Stay One Step Ahead of Publishing Scammers

BY HANNAH GUY • May 7, 2019

Stay One Step Ahead of Publishing Scammers

“I’ve written a book, but I don’t know anything about the publishing industry.”

These are simple and honest words—but they’ll mark you as a wounded animal in the eyes of crooked businesses on the hunt for author prey. Scammy jerks are swift to pounce on writers who have no experience, feel lost in the wilderness of the publishing industry, and perhaps feel discouraged by their first contacts with publishers and literary agencies.     

There are a lot of unscrupulous types out there, looking to make some quick coin off your book project. From charging “reading fees” to selling publishing packages for books that will never see the light of day, it’s a wild and wicked world for con artists. One geared toward profit and exploitation—just waiting for you to pay the price.

But with a little bit of research and help from an amazingly generous writing community, you can easily protect yourself from the most popular publishing scams.

1. Never trust an "agent" or "traditional publisher" who charges fees.

It’s important for authors to enter the marketplace with a very clear perception of the difference between traditional publishing (i.e., selling your book to a publishing house) and self-publishing (i.e., financing the production and publication of your work yourself—in essence, becoming your own publishing house). If you choose to self-publish and embark upon the process with an understanding of the responsibilities and costs this path entails, that’s perfectly respectable, and there are several reputable self-publishing platforms available to you.

But that’s not what we’re talking about here.

In this scenario, a scammer tries to masquerade as either a legitimate literary agent who sells to real publishing houses or as a real publishing house itself. In truth, they have no intention of selling your book in order to make money—that’s too much work. Their goal is get the money directly from you.

This needs to be your mantra: If I am dealing with the right people, money should be coming to me, not from me. Genuine professional agents and publishers only make money when you do. There are no circumstances in which a writer should be paying an agent or traditional publisher any fees to read, edit, design, market, or publish their books.

Because knowledge is power, here’s a quick list of common phony agent/publisher scams:

  • "Vanity" presses: Vanity presses are notorious for offering to publish your book and lavishing you and your work with praise (hence the name). But the publisher will only take on the project if you agree to order cartons of copies of your own book in advance. The press may also pressure you to purchase expensive marketing and promotional services that don’t actually help sell all the boxes of books now sitting in your garage. And worst of all, these companies' contracts retain all author rights, so basically the vanity press now owns your work forever.
  • Reading fees: Many phony agents, publishers, and contests charge reading fees to “consider” your work. But then they do nothing for you other than cash your check.
  • Manuscript doctor fees: These scammy agents and publishers tell you they’ll represent/publish your work only if you first pay for an expensive editorial service package from a specific provider they insist upon.
  • Postage fees: Fake agents have been known to charge authors exorbitant postage fees, claiming it’s for the copying and mailing of your work to editors when really they’re just pocketing the money.
  • Listing fees: Some fake publishers charge their authors listing fees to have their books placed at Barnes & Noble or on Amazon.
  • Publicity fees: Here, scammers promise that they can get your book big-name publicity, such as a place in the coveted Oprah’s Book Club or on bestseller lists.

In short: Unless you are (1) hiring the services of a professional—such as a structural or copy editor—in preparation to submit your manuscript to editors and agents or (2) self-publishing and need to hire an editor, book jacket copywriter, or designer, you should not be paying fees.

One final note about writing contests, as well: A large number of contests ask for entry fees. While some of these may be perfectly legitimate, other sites and suspect individuals will hold writing contests and use these entry fees for income. In general, we advise you to evaluate the prize when considering a contest or publication with a submission fee. If there is no monetary payout upon publication or for winning the contest, move on.

2. Do your research.

One of the easiest ways to spot a scammer is to simply hit the internet. The moment you are unsure about a situation or a person check out their credentials. Check their email address, website, and even LinkedIn page to verify their identity. Often scammers use free email hosting (such as Gmail) with generic or oddly numbered names. (How much of a publishing professional do you think “” is really going to be?) Most publishing professionals have a verifiable website or company and an established business listing on social media. Contest websites should post lists of past winners, the sponsoring organization’s history, and clear evidence supporting their reputation.

There are also a number of helpful organizations and websites that are dedicated to providing information and warning authors about scams. These are sites that are vetted, trustworthy, and committed to protecting authors from predatory behaviors.

3. Get it in writing.

We don’t just mean contracts.

“Unless absolutely necessary, never make decisions about your writing over the phone,” the late founder of Preditors and Editors, Dave Kuzminski, wrote. “Use email as much as possible because it creates a document that will stand up in court.” The idea is that some scammers will try to sell you their services over the phone. Once you catch on, however, you have very little legal recourse if you can’t submit any documentation supporting your claim.

Got it in writing? Great. But now you need to read the fine print and look for any disclaimers, provisions, and terms that have you paying in perpetuity, signing away all your rights, or earning ridiculously substandard royalty fees.

4. Don’t give your book away.

Some fraudsters pose as editors or publicity professionals and solicit works from new and unpublished authors, which they post online for a fee under the guise of attracting high-profile agents or publishers for you. Don’t fall for it. Not only is this practice ineffective as a marketing technique, it can actually undercut your chance at landing a publishing deal. Once your book is available online, most agents and publishers will consider it published, and will not consider it.        

Other scam artists aren’t looking to take your money; they want your book. “New Kindle Unlimited charlatans have found a shortcut,” warns Derek Haines in “Publishing Companies to Avoid and Nasty New Author Scams” in Just Publishing Advice. “They pose as an editor, and once you send your manuscript, they publish your months and years of hard work for themselves. So not only do you lose your money, but you also lose your book.”

Before your send anyone your unpublished book, check their credentials, website, and email address, and spend some time researching them online.

5. Ask for help.

If you are dealing with any binding documents, speak to a lawyer. Have one look over your contract. An experienced lawyer will be able to note any underhanded terms, fiduciary obligations, or other obvious red flags and make you aware of them before signing your book away to a publisher.

Also post your questions and concerns about any business on writing forums or tag them on social media for writing groups. (There are a ton of author/writer groups on social media—the #writingcommunity hashtag on Twitter is one of our personal favorites.) Not only will you benefit from other people’s experiences, you will also find insightful posts from publishing professionals. These groups are a great resource for asking questions, getting feedback, learning about suspicious offers and services, and even getting referrals for professional and well-respected editors, agents, and publishers.

The community here at the Kirkus Writers’ Center will also support your research and share knowledge, so if you have a question about a “publishing professional” you’ve encountered who you’re not quite sure about, email us at We can post your question to the community and help you get answers.

In the meantime, do your research and ask lots of questions. That’s the best way to navigate the publishing industry safely and confidently.

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