Here’s a paradox about writing for a living (no matter what kind of writing you want to do): It’s easy to make a living once you get your foot in the door, but it’s hard to get your foot in that door.
Getting started as a professional writer is a goal that many of us have in common, but it can often seem daunting. How do you get those first few jobs?
How do you navigate the tricky terrain of what jobs are real, and what so-called “opportunities” are only there to bring you down?
Thankfully, I’ve been there. I got my start as a professional writer a little over a decade ago, and I’ve thoroughly explored many parts of this weird, wonderful industry we’re in.
Let’s take a look at some of the best places to find work as a writer, then dig into how to stay safe, avoid scams, and create a successful and stable writing career for yourself.
How to Get Started as a Professional Writer
A guidebook that only tells you what parts of cities to avoid isn’t much good to tourists. They need a list of what to visit, where to stay, and what neighborhoods are safe to explore. To that end, here’s what I’ve figured out by living in this “city” for a little over a decade.
Let’s start with legitimate places to find work. Some of these help freelancers find paying clients. Others help book authors find a good match among legitimate agents. Still others act as brokers between writers and those who buy writing.
Exactly what they do for you matters less than that they are acting in good faith, using a proven business model that doesn’t prey on prospective writers.
1. Open Job Boards
An open job board is one where anybody can view the jobs and anybody can post a job. They are great places to start a freelancing career, but remember: buyer beware when it comes to the individual job postings. Because anyone can post there for free, they are often targeted by scammers.
2. Market Databases
These sites aggregate information about publishers and/or agents. You can search them, sometimes for a nominal fee, and find out a surprising amount before sending your work on for consideration. They’re particularly helpful for book authors who want to pursue a traditional publishing deal, either using an agent or by seeking out a legitimate small press
3. Content Brokers
These sites act as middlemen between freelancers and the clients who work with them. They’ll help you connect with somebody who needs writing in exchange for a portion of your income from that job.
The way to tell the difference between a legit broker and a scam is when they get paid. Legitimate brokers take a percentage, just like a legitimate agent. Scam brokers charge money up front.
4. Subscription/Membership Job Boards
These job boards are not open to the public. In order to view the listings, you need to be a member (which can be free or cost a nominal monthly fee, usually less than $30). Posting jobs typically requires a payment from the poster, and jobs are subject to review.
The quality of work available on these boards is higher than on open boards. They spot scams earlier. Plus, you’re not competing with as many people for each gig. On the downside, this one of the few places where paying up front is legitimate—and worth the investment.
5. Market Guidebooks
These are the print version of market databases. They come out (usually) annually, and have as comprehensive a list of publishers, agents, and specialty presses as they can manage. Generally, I recommend using the e-versions of these because they update more frequently and are usually less expensive. That said, many people find browsing through them easier in the initial phases of research.
No discussion of resources for writers wanting to find great jobs and cull out scams would be complete without mentioning Writer Beware. Funded by the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), this service looks closely at the news and reviews in the publishing sphere and outs scams as quickly as they can find them. Writer Beware won’t help you find legitimate markets for your work, but it can certainly help you avoid the more common predators.
Visit: Writer Beware
7. Facebook Groups
A handful of communities exist on Facebook where writers and people who need writers connect and figure out how to do business together. These groups do have the occasional predator on the membership rolls, but the groups themselves usually operate in good faith. As long as you scrutinize opportunities carefully, these can be a good source of leads.
Often, the closed groups where you have to request and be approved for membership will be more valuable than open groups that anyone can join.
Signs that a Writing Market is Reputable
Now, it’s impossible to list every existing type of legit source of work, just like it’s impossible to list every single website that could provide you with leads on great paying writing gigs. You need to be able to find and judge sources on their own.
As with most judgment calls, the ultimate tool in this box is experience. You’ll develop a “Spidey Sense” that’s triggered by small things that show legitimacy or illegitimacy just from seeing enough of both.
Until then, look for these signs that an offer or market is solid and dependable.
They Get Paid When You Get Paid
Everybody gets paid. If it doesn’t look like someone’s getting paid, they’re getting paid by somebody else. Legitimate publishers, agents, and brokers don’t charge you up front. They take a piece of the action when there’s action to take a piece of.
