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November 14, 2002

Yetanother variant
Posted by Teresa at 06:06 PM *

Lore Sjoberg, light and life of Brunching Shuttlecocks, who’s now doing a weblog/journal called Slumbering Lungfish, has been the target of an attempted scam. It’s one I haven’t seen before:

Ran into an interesting scam the other day. I got a call from someone claiming to be a producer for a television show, saying he wanted to interview me, in my capacity as a Web programmer and the owner of Seven Deadly Productions, for a show on the Bay Area business scene. He was interested in me “as an expert,” he said. I’m not an expert on the Bay Area business scene, but I am an expert at bullshitting in interviews, so I called him back. …

The spiel was odd from the beginning. For instance, he described his show as being “like Hard Copy or 20/20 except we only say good things.” Hard Copy without the criticism is like World’s Scariest Police Chases without the reckless driving. …

Then he went into the details of what they’re going to do for me. He pointed out that they were going to pay for a cameraman and lights and so forth, to the tune of something like ten thousand dollars. This is where my right eyebrow began to lift of its own accord. …

… [T]hen he dropped the bomb. Well, more kind of sidled the bomb into place. Introduced the bomb. He told me that what with them paying for the videotaping and all, I’d be expected to pay the relatively small cost of “production and editing.” Then he quickly moved onto something else which I don’t remember because of the klaxon and flashing red lights that were going off in my head.

No kidding, the alarms went off. I hadn’t heard of vanity TV before, but it’s a variant of one of the common scams that target aspiring writers. (For an introduction to the basic set, read Victoria Strauss’ article, “Writer Beware”. And these are some juicy case studies from the Writer Beware website that grew out of Victoria’s article.)

The version we know is usually run by fee-charging literary agents. Those operations are a scam to start with, but many of them run additional cons on their hapless clients. One of these is operating a scam publishing house under a different name. They’re merciless. First they charge the writers agenting fees, which no respectable agent would do. Then they cycle them through a costly and bogus book doctoring operation that’s either part of the agency or pays kickbacks to it. Then they tell the hopeful author that the manuscript is now ready to be marketed.

Some little while later, the agency calls to say good news, they’ve managed to place the manuscript with a publishing house. They don’t tell the author they own that publishing house. They do tell him-or-her that since it’s so very hard to launch first novels, it’s standard publishing practice (malarkey!) for the author to pay part or all of the book’s costs. Or maybe the author has to guarantee to buy a certain number of copies of the first edition—some few of which the author sees, while the rest are “warehoused” in Never-Never Land.

(See, for instance, the Deering Literary Agency/Sovereign Publications case. Here’s the basic case study; also, a mildly stodgy but extensive and detailed article; and a splendidly damning account of Deering/Sovereign’s practices, from an honest participant in them: the Deerings’ former office assistant.)

Sometimes they’ll vary this by selling the client into a vanity house they don’t own. I don’t think any of them have actually been photographed in the act of taking a kickback, but they do tend to place their books with a small number of vanity presses with whom they have noticeably cozy relationships. And am I being too obvious when I point out that nobody ever has ever had to sell a book to a vanity publisher?

Another prize specimen is Cynthia Sterling, owner of both the Lee Shore Agency and Sterling House Publishing. As Ron Jenkins said in Writers’ Weekly:

Lee Shore and Sterling House Publishing are owned and operated by the same individual. Cynthia Sterling. Under the Lee Shore Literary Agency her modus operandi is this: She charges a reading fee for material submitted to her. She also has an in-house editorial service that is also a costly endeavor. She has never placed a book with a well-known publisher. She bills monthly for sending out manuscripts to “publishers.” It’s an ongoing income. She is known on sites such as Writer Beware and is found throughout the internet with a multitude of complaints.
(In re Lee Shore Agency/Sterling House Publishing: Charges agenting fees; more on those agenting fees, plus general damnation; is in conflict of interest; is definitely in conflict of interest; a description of her procedures; a summary of the operation; and an even blunter summary.)

Cynthia Sterling puts an additional loop into the process: The postdoctoral manuscript is sent out to some real publishing houses to pick up a bunch of quick rejections. I used to wonder why we got so many manuscripts from Lee Shore, with never a good one among them, and why Lee Shore went out of their way to make it easy to reject them. Some manuscripts came with auto-reject checkoff slips. Imagine how thrilled I was to discover that we’d been used to help soften up hapless would-be writers.

