Writer Beware

by J.T. Ellison

I’m not a suspicious person by nature, but I do try to rely on common sense when it comes to the business end of writing. I think one of the most important adages to remember when you’re trying to get published is this:

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Now, what do I mean by that? If someone is promising you the moon and the stars, if someone claims they can make magic happen in your writing life, if someone offers you a shortcut — suspicion should be the first emotion you register.

And here’s the problem. New writers who aren’t plugged into the community don’t know any better. It isn’t their fault. Well, it is their fault, for not using their common sense and researching the hell out of every sweet deal they come across. But I’ve seen person after person get taken in by promises, and it’s driving me nuts. Unsavory characters prey on ego, and the fallacy that you’re a gifted writer right out of the chute with the very first thing you’ve ever written.

How do I know??? Well, I’ve been the victim of a couple of scams myself, and had to learn the hard way.

So I thought we could cover some of the basics here, and if you wonderful Murderati readers could chime in on the back blog to give your instances, maybe, just maybe, we can avert some serious heartache for those new writers around us. We need to rise up and educate our new writers so they don’t get their dreams shattered. Loud, public dissent will help.

I’ve wanted to do this column for a long time. In the past two months, I know three people who’ve been victims of major scams perpetrated by unsavory agents, publicists and so-called publishing houses.

The first was a friend who wrote a book, a memoir, and submitted it to a local agency. She came to me after they’d offered her a contract, saying "Guess what! XXXX says they are going to publish my book!" I’ve been in this game long enough to know that when an untried writer is accepted on their first pass with an agency no one has ever heard of, something is fishy. And that isn’t a slam on this particular writer’s ability, it’s just common sense.

So I asked for more information and I looked them up. The first thing I noticed was they were literary representation, not a publishing house. So my radar goes off big time, because any agent who guarantees that they’ll get your book published is pulling your leg. Agents can’t guarantee anything. Just like publicists can’t guarantee anything. If an agent says "I’m going to work my ass off and do everything in my power to present your work to as many editors as I know who would like to read such a book," you’re golden. "I’ll get you published?" Warning bells.

So the site looked pretty legitimate. I went to source number two — Publisher’s Marketplace. I know there are agents who don’t report their deals, but the ones who do are legitimate. Or so I thought… this agency had a deal listed with a major house. (Wow, I thought. They might actually be for real. How about that. My instincts were off.) So with cautious optimism, I asked her to show me the contract.

Cue screeching brakes.

I’ve never seen something as scary as this contract. Remember that this is with a literary agency. (Many do their deals on a handshake rather than a contract.) The contract started off standard but quickly devolved into a horror show. The things they asked for were so far out of bounds… Not only do they charge fees, including travel for the agent to meet with prospective publishers, they ask for power of attorney, to be named beneficiary on the individual’s insurance policy, require rights to be transfered to the agent’s heirs in case of death, and take all rights to publicity. I burned my finger dialing the phone to tell her NOT TO SIGN IT.

And then I turned them over to Preditors and Editors, because that’s all I could do.

That’s one of the most egregious examples I have for you today. Another was a friend who was approached by a publicity firm who were lining up her book tour and speaking engagements, and wanted several thousand dollars in cash up front. Little problem. The book hasn’t been written, much less agented and sold. Yet this agency was more than willing to take the author’s money and book a tour. Um… yeah. Unsavory, at best.

I ruined another woman’s life this past weekend when I unveiled that her brand new publishing contract actually meant that she’d just self-published her book. I don’t want to get sued, so I’m not going to mention the name of the company (there’s already a massive class action lawsuit against them) but here’s the tip. If you send a manuscript to a publishing house and they send you back a contract to sign, be wary. That’s just not how it works. And I felt horrid, because she’d gone into her morning thinking that she was the bomb, that she’d published, and when I told her how self-publishing actually works, that as long as you have an ISBN you can be listed at Amazon, that you buy the books from the publisher and have to hand sell them, that the vast majority of bookstores and chains won’t touch self-published and vanity presses because of the returns issue… suffice it to say she was crushed. "What can I do?" she asked. "I already signed the contract. I had no idea." Then she started grumbling, "I thought it was too good to be true."