This is not only a sign they intend to work with you appropriately; it’s also a way of incentivizing them to promote your work and foster your publicity. The more you get paid, the more they profit, too.
Lack of Testimonials
This might seem a little counterintuitive—don’t you want to read about success stories and how well people have done working with so-and-so?
Well, not really. It’s a case of “the lady doth protest too much”—if an agent, publisher, or writing site has to continually reassure you about how great they are…they’re probably not that great.
People who hire writers and treat them professionally don’t need testimonials telling writers how good it is to work with them. They might have blurbs about their books aimed at readers, or about the product they might hire you to write about. But if they spend energy on testimonials about how good it is to work for them…they’re trying a little too hard. Stick with sites that advertise appropriately, and to the right people.
Real opportunities in writing and publishing won’t make guarantees because guarantees are not realistic in writing and publishing. This goes double for money-back guarantees attached to that fee you already know outs them as a bad offer. Unsolicited promises (which is what a guarantee is) are almost always signs of somebody offering in bad faith. This is no exception.
Hyperbole is just a disguised guarantee. “You could be a New York Times Bestseller!” or “Your work could be in a movie starring Will Farrell!” or “You can make $200 an hour from your home!” might sneak in a qualifier, but they’re still presenting unlikely success as if it’s a thing you can count on if you just sign on the dotted line.
Legitimate opportunities will state clearly and concretely what you can expect from them, and what they expect from you in return.
Presence at Conferences and Trade Shows
This is the one exception to the rule about recruiting. Trade shows cost real money to get a booth, and conferences have strong gatekeepers and long memories. If your research finds that a particular market or company attends conferences and trade shows regularly, either as a speaker or a vendor, it’s a good sign. Making regular appearances at that sort of thing requires an ongoing good reputation. It also gives you a potential opportunity for a face-to-face check in before you do business.
Alternative Places to Find Legitimate Writing Jobs
You can also find a surprising amount of work by looking for jobs in places that aren’t job boards.
The rough part of this method is it takes some extra work to get all the information you need, then make your pitch, and finally set up an arrangement for delivery and payment.
The good part is that you’re not in a big pool of writers also competing for the same work.
A few places to get started this way include:
Social media channels, especially Facebook, offer a lot of chances to find work. You know those articles that keep popping up in your feed for no readily apparent reason? Somebody has to write those.
Follow a few and look for their submission guidelines. This works especially well when it’s a site you continually find yourself visiting. That shows you have enough passion to write well for that outlet.
Community Groups and Meetups
Your local Chamber of Commerce and the Rotary Club can put you in contact weekly with businesses that need writers for their ad copy, web content, and more. You’ll almost certainly be the only writer in that room, making it easy to land some gigs.
The 21st-century version of this is the Meetup group, where you can find people more specifically interested in the genres and topics you like best.
Your Day Job
Believe it or not, your day job can set you up to succeed with your writing side hustle. Your job regularly puts you in contact with people who need somebody who (a) can write and (b) is knowledgeable about the basics of the field.
You are that somebody.
Look for opportunities with your employer to build up your portfolio, then look to trade associations, publishers, vendors, and other partners within your industry to get more writing gigs and opportunities.
Hobby Sites and Magazines
What magazines do you subscribe to? What websites do you visit regularly? Like your day job contacts, these are places that need writing about something you’re already interested in and expert on. Find the submission guidelines and get started.
Businesses You Frequent
You’ve read your favorite yoga studio’s website and cringed at the copy. You’ve groaned at the spelling mistakes in the menu at the corner deli. You’ve winced when you saw what your dentist put on his LinkedIn page. These are all people you know and who (presumably) like you and need somebody to do what you do best.
Conferences and Conventions
No, not writer’s conferences (though you should also go to those). Here I’m talking about events around your hobbies and your job. In those rooms, you will be surrounded by people who need somebody to write about what they do. And you’ll be the only writer there.
How to Spot and Avoid Writing Scams
Now that we’ve talked about some of the best places to find legitimate work as a writer from reputable sources, it’s time to talk about the dark side of the writing world.
Remember how I said that getting a foot in the door to becoming a professional writer can be tricky?
