Shades of Gray

Ann is away for a few days, which is why you’re seeing so much of me just now.

I just did a brief interview on WAMC, the NPR station in Albany, NY, about Martha Ivery and writing scams in general. It went well–the hosts always ask smart questions–and I was able to mention Writer Beware’s URL. So Martha, you’re famous–though maybe not quite the way you wanted to be.

Elsewhere in the blogosphere, I’ve been characterized as being on a “jihad” to inform writers about scammers, and having a “very black & white” view of what a scammer is. It kind of amuses me, since I’ve gotten in trouble at other times for being too attentive to shades of gray–for instance, for pointing out that most agents who charge fees are not deliberate scammers, or that a small number of “legitimate” agents ask for some kind of upfront money, or that fee-charging can no longer be considered an infallible indication of non-legitimacy (track record, or lack of it, is a much more reliable indicator–though there are shades of gray even there, because even a very experienced publishing professional who is transitioning to agenting will lack sales initially). Whatever.

On a related note, I’ve seen discussions in several places recently about reading fees, and whether agents could or should charge them. Here’s one of the more interesting.

I think that at least a theoretical case can be made for reading fees. Agents do spend a lot of time considering and reviewing submissions, and it’s not unreasonable for them to want some sort of compensation for that. But in my opinion, any arguments that support the use of reading fees are outweighed by the fact that reading fees are just too easy to abuse. The danger isn’t so much that legitimizing reading fees would result in a huge new crop of scammers (with the right tools, scammers aren’t that hard to avoid), but that established agents would be tempted to ask for submissions in which they had little or no interest, in order to get the fee–or to set up reading fee “factories,” a la Scott Meredith and his Discovery program. Not every agent would do this, of course. Perhaps most wouldn’t. But some would. In a world of reading fees, writers could never really be sure that an invitation to submit indicated real interest in their work. They could never really know whether the fee was a good “investment.”

I think this is the reason the AAR prohibited reading fees for its members–not because of reading fee scams (too many people in the publishing world are hardly aware of the scam industry), but because of successful agents who were using fees as a way to make an easy profit.

There’s also the issue of incentive. An agent who profits only when her clients do is highly motivated not just to sell her clients’ work, but to get the most lucrative possible deals. A fee–even a small one, because you have to multiply that small amount by the many submissions the agent is going to request over the course of a year–diminishes that incentive, and makes actual sales less urgent. Maybe only a little less urgent. But do you really want your agent trying even a little less hard on your behalf?

What do you think?


  1. Thank you Victoria and everyone else for your insights. I know so little and appreciate your experience and willingness to share. I doubt my dream will ever be realized because frankly, I am not confident enough nor most likely talented enough. Still it is good to learn. Knowledge is never wasted.

  2. Honor, you’ve gotten some good advice, so some of what I’m going to say will be repetitive. Apologies in advance.

    If it were really true that publishers were only interested in cookie-cutter copies of current bestsellers or books by celebrities, writers like Ann and me wouldn’t have careers. Nor would new writers ever break in. And they do break in. Find a copy of Publishers Weekly and flip to the review section. You might be surprised how many debut books you find there, from major publishers.

    It’s also not true that everyone in publishing is out to screw you. I know that it can seem that way if you read Writer Beware or this blog or one of the writers’ forums that discusses scams. But it’s important to remember that the scams–and the amateurs and the incompetents and even the honest vanity publishers–are not part of the publishing industry. They belong to a completely separate mirror-world which only mimics the real world of publishing. The only point of connection between these two worlds is writers.

    Plenty of writers stumble into the mirror-world, and some never get out. But this doesn’t have to happen to you. With the proper cautions (available on Writer Beware) and the right knowledge (I advise every new writer to read up on publishing before they start submitting–and not on the Internet, where information is iffy) scam/incompetent agents and publishers are really pretty easy to avoid. If you know how to identify a reputable agency or publishing company, you won’t approach questionable ones. If you know the warning signs of a questionable agent or publisher, you’ll be able to identify them before they hook you. And if you understand how publishing works, you’ll be able to submit your work intelligently and effectively–which, assuming you have a marketable manuscript, is a large part of the battle.

