The Artful Scam… Not!

by Gina Burgess

Most scams that authors and writers face are as old as Methuselah. A scam may have been updated to this digital age, but the con’s premise is the same.

I know we talked about literary agents and their worth a few weeks ago, but there are some scams that authors and writers face that need discussing. These are not limited to literary agencies. There are some bold-faced scams coming from supposed professionals in writing industry that need a bit of purifying light shed on them.

I was scammed years ago, and didn’t even know it. This “literary agency” replied to my query that the novel’s premise was intriguing, but new authors rarely wrote books worth publishing right off the bat.

I needed a critique of the manuscript and they would critique it page by page for $400. Foolishly, I did no research of this firm. I took them at their word that they had helped Norman Mailer get his first book published and it sold one million copies. Good. So I packed up my 300 page manuscript, clipped a check for $400 to it and mailed it off.

Six weeks later, and still no word from them, I mailed a letter questioning when I’d hear back from them. The following week I got a reply with two pages of suggestions and one page of why this story wouldn’t sell. Most of the suggestions were similar to, “Well, your lead character has an unlikely last name. No one is named Le Fleur.” He was in New York, what did he know of Cajun names? And, “the historical data here is too much. You need more story.” So, my year long stint in the State of Louisiana Public Library researching everything about the Civil War in Louisiana was for naught?

This was back in 1982 with no email, no websites, no real Internet. After the pain subsided a bit, I checked Writer’s Market. This “literary agency” wasn’t even listed in the book. Let this be a lesson you do not have to learn the hard way. Developmental editors are real helpers for authors, but literary agencies don’t critique manuscripts, and reading fees are a very strong indication you’re facing a scam artist.

Literary agencies sell you and your books to publishers. If they give you copious praise about your writing, and then recommend an editor to polish it for you (only one editor, mind you), the likelihood you’re facing a scam is strong. If your manuscript has great merit, it does not have to be edited before an agent sells it to the publisher. Traditional publishers have their stables of editors that will help you polish your book for publishing. Do your research before you ever let go of a single penny.

Co-investing scams – another term for vanity presses. I got a letter from a publisher in 1983 that loved my novel. I showed great promise as a romance novelist. But they already had a similar story in their line-up. If I subsidized their efforts to print and market my book, they would consider publishing my novel, but I needed to send them a check for $30,000 no later than the first of next month.

Some contests lead to heartbreak even though they are legal – There’s this contest, see? We want you to write a poem, story, article to submit, see? No submission fee, see? Sweet deal. Then you get a letter praising the quality of your poem, story, and/or article. Although it didn’t win a prize, it was worthy to be published in the anthology, which you can purchase for $49.95. It cost you nothing to submit and you get a book with your writing in it and now you can call yourself a published author. No royalties come your way, and the quality of the other writing in the book is probably not very good, and it could even be pornographic, but at last you are published. A blog is much cheaper, you have control over the content, and you can promote it in all the right places. You don’t have to pay any fees, but you don’t get any royalties, either.

Editors that charge you a reading fee, or a fee for editing a chapter so you can see how you take to their style of editing, are suspect. Most editors will give you a sample of their editing with your first five pages, or even a full chapter. Check out their website, make sure the editor you choose will treasure your author’s voice. Reputable editors welcome your questions and will give you phone-time to discuss their suggestions.

Rule of thumb: If something sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Of course God blesses us in many ways, and miracles do happen. Yet, do look that gift horse in the mouth; do yourself a favor and research.

Con’t from the newsletter:

Generic solicitations to represent you or to publish your work. The key is generic. Reputable agents and publishers may find your work in a review or some other promotion, read it, be impressed with it, and contact you sincerely wanting to work with you. You’ll know they’ve read your work because they’ll talk about it. But those generic letters, emails or phone calls (con artists can find you and your info; there is no such thing as private information anymore), wanting you to spend money on a trip to a book fair, or to spend money on anything related to printing, publishing, book covers, editing, etc. writer beware.

One of our members sent me a letter titled Beware of Ego Traps, and I have her permission to share it with you. Do you recognize this scam?

I am Fay Risner, an independent author. Over the years, I’ve built up a fan base for my books. The positive comments from readers please me and bolster my ego. I have email contact with many of the people who buy my books. Sometimes, we chat about what is going on in our lives. We have become cyberspace friends. Some of them send me Christmas cards. It makes me smile when the card says Merry Christmas followed by when will your next book be ready to buy. Don’t forget to put me on your mailing list. The feedback from people after they read my books let me know they enjoy my writing. That spurs me on to self-publish another book.

