books with Athena

books with Athena

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Beware the Seven Deadly Writing Scams


We first ran into Lila Moore's scam-alerts at The Passive Voice. We visited her new watchdog site, PopularSoda.com and were impressed with all her savvy advice. Indie publishing has generated lots of new money-wasters and scams. Popular Soda adds an indie-focused viewpoint to other author-advocate voices like Writer Beware and Preditors and EditorsWhether you're traditionally published or indie, the following tips can help you avoid wasting your money, creative property, and time. 

Seven Deadly Scams
by Lila Moore


These days, writers face a range of scams from mildly annoying to lethal. Deadly scams are ones which can destroy your bank account, your credibility, or your ability to profit from your work. Not all of these scams are perpetrated solely by malicious outsiders: some of these scams only work because the authors themselves are complicit and some of these scams are perpetrated by the authors themselves.

Here are the Seven Deadly Scams-- and how to avoid them.

1. Investing in Internet Points

Internet points can be anything from fake Twitter followers to a bump in your Klout score to more incoming links, or even paying to publish your work on a website highly ranked by Alexa  To be clear, these are not things which encourage audience participation or even simulate the appearance of it. These are simply number bumps.

So what's so bad about this? It's backwards. Why would you pay for the appearance of engagement instead of actually engaging your audience? 

You're spending real money to fill a stadium with cardboard cutouts. 

An inflated number of Twitter followers does not create an equal increase in sales. A higher Klout score does not upgrade your level of fan devotion. It is mistaking the menu for the meal. The numbers don't really matter: readers do. And if you're providing value, connections, and fun for your audience, the numbers will follow.

2. Paying for Fake Book Reviews

There's been a lot of discussion about paid positive reviews since the NY Times' "The Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy".  For me, part of the shock was realizing that fake reviews can and have been effective. 

Positive, paid-for reviews worked for top-selling authors like John Locke. As a beginning author, you don't have the luxury of millions of sales and hundreds of fans. Being exposed for scam reviews can quickly catapult you into ebook notoriety.

Your career might benefit from the scandal. Or it may take a dive and never recover.

Using fake reviews can kill off your credibility quickly*, and you’ll also lose the perks of real feedback: readers get a full understanding of your work, and you, as a writer, benefit from new opinions on your writing.

It doesn't make sense from a moral standpoint, but it also doesn't make sense from a monetary perspective. 

Positive reviews are expensive (they can be $100 each!) and there's no guarantee that you'll recoup the cost in sales. Take that money and put it towards editing, or a trip to a writing conference, or creative writing classes at a local college. Investing in yourself will help you grow as a writer; paying for positive book reviews only guarantees growing the reviewer's bank account.

(*Editor's note: Lila has a great post today with examples of real scam reviews and how to spot them. Also note: paying for negative reviews of "rival" authors is even worse. It's not just morally reprehensible but can destroy your career if you're found out. Beware ALL review mills.) 

3. Giving Away First Rights for a Cheap Prize

Writers (or anyone, really) can be dazzled by flashy graphics and promises of publication, monetary prizes, and the glory of winning an award. However, you need to make sure the award is worth winning. Prizes can range from simple publication on a website to a thousand-book print run. That print run sounds like a pretty good prize. The shout-out on the website is not.

Here's why: First rights are incredibly important in publishing. Many large publications will not accept work that has already been published elsewhere, and a post on a blog counts as "elsewhere". If you're entering a contest or submitting to a publication, you need to be okay if that story never garners anything more than a token payment (if that) and an appearance in an unknown journal.

This seems pretty above-ground, so where does the scam fit in? First, some companies are intentionally misleading about what rights they are using. They may claim you will retain all rights to your work. This is impossible: you cannot be published and still retain first rights to the writing. Some journals have both print and electronic editions, which effectively means you're giving up both first rights and first electronic rights in one go. Some publications request all rights, which means you can never again profit from the piece and the publishing company will own it. Despite this, certain publications use overblown rhetoric to persuade you to sign over your rights for a few shekels and a smile. 

