On Scams: Advice from a Practical Old Dreamer

In my home, we call lottery tickets the poor tax. Not our original phrase, first heard it from the priest who ran my sons’ middle school, who likely got it from someone else. There are all kinds of unofficial taxes like this, often falling under the old “have to spend money to make money.” Yeah ok, maybe. But I’m going to talk about the dream tax here–specifically, the dream of writing/publication. I don’t work in publishing, have limited experience with being published, this is not an advice blog, but I’m old and cranky and know a game of 3 card monte when I see one, regardless of how it’s being billed. By definition, most of us who write are dreamers, whether your goal is a story in The Paris Review, being published by the Online Journal Three People Are Going to Read, having a chapbook of poetry published by a small independent press, or finding Your Name on the New York Times bestseller list.

Listen, you want to stop and try to win money from the guy behind the table of the 3 card monte game on the street, I’ll roll my eyes and think you’re naive, but whatever. If you keep your wallet in your back pocket while leaning over to watch the cards, or have your purse open, then I think you’re an idiot.

There’ve always been scams, vanity presses and such. Vanity presses are obviously predatory, and most of us will recognize them. They go something like this: Receive letter/email with bullshit flattery but no specifics, telling you all about the zillion copies Your Great Novel will sell, and how much you need to pay them. Yawn. But with the internet and online everything, scams have proliferated. Some of this is relatively harmless, clickbait, live and learn. A lot of it involves money. Money to enter contests, money to take online classes with experts who have no expertise, money to take classes about things you don’t need to take a class to learn–be told things that are completely free and learned in a five minute google search, money to take classes from Fantastic Editor who also happens to run Wonderful Contests through her Too Cool for School Online Journal, and whaddya know, the only people published in this cool journal just happen to be those who paid for classes from Fantastic Editor, and the winners of the contests are close friends–perhaps even coteachers–of Fantastic Editor’s classes. All coincidence, I’m sure.

Don’t get me wrong, there are legit contests, small presses, classes, editors, all of it. But just because someone has a Twitter account doesn’t make them legit. Hell, someone could have good intentions in some areas and just not know what they’re doing, not have the expertise and connections to make their offering worth your while. And shady, well. There’s a reason the word shady exists. Shade. Feels good, but you can’t look too closely at the details. Lots of these people and offerings aren’t quite scams, but again, that doesn’t make what they’re offering an actual opportunity.

I’m an old New Yorker, I go back to the days of shell games on the streets, the Bronx on fire, guys whacking off at the other end of the subway car when the train went over the Brooklyn Bridge, take dangling earrings off before you get on a crowded bus and walk like you know where you’re going–no matter how lost you are. I know a lot of you don’t remember those days, but they’ve served me well, not least of which being able to smell a scam even on the sterile pathways of the internet.

Some things are obvious, like the vanity presses. Others aren’t quite as obvious, but you don’t need a fucking MFA to do ten minutes of online research. Does this journal have an actual masthead with the real names of real people attached to it? Does this journal actually take stories from the slush pile, or are they only publishing big names while charging sub fees from all the unsolicited submissions they will never consider publishing. *I’m not against small submission fees, kickstarters, or reasonable contest fees on principle. Beautiful and well respected journals need to make some money, but you should be able to clearly and easily see where that money is going, like, say, paying writers. Is it easily found and clearly stated what rights you’re giving away if they take your story? Clearly stated what/if they pay, contributor copies, etc? Do they state what happens to your submission once you send it to them? How long you can expect to wait? Any warnings about them on the Submission Grinder, or Duotrope, or Absolute Write’s Bewares and Backgrounds forum?

Does this small press make their contract available before you sign on the dotted line? Is their website filled with grammatical errors and statements that go against industry standards? (If you don’t know what the industry standards are, at least a basic grasp, you aren’t ready to submit or query. Sorry, it has to be said. This is a business, and you’re hoping it will be your business, treat it as such.) Have they actually published any books that aren’t written by their owners/publishers/editors? Are they telling you they’ll publish your novel if/when you pay for the editor of their choice (kickback alert)? Do they have a way to distribute your book? Market it? Again, did you do some research to see if there are complaints? Are you able to speak with their previously published authors to find out what their experiences have been? Are there previously published authors, can you purchase their books?

Does this agent have an actual, easily searchable track record of placing books, and placing books with publishing houses outside of those who accept unagented submissions? If this is a new agency, does the agent have previous experience? If this is a new agent, do they have a working, involved, experienced mentor helping them to build the needed connections? Are they transparent about their vision for your manuscript, plans to submit, who they’ll submit to? If they’re making an offer, have they given you time to check with their other clients, let other agents who have your manuscript know you have an offer and give them an opportunity to offer as well?

Some things do take more than 5-10 minutes of research, and they’re well worth it. Meet and connect with other writers. Take time to build relationships, find *your* community. That’s how you’ll meet and build the relationships necessary for critique partners/beta readers. I know there are people out there charging for beta reads. I find the idea of charging for a beta read shady as fuck. Beta readers are important, not a step that should be skipped. Yes, your manuscript should be complete and polished as you can make it before you hand it over for a beta read (this is basic respect, don’t waste anyone’s time), but a beta is not an editorial report.

Classes. I don’t take classes, because they aren’t something I’ve ever had the money to pay for, and my life is subject to regular skids off the rails that leave me afraid to apply for scholarships I then won’t be able to use. Some of these classes seem fantastic, with respected, interesting writers/teachers and I wish I could. Others, sigh. You don’t need to pay for a class to learn how to read journal’s submission guidelines, and no class will mean you don’t still have to take the time to read each individual journal’s guidelines–and then follow them. You don’t need to pay for a class to learn how to write a 1-3 sentence cover letter for a short story. Hell, you don’t even need to take a class to learn how to write a query letter.

If you’re reading this and thinking, Fringe, time is money, it’s faster if I take a class/pay for an editor, etc, yup, that’s true. If you have the money, go for it–but go for it knowing that not everything paid for is going to give you your money’s worth, and publishing is a slow business. There are some corners that can’t be cut, you have to put the time in. If someone tells you they’re selling a magic formula for success, close your purse and fucking run. If they can’t specify what they’re selling, again, run.

Again, I am not a publishing professional, but I’ve been around this game a long freaking time. Dreams are tricky business, not clearly quantifiable or defined. That doesn’t mean your words don’t have value, that you don’t have value. Know the person ahead of you at the card table, the one who just “won” ten dollars, is part of the game. And whatever you do, don’t let him then stand behind you when your wallet’s in your back pocket.

A few helpful, free resources:

Absolute Write: a writer’s forum that is very active, offers just about everything with members of varying levels of experience and genres.

The Grinder


Query Shark: Janet Reid, literary agent’s blog. A true gift to the writing community. Here she offers helpful, practical, honest time and advice to writers, and has done so for years. Seriously, the archives alone are gold.


    1. It’s true, they are everywhere. I see a tendency to assume no scam/shadiness when there is a common interest. 😦 We have to try to protect ourselves and each other when we spot nonsense.


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