There are almost as many scams to part naive authors from their money as there are books published each year. Sadly enough, I fell prey to one such scam myself. A Europe-based American literary agent promised manuscript evaluation services as part of the expensive self-publishing course she offers in Mumbai.  Not only did she not do the promised evaluation, it was quite obvious that she was using the class as a way to find herself clients which, I realise now, is highly unethical.

This was five years ago. I’ve come a long way since. I declined a traditional publishing contract in order to self-publish, became a successful author, and learned important lessons along the way.

At a self-publishing session I conducted at the Hyderabad Literary Festival this January, a rueful writer told me of emailing an India-based literary agent expecting representation. Instead, the writer was offered a professional evaluation of the manuscript. For Rs 20,000. Desperate to be published, the writer agreed. Instead of a detailed critique, the writer got back a one-page generic write-up about good writing practices.

The literary agent scam

Another writer contacted me through my blog with a complaint about another India-based literary agent. This person was asked to pay Rs 20,000 upfront as “reading fees”. When I pointed out that this kind of conduct would be frowned upon in the West, the writer emailed the agent asking for a refund of the money. The agent emailed back, promising that “henceforth everything shall be aboveboard”. So it hadn’t been all this time?

The agent also promised that the writer would get their money back from the publisher once the deal was signed. I explained to the writer that this was not standard industry practice in the West, and that the literary agent was expected to make money only when they were able to secure a traditional publishing deal.

So the writer asked for their money back. Days later the agent wrote back – there was no publishing deal. Not only was there was no mention of the money already paid, but the agent did not respond to further email either.

If you do talk to a literary agent, you should be able to ask for recent sales, published works and recommendation from satisfied clients. In India, though, many things publishing-related are so shrouded in secrecy that there is no accurate information available.

Remember, authors seek representation so that the literary agent can secure a publishing contract for them. In the US, the agent typically takes 15% of the author’s earnings for the lifetime of the deal with the publisher. So it is in the agent’s interest to get the author the best possible deal.

Any US-based agent charging fees as a precondition to representation is violating the Association of Authors’ Representatives’ guidelines. Writers Beware and Writer’s Relief warn that if the literary agent is asking for fees (reading, evaluations, marketing, or retainer fees), be aware this isn’t standard industry practice because of the potential for abuse.

Unfortunately, though, the standard response to any talk about the ethical practices in the West seems to be: In India things work differently. But should they?

The vanity publishing scam

An elderly gentleman at the Hyderabad Literary Festival told me that he’d self-published his book as a paperback with a self-publisher, but they weren’t doing anything to promote his book. Why would they?

They’ve already made their money by charging him large amounts of money upfront, they’ve grabbed all of his book-related rights in perpetuity, and they control the dashboard on Amazon, Flipkart and wherever else they’re selling the book, which means that the author has no way of knowing how many sales he’s made, unless they choose to tell him.

One reason I advise authors against vanity publishing is that their rights are grabbed. Once you sign away your rights, you have no way of getting them back. I’d be very surprised if any of the contracts had a rights reversion clause.

Such a clause stipulates that if your book isn’t selling a certain number of copies, the contract allows you to take back your rights and re-publish. Of course, it is getting harder to get rights back even from traditional publishers.

What is distressing is that a few of these vanity publishing companies are hiding behind the logos of major traditional publishing houses, leading people to believe that publishing with the vanity publisher will somehow provide them with the legitimacy of the traditional publishing house. It won’t.

Rasana Atreya is the author of Tell A Thousand Lies, which was also shortlisted for the 2012 Tibor Jones South Asia prize. Her other works are The Temple Is Not My Father and 28 Years A Bachelor. She self-publishes her books.