Red Flags for Writers: When Publishing Goes All Wrong

May 26, 2023 § 23 Comments

By Lainy Carslaw

This is not an easy story to tell. Mostly because it’s embarrassing and I’m ashamed of my stupidity. And also because I still don’t know how this story ends.

But I want other writers to learn from my mistakes in their efforts to publish. So here we go.

At the beginning of 2021, I landed an agent (Yay!) I was on cloud nine and imagined that I was within reach of my life-long dream of publishing a novel.

I should have known better. There were signs.

It all started the previous year with me reading an article about a certain agent in the Huffington Post. She sounded professional—worthy of the book I’d been working on for close to a decade. Off my first 50 pages went.

The agent got back to me the next day (red flag # 1.) She said my book didn’t look quite ready but that it had promise. (Yay!) If I hired her editor and reworked it with her, she’d take another look. So, I was paired with a published author and I paid her to read my work.

The feedback was okay. And it got me excited to dive back into a redraft. Was it worth the $3,500 I paid her? (Probably not.) But when I was done, I resubmitted with the agent.

While I was awaiting a response, I came across an article in my Facebook feed entitled “Writers Beware.” I clicked on it and soon learned that companies that make you pay for in-house editing services are likely a scam. (Oh shit. Red flag # 2) My cheeks burned red and I began to panic. I sent my concerns to the agent in an email.

Just a few days later, she accepted my book (surprise, surprise!) Maybe that timing should have been red flag # 3, but I didn’t want to see it. So off to publishers she sent it…or so she said.

I started posting about having an agent and my expectation of finding a publisher and announcing that my book was about to be published! That’s when my former MFA director called me with some bad news. She had researched that agency and felt I needed to end my contract—immediately.

Did I listen? (No, I did not.)

I understood her worry but how could I quit when I was this close? What if I couldn’t find another agent? I couldn’t bear the thought of starting all over.

At the end of three months, my book was not picked up (surprise, surprise) but the agent said she had a solution—just pay her for more editing, the cover art, the marketing and she would publish my book through her own services. That’s when the last red flag fell down and beat me over the head.

I was finally able to walk away.

It’s been two years since then. Two more years of edits and queries and beta readers and I have to tell you—I’m done. I put my heart into that book. And I believe in it.

I refuse to let it die a lonely death in my file folder.

A few weeks ago, I made the difficult decision to self-publish. It was not an easy choice, but I have come to believe that’s what is right for me, right now. I have a full-time job. I have three kids. I don’t have a lifetime to waste writing the same query, the same synopsis over and over in hopes of finding an honest person to represent me.

I have come to believe that I have to represent myself.  

A self-publishing company just sent me back my copyedits. For the first time since landing that sketchy agent, a part of me feels hopeful, like my book might actually be held in someone’s careful hands someday.

The other part is doubtful, and scared. There is still so much I don’t know about publishing and this whole process can seem daunting, so unfair. Writers have enough working against them (so, so much!) And to think there are those out there ready to prey on our dreams is almost unthinkable. I know I didn’t want to believe it. And yet, there they are. Hybrid publishers, vanity publishers, terrible agents…

Before I decided to self-publish I received an email from a local hybrid company offering to publish my book. I thought, maybe they’ll be different. But as luck would have it, I met someone who had worked there. “I had over 500 books I was in charge of,” this twenty-three year-old girl said. “They accept any book and then make as much money as they can off of you.” (WTF people!)

That’s the moment I knew I was done.

I pray for my fellow writers. I pray we can navigate this competitive, volatile, tricky landscape and get our words out into the world. I pray we can negotiate what is fair for our years of passion dedicated to our projects. I do not have the answers, but I know we need to weigh them carefully. We need to do our homework and not jump on the first thing that comes our way. (Oops!) I pray you are smarter and more aware than I was.

I pray our books find a home. We deserve that much.  


Lainy Carslaw is a writer, gymnastics coach, and mother of three boys from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She holds an MFA from Chatham University and her work can be found in The Sandy River Review, The Nasty Woman Anthology, Pink Pangea, and several editions of the Madwomen in the Attic Anthology. She also writes for her local newspaper, The Hampton News. Her goal is to publish her book, Regrip, by the end of the year and do a better job when trying to publish its sequel. You can follow her on Instagram @lainycarslaw.  

