Friday, November 21, 2014

MeGustaEscribir: Author Solutions Inc. Expands Into Spain

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Today I'm highlighting a post by author and self-publishing expert David Gaughran. Like Writer Beware, David has been following Author Solutions Inc. closely over the past few years, and has written a number of important, in-depth articles about ASI and its operations.

From David's blog:
Penguin Random House is speeding up the international expansion of its vanity press operations, while also seeking to integrate them more closely with the traditional side of the business – hoping to counteract flat growth for Author Solutions at a time when self-publishing is booming.
The expansion is MeGustaEscribir, which ASI will launch next Tuesday. ASI's press release describes MeGustaEscribir as "the supported self-publishing platform of Penguin Random House Grupo Editorial" (Grupo Editorial is PRH's Spanish-language trade subsidiary).

ASI has created other pay-to-play imprints for major publishers--WestBow Press for Thomas Nelson and Archway Publishing for Simon & Schuster, among others--but this is the first time it has created one for its parent company (as most of you probably know, ASI is owned by PRH).

David observes that MeGustaEscribir offers the "mix of crappy publishing packages and ineffective, overpriced marketing services" that's characteristic of all ASI imprints. It also charges a form of reading fee:
Heavily touted on the MeGustaEscribir site is the Recognition Program – where customers will be recommended for review by an editor from Penguin Random House Grupo Editorial (that link is in Spanish, but Google Translate does a mostly reasonable job of getting the gist across).

Here’s the really shocking part. Consideration by a Penguin Random House editor is contingent on writers undergoing an Editorial Evaluation Report by MeGustaEscribir. The only publishing packages which contain this Evaluation Report are priced at 2,899 Euro (approx $3,600) and 3,999 Euro (approx $4,970).
(This actually reminds me of the "Publisher's Choice" program that iUniverse used to offer before it was acquired by ASI. Publisher's Choice promised participants the possibility--though not the certainty--of placement on Barnes and Noble store shelves, but only if they first bought a "Premier Plus" package, including an editorial evaluation, for over $1,000. See Writer Beware co-founder Ann Crispin's 2006 post about this program.)

David goes on to discuss the importance of international expansion for ASI, which appears to be facing flattening sales (that's sales of services to writers, not book sales) in the USA:
Out of the 211,269 self-published titles tracked by Bowker in 2011, Author Solutions imprints accounted for 41,605 books while a (reputable) competitor like CreateSpace registered 57,602 titles.

Fast forward to 2013, and the self-publishing boom has taken full effect – for everyone except Author Solutions. Bowker tracked 458,564 self-published titles which had been assigned ISBNs. Virtually none of that growth went to Author Solutions, despite launching several new imprints, including a high profile vanity press partnership with Simon & Schuster (Archway Publishing).

Author Solutions’ total for 2013, despite the staggering growth in self-publishing during that two year period, was just 45,574 – a barely noticeable increase on 2011’s numbers. For comparison CreateSpace registered 186,926 ISBNs that year, and Smashwords came out of nowhere to register 85,000.
Why has ASI's growth in the USA, long its primary market, slowed down so much? David feels that "a years-long campaign by writers is starting to take effect", and I agree. The number of online complaints and exposes has been mounting; just Google ASI or any of its imprints to see examples.

But more significant, I think, is the huge success of free electronic self-publishing platforms and distributors like KDP, Kobo, and Smashwords, which allow authors to launch themselves into a space where the perennial handicaps of print self-publishing--distribution and price--don't exist. ASI's business model, on the other hand, is inextricably linked to POD. For savvy self-publishers, ASI's services have come to seem not only questionable or costly, but old-fashioned as well.

No wonder ASI is reaching out into new markets. Via its Partridge imprint, ASI is already doing business in India, Africa, and Singapore. MeGustaEscribir expands its presence to Spain. What's next? Japan? China? Stay tuned.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Scam Warnings For Freelancers

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Identity Theft

This week, freelance writer Heather Boerner (who has published with such well-known venues as The Atlantic and The Washington Post) alerted me to her experience with a scammer.