Well, getting in is even harder because a variety of unscrupulous sorts pretend to offer to hold the door open and usher you in…
…for a fee…
…often a big fee…
…and they sometimes don’t hold the door…
…and sometimes it’s the wrong door…
…or it’s not even a door.
For the unwary writer, it’s easy to get taken in by scams that leave you poorer, with no extra progress toward actually making a living through writing. For the experienced writer, it’s easy to recognize and avoid those scams. The challenge is getting from unwary greenhorn to cynical veteran as quickly as possible.
I’m here to help. To get started, you’ll need:
- To know about the scams. What’s out there. How they work. What the tell-tale signs are. The big repeat offenders.
- To know where to start looking for legit work. Who can help. What’s a good investment. How to keep the search moving forward.
We’ve already covered that second point, so let’s take a look at the first: How do you spot and avoid writing scams?
The problem with finding a place to start in seeking a home for your work isn’t lack of information. There is lots of info out there for aspiring writers. The problem is the disinformation out there.
Thing is, a lot of unscrupulous sorts understand that many people dream of becoming writers. They take advantage of those dreams by offering things for more money than they are worth. Sometimes a lot more money.
Here are a few of the most common schemes you’ll find.
1. Pay-for-Press Publishers
These guys will hit you with a big congratulations because they’ve accepted your manuscript. You’ve made the show! They just want you to have an editor look at it, for $499.99. And then they want you to help with the price of promotion for $399.95, or to upgrade to their premium publicity package for $999.90. Your money keeps going to them, but you never seem to see any profits come the other direction. Your wallet gets emptier, not fuller
This scam takes advantage of your excitement at being a published author, but don’t be fooled. No reputable publisher will ever ask you to pay out of pocket. Never.
That said, some reputable publishers will respond to your manuscript letting you know that it’s not quite ready to publish yet, and suggest that you revise it or hire an editor to help you do so. The difference is that you’re not paying the publisher to edit your manuscript—you can do it yourself, hire whoever you like, or go to a different publisher altogether. Some manuscripts aren’t polished enough to be on submission yet; it’s a good sign if a publisher will honestly tell you this and then give you a chance to revise and resubmit.
Just don’t confuse this with a pay-for-play “publisher” that charges fees every step of the way.
2. Social Media Managers
This is a tricky one, because investing in social media advertising and presence is a valid way to promote any business, including your writing. But that doesn’t mean every investment in social media advertising and presence is a good investment.
Because it’s tricky to measure social media ROI, some shops promise big results but use outdated methods or simply fake their way into meaningless “likes” or other showy but ineffective practices. Even Facebook has been caught farming out likes to rooms full of Indian subcontractors who produced the appearance of results without ever engaging anybody meaningfully.
This scam works because most writers don’t know how to measure “success” in terms of a social media investment. It’s always best to work with a company you know you can trust. Get referrals from other writers and check in regularly to make sure you understand what the company is doing for you and to be sure you can measure real results from what they’re doing.
3. Pay-to-Play Job Offers
You may have seen this one recently on Facebook under the name “Master Writer’s Life.” The idea is, they say you can get all kinds of work as a writer if you just pay them a nominal fee to get set up and trained. When you take the course—a hastily slapped together slide deck with some rah-rah and maybe a piece or two of useful information—you qualify for the job leads.
Which never materialize. Or are so thin on the ground in comparison to the number of applicants that it’s like they never materialized.
This scam works because the model of paying for education and/or membership in a professional organization is a proven and legitimate investment. Just remember the education and organization must be legitimate.
4. Reading Fees
These scammers operate the same as the Pay-for-Press Publishers I mentioned, just on a different scale. An agent liked your query and wants to see more…for $5 per page or a flat fee of $500. After that gate, the agent might consider and represent your work just like any other, so it feels like a reasonable investment in your future.
But it’s not. A few agents who charge fees will vigorously represent books they choose to work with, but a lot more don’t even read the books. They just charge the fee and send back a form rejection.
Just like with the illegitimate publishers above, this takes advantage of seeming to give you what you were hoping for. But also just like with those publishers, a reputable agent will never ask for money to review your work.
5. We Found Your Name
This one feels too much like a Nigerian bank fraud scam to really fool anybody this decade, but it still gets authors from time to time.