After the softening-up comes the good news, the big break, the hoped-for day: Hurrah, your book’s been placed, they just love it, so happy for you, it’s a publisher called Sterling House. (Or Press-Tige. Or Northwest Publishing. Or Commonwealth [2, 3]. Or Aegina.)

The variables change, but the underlying form of the scam remains the same. In my taxonomy, this one files under “Spanish Prisoner”. There’s something wonderful, something very valuable to you—your book can be published, your company can be featured on TV—that can be yours; but first we need just a little extra money from you in order to make it happen. This is all standard procedure, you understand.

Comments on Yetanother variant:
#1 ::: Lucy ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2002, 04:21 PM:

I own a book from Sterling House. The wife of a friend had her fantasy novel published by them. I went looking for information on this publishing company and discovered it was a vanity press. The novel is commonplace slush pile awful so it didn't surprise me that she resorted to this sort of deal but I had no idea she might have gotten rooked every step of the way.

#2 ::: Robert L ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2002, 04:53 PM:

Can the specter of mechanization be far behind? Or is "auto-reject" like "low self-image"?

#3 ::: Adam Rice ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2002, 06:03 PM:

Wow--this makes the music industry seem downright upstanding!

#4 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2002, 07:09 PM:

Adam, nothing makes the music industry seem upstanding. What I'm talking about here are the crooks and scumsucking bottom-feeders of book publishing. That article is about the mainstream music industry. When those guys tell you that some iniquitous arrangement is standard practice in their industry, they're telling the truth.

#5 ::: Tempest ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2002, 09:28 AM:

I've heard of this scam before. In fact, my boss was approached by a so-called TV producer. Basically they're doing small 1 minutes infomercials and making it sound like they're going to interview you... for a price. How fun and exciting.

#6 ::: Laurie Mann ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2002, 11:11 AM:

Ahh, but let's mention a now all-too-common
scam perpetrated by writers. Not by "real"
writers, but by the wannabees.

I'm pretty sick of people who self-publish
their books and run around as if a publishing
house had published them. But when you do any
research on their publishing house, you find that
they only have one author. These people keep hitting up conventions, asking to be guests or
program participants. Just say no.

#7 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2002, 11:27 AM:

"I'm pretty sick of people who self-publish
their books and run around as if a publishing
house had published them. But when you do any
research on their publishing house, you find that
they only have one author. "

Those people are just pathetic. The scammers are despicable. There's a whole world of difference.

#8 ::: Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2002, 02:13 PM:

I have wondered for years why it is acceptable to self-publish in the music world but not the literary world. I mean, what is it when you go to a studio and pay for studio time and producer time and take the resulting master and have it duped and sell it yourself at all your gigs? It's self-publishing, and every musician I know does it. But nobody calls it that; nor do they call small studios of this sort vanity studios. But I think I've found the answer in this thread. Real publishers treat you decently in the literary world while the vanity outfits scam you. In music, it's the other way around. Thanks guys!


#9 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2002, 02:32 PM:

You've got it nailed, Mary Kay.

#10 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2002, 03:06 PM:

Let's see if I can clarify a bit more about the difference between vanity publishing and recording your own music to sell after your gig:

There's no quality control in the world of vanity press publishing.

With the self-published musician, there is quality control. If the musician weren't at least half-way competent, he'd never have the gig in the first place to sell the disks after the show. And you've already heard his music, and you've liked it enough to want to have a bit of it to take home.

With the self-published fiction author, most times the manuscript is ... slush. No one would read it willingly.

The exception to this is in non-fiction. If you happen to be the world's foremost expert on some obscure subject, you can write and self-publish a monograph and have people pay you for a copy. If you're delivering lectures from the platform, you can say "Copies of my book are available at the back of the hall," and no one will blink. If you're written a local history, you can sell it in a local bookstore -- no interest anywhere else in the country, lots of interest right in that one location.

Note, though, that in all those cases there is quality control. You first have to have a reputation as the world's expert on something, or you have to have hired and filled the hall, or you have to have convinced the bookstore owner to carry your book. None of those things are easy.

If someone says "It's easy. Just give me your credit card...." that person doesn't have your best interests at heart.

