5 Scams that Target New Writers and How to Spot Them

by Anne R. Allen


Because we have a high-profile blog, a lot of people contact us because they want us to promote their services to our readers, usually through contests or deals.

Sometimes these services are great, so I always try to make time to check them out. But often they aren't. We have some pretty strict guidelines, but even so, I'm afraid I've let some things get through that shouldn't have, like contests that ask for all rights instead of first serial rights. (Always read that fine print before submitting.)

But some offers are recognizable as scams right away. Here are a few general tips for vetting author services:

Here are some of the scams I'm seeing lately that target new writers, with notes on the red-flags that can tip you off to the scam.

1) Editorial Services that Promise Bestsellers or Agent Representation

These people sometimes contact writing clubs and organizations as well as writing bloggers, and they may even troll the US Copyright Office records looking for prey.

If they manage to get your email address, they'll write saying stuff like, "I've got an agent who is looking for a (whatever-you-write) book. Contact me right away."

Or, "I have connections with agents and traditional publishers. If you have a manuscript to sell in any of these categories, please contact me immediately!"

Or "We are going to be at the Frankfurt/London/whatever book fair. We can pitch your book to agents and editors."

Thing is: agents don't take submissions or pitches from editing services. They only take queries from authors. Any third party query gets deleted.

All these services can give you is a high-priced edit or help in writing a book proposal.

If you need an editor, by all means hire one (and if you self-publish, you absolutely DO need one.) You can find professional editors through the Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA) or a vetted listing service like Reedsy, or ask a successful indie author who they use for editing.

If you write nonfiction, yes, you need to submit a book proposal, but you don't need an expensive service to write it for you. Buy a book on the subject, or Google "how to write a book proposal" and read advice from reputable agents. Here's a great post on book proposals from former Writer's Digest editor Jane Friedman. The bible for nonfiction book proposals is agent Michael Larson's How to Write a Book Proposal now in its fourth edition.

Agent Jeff Herman's Write the Perfect Book Proposal is another old favorite, too. You can buy used paperbacks of either of them for under $12.

If you can write a book, you can write your own book proposal. Remember you're going to have to know what's in it when that agent contacts you!

And if you're looking for an agent or publisher, use AgentQuery , QueryTracker (both free) or subscribe to The Writer's Market for $5.99 a month. Don't ever pay anybody to submit your query for you.

The tip-off:

Their websites will be full of hard-sell tactics and wild promises. They'll hype their services as if they were something more than editors and ghostwriters.

Good editors show off their editing skills by showcasing successful clients. Editor Jodie Renner has an excellent website if you want to see what a professional editor's website looks like.

I'm not going to link to any scammy ones, but they will be loud and flashy and full of hype. These outfits are all (very expensive) sizzle and no steak.

2) Vanity Publishers Masquerading as Traditional Publishing Houses

"Vanity" or subsidized publishing is not always a scam, so I'm not going to say nobody should ever use a subsidized press. Those can be fine for memoirs, poetry collections, or books by authors with only one book and no plans to write another. (Although you should never pay for the overpriced and mostly worthless publicity packages vanity presses try to push on clients. See #5 below.)

Vanity presses charge high prices for their services and the books themselves are expensive, so you don't want to use them if you hope to turn a profit or you're aiming for a career as a professional author. Generally bookstores won't carry vanity press books and people in the industry look down on them. (These are not to be confused with self-publishing services like CreateSpace or LightningSource, Bookbaby or Lulu.)

For one-book hobbyist writers without tech skills (and believe me, I know how challenging tech can be!), a full-service self-publishing company can be a viable way to publish. (Although I'd recommend using the competitively-priced full-service packages at BookBaby or Lulu over the higher-priced vanity presses.)

But the vanity publishers you NEVER want to get near are the ones that pretend to be traditional publisher and don't tell you until after your book is "accepted" that you'll be expected to "contribute" to your publishing fees (generally much higher than what a legit self-publishing company will charge.)

These people play on a newbie's dreams of being traditionally published. By pretending to be selective, they con an author into thinking they have passed a gatekeeper test and they've been validated as "real authors." But the books are not really published; they are simply being printed by an expensive vanity press. These people often provide no distribution at all, while places like BookBaby are also distributors. You'll end up with a carton of expensive books to sell out of the trunk of your car.

Some of these outfits are very slick and have even bamboozled real agents into submitting to them--as recently as last month--so be very, very careful.

The tip-off

These "publishers'" websites will not mention anything about charging writers to publish their work, but they have lots of testimonials from "satisfied customers" about the quality of the paper or the "niceness" of the office staff through the process of publication.

Real publishing houses do not need testimonials from authors. Their customers are readers, not authors.

3) Phony Contests

There are a lot of iffy contests out there, especially for self-published books. You want to look further into any contest that charges a hefty fee. The outfit may simply be a moneymaking proposition for the organizers and the prize may be small and/or not carry much prestige. I draw the line at $25 for an entry fee. Anything over that is worthwhile only if there's a critique or subscription included or it's got a major name.

There are also contests that are simply trolling for free content. This is especially true for essay or other non-fiction contests.

Selling college papers to students who would rather cheat than learn is big business these days. As The Atlantic reports, "These days, students can hire online companies to do all their coursework, from papers to final exams."

According The Atlantic, some of the people who write these papers are underpaid adjunct professors or graduate students with big student debt. At $30 a page, it can be an appealing sideline for academics having trouble making ends meet.

Except for the little ethical problem, of course.

But recently cheaper competitors have sprung up in Central Europe and Asia, charging as little as $3-$5 a page.