Folks, word to the wise. Have an experienced entertainment lawyer look over your contracts.

Better yet, get an agent and let them do the heavy lifting. Many agents are lawyers, and you’ve got it all wrapped in one nice package.

Now please don’t flame me because I’m not a proponent for self-publishing. I think that if you have a book that you’re interested in your close friends and family reading, and you aren’t trying to start a career writing multiple books that will be carried in bookstores and pay you royalties, then that’s a fine way to go. But if you’re a new writer who wants to write more than one book and get paid for doing it, DON’T DO IT. Even if you hate the idea of a traditional New York Publisher, think you’d rather not go to the trouble, there are several incredibly great small indie presses that are worth investigating. Poisoned Pen Press, Busted Flush Press, Bleak House, Capital Crimes — all of these are wonderful houses that any author would be proud to be published by.

So here are the rule to live by:

  • The money always, always, always flows to the author, not the other way around. If you have to purchase your books from the publishing house for distribution, run away.
  • Do your research. Google the name of the agency or publisher with the word "warning" in the search. That will give you an idea of whether they’re legit. Familiarize yourself with Publisher’s Marketplace and see who’s making deals, and with what houses. Those are the people you want on your side.
  • Find a lawyer, or at the very least an established writer you trust to tell you the truth.
  • Join the major organizations for your genre, and invest in a membership with the Author’s Guild, who have free legal advice for their members. Most of the major organizations have a listing of royalty paying publishers who are legitimate. There are publishers who aren’t on those lists who ARE legit, but you’ll need to do your research to make sure before a submission is made.
  • For agents, go to the Association of Author’s Representatives to see their members and read their Canon of Ethics. Not all legitimate agents are AAR members, but ALL legitimate agents abide by the canons. If they don’t, or won’t openly discuss their list of authors with you, or want $1500 up front to get going to cover their expenses, look elsewhere.
  • Hear what’s really being said, not what you want to hear.

The biggest problem new writers are faced with is desire. You’ve worked so damn hard, have slaved away writing your book, and you WANT to get it out to the reading public. We understand. We were there once too. But DO YOUR HOMEWORK! There are several easy steps you can take to ascertain whether the offer you’ve been approached with is legitimate. Because that’s the problem with scams. The veneer of legitimacy can be shiny and obscuring.

Like I said, I’ve been faced with scams. I had an agency agree to represent me, give me some editorial advice, and then ask for $2500. They wouldn’t release a listing of their clients, which is a big no-no. And when I Googled them, WARNINGS appeared everywhere. NOT.

My other mistake was less obvious. I met an "agent" at a festival. She took me to dinner after a session, told me she was new to the game and was looking for hungry authors to work with. She dropped everything and helped me make a submission to an editor I’d met at the festival. And then, nothing happened. It wasn’t that she was doing anything wrong, she just wasn’t doing much of anything… but she burned up my time – calling me daily, lamenting her disintegrating marriage and her desire to quit agenting and start over as an actress. I kept coming up with places to submit, no letters would go out. When a friend got me in front of a big time NY editor, this pseudo-agent was supposed to send the manuscript under her name. Never happened. By the time I realized that and sent it myself, the editor had lost interest. I severed all ties immediately and started over fresh. Thankfully, I only lost a couple of months. I’d continued to write while all that went down, and had new material. I followed my own advice above and started looking for someone legitimate.