Out of the blue, you’ll get an email about how some publisher found out about you, loves your work, and wants to publish you. For a fee or “co-investment” or similar charge. From there, it usually funnels you into one of the scams I just described.
The truth about the publishing industry is there are too many queries going to agents or publishers for them to go looking for clients in this fashion. Unless the email comes from a direct referral by a friend of yours who works with that agent, this is a scam.
6. “Looking for Writers”
Sure, a posting on a legitimate ad board with a salary and job description is likely to be reasonable. But if you see an open call pop up in a writing forum, on a writing board, or just magically there on your FB feed, it’s a warning. Very few legitimate clearinghouses for writers exist, and those that do don’t advertise like that. There will be a catch somewhere down the line, usually after you’ve paid your initiation fee.
Jobs don’t ask you to pay them. Jobs pay you.
Keep in mind that this doesn’t necessarily apply to calls for submissions: those can be legitimate, assuming they don’t ask you to pay any fees and don’t promise that you’ll be published. Promises are rarely a good sign in publishing, where so much is based on being in the right place at the right time.
7. High Contest Fees
This one is a little tricky, since there are hundreds of legitimate contests and anthology projects out there that charge entry fees. The good ones use the fees to subsidize printing the anthology, or to pay for cash prizes to the winners. The bad ones use the contest as a solid profit point. Many might be better described as a bad personal investment than a bad-faith scam.
That still doesn’t mean you should pay high contest entry fees, or even low fees for a contest that doesn’t perfectly suit your needs. The best bet is to stick with contests run by nonprofit writing groups, or that perfectly match a specific strategic goal.
8. The New Who’s Who
Remember Who’s Who? It was a print listing of “important” people in various fields. They didn’t charge to include your name in the volume, but they sent you an offer to buy several copies at a huge markup so you could have a book with your name in it.
Today, a variety of anthologies are doing something similar. They’ll “accept” your submission and put your work in, unread and unedited, along with dozens of other unculled pieces, and make their money off how many copies you and your grandmother buy.
These scams make their money from your pride in your work, and by how much they resemble legitimate anthology projects. Spot them by the quality of work (or lack thereof) in previous editions.
9. Selling Fake Reviews
One of the bigger marketing scams out there now, these services offer to put a whole bunch of fake positive reviews up on Amazon, Goodreads, and similar sites to draw both human and algorithm attention to your book. Thing is, they don’t work anymore—and barely worked when they did work.
A lot of scams work on this model: doing a poor job at something that used to be important but isn’t effective anymore. But in this case, not even a good job will reliably increase your sales.
10. Overpriced Self-Publishing Services
A large traditional publisher will take up to 90% of the income from a book—that money goes to pay the publisher’s staff, produce the book, and get it into the marketplace.
Self-publishing services might try to charge you that much, plus set-up fees, marketing fees, editing fees, and any other kind of fee they can tack on. Remember that the 90% publisher pays an advance, and does everything else out of their pockets and not yours.
This scam works because many writers are aware of how small royalties are in traditional publishing, but don’t be fooled. On-demand self-publishing is available with no set-up fees and commissions in the 25-70% range from a variety of houses.
Signs of Scams
When I set out to write this article, I planned to list examples of each scam. I planned to name names. But the trouble with the Internet Era is that changing names is easy. The scammer I mention today will go by a different label tomorrow (some of them because they got outed in this article).
This is, of course, not a complete and comprehensive list of every scam known, You need to know how to spot a scam on your own. You can probably work out some of their more common traits from rereading the list I just gave you, but here they are spelled out in detail.
They have flashy websites but are hard to get a hold of.
Most legitimate sites for publishers, agents, and writer services are professional in both senses of the word. They don’t look cobbled together or out of date, but neither do they have a lot of sales-speak or fancy bits. They also have easy to find contact methods and reasonable response times.
If the offer has more show than blow, and you can’t figure out how to talk to a live customer service rep, that’s a huge red flag.
They ask for money up front.
This might be the most reliable red flag of all.
With the exception of some writing contests, editing services, and courses, nobody legitimate in the world of publishing is going to ask you for money to do their jobs. They get paid via other models, and will not ask you to supplement that income.
