Before I get to any specifics, let me quote Yog's Law, a fundamental rule in professional publishing that will keep you out of 99% of all scams:
Money flows toward the writer.
This sounds simple, but many people forget it when what seems like a golden publishing opportunity is dangled in front of you.
Money flows toward the writer.
As a writer, you don't have to pay to get your work published. People pay you for specific, limited rights to publish your work. If an agent asks for a fee to read a manuscript, it's a scam. If a publisher says they'll publish your work if you agree to pay a fee to an outside editor to have your book revised, it's a scam. Money may not flow to you very quickly, or in very large amounts - there are legitimate semi-pro magazines that pay in copies of the magazine, and publishers who pay on publication of the work, years after you've written it - but the key is that they are paying you.
An agent's job is to sell your work to a publisher. (There are lots of other things that agents do, which I'll get to in the segment on finding an agent, but this is the biggie.) In return for selling your work, the agent takes a percentage of the money from sales of your work, typically 15%. The agent doesn't get any money until he or she sells your work. Once a book is sold, the publisher will make payments directly to your agent, who then sends you a check for 85% of the total. Reputable agents also send you tax forms and periodic statements. One reason good agents are so selective is that they generally have to spend years working with a particular writer before they see any money out of the deal.
Any agent who you are seriously considering signing with should be happy to provide you with a client list. You should recognize some of the names on that list. There should be many writers on that list in the genre that you write in. (Agents tend to specialize in a particular literary area, in which they have ties to all the editors. Yes, my agent also represents me in contract negotiations when I write baseball books, but her specialty is SF and fantasy, because that's my main area of focus, and she represents a number of other successful writers in the field.) Any agency that balks at sending you a client list, or signs people regardless of genre, should be treated with extreme suspicion.
Any agency that charges an upfront fee, or sponsors a contest with an entry fee whose prize is representation, or who refers you to a freelance editor saying that they'll represent you if you have this editor work on your book is a scam. (There's a legitimate place in the field for book doctors, which I'll discuss in a post soon, but that isn't it.) Many of these fake agencies have never sold a book, and make their money by milking writers out of fees which can run into the thousands of dollars.
Be aware that many scam agencies have names that are very close to legitimate agencies (Creative Arts Book Company is not the same as Creative Artists Agency). Many advertise prominently in places like Writer's Digest and other publications geared to new and not-so-savvy writers. Some of them will have slick websites.
There are no particular qualifications for becoming a literary agent. Like marriage counselors, anyone can put up a website and call him- or herself an agent. The best way of all to find an agent is by referral: a writer who knows your work recommends you to an agent. (My agent pretty much only looks at new clients who have been recommended by one of her current stable of writers, for instance.) How do you get to know writers and agents? Go to literary conferences. Be pleasant, polite, and professional. Lots of people will be more than happy to steer you in the right direction. (There will be a diary on literary conferences to come, along with one on finding agents... I don't want to stray too far off the topic of avoiding bad ones tonight.)
Vanity Publisher Scams
Vanity publishers make their money by producing your book for a fee. They typically provide no editing to speak of, and have no actual distribution into bookstores, though they will make misleading claims to the contrary. (Saying that the book will be available in Amazon or can be ordered by bookstores is meaningless, because you can accomplish that easily without a vanity publisher, and because no bookstore will carry their nonreturnable, overpriced books.) The typical vanity press book sells about 70 copies - the exact number that the author's family and friends buy.
If you want to write a book that only your family and friends need access to, there's no reason for you to go to a vanity publisher. Go to someplace like Lulu.com, which is essentially a glorified copy service, and they will provide print-on-demand books for far less money per book than a vanity press, and you won't have to pay any up-front fees.
Not all scam publishers charge up-front fees, but none of them are going to get any real kind of book distribution. If you'd like to know how they work, there's a wonderful, hilariously funny expose of Publish America by the organizer of Atlanta Nights, an attempt by a group of professional writers to write the worst possible book and get it accepted by Publish America, which pretended to be a selective, legitimate publisher, but actually offered a contract to anything submitted without actually reading it.
There are some cases where self-publishing makes sense, but going to a vanity press never makes sense - remember, money flows to the writer. Think about self-publishing if:if you have a huge built in audience for something that no one who isn't already familiar with it will go to a bookstore to buy. (For instance, you have 18,000 daily readers for your webcomic that concerns the inner workings of the sanitation industry, but only sanitation industry professionals get the jokes.)
you want to publish something for a select group, but you're not interested in wider exposure or making money. (For instance, a family genealogy, a book dedicated to local history for the town historical society, or a packet of historical documents for a class that you teach.)
In most other cases, traditional publishing will reach a far broader audience than you can on your own. (Although you'll have to do most of the publicity yourself, which will be the topic for another segment down the road.) There are some cases where a book is so nontraditional that no publisher will touch it, but it actually does have an audience. A number of books like that have started out as self-published, but usually once they've established a clear audience, they're picked up by a traditional publisher, which can expand that audience and maximize the book's reach. Examples of books that started out as self-published and went on to become traditional best-sellers include The Celestine Prophecies
and the Left Behind
series. But for the most part, if a book is well-written and has an audience, you will eventually be able to find a legitimate publisher to take it on.
Resourcess for Avoiding Scams
There are some excellent resources online for checking on if a publisher is legitimate or not. (I personally don't put much trust in publications like Writer's Digest
geared to newbies, but some writer's organizations, most notably SFWA
do a great job educating their members and new writers alike.)
Preditors and Editors is a frequently updated list of markets, agents, and contests with annotations by writers as to which can be trusted and which to avoid.
The publishing scams page at SFF.net, a terrific website geared to writers and fans of science fiction and fantasy is another useful resource on a site filled with useful resources.
Writer Beware is SFWA's site for alerts about specific scams, as well as general advice on avoiding scams. If you'd like a more detailed version of this segment, that's the place I'd recommend to start.
Anyway, I've gone about 50% over the word length I planned here, mostly by way of avoiding a particular scene in my new book that's giving me trouble. (For reasons that are difficult to explain, it involves a character being able to bluff a knowledge of 1890s opera gossip.) Once again, I'll be around to answer questions for a while tonight, then again tomorrow late in the morning. (Yeah, the night owl thing isn't going to go away.)
Next segment will likely be one or another of the following: how publishing lists work, how to submit a book, finding an agent, literary conventions. Let me know in comments if you have a particular topic you'd like me to concentrate on first.
The series so far:
Part 1 - Why bad things happen to good books.
Part 2 - Avoiding publishing scams.
Part 3 - Literary conventions (with an emphasis on SF Conventions).
Part 4 - Book packagers.
Part 5 - Submitting a manuscript.
Part 6 - Publishing lists.
Part 7 - Literary agents.
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