Guest Blog Post: International Writing Scams and How to Protect Yourself

Today’s guest blog post, from journalist Mridu Khullar Relph, explores the world of writing schemes and scams from an international perspective–something that’s increasingly an issue for Western writers looking to find work overseas. Some of the scams Mridu identifies below may sound familiar, but there’s nearly always an international twist.

Other resources: see my 2011 blog post on literary scams in India. Author Sameer Kamat also covers India-based schemes and scams on his blog.

If you’ve done overseas work and have run into any of these scams–or if you’ve encountered other scams that you think writers should be aware of–please post your story in the comments. It’s one thing to provide general information about what writers should avoid, but what really hits home is personal experience.


International Writing Scams and How to Protect Yourself When Doing Business Abroad
by Mridu Khullar Relph

Even as recently as five years ago, the covers of major news magazines were screaming themselves hoarse about the outsourcing of publishing, the writing of your local newspapers abroad, and the taking away of editorial jobs from the West and passing them off to the East.

Well, that hasn’t happened (editors and agents are still happily in business in New York, thankfully). But what has happened, and what will continue to happen, is that the world, especially the publishing world, has become a smaller place.

The talent still rises to the top, but where that talent came from a few select countries before, now it comes from the world over. The Internet has opened up opportunities for the unknown non-Western writer to get published in the West, but what is even more interesting is that it has opened up an entirely new, global market for the Western writer who can access new markets, readers, and opportunities at the click of a button.

While that’s great news, it’s also where part of the trouble comes in. Because although doing business abroad can be a fantastic idea, scams don’t respect international borders. Inevitably, you’re going to encounter dodgy situations–some that you may recognize, but others that you may be unfamiliar with in your own country.

Here are some of the most common scams you may run across in the writing and publishing industry abroad, and tips on how to avoid falling for them.

The Scam: Paying the agent

Agents who ask you to pay fees upfront are a pretty common scam in the US, but (and this is confusing), this is not always the case abroad.

For instance, I know a very reputable agency in India, my home country, that actually accepts every manuscript that comes their way and charges to edit, polish and then submit the idea to publishers. These guys have posted deals on Publishers Marketplace and they’re pretty upfront about how they function, so they’re a serious agency, but they also charge. Without context and background, they may seem to be a scam–but they’re actually not.

So what do you do if you have, say, a book that could do potentially really well in India? Is it worth going through this agency–or another like it?

What I recommend is always e-mailing clients, customers and people who’ve forked over the cash, no matter which country they’re in, to ask about their experience. Are they satisfied? Were there problems? If you can’t go yourself, send a friend to a bookstore in that country
(or look through their online bookstores) to see which publishers have
bought the titles the agency claims to have sold, and whether those titles are on the shelves. When it comes to an agency, you should always be able to talk to at least one client and see a number of recognizable book titles on their list before you decide whether they’re legit or not.

And if writers or customers have had problems, or you can’t find a single book or client? Run, don’t walk. It may not turn out to be a scam after all (just an inexperienced agency), but do you really want to take that risk?

The Scam: “Please send me your books”

When you’ve published a book, especially one that’s selling well, sooner or later you’ll receive an e-mail that goes something like this: “Dear Writer, I am a huge fan of your work, your website, your Twitter, your Facebook, every single word you’ve written on the Internet. Now you have a book out and I would love to buy said book, but it isn’t available in my impoverished country. Could you please Fedex me ten copies?”

First, you’ll be flattered. Then, you’ll rally against a world in which people have no books and be thankful for the fact that you do. Then, and only then, will you notice that last little bit at the end. Uh, ten copies? Why does this person need TEN COPIES?

This isn’t always a scam, obviously. Sometimes, it’s a teacher who genuinely wants copies for his school library or a woman who’d like some for a new book group she’s formed. And let’s face it, if it does turn out to be scam, you’re at most out of a few copies of your own book. Like when you’re charged more by cab drivers because you look like a tourist, it’s more about the principle than the actual monetary value of the books.

To check, you could Google the name of the person who’s sent you the request, see if they’ve ever actually commented on your blog or follow you on Twitter. And of course, you can check where they live and how difficult it is to actually get books there. Surely someone with access to the Internet wouldn’t mind downloading the e-copies you’re willing to send?

The Scam: Editors/manuscript evaluation services/e-course instructors

They’re everywhere these days in the era of self-publishing, many of them fantastic, some of them not. In fact, you’ll find frequently, through bitter experience unfortunately, that many people who call themselves “editors” have no editing experience at all and that e-course instructors who want to teach you how to make an income freelancing, often are making their own income solely through teaching.

