Avoid Rip-Offs and Publishing Sharks: For Writers, Songwriters, Poets, Etc.

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Once or twice a month I receive a letter or an email from a songwriter informing me that they have become the victim of a scam, and more often than not the stories are exactly the same: “I signed a contract too quickly, I paid a lot of money, the quality was awful, I can’t get in touch with them, etc.” It’s always awful to hear, and while I handle Songwriter’s Market and thus usually hear about the incidents involving songwriters, this same type of unfortunate story happens across all publishing mediums. Scam artists and shady companies are out there in droves and it’s important to see the telltale signs of a scam before you sign your name along the dotted line. Here are a few things to keep in mind.

1. Paying Money Up-Front

This is the biggest tip-off in any market, medium, or genre of publishing. Anyone who requests large sums of money up-front in order to review or accept your work—be it a song, a short story, an album—is likely a scam artist.

A legitimate publisher will pay you for your songs or stories and will offer you money up-front and/or royalties. They will not request you pay them any sum of money in order to be included in an anthology or on a compilation CD. Remember, money should come IN, not go OUT.

Yes, there are a few literary magazines that request reading fees (I personally avoid them when possible) and there are legit contests that have fees in order to enter, often hovering around the $10 or $15 mark. Even then, you should be wary and conduct research to verify this is money well spent. You can find a lot about a legitimate magazine or publisher through a simple Google search. If you do find reliable information and you feel comfortable with paying a small fee for a clearly reputable contest, then you might be all right as long as the fee isn’t going to be a financial burden (and yes, I too have been in the situation where losing $15 is a financial burden). But if you can’t find much quality info about a publisher beyond their own website, then AVOID them!

Side Note: Self-publishing is a slightly different animal since that always requires some sort of financial investment on your part, but again, please make sure you are dealing with legitimate people who have a track record of quality products. The same tips provided here can apply to your dealings with self-publishing firms.

2. Contracts Can Sound Too Good to Be True

That’s because they are. Understand that once you sign a contract stating you will pay someone $100 for ten demo CDs or for the promise that they will send your demo to “major” record producers and radio stations, they could very well just produce those CDs as cheaply as possible and mail them off to whoever they wish, likely to people who will never even see the envelope much less listen to the CD. While there are reputable demo creation companies out there who can help novice songwriters, you need to take the process very slowly, no matter how much they might rush you or how much they promise, and discuss any contract with a lawyer and other experienced industry professionals. The same goes for writers, novelists, poets, screenwriters, etc. Before you sign ANY contract, have a legal representative review it with you.

If you don’t have a clue about how to find help with this, check in with the folks over at Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts (www.vlany.org) for more information about how to protect yourself. Also check out www.rightsofwriters.com. Remember: No company, legit or scammer, is going to look out for you first, themselves second, so take the time to do the research and protect yourself.

3. Are Samples Available?

Again, avoiding fees is rule number one, but if a publisher is asking for a few bucks to enter a contest, or a demo company is willing to record your song for a nominal fee, you may think, “Okay, that’s not a lot of money.” It still goes against the “Money in, not out” maxim, but they seem well regarded and you don’t find anything alarming in a Google search. Fine, but you MUST ask for a copy of a previous CD, a copy of a previous anthology, or a book from a previous winner before you agree to anything. This will likely end up being a digital copy, which is fine since they can’t mail out free print copies to just anyone who asks. A legit operation will have digital samples you can either preview online or download. If they won’t even offer you that much, move along. It’s not worth it.

Legitimate companies are proud of their work and always have samples ready for those interested. The companies who are trying to prey upon the uninformed will be dodgy about displaying past work to the general public. Be careful when you find these companies. And even if you get a sample, make sure you research the other artists who signed with the company or publisher. Be 100% sure you’re getting into something well respected and worthwhile.

4. Research, Research, Research

I’ve brought it up again and again because research is your most valuable weapon against scam artists. If you don’t properly research a publisher or record company and sign a bad contract and send in your money, there is very little that even the savviest of lawyers can do for you without you having to incur legal fees. Make sure you verify all companies before you sign anything! For songwriters, check with the ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, or SOCAN. For writers researching agents, check with the Association of Author Representatives. There are also numerous scam reporting websites online, such as www.pred-ed.com. Check in with as many as you can before making a decision. Never let your excitement get the better of you, and never pay up if you cannot afford to lose out on that fee.

If you do find a scam artist or have fallen victim to one, let us know via snail mail so we can update our listings accordingly.

For Songwriters: Songwriter’s Market, F+W Media, 4th Floor, 38 E 29th Street, New York, NY 10016

For Writers: Writer’s Market, F+W Media, 10151 Carver Road, Ste. 200, Cincinnati, OH, 45242

Be sure to include a complete description of the situation and samples of the publication or CD/demo provided by the publisher, but please know we cannot “investigate” claims, confront publishers on your behalf, or help in the way a lawyer might be able to, but we can adjust our own listings to keep scammers from reaching as many people as they might otherwise. Every little bit helps. Good luck out there!


James Duncan is a content editor for Writer’s Digest, the founding editor of Hobo Camp Review, and is the author of the short story collection The Cards We Keep and the poetry collection Lantern Lit, Vol. 1. He is in the process of submitting a handful of novels to agents for traditional representation, just like everyone else on the planet. For more of his work, visit www.jameshduncan.com.

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