Do not pay for what real publishers and agents do without an up-front charge. Ever.
They look like legitimate offers with one small exception.
Because obvious scams don’t work, most modern scams that target writers will look on the surface like something you’ve heard of. Agents who charge reading fees look like regular agents. Pay-for-press publishers feel a lot like self-publishing.
But there will be one or two elements that feel off. Prices might be too high, for example, or the wording in the submission guidelines might smell a little funny.
It’s hard to define exactly what to look for here, but as you gain experience in the business, you’ll be able to tell what was set up in good faith and what’s fishy.
They use high-pressure sales tactics.
This is a trait of scams in any industry, and publishing is no exception. Any time a site or customer service rep seems really eager to make the sale, you can be fairly sure something’s not right. A quality service or professional lets reputation and value make their money, and is willing to wait until you’ve made up your mind on your own.
Never fall for limited time offers or say “yes” when asked repeatedly for money.
They contain lots of testimonials from people you’ve never heard of.
One factor about publishing is that the successful people get at least a little bit famous. If you’re looking at a website with lots of testimonials, but none from any names you recognize, that’s evidence of one of two things: either it’s a straight-up scam, or it’s a good-faith enterprise run by people who aren’t very good at their jobs.
Neither is a space you want to spend your time, energy, and money.
They come looking for you.
If you’ve been in writing for even a short while, you’ve already realized that publishing and agenting are buyer’s markets. The people who might be interested in your work are kept incredibly busy just working through the submissions that come to them. They do not have the time to advertise for your work, or to approach you cold.
No matter how good it makes your ego feel for someone to come to you, remember that for almost all legitimate work it will be you making contact with them.
Almost no history.
If their Facebook page is a month old and they have no existing clients, it’s likely they were operating under a different name until they got too many reports and bad reviews. The same bad hats took the same methods and slapped a coat of paint on it. Legitimate companies start all the time, but if you see other warning signs, this can be the item that points you elsewhere.
Keep in mind that some legitimate opportunities possess one or more of these tell-tale signs. Publishers do sometimes approach an influential person cold with a book idea (but you probably know already if you have a chance at this, because you’re a blog or YouTube star). Agents might participate in a for-pay event where you get to pitch them your idea in person. Legitimate anthologies look a lot like fake anthologies until you find out how strong or weak the gatekeeping is.
But if an opportunity has one of these traits, it’s time to dig deeper and find out how legitimate it is. This takes a little detective work, but it’s a smart idea.
If it has three or more red flags, don’t even bother with the investigation. Run far and fast, and maybe tell your friends about it.
How to Detect Writing Industry Red Flags
As for that detective work, you use the same methods as you would checking out a potential scam in any other industry.
Read for errors.
This is a little elitist and jingoistic, but most scams are based in developing nations where they are out of reach of the authorities. If the English in the offer, or on the website, seems poor, that’s a good indicator that there’s a problem.
Check out the URL with a whois search, and if they’re based in Russia or Nigeria or some other place not exactly known for publishing, that’s a sign.
Even if they appear to be based in the US, Canada, or the UK, if there are a lot of spelling or grammar errors in an outreach piece that’s meant to appeal to serious professional writers, do you really want to be working with that company?
Check them out online.
Use resources like the Better Business Bureau, RipOffReport.com, writing forums and Facebook pages, and blogs for writers. Search for the name of the company associated with the offer. Use a whois query to look up who owns the URL and then search them out.
You will find out quickly what people who worked with them in the past thought of their experience. Even the best company will have a few one-star reviews, but the scams will have many…plus a disproportionate number of rave reports from people they paid off.
Ask yourself if their site advertises to you or to their customers.
Publishers advertise to readers. Content hubs advertise to businesses. If the site seems to be spending too much energy attracting people they claim will be receiving money from you, that’s another sign. Any advertising should be to the people who receive your words, not the people who provide them.
Look their work up on Amazon.
Legitimate agents and presses will have their work on Amazon. That work will have reviews. Not every legitimate enterprise has mostly good reviews, but most rip-offs will have the same pattern as they show in reviews of the company. There will be a whole lot of so-so and poor reviews up, plus a bunch of suspiciously similar five-star entries.