Heather discovered the scam when she was contacted, out of the blue, by an individual who claimed to have hired her through a freelance jobs bidding website called oDesk. From an article about the scam by one of Heather's colleagues, Paul Raeburn:
[Heather] quickly realized that she had been the victim of identity theft. Somebody--a fake Heather--had gone to Boerner's website, copied her resume, downloaded her photo, linked to her website, and created an oDesk account offering services as a writer....

"It's an elaborate scheme. It's really bizarre," said Boerner, who has alerted some of her colleagues..."The guy who notified me of this said he had hired Fake Heather to do some writing. Fake Heather then hired people to do the writing for her [or him]." The person who notified Boerner said he gave Fake Heather $1,000.
Heather isn't the only one who has been victimized in this way. Freelancer Carol Tice encountered the same scam (and possibly, the same scammer). From Raeburn's article:
[Tice] received an email from someone wanting to know if Tice wanted to continue the writing project they were working on. "I assured her that I had never started article writing for her, and certainly wasn’t going to continue," Tice wrote in a blog post. "I didn’t even have any idea what topics she was having articles written about!"

As was the case with Fake Heather, Fake Carol set up a Skype account outside the U.S. (in London), and used Tice's name, photo, and website to connect with clients on a freelancers' website (in this case, Elance).
It's not clear whether this is a new trend in scams, or one person's ripoff scheme. But if you post your resume on bidding sites, it's something to be aware of.

How can you protect yourself? Some suggestions from freelancer Barbara A. Tyler:
♦ I strongly recommend that writers Google themselves on a regular basis. That can provide the first tip-off that someone is pretending to be you.

♦ Pay attention to any emails you get that seem off-kilter for whatever reason and investigate them like Carol did.

♦ From the flip side… if you get work through bidding sites (any bidding site, not just Elance) always, always, always do as much research as you can into the person hiring you.
Free Samples

This is not a new scam--in fact, it's a very old one. But I was reminded of it this week when a freelancer forwarded me this email she received when she responded to an ad:
Thank you for your interest in the Freelance Creative Copywriter role we recently posted. We reviewed lots of responses and based on your background/experience we have decided to move you to the next step in the process.

The next step in the process involves completing the attached assignment. Please read the background information and then put together your copy. We ask that you return your completed assignment to me by Monday, November 10th.

This will help us gauge your writing skills and abilities as it relates to meeting our needs and expectations.
Now, this "next step" may simply have the company's cheap-ass way of auditioning writers naive enough not to know that pro freelancers don't provide free samples (they may agree to write test pieces to see if they're a good fit, but not without compensation). Not precisely a scam, though certainly a scumbag move.

But it may also have been a sleazy outfit's attempt to obtain free content--in which case the writer, having completed the "assignment," would get the brushoff and later on discover that her copy had been used on the company's website or elsewhere online, without attribution. (In fact, this is something that can happen even if you do get paid.)

Wisely, the freelancer decided to blow the company off. It can't be said too often: always carefully research any job you're offered or are solicited for. Google is your friend. And listen to your gut. If something seems off, don't ignore it.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Alert: Cookbook Marketing Agency

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware


Are you thinking of creating your own cookbook--or have you already created one? Good news: an apparently new venture called Cookbook Marketing Agency is here to help.
Cookbook Marketing Agency (CMA) is a global book marketing agency, publisher and branding consultancy. Along with our partners, we have helped thousands of authors, as well as other publishers increase their book sales potential.
Sounds pretty impressive--if not very specific. That's OK, though, because CMA is ready to offer you a whole menu of assistance, including a promotional plan.
Some benefits you will enjoy as a client of Cookbook Marketing Agency:

1. Prominently displayed at national and international book fairs and shows
2. Featured in a proprietary catalog of authors and titles
3. Ability to have E-book distribution
4. A professionally written and distributed press release of your Cookbook
5. Access to a full staff of experts to aid with the design, editing, and distribution of your Cookbook
And much more!
There's even an affiliate plan, where you can earn 20% of "any revenue generated by your leads."

