Shining a bright light into the dark corners of the shadow-world of literary scams, schemes, and pitfalls. Also providing advice for writers, industry news, and commentary. Writer Beware is sponsored by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Inc.

December 23, 2010

Holiday Hiatus

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Because even watchdogs have to rest sometimes, the Writer Beware blog will be taking a break over the holiday season. Unless there's a really juicy publishing story, this blog will be on hiatus until the new year. (We'll still be answering email, so if you want to reach us, drop us a line at beware @ sfwa.org).

Wishing all our wonderful readers and subscribers a happy, healthy, and peaceful holiday season--whatever kind of holidays you celebrate. See you in 2011!

December 21, 2010

Some Tips on Evaluating Literary Contests

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Since I so often get questions about the legitimacy of literary contests (see, for instance, my posts of December 16 and December 7), I thought it would be helpful to post some suggestions for evaluating any contests you may be thinking of entering.

Who's conducting the contest? If it's an organization, magazine, or publisher you don't recognize, be sure to verify its legitimacy. If you can't confirm this to your satisfaction--or if the contest doesn't name its staff or sponsors--don't enter.

You may have to do some digging--for instance, this contest, which on the surface looked like a collaboration between a writers' magazine and a publisher, turned out on closer inspection to be one writer attempting to promote his self-publishing endeavor. Or this one, which appeared to have several sponsors but was actually all the same (less than reputable) company.

Be especially wary of contests that spam you, or are nothing but a webpage with an entry form, or are announced on Craigslist, or appear in the form of an ad in the back pages of writers' magazines or an announcement in a national newspaper supplement (these are usually vanity anthology companies).

Is the contest free? If so, you probably have nothing to lose by entering--though be sure to read the fine print. If you're a poet, be aware that a "free" contest is one of the major warning signs of a vanity anthology scheme.

Is there an entry fee? Contrary to popular belief, an entry fee does not indicate a questionable contest. Many legitimate contests charge a fee to cover processing expenses (which sometimes include an honorarium to readers) and to fund the prize.

However, entry fees should be appropriate. Excessive entry fees can be a sign of a profit-making scheme. For book manuscripts, stories, or poems, between $5 and $25 is typical. Larger contests may charge more--the IPPY Awards, for instance, charges $75--but anything over $40 should prompt you to do some careful checking, especially if you aren't familiar with the contest organizer.

By entering, do you get the "opportunity" to spend more money? If you're encouraged to buy additional services when you enter--critiques, marketability analyses, tickets for an awards banquet--it may be a sign that the contest is a moneymaking venture, rather than a real competition. Some contests are no more than fronts for selling services or merchandise. For instance, this one, which requires contestants to buy a coaching package. Or this one, which peddles paid critique services to entrants. Or this one, where winners must buy their own trophies.

How often does the organization conduct contests? Excessive frequency--running a contest every month (as this writers' magazine does), or bunches of contests every quarter--can also be a sign of a moneymaking scheme.

How many categories are there? Reputable contests typically have a specific focus, and limit the number of categories under which you can submit. For instance, a contest may be for screenplays only or for book manuscripts only. A contest for fiction may have separate categories for books, poetry, and short fiction, or be broken down by genre.

The point is that a reputable contest shouldn't feel like the kitchen sink. Be careful of contests that call for any and all talent, especially if everything is lumped together under a single prize (how can a novel manuscript compete with a short story or a screenplay?). Watch out for contests that have dozens of separate categories (like this one, which has well over 100). Again, the contest sponsor may be trying to make a profit from entry fees.

Are the contest guidelines clearly stated? A legitimate contest will provide clear rules, including information about contest categories, deadlines, eligibility, format, fees, prizes and the circumstances in which they will or will not be awarded, judging, and any rights you may be surrendering. If you can't find these, don't enter.

Who'll be doing the judging? It's in a contest's interest to name its judges, since the caliber of the judges speaks directly to the contest's prestige (or lack of it). This is important information for you as well, since a contest with a judging panel of successful writers and/or industry professionals is much more likely to be a good addition to your writing resume if you win.

Some contests prefer to protect judges' privacy, so a contest that doesn't name its judges isn't necessarily illegitimate--as long as you're confident of the reputability of the contest sponsor. If you aren't, be wary. No-name judges may be under-qualified, or the contest's own staff may be doing the judging--or, in the case of a contest that's a moneymaking scheme, the judges may merely be a fiction.

For contests that are wholly or partly judged by crowdsourcing (for instance, reader votes may advance entrants through initial rounds, with only the finalists actually considered by judges), be aware that this is a capricious process that is vulnerable to cheating.

Are there fringe benefits? Critiques, general feedback on your entry, or meetings with industry professionals are often a worthwhile feature of the more high-profile contests. However, you should never be asked to pay extra for this perk. Also, be sure that the professionals really are professionals. A legitimate contest should clearly state their names and credentials.

What's the prize? There are many possibilities--money, goods, services, even publication. Prizes should be clearly described in the contest guidelines (watch out for contests that allow the contest sponsors to substitute prizes--you may not get what you expect), and they should be appropriate to the contest sponsor. Unless you're certain of the sponsor's legitimacy, contests with very large prize amounts--$5,000 and up--should be treated with suspicion, since they may be moneymaking schemes. (Such contests, which tend to have higher-than-average entry fees, often have fine print that pro-rate the prize amount according to the number of entrants--i.e., as the number of entrants falls, so do the prize amounts, with the downsteps carefully calculated to preserve a profit for the contest sponsor.)

Contests that offer representation, publication, or production as prizes are very appealing. Winning can be a genuine springboard for a writer's career--as with the Delacorte Press Contest for a First Young Adult Novel. Be sure, though, that it's a prize you really want to win. Always research the agency, publisher, magazine, or production company to make sure it's reputable, and don't enter a contest whose rules make it impossible for you to refuse the prize if you win. If publication is involved, be sure that you know exactly where and how you'll be published--magazine contest prizewinners are sometimes published in a separate booklet available only by special order. If you're looking for exposure, that's not the way to get it.

There should never be an extra cost associated with a prize. If there is, it's almost certain the contest is a fake.

Have you read the fine print? Always read the contest rules and guidelines carefully before you submit, so you can be sure exactly what you're getting into. Odd and unpleasant things are sometimes lurking deep in the fine print.

For instance, you may be asked to provide inappropriate personal information. Or just by entering, you may be granting rights to the contest organization, such as first publication or the right to sell your entry elsewhere. Winning may impose obligations--for instance, you may be required to use the contest sponsor as your agent, or agree to publication as a condition of winning (beware of offers you can't refuse, especially if you can't view the contract beforehand). A condition of winning may be giving up copyright, which means the organization holding the contest could use your entry for any purpose it wishes (even without your name). The sponsor may reserve the right to substitute prizes, or to reduce or eliminate prizes if certain conditions aren't met. Watch out for language suggesting that the contest sponsor can use your entry for purposes other than publicity. And if you enter a contest online, be aware that you may be giving permission for your entry to be published at the company's website, whether you win or not (a frequent complaint about the now-defunct vanity anthology company Poetry.com).

Is it worth it? I've left this till last, but in many ways it's the most important question of all. Many writers see contests as a possible springboard to success--a way to bulk up their writing resumes, or get a toehold in the industry. However, for novelists, poets, and short fiction writers, few literary contests have that kind of cachet. A contest will impress an agent or editor only if s/he recognizes it, and a string of obscure contest wins will not strengthen your query letter. Screenwriters have more options--but even in the film world, reputable contests are greatly outnumbered by pointless, useless, or deceptive ones.

Remember also that submitting to a contest can take your work off the market for weeks or months, since many contests don't allow simultaneous submissions. Also, depending on the contest, your chances of success may actually be a good deal slimmer than if you simply approached agents or publishers in the conventional way (assuming your manuscript is marketable). The mammoth Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest, for instance, which offers publication as the prize, allows up to 10,000 entrants, of whom only two can win.

Finally, even your best efforts at due diligence may not keep you out of trouble. The problems with the contests run by small publisher Zoo Press provide a cautionary example.