#11 ::: Robert L ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2002, 04:12 PM:

Yes, nonfiction on obscure subjects is a viable field for self-publication. So, in fact, is fiction. Besides established authors, such as Mark Twain [perhaps not the best example, since he later went broke] or, more recently, Dave Eggers, there are numerous authors of fiction who have their self-published books later picked up by major houses [often with more than a touch of linne editing]. yes, of course, there is no quality control, but self-published fiction can reach niche markets somewhat ignored by large publishers, and it acts as a shakeout for the slush--oh, you actually managed to sell a whole bunch of copies of your self-published novel? OK, we'll consider it. People who are well-known to large numbers of people (say, a popular teacher who's worked for years at a large high school) can often move large numbers. Yes, many of these books suck, but not all of them, and there's nothing wrong with it as a strategy in certain circumstances, especially these days.
Talking about the music business, there's of course a scam that combines the worst aspect of vanity presses =and= the record industry: the wonderful world of "song-poems," or slush set to music, as I like to think of them. (See It's a total hustle, and I doubt anyone other than the "song sharks" has ever made money this way, but it's created some fascinatingly bad records.

#12 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2002, 05:29 PM:

I was just about to bring up the matter of self-published books that go on to become commercial successes, like What Color Is Your Parachute?. I hadn't realized that the main distinguishing feature of such books is that they're non-fiction.

Comics is a field where self-publishing is common (and becoming moreso), partly because the major publishers are so oppressive towards the creators (though not as much as they used to be). Partly, I suppose, because there were a couple of high-profile, high-quality hits (Elfquest and Cerebus) early in comics self-publishing that showed it could be done well.

#13 ::: Simon Shoedecker ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2002, 06:24 PM:

Perhaps the distinguishing factor is the specificity of the audience.

An obscure non-fiction subject is not interchangable with another obscure non-fiction subject. You want a history of your town, not some town 20 miles down the road.

When you go to a musician's gig and decide to buy her CD, you want that musician's work, not some other musician's work.

But if you want a new fantasy novel, you can get good ones from Tor. There's no need to seek out small presses, and nothing except quality to distinguish the books.

There is an exception to that, but it illustrates the point, because it applies when there is a specific audience. Some authors who don't sell well enough to keep big-publisher contracts still have small, devoted audiences, and sell well enough from small presses. And - classics that big publishers can't afford to keep in print, that won't attract a big audience but have a strong selective appeal, also do well from small presses.

These are, of course, quality small presses, not vanity publishers.

#14 ::: Laurie Mann ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2002, 06:41 PM:

Good point on music and non-fiction self-publishing.

I've been in a choir that self-publishes its own
CDs because it's a classical choir and that's about
the only way to get the music out at all!

#15 ::: Simon Shoedecker ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2002, 07:35 PM:

Laurie, even major symphony orchestras have given up on commercial labels and are publishing their own recordings. That's how Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony are marketing their Mahler cycle. Your choir is not alone!

#16 ::: Chris Quinones ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2002, 04:39 PM:

More like the major labels have given up on the orchestras, sad to say. The London Symphony paved the way on self-publishing for regular sale (as opposed to special subscriber sets), and lots of orchestras all over are taking note of the LSO's success and trying to emulate it for themselves.

#17 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2002, 09:55 AM:

Another factor in quality of product in the vanity fiction area is the availablity of legitimate outlets.

If you were living in the 19th c. and you'd written the very best erotic novel in the world, it couldn't get legitimately published, and so would be privately printed. A fair number of the privately printed 19th c. erotic novels are pretty good.

Here, now, if you've written the very best erotic novel in the world, there are any number of legitimate, advance-and-royalty paying, sales in major bookstores, publishers who will be slavering to hear from you. Thus the only erotic novels that are vanity published are either a) very badly written, or b) of such small niche interest that it wouldn't repay publication (the erotic potential of women's _right middle_ toes, and even then if the book is really the Best in the World, it could be legitimately published as Magic Realism and those who liked that sort of thing would get an extra bonus), or c) actively illegal (pre-teen bestiality incest, frex) (And some of those can be well-written too, if you can get past the squick factor).

Getting down to the main point: if you've written the greatest sword-and-sorcery novel in the world, lots of publishers will be lining up to publish you. If you've written a basically competent sword-and-sorcery novel, lots of publishers will be ready to publish you. If you've written a pretty-much-okay sword-and-sorcery novel and the timing's right, the book will get published, though perhaps after a few rejections.

Which means that the only sword-and-sorcery novels that you'll find from the vanity press are the ones where the author's only writing skill is the ability to write a check, and the very, very, exceedingly rare good book whose author was totally scammed. But no one will ever hear of that very, very rare book because readers and bookstores and everyone else go "avert! avert!" when they see the vanity label.

Very few read slush manuscripts for fun. No one reads a second slush manuscript for fun.