Be smart. There's no downside for the publisher here: they can continue to profit from books, back issues, anthologies, and website traffic while giving up virtually nothing. Make sure you know exactly what you're giving up and what that means for the future. Aim your sights high and readjust a little lower if you're not getting any hits; don't start at the bottom and hope to climb to the top by....

4. Crowing about Cockamamie Credentials

Let's say a website calls itself innovative and groundbreaking, and claims to be one of the best places to publish. Let's say you fall for the slick marketing and submit. And let's say you get in, and let's say you put this credential in your official author biography.

What does that credential get you? If you're lucky, you might gain some respect and publicity. If you're not, you might end up worse off than if you never mentioned it. Flaunting credentials from an untrustworthy publication will make you look green at best. At worst, you'll signal to editors of established journals that you didn't research past publications before submitting, and there's no reason to believe you researched their publication, either.

Take a tailored approach to finding a suitable publisher: google the name of the publication with the word 'scam', read a few back issues, and look at the benefits to publishing there(avoiding Scam Number Three). If it seems like a good fit, then full steam ahead! But it's not worth winning space in an obscure journal just to see your name somewhere.

Some writers submit to these new or nameless publications because they simply want to take what they can get. But this exposes a logical inconsistency: If this is your best work, why aren't you submitting it to major, established, or reputable publications?

If it's not your best work, why are you-- 

1) not trying to improve it? 
2) attaching your name to writing which doesn't accurately represent your abilities?

5. Pyramid Scheme Publications

Pyramid scheme publications are an interesting case, both because they've found a new form recently, and because they're not technically doing anything wrong. In the old model, like the well-known poetry.com scam, all submissions were accepted for publication. However, you'd have to pay for the book, for the inclusion of your biography, for a certificate, and for copies for family and friends. The scammer banked on your ignorance of the scam.

In the new model of pyramid scheme publications, they're still after your money, but more than that, they want your assistance in building credibility. Here's how it works:

They promise tons of exposure (but usually little to no pay) for publication in their new venture. Reviews are mostly positive, so you submit. Once you're accepted, you buy the issue and send the link to your loved ones. After all, it's only a few dollars. Because of your acceptance, you leave more positive reviews.

So where's the scam? The positive reviews were written by people just like you: writers with a vested interest in seeing the publication succeed, not independent readers who enjoy the content. When you encourage your friends and family to each drop a few dollars on the electronic version, you artificially inflate its sales figures, contributing to the revenue without seeing any benefit yourself.

To be sure, there are certainly reputable publications* which have strong marketing components and happy authors. But there is a world of difference between a publisher's selling books based on content and a company's relying on a growing stable of newbie authors to hawk the product like Cutco knives salesmen .

Before submitting, Google around and try to answer this question: is the publication praised by unbiased, independent readers or is it kept aloft by the efforts of naive new authors in a writing round-robin?

*Editor's Note  I want to expand on what Lila says about REPUTABLE anthologies. Donating a free story to certain anthologies can be very much to your advantage. Charity anthologies, like the Indie Chicks Anthologies and the Literary Lab anthologies  can offer great opportunities. Nobody makes money on these and all proceeds are donated to a specific charity, but they can be fantastic showcases for your work. Showcase anthologies can also be put together by author collectives or small publishers. If you're a beginning writer and some well-known authors are contributing to the same anthology, this can be a great way of reaching a much wider audience

6. Paying for Poor Publicity

There are sites which charge thousands for ebook marketing with no discernible result. These online marketing efforts can usually be grouped into three categories:

1) high prices for free services, 
2) poorly targeted marketing efforts
3) spam activities. 

Let's go in order:

There are many, many ways to promote yourself for free online. 
You can pay to have those things done, of course, but make sure you're not paying hundreds of dollars for someone else to upload your press release to those free databases.

Additionally, it doesn't make sense to pay to market yourself on Twitter if you have no intention of going back on Twitter once your publicity stint is over.

Poorly targeted marketing efforts tie back into the previous scam: You don't want to market to other authors. Unless you're selling a book of writing advice, other authors are not your optimal audience. Not only are they in the same boat, they might be in a different genre. 

