Publishing Snake Oil

My guest post over at has sparked quite a lot of good conversation, which is great. Good thoughts, good questions, good suggestions — the perfect blogging storm.

That post also connected with another blogger, Candace Johnson, who used my post as a jumping off point to discuss some of the shadier corners of the publishing marketplace, Snake Oil Salesmen in the Editing Biz. In particular, she’s discussing two kinds of questionable “services” that are offered to writers: first, a site that charges authors to become part of a mutual editing group; second, sites that offer to read and review your work for a fee. She discusses each of these in depth.

For what it’s worth, here is my response:

That first company you mention raises my hackles as it did yours; charging a group of writers so that they can “beta” each other’s work seems disingenuous at the very least.

The second company? It really, really bothers me that there are so many “services” out there that are willing to take advantage of a writer’s passion, wringing money out of them while providing very little (if anything) in return. Reading/review fees are a red flag — professional literary agents are prohibited from charging such fees, of course, for very good reason; and I would hope that a legitimate publisher would either be willing to accept the challenge of the slush pile as a part of the cost of doing business, rather than as potential revenue stream. Other than a member of those two professions, who could possibly provide a benefit to an author through a “review” that was worth paying for? (Reviews-for-pay of published works are similarly disquieting.)

Another brand of snake oil makes me deeply uncomfortable is the current vogue for “writing coaches.” There seems to be very little incentive for them either to turn away someone who they don’t feel they can work with on the one hand, or to give a thumbs-up to sell a project on the other. I’m absolutely certain that there are ethical writing coaches; unfortunately, I have yet to run across any of them.

(Writing workshops run by a professional author, editor, or writing teacher are different: you’re paying them to teach you something, not to help you make your manuscript better, even if that’s an indirect result.)

Hiring a professional editor should be a clean transaction: the author (or publisher, or agent) is contracting an agreed-upon service that the editor will in fact provide — or not get paid.

What are your thoughts?

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