In fact, just last week a freelancer wrote to me (with no hint of irony, I might add) saying that she was having a lot of trouble getting new assignments and thought the market was dying up, so she was taking up teaching freelancing instead. This woman has credentials–but that means absolutely nothing because her credentials aren’t allowing her to sustain a happy career.

Here’s a tip: Whenever you’re considering hiring someone from overseas as an editor, to evaluate your manuscript, or to teach you something, make sure that you know the actual CURRENT professional qualifications of that person–and that you understand what those qualifications mean. When someone says they’ve been published in some of the top publications in, say, Brazil, look at these top publications and the standard of their content and then decide whether it’s something you can respect. When writers say they’ve been published in “national magazines,” what nation are they referring to? What publications? And do publications in that nation have writing standards you respect?

In some cases, these so-called editors and teachers will simply take off with your money. If you can, never pay all of it upfront.

The Scam: Virtual assistants and content outsourcing agencies

If you’ve ever considered lightening your workload by outsourcing some of the grunt work to somebody else, you’ll no doubt have come across virtual assistants and content outsourcing agencies, who’ll offer to do the research and administrative work for you.

Many of these (the cheaper ones, anyway) are located abroad, usually in Asia. And while there are many many good ones, there will always be a few that will take your money and deliver sub-standard work, if they deliver at all.

The way to escape this scam? References, references, references. That is the only way to start doing business with people outside your own country. Word of mouth. Run Google searches. If something negative comes up, don’t ignore it! Investigate it, if you can. Make sure a phone number is provided–and make sure to call it, to see if you can actually communicate with the person on the other side. You’ll be surprised at how many outsourcing agencies list numbers that don’t actually exist–or have staffers attending phones who can’t communicate with you. What happens when you have an emergency situation and need to talk to a live person on the phone?

The Scam: Publications who hire you with no intention of paying

Like in your own country, publications guilty of this will include magazines, e-zines, even national newspapers (no kidding!). One of my least favorite personal experiences with this is when a publication in the UK asked me to write for free. I told them I couldn’t, stated my fee, and was pleasantly surprised when they agreed to pay it. Well, they got the piece for free anyway because they ran my article and never bothered paying me. Turns out, I wasn’t the only sucker who got scammed into this. They’d hired several writers from various countries (including the UK) with no intention of ever paying them.

If you’re considering working with an unknown overseas publication (and you should always carefully research it before deciding, to check quality and to turn up any complaints or reports of problems), my recommendation is to never give work that is worth more than a few hundred dollars to begin with. If you’ve done thousands of dollars worth of work for somebody, you’re desperate for that money and the loss is harder to bear. Start small, perhaps with a filler. Only when you’ve established that a publication is good for the money, should you think of starting a real relationship.

The Scam: Contests that ask for all rights just for submitting

As a reader of Writer Beware, you’ve likely come across this one already, but I didn’t realize until recently just how pervasive it is, with national magazines being just as bad as that local e-zine. Read–and understand–the terms and conditions, especially if the contest is hosted abroad. If there are no terms and conditions listed, don’t submit!

Mridu Khullar Relph is an award-winning freelance journalist who has written for The New York Times, Time magazine, The International Herald Tribune, Marie Claire, Ms., Elle, and hundreds of other national and international publications. Check out her tips for writers on her blog and connect with her on Twitter or Facebook. She’d love to hear from you.


  1. Too bad Rupert Murdoch has such bad taste in authors, oh and he's the guy who stalked a dead teen's family, fits in nicely with your mo

  2. I think that coocoo was a frequent defamer on Writer Beware and thought it was ok to shoot kids because they get away with so much cruelty on this site. Ruining someone's reputation and business is equivalent to murder, as is character assassination like that idiot Prof Fisher who says people's college degrees are fake. He is a mass murderer by default.

  3. The majority of editors below the managerial level are freelance. Traditional book publishers use freelancers heavily or exclusively, because they don't want to pay the benefits and other overhead associated with hiring in-house editors. However, they are desirable as clients because they are usually solvent and can provide a steady stream of work. As for the writer "having to" pay an editor, it's the writer's choice. Some self-publishers hire editors and some don't. Note, however, that it is the writer's choice to self-publish and when that happens, the writer then inevitably gets all the responsibilities and costs of publishing, including editing, graphic design, marketing, etc., in addition to writing. There is nothing "unfair" about this.

