Scam, that is.
Lately in the comments section of this blog, there's been an outbreak of the s-word. In some cases, people have falsely accused me of labeling the companies/individuals I discuss as scams. In others, people have jumped to the mistaken conclusion that a company or individual is a scam because of one or another of the questionable or nonstandard practices I've written about.
Let's look at the word itself. From Merriam-Webster:
1. Function: noun
Etymology: origin unknown
i: a fraudulent or deceptive act or operation (an insurance scam)
2. Function: transitive verb
Inflected Form(s): scammed; scam·ming
i: deceive , defraud
ii : to obtain (as money) by a scam
Based on these definitions, a literary scam can be defined as an operation that's deliberately designed to enrich its perpetrator by deceiving and defrauding writers.
Anyone who carefully reads what I and Ann write--here, on the Writer Beware website, in private correspondence, and at the several writers' message boards we frequent--will see that, outside of a general discussion such as this one, we are extremely judicious in applying the label "scam" or "scammer" to any company or individual. We do so only where there's solid justification, such as an indictment, a conviction, a lawsuit, or an official investigation (see, for instance, the Case Studies page of the Writer Beware website). Do we slip up sometimes? Sure. We're human. But those who know us know that "scam" is not a word we use lightly.
Why are we so careful? Well, there are legal considerations, of course. Applied inaccurately, such labels can be actionable. Just as important, however, is the fact that lousy business practices and stupid concepts and rank amateurism--as damaging as they may be to writers--don't necessarily add up to deliberate dishonesty. I'll say it again, with emphasis: Bad business practices do not a scammer make. By the same token, warning about such practices, or criticizing them, is not the same as calling them a scam.
The 700+ companies and individuals on which/whom Writer Beware has collected documentation fall into several categories.
- Clueless, amateur, and/or unqualified. Amateur agents, publishers, and editors represent the bulk of the complaints, advisories, and questions we receive. These people or companies are often very well-intentioned, but they have neither the professional experience nor the knowledge to qualify them to do what they're doing--and as a result, they often do it extremely badly. Many have business practices that are very similar to the scammers' (upfront fees, adjunct paid services that are hawked to clients), sometimes because they can't keep their businesses afloat without them, but often simply because they don't realize that these things aren't standard, or that they damage writers. Such companies or people are definitely worth steering clear of. But they are not scams or scammers.
- Not worth the money. Query blasting services, for instance. Or obscure literary contests with high entry fees. Or paid review services. Or vanity radio. Again, these things aren't scams. You get something for your money (such as it is). But they're not very effective, and thus not a good use of writers' cash.
- In the gray zone. Some agents or publishers are clearly racking up a tidy profit from the fees they charge or the things they require authors to pay for. But they provide sufficient delivery on their promises to make it hard to conclude whether they are deliberately deceptive money-making schemes, or in the gray area right next door--i.e., exploitive, but with a genuine intent to provide a service (with true fraud, there's no intent to provide service). We have a lot of these "gray" files, and we don't generally identify them as scams. Of course, you don't need to be sure something is a scam in order to know that it's better avoided. Unless you've chosen to work with a self-publishing company, the money should be flowing to you, not away.
- True scams. Agents who levy a fee for submissions, but don't send anything out. Publishers that present themselves as "traditional," but actually charge a fee. Editing services that maintain a literary agency or a contest as a front. Agencies that are fronts for vanity publishers. Such operations, which exist for the sole purpose of making money through deception, comprise the smallest percentage of complaints and reports we receive.
These are fine distinctions, and many people might argue that I'm splitting hairs. After all, none of the businesses that fall into the categories above are likely to be good for writers, and most of them deserve strong warnings, cautions, or criticism. Also, if you're exploiting writers with half-bad intent, how is that different, bottom line-wise, from exploiting them with 100% bad intent? But "scam" is a serious word, with a very specific meaning--and its application can have serious consequences. In my opinion, everyone--not just us at Writer Beware--should think very carefully before using it, either as an accusation or a label.
So before you accuse me of dubbing someone a scammer, take a look at what I've actually written. Before you leap to the conclusion that an agency or publisher is a scam because of the presence of a few bad business practices, take a look at the bigger picture. You may be right--but you could be wrong. Better, altogether, to be cautious.