“This [talk] is titled ‘How Not to Get Published,” Richard C. White noted at the Oct. 6 workshop. “Actually, I’m going to help you all GET published, but I’m going to help you avoid some of the silliness that goes on in the world.”
Richard’s seen a lot of silliness over the years as one of three members of the publishing watchdog group, Writer Beware, and as an author who’s written everything from comics and super heroes to nonfiction and noir. He started writing at fifteen, working for a local newspaper, and currently is a technical writer. “I have no pride, I’m a writer,” he laughed.
“Writing is an art, but publishing is a business, and it behooves everyone to learn the business behind writing.” He encouraged writers to do a lot of research before launching their queries for an agent or publisher.
We spend a lot of time creating our work, yet a lot of people send it to the first agent they find. But anybody can print up some cards and call themselves an agent, as noted on a satirical website called“And that’s how cats end up getting manuscripts,” Richard said.
If your agent doesn’t have the same goals as you do, it will be a waste of time. Don’t be afraid to pass up an agent that isn’t a good fit. “A book publishable by one is publishable by many,” he said.
The traditional route is trade publishing. Agents are the gatekeepers, publishers are the producers, and readers are the target market. You have both desirable and undesirable agents. Desirables are established agents or new agents. Undesirables are amateur, incompetent, and fee-charging agents, who are essentially scammers.
Agents sell their clients’ books to advance-paying publishers. They work on commission and have experience in the publishing industry.
“Many are former editors or have come up as a junior agent through an agency,” he said. They know editors and how to get your books in front of them. They proudly show off their clients’ work. There is no such thing as a “stealth agent”-- it’s all about networking.
New agents should still have experience in the publishing industry. Most worked for other agents when they started out, but have broken off to start their own agency. Many are looking for their own niche or to specialize in genre or age group. Like experienced agents, they work strictly on commission.
“AAR (Association of Author Representatives) specifically says you cannot ask for money up front and be a member,” Richard says. “If you’re paying [an agent] up front, they don’t need to sell your book. They’ve already got your money.”
Amateur and incompetent agents aren’t necessarily bad people. They have little to no experience in the publishing industry, and they know very few (if any) editors personally. Consequently, many send manuscripts to inappropriate editors. Many got frustrated selling their own books and turned instead to selling others’ books. Some are agents as a side business and work on your book as a hobby. Most became an agent with the best of intentions, but being an “agent is not an entry-level position … Would you trust a doctor who skipped medical school?” Richard asked. “Whether new or established, get an experienced editor.
Fee-charging agents may require a reading fee with submission, or may have a “marketing,” “submission,” or “evaluation” fee before accepting you as a client. Some offer a “detailed critique” for a fee or sell “adjunct” services, like editing services. Fee-charging agents might recommend a vanity publishing company, which is also a fee-charging company. They may refer you to a freelance editor or editorial service/offering or require an agent’s paid editing service before they will publish you.
While some established agents do offer their services as editors, the difference is there’s a firewall between the businesses. You can’t submit to them as an agent and also as an editor.
Other undesirable agent red flags are agents who specialize in new authors, specifically. That’s basically telling you “we’re going after people who don’t know what they’re doing.” They may have no list of clients or post anonymous testimonials. These agents may refuse to talk about sales or have no verifiable sales. When agents approach authors, it’s called trawling.
“If you land a plane in the Hudson River and no one gets killed yes, you’ll have agents lined up to approach you, but not everyone is Captain Sully,” Richard said. Agents on Pitmad and Pitwars and other Twitter contests are often legit, but many are not. Undesirables scoop up new authors, including NaNoWriMo writers, trying to scam them into sending money. These fake agents are trying to take advantage of ignorance.
Another red flag is non-standard commissions. Standard commission is 15%, with 20% for foreign sales. If an agent is asking 40%, that is a scam. Consider an agent’s correspondence and website. If these are not free of grammatical errors and typos, that is a warning sign. “You don’t want to write better than your agent,” Richard said. Additionally, offering agent services to poets is a red flag because agents do not generally represent poets. “If an agent brings up any of these points or asks you for money, run, do not walk, to the nearest exit,” Richard said.
There are different types of legitimate publishers. Commercial publishers are those like the Big 5 (Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster). Medium-sized publishers might specialize in different genres or niche titles. University, regional and specialty publishers will know what bookstores and outlets would be appropriate for the market. This includes books on civil war, local ghost stories, etc.
Small press and e-publishing companies are not always a bad idea, he said, noting some do gangbuster work for romance and erotica. They may give you resources you do not have yourself, such as licenses for characters, distribution deals, and the like.
If the publishing company you find is new, wait at least two years before submitting to them to make sure they are stable.
Self-publishing is evolving. Tools are becoming more available to authors to edit, market, and publish their own work.