Bottom line: thoroughly research any contest you're thinking of entering, always read the fine print--and consider whether your time and energy might not be better spent actually submitting for publication. That's the real prize, after all.

December 16, 2010

Tidbits

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Query Letter Mistakes

Following on the theme of my previous post, here's a fascinating survey on the common mistakes that writers make in their query letters.

Blogger JM contacted one hundred literary agents with the following question: What is the single biggest mistake writers make when querying you? More than 50 responded. Here are the problems mentioned most frequently:
- "Go to my website for a sample of my work…"
- "Find my query attached…"
- Querying before your manuscript is ready
- Writing a query that is overconfident or pompous
- Sending a query that has clearly not been proofread
- Queries addressed to "Dear Agent" (or anything similar!)
- Vague query letters!
- Queries with more than one agent listed in the "To" field
- Queries that have no clue what the agent represents
- Queries that have no clue what the agent's submission guidelines are
JM also includes a treasure trove of quotes from the responding agents about each of these problems, and exactly why they will torpedo a query.

Great information, direct from the source.

How Not to Use Social Media

"Get thee to social media." This is universal advice for new and newly-published authors looking to build their readership. But though it's easy to say, it's not so easy to do. For social media to work as a promotional tool, you have to know how to use it--and that does NOT mean begging people on Facebook to "like" your page, or blasting out 500 "check out my new book!" messages on Twitter. If you use social media solely for self-promotion, or if you're too obvious about the fact that you're promoting yourself, you will probably fail.

So how do you make social media work for you? Jane Friedman takes an illuminating look at this question in a blog post entitled When (or Why) Social Media Fails to Sell Books. The bottom line:
Your social media involvement and platform building won't work as a one-time effort (though, of course, you might have a specific campaign for a specific book that's very strategic, which is excellent).

You have to be consistent and focused over the course of your career.

Most importantly, it has to be about more than selling books—or whatever your goal might be. It has to be about what you stand for, and who you are.

You Can't Make This Stuff Up

If I told you that there was a literary agent who promoted his services via a series of videos featuring a sex doll, would you believe me?

Meet "Arielle," virtual hostess for Mocknick Productions Literary Agency.* Arielle's "job" is to "give you information on the agency and the literary business in general" (including why paying an upfront contract fee is a good idea), via "four informational slide shows." (The slide shows used to be available directly from Mocknick's website, but possibly due to the attention they've brought him recently, clicking on them now takes you to YouTube.)

But wait, there's more! Arielle the sex doll has HER VERY OWN STORY! She's a Doll Warrior, star of a screenplay written by Mocknick himself. That's right, folks, David Mocknick, fee-charging literary agent, is also an aspiring writer.

For much more ridicule, see P.N. Elrod's blog post.

* It probably will not surprise you to learn that David Mocknick charges a $500 contract fee, has never sold a book or a script that Writer Beware has been able to discover, and is included on Writer Beware's Thumbs Down Agency List.

December 13, 2010

One Way Not to Get Published

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Taking a cue from Janet Reid, who over the weekend posted a truly amazingly bad agent pitch letter (yes, I do know who the agent is, and no, this person does not have any sales), I thought I'd start the week off by posting the spam I received this morning from an aspiring author (sent via a DIY email marketing service).
Greetings!

Hello, my name is [name redacted]. I am the author of [title redacted] (now available nationwide). I am also an unsigned (hungry) artist, and very creative. I have two more books I need to finish, and I'm looking for any opportunity that anyone of power and influence may offer.

I'll like to invite you to my website [link redacted].

Author [name redacted]
[email address redacted]
Writers--don't do this. I mean, for a start, I'm not an agent or publisher, so there's no reason for me to be receiving any kind of "get me published" request. Just a small amount of research (as opposed to snagging my email address from somewhere and doing no further checking) would have made that clear. For another, if I were an agent or publisher, I wouldn't give five seconds of consideration to a mass-mail pitch, even if it were much more informative and better written than this one. (Not to mention, being a cautious Web user, I'm not going to click on a link in a spam email.)

Alternatively, this author may not be seeking an agent or a publisher at all, but a patron. Um....yeah. I don't think I need to say any more about that.

December 10, 2010

More Contest Alerts: Brit Writers' Awards, Amazon Studios

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Brit Writers' Awards

I've been getting questions recently about the Brit Writers' Awards. It's a writing competition for unpublished and self-published writers, with a rich trophy for the grand prize winner: £10,000. Writers can submit work in several categories (to enter, you must be a member of BWA; membership costs £10.95); a panel of judges selects two winners for each category, plus the grand prize winner (the Judging Criteria page references "various stages of the judging process" but doesn't say what those stages are).

BWA's judges have real credentials. But how rigorous was the judging process in last year's competition? According to Jane Smith of the excellent How Publishing Really Works blog,
Writers were being notified left, right and centre that they had made it through to the various shortlists; very few writers who entered ended up being told that their work hadn’t made it that far.
Shades of Poetry.com. And that wasn't all:
[C]ommunications with BWA seemed less than satisfactory. Several writers had submitted more than one piece of work but were never informed which piece had reached the shortlists; people were offered free tickets to the prizegiving, but just days before the event they had heard nothing more; and when they did get to the event it was chaotic and didn’t seem to deliver all that had been promised.
The grand prize winner received not just the promised money, but--apparently unbeknownst to her--rush publication of her YA fantasy novel by a publisher that had never before published fiction. Jane comments:
[S]uch a rushed schedule is likely to have serious implications for the quality of the final product...the publisher, Infinite Ideas, appears to be more of a packager than a publisher; and although the people who work for Infinite Ideas do have a reasonable amount of publishing know-how between them this is the first young adult book they’ve published; although it’s possible that they have previously published young adult books through their self-publishing service, Infinite Authors.
As Jane notes, the BWA is a moneymaker--entry feees alone came to nearly £230,000 in the first round in 2010, and that's not counting the support BWA got from sponsors. And that's not all. The BWA is now promoting its own consultation, critique, and publishing service, Your Book Your Way (which includes a referral service to "BWA approved" agents and publishers that "allow[s] us to act on your behalf and negotiate the best deal for you."). Prices aren't mentioned, but the services are certainly not free. And BWA has also recently sent out solicitations inviting applications to its Publishing Programme, which will select 15 unpublished authors, work with them "on an intensive one-to-one basis" (there's no info on who these intensive mentors will be, or what their qualifications are), and at the end of a year guarantee publication with "a top publisher" (again, no info on the publisher--and anyone who tells you they can guarantee publication either wants to sell you something or is fibbing). The cost? Just £1,795.

I don't suspect that this competition or its adjunct programs are a scam. But as tempting as BWA's prize money is, there are enough questions here to prompt caution. 

(The lengthy comment thread on Jane's post makes for fascinating reading--among other things, the grand prize winner confirms that BWA entry guidelines did indicate that the winner would be published--although she had no idea her book would be printed for the awards ceremony.)

Amazon Studios

The Web was abuzz in November with news that Amazon is getting into the movie business. Its new venture, Amazon Studios, is looking for films and scripts that it may produce as feature films, either through a "first look" deal with Warner Bros. or, if Warner passes, with another company. To incentivize submissions, it's giving away millions of dollars in prizes, via monthly contests and annual awards.

Writers have rushed to enter--already, according to the Amazon Studios website, more than 1,000 scripts have been uploaded. But is it really a good idea to hand your intellectual property over to Amazon Studios? The film world is not my area of expertise, so I don't really feel competent to analyze Amazon Studios' Contest Terms and Procedures. Fortunately, others more knowledgeable than I have already done so. If you're thinking of entering, there are some issues you ought to be aware of.

Amazon Studios employs a crowdsourcing model, with uploaded scripts and films open to feedback from readers, who are also free to re-write and amend them. Scriptwriter John August asks, Do you really want random people rewriting your script?

Writer and director Craig Mazin weighs in on the same issue, as well as the 18-month exclusive option you agree to by submitting to Amazon Studios:
When you submit material to Amazon–say, a script–they have an exclusive option on the script for 18 months. During that 18 months, they can do whatever they want with your script. They can change it, smash it together with other scripts… and of course, make a movie from it, or commission a book, or any other derivative work.

