Writer Beware: Stupidity is the Latest and Greatest Selling Tool of All

scamalertThey had me fooled. I mean how many times can I keep falling for the same line? The fact that I was in sales for years makes it worse. Although I didn’t learn this specific sales move, I should have spotted it sooner. Shame on me.

This scam uses classic tenants of irrational human behavior, sales theory, and closing techniques, making one the most brilliantly skeevey sales tactics that I’ve ever seen. Get your sunglasses ready. It’s that blindingly brilliant, well, except for the part where they screw us writers over, again and again.

Everyone roots for the underdog, and we remember our 1st day of work at location X and holy fuckbunnies, did it suck. We want to show mercy. It’s part of our humanity. Most of us don’t walk around kicking three-legged dogs and laugh. We think ‘poor baby’ even if we fail to act. This sales tactic is taking advantage of those two traits, empathy (which evokes the ‘poor baby response’) and our desire to see the underdog succeed. Like I said, it’s brilliant, and completely unethical.

Find out how a $500 photo session gets kicked up to $2,000+ and why some people paid for it. The photographer actually made the writer feel so bad because ‘she didn’t know, poor baby’ that the writer keep forking over cash out of sympathy.

Or the newest – ‘free’ pictures from a new photographer who sends a bill for SO much money and she’s soooo poor. She didn’t know! The models cost X and the studio cost Z and if you don’t buy anything from this shoot, she’ll be upside down. ‘I’m new at this, help me out,’ the underdog cries. Awh, poor baby, I could probably buy one even though they aren’t what I needed (like at all).

You’d think smart writers wouldn’t fall for this–but we are–and since no one is talking about it, these parasites are feeding on the Indie community with most of us unaware. And they’re parasites because they’re not new at this at all. They stumbled into a scenario that ensure a good payout and left their ethics at home. Kick that dog!

Prepare to be educated. Yes, I’m going to look really stupid in this post. Hindsight is 20/20 and a bleeding heart is like watching a train wreck plus more cliches that I can’t think of because I need a fucking helmet.

It grieves me to post this, it really does, but since it’s happened to me multiple times in the past 6 months alone, odds are this is an epidemic and not an isolated insistent. Actually, I know it’s not limited to me which is why I’m taking the time to write this post.

Authors beware.

Did I catch your attention, yet? I hope so, because it could save you thousands of dollars in the long run. There are thieves acting as ethical business professionals among us, posing as editors, photographers, graphic designers, etc.

Well damn, Holly, that’s harsh. But author buddy, it’s the sad truth. This industry is toppling, the same thing happened to the record industry and the photography industry–as the big boys try to hold on by their nails, every day more and more writers figure out that they can actually make a living with their words if they turn Indie. More power to you. But what happens? The industry is suddenly engulfed with stories that need graphics, covers, editors, narrators, and the five million other things it takes to get a book to market. The excellent professionals are booked up until 3 Christmases from now, so what’s a newB to do?

You hire a freelancer, someone new. They may have even been highly recommended as one such photographer was to me. (This same trick was pulled by an editor as well. They plant posts about this great person who’s cheap and fast and then lots of people agree and BAM! Money machine.)

The example I’m going to use here is photography. I don’t mean graphic design, that’s a different ball game. I mean hiring a professional photographer to get your cover image and shots for promotional materials. That’s it.

Why hire someone when I can use micro stock for a few bucks? Good question. The main reason is because of the number of images of surly teens, brooding men, and glowing humans is disproportionate to the number of new books hitting the market thanks to self-publishing. Micro stock costs anywhere from a few bucks to a few hundred, but everyone and their dog is using the same images. If iStock would stop rejecting photographs that don’t convey smiley happy people we’d have more to choose from, but alas, they think smiling people are the way to go. They missed an entire market by doing so, which means you need a graphic designer to photoshop the tar out of the picture or hire a photographer to shoot an original work.


Here’s an example of a photoshopped pic. I took a plain old stock image, played with the colors (which isn’t enough to differentiate your cover from someone else’s any more) and made something new – a torn Polaroid. Those suckers are hard to tear, so I had to make it look torn. There was no existing stock to superimpose one image into the other.

The other, obvious, option is to hire a photog (photographer) to shoot a couple that no one has seen before. The cover of this book prior to the change was all over the place. I’d had it on pre-order and while I did, a ton of people copied it.

strippedjacketmedNote: Readers are buying based on the cover picture. If yours looks like someone else’s there will be buyer confusion. They’ll even read the book and then say, ‘Holly dude, that book was out there for you.’

Yeah, it wasn’t my book. They didn’t notice my name wasn’t on the cover, even though it’s usually there and HUGE. The pic here (blue background, guy staring off, was the original cover. Correcting the crappy skin tones, adding depth, and changing the color wasn’t enough to keep confusion from occurring so the cover was changed.)

