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Yog’s Law, or How Not To Get Scammed

7 Dec
I’m going to talk about publishing, and I’m not going to sugar-coat it. Publishing is a brutal game with a high failure rate, and there are scammers lurking around every bend, soiling the good name of a lot of hard-working people. If you do not intend to ever get into the publishing game, even self-publishing, you can save yourself some time and just file this away. I didn’t say trash it, for you never know–you might change your mind.

I want to start with a basic principal, best known as Yog’s Law: “Money flows towards the author.” What that means in practice is that the author should be on the receiving end of nearly all money transactions. You should be banking the royalties, not paying reading fees. You should be cashing checks from selling your work, not paying a contest fee to enter your work. You should be getting editing advice from your agent/editor/publisher, not necessarily paying them to edit your work.

Now, like every law, there are exceptions. For example, I pay fifty bucks, more or less, to enter the 3 Day Novel competition. It’s my little indulgence. I have bought a book from The Book Doctors in order to have the chance to pitch my latest project to them. And, come the end of December, I will shell out fifty smackers to subscribe to Duotrope.com. See Exceptions, later, for my justifications.

Well, here we are in December. Suppose you get an email, congratulating you on finishing your NaNovel and offering to publish it. It really sounds great–they’re going to edit it, typeset it, print it, and make sure that it gets in bookstores. What could go wrong?

That vast sucking sound you hear is the scam artist hard at work draining your accounts. There are a number of operations out there whose business model works not on the sale of books, but on the collection of fees from writers. And those fees are hefty. I have heard of people paying $15,000, and getting essentially nothing in return. So, how do you stay out of the crosshairs of these outfits? By following the rules of the game.

Rule 1: Follow Yog’s Law. Money flows to the author! The ‘standard path’ of writing, editing, querying, securing an agent, revising your book, querying publishers, signing a contract, delivering a manuscript, and finally holding a book in your hand should be, for all intents and purposes, cost-free to you. There are exceptions all over the place, but this is the main path for traditional publishing, and it should be free.

Rule 2: Do your homework. There are resources all over the place for you to use to check out all the players. For example, the first place I go is Preditors and Editors, to check out if there’s an alert on the entity I am considering using. Then I check out Writers Beware and finally Absolute Write. If you are thinking of taking advantage of some of the NaNoWriMo special offers, read the threads associated with them over at the Special Offers forum. There is at least one over there with whom many writers have severe problems. That brings up…

Rule 3: Read the agreement/contract. I mean carefully. As an example: I entered a contest where the winner got published and paid, and the honorable mentions got published and not paid. I just gave away 12,000 words for free. At pro rates, that would be a $600 story. There’s one contest out there right now that will lock up your book’s rights for months until the contest concludes in June. These are comparatively mild. For frightening examples, check out the big three sites I mentioned above.

Rule 4: There are always options…until you sign. Does something seem squirrelly? Don’t sign. Never be pressured into signing anything–not by a salesman, not by an agent, not by the expiration date on a NaNo Special. My Dad had a saying: “If it’s a good buy today, it’s a good buy tomorrow.” If you’re looking at that great publishing deal that some email buddy is waving under your nose, remember that there are other ways to get your book published that may make you more money or even revert your rights sooner. Otherwise Dad’s other saying may apply: “If it’s a bad buy today, it’s goodbye tomorrow.”

Rule 5: Follow Yog’s Law. NEVER pay an agent, an editor, or a publisher to query and publish your book.

Agents essentially work on commission: They get paid when you get paid. When the agent takes you on and agrees to shop around your manuscript, they are taking on a big financial risk to themselves. They’re doing all that work for free, because they believe that the work will make money. If the manuscript doesn’t sell, they’ve ‘wasted’ their time–but you, the author, still don’t owe them anything. When the agent facilitates a sale, they get a percentage of it. Before you sign with an agent, make sure you find out what that percentage is, and what they’re calculating it on. Your advance? Your future royalties? A scummy agent could make you a ‘big sale’ to a publisher they’re buddies with, then charge you an arm and a leg for their services.

Let’s discuss editors and editing services for a minute. Consider The Book Doctors. They are professional, well, book doctors with decades of work in the publishing industry. One of their services is to professionally edit your book. It’s costs money, but what comes out at the end is probably far, far better than you could do on your own. They know what sells, and know how to get your work to that level. There are plenty of editors who offer similar services–and plenty of scammers who make big claims and charge exorbitant rates. A little research will confirm who the person is and what market rate is.

Let’s contrast that with the Book Doctor as agent. Suppose that Amy the Agent was representing your work under her agency’s contract. If she were to do a deep edit of your work as part of the submission process, it would be free. On the other hand, she might not agree to take on your work in the first place if it hasn’t been polished to a point where she likes it. You could hire an editor to get you agent-ready and the agent or publisher might still require more edits. There’s no magic formula, and no right way to do it.

In the end, if you choose to employ a professional editor, make sure you follow Rules 2 and 3. Do your homework, and read the agreement.

Exceptions: Of course there are exceptions! You have to decide for yourself what’s worth paying for. What are you getting for your money? What will you learn? Is this something that will only help you short-term, or can you apply it to future projects?

Take those ones I mentioned way up at the top of this screed. I will fork out money for 3 Day Novel, the Book Doctor’s book, and to buy a subscription to Duotrope.com. For me, the expected benefits far outweighs the cost.

    • 3DN always gives me the central action sequence to what later becomes my next novel project.
    • Because I pitched well enough to TBDs, I received a personal referral to an agent to pitch my latest project.
    • Duotrope runs the most comprehensive competition calendar I have ever seen online, so it is well worth the money to access their data, if you’re serious about entering competitions.

Keep in mind that the competitions listed may have entry fees, which you have to evaluate on a case-by-case basis. (Yog again!)

Richenda’s List of Stuff Worth Paying For (cobbled together over some 14 years)

  • a subscription to Writer’s Digest magazine
  • several books that she researched heavily before buying (some of the best among them being The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published by The Book Doctors, Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass, and Hooked by Les Edgerton)
  • a handful of contests
  • a few webinars and conferences that speak specifically to what I’m working on at the time.

My BA concentrated in Creative Writing, but I have no plans for an MFA, at least not anytime in the next 10 years, because I’ve already done three years of workshopping with literature majors, thanks. I have owned two copies of The Writer’s Market in the last 7 years, and The WD Guide to Literary Agents, and I have resolved not to buy any more until I am really 100% ready to start submitting to those listings, otherwise they just collect dust and get out of date.

I admit I’ve wasted money (particularly on the books, writing books are a real toss-up) and I have learned from those what not to buy. I also know to read contracts carefully, not pay an agent a dime til they sell something, and to walk away from a bad deal. Not being published is better than giving away your soul. You worked hard to reach that point, you deserve the rewards!

Writing is fraught with enough angst as it is. I don’t want anyone to go through the entire ordeal of writing, editing, and querying a novel only to get scammed, the rights to their work in limbo, and the whole project, and their wallet, wasted.

In the end, the decision whether to purchase something is totally yours. But (Rule 2) do your homework, (Rule 3) read the agreement, and, if you are still uncertain, write me a NaNoMail! I’ll plug into my vast array of writerly talent (Hey, Shen!) and give you my best, honest opinion. 

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