Years ago, I came across a list of one hundred and fifty agents that I could email three chapters of a manuscript. I did it. I had many replies from agencies that didn’t handle Amish romance fiction. Five agents replied they liked my story but had as many authors as they could handle at the moment. They had to turn me down. That was my first and last try to find an agent. I have remained independent with my bookstore online and my books for sale in the usual places. I became a legit publisher and published two books for relatives. In each of my books is written Booksbyfay Publisher with my email address. Not too hard to do a little searching, and anyone who is interested can find my phone number.

In May of last year, I found a message on my answering machine from a man who said he was a marketing agent for a publishing company. The company’s name was muffled, but the man’s name and his phone number weren’t. He said his book scout pointed out one of my books in a foreign language had potential. The agent stumbled over pronouncing the title of the book and apologized for that.

For one second, I thought the man wanted to talk to me about being my agent. Before I called him back, I decided to google the man’s name and research him. His name would be connected to the publisher he worked for so I would have that information, too. You would think the head marketing agent for a publisher would be easy to find. He wasn’t so I ignored the call.

Now fast forward to August of last year. Another marketing agent called and left a message. I clearly heard the publishing company, his name, and phone number. This agent wanted to discuss the same book the previous agent was interested in. His book scout told him the book had potential. Much of what the man said sounded as if he used the same script the other agent used. More google searches and I came up empty handed so I ignored the call. That is until I answered the phone one day and found I was talking to the agent. He said foreign books were in demand. He wanted me to fly to Miami, Florida to a book fair and talk to people about my book. I listened politely, and my answer was no. He didn’t estimate what this promotional trip was going to cost me or what I would owe his company and him. As we talked, he brought up my books on Amazon. Maybe if I wasn’t interested in the trip, I might hire his company to publish my books and make my book covers. I declined. So far, I am out very little upfront by publishing at Create Space and designing my own covers. The agent wasn’t ready to give up on me yet. He said he might call back. I said I’d be glad to talk to him, but my answer would still be no. He hasn’t called.

Recently, a woman agent from California called. Her book scout pointed out one of my western books had potential. She asked if I knew Amazon was giving my book a favorable ranking. I said no, but I didn’t bother to point out to her that book hasn’t sold a copy in years. The rank on Amazon would match my book’s no sales. She wanted me to go to a book fair in New York. I could meet someone who wanted to turn the book into a movie? I shouldn’t pass up the chance to promote the book. I’d only be paying a share of the expenses. She didn’t say what the dollar amount might be. I told her I wasn’t interested several times. Finally, she asked if she could send me her proposal by email so I could look at it since she went through the information fairly fast. I said sure. I’d like a chance to look at what she emailed me. That proposal didn’t come. This was a friendly, persuasive young woman I was talking with, but I politely said no thank you. Did I believe her sales pitch about my western with the great ranking getting published or made into a western? My thought was she needed her book scout to have suggested one of my other books if the agent wanted to sound credible. Anyone can look up the ranks for their books on Amazon and find out she wasn’t telling the truth. Besides, western movies are rare these days. A scriptwriter would have to work hard to turn my G-rated western book into a manuscript a movie producer would approve for today’s western movies. So my final words were thank you for calling, but I’m not interested. Right away I googled the agent and her publisher. This time I found the company has a site, and the agents are noted for their scams so stay away from them.

If you, the writer, didn’t contact an agent about a manuscript, beware of agents that call you and seem eager to help you sell your book. You will hear repeated phrases like great rating on Amazon, book scout, book fair, no limit to the book’s potential even a movie. If you are interested, ask the agent questions. Hang up and research the agent and publisher. You can always call them back if you decide they are legit.

My last words to the agent from California was though I had to turn her down, I’d be sure to tell others that an agent called me. That’s what I’m doing. Although, I’m afraid I mislead the agent to think my conversations about her call were only going to be with family and friends.

So have you ever been sucked into a similar scam? Ever find yourself in a quagmire of a scam and can’t shake yourself free? What happened? What did you do?

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31 thoughts on “The Artful Scam… Not!”

  1. Regarding scams, when I was querying for my first novel I found an agent who wanted to represent me. She loved my manuscript and was eager for me to sign a contract. There were some red flags at the beginning, because she misspelled some words in her correspondence. She also wanted to do further editing for which I would be charged. I researched her and found that she had a poor reputation. I declined her offer of representation as I knew that publishers would not want to work with her and my manuscript would go nowhere. I eventually self published and will continue to do so. If an agent wants to charge for anything, beware.

