Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

16.3: Publishing Pitfalls

Your Hosts: Dan, Erin, Howard, and Brandon

Erin Roberts joins us for our third installment in Brandon’s business-of-writing series. In this episode we’re covering pitfalls and common problems—including some predatory practices—for you to be on the lookout for while you develop your career as a writer.

Credits: This episode was recorded my Marshall Carr, and mastered by Alex Jackson

Liner Notes: “Accountabilibuddy,” which is written here so Howard can remember it.

Homework: Writer Beware, w/ Victoria Strauss and SFWA.

Thing of the week: YouTube: Noah Cadwell-Gervais.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: There are people out there who see aspiring writers as someone to make money off of! $50 reading fees? Remember, money flows toward the author. Beware of people who see you as a mark. Talk to other writers. Check Writer Beware and similar sites. Pay attention to the groups you join, you may not fit there. You may need multiple groups for different reasons. Accountabilibuddies! In indie publishing, you need to make business decisions. Think of yourself as two different people, a writer self and a business self, and make sure you are using the right one for the situation.

[Season 16, Episode 3]

[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, Publishing Pitfalls.

[Erin] 15 minutes long.

[Brandon] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Erin] I’m Erin.

[Brandon] I’m Brandon.

[Howard] And I’m Howard.

[Dan] Welcome back to the third episode of our intensive course on the insider business of publishing. We’re very excited to have with us Erin Roberts on the show. Erin, can you very quickly remind our listeners who you are?

[Erin] Sure. I am a short fiction writer primarily. Early in my career, so excited to share that part of the publishing world. I’ve had stories published in Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, and a few other places here and there.

[Dan] Fantastic. Well, we’re excited to have you on the show.

[Dan] We’re going to talk about publishing pitfalls this time. Things that inexperienced and sometimes even experienced authors fall into, mistakes that we make. Brandon, what are some of the things you need to warn us about?

[Brandon] Well, the big overarching theme for this episode is going to be to teach you to realize and recognize the fact that a lot of people out there see you as someone to make money off of as an aspiring writer. Or as a new professional. I point to an example of this in my career. Before I knew what I was doing, and I thought the way to get an agent was just to buy a book of agents and start submitting to all of them, I submitted to an agent who wrote back… Or, no, I didn’t… Yeah, I just went to the website and they said, “Send your book along with $50 to our agency and we will consider you.” I just lost 50 bucks. Right? They had a reading fee, and I’m sure they made a nice bunch of money off of being in whatever list that I had read on agents who took science fiction and fantasy books. They cashed my check, and I only got taken for 50 bucks. It’s not a big deal to get taken for 50 bucks. But I’ll tell you, when I was later on at a convention and someone said, “Watch out, there’s a lot of agents out there who will put on their thing send us 50 bucks and we’ll consider your book, and they’re making their money off of people sending them 50 bucks rather than actually selling books,” I felt like a total loser. Because I’d just been taken in, hook, line, and sinker by these people.

[Dan] Yeah. Now, there are, and I’m sure that we’ll get into this a little bit in the show, there are certainly people that are not out to get you. There are absolutely legitimate writing conferences and editors for hire and things like that who are doing valuable work for the money that they get from you.

[Brandon] Yes.

[Dan] We’re talking more about the hucksters, who, like you said, they make all their money on jilting you out of yours.

[Brandon] Yeah. The phrase that was commonly used when I was breaking in was money flows toward the author, and that any time you are writing a check to someone, you need to stop, consider, and decide if this is someone you should be sending money to. Normally, early in my career, people would say, “just never, never write a check to anyone.” That’s not the case anymore, because as indie publishing has become a much more legitimate way to make a career as a writer, there are lots of good places that you should be spending your money if you are an indie author. Indeed, there are a lot of good conferences and conventions that you have to pay to get in. That’s not a bad expense. So this episode is to talk to you about the mistakes that new authors often make specifically relating to shortcuts that you are offered towards publishing that often can just either waste your time or your money. The first one I want to talk about is people who see you as a mark. Now, this doesn’t actually have to always be someone who has your worst interests at heart. It can also be someone who just doesn’t know what they’re doing, right? Looking at the agency I submitted to, years later, I went back and looked at them. They were out of business. I don’t think this was someone who was there to look at authors as marks. I think this was someone who thought I’d be a pretty good agent. I spent years as, say, a real estate agent. I know how to interact with people. I know how I… I sell houses, I should be able to sell books to publishers. But how do I make any money? Well, I probably should charge these authors a little bit upfront because we’re in this together. So I need to know if they’re serious or not. So that’s probably how they came about having is like that. But the problem there was not that I necessarily was taken in by a con artist, I was taken in by an agent who had no idea what they were doing, and, indeed, could not further my career at all.

[Howard] You know how you tell if an author is serious about something? If they hand you a book. If they’ve written a whole manuscript, this is someone who’s serious about something. A real agent knows that.

