Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Victoria Strauss -- Thoughts on the S-word

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:

Scam

1. Function: noun
Etymology: origin unknown
Date: 1963
i: a fraudulent or deceptive act or operation (an insurance scam)

2. Function: transitive verb
Inflected Form(s): scammed; scam·ming
Date: 1963
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.

18 comments:

Jim C. Hines said...

Thanks for this. Looking back, I've probably been a little careless with that term myself.

Jill Elaine Hughes said...

This is precisely the reason why so many of these shady services stay in business without legal consequences----because in the eyes of the law, what they are doing often is not in any way illegal. Shifty, maybe. Sleazy, probably. Exploitive, most definitely. But not illegal.

Cases like the Dorothy Deering criminal prosecution/federal sentencing occur rarely, and only because the criminal in question blatantly violates the law---repeatedly.

Anonymous said...

Y'all should have been more careful of using the word SCAM before writing it, not months later. A number of these things are just dumb business ideas that couldn't work. Others, like the recent Short Story of the Month can only be jokes by 'doctors' with a warped sense of humour and not scams. Anyone who seriously considers paying to compete with Luke Warm and his ridiculous story deserves to lose their money!

Leslie said...

Good points. I'm thinking of a private vocational school in my town, where I worked for one very long quarter. It wasn't a true scam ( the services were indeed provided. I provided some myself) but *education* was not the primary concern of the institution -- getting students and making money was. Most of the adult students enrolled were not going to graduate, did not go through an admission process, had few work skills or study skills, etc. Yet the advertising promised riches and the carrot on the stick was always the motivation and hard work of the students; "Your success is entirely up to you. Work hard and you will succeed." Hm. Come to think of it, the school sounds a lot like the shady/ignorant publishers. And guess which way the money flowed?

Victoria Strauss said...

Y'all should have been more careful of using the word SCAM before writing it, not months later. A number of these things are just dumb business ideas that couldn't work. Others, like the recent Short Story of the Month can only be jokes by 'doctors' with a warped sense of humour and not scams.

That's exactly my point in this post, Anonymous, as you would know had you read it.

Sigh.

Deb said...

Unfortunately, those who skim such posts are always among us.

There are indeed many, many gray areas; business models that can't work, business owners who become rapidly overwhelmed, distribs who don't pay their bills promptly, or at all...

There are so many ways a gray area business can deteriorate into a black area business. Your post was well taken in that not every outfit that sets out to get into publishing, starts with the intention of becoming scammers.

clindsay said...

Victoria -

Can you please email me privately? I don't have your contact info and would like to ask you a couple of questions about a particular problem publisher I'm dealing with on behalf of a client.

Thanks!

colleen (at) fineprintlit (dot) com

Colleen Lindsay

Anonymous said...

It's time to put a stop to the holier than thou nonsense posted on this blog. Victoria Strauss copies things from other people's sites without permission, she then ridicules and slanders people and ruins decent people's lives and those of their families in her drive for her egomania. Now I will start a blog against her, copy her silly meanderings from here WITHOUT PERMISSION (just like she does to other people WITHOUT PERMISSION) and post them on my blog and ridicule them as they deserve to be. Let's wipe the grin off that fat smug face of hers! It's time for the victims of this woman's hate filled garbage to react. AND WE WILL!!!! WATCH THE SPACE I'M CREATING! Get a taste of your own medicine... see how it feels. Enjoy.

Anonymous said...

Someone's meds have obviously worn off, I see.

Victoria Strauss said...

Anonymous, do drop by and let us know when your blog is online.

wealhtheow said...

Good post. We do need to be careful about throwing around the S-word ... ill-judged hyperbole, deployed in public, has a way of coming back to bite the deployer in the butt.

I think there are two viewpoints on the issue of scam versus incompetence in publishing. On one view, the two are totally different things, because intent matters; deliberately setting out to defraud people is not at all the same as plunging in without knowing what you're doing and ending up in way over your head. One set of people is demonstrably guilty, while a whole other set is demonstrably not guilty, except of such lesser trespasses as overoptimism and gullibility. (And then there's that whole grey area in the middle ...) Only the guilty deserve opprobrium, fines, and/or jail time; the rest, well, we should just hope they've learned something from the experience and won't make the same mistakes again.

On the other view -- what one might call the caveat author view -- intent doesn't matter: you just want to know what, and whom, you should stay away from, and, except sort of academically, it doesn't make much difference whether giving your money to Entity X is a bad idea because Entity X is a scam operation or whether it's a bad idea because Entity X, while it may have every intention of delivering what you paid for, doesn't know its arse from its elbow and therefore has no chance whatsoever of actually doing so. Either way, you don't want to do it.

One of the things I like about Writer Beware! is that you are careful to note, on view #1 above, which kind of entity is which, while at the same time, on view #2 above, explaining why all (or, at any rate, most) of the entities mentioned are Not a Good Thing.

BuffySquirrel said...

lol, Anon 8:40, I'm wondering how you expect us to FIND your blog?

Perhaps you have not thought this through.

Kami said...

Anon ...

Okay, words fail me.

Good luck with your blog. I can't wait to see it. Seriously. I'm curious to see what you'll come up with.

I hope you'll be sure to correctly attribute whose words belong to whom. Judging by your posts, I often wonder if you might not be mixing up Victoria's posts with comment posts. For example, this post is by me, Kami, and not by Victoria. It'll make your case/agenda more clear. If that's what you want. Or I guess you can just rely on all caps to emphasize your points ...

David Dittell said...

Victoria,

The most important reason not to overuse a word is that it's then more powerful when you do use it. Because the fraudulent businesses really do need to be avoided, saving the strongest phrasing for them makes sense.

But what you're doing here is undoubtedly valuable, and no matter what complaints you get or if you have slipped, don't lose sight of that.

Jane Smith said...

I've been on the receiving end of Victoria's very particular editing and know how insistent she is that every point must be backed up with evidence from several sources; and that words are chosen very carefully to present a balanced view.

She's a meticulous writer and researcher, and for anyone to suggest otherwise only will only reflect badly on them.

There's a reason that Victoria and Ann are thought of so highly: because they're professional, ethical and so very, very good at their jobs.

Rant over. Carry on.

Anonymous said...

Honey, I won't use the S word on you, or Smith, or Moorhouse, or Ann, or whoever... but you're from Amherst. A woman like me can smell bullshit pretty far. And you and this digital strategy of yours WREAKS of it. You have many demons which would never be aired in public, we both know that. When you walk across your living room at the end of the day, you're like the Devil in Prada. You have a little red man with a pitchfork poking you in the shoulder. And you can't let people know the truth. Because the truth is dangerous. Ain't it? It just takes a little time and the right individuals to expose it. By the way, who publishes YOUR fantasy novels? How did YOU get to where you are? Consumers want to know. After all, what is there to hide?

Victoria Strauss said...

There's nothing to hide, Anonymous (or should I say Michele)...which is why all my publishing information is available on my website (among myriad other locations on the Web).

I do like Prada, though. And people often tell me I look like Meryl Streep.

Leslie said...

Go Vicky, Go Vicky, Go Vicky! :^)