One last little piece of advice. This can be a tough, humbling business. There will be times when you’re down, when you’re vulnerable. At this moment, there are people who will latch onto you who are horrifically negative and suck every ounce of your lifeblood away. These emotional vampires are everywhere, ready to bring you down the moment you open your mouth to complain. And they are especially dangerous because they come in the guise of friendship, then systematically dominate your world with their petty problems. These glass half empty people are EVERYWHERE, and it would serve you well to avoid them. There’s commiseration, and then there’s an unhealthy view of life. You know exactly who they are. Excise them, and you’ll be a happier person all around.

Just as I finished typing that last paragraph, a friend sent me this email. Perfect illustration of the above point:

evening an old German told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside

said, "My son, the battle is between two "wolves" inside us all.
 One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow,
regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies,
false pride, superiority, and ego.

other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence,
empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.

grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his Wise Old German
Grandfather: "Which
wolf wins?"

The old Grandfather simply replied, "The one you

Ain’t that the truth.

I know I’ve missed some great tips and warning signs, so I’d be most appreciative if the established authors, agents and editors out there would chime in. Let’s stop these piranhas before they gnaw anyone else’s dreams into oblivion.

Wine of the Week: Cakebread Cabernet Sauvignon Another suggestion from a friend, and wow, is it good!

Stop by J.B. Thompson’s blog today for a chance to win the newest title by one of my favorite authors, Robert Fate!

Update:  Please check out this blog entry at Writer’s Beware for more on the subject. Then read all their entries for a fuller education on submissions and publishing.

26 thoughts on “Writer Beware

  1. J.D. Rhoades

    Excellent post, JT, and much needed. Especially this: “The money always, always, always flows to the author, not the other way around.” I’ve been told at least half a dozen times lately by aspiring authors: “I’ve got this agent, but they want to charge me a fee for reading my…” I never even let them finish the sentence. “RUN!” I yell at them “RUN AWAY! VERY FAST!””But….””RUN RUN RUN RUN RUN! RUUUUUUUN!”And run they do. From the crazy guy yelling at them in the bookstore. But hopefully they get the message.

  2. D.A. Davenport

    Thanks so much, J.T. This is fantastic advice and I am taking it all to heart! Invaluable.

    BTW…I am in the middle of All The Pretty Girls right now and love it!

  3. Doug Riddle

    Great post J.T.

    About a year ago I had a friend from a writing group get an offer from an agent who asked for money up front to help her edit her book for publication.

    I told her at the time that that is not how it works, that she should have to pay anything….To which I was told…”Well, I am the one with an agent and about to be published, and maybe if you get an agent, then you will understand how it works.” Ouch, but okay. Ran into her a couple weeks ago. She is no longer with the “agent” and is several thousand dollars poorer, and still unpublished.

  4. J.B. Thompson

    Thank you, JT, for having the chutzpa to shout to the world what new authors need to hear. I fell into the trap myself, and am still working to climb out of it. I wish you’d been around when I started, or I’d be in a totally different place by now (thanks to you I am getting to that different place, and it’s only going to get better).

    Fortunately, I’m not out beau-coodles of money like some other authors I know – thank God for tight family budgets – but I second the notion that new writers wanting to get published should do as much research as they possibly can before they sign ANYTHING. I did have the foresight to have a lawyer look over my first contract and a close trusted friend who deals with contracts on a daily basis peruse my second, but neither of them could have known what the publisher had in mind when it came to book sales. I’m on the same page with Dusty – if anyone asks you to pay up front, be it agent or publisher – please, please, PLEASE don’t do it! There are so many more opportunities out there for you to take advantage of – don’t let someone else take advantage of you!!

    And thanks for the mention … I hope everyone will stop by the Lunch Room and register!

  5. neil nyren

    The most important words in your post, JT: “Do your homework.” I can’t tell you how many aspiring (and sometimes published) writers I’ve met at conferences who seemed, frankly, clueless, and that’s always my first piece of advice. Before the internet, it was a lot harder to get solid information, but now there are websites, both general and specific, for every reputable agent, publisher, and organization; informational clearinghouses; publishing blogs. Why would you spend so much time and effort working on a book and not spend a few hours figuring out the best thing to do with it?

