I admit that I am a court TV junkie. I love Judge Judy, The People’s Court, and all those other shows that are lower on the televison food chain than daytime soap operas.
I can’t help myself. They’re just so fun.
Today I watched an episode of The People’s Court where a woman sued a “publisher” for not following through on the contract to publish her books. The “publisher” was a complete jackass the entire time, and of course he WAS defrauding her and not following through on what he was supposed to have done. The ISBN wasn’t even correct on the books–it belonged to another book entirely!
This episode made me so angry–at both the faux publisher AND the author. Sure, what this guy did was reprehensible, but the author does hold some responsibility for not doing her homework. Preditors are everywhere, and they are especially rampant within the publishing industry. It is really easy to get overwhelmed when searching for an agent/publisher, and it is even easier to fall prey to a scam agent/publisher especially as desperation grows and the rejections pile higher and higher.
Below, I’m going to write about some of these scame agents/publishers and ways to spot and avoid them. This is based purely on the research I’ve done as an individual, and i suggest you do your own reseach before beginning the querying/submission process as I am in no way an expert.
Let’s start with agents, because generally they are where you’ll start when attempting to secure a legit (and commercial) publishing contract. Not every agent is reputable, and although there are a few soldiers policing the industry, (such as the awesome people over at Absolute Write) it may take some time before a scam agent is found out. Therefore, it is really important to be able to spot the signs of a scam agent before you get taken for a ride.
So, how do you spot a scam/incomptent agent, and what is the difference between the two?
1) A scam agent is an agent that is going to take your money and never sell your book. They have no sales to major houses, and chances are that they never will. An incompetent agent really wants to be a good agent, but they don’t know how or don’t have the skills. Maybe they don’t have any contacts within the industry or just don’t know how to play the publishing game. Either way, a bad agent is actually worse than having no agent at all.
2) Does the agent charge an up front “reading” or “processing” fee or any other kind of fee before they are willing to read or allow you to submit your manuscript? If so, then this agent is NOT a reputable agent. Chances are, they’re making their money off of these reading fees as opposed to the sale of books to publishing houses. In other words, they’re probably going to take your money and then never sell your book. At the end of your contract, you’ll be out a whole lot of money and have nothing to show for it. Remember this sentence, and repeat it to yourself any time you’re tempted to “take a chance” on a agent that charges fees, “An agent doesn’t get paid until I do.”
3) Does the agent charge a yearly fee to continue to agent you? If so, then they are probably a scam agent.
4) Does the agent charge a larger than industry standard cut from your profits? 15% is industry standard for domestic, and 20% is standard for international. Anything above and beyond that is NOT standard, and you should be wary of working with someone who asks for more money than other agents. Why are they asking for more money? Are they not able to make a living charging the industry standard?
5) If the agent doesn’t want to talk on the phone with you, that’s not a good sign. An agent should call you to offer representation. You should have the opportunity to speak with them and ask questions. Sometimes, if you live close to the agent (say, in NYC) they may ask for a face-to-face meeting. However, a phone call is perfectly sufficient and is the general way agents offer representation.
6) Can the agent prove a strong track record of sales to publishing houses? Be wary of an agent that cannot produce a decent tract record. If the agent refuses to release that information (they may say they won’t give you any info until you sign) then that is a red flag. If they say that they’re a new agent and don’t have any sales, ask them if they are coming from another reputable agency with sales. They should be coming from somewhere within the business, whether it is from another agency or from the publishing side. In addition, be wary if they can produce sales only from small houses or e-publishers. There is nothing wrong with publishing through a small house/e-publisher. However, most of these small houses and e-publishers (even many e-pub imprints of larger houses) don’t require an agent to submit to them. The whole point of having an agent is to secure a commercial publisher. If he or she cannot prove a record of sales, chances are that they are not an agent you want to work with. That doesn’t mean that even the best agent will always be able to sell your book. Sometimes you’ll write three or four or five books before one sells. But a legit agent will never stop trying at least until your contract is up.
7) Writer Beware’s 20 Worst Agents: many of these agents/agencies are now defunct, with the exception of the Barbara Bauer Literary Agency. However, this guide will give you specific information about what a scam agent/agency looks like.
So, let’s say you’ve decided not to go with an agent. You’ve decided to find a publisher on your own. How do you know that the publisher you’re interested in submitting to is legit?
1) Just as with a legit literary agent, a legit publsher will never ask you for money up front. Money should always flow TO the authot, not away from them. There are a few different types of publishers:
a) Commercial publishers: like Random House, Simon and Schuster, Penguin, etc. These are the houses that will not allow you to submit with out an agent. I’m not necessarily saying this is the best or only way to go about publishing. However, for many writers, being published by one of these major houses is the ultimate goal. These are the houses that pay an advance, market your book, and the whole reason you want to find a literary agent.
b) Independent publishers: Samhain, Turner, Belle Books, etc. These publishers are reputable, but generally allow unagented authors to submit to them. They may or may not pay an advance. It is always important to have someone (preferably a lawyer) who is well-versed in intellectual property law look over any contract that is offered to you, especially if you are unagented.
c) Vanity publishers. These publishers charge a fee to publish your book They are not selective. They will pretty much publish anyone willing to pay them for their service.
Let’s say that you’re NOT interested in a vanity publisher. Let’s rule them out for the sake of this segment.
2) A legit publisher will not expect you to buy several copies of your own book, even at “deep discount”.
3) A legit publisher will not expect you to do all the marketing for your book on your own.
4) A legit publisher will provide an advance OR a decent royalty rate, preferably both, and often you’ll be given a choice between an advance or a higher royalty rate. Remember, an adavnce is simply an advance against royalites.
5) Writer Beware’s Thumbs Down Publishers List: I feel like it is extremely important to note that there are MULTIPLE threads about how horrible Publish America is. They are the subject of MULTIPLE law suits, and they have a HORRIBLE reputation among writers. PLEASE do not fall viction to the Publish America scam. They are TERRIBLE, will take your money, and won’t sell your book. They accept everyone. While Publish America is not the only publishing scam, they are certainly the largest.
6) There is a difference between self-publishing (say, through CreateSpace) and paying a vanity publisher to publish your book. Years ago, self-publishing was looked down upon. Nobody wanted to take self-published authors seriously, and it wasn’t considered a legitimate avenue for publishing. However the times…they are a changin’. The stigma once attached to self-publishing is no longer what it was. Be advised, self-publishing is not for the faint of heart. It might seem like the “easy” way to publish, but if you choose to self-publish you must also be willing to market and sell your own book. You must be willing to work, and work hard. Most self-publishing authors are not successful, and I don’t think that’s because they’ve not written a decent book. I think it is because they don’t know how to market the decent book they’re written. Self-publishing is HARD WORK, and you must be willing to go the extra mile.
A few good resources: Absolute Write, SFWA, AAR, Writer Beware, Publishers Marketplace, Agenty Query, Query Tracker, Query Shark, Preditors & Editors.