#18 ::: Paul Riddell ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2002, 08:24 PM:

I've seen this same exact stunt over and over again in jobhunting as well. The mark sees an ad in the newspaper remarkably similar to the literary scams: jobs all over the place, and lots of jobs that will never appear in the classifieds or the job sites. Opportunities in new fields, or opportunities in fields with a notoriously small employment base. The mark calls up the phone number in the ad, and is told "Yeah, we have plenty of opportunities for you. The problem is that you really need a good resume to get in, and it just so happens that we have this great resume editing and printing service available for $(whatever the scammer thinks the mark will pay)." If the mark doesn't have that kind of money (after all, if s/he doesn't have a job, s/he probably doesn't have that kind of disposable income), the scammer will start with some rendition of "Well, don't you know someone who could lend you the money? You could pay them back when you get the job..."

(A corrolary comes from the "resume blasters": for a nominal $40 or so, the service promises to send out thousands of resumes to thousands of recruiters. Not once do you hear that they're simply blanketbombing recruiters with the resumes of everyone that buys into this "service", or that many of the recruiters went out of business when the boom went bust and that the resumes are going to dead E-mail addresses, or that only idiot recruiters wanting to fill databases have any interest in such a scattershot way of finding applicants. By the time the mark realizes that s/he has received maybe one call from a technical recruiter, and it was the usual idiot with the "Hi: I found your name on the In-tur-neeeet, and I have this rilly exciting opportunity for you..." routine, s/he's out $40. This doesn't stop the gullible or desperate from plunking down even more money to do it again, on the hopes that maybe the job market is better _this_ month.)

I first came across this during the Great Recession of 1992, and my blood really _did_ run cold when the geek hit me with the "Don't you know someone" line. I told him "I'll think about it" and promptly hung up, but I later met a good dozen people, all looking for jobs in the entertainment industry, who plunked down anywhere from $150 to $750 for those "exclusive resumes", and got absolutely nothing in return. One guy was lucky in that the scammers never cashed his check, but the others were out of money they simply couldn't afford to lose.

The real aggravation, both with this scam and the literary scammers, is that they survive and thrive due to the inattention or complicity of the publications in which those ads appear. "Writer's Digest", for instance, is too busy running those idiotic "How You Can Make 60% More By Selling Your Short Stories on the Internet" articles to worry about its readers being ripped off (I also notice that WD is surprisingly skittish about running articles on how to sue magazine publishers for nonpayment, because it might give the impression that writing isn't the perfect get-rich-quick scheme), and those vanity press ads and other dubious venues are still regular advertising money coming in to the magazine. Likewise, most newspapers know that these ads are scams, but refuse to do anything: some run a tiny "buyer beware" note, but complaints won't make them do anything until those complaints come from a state attorney general or higher. It's the same with the job boards: post a resume on Monster or CareerBuilder these days, and your mailbox will be full of offers like these, and Monster in particular will continue to allow these spampigs to rent their databases for data mining. When it comes down to stopping scams or the bottom line, the bottom line wins each and every time.

Well, enough of that: strangely, I'm not bothered by scams such as "The Spanish Prisoner" that take advantage of the mark's greed. What bothers me are the scams that take advantage of a mark's hope. Even the most deluded bad writer doesn't deserve the treatment that s/he gets from the literary ripoff artists, and even the most unskilled jobhunter doesn't deserve to get the treatment from the job hucksters.

#19 ::: Robert L ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2002, 02:37 AM:

On the contrary: I would read a truly bad slush MS. for fun anytime. Unfortunately, the deliciously bad ones are as rare as the masterpieces. But one can always hope...

#20 ::: Paul Hoffman ::: (view all by) ::: November 20, 2002, 10:28 AM:

The vanity TV folks have the scam down pretty well. Most novice authors have heard about the vanity press scams, but the vanity TV folks have the advantage of obscurity. If they call a budding CEO, who had thought he/she would never get on TV, getting your face on a show (even an obscure show) sounds really great. And they don't tell you that you're paying anything until very late in the pitch.

I get about five of these a year, usually after a column that I have written appears in an Internet trade mag.

#21 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: November 20, 2002, 01:04 PM:

I've been reading The Gangs of New York which has some interesting descriptions of con games and swindles from the 19th c., things like selling gold bricks, the banko game, and a varient on the pigeon drop.