If you've guessed that none of this is free, you're right. There's a fee attached to every service provided by CMA--including its affiliate plan, which requires would-be affiliates to hand over $20 for "business calling cards." The affiliate plan page, however, is the only place on CMA's website where it's explicitly acknowledged that CMA clients are buying services:
You get paid if the prospective customer buys any of our products — anything from an a la carte marketing or publishing service or a full marketing campaign.
Another acknowledgment that's hard to find: the name of the company that's actually behind CMA. There are hints on CMA's catalog page, where all the listed books are published by a single publisher whose initials may be familiar to readers of this blog. But it's only in CMA's press release that the truth is revealed: CMA is "a publishing imprint of Publish On Demand Global (PODG)."

Why is this a concern?

Well, PODG and its other half, SBPRA (Strategic Book Publishing and Rights Agency), has been on Writer Beware's radar--under a dizzying variety of names--since 2001. Starting as a fee-charging literary agency, it expanded over the years into other agencies, vanity publishers, and marketing services, charging fees all along the way. Writer Beware has received hundreds of complaints. SBPRA/PODG and its owner, Robert Fletcher, recently settled a deceptive business practices lawsuit brought by the Florida Attorney General; among other things, the settlement requires Fletcher to pay $145,000 in court costs and author reparations. (For the full SBPRA/PODG story, including its failed defamation lawsuit against Writer Beware, see our Alert.)

It's always a good idea to know who you're really working with.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Solicitation Alert: LitFire Publishing

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware
EDITED 11/11/14 TO ADD: Either as a result of this post or of the accompanying discussion at Absolute Write (which includes a lot more speculation and information about possible LitFire staff names and aliases), changes have begun to appear on the LitFire website. I've therefore appended a bunch of screenshots at the bottom of this post.


A few weeks ago, I began hearing from writers who'd been solicited, out of the blue, by a company called LitFire Publishing. In some cases by phone, in others by email, a LitFire "consultant" claimed to have received or seen information about the writers' books (or even to have read them), and wanted to offer a wonderful marketing opportunity--for, of course, a four-figure fee.

Here's how LitFire describes itself and its services (also see the screenshot at the bottom of this post):
Founded in 2008, LitFire allows authors to skip the hassles of traditional publishing. The company started out as a publisher of digital books. With hundreds of published titles and more than 50 publishing partners, we have learned how to succeed and soar in the eBook market. In 2014, LitFire expanded its horizon by offering self-publishing. Today, we offer all the services you would expect from a traditional publishing house – from editorial to design to promotion. Our goal is to help independent authors and self-publishers bring their book production and marketing goals to fruition.
In other words, LitFire is one of those outfits that offers publishing packages, but makes much of its profit from hawking adjunct services such as marketing.

Cold-call solicitations, hard-sell sales tactics (writers report receiving repeated phone calls and emails), expensive publishing packages with silly names, absurdly overpriced "marketing" services: are you detecting more than a whiff of Author Solutions, the much-criticized self-publishing service conglomerate that owns AuthorHouse, iUniverse, Xlibris, and Trafford, among others?

In fact, at least four of LitFire's "consultants"--Portia Peterson, Tori Mesh, KC Normanns, and Mark Advent (also see the screenshots at the bottom of this post)--are or were employees of Author Solutions imprints. And LitFire's publishing agreement bears many similarities to an older AuthorHouse agreement (from 2012; the most recent agreement, which is much more complicated, was revised in 2014). Compare, for instance, AuthorHouse's Clause 18, Termination by Service Provider, to the last paragraph of LitFire's Clause 14, Refunds and Work Termination.

But there are reasons other than possible Author Solutions connections to be wary of this company.

- False or conflicting claims. Of the "hundreds of published titles" and "more than 50 publishing partners" claimed in LitFire's description of itself, there is no trace.

Eight books appear on Litfire's website, only one of which seems actually to have been published by LitFire. That one shows up on Amazon, along with just two others. A few more surface with a websearch (interestingly, these also show up--with different ISBNs--as having been published by Author Solutions imprints). All in all, that's seven titles. Total.