    Educate yourself. That’s a writer’s single most important tool. (And by the way, I suggest you avoid the blogs of commercially-published writers who have an excessively negative take on publishing. Yes, a lot of that doomy gloomy stuff is true. But not all of it, and not for everyone. If you’re going to sustain the dream/delusion/drive/whatever for publishing–which is hard enough without being told you’re probably going to fail even if you do get published–I think it’s a good idea to avoid that kind of toxic stuff.)

    As for POD (I’m assuming you mean one of the POD self-publishing services), it can work in certain very specific circumstances, but if you’re interested in establishing a writing career, it probably isn’t the best way to go, at least at first. Why not try submitting to reputable agents (if your goal is publication through one of the large publishers) or to reputable publishers (if you’re willing to approach smaller publishers)? The worst that can happen is that you don’t get any takers. You can then consider turning to POD as a fallback option.

  3. I noticed that over on AW the name Scott Meredith came up. If anyone has any doubts that the fee-charging aspect of SMLA was a scam, check out the article by Barry Malzberg in SFWA’s Nebula Awards Showcase 2005. Barry was SMLA’s main Discovery Program reader for many years. I’m glad to see he’s retired and they’ve closed down their fee-charging program.

  4. Honor,

    I would define an honest POD as one that admits they are simply a purveyor of printing services, does not pretend to be a commercial publisher, admits that your books probably won’t be sold in stores if they print them, offers a contract that you can quit any time you want for any reason, and doesn’t shortchange authors on their royalties. With the exception of the last criterion, an honest POD can often be spotted by the claims they make on their website. Examples include Lulu, Cafepress, and Booklocker.

    But this may not be what you want if your goal is to sell decent quantities of your book to the general public. In that case, you would be best off finding a small publisher, not a POD outfit. One good way to do that would be to go to a bookstore and find books on the same subject as yours. Look inside and see who published them.

  5. I’d like to suggest that honor not try to find an honest POD. If they want to go with an honest small publisher, I think it’s best to ignore the printing technology and focus on the kinds of books they publisher puts out.

    Find a publisher that handles books similar to yours, then dig up their submission guidelines.

  6. Harry: I agree with you completely about Andrew Zack.

    Honor: Lulu is an “honest POD”, if that’s what you choose. Another option is me: Nano Press, if you want a “real” publisher (not POD) who’s out to publish good stuff and will be satisfied with good sales but won’t be disappointed if you don’t sell hundreds of thousands books. I’m an unproven start-up, but check out my site and see what you think. I also have a message in to Victoria requesting a pre-emptive stamp of approval as a non-scammer. (I haven’t heard back from her yet, but I know she has a ton of other stuff going on.)

  7. “Real publishers” currently appear interested in nothing but pap by celebrities or the infamous.

    I was just in a bookstore this weekend, and a vanishingly small number of books were written by “celebrities or the infamous.”

  8. I found your blog via a link at POD-dy mouth. Kudos to both you and POD-dy for your services to aspiring writers. I am though compelled to say that now I have a splitting headache and a fatalistic attitude toward continuing my dream of being published.

    To be published without being screwed in some manner seems inevitable. “Real publishers” currently appear interested in nothing but pap by celebrities or the infamous. The PODS etc. seem all to be thieves bound in faux leather. How does one find an honest POD if that is the venue chosen?

  9. Mr. Zack’s blog posts and message board comments give me the impression that he’ll be leaving the industry within the year. He sounds thoroughly discouraged and disgusted.

  10. A jihad on scammers? Where can I sign up? I want to bomb one particular group of scammers!

    Ok, so the “bomb” I intend to mail some of them is actually a manuscript consisting of a screenplay that has been converted to a novel in dialog form using a bad case of said-book-ism. Oh, and it doesn’t have an ending, either. But I think they might accept it and spend a couple hundred dollars on cover art and such. And if that isn’t a bomb when it comes to literary sales, I don’t know what is!

  11. Being a new writer, I’m leary of people who want money. Thanks Ann and Victoria for teaching me the right way.

    Between you guys and Miss Snark, I’m going to be so smart that I won’t be able to stand me!

  12. Thank you so much for this post, Victoria. I was the one whose post that poster was answering, and after reading the Absolute Write thread before his post, I decided not to bother engaging in any more discussion with him. He has his opinion and obviously nothing will change it. (He’s also pretty dismissive about anyone who chooses to conceal their identity on the internet (cough —
    Miss Snark
    — cough), implying that anonymity renders one not worthy of attention.)

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