In the varient, the con man approaches a fellow and offers to sell him a bag of counterfeit money for pennies on the dollar (one enterprising grifter sent out advertising flyers through the mail making the offer). The bag of money is shown, and the mark is invited to take a sample to any bank to have the bill checked out -- it's such a perfect counterfeit that no bank clerk can detect the fakery. The mark takes the bill, goes, and wow! It really does work! This is great stuff. He comes back, buys the whole bag of counterfeit money, and -- when he opens it -- finds only cut up newspaper. (Need I mention that the reason the counterfeit bill passes muster is because it isn't really counterfeit?)

(Another scam, not mentioned so far in that book at least, involves going to the racetrack and going around advising people about horses that are sure winners. The trick is that you recommend every single horse that's running in a given race. In the course of talking with the mark, you slap him on the back, putting a chalk mark on his coat. After the race, you hang out at the pay window, and watch for people with your chalk mark on his coat. As they're counting their money you come up and say "Hey, remember me? I gave you that tip. How about a tip for me?")

Not too bad a scam.

#22 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: November 20, 2002, 01:22 PM:

Back to the literary scams of the current day:

We have some nefarious deeds decribed here:

And more about the Helping Hand Agency here:

Find out the name of the detective assigned to the case!

#23 ::: Jonathan ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2002, 01:51 AM:

World Business Review, formerly hosted by Caspar Weinberger, then Al Haig, is a semi-big-time operator in this field, even getting carried on a lot of PBS affiliates. I got a call from a producer a while back about doing a piece on my company (I'm chief engineer), and only subtly dropping a hint that there were costs involved. Lots of references to "The General".

NPR did an expose recently; Mother Jones much earlier:

#24 ::: Seth Gordon ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2002, 07:54 AM:

I encountered something last week that may be a variation on the job-hunting scams that Paul Riddell describes.

Several people forwarded me an email about an open house for some firm that was seeking new consultants to work for it. I went to hear their pitch, and it basically went like this:

If you have certain kinds of job experience and pass a certain exam, you can get certified as a "Project Management Professional" (PMP). (As far as I know, this certification is offered by a legitimate organization and is not a scam in and of itself.) The firm, quoth the pitchman, has two lines of business. First, they have an excellent training course that will prepare you to pass the PMP exam, and after you pass the exam, you can become an "associate" of the firm. Second, they are going around to corporations and trying to convince them that if they want to get their information technology costs under control (insert here the usual dismal statistics about how often large IT projects go over budget and turn out to be useless), they should hire PMP-certified consultants, such as one of their own "associates", to do the work. Of course, they can't afford to have any of their "associates" be full-time employees yet.

I immediately recognized the similarity to the reading-fee scam -- if they collect enough money from these classes, they never have to get a real consulting gig -- but I couldn't think of a diplomatic way to phrase the question before the five-minute Q&A period ran out.

#25 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2002, 10:37 AM:

O my friends, this is too good not to share:

The ravings of a failed vanity publisher, a gent who very likely needs a nice long talk with an understanding health-care professional capable of prescribing lithium and thorazine.

This is the infamous Iron Triangle Publications.

#26 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2002, 10:47 AM:

Oops! Iron Pyramid Publications.

How very appropos.

#27 ::: Edd Vick ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2002, 06:41 PM:

This is not dissimilar to the scam I found on a popup three weeks ago. -"We're casting for a new reality-based television show featuring everyday people racing cars. Click here to sign up. (...) There's a fee for the audition."-

#28 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2003, 06:47 PM:

Here's something:

Not to be confused with the well-known we find

Promedia Entertainment has apparently been placing newspaper ads all over the place, selling their training materials.

Who knew that there was such a screaming shortage of script readers in Hollywood that folks who had taken a $50 videotaped course could get high-paying jobs working at home reading scripts?


#29 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2003, 10:15 AM:

As I live and breathe, it's the old "Make Money Reading Books" scam, tricked out in a new dress and hat.

#30 ::: Mellquist Nils a ::: (view all by) ::: December 11, 2003, 03:14 AM:

There's nothing to gain and nothing to lose.

#31 ::: David Goldfarb -- Comment Spam Alert! ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2003, 04:39 AM:

"Pike Scott's" URL goes to an obvious sex site.

#32 ::: Jeremy Leader ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2003, 02:05 PM:

Yeah, but his comment is pretty amusing, even if unintentionally.

#33 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2003, 02:55 PM:

"How I Wrote Certain Of My Books" by Raymond Roussel, Trevor Winkfield, ed.

Roussel was an obscure artist who very few people can understand, and he published much of his work by vanity press. Although I find his work incomprehensible, the biographical notes are fascinating.

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