LitFire also appears to be confused about how long it's been in business. Its website claims a 2008 founding date, but its URL was only registered in June of this year. On the other hand, according to one of its email communications, it's been around for 8 years, which would push its founding date back to 2006.

- Illiterate written materials. Most of LitFire's website, while it won't win any prizes for business communication, doesn't read too badly. But the LitFire correspondence I've seen...yikes. For example, this email from "Senior Publishing and Marketing Consultant" Tori Mesh:


The most charitable thing I can say is that it reads as if it were written by someone for whom English is not a first language. Tori's resume includes a current or former stint at AuthorHouse UK; we do know that a big portion of Author Solutions business is outsourced to the Philippines, and that Philippine staff use American or British-sounding aliases, presumably to make it seem as if they actually work at AS headquarters in Bloomington, Indiana, but actually resulting in some very odd-sounding names. (See, for instance, this recent Author Solutions marketing pitch.)

Also check out this blog post on, er, craft, from Jill Bennett, LitFire's Book Marketing Specialist. Here's a sample (also see the screenshot at the bottom of this post):
When can one’s writing writhen out a reader’s metaphysical standpoint?

How about this: Somebody wrote a book saying that the laws the world is following today: spiritual, political, logical are but a rehash of the Primo genial world that the Primo genial human beings have cleaved to and everything everyone believed in that world turned out to be flawed and destructive, thereby the First Apocalypse. He doesn’t claim himself a Messiah or a prophet or whatnot but proves his evidences authentic, like the codex of that first world, every inch of it intact.

I did not make that up.

- Plagiarism. A solicitation email from "Senior Marketing and Publishing Consultant" Mark Advent (formerly of Trafford) is a peculiar mix of the kinds of ESL mistakes found in Tori Mesh's email and relatively fluent passages. There's a reason for this: Mark has borrowed the good bits from others, without bothering with attribution.


The red-boxed passage is from an article by marketing expert Penny C. Sansevieri (see the last paragraph). The blue-boxed passage has been filched from speaker and consultant Al Lautenslager.

Tsk, tsk.

So what is LitFire? Despite the many Author Solutions connections and similarities, I don't suspect that LitFire actually has anything to do with Author Solutions itself. AS is a big company, and it has no need to be coy about what it does. If LitFire were a new AS imprint, we'd know it. I think it's far more likely that LitFire is an Author Solutions clone, created by former or current AS workers in hopes of siphoning off a share of their employer's business.

Either way, one thing is clear. If you hear from LitFire, just say no.

SCREENSHOTS

LitFire's description of itself:

Portia Peterson:

Tori Mesh:

KC Normanns:

Mark Advent:

Jill Bennett:

Jill's illiterate blog post:

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Kindle Scout: The Pros and Cons of Amazon's New Crowdsourced Publishing Program

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Yesterday, Amazon's brand-new crowdsourced publishing program, Kindle Scout, opened for voting by the public.The concept is pretty simple:
Kindle Scout is reader-powered publishing for new, never-before-published books. It’s a place where readers help decide if a book gets published. Selected books will be published by Kindle Press and receive 5-year renewable terms, a $1,500 advance, 50% eBook royalty rate, easy rights reversions and featured Amazon marketing.
Authors can submit their full manuscripts of 50,000 words or more (including cover art, various metadata items, and an author photo), about 5,000 words of which are posted on the Kindle Scout website for a 30-day "campaign". Readers can then browse books and nominate their favorites. If a manuscript they've voted for gets published, they receive a free ebook.

