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How to Dodge the Wily Writer Shark

Updated: Apr 1, 2020

There are a lot of sharks circling the writing waters: Devious Doxers, Piratical Publishers, Twitter Trolls, and Sly Sharks. I entered the writing world tentatively via competitions and the murky waters of social media. Thirty days later, I had been targeted by two Instagram scammers and unknowingly submitted my newly "finished" manuscript to a vanity press.

What's a vanity press? Read on!

I've noticed that a lot of writers aren't very knowledgeable about publication rights. I get it: it's boring and easy to put off until we "make it". A lot of us also just want our work out there for others to read, craving, as we do, that sweet, sweet liquid validation. I touched on this in "5 Things to Consider Before Shelling Out for a Writing Competition", but feel I should delve a bit deeper.

Writers need to know about rights and shady publishing practices, even before entering competitions and submitting to journals and newsletters and daily fiction websites. Just by submitting, you might be giving away all rights to your work. That sounds alarmist but I've seen it in writing.

A gray shark swimming through dark water
"New writer, you say?"


Okay, let's start with the basics. If you write something, it's yours. Period. You don't need to write "copyright" on it or put a "©" anywhere. You wrote it, it belongs to you. You can do with it what you will and if someone copies your story you have the right to tell them to stop (though, much like blood extraction from a certain hard substance, making them stop might prove difficult). That said, if you are publicly posting your work:

  1. Use copyright notices and marks, dates or anything else to reinforce that the work is yours.

  2. Don't put your text in a format anyone can easily copy--use a right-click blocker, restrict web pages, lock your Google doc to prevent copying, editing and downloading.

  3. If it's complete, consider obtaining an International Standard Book Number.

These three things will make it harder (not impossible) for people to copy your work and help you to tell someone to stop and prove the work was always yours (so back off, Jack, and take down my goddamn work already!). Why? Because some people are obnoxious jerks; and, being obnoxious jerks, feel entitled and couldn't care less about your rights.

Never accept at face value unqualified statements like, "We do not claim ownership . . ."; or, "Authors retain all rights to the work". Authors can technically (sort of) retain rights to their work while losing them in practice. You need to get it in writing--all of it (more on that below).

A blue jay drinking coffee cream from a stainless steel container
"Aww, that legitimate-looking blue jay has come to say--hey!"

"It Can't be That Bad!"

I hear you saying. Oh, sweet, sweet summer child, it can:

"Authors own their work. By submitting you are granting us permission to publish here [a now-defunct website] and possibly in a book with your name and information on your story. Any inquires regarding your story will be directed to you. We get many submissions per week and are unable to contact individual Authors when their work is published." [Emphasis Added]. **

So, you're saying I own my work, but by submitting it for consideration you automatically take all my Electronic and Archival Rights and maybe (?) Print or Anthology Rights. Doesn't that mean you effectively own my work? No thanks.

Oh wait, I read this after submitting via email. Well, shit.

** This is from a writing competition call-out with a submission fee and cash prize that mysteriously vanished, along with the online short story publisher's website. Several of my friends submitted to this competition.

A burning American one hundred dollar bill
'Nuff Said

Vanity Presses Ah, vanity. I think every writer must possess some of it. Why else would we enter such a brutal arena and there expose our innermost thoughts and beliefs to a jeering crowd? That need for validation, need to see our words in print, is what feeds the voracious vanity press. Whether or not our material is good or ready for publication, the vanity press is waiting to say, "it is," and charge you for the privilege.

Don't confuse vanity (or subsidy) presses with self-publishing houses, which charge fees to publish your work for you--vanity presses masquerade as traditional or boutique publishers and may, on their surface, offer services similar to those markets, but always at a cost, either up front or contingent on the author purchasing an initial run of books or other financial obligation. Vanity presses make most of their money from author fees, not book sales, and their business practices reflect this. They offer little to no support or quality control.

It's far better for us to go the self-publishing route if we don't feel we can make it in (or don't want to try for) legitimate markets--it's just less costly.

Example of a Vanity Press contract (Royalties and Advances clauses)
I don't think they understand how advances are supposed to work...

Red Flags

Alright, so now you're suitably worried. What other things can you look out for to avoid scammers and fee gouging publishers? Fear not, dear reader/writer, here are a few!

Bad Websites

Nothing shouts "illegitimate!" more than a crappy platform. When you go to a writing website that's full of spelling and grammar errors, that should tell you all you need to know. Sure, every site will have the occasional typo or formatting error, it happens, but everywhere? Glaringly? In the first paragraph? Yikes.

Check out their credentials and book covers. No presence in the writing world (material or virtual--or is that electronic?), associations with other sketchy publishers? Shoddy book covers? Back away, not today, Disco Lady.

They're Really into You

"Hey stranger, I just happened across your profile/work/post and REALLY, REALLY LOVE YOUR STUFF! Let's do business."

Hmm, let's not.

When someone, especially someone famous, comes at you out of nowhere singing your praises and wanting you to get on board with a project, you'd better pinch yourself, then do your research. Is it a new account? Is it duplicating the social media profile picture of a legitimate main account? Sí? No es bueno.

If it's too good to be true, it is. Notify the real person and get that sucker taken down. After two days on Instagram and I was approached by Stephen King--well, Stephen King's new alternate account to support emerging writers--and offered $30,000 (if that was enough) to help launch my career.

Let me guess, you just need my banking info? Yeah, not sketchy at all.

Marketing to Writers

Let's face it, there's a quintillion of us out there vying for publication. Why, then, would a market try to sell itself to us? Because they're dodgy AF, that's why. It's a big (big) red flag when you go to a flashy-looking publisher overselling their services and all the ways they can make your dreams come true.

Real publishers have barriers, not enticements.

A big red flag
Now that's a big red flag!

Get It in Writing

What else can you do to avoid getting tooken? Well, everything is straightforward until it isn't, so get it in writing. Be explicit (that's worth repeating). Party A and Party B might think they have an understanding, but they'll know as soon as they try to hash it out in writing.

"What do you mean you claim Worldwide Rights? Exclusive or nonexclusive? Print or Digital? Will that impact my Second North American Print Rights? Also, is that anthology money a percentage of net or gross sales? Oh, and what happens if you fail to publish my piece after a year (because shit happens)?"

Good thing you got it in writing: Now you can hash it out before a second publisher accepts the same piece, which is good, because that second publisher just asked you about the details of your last contract.

Most good markets, paying or no, have a copyright section on their website, usually embedded in their submissions criteria. If it's not there, that's a yellow card, or red flag--some kind of colourful warning. Check their Privacy Policy or Terms and Conditions section (usually a link at the bottom of the page). If they're legit, the information will appear somewhere. It's telling information, so educate yourself before submitting. If you're hell-bent on submitting to a particular market but can't find copyright info, email them.

Tom Hanks and Bitty Schram in "A League of Their Own"
"There's no crying in contractual law!"

In Conclusion

In conclusion:

  • Don't give out personal information.

  • Don't make your work available without some sort of protection.

  • Do your homework.

  • Don't trust anyone who calls themselves an agent, editor or publisher without ponying up some verifiable proof.

  • Ask innocent questions and look for client lists or references--it's not impolite to ask a random internet stranger for more information.

  • Don't be paranoid, harbour a healthy suspicion.

  • If someone reacts badly to an information request and/or fails to provide any, cut them off.

I suppose all that's to say: Don't sell yourself short!

External Sources

Elijah Wood as Frodo Baggins in "The Fellowship of the Ring"
Trust that feeling!

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