On March 20, Bruce Nichols, senior vice president and publisher of Little, Brown, received a disturbing call from a self-published children’s book author. The writer said she’d been contacted by someone named William Choby, who claimed to be an editor at Hachette, which is Little, Brown’s parent company. Choby said her agent had given him a digital copy of her book and that he wanted to publish it with Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. But to do so, Choby told the author, she would need to pay steep fees for removing the book from the self-publishing platform and licensing it. Although the author didn’t have an agent, which should have been the first red flag, she paid him nearly $15,000. When Choby stopped returning her calls, the author became desperate. She flew from her home in California to New York City, appeared in the lobby of Hachette’s office building, and asked for Choby. No one by that name worked there.
Scams targeting writers have existed for decades. But this particular scheme—in which a con artist impersonates a legitimate editor, agent, or filmmaker at an established company to coax huge payments from authors—has become increasingly common. The cost to writers nationwide has reached millions of dollars, estimates Victoria Strauss of Writer Beware, a service founded in 1998 to warn authors about literary scams. Sponsored by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association (SFWA), Writer Beware tracks literary fraud across genres and has been cited by the Authors Guild as a resource for writers.
According to Strauss, scammers will say, “‘We’ve gotten interest from a major publisher, and we want to represent you.’ All of this is essentially bait to get the writer to respond so they can give a hard sell for some overpriced service of dubious value that may or may not be delivered.”
Writer Beware has published a list of more than one hundred fifty organizations that have allegedly falsely claimed to be publishers, literary agencies, or marketing companies based in the U.S. or Canada; in many cases they are actually located overseas, which makes it easier to evade prosecution, says Strauss. She cited one extreme example: PageTurner Press and Media (not to be confused with Pageturner, a legitimate content producer and book agency in New York City), which she says is based in the Philippines, reportedly offers to redesign and republish authors’ self-published books for a low price, then bombards them with proposals of more expensive marketing services. PageTurner representatives also promise deals with Big Five publishers, then ask for large sums to make it happen, or they say they are producers who want to make a movie based on an author’s book, persuading them to “invest” $20,000 in the film’s publicity campaign, Strauss says. If the author pays that amount, the so-called producers ask for $300,000 to coproduce the fake film. PageTurner did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
A writer in his nineties was allegedly taken in by a PageTurner Press and Media impersonation scam last year, shortly before his death in December 2022. Promised a deal with Basic Books, an imprint of Hachette, the man was given a fake contract and bilked of nearly $800,000, says Min Lee, Hachette’s executive vice president and general counsel.
“We were in complete shock that that could happen, and I am very upset personally,” Lee says. “It’s terrible when your company name is being used and you hear of people losing tons of money.”
Kirby Kim, a literary agent with Janklow & Nesbit Associates, says his name was used at least six times earlier this year by a scammer, who contacted writers from a bogus e-mail address. One author even spoke with the scammer over the phone thinking he was Kim. The scammer claimed he represented interest from Penguin Random House and asked for a finder’s fee.
Cheryl Davis, general counsel of the Authors Guild, has seen these scams run rampant. “You’ve got writers dealing with people from all over the world at this point,” she says, adding that older writers and those with intellectual disabilities are most vulnerable.
Victims of such hustles have little recourse. They can report the fraud to the Authors Guild or Writer Beware, file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), or contact the U.S. Attorney General’s office or the FBI. But they are unlikely to recoup their money, says Strauss.
“The typical amount lost per author is usually not big enough for law enforcement to get involved,” she says.
The Authors Guild did apparently succeed in stopping one scam. An organization calling itself Silver Ink Literary Agency allegedly promised authors publication with top houses if they paid a “contributor’s fee” of several thousand dollars or purchased other purported services. Silver Ink, which is also reportedly based in the Philippines, claimed that the Authors Guild had a partnership with these publishers. Because the Authors Guild was among the organizations being impersonated, it sent a cease-and-desist order to Silver Ink in 2021 and reported the scheme to law enforcement and the FTC. Silver Ink—which has an F rating with the Better Business Bureau due to a “pattern of complaints”—later claimed that it would cease operations.
A writer’s best defense against scams is awareness of how they operate. Kim suggests that writers educate themselves about how literary deals work so they can spot red flags. While agents do sometimes contact authors out of the blue, for example, they would never do so on behalf of individual presses or demand a fee.
“We are looking to place and sell things with the publishers in competition with each other,” says Kim. “No matter how validating and exciting it is to get a call from an agent, as soon as they ask you for money, game over.”
John Doppler, a watchdog for the Alliance of Independent Authors, says writers should consult organizations that advocate for them. The Alliance, for example, vets self-publishing services and offers guidebooks, a blog, and podcasts to educate authors. Writers should also check the websites and social media accounts of agents, editors, and publishers, where scam warnings might be posted. Janklow & Nesbit, for example, warned about impersonation scams on Instagram in April. “The first line of defense against new or familiar scams will always be well-informed—and appropriately skeptical—authors,” says Doppler.
Jonathan Vatner is the author of The Bridesmaids Union (St. Martin’s Press, 2022) and Carnegie Hill (Thomas Dunne Books, 2019). The managing editor of Hue, the magazine of the Fashion Institute of Technology, he teaches at New York University and the Hudson Valley Writers Center.