[Brandon] The easiest way… I mean, agents are one of the easiest ones to determine if they’re legit or not. Because if they’re a legit agent, you should be able to go to the bookstore and find new books represented by that agent. Authors who are represented by that agent, who include new authors that the agent is actively discovering. Not just the states that the agent is representing. If you can’t find… If that agent hasn’t released in the last five years, if they don’t have new authors that are releasing books with the publishers you want to publish with, then that’s just not an agent to send to.

[Dan] Now, Erin, you have published in some pretty high profile short fiction markets which is the kind of thing that typically makes someone a mark or predatory agents or publishers. Have you experienced any of this? People coming after you because you’re kind of starting your career?

[Erin] I have had some people reach out to me because, as you should do, like, I have a writer website with how to contact me because legit people will also contact you. So, things come in, and some of them are, “Oh, this is actually a really great opportunity,” and other ones where it’s like, “Oh, I did a little research and no one seems to have heard of you. You’re an agent, like you said, that doesn’t seem to have any clients or any clients who have published books.” So a lot of it is doing research. I also say one thing I really like about the short fiction world is that there’s a really great community there. Talking to other writers is a great way to know, like, if you’re dealing with something that is legit. Not everyone knows everything, but a lot of times asking people, “Have you heard of this agent? Have you heard of this editor? Do you know any experiences with this person?” can be a way to try to weed out folks who maybe don’t have your best interests at heart.

[Brandon] When I was a newer writer, one of the places, and I would assume it’s still there but I can’t say… I haven’t been there in years, was Predators and Editors, the forum, where there was generally a thread about every small press, every legit press, and a lot of threads about non-legitimate presses and agents on those forums. I went there a lot during the early part of my career because I had no idea who was legit and who wasn’t.

[Dan] Awesome. I just looked them up, it looks like Predators and Editors is kind of in transition right now.

[Brandon] Okay.

[Dan] But there are other sites like Writer Beware that are still doing very similar work. So there are places to do this research.

[Dan] Let’s pause for our book of the week, which is actually not a book. It is a channel that Brandon loves and wants to tell us about.

[Brandon] Yeah. This isn’t maybe the best topic to slot this in, but I wanted to give a shout out to a YouTube channel called Noah Cadwell-Gervais. Noah Cadwell-Gervais, he does long form essays about videogames. Really long form. The sort of stuff that is terrible click bait, that YouTube does not optimize for. He’ll have a four hour YouTube video that he’ll do on some in-depth look at a series. He recently did The Last of Us where… The thing about Noah is, he’s just an excellent writer. I listen… Every episode when I listen to, I write down multiple phrases that he said that I think, “Man, I would love to have come up with that.” He talked about writing in a recent episode where he said, “Writing is about editing, and it’s super hard to walk into a room with your two favorite paragraphs and a bullet for one of them, knowing you’re only going to walk out with one of those paragraphs.”


[Brandon] I’m like, “Man, that is a metaphor.” That is just a brilliant way to use words. He’s really good at it. He writes these all out ahead of time, and then reads them and puts over footages, and even if you’re not interested in the games themselves, he has a really interesting take on video games. So I wanted to give him a shout out. I think that his channel is doing fine, it has more subscribers by a little bit than mine does, but he certainly isn’t as watched as he deserves. So give it a look. It’s really fun to watch people writing in other mediums and in kind of new media ways. I learn a lot from the way he crafts his prose for his video essays.

[Howard] You know, if you walked into a room with two paragraphs and you’ve only got one bullet, you’re not editing hard enough.


[Dan] One bullet and a machete. So that the paragraph that survives is a lot smaller when it comes out.

[Dan] Now, one thing that we were talking about in preparation for this episode is the idea that there are many different kinds of writers that are looking for different things. Part of the pitfall can be misidentifying which group you’re in, or really just kind of accidentally stumbling into a group rather than choosing that deliberately.

[Brandon] Yeah. When I was early in my career, a lot of people recommended several local writing groups that I go and try out, because I was looking at writing groups and things. I found that each writing group had its own kind of theme, and some were not necessarily themed the way that I wanted to do things. Like, I was very gung ho about writing novels and publishing in the novel field very soon. I was looking for a writing group of people who would read a lot and who were also very aggressive about their publishing careers. I found a lot of well-established groups that were support groups for friends, for people who were not necessarily as aggressive about publishing as I was. I found I was a really bad fit for those groups. I’ve heard of other people getting in some of these groups and kind of adopting the mindset of the group, which can be a bad thing for helping you achieve your goals as a writer.

[Erin] I would say that it’s… A lot of it, you can have a lot of also different groups that you belong to that feed different parts of your writer’s soul. Like, we contain multitudes. So, as long as you know what that is doing for you. So, like, I have a group of friends that is more of like a just how are we getting through the day, like, have we made it through 2020, type of like let’s just all commiserate group. But I don’t use that group as a way to push me forwards. That’s more of a group that’s a way to make me feel comforted and that I do the work. Then I have groups that are more about critique, group accountabilibuddies where I’m riding with someone and it’s about getting the time into do the writing. As long as I know what each of those is, it completely works.