Tweet-blasting your romance novel will not help if you're not reaching any romance readers. Some marketers promise exposure on dozens of blogs. Quality outranks quantity here.

A horror novel which gets a nod from a popular horror site will probably fare better than a horror novel mentioned on two dozen pet, beauty, or health food blogs (unless you're writing about a supermodel who rescues kittens and turns them into protein shakes). (I'm totally reading that book!--ed.)

Any of the above actions can be considered spammy if they're poorly executed. You might not have control over the delivery, frequency, or placement of ads. If a reader keeps getting unwanted information and ads about your book, they're going to start associating YOU with spam, even if you're not the one sending it out.

7. Indiscriminately Working for Free

Publications which expect free work are sometime snarkily called "for-the-luv" businesses. In the most malicious cases, a business-minded individual finds free workers by appealing to the authors' Higher Calling and Pursuit of their Personal Truth. It's fine to have such a lofty view of writing, but like I've said before, if you want to make money from writing, you have to treat it like a business.

And that means writing for free strategically.

As you may have noticed, this is a guest post. I wrote this for free. However, I only turned up on Anne's radar after my guest post on Duolit was picked up by The Passive Voice. Part strategic. Part luck. Part good writing, and part good timing.

So what's the benefit for me if I guest post for Anne? First, I'm making a connection with a real person. And yes, I will probably get some Internet points for this. But the connection came first. This is actual engagement, the meat and potatoes to fake Internet points' Diet Coke.

Internet points aren't the only previous Scams related to working for free. Low-budget startup publications also seem to think that free work is a fair trade for seeing your name on their site. Taking an internship at a reputable publication can benefit your career. It doesn't have to be a Big Six publisher-- even a respected regional publisher or local newspaper can net you some contacts and meaningful work experience. But that brand-new, non-paying, no-name publication that wants you to write and sign over the rights for five articles before letting you know if you got the job?

Hell no.

Another Editorial note: If you're going the traditional route, be aware the old traditional scams are still out there. Here's my post on how to avoid bogus agents who prey on authors who are trying to break into traditional publishing. 

Lila Moore is a freelance writer and copy editor based in New Orleans. She has copy-edited a wide range of materials, from national advertising campaigns to cookbooks. Besides her passion for editing, Lila loves ebooks and founded PopularSoda.com to encourage professionalism and high standards in self-publishing. Lila previously blogged about writing-related scams for Duolit. And on the Passive Voice  

NEWS! On Monday, October 15th, Anne will be visiting the Readers Guide to E-Publishing site (RG2E).  She'll be talking about the setting of her sp-o-o-o-o-ky comic mystery, GHOSTWRITERS IN THE SKY,--the Santa Ynez mountains of California (AKA Sideways Wine Country.)

What about you, scriveners? Have you run into any of these scams? Do you have other scams to report? Can you offer any exceptions to these rules like the charity anthology?

28 comments:

  1. Thank you for a helpful & informative post! The scams never end, do they?

    In the old days, there used to be something called "fee reading" that money-grubbing agents advertised in writer's magazine. The deal was you sent in your money & your ms for supposedly professional analysis & advice.

    What you got was a page of comments written by what today we would call an intern.

    Went on for years & was very lucrative. Does "fee reading" still exist on the internet?

    PS & NB: "Fee reading" is NOT the same as hiring a qualified editor.

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  2. Great post, Lila!
    In today's publishing world it's hard to know what's good and what's bad. Thanks for the advice.

    Best of luck on your new venture.

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  3. Ruth--Thanks for reminding us. Those old scams area still with us, and anybody going the traditional publishing route should be aware the traditional scams are still out there. I'll post a link in the main body of the post. Thanks for the reminder.

    Anne--Thanks for weighing in. Indies have so much to handle. Getting scammed is one more burden you don't need.

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  4. I'll have to mark her site - some of those things are scary!

