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Publishing scammers are proliferating like Tribbles. How to stay safe

Publishing scammers are proliferating like Tribbles. How to stay safe

On Friday morning at 7 AM a couple of weeks ago, the landline phone woke me with a call from a woman who wanted to know if I was the author of Food of Love. I said yes, it’s one of my titles, along with 14 other books. Why did she want to talk about a 20-year-old novel at 7 in the morning?

She hung up.

But the next Friday morning at 7 AM, the phone woke me again and it was the same number.

Ack!

I knew what these people wanted because I’ve been targeted many times as the author of Food of Love. That title was originally published in the UK without my middle initial, so some versions of it appear to be written by somebody other than this Anne R. Allen.

I also knew why she was targeting the author of an apparent singleton title with low sales, because I hear from writers every day who have been approached by publishing scammers like her. They are everywhere now, and their scams seem to have spread like the COVID virus in the last year.

The sad thing is many targeted authors have been scammed more than once, because once publishing scammers have learned to manipulate you, they keep attacking with relentless malevolence.

One victim of a scammer told me another scammer offered to undo the evils perpetrated by the first with their “special skills” and a new ISBN — for $30,000!!

Publishing scammers are obviously making serious money with this one, or they wouldn’t be expanding their reach at such an alarming rate. But scriveners, if you’re smart enough to write a book, you’re smart enough to learn to spot publishing scammers.

I know it’s confusing. One multiple-scam victim who contacted me is an ER nurse. She said publishing is way more stressful than running an Emergency Room. Because in the ER, the crooks have bullets in them, and you know what to do. 😊

So pay close attention to what’s happening underneath the outrageous flattery and promises of fame, fortune, and Oprah’s undying love.

Here’s One of the Latest “Deals” from the Publishing Scammers

The “Publishing Agency” will “republish” your already-published book (generally self- or small press-published.) They will re-edit it and design a new cover. Then they will produce a marketing plan and a book proposal. This proposal, along with their “endorsement’ will be sent along with your newly printed book to a Big 5 Publisher. They will also send copies to bookstores.

All you have to do is buy 800 copies of the book.

You will also have the opportunity to buy a marketing package. Price will be murky until you agree.

What’s Wrong with this Picture?

Let me count the ways:

  • Traditional publishers do not republish old titles that have failed to sell.
  • There’s no such thing as a “publishing agency”. It’s a literary agency or a publisher, not both.
  • No traditional publishers accept submissions in bound-print form. This is the 21st century. Manuscripts need to be Word docs, double spaced, 12 pt. font, in TNR or Arial. 25 years ago, they could be submitted in print, on 8.5 X 11 paper, in a manuscript box or envelope, loosely held together with a rubber band. Never bound.
  • Pre-publication marketing plans and book proposals only apply to nonfiction, non-narrative books, not novels or memoirs.
  • An “endorsement” from Joe Nobody is about as useful in selling a book to a publisher as it is in selling a bicycle to a jellyfish.
  • No legit traditional publisher requires authors to buy copies.
  • Legit publishers know what time it is in the US and would never call at 7 AM. (Most publishing scammers are in the Philippines.)
  • Bookstores rarely buy unsolicited books by random unknown authors. They take books on consignment they choose from publishers’ catalogues. Books can be returned if they don’t sell. Unsolicited books are often a source of merriment for bookstore clerks.
  • Oh, yes, and there’s this: REAL PUBLISHERS DO NOT COLD-CALL UNKNOWN AUTHORS!! EVER!!! Or email them. They already have enough queries in their slush piles to keep them busy until Manhattan sinks into the ocean.
  • Real agents don’t either.
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If You Want to Self-Publish

Then self-publish. Never use a vanity press. Vanity press books will cost you so much you’ll lose money trying to re-sell them. And the publishing scammers will hound you forever, trying to get you to buy obscenely priced junk marketing packages.

Here’s an overview of self-publishing from Jane Friedman, complete with charts and infographics.

You can also get excellent advice from well-known, successful indies, like self-publishing guru David Gaughran in his FREE book Let’s Get Digital.

There’s a wealth of information from the Alliance for Independent Authors (Alli) and at Reedsy.com, where self-publishing professionals are thoroughly vetted. (Although I dislike Reedsy for forcing you to sign up for their newsletter to enter the site — a cheesy move from an otherwise classy company.)