  2. I’ve been around the block now for years and being a lawyer I can spot res flags right away. What I have to share not necessarily a scam, but a warning. Agencies are starting to add some tricky clauses about self publishing. My last agent changed agencies and when it reviewed hee hee agency agreement I almost choked. They had a whole paragraph that said if they fail to sell the book, keyword they dont do their job, and u finally end up self pubbing your title, they get 15% of your self published royalties for perpetuity . Now if you are like me and you have a solid self sustaining self publishing career, all I can say is hell no. They want money for a book they couldn’t sell that I ended up selling myself and a self pub title. They claimed it was for all the hard work done to try and sell. In this business agents shouldn’t be paid for trying. If I self publish a book and it doesnt sell to readers, Amazon doesnt send me a 15 % check for failure. I will never sing something like that but I am hearing more and more about agents who are updating their contracts with that clause to collect 15% of they fail to self and you have to self publish. It’s wrong and writers should be on their guard.

  3. While trying to get books published and scripts turned into movies.. – I have run across many scams – Worst one was from Ingram – their division that self publishing.. They read it – liked it BUT it need copious editing and they would market it all for 50K.. then on after another – agents – self-publishers all with their hands out.. It’s all a rip off.. I finally did find one that I used.. they were helpful and I got my book out.. – but they weren’t and aren’t without their issues.. it’s a bizarre – tough biz – you have to love to write to deal with it..

    1. This is precisely why I indie publish through CreateSpace. The same thing happened to me with Thomas Nelson’s Westbow press. Every thing is “extra” and costs more from writing press releases to getting changes in the text to any help with marketing (and I had to do ALL my own marketing). On top of all that, I only received pennies in royalties from my $17.99 book. My first royalty check was for $1.70. I’d rather do the work and get all the royalties than do the work and get only a percentage of the royalties.

  4. Thank you for your article Gina. I was recently the victim of a scam. I mistakenly thought I was pretty aware of potential scams. I am a non-fiction writer who wrote a book on caregiving. I do speeches and workshops. I was contacted to participate in a day long conference on caregiving. I was told I could have a book table at a fee of course which is not unusual. There was the possibility of buying ad time and a couple of other things which I did not do. I even saw a website and brochure for the conference. I paid for the book table. It never occurred to me that this could be bogus. I arrived at the hotel and was told the conference was cancelled and would be rescheduled. When I went back to the website to see the new date it was gone. I traced my check and learned it had been cashed at a check-n-go in Ohio. Make sure the events you sign up for as authors or speakers are genuine…

    1. Oh, hearing about that kind of con makes my blood boil! That really was a scam. My book was chosen to be on a table at a Women of Faith conference. I was so sure it would take off like a shot after that kind of exposure. I paid for ebook cards to be given away. It was expensive, but well worth the exposure. All 25 cards were given away, but not one card was “cashed” in. Not one. I don’t believe it was a scam, but I do believe that IF I’d been there, where I could have been more discriminate about who got the card, more cards would have been used to get my book.


    Hello Everyone!
    No, we have not been 💤 but it seems that the 😜😜 con men think we are! We 😍 our craft which makes us susceptible. I got scammed by OUTSKIRTS PRESS when they wanted go market my first book (Kurt, Gert, Jazmine, and Bagel (WEBSITE: in Europe for the Children’s Book Fairs. Well having paid money for all 3 fairs…THEY PUT OUR BOOKS ON A SHELF. THIS IS A LAZY PERSON’S WAY OF MARKETING THAT IS ALL TOO COMMONPLACE. THIS IS EASY STEALING🎄🎄! WE DID OUR WORK…NOW DO YOURS LIKE A PRO.
    Irene, Author

    1. Amen, Irene! I often wonder how some of these “promoters” get away with stuff like that. However, we writers work so hard to get our books in a retail bookstore, and voila! Our books just sit on the shelves. ACK!

  6. I was scammed as well, when I first began. I paid out $3,200 just to take my story back. The only books i sold were from my own stock and they were filled with errors! I’ve learned so much since then and won’t ever be duped again.

  7. I, too, was scammed back before we had Internet. I sent money to Edit Ink to do an editing job and to have them send it to a publisher. Needless to say, this was my first experience with the writing world.
    Since then, I refuse to pay for publishing any work. As an English teacher, I am well aware of how to edit a work. Especially after editing papers for 26 years.
    I will save the money and continue using it for ink to print my manuscripts.

    1. Totally hear you, John!

      This is a bit off track, but I’m wondering what you do to edit your own work? I used to read each paragraph backwards when we didn’t have a proofreader at my newspaper. I was so glad when we finally got one, though, because I can’t seem to edit my own work well.

      1. I think it’s normal not to be able to edit our own work well. It was our artist who pointed out that I’d mixed up the two spaghettis in “Scissortown,” and who helped to smooth over a plot hole in “Marie and Mr. Bee.” My husband added two verses to “Little Bunny’s Own Storybook.” We know what we mean; others see what we write. Good editing helps us merge the two!

