How to Spot and Avoid Vanity Presses and Other Author Scams
I hate that I’m having to write this post. But not only does it break my heart when I hear (daily) about authors being scammed by people preying on naïve and eager aspiring writers, it casts all service providers, like me, in a very bad light.
Unfortunately, as it is in any industry, there are hundreds if not thousands of so-called “professionals” out there, who spend their days seeking out unsuspecting authors who are just so eager for any morsel of approval and assistance in making their writing dreams come true.
Because they’ve figured out a way to take advantage of these naïve authors and make money on them, too. And the worst part of it is, while some of them are definitely committing fraud, most are technically skirting the law by staying right there on the grey line of what is legal and what is not.
The way I see it, there are three basic types of predators who specifically prey on unwitting authors, some of which are making millions of dollars by exploiting their anxiousness for success and scamming them out of their hard-earned dollars.
Even worse, 99.99999% of the time, the authors get absolutely nothing out of their experience with these so-called industry professionals. Here are those three groups, broken down and explained, along with facts to underpin the point.
At the end of this post, I will use my 22 years of experience in civil litigation to tell you how you can handle these predators.
The first category of scammers is those who hold themselves out as “experts” or “professional service providers” for authors. Some examples include editors, coaches, book cover designers, and so-called author-influencers.
Editors who charge extremely high fees for their services yet return the manuscript back to the author with very few changes or comments or suggestions.
Fact: Any qualified, experienced, skilled editor will always have plenty of suggestions to send back, even if the author has presented a self-edited and well-written manuscript.
Cover designers who have zero experience or training in PhotoShop, Corel Draw, or any professional level design suite and are instead using BookBrush or Canva to slap covers together.
Fact: Even self-taught book cover designers have a professional design suite, have been trained to use it, and will only use those programs to create compelling, stunning covers.
Any service provider who charges bargain basement rates ($100 or less).
Fact: If it sounds to good to be true, it is. Industry standard rates for editors range from .02 -.04 per word. No skilled, professional editor could ever fully edit a manuscript for anything less than $1,000. Industry average rates for book cover designers range from $200 – $500 for all required images.
Editors who take the author’s fee, then disappear, never to be heard of again.
Fact: Professional editors should update authors and/or provide clients with a means of communicating and checking in throughout the process. If an editor goes more than 1-2 weeks without checking in, always check in with them.
Formatters who seem legitimate and charge for hours of their time, but they are just using Vellum or other programs that instantly format manuscripts in under 10 minutes.
Fact: Any author can purchase Vellum and format their own manuscript in minutes or they can use many of the available FREE tools online to do their formatting. If hiring a pro formatter, only pay them a fee if they manually format and are adding complicated designs, etc. Otherwise, DIY that baby.
The next category of scammers are those who one day decide they want to be an agent, so they slap together a cheap website, call themselves “agent,” when, in reality, they have no training and no contacts with big publishers.
Agents who have never interned under or assisted a well-known, New York based literary agency.
Fact: Almost all legitimate agents interned or assisted established New York based agents, or, at least, they have a significant background in the industry and established their own agency. Experience is the key.
Agents who troll social media, especially Twitter, and reach out directly to authors (real agents never do that).
Fact: NO legitimate agent ever reaches directly out to authors on social media. They don’t have time. Instead, authors must query each agent they hope to work with.
Agents who charge an upfront fee for their services.
Fact: Agents never charge an upfront fee. They only collect 15% of your book sales after the publisher takes their fee, and before you receive your royalty payment. You never pay them directly.
Agents who only submit only to small publishers where authors could have easily submitted on their own.
Fact: Any author can submit to small to medium sized presses themselves. Only the Big 5 or a few other “big” publishers actually require you have an agent in order to submit.
The final and likely worsts category of scammers describes “publishing companies” that are not really traditional publishers, as they hold themselves out to be. They fool unwitting new authors into signing contracts for publishing, leading them to believe they have finally been recognized.
They are typically overly generous with compliments about an author’s book.
Fact: Real publishing companies will tell you that they like your concept, your writing, etc, but they are not aggressive with compliments, while fake publishers (aka “vanity presses”) will go overboard, gushing about your wonderful, astounding, groundbreaking novel.
Anyone who reaches out to authors first, not the other way around.
Fact: The real, big publishing houses are just like any other large company. They are too big and they don’t have the time, nor the need, to waste their energy seeking out authors, when authors are literally breaking down their doors, trying to get their attention every day.
They charge anything upfront for editing, cover design, or publishing fees.
Fact: Legitimate publishers do not charge anything upfront. They cover your editing fee, your book cover design, etc. because they do it all in-house. Publishers only take their fee (typically 80% or more) off your gross book sales before sending it to your agent for disbursement.
They explain how they will handle the publishing aspect, distribution, etc. for you.
Fact: These scam artists actually just do what any author could do for themselves. They take your final manuscript, and they upload the final draft to KDP (Amazon), and they mark them for print on demand. This is exactly what self-published authors do themselves every day, completely for free.