If You Want a Traditional Publisher

If you’d like to see your book in a Barnes and Noble window someday, or get reviewed in a well-known print journal, you want a traditional publisher. For great info on traditional publishing, Jane Friedman’s blog is also an excellent place to start.  (She’s the former head of Writer’s Digest Books and editor of The Hot Sheet, the respected publishing industry newsletter)

You can also get great information from agent blogs. One of the best is Janet Reid. Her “Query Shark” posts are a graduate-level course in how to query. Rachelle Gardner and the agents at BookEnds also have helpful information.

But you don’t necessarily need an agent to be traditionally published. There are plenty of excellent small presses looking for good manuscripts. For a weekly newsletter listing vetted small presses, subscribe (free!) to Authors Publish magazine.

Traditional publishers and real agents never ask for money up front. They get paid after they sell your book. If you have to pay up front, it’s not traditional publishing. It may be a legitimate “hybrid” publisher, but “hybrid” is a type of self-publishing, not trad-pub.

Vanity presses masquerade as traditional publishers, but they will always ask for money. Which they usually don’t mention on their websites.

It makes me want to cry when I see writers saying they “can’t afford to publish traditionally.” Ack!! These people have been so brainwashed by the publishing scammers, they have no idea what traditional publishing is. So I’m going to repeat this:

IF YOU’RE ASKED TO PAY UP FRONT, IT’S NOT A TRADITIONAL PUBLISHER.

Publishing Scammers Have Dodgy Websites

TIP: Never choose a “publisher” you find on the first page of a Google search. Publishing scammers have bought most of the SERP (Search Engine Results Page.)

When people contact me to ask if their latest “acceptance” or “book offer” is a scam, I always check the website. I can usually tell at first glance I’m in the country of publishing scammers.

Here are some tell-tale signs.

  • Testimonials. Real publishers’ “testimonials” are best-selling, well-reviewed books, which will have prominent real estate on the website.
  • Dodgy language skills. Misspellings, awkward sentence construction, or any other kind of lazy text is a red flag. Even if they’re not crooks, who wants a publisher who can’t proofread their own website?
  • Nobody in charge. Legit publishers and agents have all their staff listed by name with bios and photos and email addresses. Publishing scammers don’t let on who they are. Often because they’re the same people who scammed you last year.
  • A brand-new website with no track record with Google. Google will give you a bit of text telling you about a company. If it’s new, they’ll say “Google has no information on this company.” Major red flag.
  • Promises of fame and fortune. Most debut books fail to sell many copies. Anybody who tells you different doesn’t know the publishing industry.
  • Emphasis on copyright. All books are copyrighted when you save them onto your hard drive. As an extra precaution, you can register copyright in the US with the Library of Congress for $45. Nobody has to do it for you.
  • Bamboozling talk of ISBNs. ISBNs (International Standard Book Numbers) are good to have, especially if you want to sell outside the US. But they’re not essential. You can buy a US ISBN for $125 ($295 for 10.) But you’ll be assigned ISBNs by Amazon or any other platform where you self-publish.
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Other New Stuff from the Publishing Scammers

The Goodreads Extortion Racket

Goodreads has always been a haven for trolls. But now the GR trolls have formed their own mafia. They’ll approach a writer, demand a large sum of money for a fake review, and if the author doesn’t pay, they’ll bomb the author’s books with dozens of one-star reviews.

There was a big expose of the Goodreads review-troll mafia in Time magazine last month. Pay attention. Whatever promotions you’ve been able to do in spite of the trolls are no longer worth the risk.

Goodreads used to be Lord of the Flies meets Mean Girls. Now it’s Pulp Fiction meets Scarface.

Jeff Bezos owns Goodreads, and he certainly has the funds to police it. Since he chooses to harbor criminal activity instead, readers and writers are no longer safe there.

Write reviews at friendly, literate Bookbub instead. Ruth Harris provides great info on how to promote your book for FREE on Bookbub in her blogpost from July. Bookbub is professional, well moderated, and troll-free. I’ve bought my last three reads from Bookbub recommendations.

The Newest Anthology Scam

Anthology scams are the granddaddy of all publishing scams. They’ve been around at least a hundred years. But the current one is especially cruel. Publishing scammers join Facebook groups for grieving spouses, disabled people, caretakers of children with disabilities, etc. and they present them with the “opportunity” to submit a creative nonfiction piece to an anthology. It appears to be a Chicken Soup for the Soul type of publication.

But once a piece is “accepted” the writers are asked to “contribute” to the publishing and marketing costs. These “contributions” are often thousands of dollars. Once the anthology is printed, the victims are expected to do all the selling and marketing of these overpriced, unedited white elephants.