Things authors should note:
  • Amazon provides no editing, copy editing, proofreading, or cover art/illustration. Your book will be published exactly as you submit it.
  • Submissions are exclusive for 45 days from the date you submit your manuscript. No shopping your ms. elsewhere during that time.
  • Submitted manuscripts must meet content and eligiblity guidelines. Currently, only Romance, Mystery and Thriller, and SF/Fantasy are eligible.
  • Crowdsourcing? Not so much. Authors are encouraged to mobilize their networks for voting (which kind of undermines the notion that manuscripts will rise to the top on merit--a perennial problem of crowdsourced ventures, along with the potential for gaming the system). Mere vote numbers, however, don't determine what gets published. Per the FAQ, "Nominations give us an idea of which books readers think are great; the rest is up to the Kindle Scout team who then reviews books for potential publication."
  • If you're attracted by the promise of "featured Amazon marketing", here's what it actually consists of: "Kindle Press books will be enrolled and earn royalties for participation in the Kindle Owners' Lending Library and Kindle Unlimited as well as be eligible for targeted email campaigns and promotions." Key word here: "eligible." In other words, no promises. 
  • If you're not selected for publication, you must request removal of your work from the Kindle Scout site. Otherwise, your campaign page will remain online.
  • By submitting, you agree in advance to the terms of the Kindle Press publishing agreement. These terms are not negotiable. So before you submit, be sure you're comfortable with them. (If Amazon chooses not to publish your ms., you're automatically released).

So, what about that publishing agreement?

Overall, it's decent. The grant of rights (for ebook and audio editions only--though see below) is exclusive and worldwide, and renews every five years--but you can request reversion at the end of any five-year term if you've earned less than $25,000 in royalties during the term, or at any time after your two-year publication anniversary if you've earned less than $500 in the previous 12 months. Royalties are 50% of net for ebooks and 25% of net for audiobooks, paid within 60 days of the end of the month. And of course, there's the $1,500 advance.

Things authors should note:
  • The grant of rights is a bit more sweeping than it appears:
    • The grant of rights includes translation rights. If these are exercised by Amazon, your royalty drops to 20% of net. (On the plus side, if Amazon has not exercised or licensed these rights within two years, you can request that they be reverted.)
    • Amazon can license to third parties any of the rights you've granted. You get 75% of net proceeds for foreign-language books licensed to third parties, and 50% of net proceeds for any other format.
    • The grant of rights allows Amazon not just to publish and/or license ebooks and audiobooks, but to "create condensed, adapted, abridged, interactive and enhanced editions of your Work, and include your Work in anthology or omnibus editions."
  • For "subscription or other blended fee programs" (for instance, Kindle Unlimited), net revenue "will be determined in accordance with the standard revenue allocation methods for that program." So be sure you're aware of what those are.
  • Amazon "may" register copyright for you, but is not required to do so.
  • As always, Amazon maintains complete discretion and control, and can make decisions and changes without telling you. "You acknowledge that we have no obligation to publish, market, distribute or offer for sale your Work, or continue publishing, marketing, distributing or selling your Work after we have started doing so. We may stop publishing your Work and cease further exploitation of the rights granted in this Agreement at any time in our sole discretion without notice to you." (my emphasis) These are not sentences you'll find in a typical publishing contract.

So should authors rush to submit their unpublished novels?

On the plus side, there's the advance (money up front is nice), the possibility of subrights sales, the promotional boost that published books will receive from the selection process--at least while the program is new--and whatever promotions Amazon may (not necessarily will--see above) undertake for individual books. Amazon's on-site promotions (as distinct from its email promotions, which can be spammy; you haven't lived until you've gotten an Amazon email promotion for your own book) are incredibly powerful, and can have a huge impact on sales numbers--though that effect doesn't necessarily last past the promotion itself. It's possible, also, that gaining a toehold in Amazon's publishing ecosystem could eventually open the door to one of Amazon Publishing's traditional imprints--for some authors, at least.

On the other hand, Kindle Scout seems to occupy an uneasy middle ground between publishing and self-publishing, embracing characteristics of both while offering the benefits of neither. As with a traditional publisher, you must agree to an exclusive contract that takes control of certain of your rights--but you don't get the editing, proofing, artwork, or any of the other financial investments that a traditional publisher would provide. As with self-publishing, your book is published exactly as you submit it, with no developmental input or support--but you don't have control of pricing and you receive a smaller percentage of sales proceeds than you would with KDP.

For Amazon, Kindle Scout is super-low risk publishing with the potential for substantial yield--not just from books that prove popular but from the influx of new users to its website. For authors, it's the usual dilemma: does what you may gain outweigh what you don't get, and what you must give up?

