25 Things Writers Should Beware

The act of writing is awesome. The business of writing is, nnnnggghyeah, less so. Sometimes this thing we do seems like frolicking nude across a minefield while some shady assailant fires paintballs at your crotchparts. It’s hard to know which way to step. One wrong move and you’ve given some scam-artist all your copyrights or granted some publisher the right to tattoo its logo above your father’s ass-crack. We inkslingers have to stay frosty lest we get skuh-rewed.

Now, let’s be clear — I’m no expert on any of this stuff, and so I will defer right now, ahead of the post, to experts like Writers Beware (site and blog) or authors who are also pub-law experts like Susan Spann. My goal here is to wink and nod toward potential landmines so you can investigate them on your own sweet penmonkey time. Shall we begin?

1. Misinformation

The Internet is awesome because it’s all like HOLY CRAP ALL THE INFORMATION EVER, but it’s also less than awesome because it’s all also like HEY WHOA CHECK OUT THIS MOUNT FUJI-SIZED PILE OF HORSESHIT. Here on the Woven World Web, truth and bullshit are given equal time to parade around in their 1s and 0s; what that means for the writer is that we will encounter a mix of Genuine Information, Anecdotal Evidence (aka “Artisanal Data”), and Bold-Faced Deception. You’ll hear things about publishing or self-publishing or agents or contracts that fall into one of those categories but they all pretend to be in the category of Genuine Information even when they’re not. Always ask: “Is this true?” Then use your digital detective skills (and question-asking skills) to suss out the reality. (Please see yesterday’s post on the subject of dispelling misinformation. Pay particular attention to the comments.)

2. Self-Publishing Scams

Self-publishing is a great way for an author to assert control and take risks not supported by the more traditional (and often risk-averse) system. But outside true self-publishing you’ll find those interested in preying off writers who are bitter over rejection or who want it quick-and-easy, and so what forms is a scammy underlayer of scum-grease comprising assholes who want to take advantage of the potential self-publisher. So-called “vanity presses” will basically make you pay out the ass for a series of services (POD, marketing, whatever) that are designed to dip into your pockets and fill theirs while never replenishing what you lost. (Check out Writer Beware on Self-Pub and POD.) Oh, and some mainstream publishers are now launching their own “self-publishing” endeavors that sound suspiciously like vanity presses.

3. Get-Rich-Quick Schemes

The general consensus over an author’s potential finances seems to either be a) you’re going to be a broke-ass cubicle-monkey churning out novels for the monetary equivalent of Circus Peanuts (the candy, not the actual carnival legumes) or b) you’ll be the literary love-child of Stephen King and J.K. Rowling stuffing your library shelves with hundred-dollar-bills instead of books. The truth (as ever) is in the middle: you can do pretty nicely as an author. But those two polar opposites (shit-ass poor and holy-fuck rich) foster an environment of get-rich-quick schemes aimed at the writerly type. Here’s the key: when anybody guarantees that if you do X, Y, and Z then you can make phat bank too, get worried and do your research. Basically, if it sounds too good to be true? Mmmyeah, it probably is.

4. The Wrong Agent

The agent-author relationship is, at risk of belaboring the obvious, a relationship. It has to work as more than just a client-provider give-and-take — the agent has to be aware of your goals and work for you rather than for the industry at large. Thing is, authors taking that first icy plunge into the inky pools of publishing feel like they’d be blessed to get any agent at all, so they treat it the way a starving dog treats any piece of shit treat thrown on the floor. As a writer, you have power. This relationship isn’t meant to be parasitic. It’s symbiotic. Everybody wins or nobody does. Choosing the wrong agent could hurt your career more than it might help it.

5. Slopsucking Motherfucking Con Artist Agents

You can get the wrong agent, or you can get the AWOOGA AWOOGA WRONG AGENT — meaning, an agent who is basically going to milk you of your cash and your hope and, I dunno, run off to Barbados with some underage cabana boy. An untrustworthy agent will offer you constricting contracts, will demand money up front, will sell you additional “services” (editing! marketing! prostate massage!), and will rob you of your time and effort and good will toward men. Keep an eye on the Writer Beware Thumbs-Down Agency List.

6. No Agent At All

I hear this all the time: “The agent’s job is to get you a publishing deal, so if you already have a deal, you don’t need an agent.” An agent — or, more to the point, a good and qualified agent — does a whole lot more than that. Trust me from my experience: your agent will go well-beyond the offer and into the realm of negotiation. If you don’t want an agent, then you damn well better get a copyright or IP lawyer, because you’re going to get a contract from the publisher that at best will skim a little cream off your coffee for themselves and at worst will ensure that you can’t take a piss without them suing you because it counts as “competing content.”