You know what else they get to do? They get to sell your material. They can sell your script to customers. If you submit a movie, they can sell that too. Oh, but that’s not just for 18 months.

That’s FOREVER. They have a permanent right to sell that stuff. After 18 months it’s not an exclusive right, but good luck competing with Amazon, friend-o.
Mazin also discusses Amazon's exploitive financial terms:
In Amazon-ville, you option your script for NOTHING, and the option buy-out is $200K. And when you get that 200K, my brothers and sisters, Amazon owns that script lock-stock-and-barrel for ever, just the way a studio would.

Okay, okay, but what if they make the movie?

NO GUARANTEES. Not a dime. In fact, the only way you get a penny more is if the film grosses $60M in the U.S. (not North America, btw, which is standard for domestic B[ox] O[ffice] calculations). If it hits $60M, you get a bonus of $400K.

Let me put this as plainly as I can: if your screenplay was good enough to be distributed by Warner Brothers and subsequently sell enough tickets to hit $60M at the box office, YOU DID NOT NEED AMAZON, and YOU SHOULD HAVE MADE MORE THAN $600K.
Scriptwriter Michael Ferris sounds similar warnings. "In effect, if your script was good enough that a studio would buy it, and you hadn’t submitted your script to Amazon, you probably would have made more money on the sale, you would have full rights to your material, AND no one else would have the ability to put their name on it."

In other words, as usual and as always...caveat scriptor.

December 7, 2010

The 2011 Indie Publishing Contest

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

I've been getting questions about a brand-new writers' contest: the 2011 Indie Publishing Contest, sponsored by (among others) the San Francisco Writers Conference.
Write, Win AND Publish!

New ‘Indie Publishing Contest’ Revamps the Traditional Writing Contest with the Benefits of Indie Publishing.

Since when can a writing contest turn the winner into an author with a published book...and provide a staff of book marketing professionals to help get the book into bookstores and publicized? This is the new reality of combining a traditional writing contest with the myriad advantages of indie publishing.
By "indie publishing," they don't mean true self-publishing, or publishing with an independent publisher, but the kind of publishing provided by print-on-demand publishing services--in this case, Author Solutions, Inc., which is one of the contest sponsors. This is not, in fact, independent publishing--but since I've already done two blog posts on that subject, I'm not going to belabor the point.

According to the contest guidelines, writers can enter up to the first 5,000 words of a novel, nonfiction book, story, or poem, from which a grand prize winner, four category winners, and runners up in each category will be selected. The entry fee is $35 ($25 for poems). Category winners will receive either a one-hour consultation with a literary agent, or a free publishing package from ASI. Runners up get $50 plus a 50% discount coupon from ASI. The Grand Prize winner gets "an indie publishing contract" that includes:
* A print publishing package from Author Solutions

* eBook format conversion from Author Solutions

* 90 days of mentoring from a literary agent selected by SFWC

* 90 days of consulting and publicity from an AuthorHive publicist

* A high quality video book trailer from AuthorHive

* The scheduling of a blog tour and a video press release from AuthorHive

* Distribution of the book online and in bookstores from Author Solutions

* Book signing at a bookstore near the winner's home (Continental US only) from Author Solutions

* Public announcement and promotion at the San Francisco Writers Conference

* ISBN number from Author Solutions
Now, I have some quibbles with this list. Two of the highlighted items--the ISBN number and the distribution--are a standard part of any print publishing package from Author Solutions, but are listed here as if they're important extras (plus, the wording of the distribution item might lead inexperienced writers to assume that the winning book will actually appear on physical bookstore shelves, rather than merely being available for order). And I am skeptical of the value of the "consulting and publicity" from AuthorHive, which sells a la carte the mostly dubiously effective, and in many cases wildly overpriced, marketing services that ASI offers through its imprints.

There's no doubt, however, that this prize would cost a bundle if you had to pay for it, and the literary agent mentoring is a nice perk that ASI authors wouldn't normally get (I contacted Contest Director Laurie McLean, an agent with Larsen Pomada Literary Agents, to ask who the literary agents would be,and she says they will be chosen after the winners are selected, to ensure they're a good match for the winners' writing.) For anyone who was already planning on using a publishing service, it's an attractive prize.

The problem is, the contest isn't being pitched to those people. It's being pitched to anyone and everyone who wants to be published. "While the Holy Grail remains a contract with one of the big six publishers in New York, that goal is getting more elusive than ever for writers," says Ms. McLean on the main contest page. "We are offering the indie alternative to get to the big six--and hoping to establish the credibility for indie publishing that the indie film and music industries enjoy today." This characterization of ASI and services like it--which could come straight out of the ASI propaganda mill--not only partakes of the misconceptions and the misleading hype that surround so-called "indie publishing", but helps to further them. Spin it how you will, at the end of the day (or in this case, at the end of 90 days), the winner will wind up with an unedited (unless they obtain editing themselves) book with limited distribution and major marketing challenges. Could they parlay their way to strong sales and mainstream notice? It's possible. Motivated self-publishers have accomplished this, and self-publishing evangelists are only too happy to trot out these examples as "proof" that self-publishing can work for anyone. But there are good reasons why, as ASI's CEO revealed in a January 2009 New York Times article, the average book from any of the ASI brands sells only around 150 copies. That, of course, is not mentioned in the contest material.

So if you're already thinking of using a publishing service (and I'm optimistically assuming that if you are, you've done your research and are clear about your goals), the 2011 Indie Publishing Contest looks like a pretty decent deal. But if your goal is readership, wide exposure, professional credibility--in other words, a writing career--please do not mistake this contest for a step in that direction.

December 2, 2010

Democratization or Disinformation?

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Per a recent press release posted online, Author Solutions--owner of a number of print-on-demand publishing services, including AuthorHouse, Xlibris, iUniverse, Trafford, WordClay, and Palibrio--has just issued another whitepaper.

 A previous whitepaper, released in early 2009, attempted to re-brand AS as an "indie" or "independent" publisher (see my debunking of this co-opting of terms with already-established meanings that don't fit the AS business model at all). In the current whitepaper, AS announces "The Democratization of Publishing," crediting "the historical convergence of three technologies for bringing about the end of the publishing 'aristocracy.'”

Which three technologies? Well, first, desktop publishing, which "replaced traditional typesetting, [and] meant an individual could design a book more quickly and cost effectively". Second, print on demand technology, through which "copies of a book could be printed individually, at costs comparable to traditional, large offset runs" (actually, this isn't true; low setup costs make digital printing cheaper for one-at-a-time production and small print runs, but offset printing, which can benefit from economies of scale--i.e., the more you produce, the lower the unit cost--is far more economical for runs of more than a few hundred). And third, the Internet as a distribution channel, which "leveled the playing field for authors who wanted to distribute their books broadly and cost effectively."

The result? "These technologies, all developing at the same time, meant the elite no longer held the power. Authors now had it. This fundamental shift in control has transformed the publishing industry."

Here's the proof of this seismic change, according to Author Solutions:
While this revolution has been taking place for over a decade, this year marked a milestone. Publishers Weekly, the leading industry periodical, published an article titled "Self-Publishing Titles Topped 764,000 in 2009 as Traditional Output Dipped" essentially declaring victory. Reporter Jim Milliot states the latest Bowker data, the industry measuring stick, shows "the number of 'non-traditional' titles dwarfed those of traditional books."
There's just one problem with these figures (which I analyzed in much more detail in a recent blog post). More than 697,000 of those non-traditional titles weren't self-published at all, but reprints of previously-published works (most in the public domain) put out by reprint specialists such as BiblioBazaar and Kessinger Publishing (despite its misleading title, the PW article makes this clear). According to the statistics PW provides, self-published titles from the largest publishing services, including two of the Author Solutions brands, actually numbered around 77,000. That's an impressive figure, but even if you double it to account for the many smaller publishing services that PW doesn't mention, it's still considerably fewer than the just over 288,000 titles issued by "traditional" publishers.

A "victory" for self-publishing? A pie in the face for the elitist traditional publishing industry? Not so much.