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  5. Anne-- Thanks for the opportunity to guest post. I also appreciate your comments clarifying some of my wording. :)

    Ruth-- Thanks so much for the feedback! To address your question ("Does "fee reading" still exist on the internet?"), I've seen similar actions under a different name. The term "fee reading" doesn't really pop up anymore. However, there are individuals who charge for developmental editing even though their skill level may be equal to that of an intern. I address underqualified editors in my post Five Ways to Recognize Bad Editors.

    Anne G-- Thanks so much. Good luck with your latest book!

    Alex-- Thanks for checking out my site. I hope you find it helpful.

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  6. So many scams . . . ugh, it just makes you wonder somtimes, doesn't it?

    Fantastic post, and thanks very much for the alerts!

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  7. Excellent post!! Thanks for this - eye opening :)

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  8. It's amazing how the scams keep coming. Years ago I was with a publisher who didn't pay any royalties and instead used the money he made to go to Las Vegas and gamble. He and his son both went to jail. (Outfit started out legitimate.)

    Had the same problem with another publisher who published 50 copies of my book then ended up fleeing the country.

    An e-publisher I was with never paid a single royalty and when I complained he sent me $40.

    I've had two publishers die and two quit.

    Make you wonder why I'm still doing this, doesn't it? Me too.

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  9. This comment is slightly late, but this online writer's site was contacted by something called Slippage Literary Magazine: http://www.slippagelitmag.moonfruit.com/

    At the moment, since it's yet to release its first issue, we think it's a scam. What do you think?

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  10. Chihuahua--I just checked it and I don't see anything that looks particularly iffy to me. There are thousands of niche literary magazines out there--almost all of which are labors of love. Nobody makes any money, but you get exposure. Collecting credits in literary magazines is a good way of building your writing resume.

    That's not the same thing as Lila is talking about, which is the pricey anthology where the editors make money, but you don't.

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  11. Chihuahua- You're right to be cautious if they haven't released any issues yet and don't have an established reputation. I'd suggest submitting your work elsewhere and checking back after they've released something.

    Like Anne said, there are certainly worthwhile and trustworthy literary journals on a smaller scale. That alone isn't reason to dismiss it, but you're right to look into it further.

    The main question to ask yourself is, "Is this publication making money by selling to readers or by selling back to those authors it publishes?" Obviously, it's impossible to tell if the publication hasn't released anything yet. I'd reserve judgment until I could find independent coverage of the publication.

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  12. Charley--Forewarned is forearmed! We gotta be ever vigilant.

    Emily--Thanks much. I always love to hear from you. You were one of my first blogging mentors.

    Marilyn--You definitely get a prize for perseverance. Isn't it amazing what we'll put up with? I'm lucky to be with a great small publisher now, but I've got my horror stories too. Still, I think yours gets a special prize.:-)

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  14. The pyramid scheme ones are everywhere. Every couple months I get and email inviting me to contribute to a book featuring the likes of top self-help writers in the industry - but I must pay a fee and buy the very expensive book. No thanks.

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  15. These are all great tips and sound advice. Thanks for sharing. I'm also glad there was a little bit of clarification made when it came to submitting to anthologies. :)

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  16. Diane--The scam anthologies have been around for decades. It's the same principle as the "Who's Who" anthologies: a scam know is still around, because I've been getting a barrage of spam from them just this week. They contact you and say you're so special that they'll include you (or your story or poem)in their book! (for a fee) and then you'll have the "privilege" of buying this useless book with your name in it for a ridiculous sum. Win/win for them; lose/lose for us.

    TK--Yes. I should repeat this again: these scam anthos have nothing to do with charity anthologies or showcase anthologies--which are a fantastic way to reach new readers. The differences: 1) Good anthologies have a vetting and editing process (or are by invitation to known authors) 2) They don't cost you anything to "enter". 3) They pay either to a charity or distribute to the authors. Collective anthologies may ask every author to chip in, but the proceeds come directly back to the authors. In these NO third party is making money, and costs are generally kept to a minimum. You'll see here in the sidebar that I have participated in several charity anthologies, and I'll be in a chick lit showcase anthology called Martini Madness with the ladies from WG2E this Christmas.

