly shopped to publishers. No legitimate literary agent will ever charge you a fee. Period. Anyone who offers to read your manuscript or book proposal, offer feedback or shop your book to publishers for a fee is a crook. Don’t walk—run. If you get a pitch from an agent and want to check them out, visit the excellent AgentQuery.com, the Web’s best destination for info on literary agents.

3. “Guaranteed Bestseller” services. The Internet runneth over with these con artists. They troll the authors of newly published books, then send enticing emails telling you that their “book scouts” recently found your book, think it has bestseller potential, and promise to make it a bestseller for the low, low price of…well, usually it’s at least $3,000. When we published our book, How to Sell a Crapload of Books, we even got hits from these crooks.

This will hurt some authors who hold their “bestseller” status close to their hearts, but being an Amazon category bestseller is not that big a deal. Amazon has thousands of book categories, sub-categories and sub-sub categories. It doesn’t impress anyone knowledgeable if your book was #1 for one day in a tiny category like Business & Money > Management & Leadership > Negotiating. Some clever marketers showed how easy it really is to get the label “Amazon bestseller” when they “published” a “book” consisting of one page: a photo of the author’s foot. Then they sold three copies and—bang! They were #1 in their micro-category. Read the whole story here.

The real bestseller lists are the ones that are hard to crack. The New York Times. Publishers Weekly. The Wall Street Journal. USA Today. They carry weight, and no Internet scam artist can help you hit them. Save your money.

#4. Unqualified ghostwriters. There’s no certification program for ghosts, so anyone can claim to be one. That means someone looking to break into this lucrative field could entice an inexperienced author looking for writing help with a rock bottom fee—$5,000 to write a 60,000-word manuscript, for example. That’s ridiculous. Top ghosts, the ones with multiple New York Times bestsellers to their names, charge $50,000 and up for the same thing, but they’re producing proven quality.

You get what you pay for. A $15,000 ghostwriter might produce a manuscript that you could take to Createspace, but what if your goal is to get an agent and a New York book deal? Not so much. Get referrals. Ask for samples and credits. Talk to clients.

5. Marketing agencies who sell you overpriced junk. Now that we run an author marketing firm, this is a sensitive spot. There are dozens of “marketing” agencies out there trying to separate writers from their cash in return for marketing packages that are largely useless. Some of the stuff these packages typically include:

  • A basic author website. These are usually cheapo sites built using a web host’s site building tool.
  • A press release. Yippee. If you’re a first-time author, 99% of the press doesn’t care about your book, so sending them a press release is a waste of time. For new authors, any press outreach that’s not highly targeted is pointless.
  • Bookmarks and business cards. Wow.
  • Social media. Social media is a big deal in the book world, but for it to work you have to update and post cool stuff—contests, surveys, videos, sample chapters, pre-order incentives—daily. Most book marketers will update your feeds once a week at best.

This stuff is turnkey—everybody gets the same package. Effective author platforms are built organically over time. You can’t shortcut this stuff.

6. “Book in a weekend” companies. Multiple companies sell programs, books and coaching packages promising that they can show you how to write a bestselling book in a weekend, 30 days, whatever. Here’s what that often involves:

  1. Come up with the outline for your book.
  2. Record yourself talking through each chapter.
  3. Have that recording transcribed.
  4. Voila! You have a manuscript!

Except that you don’t. You have a transcript, which is NOT the same thing. Writing a great book, like anything, takes time. Take your time and do it right.

As with anything in life, if it seems too good to be true, it is. Put your skeptic’s hat on when you venture into the world of publishing. The only dependable path to success involves learning, disciplined hard work, collaborating with good people, and taking smart risks.

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