Not content with its skewed presentation of facts and figures, Author Solutions next pulls the trick of the non-comparable comparison, invoking nonfiction author Seth Godin, who recently made the decision to bypass his trade publisher and self-publish his next book. "In other words," Author Solutions declares, "he is taking his message directly to the people."
Now the question remaining is how many other authors like Mr. Godin will follow his lead. Is he a lone rebel or the first one to take advantage of the new freedoms afforded authors? Time will tell, but one thing is for sure: The walls have come down. Publishing is no longer a closed society. As Mr. Godin stated in a recent interview, "[After the fixed costs of an editor and book formatting,] your book is packaged as you want, and it can then be put on sale next to other potential best-sellers on Amazon and elsewhere."

In other words, there is equal opportunity for authors to be successful and achieve their dreams. Long live the revolution!
Now, I really don't think I need to get up on a soapbox about how Seth Godin--best-selling author of numerous books, with a high profile, a huge platform, and (presumably) substantial financial resources--differs from Joe First-Time Author or Jane Midlist Novelist. Godin's choice to self-publish (and the choices of other well-known authors who are bypassing the traditional system in various ways) says a great deal about the changes that are currently rocking the publishing industry, and the ways in which savvy, entrepreneurial-minded writers who are already successful can use their existing platforms to exploit the opportunities offered by the free-for-all of the Internet and the burgeoning world of digital. But it says nothing whatever about the viability of self-publishing for writers in general (for a succinct analysis of why, see this blog post from Thomas Nelson CEO Michael Hyatt). Nor does it demonstrate that publishing has been democratized (or that it would be a good thing if it were), or support the claim that the accessibility and relative inexpense of digital printing--which hasn't so much transformed the publishing industry as created a brand-new, parallel industry--equates to providing writers with equal opportunities for success. Digital technology has made it possible for just about anyone to turn their manuscript into a printed book and offer it for sale via the Internet--but it has not solved the problem of how to grab reader eyeballs. If anything, by vastly increasing the number of new books in circulation, it has made that task even more difficult.

I am sure it won't be long before an Author Solutions staffer stops by to chide me for my negativity. But even if you ignore the misrepresented facts and misleading comparisons in this latest whitepaper, AS does writers an extreme disservice with its glib presentation of self-publishing--all upside, no downside, suitable for anyone no matter what their needs or ambitions. Rah, rah! Vive la revolucion! Cue clenched fist! But the truth is that the choice to self-publish is a complicated one that should be made only by writers who have studied the alternatives and clearly formulated their goals. Too many writers fall into self-publishing out of ignorance, unrealistic assumptions about its potential benefits, or misconceptions about traditional publishing.

Judging from this latest whitepaper, that would seem to suit Author Solutions just fine.

November 29, 2010

Fake Writing Jobs: RealWritingJobs.com

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

One of many reasons I enjoy Twitter is that it's relatively free of the spam that clogs other modes of online discourse. Oh, there's the occasional author Twitspam (writers: Twitspamming is not, I repeat, NOT, the way to promote your new book), and the random pr0n Twitspam, but by and large--at least for me--Twitter is a fairly spam-free environment.

Which is why the Twitspams I've been receiving for the past couple of weeks really stand out like a sore whatever (here's an example). They're all the same: an obviously fake sender name, the words "Writers Needed," a link, and a list of recipients. I've been reporting and blocking them, but when I checked my Twitterfeed today and found six of them, all sent within a few minutes of one another, I got curious, and clicked the link.

I found myself at RealWritingJobs.com--which, I was unsurprised to discover, promises that writers can earn lots of cash by writing articles, stories, blog posts, etc.. "Thousands of people online are discovering how doing simple writing jobs from home can be so profitable! See how they're doing it by signing up now!" No experience necessary! Work at home! Make fat money (never mind that pesky earnings disclaimer)! All this for a mere monthly membership fee of $47 (although if you don't read the Terms and Conditions, you won't know that). Don't want to opt in without seeing what's on offer? Good news--you can try before you buy. In fact, you have to try before you buy. Would-be members must agree to a 10-day "risk-free trial," for the oh-so-negligible cost of $2.95 (credit cards only). Naturally, this is a "limited time offering." If you aren't happy, just cancel within the trial period and you owe nothing further.

If this sounds tempting, it shouldn't. For one thing, there are many freelance writing job-listing websites that charge absolutely nothing--zip, nada, zilch (here's just one example). With such resources easily available, why pay? For another, reputable jobs sites don't spam random writers on Twitter (or anywhere else). For yet another, you have no way of knowing whether the promise of lucrative writing gigs is anything more than a marketing ploy. What if most or all of the writing jobs turn out to be the financial and professional equivalent of pay-per-click content mills?

Ah, you may be thinking, but isn't that what the trial period is for? If the jobs suck, you can cancel before the trial period is up, and only be out $2.95.

Maybe not. It's more than probable that RealWritingJobs is running a recurring billing scheme. In this common online ploy, a company uses a trial period to induce consumers to provide their credit card numbers. Once the trial period ends, cards are automatically billed for membership and other fees on a recurring basis (like RealWritingJobs, companies typically bury this info in their Terms and Conditions, where eager or careless consumers can easily miss it). Although consumers are promised they can cancel during the trial period, they discover that they can't get through to the toll-free number provided--or, if they do get through, they can't speak to a live person, but can only leave voicemail messages that are never responded to. (Here's a sample complaint.) Once the recurring billings commence (which, if the consumer didn't read the Terms and Conditions, may be a complete surprise), it is extremely difficult to stop them. Many people wind up canceling their credit cards.

Another risk, when you sign up for an offer or trial that requires you to provide credit card information: third party billing scams, in which the company with the offer or trial turns your credit information over to an Internet marketer, which then signs you up for memberships you didn't ask for, resulting in surprise charges on your credit card. (If you're a cell phone user--and who isn't--you may be familiar with this as "cramming.") And indeed, according to RealWritingJobs' Privacy Policy (which I'm betting that few people who sign up with it bother to check), "We may use the personal information that you supply to us and we may work with other third party businesses to bring selected retail opportunities to our members via email. These businesses may include providers of direct marketing services and applications, including lookup and reference, data enhancement, suppression and validation and email marketing." (My bolding.) At the very least, signing up with RealWritingJobs is likely to bring you an explosion of spam.

Writers: always be cautious of a business that spams you (and always suspect spam if you receive a solicitation out of the blue). Never trust an offer that sounds too good to be true. Always research any offer you're thinking of accepting (and be aware that dodgy companies are anticipating this; RealWritingJobs has seeded the Internet with fake reviews that cleverly incorporate the word "scam"), and never fail to read the fine print (all of it. Even the boring parts). And don't pay for a service you can get somewhere else for free!

November 23, 2010

How Not to Launch a Career in Publishing

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

I semi-frequently get questions from people who want to know how to break into the publishing industry--not as writers, but as agents, editors, copy editors, publicists, designers, and so on. There are a number of possible methods--get a job with a (reputable) literary agency, intern at a (commercial) publisher, take a (credible) college course. You might, however, want to avoid the approach used by the author of the letter I've reproduced below.

(A websearch indicates that the author is a real person. Neither I nor the independent publisher who shared this with me are sure if it's a scam, or just a monumental demonstration of cluelessness or chutzpah. Presumably it went to more than one publisher; I'd be curious to know of any others who received it.)

-----------------

[Publisher's name and address redacted]

Dear Sir or Madam:

Hello, my name is [name redacted], and I have just been accepted as a graduate student at [university name redacted] to study publishing this upcoming spring semester 2011. I am writing to you to simply ask for your help with my educational and possibly career path.

Now, you may be wondering to yourself, why am I coming to you for assistance. Well, it is for two reasons: graduate school is expensive and the job market is tough to break into right now. Publishing is something I am passionate about. I am very fortunate to be accepted into such a prestigious program that it would be so heartbreaking to back out now.

I realize how this request may sound, however let me reassure you that I am not simply asking you for monetary assistance. I am proposing to you to invest in a potential future employee. As of right now, I do not yet have many skills in the publishing world; but after I finish my degree, I know I will be able to contribute all of what I have learned and experience to your company as a potential employee.