A good company produces good product. A scam doesn’t care about the quality, because their money comes from producing it, not selling it.
Ask for references, and ask those references for references.
Always ask a vendor for references (and if you’re querying a publisher, knowing who they’ve already worked with is part of crafting a great query letter), but don’t just trust the references they give you. By nature, those will be the people the vendor knows are happy with them, even in a legitimate situation.
Instead, ask those references to put you in touch with somebody else they know who has worked with the company. Those folks won’t be as closely screened, and will give a more honest and complete picture.
Apply the “grandma test.”
Grandma always told you if something seemed too good to be true, it probably was.
This applies to the offer, the website, the claims, any aspect of the deal that seems just a little too much like you should pinch yourself. I mean, JK Rowling probably felt that way after receiving her first seven-figure royalty check…but the sad truth is neither you nor I are likely to be the next JK Rowling.
If you put this work in, you’ll be able to spot quickly which opportunities are real and potentially profitable and which will profit only the predator. After a while, you’ll need to do less of this kind of legwork because you’ll have seen enough scams to recognize them immediately.
Things to Be Wary of
Finally, I want to talk a little bit about scams that aren’t scams. Well, okay, they’re not really scams at all, for the most part—they’re often legitimate opportunities that come with a whole host of caveats attached. Basically, these are opportunities run by people working in good faith—but that you should look a little more closely at before agreeing to do business. The reasons for this vary from case to case, but enter into these relationships with both eyes wide open.
These provide the least profitable golden handcuffs in the business. They work by generating just tons of articles to bring in ad revenue, and pay a few bucks a pop for those articles.
Working with a content mill can mean making $30-40k a year by churning out content, but it’s bad content and you don’t grow as a writer. Worse, it doesn’t leave you time to build your resume and career beyond that work.
Only enter into a content mill gig if you’re willing to use them as hard as they use you.
Look, most small presses mean well and try their best to do a great job. And most do a good job.
But many are run by people who are more passionate about words than they are knowledgeable about business. And many who are knowledgeable about business run the press as a side job. They lack the time and energy to give it the go your book needs to soar.
When considering a small press, ask pointed questions about their training and their resources. Nobody wins if you go in hoping big but without the tools to make it happen.
Good developmental editors are like a boat. They’re huge pits of money, but for some people, life just isn’t the same without them.
A developmental editor looks at your book as a whole and provides ideas about how to change the plot, pacing, characters, and overall prose for the better. Most are legitimate and well-meaning, but there are two problems. First, not all of them are all that good. Second, not all of the good ones are a match for you and your goals.
Have long conversations with any developmental editor, and with that editor’s references. Ask about what kinds of sales she has produced, and run away fast if she’s unwilling to spend that time to see if you’re a solid match.
A new breed of specialist in the publishing industry, book coaches are a combination of developmental editor, life coach, and accountability buddy. They help you with your entire book (or a whole writing career) in exchange for sometimes-exorbitant fees. For some people, they’re worth it. For others, it’s a waste of money.
The same problems apply to them as to developmental editors: not all of them are great, and not all great ones are great matches. Apply the same solutions to shield yourself from risk. The only way to know if it’s a good idea is to find out if it’s a good idea.
Publicists can grow your career rapidly, or they can siphon off money without doing you any good. This is why many scams that prey on writers offer publicity services: there’s a built-in tolerance for failure.
There are two ways to make sure a publicist is a good investment. First, make sure you’re ready to need one. If you don’t have a few books written, or another product you support, you don’t yet need a publicist because it won’t make enough money to cover the expense.
Second, ask any prospective publicist to show you their successes in real data and metrics. If they can prove they work well for others, they’re worth giving a chance to work well for you.
The Harsh Truth of Being a Writer
I hate to seem like a downer…but some realities of publishing aren’t the shiniest or the happiest. That said, with the advice above, you can be better protected from the rougher parts of this trade.
Be smart when you go out there looking for work as a professional writer. Do your research, look for the best match between a company that’s willing to pay you or provide publishing services and your goals as a writer, and always think twice if something seems too good to be true.
If you have any questions, feel free to contact us.
We’ll do our best to help you figure out if you have a scam on your hands or if it’s the real deal.
For more on how to make a living as a writer, read on: