Wednesday, January 16, 2013

New Scams Preying On Writers Who Are Struggling Financially

Maybe "scam" is too strong a word, but I'm not sure what else to call it.

I'm seeing more and more marketing materials specifically targeted to indie and mainstream authors who are struggling to earn a fulltime living as writers, or finding it impossible to make the transition from day job to fulltime author. Whenever a demographic that contains many disappointed, disillusioned and possibly desperate or gullible people is formed, the vultures are quick to start circling.

Today I received yet another solicitation from a company offering to solve all my financial and work-life balance problems by helping me realize the dream of not only being a fulltime writer, but being paid handsomely for it.

The email sympathetically acknowledged how many writers have tried to get a mainstream publishing contract and failed, or self-published and seen disappointing profits. The email went on to reassure the reader that the dream of making a living as a writer is well within reach for anyone who wants it, and in fact the simple key to success is a little-known career niche that many writers simply don't know exists.

The email claimed success in this niche is easy; so long as you know about this type of work, love writing, and are able to write well, you can exceed your wildest dreams of success as a professional writer. According to the email, many writers who have discovered this little-known niche are earning six-figure incomes while only spending 20 hours a week or so writing.

Hmm...Sounds 'Legit So Far...

Loaded language like "little-known", "secret", "six figure income" and the like tends to make my internal red flags pop up, especially when it comes wedged into what's obviously a sales pitch of some sort. Mental alarm bells start going off for me when the pitch purposely avoids ever explicitly stating what's being offered for sale.

All that was missing from the email was the assurance that with "this one weird tip" my career would take off instantly, or that a "[insert your hometown name here] mom" had been the one to make this discovery, which career experts didn't want me to know about, and which would soon be solving all my career problems, whitening my teeth and making me lose pounds and inches.

It was looking pretty darned scammy and pyramid-scheme-y, but hey, this email was delivered to me by a reputable, national writers' organization, with an intro stating that organization was excited to share this amazing opportunity with me, so it couldn't possibly be a scam, right? Whatever this offer turned out to be, it must've been fully vetted, and I should give it the benefit of the doubt, right?

And The Secret Is---Wait For It, Wait For It---

I read all the way to the bottom, hoping 'the secret' would finally be revealed at the end, but instead was presented with a 'let me show you how' link. That link took me to another lengthy statement on a web page attesting to the awesomeness and profitability of this amazing writer opportunity, and included testimonials from other writers who'd taken advantage of the offer and had relocated to Easy Street shortly thereafter, with their full names, photos and everything.

Yet nowhere did this second, even longer sales pitch state what was being marketed to me, or how much it would cost.

It wasn't until I followed yet another link, at the bottom of that lengthy page of marketingspeak B.S., that I got to a page that actually showed what was being sold and what it would cost: a series of e-publications on topics about how to find copywriter jobs, how to succeed as a freelance copywriter, how to generate copywriting leads, how to break into travel writing, et cetera et cetera, and even though they were valued at over $200, for a "limited time" I could have them ALL for a mere $49.

$50 Is A Big Chunk Of Change, But Does That Alone Make It A Scam?

No. I'm fairly certain all of the "secrets" in these e-pubs are already available for free in multiple locations online, but I can see where gathering them all together and offering them for sale in a single package---otherwise known as a "book"---adds enough value to justify charging for the material. But here's why I still classify this as a scam:

1. The seller repeatedly emphasizes how EASY it is to "immediately" start earning large fees; she conveniently leaves out the part where essentially, she's just advising you to start your own freelancing business, and she also conveniently leaves out the part about how HARD it is to launch a new freelance business.

Plenty of people, myself included, have sold books or training programs intended to provide writers with necessary business or craft skills, but the ones who are being honest will tell you the ugly truth right up front: it's hard work, it's a longterm investment that will not "immediately" start paying off, and no book or training program can guarantee career success. Many people can and do make a respectable or even comfortable living as freelancers, but it took a lot of time, effort and sacrifice to get there.

2. The key to success here is NOT any of the e-pubs she's offering to sell you, it's having a very strong entrepreneurial drive and a lot of business savvy. If you already have those things you don't need anything she's selling to launch a freelance business, and if you don't, no amount of advice or e-pubs from her or anyone else will make your business a success.

This person is not selling a course in how to run a small business, covering your tax and regulatory bases, basic accounting and so on, but she's marketing her copywriting information as if it IS a one-stop, magic portal that can take you from being unemployed, or unhappily employed in an unfulfilling day job, directly to a glamorous new life where you're making tons of money, setting your own hours, and basically living the dream as a professional writer.

3. The sales copy repeatedly emphasizes how one need only spend 20 hours or so a week writing to earn a fulltime income---yet never mentions the many MORE hours freelancers must spend chasing after leads, networking/using social media to promote, preparing bids, trying to collect on jobs already completed and seeing to all the same small business administration tasks as any other small business owner.

In addition, the sales copy fails to mention the fact that freelancers must also get and maintain a professional-quality website, and be prepared to invest time and possibly money in advertising themselves and their "products". If all of this stuff sounds familar, that's because it's all the same stuff authors are supposed to do to sell their books.

The copywriter career path is being sold as an easy, painless alternative to the disappointment and long hours of trying to make it as an author, yet the very same things that can make trying to earn a fulltime living as an author disappointing and exhausting are required of a fulltime, freelance copywriter.

4. While this may not technically fit the criteria to be classified as a pyramid scheme, in one sense, it is: the seller is making her money by getting you to buy her e-pubs and subscribe to her magazine. She must be working as a hugely successful copywriter too---if she weren't, how could she be in position to advise you, after all---, but it's a safe bet that a large piece of her income pie chart comes from this particular revenue stream.

The fact that she's trying to make money by selling something isn't the problem; it's that she's trying to make money by using deceptive advertising techniques that are very much in line with the techniques used to suck people into multi-level marketing scams.

5. The whole thing is being sold to a demographic that was targeted specifically on account of its members' financial problems. If you want to be cynical, you could say the message of the whole thing boils down to, "Money problems? Give me fifty bucks and I'll tell you a secret that'll make you rich overnight!"

It would be more responsible to target people who are already making some headway as freelancers, but need some additional guidance and advice from more experienced and successful freelancers who've gone before them. That's a group of people who already know what's involved and have already made some level of commitment to a career in freelancing, not a bunch of struggling authors who still hang on to the hope that there's some magic bullet that can make all this promotion / author platform / day job stuff go away and escort them directly into the ranks of wealthy, fulltime writers.

BOTTOM LINE: How Good Can Your Product Or Service Be If You Have To Trick People Into Buying It?

I don't begrudge anyone wanting to earn some money in exchange for sharing the knowledge they have to offer. This woman's e-pubs and magazine may be filled with all kinds of great information that can absolutely help anyone who's already trying to make a go of a career in freelance copywriting and already appreciates all the challenges he or she is up against.

What bugs me is the bait-and-switch marketing approach. Why not just open with a statement like this:

"We all know it's the rare author who earns enough from book royalties to live on, but that's not the only way to make a living as a professional writer. You'd love to quit your 'day job' for something that makes better use of your writing skills, but you still have to pay the bills. Have you considered a career as a freelance copywriter?"

I'll tell you why not: because putting it right out there in the open, right up front, makes it impossible to bend the truth and offer exaggerated claims. The statement above would let the reader know this supposedly "little known career niche" is actually just the same old freelancing that's been around since the dawn of civilization. Most people know that freelancers who are earning a comfortable living at it only do so by working very hard, that it took a long time for them to start earning a fulltime living at it, and that they're no less rare than authors who make a comfortable living on their book royalties alone. But the truth won't sell many $49 "career packages".

The above statement also makes it possible for the reader who actually IS interested in pursuing a career in freelancing to simply start Googling for all the same "tips" and "secrets" this woman is trying to sell.

Yes, making a fulltime living as an author or writer is a rare and difficult thing. But there is no "secret", no magic bullet, and no "little known career niche" that will make it any less rare or difficult. Barring a winning lottery ticket or generous inheritance, we all have to work for a living, and the harder we work, the more we stand to gain. As Westley the Farm Boy (and sometime Dread Pirate Roberts) so eloquently put it in The Princess Bride:

Anyone who says otherwise is selling something.

Don't buy it.


Jeffrey said...

Nice article, April. We see these types of sales pitches everywhere these days. Build 'em up, promise riches, make 'em pay.

After 20+ years of disappointment, in desperation, I finally started giving a book (a novel) away for free. It wasn't very good, but it has led to sales of my other books and I now make a living as a novelist. No kidding!

If you'd like to know exactly how I did it... haha, just joking about that part.

Check me out on Amazon (Thomas Stone) or

Keep up the good work!


Thomas Sibbitt said...

Don't buy it indeed. There are ton's of 'service' websites for indie publishing, which perhaps have legit resources: online bookstores, micro-presses, editing, print on demand services...

I am recently self-published and wondering if any of them are worth looking at. The worst are the marketing services. They all claim to have millions of readers, just like amazon, but what is the point if your book has no viewable placement and sits at the bottom of a digital mountain, available only by a direct search?

What's a scam and what's legit? Lets make a list.

#1 legit... had a good experience with Litreactor. They have for real training, resources and professional list serves....


Nigel G Mitchell said...

That is pretty sad. I'm sure the woman who write the book would disagree with your characterization, but it is pitched the same way as others used to sell books on stuffing envelopes. I've been seeing a lot of this stuff praying on the indie community. Just saw a site claiming to be a "network" of indie authors you can join for a fee. And what do you get in return? How is this network any better than just publicizing the book on your own? Nowhere does it say, so I'm skeptical.

Unknown said...

Nicely written! I'm new to the blogging community and also to the writing community. A pitch like that could easily snag the attention of writers just starting out and trying to make ends meet at the same time. If I had seen it, of course I would read on! It's nice to find articles sticking up for newbies, telling them what's what, and giving brief explinations on what it takes to be successful.