Don't get me wrong; I have looked into alternative ways to pay for graduate school. Scholarships, loans and my current job as a substitute teacher are other ways but not enough. Although applying for scholarships has not been an issue, I find that I am not always eligible for many out there. I enter contests, fill out surveys for points and look into loans I know will take years to pay off, but it's all in vain. While I am working to earn enough money before the semester starts, it is only a part-time position. Also, because of many teachers were laid off by the school board this year, they have priority over substitute jobs.

As you can see, I have quite a dilemma on my hands. Thus, I am turning to you and your company. I am suggesting to you what may seem like an outrageous idea but take a second to think about it. I am going to get my Master's degree in publishing, which is what your company is based on. I will learn the latest techniques and skills at [university name redacted], which takes into account today's changing technology, making me a potential employee. Lastly, by donating to my educational fund, I can be considered your charity, which will gain your company recognition for helping me succeed and stay in school. It is a win-win situation.

I really do hope you consider investing in my educational and perhaps employment future. If you do have any questions or would like to respond back to me, please contact me at [email address redacted]. Thank you for taking the time to read this letter and I do look forward to hearing from you soon.

Sincerely yours,

[name redacted]

November 19, 2010

Tidbits

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

A selection of articles and news items that caught my eye this week.

It's not about the tweeting.

Years ago, when I first broke in to publishing, self-promotion by authors was not only optional, it was considered rather tacky. Fewer books were being published back then, and there was less competition for reader eyeballs. Plus, the merger mania that has transformed the face of publishing hadn't yet begun; there were no big corporate owners to demand corporate-style profits from a traditionally low-profit business.

All that has changed, of course. Self-promotion can still be tacky, but it's no longer optional (although no publisher should ever contractually enforce it; if you see self-promo requirements in a contract, it's a signal that the publisher is trying to shift a big part of its job onto you). As a result, it seems that everywhere you turn you find discussions of self-promotion, tips for self-promotion, and articles on successful self-promoters. Many of these are of dubious usefulness (press releases, for instance, are a completely ineffective way to sell books), or present the same old suggestions (yes, we know we have to adopt social media), or assume that one promotional size fits all (when in fact, as for publishers, what sells one book won't necessarily sell another).

So I rarely recommend self-promo articles. This one's an exception, though: "Should I Tweet?" by literary agent Betsy Lerner. She makes the point that it's not so much about what kind of promo you should do, but about cultivating the mindset you need to market yourself.
Whether you should tweet is a little beside the point. The task at hand is to decipher what is most powerful in your work and connect it to every person, institution or media outlet who will listen. It’s not the form, it’s the content. What do you have? Why does it matter?

The down side of small press.

Canada's prestigious Giller prize is known to spur book sales, which has resulted in an unexpected snag for this year's winner: her tiny publisher isn't able to keep up with consumer demand.

One reason for the problem is the publisher's unusually high production standards. But this story points up an issue that can potentially handicap any small press author: small publishers often have very limited production and distribution capacity, and may not be able to meet strong demand. If you're thinking of signing a small press contract, and especially if you have ambitious promotion plans, this is something you should consider.

A digital underclass?

In all the prognostication about the digital revolution, there are a couple of issues I wish the pundits would pay more attention to. The first is the threat of obsolescence. Technology and software progress incredibly swiftly; will the ebooks of today be readable in ten years? What does that portend for the long-term survival of written work? The second is the assumption that seems to be implicit in so much discussion of electronic media--that everyone is on an equal digital footing. In fact, this isn't so. Will that change, or will the world's rush to digital create a digital underclass?

From ZDNet, here are interesting posts on both sides of this question. One writer fears that the shift to digital will eventually kill the public library, and as a result "the 'Have Nots' of society may find themselves denied access to an entire range of content they enjoyed previously with the printed book, newspaper or magazine." A second writer is more optimistic. Libraries will survive, and together with "the Internet, copyright holders, and public institutions can...bridge the digital divide and prevent the disparities."

What do you think?

Find where your passion meets the market.

Should you write to the market? Or should you write what you want, market trends be damned? Agent Rachelle Gardner argues that it's not about choosing one or the other, but about finding a balance.

The real reason publishing is in trouble.

Unless you've been living under a rock, you know that things aren't good in publishing these days. Corporate conglomeration, economic meltdown, reader apathy, the digital revolution--all are drastically changing a venerable industry.

But that's not the worst of it. Oh, no, my friends. The real culprit behind the troubles in publishing is...Writer Beware. At least, according to an anonymous (hi, Michele!) comment left on one of my older posts (scroll down to the bottom).
You have destroyed an otherwise thriving industry since you started your witch hunts. Wake up people, in 2006 when the Worst LIsts were published there was an average of 200 books being published by each publishing department in NY. Each year the list of books published went down, and this year, most publishing departments, if they haven't yet closed their doors, are doing 0 to 10 books per year. Down from 200 to 0 to 10! Writer Beware is the biggest trash maker in publishing history. Lost a job in publishing? Blame it on Writer beware. They are destroying traditional publishing because they secretly work for Pay to Publish companies.
GAAAAH! We are exposed! How will we work our evil now?

November 16, 2010

Notes From the Underbelly

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Exposed last week in New York magazine: Full Fathom Five, a book packager* founded by author/entrepreneur James Frey (yes, that James Frey)--a kind of sweat shop for writers with an outlandishly awful contract.

The article has spurred quite a bit of outraged discussion, particularly of the contract. Book packaging is not generally known as an industry that is kind to writers, but according to people with experience, Full Fathom Five is in a class by itself.

Who would sign such an awful contract? Who'd give away all their rights (including copyright and the right to put their name on their book) in exchange for a measly $250 plus a royalty that sounds generous--40%--but isn't--since it's paid on net and the company can deduct unspecified expenses at its discretion? Who would be so ignorant? So desperate? So stupid?

Unfortunately, if there's one thing that twelve years with Writer Beware has taught me, it's that writers will sign just about anything, with just about anyone, in order to be published. I'm not talking about trade publishing, either. Say what you will about Full Fathom Five, it at least functions within the commercial publishing world, where sales, visibility, and film and foreign rights deals are possible, if not necessarily probable. I'm talking about trade publishing's underbelly, a dark realm of author mills, amateur micropresses, unprofessional epublishers, and pay-to-play outfits. In that alternate publishing universe, hideous contracts and author exploitation aren't the shocking exception, they're the norm. Every day, desperate and/or inexperienced writers willingly sign those contracts and accept those terms, often over the prompting of their own better instincts, or sound advice from experts.

Writers, you MUST take the time and make the effort to educate yourself about your chosen field BEFORE you try to enter it. Frey and Full Fathom Five are concentrating on MFA writing programs in their search for authors--a smart move for a company with a bad contract, since MFA programs are not exactly known for focusing on the business of publishing. But MFA candidates are not alone in attempting to enter an industry about which they are largely ignorant. Better than 75% of the thousands of writers who contact Writer Beware each year know little or nothing about publishing. For many of them, this is a recipe for disaster. The best defense against the scam agents, the bad publishers, the crap contracts, and the greedy packagers is knowledge. I know I've said this about a thousand times, here and elsewhere. But it can't be repeated too often.

If you don't understand the terms of a contract you're offered, seek knowledgeable advice (that's advice from someone who's qualified to give it, such as a lawyer or a professional writers' organization, not the kind of advice you'll get by posting a question on, for instance, LinkedIn). Don't just assume you understand, unless you're already an expert (and even then; I have a lot of experience with contract terms, and I don't trust myself to fully comprehend some of the twisted language in the Full Fathom Five contract). Don't try to logic your way into a confusing clause--you run the risk of being wrong. And never, ever rely on extra-contractual assurances (for instance, if your contract says something scary, but your publisher promises you that they never actually invoke that clause). If it's not in the contract, it doesn't exist. Conversely, if it is in the contract, expect to be bound by it. I hear all the time from writers who thought they wouldn't have to worry about this or that contract provision (such as a termination fee), only to discover that--whoops!--it was actually a big problem.