So, hire a photographer – sounds easy, right? It should be, but oh my god, the number of snakes in the grass is insane. While I owned my studio, the ratio of people who said they were a professional photographer was around 1 in 3. That stat means that you have a very good chance of hiring someone who is totally clueless and really doesn’t know how to shoot, but several of them have learned how to sell and skipped the ethics classes (or slept through them), and guess what? You can’t always tell who’s who.

Photographer incident #1:

Photog X is recommended online because she’s good and will do a shoot and burn for $500. A shot & burn is when the photog photographs the session and hands you unedited digital images. That means the color, exposure, and a bunch of other stuff can be off if they don’t know how to shoot. A camera is a computer that you hold to your face, but it has no idea what’s important to you. You have to tell it that you want this side of the guys face to be dark and that the crap in the background needs to fade to black. An experienced, good photographer knows how to change the settings on their camera, meter for light, and use what they need to get the shots they want WITHOUT USING PHOTOSHOP TO CORRECT MISTAKES. Yeah, I said that. Photoshop is a tool that should be used only to enhance. If you can’t get a solid black background out of your camera without PS, you don’t know how to use your camera. The PPA will fail you and your skills aren’t up to par to charge people, and yet, that doesn’t stop anyone.

So, with this underdog newB photog, I requested full copyright with model releases and the RAW files from the entire shoot. I saw her work. She was underexposing and didn’t know crap about light, but both were things I could fix and I was willing to take the chance. For me to do the shoot–it would cost at least a $100 and a day in Dallas. $500 saved me time, plus I’ve been sick and standing wasn’t an option some days, so $500 was perfect (and cheap).

After I requested all rights to the images, I was quoted $700. I agreed. We then spent ALOT of time choosing models. We pick a few and gosh, they cost more than she’d thought. She’s so sorry, she’s new at this. <–*FLAG*

I disregard the flag because ____________ (she’s cheap, new, free, recommended, or whatever dumb reason you conjure). Her explanation of the increase in rate made me have the ‘poor baby’ response. And it’s possible that this shoot could change her life because she’s been eating Ramen noodles out of a hobo can for the past few months, and this is life-changing. I know this stuff because she told me. Fine, she didn’t say hobo can, but it’s the image conjured. She’s butt poor, a starving artist like I was.

My response: Poor baby. Rah rah underdog! You can do it! Of course I’ll help! (Predictable irrational reaction). I agree to the higher model price because it’s almost shooting day. We’re at $900, now.

TS1New girl finds out that I was an award winning photographer. I mention the workshops I held across the country and that I’d been sponsored by industry leaders like Millers, Whitehouse, Asukabooks, etc.

She gets a ton of free shooting info from me by acting dumb-’short lighting? What is that? How do I do fall off?’

Good god, I started thinking she must be shooting on auto and that this was a horrible mistake. I ask her. Oh no, she doesn’t shoot on auto. I check her pics. Exif data is stripped, so she’s not totally dumb. This is the information in the picture, put there by the camera. An image that isn’t stripped shows the photographer’s camera settings. It’s like being naked, so photogs tend to strip out everything except the copyright info. NewBs don’t realize it’s there so the fact that it was gone was interesting. Yes, I was looking over her shoulder. I wanted to see what she knew, if she was shooting on full manual or what. It would have told me everything from her lens, camera body, to her aperture, but she stripped it.

A couple weeks before the shoot she asks again about the backgrounds and requires a pose list. Weird, but okay. That should make things less confusing and if she’s only shot weddings a shot sheet is normal. I give her one that could be done in an hour. I tell her how to shoot each one so she’s methodically moving through sets and backdrops. It’s basically four poses with a lot of sister shots. If you shoot, you know an hour is about right if you’re going slow.

She tells me that the studio has a 3 hour minimum and that we should do 4 hours because the pics will be better. Ugh, she’s new, but she’s also right. Around the 3 hour mark the models are more into each other than at 1 hour, so I agree. Okay, the cost is $1200 because of the studio. More, poor baby response on my part, still rooting for her. I say fine and now we’re a week out and I need the shots. <–This is the trap. She’s backing me into a corner and I don’t see it coming.

She adds a day or so later, ‘I misunderstood–the studios rates went up and the guy, well, his rate went up too.’

I’m annoyed now, but dumb enough to say fine because she messed up my timeline. Now I’m baffled that someone so highly recommended could be so stupid. That is until I realize that I got played. She’s manipulating me, specifically my emotions, and doing a stellar job.

When I asked for the contract, she didn’t want to send one. ‘I’m new, I don’t have one.’ I tell her to specify the terms and send it along with the model releases. I tell her again to join the PPA that they’ll supply her with forms and legal help should she need it. At this point she still sounds dumb. ‘What’s a model release?’ I explain that I can’t use the images without the release.