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§ 23 Responses to Red Flags for Writers: When Publishing Goes All Wrong

  • Thank you for sharing your story/experience. As painful as it is to revisit past “mistakes”, that’s how we learn and grow – and you’ve allowed us access to be aware, too. So gracious! (never give up when you love the story you’ve created)

  • Thank you for sharing this painful process. We needed you to tell it. Your personal story is never ending, but you seem to be going in the direction you need.

  • […] Red Flags for Writers: When Publishing Goes All Wrong […]

  • Amanda Le Rougetel says:

    I am sorry for what you’ve been through. You are not the only writer to not have recognized those red flags. And self-publishing (or independent publishing) is a legitimate and respectable (respected) way to get your book into readers’ hands. I wish you all the best with your novel!

  • Ouch, Lainy. I’m sorry you got sucked into such a bad deal, and I’m grateful you shared your story so the rest of us can learn. The lessons you learned will be fodder for future essays and books, I’m sure.

  • […] Red Flags for Writers: When Publishing Goes All Wrong […]

  • Thank you for your advice and insight,and I look forward to your book.

  • Morgan Baker says:

    I’m so sorry to hear about your frustrating and cruel experience. I struggled with publishing and I did go with a hybrid – Ten16 Press and while it cost me some money I’m really happy with them. The downside with them and most small publishers is I’m doing all my own marketing with some support from them. But I’ve learned a lot. I’m 65 and didn’t want to wait around for a “bigger” publisher. The memoir had taken its sweet time and I did turn down another hybrid when I didn’t feel good about them.
    Good luck with your book- sounds like you’re off to a good start.

  • Heidi Croot says:

    You’re an excellent writer. Your story made me well up (partly with fury). Thank you for waving your red flags for all of us to see. I envision you waving a victory flag before long!

  • Just know you’ve helped many understand how difficult publishing can be, and maybe even saved some writers money and disappointment. Thanks for having the courage to share your heartbreak and best wishes for your book!

  • JennieWrites says:

    This was great. Thanks for sharing your story so honestly and succinctly. This scary aspect of the publishing industry should be known and written about so that others can benefit. Good luck with your book–and keep writing.

  • Judy Reeves says:

    Thanks for sharing your story, embarrassing as it may be for you, hearing others’ experiences helps us all. After several attempts at finding an agent/submitting to small presses, I signed with She Writes Press, a hybrid publishing company run by professionals. My experience and that of my colleagues has been positive. As writers, we need to do our research, be responsible for ourselves, and honor our work.

  • marilyn801 says:

    One of my first jobs (50 years ago) was editing sheet music for publication, and since then I’ve sporadically edited and proofread poetry and prose professionally. My folks warned me about “vanity presses” while growing up, and for years I looked for a record company to release my recordings, eventually winding up with many boxes of CDs of self-released original music in my closet. As technology has changed the media paradigm and streaming has overtaken the landscape, these stockpiles may register as “failure”, as efforts to promote and sell have been disappointing, but I see it differently; we succeeded at FINISHING a couple dozen projects and distributing them to the world.

    Yes, this cost money and was/is humbling. But I don’t claim to know much of anything about marketing and sales, even after years of struggling to learn. What I DO know is that I value my music and have done my best to share it with the world. I’m proud of my work, if somewhat less inspired to create more.

    These days I share my ideas via posts on my blog, which affords me a forum with fewer expectations of celebrity and remuneration, and also less expense and stress about being noticed and recognized for my brilliance (HA!!!) :

  • There are many such stories I am sure and fake publishers and exploitative agents who prey off the dreams of writers should be dragged over rough ground by wild horses. I’ve written books that werent published and have a friend , a great writer, whose first memoir was a NYT book of the year but was dumped by her agent because her books didnt sell enough copies. Ouch! The best consolation , however discouraging at first thought , is to move on to your next project and remind yourself that writing is a joy and a privelege and publishing is a business .

  • BJ says:

    thank you for sharing your story with us…I wish you much better luck in the future!

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