  6. Alexandra Sokoloff

    JT – you are an angel for compiling all of this info in one place – I’ll definitely add a link to this post to my list of Internet resources for authors.

    This kind of scamming is so appalling it makes me wish that there was a hell, and not just karma. But karma does its job, eventually.

    Another thing that makes me crazy and livid is the workshop teachers who pass themselves off as professionals and experts when really they’ve never worked in the field they’re teaching about. I would strongly caution anyone signing up for a seminar on Writing the Blockbuster Movie! to do some homework about that instructor’s actual credentials. Sounds too good to be true? Exactly.

  7. Naomi

    Really great post, JT.

    And yes, here the Internet can be so helpful. I’m embarrassed to say that I was done in by a scam in my twenties when there was no such thing as yahoo or google. The agent said that my manuscript was almost there and recommended a specific outside book doctor. Of course, that book doctor charged a fee–$500, which was a significant amount of money at the time, especially for a reporter at a small newspaper.

    Needless to say, nothing materialized with the agent, thank God, and I went back to rewriting, rewriting, and rewriting.

    I didn’t even realize that I had been scammed until I discovered this:


    I’ve had friends and acquaintances that have approached me with the following issues:

    + Signed a contract with a small publisher stating that the book was “a work for hire.” As a result, the copyright was under the publisher, not the author.

    + Signed with an agent who charged a fee for putting them on the agency’s website.

    + Signed with a subsidy publisher that produced 5,000 copies (not POD) for a fee. If you self-publish memoirs, etc., there is no need for that many copies. Large traditional publishers sometimes have a hard time selling that many copies of a book.

    There’s more that I can’t think of right now.

    I understand how writers could feel so euphoric after receiving some positive feedback from an agent or publisher. But it also may be the kiss of death, so beware!

  8. Louise Ure

    What good advice, J.T.

    One friend from my first writers’ group fell prey to one of these agents. She so desperately wanted to say she had an agent that she signed a contract with him. Even though his only other client was a XXX-rated porno queen who wanted to write a tell all book about her clients.

  9. Kaye Barley

    Hi JT! Happy Weekend, Cutie!

    I, of course, can’t add a thing to this conversation regarding this awfully tough business you’re in, other than applaud you for caring enough about others to share all this.

    I would like very much though, to shout out a very loud “Boy Howdy” in support of your views regarding negative people. I want these people to stay far, far away. Unfortunately, I haven’t found a way to keep them out of my mailbox. But I’m working on it, probably just by removing myself from negative environments. Life is just too short – trite by true.

  10. JT Ellison

    Dusty and Doug, you’ve hit the nail on the head. Sometimes, new authors don’t want to hear that they’re putting themselves into scams way.

    D.A., thanks!Glad to be of service — post and entertainment wise ; )

    JB, sweetie, you’re nearly there, and I couldn’t be prouder of how you’ve stepped away from a bad situation and turned lemons into lemonade. She’s got a great romantic suspense ready for representation, agents…

  11. JT Ellison

    Mr. Nyren, always good to see you here! The more I’m on the road and meeting aspiring authors, the more frustrated I get with this. It takes five minutes to do a boolean search with the word warning in it. It takes longer to truly understand this industry. Would you start a small business without a business plan, without competitive analysis, marketing and strategic direction? No, because no bank or fellow business owners will give you the time of day. Publishing is no different. Being an author means you’ve started your own business. If you’re serious about it, that is.

    Have a look through this post for some more tips.http://murderati.typepad.com/murderati/2006/04/tgif.html

  12. JT Ellison

    Sorry, folks, Typepad seems to be having some issues this morning…

    Alex, great point!!!I’m an internationally published author, and I felt like a poseur teaching a workshop. Check the credentials of your teachers should go high on the warnings list. Thanks!