She says okay to everything in the email and when I read the contract she does not release any rights to me at all. I told her that I was paying for a commercial shoot, what are you doing?

Oh, I didn’t know that’s what you meant. The disk is an extra $2,000 but I’m not giving you the copyright. I can’t sell that. You can use the picture for a year.

What. The. Fuck.

She wasted so much of my time that I almost said yes. Instead, I told her that her behavior was totally unprofessional and told her what she should have done, still thinking she’s a newB. Of course she doesn’t reply. I chalk it off that she’s stupid and don’t tell anyone.

Turns out the jokes on me, because this is the way this girl operates. She uses people (or fake accounts) to pimp her name because Word Of Mouth (WOM) is golden. It’s the best kind of ad you can get. (See Tracey and Underhill). Then, she pulls the cheap card, because she’s new–its a logical reason, and an acceptable one. We root for her, the underdog, the new girl who’s just trying to get her foot in the door. We fall for her lies and feel sorry for her. Poor baby. Then, the price goes up, up, up because she’s NOT new at this and guess who isn’t dumb after all? It turns out that she’s done this before.


This is a new sales technique that combines several iron clad techniques, works great online, and unless you know what you’re looking at–you’d never see it coming. Hell, I know sales inside out and photography, and I thought she was sincere. Silly me.

Here are a few tips on finding a good photographer and avoiding getting taken advantage of:

1. Do NOT hire a newB. They either are lying or don’t have the skill set you need to shoot a decent cover image. What they hand you will not look like the stuff on their site because that stuff has been enhanced by photo editing software. The stuff that comes straight out of camera is GOOD if you hire someone who knows what they’re doing and newBs do not.

2. Some photogs steal work from other photographers and post it on their site. Gasp! No way! Way, dude! Way! It happened to my work. One day this picture showed up in a groupon ad for a photo session by another photography studio. They didn’t even bother to remove my logo. This picture was stolen more times than I can count. And for this shoot, I did everything – the hair, make up, the clothing, jewlery, etc. And this is a highly processed image, not to cover a mistake but to smooth her skin so it looks flawless. The rest of the effects were done with lighting in studio.

B&AAHere’s her before and after picture. A good photographer can make a model look older or younger, thinner or bigger with lighting. Lighting is important and it’s something that new folks have no clue how to use. Beware of ‘natural light’ photographers. It’s usually code for ‘i don’t know how to use my flash or off camera lighting.’ There are very few natural light photographers (meaning they use the sun) that are truly good at it and understand the principles required to get the same effect. The shot above is NOT natural lighting. It’s a single light source, placed in the ideal spot to optimize her curves and make her look a little older.

3. Ask for a commercial rate, not a portrait studio rate. They are different with different expectations. I’m going to start doing my own cover shoots again. I don’t need more than an hour of shooting time with an experienced model.

4. Rates are all over the place, but here’s a benchmark. My flat day rate was $10K plus location, make-up, and modeling fees. That included limited usage rights (like an ebook with limited paper distribution of under 2,000), no touch ups. AKA, a shoot and burn. Half day and hourly rates were available. I shot a Miss Texas contestant for $2K. She needed 3 edited shots with files for a national pageant. Note: I wasn’t a cheap photographer. I was very selective about who I worked with and charged WAY more for portrait sessions. In my mind, from being on both sides of the fence, an author shouldn’t pay more than $100 for a single, unedited image. This is why a bunch of photographers are doing shoots on their own and selling directly via their site. The pictures are usually under $200, and once it’s sold, it’s gone. However, there are sister shots that someone else could buy, but the odds of seeing it are less than with microstock. You also need to get the releases and have them in hand.

5. Honestly, ROI (return on investment) sucks monkeys on this type of investment. Say you find a college kid who does a shoot and burn that hands over the copyright for $500. That includes location and models and any other fees. That’s a bargain price. He probably went upside down shooting it, and it still cost you way more than a stock site. How many more books do you have to sell to make that money back?

6. Check for memberships. PPA members (generally speaking) are less likely to screw you over for several reasons.

7. Watch your contract terms. If its not written in the contract, you don’t get it. And it makes no sense to me to pay for a shoot if I’m forced to change the cover in a year or two.

7b. Watch which country the photog resides in-copyright varies from place to place. Photographers deal with the same issues we do with copyright and piracy. We should be working together, especially since that market collapsed over a decade ago and ours is collapsing now.

8. A good photog can quickly answer any questions you have and help address your needs in a way that considers your budget. Example: Photog X is teaching a class on Saturday and a student may be happy to sell a shot for $100. Or they advise you to shoot later because the rates drop at location X and your cover HAS to be shot there. Or they tell you the lady who owns location C is cray cray to the max and will let us shoot there, but refuses to give the location release. A good photog should help you, know what they are talking about, and be able to convey things to you in laymen terms to your satisfaction.

