3 Ways to Identify a Publishing Scam by Thao Nguyen

3 Ways to Identify a Publishing Scam by Thao NguyenLet’s welcome back monthly columnist Thao Nguyen as she shares with us “3 Ways to Identify a Publishing Scam.” Enjoy!


Getting published as a new writer is already a feat in and of itself.

However, it becomes extra challenging when predatory companies scheme to make a profit out of authors’ dreams.

Vanity presses and dodgy book marketing services will commonly claim to help authors—but most of them will simply charge thousands of dollars in exchange for haphazardly rendered services.

They often target new, inexperienced writers who are eager to reach their publishing goals. And in all honesty, scammers can be quite convincing.

Who doesn’t want to wake up with a publishing offer in your inbox?

While we always encourage writers to thoroughly research any company they’re working with, there are three crucial features that can help you identify a publishing scam on sight.

1. It’s a Publishing Scam if the Publisher Suddenly Approaches You

First things first, if the company approaches you via email, social media, or by phone, a red flag should already be waving in your head.

In traditional publishing, if you want to work with a publisher, you have to submit something to them, and almost always with the help of a literary agent.

Traditional publishers will always receive more manuscripts than they can take on—their submission systems are built to make sure that their slush-piles are filled with manuscripts that roughly match what they’re looking for.

As an author, this can be a frustratingly long chain to work your way through, but it is the established route.

A smaller publisher might be open to “unagented submissions”; however, you’d still have to be the one to reach out and send your work to the publishing house.

It’s never the other way around.

As such, getting contacted by a publisher is very much out of the ordinary. Such a publisher almost certainly hasn’t read it and probably doesn’t really care about your book at all!

They’ll ask you to pay a production fee to get your book edited, printed, or published on some ebook publishing platforms (which you can easily do by yourself), but it probably won’t even meet the quality standards of the market.

Sometimes, they’ll offer to get you a copyright or ISBN; though again, these are not as complicated to get as you’d think.

The company will also assure you that they’re giving your work the marketing it needs.

What they’ll actually do will likely have little effect on sales (for example, they might write you a press release that no one will read), and all your work will be for nothing.

So don’t fall for their trap!

No publisher will contact you by themselves, and if one does, you should put them in your spam box without hesitation.

2. It’s a Publishing Scam if They Ask You to Pay Absurd Rates

What “absurd rates” means can differ depending on whether you want to publish the traditional way or the indie way.

Traditionally, publishers and agents don’t ask for any upfront payments. In fact, a publisher pays you an advance when they acquire your manuscript.

This is because publishers don’t make money from authors, they make money from the royalties.

In exchange for the advance, a traditional house will only give you 5–15% of the cover price when the book sells. The agent also takes a cut of the sales revenue, so your earnings are even slimmer than that.

However, a legit publisher bankrolls the editing, design, and marketing to make sure that your book sells well, so you don’t have to pay any production cost whatsoever.

The Exception

A legitimate exception is if you work with a hybrid publisher.

Hybrid presses will offer to pay some of the cost while you’ll pay the remainder. As a result, they’ll also let you have a higher royalty rate than traditional publishers.

If you’re planning to work with a hybrid publisher, do some research to make sure they’re not over-estimating the production cost. Check out the IBPA’s guide for a detailed hybrid publisher assessment criteria.

If you want to keep even more of the sales revenue, self-publishing platforms often let you take 50–70%, and without a publisher overlooking everything, you also have more creative control over your work.

On the other hand, you’ll have to personally hire an editor, a designer, and possibly a marketer to make sure your book has a fighting chance in the market.

The good news is, you’re less likely to come across editors or designers who are scammers, since you can see portfolios and testimonials of their work quite easily.

However, you might see predators act as marketers—after all, scammers love making big promises like, “I can make you a bestseller!”

Don’t go for marketers with big but vague promises; find someone who offers concrete goals like building an author website or getting your book into a BookBub newsletter.

Most importantly, make sure they’re not charging you way above the average cost of self-publishing a book.

3. It’s a Publishing Scam if Their Name Is on this List

The list I’m talking about is the one compiled by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware: a collection of 125 publishing scam companies based in the Philippines that mostly target self-published writers.

These companies might offer agency services to help you reach traditional publishers, or they might say they’ll republish or market your self-published title for a fee.

We already know that cold calls and high fees are indications of predatory businesses. If you’re suspicious of a company, you can go to Victoria’s list and see if it’s there—and if it is, give it a hard pass!

Since the list isn’t exhaustive, a company might still be a scammer even when you can’t find its name in Victoria’s post. As with the rest of the tips I’ve shared in this post, this is just a pointer to help you out a bit.

It’s always best to do some more research before you give a verdict.

I hope that this post has given you some more information on how to identify and avoid vanity presses and unreliable companies.

Feel free to spread the word and share your own experiences with fellow authors!


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Thao NguyenThao Nguyen writes about history, diasporic experiences, and writing. You can find her work in Literally Stories, Anak Sastra, or on Twitter @thao__to


Editor’s Note: Resources for developing your story and your characters so that you have diversity in your writing:

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  • Mary Hagen says:

    Thanks for the warnings. I hadn’t thought about scammers in the book business.

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