Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Editing Scam

A few weeks ago, a story was circulating here in northern California about gas thieves who would park at a gas pump and then walk around the other side, switching the pump handles from one side to the other. When an unsuspecting customer pulled up in the next lane and put his credit card into the pump, the thief would quickly fill his own tank for free and then drive off, leaving the customer wondering why his pump didn't seem to be working.

Call them thieves, con-men, scammers... The world is full of them, and they're always on the lookout for something they didn't earn from someone who probably can't afford it. They don't care if the gas or credit card they steal will bankrupt you. They don't care if they leave you homeless, rob you of the ability to pay a doctor, or literally steal food out of your children's mouths. They don't care if the victim dies the next day because he couldn't afford his prescription medicine. They. Don't. Care.

I've blogged many times about some of the scammers and thieves in the publishing business. First, you have vanity presses that take advantage of starry-eyed writers by charging them publishing "fees" that often end up in the thousands of dollars. They steal most of the author's rights, and leave him or her with a less than stellar product that he usually can't sell. Some literary agents run similar scams, charging writers reading fees, office supply fees, or publisher referral fees. These people aren't agents or publishers, folks. They are thieves, and they will take you for everything they can.

Similarly, you have writers who post fake 5-star reviews on their own books, or they buy hundreds of sham reviews knowing that they are fake. They do this because they know a large number of 5 star reviews will drive up sales, and unsuspecting readers won't bother to return the product when they realize it's crap. Sometimes, these con-artists write bad reviews of a competing author's books, trying to drive away potential buyers and  thereby boost their own ranking. When Amazon started cracking down on this behavior, these scammers started changing up their game. They actually began posting fake three or four star reviews, where they would go on to slam the book or the writer in the review comments.

Lately, there is a new scam being run by people calling themselves freelance "editors," or "editorial services." These people approach an author privately with an offer of their services. If the author declines, they post bad reviews on that author's books, slamming the "poor editorial quality," or something along those lines. When this started gaining attention recently, they changed it up a little by posting otherwise good reviews into which they would sneak a few comments about how the work needed better editing. Sometimes, they write the review first, picking out a book that has very few reviews to the be sure the author will notice it. They write the review, make the "editing issues" comment, and then contact the author offering their services.

Sometimes, they even download one or two of the writer's free titles and scan them with cheap online software, looking for flaws. Armed with this software and perhaps even an Arts degree somewhere in their background, these people are masters of Proper English and absolutely clueless about writing fiction. Usually, the errors they find are not errors at all. These might be examples of character dialects that are grammatically incorrect but fully intentional, or the use of passive voice, or the over or under use of commas and such, which generally says more about a particular author's voice than about his editor. Good characters rarely use perfect English; so rarely in fact, that you should have a very good reason for it to happen at all. That's because real people don't use perfect grammar, and anyone who does usually comes off as a snob. Readers understand this. Computer programs don't. So these "editors" offer suggestions that can actually ruin a book. They don't care. They aren't trying to make your book better; they just want your money.

So what is an author to do about these con-artists? They're not like vanity publishers, who leave you alone if you don't want their services. These scammers can actually damage your business. They can hurt your sales, in effect stealing from you. The bad news is that it's expensive and time-consuming to go after them, and like most scammers, by the time you catch up to these people they've already moved on. The good news is that this behavior is called extortion and it's illegal pretty much everywhere. You can go to Amazon with your concerns, and you can take legal action. It may be hard to track them down, but a few I.P. addresses go a long way. If you have the time and money, you can even hire lawyers to do the work for you. Internet providers and I.P. blockers will respond to a lawsuit, and eventually you'll probably get a name and address.

There is also strength in numbers. As more people call out these con-artists, they'll move on to greener pastures. So don't be afraid to complain to Amazon and other retailers and hosts. When retailers see a pattern emerging, they will eventually act. These thieves won't ever completely go away. That's too much for us to ask. But hopefully, they'll eventually realize that writers are onto them, and they'll turn their attention to other, more profitable scams.

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