Most important: you must, you absolutely must be ready to walk away. This is the tough part, because your emotions are involved, which can make it incredibly difficult to exercise good business sense. But if the contract's bad, or the publisher is unprofessional, or if something you can't quite put your finger on is triggering a bad feeling in your gut, closing your eyes and telling yourself it will all work out is not the way to go. As painful as it may be to say no, in the long term you won't regret it.

Writing is an art. Publishing is a business. The two are uneasy bedfellows. But to survive in a competitive and often harsh industry, the wise writer must strive to master--and balance--both.

-----------

* If you're not familiar with what a book packager does, Jessica Faust of BookEnds Literary Agency offers a helpful explanation.

November 9, 2010

Swinging the Other Way: Vanity Publisher Goes Non-Vanity

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

As I've discussed before on this blog, one of the many changes currently rocking the publishing industry is a general blurring of lines, a mixing and melding of formerly sharply separate categories and functions.

Literary agents, squeezed by a tough publishing market and a growing number of competitors (thanks to the epidemic of mergers and layoffs that has caused large numbers of former publishing house staffers to transition into agenting), are branching out into other fields--consulting, editing, even publishing.

Trade publishers, looking for ways to raise more income to support their core publishing functions, are establishing pay-to-publish divisions: Thomas Nelson with West Bow Press, Harlequin with DellArte Press (nee Harlequin Horizons), Hay House with Balboa Press. (Specialist publisher Osprey Publishing also announced plans to offer pay-to-publish options through AuthorHouse UK--but a search of both Osprey's and AuthorHouses sites turns up no mention of these options, so I wonder if they've been discontinued.)

So is it really so surprising that venerable vanity publisher Vantage Press, which came under new ownership last year, is establishing a trade imprint?

Now, plenty of vanity publishers claim to operate trade or "traditional" imprints, or to provide both fee- and non-fee publishing. Most often, this is a marketing ploy to draw in potential customers, who submit to the publisher in hopes of a traditional publishing contract, and instead are offered publishing for a fee. Or the vanity publisher may present itself to the world as "traditional," inviting submissions from authors who then are told that the budget for non-fee publishing ran out earlier that year, or that the author's book is not quite commercial enough for non-fee publishing. Again, pay-to-play is the only option; the promise of "traditional" publishing is merely bait to set the trap.

This does not appear to be the case with Vantage. From all outward signs, the new imprint, which will be called Vantage Point, will function as a genuine trade publisher. According to information seen by Writer Beware, Vantage Point will work with agents as well as acquiring "selected" Vantage Press titles, will pay small advances ("comparable to small presses"), will provide editing and marketing, and has just inked a distribution agreement with Ingram Publisher Services. Its staff includes a number of industry veterans, including Editorial Director Joseph Pittman, who has held editorial positions at a several publishers, including Berkley and Bantam. Vantage Point will launch with eight titles in Spring 2011.

Will Vantage Point succeed? The quality of its list is still unknown, of course, but it certainly seems to have many of the other pieces in place--including, presumably, the financial cushion provided by the profitability of the pay-to-publish business (Vantage Press's fees range from $5,000 to $25,000). This is an advantage (pardon the pun) not possessed by a small publisher starting from scratch, or even by a larger publisher looking to expand.

Ironic, no? Especially as a parallel to trade publishers' efforts to bulk up their bottom lines by venturing into fee-based publishing. It's definitely a mixed-up world.

November 3, 2010

The Peter Lampack Agency Loses Suit Against Former Client

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Publishers Weekly reports that a New York Supreme Court judge has dismissed most claims in The Peter Lampack Agency's suit against a former client, best selling mystery author Martha Grimes.

At the heart of the suit is the question of what commission rights an agency retains after a client leaves. Most author-agent agreements include language ensuring that the agency will continue to receive commissions on any contracts it brokers, for as long as those contracts are in force--even if the client leaves the agency before the contracts terminate--and on any sales resulting from its efforts prior to the client's departure, even if those sales post-date that departure. (So, for instance, if the agency pitches the client's manuscript to a publisher, and the publisher makes an offer after the client has left the agency, the agency is entitled to commissions if the client accepts the offer.)

So far, so standard. But some agencies go farther, claiming the right to commissions on any sale deriving from the original sale, whether or not the agency is responsible for the sale--for example, if the publisher retains and licenses book club rights or foreign rights. The agency may also claim commission rights on the sale of successor works--sequels, spinoffs, and the like. And some agencies claim perpetual representation rights--and therefore commissions--on any works they sell for the first time. This kind of provision, known as an interminable agency clause, in effect makes the agency the work's representative for the duration of copyright, and is strongly advised against by authors' groups.

In the case of the Lampack suit, the claim involves future works covered by a publishing contract's option clause. Says PW (with numerous typos that I've corrected),
The crux of the case revolves around the interpretation of the “option clause,” which is the de facto option agents often give to publishers who buy an author’s work—they grant the house the option to get first crack at the author’s next work. In this case, Penguin exercised its option from a 2005 contract in 2009...when Grimes’s next manuscript was ready—at that point Grimes had a new agent who sent the work, The Black Cat, to Penguin, which acquired the novel.

Lampack claimed that, since he was Grimes’s agent in 2005 when the option clause was initially issued on the work that was to become The Black Cat, he retained financial rights to proceeds from that book. As the court document notes: “PLA alleges the agreement for The Black Cat arose out of the Option on Next Work clause and that Grimes violated the terms of the 2005 Penguin/Viking-Penguin Agreement by refusing...to pay PLA the sums due for The Black Cat.”
The court didn't agree, holding that Lampack was entitled
only to proceeds from the sale of [Grimes's] literary works, and didn't have an interest in the literary works themselves, making it possible for Grimes to revoke Lampack's "agency" which she did in May 2007, thereby removing any obligation for Grimes to pay Lampack for future works. In addition, the court...[noted] that claims made by Lampack that the contract placed a fiduciary duty on Grimes "{are} unsupported by case law and the general principles of agency law that the obligations that a principal owes an agent are not fiduciary."
Now, I'm not a lawyer, and hopefully one will come along to correct me if I'm mistaken, but it seems pretty clear to me that this decision (if it stands--Lampack has made a motion to re-argue) has the potential to be precedent-setting. By ruling that Lampack had an interest only in the proceeds from sales of literary works, and not in those works themselves, the decision would seem not just to weaken agencies' claim to commission rights on successor sales (where those sales occur after the client leaves the agency), but to invalidate interminable agency clauses. There would also seem to be implications for the language of the agency clauses inserted into publishing contracts, where many agents claim an agency coupled with an interest (which presumes that the agent has some legal right to the property covered by the contract, rather than just to the income from the sale of that property).

It'll be interesting to see what impact this may have going forward. In the meantime, read your agency agreements carefully, be sure you understand exactly what commission rights your agent is claiming and how that affects you if you leave the agency, and beware interminable agency clauses.

Remember, also, that agency agreements are usually negotiable. If there's language that troubles you, your agent may be willing to soften or remove it.

October 27, 2010

Reality Check on Aisle Writer Beware

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Writer Beware gets a ton of email. Reports of schemes, scams, and fee-charging, of course, but also questions about agents' and publishers' reputations, questions about the researching/querying/submitting/publishing process, requests for advice, requests for recommendations.

Requests to deny reality.

Say what? Well, a request to deny reality is when a writer sees something on this blog or on the Writer Beware website, doesn't wish to believe it, and wants to be told that in his or her case, it's just not true.

As in, "Your website says that agents shouldn't charge upfront fees, but this agent who wants me to pay $500 is so nice, are they maybe legit anyway?"

Or, "Agent X is on your Thumbs Down list, but they want to represent me and their website looks professional, are they really so bad?"

Or, "I found your Alert that says Publisher Y is being sued, but they have books on Amazon, so couldn't it all be a mistake?"

Or, "According to your blog there are lots of complaints about Publisher Z, but they've offered me a contract and they love my book, so maybe they'll do a good job for me?"

Um. Maybe not.

