Speakers caution English students on dangers of fake publishers and agents

Speakers James Macdonald and Debra Doyle give a humorous talk in the Austin building about the dangers the many fake agents and publicists that prey on new writers on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2016. Macdonald has made a name for himself bringing these scammers to the public eye. (Amar Batra/Daily Campus)

Every English student dreams of writing and publishing a book, but most aren’t aware of the dangers of fake publishers and literary agents. Authors Debra Doyle and James Macdonald sought to educate those aspiring writers through a humor-laden presentation sponsored by the English department Tuesday afternoon in the Philip E. Austin building.

Macdonald began by relating his first experience with a fake literary agent, when an aspiring writer called asking for his advice.

“Imagine my surprise when a young gentleman called me and asked me how much it cost me to publish my books. ‘Nothing,’ I told him. They paid me,” Macdonald said. “This guy had mortgaged his house…in order to pay for publication. And what was going on with [the fake publisher] was that they would print one copy of your book and then keep all the money.”

One of the easiest but most important things for aspiring writers to remember, Macdonald said, was that money flows in one direction, and that’s towards the author.

“You should not pay to be published…Money flows towards the author. It may not flow in large amounts, and it may not flow rapidly, but it does flow towards the author,” Macdonald said.

Macdonald also warned the audience against trusting ratings of literary agents, including those by their state’s Better Business Bureau, as these ratings are often misleading or easy to manipulate.

“All that it requires to be a AAA member of the Better Business Bureau is to respond to every complaint. Do not rely on a Better Business Bureau rating when it comes to any literary agency,” Macdonald said.

“There isn’t really a certification or course for a literary agent…Most of them learn by apprenticing with other agents, then absconding with half their clients. They reproduce by fratricide,” Doyle said.

One of Macdonald’s most significant investigations was into Publish America, a publishing group that charged extreme markup on the books, making roughly $300 on each book by Macdonald’s estimate. In order to determine whether the agency was actually reading any of the books they were being sent, Macdonald came up with a plan to send them a book that made no sense, including a chapter filled with words generated at random.

“This is what brings us to ‘Atlanta Nights.’ It was a test to see…whether they would actually reject something,” Macdonald said, with Doyle adding, “It was a truly awful manuscript.”

Written by professional writers who only had the vaguest of outlines and instructions, “Atlanta Nights” also included a section near the end about the purpose of the book, calling out Publish America in the process.

“The writers who contributed a chapter or two…they were told to write badly…Not every writer could make the short deadline, so I copied another chapter from earlier in the book or made one from machine-generated word hash,” Macdonald read from the book.

Regardless, “Atlanta Nights” was approved by Publish America in 2005. Macdonald and his fellow writers from Writers Beware went public with their discovery. Another scam involved a multi-stage process, culminating in a website with a “secret URL” and a series of fake literary reviews that cost seventy dollars per review.

“Everyone knows that publishers go to secret URLs to find books to publish,” Macdonald said humorously. “I’ve seen some of these pages, where the writer says that their next door neighbor thinks their book is great. Unless your next door neighbor is James Cameron on one side and George Lucas on the other, no one cares.”

As for how to find a good literary agent, Macdonald again warned the audience to be very careful, as there is no accreditation system for literary agents.

“There is no SEC looking at literary agents. Just put a sign on your door saying you’re a literary agent and you are one. A good literary agent is someone that has sold books that you’ve heard of,” Macdonald said.

“Look in the acknowledgements section of a book,” Doyle said, to which Macdonald added, “Or just google the authors name and ‘represented by.”

Macdonald reiterated that the writer should not be paying to have their book published, because in writing, money only comes from two sources.

“There are only two sources of money in publishing: the reader and the author. Do not be the person funding this. The readers should be funding this,” Macdonald said.

After explaining all the difficulties and pitfalls involved with writing and publishing a book, Macdonald encouraged the audience to continue writing and working to get books published. He reiterated that publishers are always looking for new writers, because “old authors die.”

“Publishers are looking for new authors because old authors die, and they stop writing books…Yes, agents do read your manuscripts,” Macdonald said. “Publishers do not bury your manuscripts because you’re too talented. If you’re too talented, they’ll buy your book.”

Concluding the presentation, Macdonald urged students to ask themselves a series of questions when considering whether a publisher is legitimate.

 “Does a publisher have any books on the shelf [at a bookstore]? Would you be proud to have your book next to those books on the shelf? Are the covers awful? Is their webpage aimed at authors or at readers? The big test is, do they actually have books out there in the wild that real people, not related to the author’s family, are buying?” Macdonald asked.

Students found the presentation extremely entertaining and useful. Eighth semester English major Brandon Lisi said that, although he’s listened to Macdonald and Doyle talk before, the presentation was still funny and educational.

“It was absolutely useful,” Lisi said. “I’m an un-professional writer, and I’ve heard them speak before, but it was still a great presentation.”


Edward Pankowski is life editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at edward.pankowski@uconn.edu.