  4. It's not just non western countries, even in Australia writers will find this type of scam.
    You'll send to a literary agent, who'll probably direct you to an editing service and so on and so forth; they all try to make business of each other.
    There are some reputable publishing houses (subsidiaries) that also list some 'editing' service companies on their websites. While I can sympathise with freelance editors struggling, it's their choice to be freelance. Writers shouldn't have to pay extra to send their work outside of a publishing house, to pay hundreds.

  5. The Scam: Editors/manuscript evaluation services/e-course instructors

    Editing mills exist, and scams know no borders. Writer Beware, indeed.

    I'm both an editor and a writer. In my experience, you have better odds of finding a legit editor for your work when you work with someone who's traceable and accountable — which is much easier when that person is local. Sorry, Mridu, it's rare feasible to check references so far away.

    The CE-L editor's group has an extensive listing of professionals, which you can search by area (there are some editors in Asia, some in UK, but most are US-based).
    I also recommend the Bay Area Editors' Forum as a bastion of highly qualified freelancers:

    And note to Maia: Oh yes, a good editor can improve any middling manuscript. I've done it, I've seen others do it. But it's like going to a therapist: you have to *want* to change.

  6. Obviously, editing costs money, which is why many publishers don't accept badly written fiction (nonfiction by a subject expert can be a whole 'nother story), and why many self-publishers don't want to hire an editor. I don't do freelance editing anymore, so I'm not trying to drum up business and I'm not insisting that every self-publisher automatically hire an editor. I can edit my own work and I've had authors who had clearly self-edited, and done it well, before ever turning in the MS. But all that said, a good editor can help a great deal. Note that most freelancers go where the money is, and they prefer large or midsize publishers who can give them a long stream of steady jobs so they don't spend lots of unpaid days or weeks marketing just to get more work in.

  7. As someone who spent years as a developmental and rewrite editor, I disagree. Yes, a book can be extensively reorganized and yes, it can be rewritten. And yes, all this can turn a so-so book into a good book and a book that sells better. It's a lot of work for both the writer and the editor. It is better if the author initially does a great job of organization and writing. But the fact is, books often require a lot of rewriting, although how much of this is done by an editor and how much by the writer varies. I grant that some editors aren't very good, and I grant that not every editor is the right for every writer, and I grant that some writers do so much work on their own that all that is needed is a light copyedit, if anything. I had some authors who threw half-written work at me for me to fix. And I had some who were so perfectionist that they freaked if they found out the MS they turned in had a couple of typos in it–they probably *didn't* need any editor. But the point is, just because your work doesn't need any editing or you've had bad experiences with editors does not mean that all editors are useless.

  8. There was a point touched on here that got me thinking, although it's not intrinsically related to international publishing. I've actually been kicking around an idea lately, and I've decided that *I* believe it's correct. (That doesn't mean that it IS, of course, but… well, y'all will see what I mean.)

    After talking to a lot of people and seeing a lot of before-and-after results, I honestly think that editing services– even the good ones– don't really help much at all. (With the possible exception of line editing.) Either a narrative essentially works in some way, or it doesn't. And as my sainted grandfather used to say about poker hands, you can't polish a turd. Editing will not truly, fundamentally improve manuscripts that just aren't good. That's why publishers don't simply accept most of the manuscripts that come their way in the belief that editing will make them into bestsellers.

    I've known so many people who went through the indie editing process and spent so much money. Some of them were happy with it; some were just taken advantage of. But I've never seen a book that had its fundamental problems "fixed" through editing. Ever.

    Okay, everybody may not agree… (laces up running shoes). What does everyone think about this, though?

  9. No offense, but it is perfectly possible to limit publishing options to US-only. I've done it for 20 years.

  10. Hi Frances,

    Thanks for your comment! That's not bad advice, however, I think it may perhaps be a bit impractical in today's world unless you want to limit your options to US-only. I just realized recently that I'm working with people in at least half a dozen countries and it doesn't even come up anymore where someone is based. I live in India, and like to think I'm competent, and I'd hate for someone to dismiss me (as was the norm in the past) simply because of my location. But more than that, I get hired by US editors BECAUSE I'm in India and can do what US-based writers can't.

    I personally think the solution is to be vigilant and get personal recommendations.

  11. Here's some advice an attorney gave me regarding hiring translators based outside the US. It applies to every situation where you are in the US and doing business outside the US. The attorney's advice was: Never do it, because it's very difficult and expensive to sue someone outside the US. Of course, you don't *want* to sue anyone. But if that is your only possible way to recover your money, you want the potential to sue if you ever need to.

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