What is a scam publisher?
Essentially, a scam publisher is a press that cheats authors into believing that they are getting traditionally published by their rules and guidelines. However, if you read the fine print, you'll see that "traditionally" publishing you is not at all what's happening. This can range from promising royalties which never come, making you pay a fee to be published, or even stem from lack of professionalism. While the term "scam" usually means forcing you to pay, there are many other factors that can make a publisher appear to be a scam-- essentially one you don't want on your credentials list.
Most scam publishers out there aim to target new and inexperienced young writers. Why? They think they're easy. Let's face it, if you're a young writer and you want your work published, you'll go for whatever chance you're given. But don't! One way to help stop publishers like this is to educate young writers. The more who know how to spot a scam, the less people there will be feeding the scam.
So, how can one spot a scam publisher?
There are many ways. Most scam publishers and agents fall into the same habits over and over, and once you know how to spot them, it will make the selection process for your future work easier. Here are just a few of the many popular scam techniques you'll find:
- Reading fee. While this isn't necessarily a reason to call "scam", it is something to watch for. Often times, you'll find reading fees for writing contests that offer cash prizes (they need to get money to give to the winners from somewhere!) but the payment is minimal-- $5-$20 is the range I've encountered most often. In those instances, you're not being put up by a scam. However, when it comes to literary magazines or anthologies, if you're asked to pay a fee for your submission to be considered or to be published in the anthology, back out of it. (This goes for agents, too.) More often than not, the reading fee in scams is much higher (I've seen up to $50 reading fees). If you're not hosting a professional contest for novellas or novels to be judged with cash prizes in the $1,000s and tickets to writers' conferences, you shouldn't be charging that much. Scam. That also leads me to my next point.
- Payment to be published. So you got past the free reading fee and have been contacted by the editor of the press. Hey! They said they want to publish your work, how wonderful! But what's that? They want a payment in order for your work to be included in their anthology? Stop right there. In traditional publishing, you never ever have to pay to have your work published somewhere. If they are asking for you to pay to have your work included, it's not a press you want to have on your literary credentials anyway. You can get your work published elsewhere without the fee and actually have some credibility towards it. Don't ever pay to be printed!
- Purchasing the book. While it's not always a red flag, it is something to take into consideration if other aspects of the publisher look fishy. In most cases, if you've been chosen to be published in an anthology, you'll get at least one complementary copy for yourself-- others after that will need to be purchased. In some smaller presses, you may have to buy your copy, but they often offer it at a discounted price (usually no more than $5). If a publisher tells you that you will not be receiving a copy of the book and need to pay $50 for a copy, it's a scam. Also, doubling with "payment to be published", if a publisher tells you that in order to be published you need to purchase a copy of the book, it's also a scam. Beware!
- Unprofessionalism. What's that you ask? While there are so many aspects of being unprofessional, the most common ones with scam publishers are your questions never being answered, pestering for you to purchase a copy of the book/pay them (some will repeatedly call you on the phone demanding payments for books), harassment of authors, and illegible or incomprehensible guidelines for submissions. You'll know a scam publisher when you see their site. If you feel at all unsure about a publisher, it's probably best to go with your gut and not risk falling into a scam trap.
What can I do to protect myself from scam publishers?
There are many things you can do to prevent yourself from falling into the laps of these types of presses. Most of them are very simple and what every writer can and should do prior to submitting their work anywhere.
- Research. Give the name of your publisher a Google search. What comes up? Do you see good reviews on their last anthologies? Are their editors blogging or answering questions? Are there any results when you search the name of the press with "scam" after it? It's always important to do your homework. Look around to see what others are saying. Chances are, if others are complaining about the publisher being a scam, it probably is.
- Visit the website. Going to the publisher's website is the best way to get a feel for their overall professionalism. Are the guidelines for submissions easily accessible? Are they clear? Is there contact information for the publisher, not just for submissions but for general questions? And most importantly, is everything grammatically correct? If you stumble upon a publisher's website and find as many spelling errors as a first grader trying to write a college paper, you've probably found a scam publisher. Why? If they can't even bother to edit their own website, are they really going to put the effort into editing their anthologies and making them presentable? Probably not.
- Buy a copy of the anthology. If you're financially able, try and get a copy of the anthology for yourself. Not only is this good to do even if you're not worried about a publisher and want to submit, but you'll be able to see the quality of the anthology firsthand. Is it formatted in an attractive way? Does the cover look professional and not like something thrown together and pasted up in Photoshop? Are the stories/poems inside edited? Another good thing to look at are the authors being published. Is there anyone of literary stature? It's always good to take note of writers in anthologies anyway to get a sense of what the publisher likes to publish, but an anthology full of writers with no background what-so-ever is something to make note of. Quality is important!
- Check distribution. Where are the anthologies being sold?What bookstores or sites sell them? Do people subscribe to the anthologies? If so, how many subscribers are there to the books? This is important to check to make sure that your work really is getting out there. If a publisher is publishing through a POD (print-on-demand) site like Lulu.com, chances are, they're not worth submitting to. (This isn't always the case: some publishers use sites like Lulu.com to print but purchase their own ISBN numbers for books to be listed on B&N.com, etc.; but the majority of the time, these "publishers" don't.)
- Ask the publisher. If you have questions about the publisher, the process for accepted literature, how to submit, where books and anthologies are distributed, etc., ask them! Most publishers will get back with you and answer your questions. If you get a rude reply (usually stating "are you threatening the validity of my company?"), then you know it's a scam.
Are there sites that can help warn me of scam publishers?
Most definitely! Absolute Write has a forum called "Bewares and Background Checks" that lists publishers to watch out for, and you can even inquire there about others that you may be unsure about. Predators and Editors is another great site to check up on. You'll find what's going on with presses, if they are closed, not worth submitting to, scams, etc. Follow the forums on sites like these, read up on publishers, and always keep in check.
Good places to go to find real publishers and agents with some information on them are sites like agentquery.com and in the Writer's Market books put out each year by Writer's Digest. Subscribing to magazines like Writer's Digest, Publisher's Weekly, Poets & Writers, etc. are also good to have on hand, as they list publishers and agents looking for work, as well (and chances are, you can trust those that they promote). Also follow editors and agents on sites like Twitter, Facebook, and their blogs. You'll learn how to tell real publishers from fake publishers the more you read up on the industry.
Do your research before submitting your work anywhere and look into the publishers that you want to submit to. Scam publishers and agents often target new, young writers-- so if you're a new, young writer who wants to start publishing, do all you can to find out about those you plan on contributing to. If you're too young, ask your parents for help! It's better to be safe than sorry.
That being said, keep submitting your work and writing. But beware! There are publishers out there lurking that want to run your work into the ground with them. Be a smart writer, do your research, and you'll rise above them with your work in magazines and anthologies of merit where your work belongs.