Co-Author a Book with James Patterson! Or Somebody Kinda Like Him

Writers have been getting snail-mailed letters from a “Monica Susan Main” saying she met them at an (unnamed) writers conference, and she loves their ideas so much that she wants to let them join in a new venture. She’s inviting the writer to co-author with a famous bestselling author who probably isn’t James Patterson. But s/he’s just like Patterson and the name is a secret.

When I first read the letter, posted to a writers FB group, I knew this didn’t pass the smell test. But later this week, our intrepid scam-sleuth Victoria Strauss followed the clues, and after sitting through hours of BS videos, discovered this “secret co-author” does exist. She’s a well-known romance writer. Only problem, the famous author, who is in her late 70s, hasn’t written a book in over 3 years and her website is badly outdated. Victoria’s attempts to contact the author’s agent turned up crickets.

That scammy smell gets stronger and stronger. Turns out this “Monica Main” is a convicted felon and serial fraudster.

Victoria’s search makes fascinating reading. It’s at her blog over at Writer Beware.

The Old Hollywood Scam on Steroids

Victoria also wrote recently about writers getting solicitations from what appeared to be real film companies. They say they are interested in “your screenplay” of your novel.

Since chances are good you don’t have a screenplay of your novel, they offer to write one — for a hefty fee.

Only problem — the emails aren’t from the real companies. The scammers change the name slightly, so instead of ViacomCBS, you’ll hear from Viacon.CBS. And instead of the actual Steven Spielberg, you’ll hear from Stephen Spielberg or Steven Speilburg.

This is a new version of a scam I reported in 2020 where the scammer offers to write a screenplay of your novel, for a pricey fee, so you can sell it to Hollywood. Thing is, all you’re buying is a screenplay. Every barista in the Greater Los Angeles area has at least one. And no, the actual Steven Spielberg doesn’t want it.

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How do These People Find You?

My 7 AM scammer probably found me via Amazon. Probably an old, cached list of Amazon slow-sellers.  Maybe it’s a “sucker list” from Author Solutions, , the mother of all the publishing scammers in the Philippines.

It looks as if “Monica Main” found her marks though the subscription list of a writers’ magazine

But these days, trendy scammers find targets by trolling social media for people who identify as writers. They join Facebook groups for writers and get to know aspiring authors. When they present the scam, the author thinks they “know” the person from the group.

They can also find you via Tweets, Instagram, or your blog.

How to Protect Yourself

Screen Your Phone Calls

No publisher or film company will cold call an unknown author. Of course at 7 AM, you probably just pick up the phone to stop it from ringing the way I did. But if they start pitching something, hang up and block the number.

I know occasionally a fan will get your phone number and decide to call to chat about the book and tell you why they hate the ending. I’ve had a handful of those over the past decade. But it’s only a handful. 99% of my readers will send emails or DMs. And is a fan who would wake you at 7 AM really worth the hassle?

Do Your Research.

Writer Beware offers the gold standard for anti-scam info. Google the name of the company with “Writer Beware” and see if anything comes up. If it does, run.

Alli, the Alliance of Independent Authors, offers lots of info on good, bad, and iffy publishing services

Reedsy has some helpful infographics and other info on scammers. Check out their page Author Scams and Companies to Avoid

David Gaughran, whose book Let’s Get Digital, I recommended earlier, has blogged extensively about publishing scammers, especially the notorious Author Solutions and all its spawn.

The venerable forums at Absolute Write have useful information from other writers. Information isn’t vetted, so take comments with several grains of salt. But you can find complaints from the recently scammed that may save you a lot of grief.

Turn on Your Common Sense

Cut through the flattery and urgency (with publishing scammers, everything needs to be done yesterday because ____ fill in the blank.) Then use your noggin.

  • Penguin Random House is not going to tell you they are “a traditional publishing company.” They are Penguin Random House. If you don’t know who they are, you need to get back into your space ship and return to the Delta Quadrant.
  • They are never going to contact you personally unless you just won the California governor’s race and your baby fell down a well and was rescued by Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck.
  • Publishing professionals in the English-speaking world can read and write English. Weird sentence construction that sounds as if it came from Google Translate probably did.

Publishing successfully can be a slog, especially if you want a traditional publisher, but being robbed by publishing scammers is worse. So hang in there, pay attention, and if you smell something fishy, check them out the way our readers have.

Thanks so much to all of you who came to me with your scam stories. Most of you got out of the contracts in time, and you are saving a lot of other writers with your cautionary tales.

by Anne R. Allen (@annerallen) September 5, 2021

What about you, scriveners? Have you been approached by publishing scammers? How did you deal with them? Were you taken in by their snake oil tactics? How did you get out of their clutches?

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