    Naomi — great link. It’s hard to admit we’ve been suckered, but at least it was only $500. I’ve got a friend who was approached by a “publisher” who wanted to publish her book. It was making the rounds of a major New York house at the time. She thought he was legit and agreed. He took her manuscript as is to iUniverse and had it registered. It’s damn good book, and she has to hand sell it. Drives me nuts. There are unsavory characters about…

    Louise, one of the reasons I decided to publish under my pseudonym — if you googled my real name, up popped a topless stripper. Nice!

    Miss Kaye, thank you. Your sunny attitude is catching. : )

  13. Tom Barclay

    Is there any hope in this world that doesn’t generate its own predator? Yes, there are all manner of Lovecraftian horrors out to make a dishonest living in the Wilde Woods of Writing.

    Let me second Naomi’s recommendation; SFWA’s WRITER BEWARE is a terrific resource. You will not catch science fiction cooties and you may save lots of time and money.

  14. toni mcgee causey

    Excellent post, J.T., and a great compilation.

    I would add, to “do your homework”, “Don’t be afraid to ask questions.” Just googling is not the same as “doing your homework.”

    Ask a potential agent about his/her client list (if you don’t see one on the internet). Ask how they like to work with their clients. (Do they prefer hands on, giving lots of advice every little step of the way? Do they not want to hear from you until you’re done?) If the agency is small, ask about their contingency plans they have in place if something should happen to them. Do they have a partner who would then take you on if they left the business? Most legitimate agents have a plan in place for this sort of event. Ask about their long term plans as an agent.

    And most of all, ask other writers if they know the agent / agency and the reputation. Writers (most writers) are very happy to tell a new writer if there are any warning signs about that agent.

    Do not believe that THIS ONE CHANCE at an agent is going to be you VERY LAST CHANCE, EVER or your dream is over. I see people have the “last chance” mindset more than I can say, and I understand–most of us dream of being a published author for many many years before it really happens, and there’s no guarantee that it really will happen, much less happen twice. But good work will eventually get noticed.

    And the other key to your comments and other’s? If you’re only attracting the kind of agents who are charging fees, then go back and see what it is about your writing that you can improve on yourself. Get feedback from friends, and do the work, the hard rewrite work. Because great agents out there are always on the lookout for new writers. We’ve all been at that point where we weren’t getting quite the responses we wanted, or from the caliber of people that we hoped to work with, and the only real solution is to learn and improve and keep growing as a writer.

    um. sorry, long winded.

  15. toni mcgee causey

    oh, duh… that graph about asking the agent directly about how they work / their agency set up… I meant after they’ve offered representation. Do the other asking (friends, other writers about reputations) prior. Of course. Which was probably obvious. I need caffeine.

  16. Wilfred Bereswill

    My own story JT. I sent off about 10 queries to agents I had found through various methods, but all seeming very legitimate. Keep in mind, this is my first book, and I’m about 4 months into sending out queries, so I’m pretty green. About a week later, I’m driving home from work and get a call. It’s an agent saying that she loved the 3 chapters I sent and wanted to represent me.

    Bells and whistles immediately sounded in my head. “So what’s the name of your agency?””Chris Robbins. I live right in your home town.”

    So, with the alarms going off in the background, she begins to seduce me with the possibilities. Book, movie rights, etc. No guarantees, but seductive all the same.

    So I ask her if she first wants to read the entire manuscript. Nah. She knows great writing when she reads it. She wanted to get me signed before some other agent scooped me up. The volume of the alarm ramped up a bit more.

    I told her I’d think about it and call her back. It didn’t take much Googling to find her on Writers Beware. Suspicion confirmed. Now the fun began.

    I called her back and told her I was really interested. I asked her what the next step was. That’s when she dropped the bomb. I contract to represent me for one year for a retainer of $3200. Since I was prepared, I strung her along. “I’m snot sure I’m prepared to spend that kind of money.” “Oh, you can pay in 4 installments…” That’s when I had enough and hung up.