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  17. Wow, there seems to be a lot of interest in those "exception anthologies". Maybe I should work on a post about worthwhile ways to write for free. ;)

    It's crazy to see how many people have already come across these scams.

    Marilyn-- That story is the definition of perseverance. The publisher-fleeing-the-country story could be a book itself!

    Diane-- Sounds like some of those scams don't even make an effort to hide their true intentions. Those lazy scammers!

    TK-- Glad you liked the article! I hope Anne's comment helps clear up the anthology confusion.

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  18. Lila--I'd love to see a post on when to write for free and when not to! I can see there's a lot of confusion. Literary magazines are usually non-paying, but they can add a lot of prestige to your resume...or not. It depends on who's editing it and who's reading it.

    You're right that Marilyn's got the basis of a story there! I had a publisher flee the country, too. (The country was England) It inspired my mystery novel Sherwood, Ltd. But sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. :-)

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  19. Anne, sorry for being a no show lately. I think living the dream is more time-consuming than the dream itself.

    I will follow up on this and all the great points on scams. Think of the time spent with these and all the good work someone could be doing instead. Reminds me of hackers ... what a waste of brains ... or the lack of brians eprhaps. :)

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  20. Fraud Scam Alert

    I have been the subject of an internet scam/fraud attempt, ongoing, which was facilitated by the About Me information I had posted and the Contact Me button on my blog. A friend from university, who has since gone to the dark side, contacted me through that email info and I fell for it. He used to be one of my best friends at university, but as the Alumnae Office told me, there are plenty of my colleagues from my otherwise illustrious alma mater who are now in jail, etc. Indeed, they contacted him and he shrugged off the attempt. I have since removed all About Me details and have removed the Contact Me button. The nightmare, though, continues. It has become a full-time job to head off the identity and financial threat.

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  21. Thanks so much Lily and Anne for this great post. Seal Press is another small publisher who does reputable anthologies that often include famous authors. But it's so important that writers be aware of all the scams out there - particularly in this new age of indie publishing.

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  22. Fois--I know you're in the middle of a discombobulating move, so I think everybody should be cutting you some slack. :-)

    Judith--That story is heartbreaking. It's one thing to be scammed by a stranger, but when it's an old friend, it's a betrayal of the worst sort. Identity theft is one of the cruelest of crimes. Luckily, most of the scams in this post are only going to cost you a little time or a few bucks. What you're talking about is serious criminal activity. I hope you get some relief soon--and that crook ends up behind bars for a long time.

    Meghan--Thanks for the heads-up about Seal Press anthologies. A prestigious small press anthology is a superb way to elevate your own profile. It's essential to be well-read and know what small presses and authors are respected in your genre.

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  23. Another terrific post Anne! You amaze me, as did Lila's descriptions of how to spot a scam review. It had me thinking about book reviews I've left on store websites? Was I too vague???

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  24. Christine--I loved Lila's examples of real scam reviews, but you're right, they do sound kind of like regular reviews, so we need to be careful to add specifics to our real reviews, or our efforts may backfire. I honestly didn't know how many bogus reviews were out there until recently. I'm sure paying a lot more attention.

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  25. Judith-- That's so scary! I'm sorry to hear about your identity theft. I wish you the best in recovering your info.

    Meghan-- Thanks so much for the feedback. I'll be sure to check out Seal Press. :)

    Christine-- I've put up a new post on PopularSoda which explains how to write a detailed review (with a cheat sheet included). How to Write a Book Review Like a Human . Hope this helps!

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  26. The scam reviews examples were interesting to read.

    Seems everyone wants a piece of our pennies lately.

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  27. Great post. I've seen too many writers who become obsessed with the number of likes on their facebook pages or constantly retweet ads for their books when writing new stuff is probably a better use of their time than trying to game the system.

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  28. M Pax--"Pennies" is the operative word, isn't it? They should scam people who actually make money.

    Renee--Obsession with numbers is the scourge of the whole Internet marketing era. Most of the numbers are meaningless. And you're so right that writing new stuff is way more productive than trying new ways to abuse the system.

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