“The average small press sells something like 75 copies of a book over its lifetime,” Richard said. “Many small presses can’t do much more for you than you can do for yourself self-publishing.”
However, most larger publishers will not accept un-agented material, which is where medium, small, and self-publishing come in. “With self-publishing becoming so much more popular, the sharks are moving out to the self-publishers,” Richard warned.
Vanity presses do little more than print your book for a fee and put their name on it as the printer. That’s not necessarily a bad thing for some specialized books with limited appeal, like a family history, memoir, or recipe book that will only sell to a very select group of people. Those with a built-in audience can get some benefit from having a printer, for example, speakers who offer a book companion to a talk.
Vanities are not good for fiction. Because of short print runs, the sticker price is usually higher than trade published. A lot vanity presses don’t edit, but print “as-is,” and they offer no returnability, making them harder to get into bookstores.
While vanity presses are up-front about their services, reverse-vanity presses advertise as “traditional” publishers. The also offer little to no editing and books are priced beyond the casual reader’s interest. Few bookstores accept them because they are usually non-returnable or return at a bad discount.
There’s no up-front fee at these presses because their primary income is from selling books to the authors. They target retirees, college kids, and new authors. “They tend to be an author farm.” Richard said. “They accept everything that comes in.” They have setup fees or deposits on books, pressure authors to buy their own books, and have a pre-purchase or pre-sale requirement.
“If they force you to buy 75 copies, that will cover their entire print run and some profit for them,” Richard said. “No publisher should ever be asking you for money, no agent should ever be asking you for money.”
Watch for terms like “subsidy,” “co-op,” “joint venture,” or “partner.”
“There are hybrid authors, but not hybrid publishers,” Richard said. Companies that volunteer to match your investment are taking your money.
When it comes to self-publishing, it’s important to understand the difference between being a writer and being a publisher. Self-publishing is a full-time job in itself, which has a lot of hidden costs. You have to balance your time between writing, publishing, promoting, and working with artists and editors. Publishing can eat into your writing time.
“If you’re not paying yourself, then why are you doing it?” Understand how to separate paying the company from paying the writer. Find successful mentors who can help guide your path to success. Be honest with yourself. For instance, if you’re not good at editing, you should hire an editor.
“If you are a writer [only], do not pay for an editor. Edit yourself, have beta readers. If you are a publisher, you probably should hire an editor,” Richard said. “If you put out an unprofessional-looking book, you will probably never sell another one.”
Create a business plan and stick to it. Do not spend your savings to get a book out, and if it’s not working, know how to walk away. There’s no shame in admitting when something isn’t working -- ninety-percent of new businesses fail in the first two years. Remember highly successful authors in self-publishing are notable because they’re rare.
Editors can be predatory as well. Make sure your editor has qualifications, and ask for a chapter or sample gratis to test their style. Make sure they are the type and style of editor you need at the time. While publicists can help, make sure you have a very good sense of what they’re doing for you and for how much. You need to make sure you’re getting a good return on investment. Publicists even have a hard time selling books for big companies.
Watch out for reviewers who ask for money, including Kirkus. Kirkus reviews are good when they are organic, but paid ones do not weigh the same in the minds of librarians and booksellers.
Always ask yourself, “What’s in it for them?” Be clear about what are they doing for you and what they doing to you.
When in doubt, remember Yog’s Law: “Money flows to the author.” Also recall Crispin’s Corollary: “The only place an author signs a check is on the back.”
Self-publishing is different because you are also a publisher, but you -- the author you -- should also be paid. “We all want to be read, but when you take six months to a year to write your novel, take a second and think, ‘Is this really what I want to do with it?’”
Writer Beware’s mission is to track, expose and raise awareness of the prevalence of fraud and other questionable activities in and around the publishing industry. Founded in 1998, Writer Beware is concerned not just with issues that affect professional authors, but also with the problems and pitfalls that face aspiring writers. Writer Beware is sponsored by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, with additional support from the Mystery Writers of America, the Horror Writers Association, and the American Society of Journalists and Authors.
Writer Beware: www.sfwa.org/other-resources/for-authors/writer-beware/
Writer Beware Blogs:
Absolute Write Water Cooler – Bewares, Recommendations, and Background Checks (especially for those who don’t write science fiction and aren’t self-published)
NOTE: If you have a lead on a bad agent or publisher, or get a suspicious solicitation, forward your email to
Richard C. White is the author of tie-in fiction for a number of media franchises, including Star Trek and Doctor Who, as well as an original works such as Gauntlet Dark Legacy: Paths of Evil and Harbinger of Darkness. Among other interesting jobs, he has worked as a journalist, a substitute teacher, an independent comics publisher, an analyst for the military, and, currently, as a technical writer. Find him at richardcwhite.com or on Twitter @nightwolfwriter.