Self Defense for Writers — Avoiding Predatory Publishers

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Many years ago I was young and desperate to be a writer. I wasn’t remotely ready yet (I was in my thirties before I developed the maturity and staying power).

I got an offer to publish some of my poetry. There wasn’t any pay, but I was young and desperate and thought it might lead to great things. Not to put too nice a face on it: I got scammed. It wasn’t that terrible a scam, I just got tricked into buying a hardcover book of bad poetry for a high price. Worse has happened.

If you’re young (or even new) and desperate to be published, then you may find offers out there that look really good…but are actually scammy or predatory. So, what are the red flags?

  1. The publisher advertises primarily to authors. The website talks all about how it’s so hard to get published these days. About how you deserve a chance to get your book published. The thing is, authors are not a publisher’s customers: Readers are. If they are advertising to authors you can be sure they are a “publishing service” and if they are not honest about this up front…
  2. Most of the books on the publisher’s website are by the same person. Now, there is nothing wrong with an independent author setting up a personal imprint to make their books look more professional. I have one myself (Aitune Press) as does my author buddy (who also publishes his wife’s work under the same imprint). And sometimes these kinds of imprints turn into legitimate publishers over time. However, some of them are also offering stealth author services to fund editing on their own poorly-selling books (They may also not know what they are doing).
  3. They charge a reading fee. No legitimate publisher charges a reading fee for novels. Some legitimate literary journals charge a reading fee to cover the costs of their slush wrangler, but I tend to argue that you should never pay a reading fee. A “small” or “token” reading fee is still a reading fee.
  4. They call themselves a co-op. There are legitimate authors’ co-ops out there, where self publishers band together to do things like buy a Netgalley account, purchase a logo, etc. They’re very common in the comic book world. (My friend’s husband-wife imprint is also technically an author’s co-op). Here’s the thing: An actual author’s co-op doesn’t solicit manuscripts. They solicit members. There is a very different thing here. “Co-op” when used by a scammer is an empty promise that they’re paying part of the costs.
  5. They spread the net very wide to get submissions. A scam publisher doesn’t care whether your book is any good. They make their money by “processing” as many books as possible.
  6. They solicited you. Unless you are a successful self-published author with high existing sales, a legitimate publisher is not, sorry to say, going to ask you to send them a manuscript. Scam publishers will send out emails to mailing lists they bought on the black market. Or to every self-publisher in a category (watch out, right now, for publishers in the Philippines, which has become a hotbed of this kind of thing lately).
  7. All of their books have a suspiciously high number of five-star reviews on Amazon. This indicates that they are probably buying reviews or asking their authors to give good reviews to each other’s books (I caught a small press doing this a couple of weeks ago. I guess they figured nobody would notice).

If you are going to submit to a small press, then first check their website. Does it advertise to readers or writers? Look at their existing books. Check reviews. There should be a good spread of reviews including bad ones.

Don’t submit to a publisher that charges fees. There are “book packagers” who will help you get your book set up for self publishing. These are a different thing I’ll probably talk about in another blog, but the key is to price out what the various services would cost separately and decide if it’s worth it.

Don’t submit to a publisher that requires you to purchase X copies of the book. This is paying for publishing through a back door.

And always google “publisher name scam” before submitting. SFWA also has a Thumbs Down Publishers List and I recommend new writers, even if they aren’t writing genre fiction, subscribe to the Writer Beware blog (Disclaimer: I am a member of SFWA).

Written by

Freelance writer, freelance editor, novelist and short story writer. Jack of many trades.

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