7. Anybody Who Asks For Your Money

The saying is that money should flow to the author, not from her, and that’s still true — for the most part. Generally speaking, no publisher or agent or editor or producer should be asking for your money, and if they are, you gotta do your due diligence and sniff for the farty egg-stink of fraud. The exception to this is, of course, freelance services you might use on your own (editing, cover art, etc), but even there it’s on you to make sure you’re getting what you pay for.

8. Anybody Without A Proven Track Record

More to the point, be wary of hiring or forming a business relationship with anybody who has no proven track record. Agents, editors, publishers, book designers, web-coders, porn-farmers, whiskey-distillers: they’ll all have a stable of authors they can point to and say, “I provided a service and these fine people will act as references.” Seek out proven work. Don’t get into bed — figuratively speaking — with folks you don’t trust. Don’t get into actual bed with them, either, because that’s how you get chlamydia. Seriously, the publishing industry is full of the stuff.

9. Contest Scams

OH MY GOD WHAT A COOL CONTEST I CAN WIN A HUNDRED BUCKS FROM MY WRITING ALL I HAVE TO DO IS PAY A FIFTY DOLLAR ENTRY FEE AND THEN TURN IN MY WORK AND SIGN THIS CONTRACT THAT GIVES THEM RIGHTS TO PUBLISH MY WORK ANYWHERE AT ANY TIME FOREVER AND EVER AND MAN THIS IS MY TICKET TO LITERARY FAME oh yeah, no it isn’t, it’s a scammy fuck-you-flavored contest. (Check out Writer Beware on Contests and Awards.)

10. Small Presses

Let’s be clear, this is not an indictment against all small presses. I like small presses. In this Age of the Cyborg Intertubes they can do a lot of the same things that a larger publisher can do but respond more quickly to change because their boots are not stuck in the mud of tradition. On the other hand, small presses can also pop up out of nowhere, created and manned by people who have literally no fucking idea what they’re doing, but they can talk a good game and sign some authors and then completely bork their books or even careers. As always: do research. Be wary. Sniff for bullshit. Hire a lawyer or an agent. Get defended against chicanery and legerdemain. (Behold: Writer Beware on Small Presses.)

11. Anything In Perpetuity

Forever is bad news in intellectual property. Damn, is forever good in anything? Would you buy a house that you had to own forever? Marriage is “forever” in theory, but legally, not so much. In publishing, forever ain’t so hot. You don’t want to give anybody rights to publish your work forever. You don’t want to staple-gun your mouth to the ass of any publisher, agent, or distribution entity. Any language that forces you into a lifetime-and-beyond relationship is there to hurt you and help someone else. Fuck it. Negotiate an escape.

12. Really Vague Language

You may recall that time that one publicity agency faked testimonials in the name of several authors including Myke Cole, Maureen Johnson and, ohhh, some dude named Chuck Wendig. Despite that little legal oopsie, there existed other clues that the Albee Agency just wasn’t on the up-and-up. For instance, evidence of their publicity efforts always came in vague data-bites: “We just got an author onto television to promote her book!” OH NO WAY. Hey, what author? What channel? What time? I’m sorry, no details available? Hey, could you turn up the ambiguity a little? The data-bite might as well have said: “WE JUST DID A THING FOR AN AUTHOR WHO WROTE THAT OTHER THING WE RULE HIRE US FOR OUR UNCERTAIN GENERIC SERVICES.”

13. Horseshit Publicity Services

Honestly, I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard of a publicity service really doing great things for authors, but I’m sure you’ll find one out there somewhere. Just the same, plenty exist who will take your money and book you on some radio show that has a devoted audience of 14 “model airplane enthusiasts” who don’t give a marmot’s mammary gland about your novel. (And now I’ll go ahead and point to Writer Beware on the various writer services available.)

14. Fake-Ass Reviews By Fake-Ass Reviewers

Fake reviews of books exist. Fake reviews of authors exist. Fake reviews of everything exist (see above, with the “conjured out of the ether” testimonials of the Albee Agency). Don’t pay for fake reviews. Don’t be fooled by them. Don’t eat yellow snow. Don’t order fish on Mondays. Etc, etc.

15. Bullshit Social Media Services

Social media ain’t that goddamn hard, people. You know how, like, you’re a person who walks around and talks to people at the mall, or at work, or at the dinner table? And how it doesn’t behoove you to be a total fucking asshole there? Do the same thing online. There! Ta-da! I just saved you from hiring a social media guru who will take your money in order to infuse your social media presence with the rank snot-curdling odor of sour douchebaggery (“brand!” “platform!” “Klout score!”). Also: piss on anybody who wants to take your money to give you 10,000 new “followers” in the blink of an eye. Five hundred awesome followers are better than 10,000 non-followers carved out of the quivering meat-gelatin that is digital spam. Now, if they’re offering you 10,000 artificially-intelligent hunter-killer robots, hey, hook me up.