        1. That’s what I’ve come up against. Although, working at the newspaper there were some errors that were eyeopening. I published what was supposed to be the breast cancer research center’s 800#, but actually published a phone sex 800#. My boss could say anything to me though, because he boo-booed when he put the word “sexciting” before the phone number. LOL

  8. Cicely van Straten

    W-E-L-L! I see there are advantages to being in little ‘backwoods/backward’ South Africa. We’re only one eighth the size of the US and about 30 years behind in publishing. Now I reap the advantages of being backward: by the time I started checking out overseas agents there were ample warnings from those who’d gone before and we knew what to look out for. But the experiences you folk have shared here have taught me to tread very warily as regards those offering `publicity/duplicity’. Thank you all so much for sharing!

  9. I have been “pestered” with calls from a company wanting to publish one of my books in a series. They didn’t even choose the first one. That told me they had not done their research. It was obviously a scam. They don’t give up easily- sometimes it is a man who calls and at others it is a woman’s voice.
    I have realized over the years if I want a book published I make it happen. I have tamed my ego, toughened my feelings and I write for the pure joy of it. You are eating your time, scammers.

  10. Plenty of scams, and plenty of jams—some less than ethical folks are in the slammer today for peddling funky services. Remember an old expression: There’s an ass for every seat, and of course, the great, “One Born Every Minute,” line. It took me nearly seven years to get an agent. Query after query and sample chapters, and the usual “too busy,” line. The best advice I got was from a seasoned author/screenwriter: NEVER pay anyone to hustle your work. Agents get a cut (usually 10%) from sales. The jokers who sell agenting services pepper the websites with ads that ultimately lead the mark to some sharpie fly-by-night who won’t do diddly. On the bright side is the fact that publishing a book can be free through services like Createspace. Then again, folks are not going to be lining up to shell out bank for a self-published ‘masterpiece’ regardless of how well edited it is by an unknown.

    Skip the pay to edit scam, it’s useless if you’re self-publishing. Book marketing, whether self done, or picked up by one of the Big Four means you’ve got to be out there hustling. Skip the ‘sales funnels, and click banks,’ and run from the marketing gurus who usually have some screwy agenda that’ll set you so far back you’ll puke every time you consider another project. Just write, edit, and rewrite, again and again.

    Keep querying and keep writing. Ignore the weasels selling ‘publishing services’ and maybe you’ll get what you want. Then again, if you’re not out there, that self-published material you shared with your friends and relatives who “loved it” won’t go much further than a small circle of readers. Be prepared to feel crappy with every rejection. One of the grand gifts of the universe is that no matter how well you do, bad reviews, nasty comments, and rejections sting as though they were the first.

    1. Oooo, D.D., I feel your pain and frustration! You are exactly right about agents and those vanity presses that take your money, produce a book for you and then keep calling you every month to sell you another service, but don’t market your book. That kind of “publishing” is actually printing and they take a lot of your royalties without doing much in return.

      However, I do have to take exception to the pay-to-edit. There are lots of experience, reputable, credible people who are super editors and will help that self-published author to produce a wonderfully readable book. Editors not only help the author produce a good product, also help authors to become better writers. Self-publishing is a very lonely environment. Without good editors and beta readers, an author can’t be as objective as needs be.

      A professional editor helps the author:
      1. have a cohesive, coherent story without plot holes.
      2. have 3-dimensional characters that are not cookie-cutter in dialogue and mannerisms (this happens a LOT!)
      3. clear up awkward sentences and paragraphs. This helps have a story flow that zings along rather than falls flat in a deep pool of stagnant water.
      4. remove those scales from his/her eyes that keeps him/her from seeing flaws in the plot, the characters, the story premise AND to overcome the flaws.
      5. accomplish a myriad of things conducive to great storytelling.

      This does NOT mean that a manuscript is worthy of submitting to an editor after one draft or even 2nd draft. An author needs to have the manuscript as near perfect as possible so that the editor can have a good feel for the authors voice, and then edit while keeping the author’s voice intact.

      D.D., you hit the mark about persevering in the endeavors of marketing, writing, drafting and redrafting. Getting what you write published and noticed is really hard work, and not every writer is cut out for the job.

  11. I don’t mean to sound rude or cruel, but authors need to be aware of what is truly legitimate in this industry! Before I even submitted anything I lurked for a year on yahoo writing groups and learned all the basics. YOU have to research this industry before you send anything anywhere or even sign a “contract.” I just celebrated 10 years in publishing and have had a trilogy, several short stories, and another new series; each publisher was completely legitimate. There are sites that list agents, sites where you can commune with other authors, everything you need is there and available usually for free. It’s like anything else, you have to study before you can pass the test.

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