Writing: How It Works (Or At Least What I Know) Part I

I don’t post a lot on this blog about writing – save a few random comments about what’s going on with my novel and my “rejection status updates” I have deliberately tried to avoid making this a blog about writing.  I think I’ve stayed away from this for two main reasons.

#1. I tend to find most blogs about writing a little the same and dull and I doubt I have much unique to add to the discussion.

#2. Many people who know WAY more than me already do it MUCH better.

Super secret reason #3 is that most of the time I’d just rather rant about comics.

All that said, something happened a few weeks ago that made me want to do a post about writing – specifically a post about what I’ve learned over the past three(ish) years about publishing and agents and “how it all works”.  As I started writing it turned into a four part post, focusing on different aspects of publishing. This is PART ONE and it’s about SCAMS.

Please keep in mind while reading this that there are still innumerable things I have yet to learn.  By most standards I’m still a rookie.  If you have a manuscript and are trying to get an agent, or want to be a writer, or want to educate yourself about scams, or just want to learn more about publishing I’d suggest checking out any and all of the following:

Absolute Write, The Rejecter, Duotrope, Writer Beware, Miss Snark, and Pub Rants

Oookay.  All of that out of the way.  A friend of mine that has a solid childrens book manuscript almost got scammed the other day…which is what prompted the idea for this first post.  Now, the person that “scammed” her was actually much more upfront than most in that he acknowledged that there would be money involved in getting her published.  This is usually called Vanity or Subsidy publishing.  While this gentlemen appeared to be more honest than your average scammer, he still largely presented himself as a “legitimate publisher” that would “love to see her work”, when in fact, if you are paying money you are either self publishing or vanity publishing or getting scammed (the latter two often going hand in hand).  My friend, like many honest hardworking writers, jumped at the opportunity and sent him her manuscript.  When talking about it with her I heard her mention paying money and I had to slam the breaks on her excitement.

A legitimate publisher never asks you for a penny.  NEVER.  The publisher pays you.  You do not pay the publisher. In fact, as a writer, you pay for nothing (except perhaps postage to send your ms to agents or publishers when you are seeking one if you choose to go the snail mail route).  You do not pay agents.  You do not pay reading fees.  You do not pay editors.  You do not pay for a “web page” to help “market” your book.  As a writer YOU. DO. NOT. PAY. EVER.

Whew.  Okay…are we clear?  Good.

Now, it’s important to realize that it’s not like these people usually come out and tell you you are going to pay.  They are much smarter than that, and years of running a business that scams people has made them very clever about how they phrase things.  Websites and emails from them are often full of claims that they charge no fees, that they are paid when you are paid, that they are a legitimate agency.  In fact, here’s another hint…a truly legitimate agency will not have to claim that they are legitimate…it will be obvious to you.  If you submit to a scam publisher/agency, you will likely get an exciting letter or email of them accepting your work for publication.  Do not let your excitement keep you from using your brain – they are counting on this.

Re-read your letter carefully. Here are some of the warning signs:

Do they talk in specifics about YOUR book, or is it all generalities – a form letter that could be sent to anyone?  If it’s a form letter that could be sent to anyone, that is bad news.  This means it IS a form letter and hundreds of people like you are getting the exact same letter.

Do they suggest anywhere in the letter that the book will need “some work” and they can recommend a professional editing service for you?  That’s bad news.  This is their in-house editor (or a service run through them under a different name – or via a sister company).  This is a way for them to get money from you.  Some may even suggest that you can use your own editor (knowing full well that most new writers do not have professional editors at their disposal).  If by chance you do have an editor you want to use, they will insist that the editor must be approved by them…your editor will never be approved.

It’s important to note that most books submitted to agents (and publishers) do need some editing and/or revisions (sometimes minor, sometimes major) but that’s something they will work on with you FREE OF CHARGE.  The agent I am working with on my book sent me a massive eight page email about what we needed to work on in my book (it resulted in me cutting 60 pages and writing 130 new ones – I think that falls under “major revision” :) ) and that is just the first round.  But with someone you are paying to edit your work…you will never get REAL editing and revision notes.  It’s a scam.  Period.  In my case there was discussion about bringing in a professional editor that the agent likes working with and thought might have special insight into my book, we didn’t end up doing this, but if we had, that editor would have been paid a percentage of the agent’s royalties…i.e. their payday is determined on the success of my novel.  They help me finesse the book and make it as good as it can be and as such we get a better advance, and the book has better sales and we all hopefully make more money.  But at no time does anyone ask me to “send a check”.

Other things that you may be asked to pay for as things move forward with a non-legitimate agency/publisher (and there will always be new things):

A “critique” of your book

A “website” for your book (this will more than likely be a webPAGE) and will be useless to you

An “agent” to rep you in their “aggressive agenting plan”

An “illustrator” to illustrate your book (should it require – or hell – not require – illustrations).

And for sites like Publish America you will be pressured into buying copies of your own book and sent endless emails suggesting that you buy copies at such and such new discount (still not a deal).

It will be well nigh impossible for you to get this book into a real stone and mortar bookstore.  Every once in a long while an author manages to convince their local bookstore to stock a copy or two of their self published book – but it’s the exception, not the rule.  Do not expect to see your book in bookstores.  Ever.

And the worst part of this whole scenario, is that once you’ve sold the first rights of your book by allowing it to be published?  They are gone forever.  You cannot ever get first rights back (hence the term ‘first’) and 99.9% of the time first rights are the only thing major publishers are interested in.  So you now need to write a new book – well, you should be doing that anyway I suppose – but now you’re other book, the book you loved so much – the book you slaved over and worked for and told all your friends about and laid out money for?  It’s done all it can do because those rights are gone forever.

It should be noted that there ARE legitimate self publishers out there.  And there’s nothing wrong with taking that route for your book – many people do this and are satisfied with the results – but it’s important to understand what you are doing by self publishing (using up your first rights), and what you probably won’t get (your book in the local Barnes & Noble) – so do A LOT of research before you commit to self publishing.  There’s also a huge difference between legitimate self publishers and vanity publishing scammers.  I only know of one reputable self publishing zero cost up front publisher: Lulu.  I’m sure there are others out there, but I’m not familiar with them.

Okay, think I’ve covered just about everything I know on this subject (painfully little it seems!) but make sure to come back for Part II which will focus on Agents.

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