16. Anybody Who Gets Paid But Won’t Pay You

It’s really pretty simple: your goal is not only to be published but also to get paid doing it. (Well, okay, maybe you personally don’t give a shit, but I’m talking to the professional or hope-to-be-professional writers out there, and professional is a Latin word that means “Pay Me, Motherfucker.”) So, any publishing endeavor that publishes your work and in turn gets paid means some of that money should trickle down to you. Preferably a not-insignificant share of it because, drum roll please, without the creative content put forth by writers, the publisher has not one fiddly fucking thing to publish. In the business of publishing, creators are far more essential than publishers. A company who publishes squiggly margin doodles of ejaculating dicks still needs someone to scribble the jizzy dongs. If they get paid, you get paid.

17. Work For Exposure

Follow-up to that: exposure is not a measurable resource. If someone asks you to write for exposure, ask them how much exposure. Like, have them measure it. “Will it be ten picameters of exposure? I usually ask at least seven nanoliters’ worth.” If they can prove it, fuck yeah, great. But exposure is a hard thing to prove. Let me utter my refrain yet again: “Writers, like hikers, can die from exposure.” And, my second refrain, brought to bear once more with the Amanda Fucking Palmer TED Talk: “If you’re going to be exposed, expose yourself.”

18. Unqualified Editors

Editors are the unsung heroes of the publishing industry. They can shine dirty gold to a burnished gleam and can even help an author spin dross into pearlescent threads of unicorn colostrum. Just the same, you never want to hire an editor without getting some sense of their qualifications. Get some testimonials. Talk to their other clients. Follow up.

19. Anybody Trying To Pressure You Into Anything

Applying pressure is a famous bullying tactic that’s also a sign to duck and cover. Fake time constraints or disappearing opportunities or any attempt to force you to make a decision out of fear is always a steaming sauce-pot of rat urine. The application of pressure tells an author that you have something they want and they’re afraid they cannot get it. Kick them to the curb and find a better, healthier partner who won’t try to stick a gun up your keister.

20. The Loss Of Subsidiary Rights

The money in publishing isn’t just from the advance — it’s from selling a bunch of sub-rights like foreign (world translation), audio, film, radio, comic books, games, whatever. Some publishers will try to scoop those up, but you need to keep those for yourself. Is your publisher really able to handle all that, and do you really want them to? Again: the power of a good agent is made clear, because they get paid when you get paid, which gives them an incentive to drum up opportunity for you and your work in shiny new spaces.

21. Scary Non-Compete Clauses

My opinion is, any non-compete clause in a contract is probably a bad one. First, it makes little sense for an author to compete against himself. Second, the nature of that non-compete can be interpreted a little too liberally on the page: “You wrote a middle-grade novel about a heroic penguin who fights off evil walruses and now you’re publishing an erotic spy novel who fights psychic KGB agents and we regret to inform you that both penguins and spies appear to wear tuxedos and so we feel that these novels compete against one another and thus we are going to have you assassinated. Please stand by and hold still so the sniper bullet can compete with your brainpan.” POOP NOISE TO THAT. Competition is what keeps this cranky capitalist machine churning properly and its loss is dangerous for authors and publishers.

22. Anything In That Makes You Feel Uncomfortable

Imagine this: Dude drives up in a van. He opens the door (which is painted with a mural of a wizard firing rainbow magic from his fingertips whose colorful acid beams are skinning a bat-winged nightmare pegasus). This sweaty, panting dude offers you candy. Already you’re like, “Yeah, shit, I love me some fuckin’ candy, but something about this gentleman seems mighty sketchy.” Your instinct will serve you will in this, and it will serve you well in publishing. Anytime you see something in a contract or in a company’s promise that sounds off-kilter and it tickles your amygdala enough to pump you full of paranoia juice, do some digging.

23. Work Without Contracts

Don’t work without a contract. It’s like jumping out of a plane naked, with no parachute, covered in weasels who are trained to invade warm, moist cavities. A strong, zero-fuckery contract can save you just as it can save the person who wrote the contract in the first place.

24. Disinformation (AKA Agendas)

No one aspect of publishing is perfect. Nor is there a single way to write your book and get it out into the world. Anybody who espouses a Monotheistic (ONE TRUE WAY) approach to this whole gig is a person with an agenda, and anybody with an agenda is spouting propaganda, and propaganda is nothing but disinformation designed to support said agenda. Misinformation is one thing — it just means people got it wrong. Disinformation is someone willfully smearing their own feces into your eyes and ears so you don’t find truth.

25. A Lack of Education On Your Part

Finding the truth and vetting information and making the right choices is all on you. No agent is perfect. No publisher is untarnished. No self-publishing prospect is an Easter basket of puppies and kittens. You must get educated. You must stand vigilant against the rampant heinous fuckery out there. Don’t trust me. Don’t place all your trust in the hands of anyone. Ask questions. Seek information. Look for the pearls of truth in the oyster-spooge of opinion. Be smart. Protect yourself. You are your own best defender against all the nonsense.


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