What this is all about, usually, is a head-on collision between reality and every writer's craving for validation and acceptance. Especially where the writer has been submitting for a long time without success, the faux validation provided by disreputable agents and publishers is as powerful as it is illusory. It can trump both good sense and actual facts, and it is very hard to relinquish. You don't want it to be true--so there must, there just must be the possibility that it isn't true, that just this once, and just for you, the rule doesn't apply. That the person you contact for advice--because in fact your gut is telling you something, even if your heart doesn't want to heed it--will eat their words and their warnings and give you their blessing.

I get it. I've been there; I think we all have. But facts are facts, and they don't change just because you wish they would. Sometimes my correspondents get angry when I can't tell them what they want to hear, and write back to challenge my expertise, or to demand that I give them the names of everyone who has complained (and to declare me non-credible when I refuse). Sometimes they thank me for saving them from a bad mistake. Most often, I never hear from them again, and can only wonder which impulse won out: the gut instinct that prompted them to contact me, or the hope and desire that made them want to believe the promises of a scammer.

Here's how to avoid putting yourself in that position.

Know the business before you start submitting. Publishing is a confusing and complicated field, but it is possible to acquire enough basic knowledge to protect you from the most obvious schemes and scams. Knowledge is your greatest ally and your best defense. For some suggestions on acquiring it, see my blog post, Learning the Ropes.

Be careful of your information sources. Google is not necessarily your friend. There's a lot of good information on the Internet, but even more bad, and unless you have a decent knowledge base, it's hard to filter the information you find. For a more detailed discussion of these dangers, see my blog posts, The Perils of Searching For Publishers on the Internet and Using Caution on the Internet.

Research before you query. You can save yourself a huge amount of angst--and temptation--if you check reputations before you submit--not after you've sent the query letter, or, worse, after you've gotten an offer. For the consequences of not doing so, see my blog post, Lie Down With Dogs, Get Up With Fleas.

October 26, 2010

Alert: MyFreeRead.com Is Spamming Again

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Have you recently received this spam?
Dear Friends,

Do you write?

We're looking for good-quality eBooks, eZines and self-published articles for our new website!

This is a FREE MARKETING TOOL for you, as we post all material absolutely free for our visitors to read. In return, you may be eligible for profit-sharing from our advertising revenue. Don't want to give it all away from free? No problem -- post a quality excerpt, and include a link for them to buy the full version!

Want to learn more? Check us out at http://www.myfreeread.com and click on Submit to tell us about yourself!

To your success!

Lisa Davies
MyFreeRead.com
406 Amapola Avenue #210
Torrance, CA 90501

If so, you might want to read my blog post from earlier this year.

October 21, 2010

Two Alerts

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

More on "Iron" David Boyer

Writer Beware has learned about another David Boyer project in the works--a book called Vast Horizons, to be published in 2011 by Boyer's own Darkened Doorways Press. Like his Prodigies and Legends books, it features interviews, in this case with SF writers, including some who are very well-known. Here's the full list, taken directly from the Table of Contents:
Authoress Tessa B. Dick
Nebula Award winner Mike Resnick
Author Allen Steele
Greg Bear, author of Blood Music
Jeff Somers - Author of the Avery Cates series of Sci-FI noir novels and editor of The Inner Swine.
Warren Fahy, author of Fragment
David Gelber, author of the ITP series, Future Hope; Joshua & Aaron
Joe Haldeman, author of The Forever War
Kevin Bohacz, author of Immortality
Jeremy Robinson, author of Pulse and Instinct
Terry Lloyd Vinson, author of Desolation Outpost
Todd A. Fonseca, author of The Time Cavern
Barry Longyear, award-winning author of Enemy Mine
Steve Alten, best-selling author of Meg and Grim Reaper: End of Days
Terry Bisson, author of Planet of Mystery
Jack Dann, multi-award winning author or editor of over seventy-five books, including The Man Who Melted and The Memory Cathedral
Ray Faraday Nelson
Stel Pavlou
David Brin
Robert J. Sawyer, author of WWW: Wake
Paul Witcover
John Eric Ellison
Jeffrey A. Carver
I should say that there's no evidence of malfeasance with the interviews, although the formatting of the manuscript is sloppy and amateurish. Also, given recent events, Vast Horizons' prospects of actual publication are probably much reduced (although Darkened Doorways, unlike many of Boyer's other magazines/websites, is still alive and kicking and soliciting submissions). However, you never know--and at least some writers might not want to have their names associated with this project.

More Troubles at Dorchester

Smart Bitches Trashy Books reports on apparent unauthorized sales of ebooks.

October 18, 2010

Cold Iron: David Boyer, Plagiarist

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

I hear often from writers worried that their work will be stolen. Especially among new writers, it's a major fear. However, theft in the book and short fiction world is extremely rare. (Really. Reputable agents and editors will not risk their reputations by stealing, and disreputable ones aren't interested in your work at all, only in your money). Despite the hundreds of questions I've gotten about theft, I can count the actual incidents on one hand.

Which is why, when plagiarism does occur, it's especially noteworthy.

Over the past couple of weeks, I've been getting complaints about "Iron" David Boyer (he also goes by numerous aliases--see below), publisher/editor of, among others, New Voices in Horror Magazine, NVH Books, and Darkened Doorways Magazine. Iron Dave has reportedly been soliciting submissions, and then publishing others' books and stories under one of his several names. He has also allegedly used cover art without the artists' permission, published stories under authors' own names without their permission, refused to pay royalties due, refused to provide promised contributor's copies, and failed to provide books to people (including authors) who ordered them. One writer, Ferrell Moore, is planning to take legal action.

Thanks to the blogosphere, word of Iron Dave's exploits has spread. His online footprint is considerably smaller than it was a couple of weeks ago--infringing material has been taken down, and many of his websites have been de-activated (though he still seems to have a substantial presence on MySpace). Even so, he's still out there soliciting submissions...so be careful.

Alleged Names/Aliases

- David Boyer
- Iron Dave Boyer
- Dan Boyer
- Doc Boyer
- David Byron
- Iron Dave Byron
- Dan Byron
- Doc Burton
- David Brookes
- Leo Wolfe
- Jack Burnett

Publications

- New Voices in Horror (ezine)
- New Voices in Films (ezine--formerly New Voices in Fiction)
- NVH Books (book publisher. Known anthology titles: Darc Karnivale, Deadly Dolls [as David Byron, also as Jack Burnett], Fright Flashes)
- Fiction Prodigies and Legends (ezine)
- Darkened Doorways Magazine (ezine and publisher--currently soliciting submissions for an anthology called Sweet Jayne)
- Horror Prodigies and Legends (book, published by--wait for it--Whitmore Publishing, one of Writer Beware's Thumbs Down Publishers. Horror writers might want to check the table of contents.)
- He's also involved in film. Kind of.

Writers' Experiences/Warnings

- Warning from Aphelion
- Discussion and warnings at Shocklines
- Dave Boyer/Iron Dave/Dan Byron/Dave Byron-A Warning
- Beware David Byron and NVH
- He Can't Write So He Stole My Story
- The Sincerest Form of Flattery?
- A Comic Strip About Pirates
- A Plagiarist, a Thief, and Definitely NOT a Gentleman
- Electrocute This Clown
- Learning Hard Lessons
- A list of cover art allegedly used by Boyer without permission.

Some Commonsense Suggestions About Plagiarism

- Despite this blog post, don't fear it unduly. If you're a book or story writer, it truly is very rare.

- Thoroughly research publishers, magazines, etc. before you submit. Avoid startup publishers/magazines until they've put out a few books or issues and have demonstrated some stability (this also gives time for complaints, if any, to surface). Stay away from obviously amateur ventures, especially if you've never heard of the publishers or editors.

- Do occasional websearches on your book or story titles, character names if they're distinctive, sample sentences, and the like. Google Alerts can be very handy here. Plagiarists are not usually very smart (or they wouldn't plagiarize)--for instance, Boyer didn't bother to change the titles of some of the stories he stole.

- If you post your work online, embed your name and a link in the post. If the plagiarist is simply re-posting, he or she may be too stupid to strip this out. I've found a number of improperly reproduced posts from this blog that way.