[Howard] Accountabilibuddy.

[Erin] Yes.

[Howard] Accountabilibuddy. I’m going to say that word a couple of times, and then maybe write it down in the liner notes. Accountabilibuddy.

[Erin] Everyone should have at least one in my opinion. But, yeah, as long as you know what the people are and you’re not going to one group for something that they’re not going to provide for you, I think it can work. But the problem is when you think one group maybe is going to do all things for you. Or you don’t recognize that they’re not in the same place as you are.

[Dan] Yeah. I… This isn’t just about groups, either. This is how I divide up a lot of my alpha and beta readers when I send out a book. Because I need to be able to send it to someone who’s going to give me a meaningful, useful critique, but I also need to be able to send my books to someone who is going to tell me that it’s awesome and make me feel good about myself, even when it’s terrible. One of the groups, we’ve kind of hinted at this, I want to be a little more explicit. There are absolutely writing groups out there that are not really treating writing as a professional career or as a professional outlet, it’s more of a supportive community. I would wager that a big chunk of you wonderful listeners fall into that category. So I want to be clear that we’re not trying to bag on that. If you are writing in a way that gives you joy, then you are doing it correctly. If your goal is to make money, then that’s a different goal than just having some fun Friday nights with your writer buddy. So that’s why it’s so important to know which group you’re in.

[Brandon] Yeah. Writing groups are this kind of their own special pitfall in that you can find one that matches your career goals, but the type of feedback you’re getting is detrimental to your writing style and to your writing psychology. So, we have several other episodes on that. But just be aware, it’s okay for a writing group to be a good writing group, but a bad fit for you.

[Dan] Now, that said, I bet a lot of our listeners maybe didn’t realize that they were in the wrong group until we said it just now. So take this opportunity to take stock of yourself. Maybe one of the reasons that your aspiring career dreams are stalling is because you’ve slotted yourself into the wrong kind of community. Howard?

[Howard] Yeah. I wanted to talk a little bit about the publishing pitfall for indie publishers. I say the publishing pitfall. There are a million of them. Because when you are an independent publisher, when you are indie publishing, you have become the publisher, and Amazon, for instance, really is the distributor. As the publisher, you are now being asked to make partnership decisions for who am I going to hire to copyedit my book. Who am I going to hire to do cover art for my book? Who am I going to work with to help me build a promotional campaign around my book? This is a fantastically fraught space, especially if you have never in the course of your career doing other things, never had the opportunity to, for instance, administer a job interview or say no to someone who wants money. These are life skills that if you haven’t developed yet, indie publishing is a space where even if people aren’t looking towards you as a mark, you are a mark. You are going to hemorrhage money and time until you figure out how to make the decisions correctly. When Sandra and I decided to do, and this was a decade or more ago, the Schlock Mercenary iPhone app for reading the comics via iPhone, we put together a very simple application which was, “Hey, if you’d like to build an iPhone app, show us an app that you’ve done and come to us with a business plan for how you’d make money with this app.” We had dozens of people show us apps that they’d made, some of which were pretty shiny. Only one person came to us with a business plan. That was Gary Henson. We don’t have an iPhone app anymore because reasons. But Gary is now running the Schlock Mercenary web service. Because I set up a threshold where I knew I’d only be doing business with somebody who understood that this was a business.

[Erin] Yeah. To that point, I think a piece of advice that I’ve always loved is the idea that you’ve got your writer writer self and your business of writing self, and to really think of those as sort of two different people inhabiting your body, and that sometimes you need to turn things over to the businessperson and sometimes you need to be focusing on the writer person. In the short fiction world, a lot of times that’ll be like, “You can write as many lovely stories as you want,” but your businessperson’s going to have to be the one being like, “When do I need to submit them, and to whom? And, like, in what order?” I think that continues in indie publishing, your businessperson is a huge part of what you’re doing.

[Dan] Absolutely. I wish we could talk about this all day, but we do need to be done. Brandon, you’ve got some homework for us?

[Brandon] Yeah. So. One of the best websites that was really helpful to me when I was breaking in, and it’s still being maintained and supported by SFWA is Writer Beware. If there’s a single best resource to watch, it is probably them. They explain a lot of these pitfalls in much more depth than we can cover. Particularly, indie publishing as it was becoming a thing, it was really hard, and still is kind of difficult, to determine who is a legit editor, freelance editor you should pay, and who is someone who is out there to try to feed you into this vanity press loop, where you pay for editing, they send you to a publisher, a publisher recommends another editor, who then you pay for editing. The publisher gets a kickback, and then you… You could end up in this loop forever, spending tons of money. Vanity publishing, which is different from indie publishing. Learning the difference will help you, if you go to Writer Beware. So our homework is spend some time familiarizing yourself with Writer Beware and other resources like it on the Internet that will help you see who is trying to take advantage of you and who is a legitimate editor that you may want to hire.

[Dan] Fantastic. Well. This has been Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.