Most universities consider passing somebody else's work off as your own to be plagiarism, pure and simple. Getting caught buying these things can get the student an "F" and even expulsion. College professors can usually spot phony papers because the work is wildly different from what the student usually hands in.

But this doesn't stop students from buying these things. What they don't realize is the authors of the papers may not be the ones getting paid. The papers may be lifted off the Internet or they may be submissions to a contest.

I'd heard rumors about this kind of contest scam a few years ago, but I only recently saw one up close and personal. I got an emailed notice of an essay contest the sender wanted me to post on a specific blogpost from three years ago.

(That's always a red flag: if somebody asks me to include a contest in the Opportunity Alerts, that lets me know they've at least looked at the blog. But people who ask us to rewrite old blogposts to tout their products show very little knowledge of how blogging works.)

I don't know for sure that this particular outfit planned to sell contest entries, but I've heard of ones that do. And the person who contacted me had a very poor command of English, so writing essays would have been tough for him. I'd be willing to bet this was one of those scams.

If you enter their "contest," your essay may be sold over and over to some party-hearty frat boys who think paying somebody else to do their homework is a good way to prepare for a career.

The tip-off:

These guys wave a lot of red flags. Poor English skills are a biggie. One email said, "We hardly appreciate your help in sharing the info about the contest on the Internet!"

Yeah, well I hardly fell for their scam. They said their goal was "to make life easier for students".

By selling them stolen essays to pass off as their own.

Selling college papers under any circumstances is unethical. But giving the scammers your work for free is just dumb. Always vet contests and make sure the people who are running them aren't going to steal your work.

4) For-Sale Fake Reviews

Anybody who tells you that you need to pay for "professional" Amazon reviews is scamming you. There are a lot of outfits out there who do. Some even use the Amazon logo (illegally).

Amazon does not allow paid reviews, as wrote last month. Amazon defines "payment" as anything besides a copy of the actual book (and even that must be disclosed in your review). This means a gift card, payment for a blog tour, or even a review exchange.

Any of these can get your review removed and may get you banned from selling on Amazon.

The paid review problem has been all over the headlines recently. In October, Amazon sued a thousand people who were selling fake reviews on Fivrr.

Last spring, they sued several US companies that were selling reviews. I wrote about it in my post on Why You Should Never Pay for Amazon Reader Reviews. Even if the company claims the review is "fair" if you pay for it, it's not eligible to be posted on Amazon. Do not fall for these people. Many are still in operation. Some even use the Amazon logo so they look legit.

But if you get caught using them, your reviews will be removed, and often legit reviews will disappear with them. It's been happening to many, many writers recently. For more on this, see my post Disappearing Amazon Reviews.

The tip-off:

Paid reviews are strictly forbidden on Amazon, even an "honest review." Amazon's Terms of Service state clearly that they will not accept any paid reviews. Anybody who tells you this isn't true or you won't get caught because "everybody does it" is lying.

The only reviews you can pay for are editorial reviews on blogs or magazines like Kirkus. But you're not allowed to post those reviews in full on Amazon or other retail sites. You can only quote one or two sentences in the "editorial review" section.

5) Overpriced Marketing Plans for Self-Publishers

Some vanity publishers have discovered there's much more money to be made selling fake Twitter followers and useless booths at book fairs than in selling publishing services to self-publishers.

Their salespeople can be pushy and shameless. The publicity campaigns, which mostly consist of sending robo-tweets to fake Twitter followers and "buy my book" ads to bogus Facebook friends, pretty useless in generating sales.

Even more insidious are the booths at book fairs which can cost thousands of dollars (not to mention your travel and hotel expenses.) Nobody's going to buy your book from a vanity press booth at a book fair where traditional publishers are giving away great swag for free.

Whenever you're contemplating attending a book fair or author festival, look at your bottom line. If it costs $500 for the booth, and you sell 10 books (pretty high for a book festival), is the prestige of the fair worth the $450 or so you're paying to be standing in that booth for a few hours? If you're in there with a bunch of other self-published authors with the same vanity press, you could be stuck in a ghetto for suckers that everybody will avoid. If you put the same amount into an ad in a top bargain book newsletter like BookBub or Ereader News Today, you'd sell thousands.

If you're going to the book fair to network and meet people, you might find you get more done if you're not standing in a booth anyway.

The tip-off:

Hard sell tactics give them away. These companies have teams of salespeople whose one job is to pressure authors into paying for useless marketing campaigns. I know one author who published a memoir with a vanity press and salesmen started phoning her at all hours of the day and night trying to pressure her—first telling her the obviously niche book would become a bestseller with their promotional schemes, then with insults and harassment. She said it became a nightmare.

For information on book marketing that actually works, follow book marketing experts like Penny Sansevieri, Chris Syme and Frances Caballo for practical advice.

posted by Anne R. Allen (@annerallen) December 6, 2015

Anne R. Allen is the author of ten books, including the bestselling CAMILLA RANDALL MYSTERIES and HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE, co-written with NYT bestseller Catherine Ryan Hyde.

You can read more about writing scams at "6 More Scams That Target New Writers"

What about you, scriveners? Have you ever fallen for any of these scams? Have you seen other writers getting scammed? Any other scams to add to the list? (I'll be listing more next week.) And feel free to comment on the new blog as well. As I said, it's a work in progress. Moving a blog is like moving to a new house. If anything can go wrong, it will.

NEWS: You can read my piece "Why I Write" at Warren Adler's Writers of the World this week.


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