- If you do find that your work has been stolen, and if it has been published online, try directly approaching the plagiarist, or, if that's not possible, whoever owns the venue where your work was posted. Plagiarists don't expect to get caught; just the fact that you sussed them out may be enough to scare them into taking the work down. And if they have any vestige of professionalism, publishers, magazines, and websites understand that their reputation suffers if it's proven that they've published stolen work.

- If the plagiarist refuses to back down, or the venue isn't helpful, a DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) takedown notice sent to the hosting ISP may do the trick. DMCA notices must follow a very specific form (there are instructions here), and need to be sent to the proper recipient (you can usually find that information in an ISP's Terms and Conditions or Copyright Policy. Or Google "ISP's name" + abuse).

- Writers whose work has been stolen can pursue legal action for copyright infringement (note to US writers: you must previously have registered your copyright to be able to do this), especially where the infringed work hasn't been placed online and the DMCA remedy isn't possible. However, the costs can be prohibitive, so this is not an option to be undertaken lightly.

- Last but not least: contact Writer Beware! If someone has ripped you off, we want to know.

October 11, 2010

New Century Publishing: Update

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

In August, I wrote a post about Indiana-based vanity press New Century Publishing, whose owner, David Caswell, was being investigated by the Indiana Attorney General for taking authors' money and failing to publish their books.

I'm a bit late with this follow-up, but a lawsuit against Caswell and New Century was filed by the AG's Office in Marion County Circuit Court on August 17. Caswell is accused of multiple violations of the Deceptive Consumer Sales Act, as well as interchanging corporate and fictitious names in order to mislead and confuse customers, commingling corporate and personal funds, and the use of customer funds for other than their designated purposes. Sixteen writers are named in the complaint, and thousands of dollars in fees for publishing, finished books (most never delivered), and other services (such as a table at a book signing event) are detailed.

The AG is requesting both injunctive relief (all of it consumer-focused, since Caswell is being charged under the Deceptive Consumer Sales Act, and none of it specifically to do with publishing), and financial relief, including customer restitution "in an amount to be determined at trial" and penalties of $5,500 per violation.

The full text of the complaint can be seen here.

Caswell has been sued twice before by the Indiana Attorney General, once in 1990 and once in 2005, both times for consumer fraud. Of a total of nearly $100,000 in fines, he has allegedly paid just $600.

Will the AG manage to make him pay up this time, if the requested penalties are assessed? Stay tuned.

Edited to add: As reported in this news article, 24 additional complaints were added on Thursday to the original complaint, bringing the number of authors up to 40.

October 8, 2010

Wholesale vs. Agency: Sales Models in Conflict

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

One of the big publishing headlines this week (here, for instance) was that e-books from some popular authors were selling on Amazon for higher prices than the hardcover versions. For instance, the hardcover of Ken Follet's Fall of Giants was priced at $19.39, while the digital version cost $19.99. James Patterson's and Howard Roughan's Don’t Blink was going for $14.00 in hardcover, and $14.99 in digital.

Predictably, Kindle-maniacs flipped out, slamming the books with one-star reviews and angry comments. "The publisher expects more for the Kindle electronic version than the hardback. It is unfortunate the publishing industry continues to live in the past...Take advantage of your customers and feel their wrath," wrote one commenter. "It is ridiculous that the publisher is charging more for the Kindle version than the hardcover," wrote another. "The price for this eBook is outrageous (more than the hardcover edition!) Send a message to the publisher that we consumers will not be bilked out of our money to satisfy their greed," wrote a third.

I won't argue that $19.99 or even $14.99 is too much to pay for an e-book--especially since, if you use an e-book reader such as the Kindle, you are buying a license, not a book. And I do believe that consumer pressure will ultimately force prices down (though many consumers who demand low-priced e-books don't seem to grasp that publishers have fixed costs that must be recouped across all versions of a book, even the versions that are cheaper to produce). But it's wrong to punish authors by giving one-star reviews, or claiming that publishers and authors are in cahoots. Authors have no control over the prices at which their books are sold.

In this particular case, it's also wrong to blame publishers, since the pricing discrepancies that have stirred up so much bad feeling are Amazon's doing. What we have here isn't nefarious price-fixing by greedy, backward-looking publishers determined to cripple e-book adoption, but a conflict between two fundamentally different models of book selling.

Under the wholesale model that has defined book selling until very recently, publishers set the list price of books and sell them to retailers at a substantial discount. The retailers then sell the books to consumers at whatever prices they choose, and keep the profit--or swallow the loss. Retailers like Amazon often sell popular books at deep discount, accepting a loss as a way to bring in customers. For instance, Fall of Giants, which at nearly 1,000 pages is a true doorstopper, has a list price of $36.00, but Amazon is selling it for just $19.39. Don't Blink has a list price of $27.99, but on Amazon it costs $14.00.

By contrast, under the recently-introduced agency model that has come to dominate the selling of e-books, retailers become "agents" through which publishers sell books directly to consumers. The agency model doesn't allow for discounting; retailers simply pass books to consumers at the price set by publishers, and receive a commission on sales.

So Amazon can do whatever it wants with print prices--but for e-books, it is locked into the publisher's price. The occasional result: hardcovers that cost less to buy than e-books, even though the list prices for the hardcovers are considerably higher than the list prices for the e-books (a point apparently completely missed by the Follett and Patterson one-star brigade).

In other words, there is a mismatch between Amazon the retailer and Amazon the agent. While I'm sure that the current surge of customer outrage doesn't make Amazon too unhappy, given that it doesn't like the agency model and has been actively encouraging its customers to target publishers by slapping scarlet letters on agency model e-books in the form of disclaimers ("This price was set by the publisher"), the competition between these different book selling models does no one any good. It benefits neither publishers nor retailers to have sales policies that conflict. This is something that will urgently need to be worked out in the future.

(And by the way, for Kindle owners who wax nostalgic for the $9.99 ebooks of yore: that low price point was selectively applied. Ebooks from popular authors sold for $9.99, but ebooks from midlist and obscure authors sold for list price, which was often quite a bit higher.)

October 5, 2010

Barnes & Noble Launches PubIt! Self-Publishing Service

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Yesterday, Barnes & Noble announced the launch of PubIt!, a free self-publishing service for its Nook e-reading device. With PubIt!, B&N joins Amazon and Apple in offering direct-to-device self-publishing (though Apple allows this only if you have a Mac; if you don't, you must use an Apple-approved aggregator like Smashwords).

Like Apple, B&N uses the EPUB open ebook standard (Amazon, by contrast, imposes a proprietary format). There's a free tool to convert your manuscript, and an ISBN is not required (Amazon also doesn't require an ISBN, but Apple does.) You must own your electronic rights, which means you can't simultaneously publish elsewhere unless those agreements are nonexclusive. Unlike other devices, the Nook allows users to lend and share ebooks, and all books from PubIt (I refuse to keep typing in that stupid exclamation point) will be lendable.

Books can be priced anywhere from $.99 to $199.99. If you stick between $2.99 and $9.99, you'll receive a 65% royalty--slightly more than Apple's 60%, slightly less than the 70% option Amazon offers to US self-publishers (but with fewer conditions). Books priced higher or lower receive 40%. Like Amazon and Apple, B&N imposes some restrictions: if you sell your ebook via other retailers, your PubIt price can't be higher, and it also can't exceed the price for a print version, if there is one.

Titles uploaded to PubIt become available for sale within 24 to 72 hours.

What's the advantage of using PubIt, rather than making your ebook available at Barnes & Noble via an ebook distributor? Better pay. B&N pays royalties on your book's retail price, while distributors pay on net (retail less whatever discount B&N demands).

It wouldn't be Writer Beware without a cautionary note. There's a lot of hype about ebooks right now (frequently coupled with dire predictions of the imminent death of print). Indeed, ebooks seem to have finally reached a tipping point, and are experiencing explosive growth. Writers should remember, though, that whatever the electronic future may ultimately hold, the ebook market is still tiny (a little less than 9% of US trade book sales as of June 2010, according to the Association of American Publishers). And electronic self-publishers face all the challenges of exposure and respect that print self-publishers do.

The full PubIt publishing agreement is here (read it carefully).

The pricing agreement is here.

The content policy is here (there are some restrictions on what can be published).
 
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