9. They should provide a contract immediately following the initial quote. It locks in their prices, and the shooting dates, so they can’t pull the crap the woman mentioned above did.

10. You’re better off buying prefab covers. It takes care of all this stuff and gives you the best bang for your buck. Seriously. I’ve seen some that are $30. A shoot isn’t the way to go imho, even if you have the money. For me, it’s the time. If I shoot my own covers, it’s because it’s fun, not because it makes financial sense.

catalystcoversmKeep in mind that I’m a pretty kickass photog. That’s weird to say, but Mike will come in here and correct it if I don’t, so there you go. The people I almost hired didn’t come close to my skill set, but I physically couldn’t shoot then due to illness and they knew it.

Like I said, this wasn’t an isolated incident. It’s happened again and again, and not just with photography.

Be skeptical. Read your contracts. Know your rights and which rights you need to buy or license.

These ‘dumb’ people aren’t the stupid folks that they say they are. How’s that for classic irrational human behavior? No one likes to kick the new guy while he’s down right after his dog died and his grandma wrecked his bicycle. :( Life’s tough. Wear a helmet.

I got your back jack, Indie peeps. We’ve discussed these people on various boards. Beware of false WOM. I keep falling for that one. I must need a helmet. Mines gonna have glitter on it so they can see me coming. Also, I gotta say, the stupidity of going after the big names and screwing them over, wow. These people have balls so big I don’t know how they can walk. Yes, we outed you and yes there are blacklists growing longer every day. Do yourself a favor and be an ethical business person. Learn your skill and learn it well. Don’t swoop into the wreckage and pick off new authors who’ve used their life savings to put out their first book. They’ve been eating freeze dried noodles too and stealing from them is a hideous thing to do. Shame on you!

Author friends, you know where I hang out. And if you see that HM Ward recommended someone, odds are it’s false. I haven’t got an editor, photographer, or anyone that I would recommend at this point for anything. Don’t let people bullshit you, because the market is being flooded with it from both sides. Writer beware.

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5 thoughts on “Writer Beware: Stupidity is the Latest and Greatest Selling Tool of All

  1. Thanks for this! VERY helpful information. I haven’t hired any photographers yet for cover work, but I definitely had my sights on doing so, once I was in a financial position to be able to go that way.

    As an aside, I worked as a professional photography printer for around 7 years in the late 1980s and early 1990s (high school and early college years for me), and I was positively STUNNED by the number of scams going on with so-called “professional photographers” back then, some of whom were making a killing, particularly with weddings and portraits. This was before digital too, by the way, so I was working what were essentially high-end versions of “1 hour” photo places, where we also handled pro-level prints. They would come to us with their insanely marked up wedding shots and then scream at us to “fix” their screw ups, everything from bad exposures to heads being cut off and everything else. I heard some horrible stories, just awful, and some of those people were parasites of the worst order. :(

    So, sadly, I’m not sure if this is a new thing cropping up due to the digital revolution or just some people always perceiving photography as an easy way to earn a buck, since they can b.s. their way into supposed “expertise.” I agree it’s probably exponentially worse now with digital and the internet, but it’s always been there, sadly.

    Thanks so much for the head’s up, though! Pretty gross that they were playing on your natural compassion like that. Blech.

  2. Wow. Thank you SO much for sharing this info! I’ve been debating about photography options for my covers (because you’re right: there are only so many stock photos in the world!). This is really timely for me and a huge help to read. I’m so sorry that happened to you, but thank you for taking the time to write this post up and warn the rest of us!

  3. Wow, thank you so much for sharing this post, Holly. I’ve always wanted to hire a photographer to use models so I could make my covers look different from others, but after contacting some I was not happy with their responses or should I say prices and license/terms of use. For now, I still use stock art and also keep my covers and titles under wraps until book release. It’s just so wrong when people try to take advantage of others. So glad you didn’t go further with them and again, thanks for sharing your experience with us.

  4. Wow I am even more happy that my Hubby is both a great photographer and a wiz with photoshop! I don’t think I could handle that kind of stress to the already overwhelming work of publishing a book! I did have one bad slip up in this department, I was told about a great sight that sold stock that was not double sold. I picked one out used it and come to find out the freaking couple and same pose was used so much by Avon and every other person I pulled it. I used another sight found what I liked and made my hubby make me cover magic. I am sorry this happened to you but thanks for sharing all the info and shedding some light on a scam most of us wouldn’t think twice about normally. =)

  5. Thank you so much for the trouble of writing this very long post about photo scams. It was a heads up, really. I’ve always thought photographers were professional people, never realizing how easy it is to be deceived like this. I think I would fall completely for the scam, if it weren’t for this post. So again, than you. :-)