    I feel sorry for the gullible, but these people are really convincing.

  17. Tom Barclay

    Wilfred wrote, ” . . . but these people are really convincing.”

    Good con artists are very honest.

    About some things.

  18. JT Ellison

    Tom, you are so right. There are cons surrounding anything and everything that brings people joy. Makes you wonder how some people sleep at night.

    Will, I’m glad your radar went off. Wow, a $3200 retainer? That’s a wad. Glad you were smart enough not to fall for it.

    Toni, you’re absolutely right about the desperate need to accept representation — any representation, regardless of whether it’s best for you. I’ve heard from too many writers who took the first offer they got and regret it, simply because of different working styles and the like. And switching isn’t something to do lightly.

    So follow Toni’s advice and ask questions. Any legit agent is going to be happy to discuss their style with you.

    And BTW, I’ve mentioned it before — the folks in New York and other publishing hubs, the editors and agents? They are real people. They don’t bite. They are actually quite nice, and some are downright fun to hang out with. Always be a professional, and you’ll be just fine.

  19. R.J. Mangahas

    J.T.,this was a really helpful post. I’m still working on getting published, but I’m glad you reinforced a lot of what I thought about these fee charging publishers and agents.A friend of mine thought that he had landed a great contract with a particular agency. I asked him about it then later checked out the name. This ‘agent’ had been caught scamming people before, but incredibly, he was back up and running reaIt’s horrible really.

  20. JT Ellison

    R.J. — I hope it helps and doesn’t discourage. There’s so much good about the publishing industry — it’s upsetting that a few bad apples take the joy out of it.

    And Bill, you won an iPod Nano for being the 1,000,000 visitor to Murderati. Send me your bank account information and I’ll make sure you get it ; )

  21. jeanne Ketterer

    Where do things like paying a freelance editor and/or a reader before submitting to an agent or a publisher fall?


  22. Tom

    Jeanne –

    I’d say it’s optional. Again, you have to know who you’re hiring. Some would even consider it an inevitable part of the learning process.

    But ultimately, most do it themselves. It’s good to have a good crit group.

    Check http://www.annemini.com for an exhaustive discussion of the entire subject.

  23. Stacey Cochran

    Sorry to be getting to this one late…. I’ve had my hell week at NC State this past week. J.T., I think this is great advice and extremely thoughtful and generous of you.

    I’d only disagree with you on one point…

    In the past twelve months or so, I’ve noticed a trend on the part of a few major first-time-author acquisitions. The authors were self-published.

    Jeremy Robinson sold a three-book deal to Pete Wolverton at SMP based in part on his success as a self-published author.

    Random House picked up previously self-published podcast novelist Scott Sigler in no small part because of his DIY success:http://www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl/9780307406101.html

    And just a few days ago, I read that Seth Harwood will be publishing his previously self-published Jack Wakes Up with Crown:http://www.podiobooks.com/blog/2008/04/23/jack-wakes-up-picked-up-by-crown/

    I think this represents an extremely new trend on the part of major publishing. They’re beginning to look at break-out self-published authors on podiobooks.com, Lulu, and from other online resources, in part, because these authors come to their first-time book deal with an established audience.

    I would bet we will see more acquisitions like these in 2008 and into 2009.

  24. JT Ellison

    Hi Jeanne,

    Tom’s right on the money. I’d find a good critique group before I paid for an edit on my book. There are plenty of good critiques out there — for mystery writers, Guppies, the subchapter of Sisters in Crime, has an extensive list of critique groups for every genre.

    But if you’re unable, or unwilling, to utilize peer reaction, and you aren’t getting anywhere with your submissions, I wouldn’t completely rule out an outside editor . But again, there are manuscript doctors who are legit and ones who aren’t.

    It is incumbent on the writer to do as much research as possible, to find out whether they are a real pro or someone who’s hung out a shingle and says they can help you get your book published.


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