Spotting Scams for Authors

As I’ve been advertising more over the past year, I’ve started getting some questionable messages in my DMs and inbox, so I thought it was about time to outline a few of the scams out there directed at writers. Some of these are out-and-out-fraud, while others are just things that you shouldn’t pay for in general.

A few items that should raise red flags are things like reading fees for journals, magazines, queries, or submissions (except when mentioned below), spelling/grammatical errors in the listing (do not send your work to a Nigerian prince), and anything that wants to pay you in “exposure.” Remember, people die of exposure every year.

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The vanity press

Writers of a Certain Age will remember all those mailings that went out in the ’90s about poetry collections, specifically aimed at children writing poetry. When I was 8 or 9 I submitted to one of these, and my parents were then peppered with fees. $10 for editing. $10 for publication. An extra fee for a color illustration or special font. $50 for the book.

Today, these scams are well known vanity presses, but they were a good lesson I learned young–back in the days before we had regular internet or library access, and couldn’t/didn’t know how to verify the validity of a publisher. It’s much easier now.

What to look out for: It starts of all hearts and rainbows; your contact will cover you in flattery, but there’s a fee for everything, from editing to cover art, marketing, author copies, etc. They may also uses phrases like “all inclusive” and require the use of “in house” services that are an extra charge. Also look out for things like bad cover art (no, really; places like this usually can’t get/keep quality artists), they won’t list distributors on their website, the books they’ve published will be things you’ve never heard of or filled with questionable content. Also, READ YOUR CONTRACT. It might specify that the publisher owns the work, or makes it very difficult for rights to be returned to the author. There might not be a time specified for when you’ll get paid, or how much. It might also specify below-market rates.

When it’s legit: Your publisher should never charge you for anything, because you are an investment to them. Editing, promotions, cover art, additional formats (like hardback or audiobooks) are all part of the process and are included. They are the reason why authors earn royalties; a portion of the sale of a book goes to cover publishing costs, while the remainder goes to the author. The one possible exception is author copies; typically these are provided for free, but if you are with a smaller press there may be a small fee per copy just to cover printing, or you might get X number of copies for free and then purchase additional copies at cost. No matter what, though, READ YOUR CONTRACT.

The Schmagent

There are good agents and bad agents out there, but the Schmagent is a whole other ball game. They promise the moon, but there’s always a catch.

What to look out for: These “agents” usually don’t have a lot of clients listed on their website, if any. They might also use the “all inclusive” or “in house” language mentioned above, encouraging you to publish your ebook directly through them, or pay for additional editing services before ever submitting your book to a publisher. They won’t be a member of any organizations, and might charge a reading fee. And again, I can’t specify this enough, READ THE CONTRACT.

When it’s legit: Unfortunately, there’s no license or membership that means an agent is above board, BUT, if they list memberships on their website, especially to organizations like ALA, then it’s a good sign. Like a good publisher, they look at you as an investment; that means they will not ask for money up front. There should be no fees involved at all until they sell your book, and even then they only get paid when you do (ex. the publisher gives you an advance of $1,000, a percentage of that goes to the agent, as well as a percentage of royalties if the book earns out the advance).

The Contest

These might look good on paper, but if you pick the wrong one you’re just a loser.

What to look for: Bad contests usually require exorbitant reading fees (I typically don’t go above $20, because the purse isn’t usually worth it if it’s more). Red flags might be a new contest with no past winners, or one that’s connected to a publisher or agency like those described above. It might specify that all submissions become property of the contest holder, meaning you can’t do anything with that poem/story/essay if it’s rejected. It belongs to them now. Read the rules, very carefully.

When it’s legit: It is normal for contests to charge reading fees. These usually range from $5-$50, and is perfectly normal; the fees are used to pay judges, administrative fees (like web hosting costs or facility rentals), and usually to fund either that year’s purse or the following year. Most contests I’ve seen have prizes ranging from $75-$5,000, and might include some combination of cash, publication, and/or something else, like a residency or a spot at an exclusive writing retreat or workshop. It is also normal for there to be some clause that prevents the writer from submitting the same work elsewhere for the duration of the contest, but overall the rights still belong to the author.

A larger prize isn’t unheard of, but do check everything twice–read the rules, research the sponsor, and double check who the work belongs to after the contest.

The “Special Guest”

There are many great workshops, retreats, conventions, and other events out there for authors at all career levels. However, some of them can make you feel less than special.

What to look out for: A first time event, particularly one with no big names behind it–no publishers represented, no agents showing up, no big name authors. It might not be held in a legit venue (i.e. not in a hotel/convention center/other event space). Check online for reviews of past events if you’re unfamiliar. Some long running events just don’t have great reputations or have suffered when the reins of power changed hands, so keep that in mind. Just because a convention has been around for 25 years doesn’t mean you have to attend.

The other big red flag is events that charge speakers. It’s one thing to pay for your ticket or accomodation as a guest; but typically if you are a speaker or panelist, your entry fee is waived. This goes double for events that charge speakers extra to get behind the podium.

When it’s legit: Expect to pay your way, unless you’re the keynote. Even then, you will need to pay for your own transport, food, hotel, etc (unless it’s a really big event, like say, Comicon, and you’re the headliner). Look for reviews of past events, and check with your network of author friends (via twitter, insta, or a membership like SINC or SFWA) if you’re unsure.


This is a dicey area, so make sure to use your best judgement.

What to look out for: Random people sliding into your DMs, offering to review your work for a fee. When you check their profile/website, everything they’ve reviewed is a totally different genre–say, romance, while everything you write is hard sci-fi.

When it’s legit: There are many services out there that connect authors to hundreds of reviewers, like Bookbub or BookFunnel. The reason authors pay for this service is because, like I said, it connects to to *hundreds* of potential sources for reviews. The rando in your DMs? Not so much.

Professional reviewers are out there; they usually get paid by large websites or blogs, magazines, or other organizations, and receive review copies from publishers.

There is nothing wrong with providing a potential reviewer with an ARC or free copy of your book at your discretion. You are not obligated to do it, even if asked, but it’s usually good form. You might even decide that spending $20 on a review is money well spent, but it can come back to bite you later; it doesn’t go over well when people find out authors have been paying for all those glowing reviews on Amazon, and can lead to mistrust between you and other authors and your readers.

Just as a reminder, most of these are geared toward traditionally published or hybrid authors. Obviously, if you are self publishing, you will have to pay out of pocket for things like author copies, editing services, cover artists, etc; it’s the price you pay for publishing your own work instead of having an agent/publisher to back you. Self-published authors have to be doubly diligent in looking out for themselves and their work, from checking out printing services to looking for reviews for your next cover artist.

This is just an overview of a few scams I’ve come across over the years. Do you have any I didn’t mention?

Like what you see? Check out The KnotMagick Guide to Pattern Writing.

2 thoughts on “Spotting Scams for Authors”

  1. A few years ago, my wife fell for the vanity press scam. She was in a writing class where applying to contests was a requirement. And, lo and behold, she “won” in a poetry category. She was so excited to be a published writer that I couldn’t express how obvious a scam it was. I paid the fees ($70) and we waited for over a year for the small paperback to be delivered.

    We can be compelled to do what we know is wrong, though, for the ones about whom we care.

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