As always, don't rush in. Read and understand the Kindle Scout publishing agreement, and be sure you're comfortable with the other conditions to which you're agreeing by submitting your manuscript. Be realistic in your expectations--not just of the possibility of publication, but of what might result if you're selected.

And please--don't spam your entire social network with requests for votes.

UPDATE, 10/30/14: Amazon's right to ebooks and audiobooks is exclusive, but I've been asked whether the Kindle Scout publishing agreement would allow authors to self-publish in print. The answer would appear to be "yes". Here's the relevant language (my emphasis): "All rights not expressly granted to us in this Agreement (including the right to publish print editions) are reserved for your sole use and disposition."

Also, here's author Benjamin Sobieck's first impressions of his Kindle Scout campaign. He makes some interesting observations.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

How Not to Change Your Business Model: The Latest on Permuted Press

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

This is a very long post. If you're already familiar with the issues involved, scroll down to the third section and read from there.

Last week, social media lit up with news that Permuted Press, a well-regarded small publisher of horror fiction, was going digital-first, and also suspending new title releases until 2015.

In an email sent to authors, Permuted Press's President, Michael L. Wilson, touted PP's success in 2014, along with a huge increase in its release schedule: from 20-25 books per year to over 100 so far in 2014. However,
While we’re thrilled at the response to the “new” Permuted Press, our staff has been burning the candle at both ends pulling it all together. Everyone here is upbeat about the results, but to be totally honest - we’re exhausted.

In order for us to operate at our optimum and to be able to build upon the successes we’ve already seen, we need to make a few adjustments to our original plans. So, we’re writing to inform you of some important changes that are taking place right away.

1: We will be ceasing the production of print-on-demand books. Exceptions may be made for top sellers or for works we subjectively choose. Our data revealed that 41.65% of our production team’s time is spent making print on demand versions of our books, but those products account for only 7.41% of our income. This disproportionate figure revealed the need to make prompt changes to our previous policy.

2: We are pausing the release of most new titles until early 2015. This will grant us the time necessary to increase margin in our production schedule. This will have a positive effect on our promotional efforts and enable us to better serve our authors.
PP authors--and outside observers--reacted with shock and anger. News coverage was equally uncomplimentary. The Horror Writers Association, concerned that PP was suspending print publication without reverting print rights, and also about reports (by me, among others) that PP was demanding fees from authors who wanted to get out of their contracts, referred the matter to their Grievance Committee.

PP did have its defenders, and some of the news coverage was criticized as biased and inaccurate. But for most commenters, PP was a scummy outfit that got greedy with acquisitions, wound up in over its head, and, by suspending print publishing but retaining print rights, wanted to have its cake and eat it too.

*********

I first became aware of Permuted Press in 2006, when I served as a judge for the World Fantasy Awards. They submitted several books for consideration, all of which were attractively-produced and well-edited. Unlike many small presses, they'd managed to gain real-world presence in physical bookstores, and had achieved significant sales success with some of their titles. In 2009, they inked a co-licensing deal with Simon & Schuster.

In 2013, PP was sold. Under new management, acquisition ramped up, with a ginormous increase in the company's release schedule. PP also launched Permuted Platinum, intended to increase its brick-and-mortar presence with distribution through Ingram Publisher Services, and established Permuted Pictures, a film development arm.

Probably due to the jump in acquisitions, I heard from a number of authors in 2013 and early 2014 who wanted me to comment on their contracts. I had serious concerns, which I discussed last spring at Absolute Write. Problems included:
  • A life-of-copyright grant term without adequate provision for reversion (books were said to be "in print" as long as they were "available from the publisher or licensee in any edition"). Reversion in a life-of-copyright contract should always be tied to specific sales minimums.
  • An overly sweeping Option clause ("any full-length work of fiction based substantially on subject matter, material, characters or incidents in the Work") that gave the publisher first refusal right on any sequels, prequels, successor works, or even, possibly, works in the same genre.
  • Royalty rates potentially substantially reduced by "special discount sales"--defined as any print books sold at a discount of more than 40% (most online retailers demand a much bigger discount), in which case royalties dropped to just 5% of net.
  • Substandard ebook royalties (20% of net, poor even for a big publisher, seriously bad for a small press) and subrights splits (30% of net).
  • An excessively long publication window (four years).
Unlike many small presses that have author-unfriendly contracts, PP wasn't some fly-by-night outfit run by delusional amateurs. Even so--and months before any other negative information surfaced--that contract was enough for me to counsel serious caution.