So, what do you do if you wind up being victimized by one of these predatory scam artists?
Step 1 - Ask Them Nicely
Always first try to kill them with kindness. As our mothers taught us growing up, you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar. So, the first step is to send them a letter (email if service provider, email and certified letter if vanity press) and respectfully and politely tell them you’d like your money back and to void any contract you may have signed. Be sure to point out the following:
- You are justified in voiding the contract because they did not enter into it in “good faith” and they misled you about their (experience, intentions, services, whatever applies).
- Include the exact dates and short summary of any pertinent communications (and attach copies).
- Include exact dollar amount you paid them (and attach proof).
- Give them 7 days to comply.
End the communication by stating something like this: “I truly hope we can come to a satisfactory resolution to this issue and that you’ll agree to do the right thing without the necessity of any further actions on my part.” They will know you are implying you might sue them, or take other measures, but you’re not QUITE saying that…yet.
Step 2 - Ask Them Not-So-Nicely
If Step 1 works, and they happen to agree to refund your money, make sure the money clears your bank completely before you respond that you’re satisfied and insist they confirm in writing that you are no longer under any legal obligation to them. And SAVE EVERYTHING for five years.
If Step 2 doesn’t work (which it likely won’t), at least you’ll have evidence, if need be, that you tried to resolve the dispute amicably and without seeking the court’s intervention. Then, you’ll want to send one more email/letter to them advising that the deadline has passed and that you’re under the assumption that they are not willing to settle this matter amicably. Therefore, you want to advise them that you’re giving them one final deadline (5 days out), and if they don’t comply this time, you’re willing and ready to do the following:
- Contact the Attorney General in their state (always find this out) and file a formal complaint.
- Contact the SEC and have them investigate whether fraud was committed.
- Contact the Better Business Bureau, file a complaint, and request their intervention.
- Hire an attorney to file a civil lawsuit against them in the state in which they do business (this info is usually on their website or somewhere online).
Then simply close this letter by saying something like you hope you can avoid any costly and time consuming litigation but the only way to do that is if they agree to XYZ by the given deadline.
Step 3 - It's Your Call
If both Step 1 and Step 2 don’t compel them to do the right thing, odds are, they are never going to. So your only two choices at this point are:
1) Sick ‘Em!
Follow through with your threats outlined in Step 2, contact an attorney, and file a civil lawsuit against them. Depending on the amount owed, you’ll have to file in small claims court, but either way, litigation is a time consuming and costly (to both parties) venture. And, the sad fact is, even if you “win” and the judge in their state rules in your favor, they can refuse to pay their judgment, and good luck ever collecting. My daughter won a lawsuit 10 years ago after she was injured at a horse park, the judge ruled in our favor, and she was “awarded” $5,000. But the defendants refused to ever pay, and despite trying for 10 years to collect, we were never able to within the 10-year statute of limitations. However, there’s always a small chance that after receiving a letter from an attorney or being served with a complaint by a sheriff, that might spur them to go ahead and pay up. But even then, in most cases, your attorney will talk you into settling for a lesser amount to get it done and over with.
2) Let it Go
Accept the fact that you’ve been scammed and walk away. True, you’ll be out the money you paid them, and you’ll likely never see a penny of it back, but you have to consider the cost to benefit ratio here, and decide how far you’re willing to take it and if it’s worth it, in the end, to risk legal action and drag (both of you) through a lengthy lawsuit which may or may not even help you at the end of the day. It will be a blow to your ego, and you’ll have that they got away with it, but trust me…their day will come. The owners of Tate Publishing were not only forced to pay restitution to their victims, but they’re now in prison. So, learn from your mistakes and do better research next time, and take comfort in the fact that Karma will serve up her own sweet brand of justice to all these scam artists one day, and if you’re lucky, you’ll be there to witness their downfall.
The moral of this story is to do your research and learn all you can about ANY so-called professional in the industry before you agree to work with them, let alone sign a contract and pay them a penny. With the internet these days, basically any piece of information you want and need is available to you with just a few clicks if you know where and how to find it. But even then, you don’t need a deep dive in most cases to find out if a professional is, in fact, a professional. Follow these few steps next time before you hire and pay anyone, and you’ll be much less likely to wind up a victim of their nefarious and illegal activities.
- Ask them about their background (experience, training, education).
- Ask for no less than 3 past or present client references (and contact them).
- Review their proposed contract every single word (or hire an attorney to review it).
- If they don’t require a contract, ask for one, and make sure you are protected, too.
- Do your own research online, but don’t just do one quick search. Take your time and dig deep.
Well, folks, I hope this post helps at least a few of you either avoid these people who prey on unsuspecting and eager authors, or get your money back from those who already succeeded in scamming you. But if you have any questions for me, or if you’re unsure about a particular provider, or you are experiencing a scam currently, please do not hesitate to email me by using the form on our Contact Us page.
Talk soon, and in the meantime, go write your best book!