Essay–Feeding On The Desperate

Years before the internet really got rolling for normal people, writers seeking publishers and agents scoured “Writer’s Digest” magazine and its annual big book of bozos to submit to. These books were awfully expensive and were essentially a telephone directory of magazines, book publishers, freelance editors, and agents to whom you could submit your writing. This ridiculous tome was the vaunted rosetta stone for authors looking to break in. However, it didn’t seriously vet anyone on the list.

I could be wrong, probably am, but in retrospect, it seems as though every scam artist in the universe looking to prey upon the desperate writer was included alongside real publishers and agents. My own experience seems to dictate just that.

Why did I stop writing for over a decade? Simple–someone scammed me.

I submitted a novel to several agencies in the Writer’s Digest big book of bozos. One actually replied. I don’t even remember the agency and at this point, it doesn’t matter much anyway. But they sent back much more than a form letter.

The agent in question had read the novel (that much was obvious), and then suggested I send said manuscript to a professional editing house. At that point in time, my wife and I were living hand to mouth, deluged with debt, and were both working ridiculously shitty jobs. This agent tried to pass me off to said editing firm which was going to charge in excess of a thousand dollars to edit the book. A thousand dollars. When I could barely keep the cars filled with gas for our shitty jobs, they wanted a thousand dollars.

I replied to the agent and told him I’d work on the manuscript some more and do my best to polish the hell out of it. For two months, my wife and I, friends, my parents, helped edit the book. Every day when I got off work, I sat down and worked on rewrites. It was ridiculously sisyphean. After we were done, I felt good about the book. I was certain we’d done a great job on it. So I printed it out (again) and sent it back to the agent telling them what we’d done.

Within a week (this is back in the days of snail mail, mind you), said agent sent back a letter saying the book was indeed much better, but there was no interest in it.

Wait. What? No interest? Then why would you send me to a goddamned pro-editing place?

I started going through the big book of bozos and realized the agency had a relationship with this editing house. As in they were both owned by the same company.

So I wasted more than two months of my life, and the valuable time of friends and family, to edit something that the agency in question had no intention of even representing. So what was the goddamned point?

That was when I bailed. Fuck this. No more. I’m done. I’d won a grant from Colorado State University for short story writing. Considering I was an out of stater, that was a big help. I’d been told I’d get into grad school easily. That didn’t happen. I was told I’d have no problem getting published. That didn’t happen either. With all that frustration and the incredible spiritual vitriol in my soul, I just couldn’t even look at a piece of paper without wanting to vomit. I couldn’t even read fiction. My dream had been mercilessly murdered right in front of me. And there was no way to resuscitate it.

So I quit writing. I focused on learning Photoshop, Director, and Quark Xpress. I trained myself to program. I left writing behind and pursued a career that would actually pay money. It worked out fine. For a time.

After five or six years, I finally started writing again. A little novella. I was immediately disappointed with it and didn’t feel it even deserved to go out into the world. Others tried to convince me it was good. I ignored them and kept going on the computer stuff. Because, after all, it was paying well. And considering I was self-taught, I think my career turned out very well. But the death of the writing dream was never forgotten. It was my own personal demon that spoke to me in my sleep or haunted my imagination during those few quiet moments I allowed myself.

It wasn’t until my wife read an article about Scott Sigler and forced it into my hands that my brain started turning. I ran a BBS during college (if you don’t know what that is, you missed the fledgling days of geekdom) where I published my writing and the writing of others. Back in 1992, I was convinced that was the future of publishing. Digital, no paper. Then the web happened. And I saw my so-called “original idea” made mainstream. And then, suddenly, there was this podcasting thing.

I started listening to Sigler. I started listening to Rossi, Hutchins, and several others. As you might imagine, my writer brain did more than twitch. After a year of listening to fiction podcasts, the wife asked me what it would take for me to start my own. To dust off all those old manuscripts and resurrect my dream. And that’s how I started my recovery. And another career.

The scam, however, completely turned me off to publishers. Period, end of story. I was never going to get screwed again. And yet I almost did. AGAIN. Why? Desperation. Validation. The dream. All about the dream.

Luckily, I woke up in time to save myself from making yet another huge mistake. And by learning, researching, and actually having some patience, I’ve turned writing into another career. Not much of one, but I’m working on it.

The reason I bring all this up is that Writer’s Digest, the ones that armed me with enough bullets to not only shoot myself in the foot but to also lay waste to entire households, has been outed as one the premier partners of the scam institution known as Author Solutions.

These pricks have advertised for DECADES that they’ll help you get published. After your book goes through their vetting process (that’s short for “Yes. This book has words.”), they then charge you an arm and a leg for layout, typesetting, and printing. In addition, they give you the hard upsell for marketing and other ridiculously convoluted “service packages.”

Here’s what they really do. They prey upon desperate people to “vanity” publish their work and then sell the books back to the authors at a premium. In addition, they regularly break their own contracts, do not report royalties, and basically screw everyone they touch.

Penguin-Random House now essentially OWN Author Solutions. That vaunted, “well-respected” publisher is now colluding in this scam. As is Barnes and Noble and several other so-called “respectable” companies.

Back in the decades before the web made information so accessible, it was easy for the scammers to hide or lurk in the shadows. They could take you for everything you had and no one would ever hear about it. Times have changed. The writing community as well as certain members of the publishing community, are doing their best to police their own. Sites like Preditors and Editors collect information from writers and vet publishers, magazines, free-lance editors, and agents. If you want to get published, you should use these resources to ferret out the scammers or the untrustworthy.

I guess the point of this little rant is that I’m not the only one out there who got sold the bait and switch. Although it didn’t cost me any money (besides postage, printer ink, and hours and hours of my time), the fact I ran into this particular agency nearly destroyed me as a writer. It took a lot of time and a renewal of faith in my talents to get back to words. And the past few years have been a hell of a ride. I still pause every now and then to wonder what would have happened if I’d kept at it. Kept writing. And not given up. Probably the same thing. Regardless, the experience led me to where I am and I’m happy for that if nothing else.

What set me off today was reading a new article on the latest class action lawsuits filed against Author Solutions. Every time I hear about that company, I flashback to when my dream died. And every time, the old anger, the psychically damaging feelings of absolute failure and hopelessness, rear their ugly heads. And as bad as my experience was, it pales in comparison to all the folks that spent thousands and thousands of dollars and received nothing in return.

I strongly hope these assholes go out of business. I also hope they get nailed by RICO statutes and all end up in prison. It’s where they belong. And if Penguin-Random House continues to fund these scammers, then that says more about the big 5 publishing houses than I ever could. It’s also another reason why I won’t be spending another goddamned dime at Barnes and Noble. Ever.

If you’re a writer having difficulty getting published, please please please do not buy into this bullshit. Or similar scams. Do your research. Do not end up mortgaging your damned house or selling your car so you can afford the $10k price tag for marketing. It’s insane. Don’t do it. Learn from those of us who have escaped the mouths of hungry dragons to tell the tale. Getting published takes hard work, luck, and a lot of patience. Can’t sell the book you have? Write another. Try again. Keep trying and don’t give up. Wonderful things CAN happen.

One comment on “Essay–Feeding On The Desperate
  1. Damon says:

    Sounds just like the music writing industry. “Good stuff, but you need to get a great demo done on it. Call here and get it done for $1,000/song and send it back to us”.

    Legitimate people don’t ask yu to spend money on your talent. If a song, or a story is good they will tell you. If it needs work they will tell you. Other than that, you can’t polish a turd. No need to go broke trying.

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