**********

When the shit hit the fan last week, I reached out to PP with a couple of questions.
I'm wondering if Permuted Press is planning to revert print rights to authors whose contracts include a grant of print rights but whose books are now going to be e-only; and if Permuted will be changing its future contracts to reflect this change in publishing policy (for instance, offering e-only contracts, or contracts that revert print rights after a period of time if the publisher doesn't use them).
I quickly heard back from PP President Michael Wilson.
Our recent decision to go to an "e-first" model was based on an analysis of sales for print on demand titles that we were issuing. We found the time and effort that went in to producing those printed versions was disproportionate to the amount they were earning in sales. So, our shift in policy went from a book getting an automatic print on demand version, to one where the books sales must first warrant us doing that print edition.

That scenario may partially answer your question. When a book performs well in ebook format, we will move that book to print. Therefore, we wouldn't want to give up the print rights. In fact, with the expansion of our print on demand distribution by moving to LightningSource from Createspace, the titles that do "graduate" in to print will now have more opportunity for retail placement than before.
I actually understand PP's business decision. For many small presses, as for many self-publishers, print is typically a low-selling format. PP would be far from the only small press to adopt a digital-first business model.

However, I think the switch has been poorly handled. For one thing, the messaging has been confusing. In the email sent to authors, "ceasing the production" and "exceptions may be made" does not really convey the "e-first" policy that Michael describes above (forcing Michael to subsequently send out a clarifying email). Also, authors at PP's September convention in Nashville were apparently told about the switch but asked not to discuss it publicly, resulting in even more anger from non-attending authors who felt they'd been unfairly kept in the dark.

Damage could also have been limited if the digital-first policy had been implemented only for new contracts going forward, rather than imposed on all pending releases. For already-contracted authors who'd been expecting their books to appear in print, PP's abrupt change in business model has been devastating (including for one author who had taken extensive print pre-orders). Alternatively, rather than unilaterally holding on to print rights, PP could have agreed to revert them after a reasonable period of time if they didn't plan on using them.

To date, much of the discussion and anger has been focused on the issues surrounding the elimination of print, along with the inept messaging. But what worries me as much, or possibly even more, is the apparent lack of planning and forethought that led PP, under its new ownership, to acquire such a glut of titles and release them so fast that they apparently couldn't manage the workload--resulting ultimately not just in a change in business model, but in the suspension of its publishing program. Whatever spin a publisher attempts to put on something like this, it is never a good sign.

And then there's the contract--which, as I've noted, is reason all on its own to think twice about signing up with PP.

The Horror Writers Association is concerned about all of this as well, and has been in dialog with Michael Wilson over the past few days. I've been given permission to share this announcement, which HWA President Rocky Wood plans to make shortly:
The Horror Writers Association has held detailed discussions with Permuted Press over the last week, regarding their decision to stop publishing POD editions of books by many of their contracted authors; claims that some authors were required to pay compensation to revert their rights where they objected to the halt on publishing POD editions; and clauses in their boilerplate contract that HWA finds unconscionable.

Permuted have advised that they have agreed the reversion of rights to all authors requesting reversion; and that the reversion has been agreed to with no compensation excepting repayment of advances.

On the issue of the boilerplate contract Permuted have made very significant concessions to the HWA over most disputed clauses. Permuted have asked for another two weeks to finalise a draft to be submitted to the HWA for further feedback or approval. Permuted's business model and contracts are in the final analysis their own, so it may be that HWA will advise its members only to sign a Permuted contract if certain boilerplate clauses are removed or amended. In the meantime HWA maintains its advice that our members should not sign the current boilerplate.
Proposed changes to the contract include limiting the option language; shortening the four-year publication window; a possible switch from life-of-copyright to a 10-year grant term (in my opinion, still considerably too long); and a new reversion clause tying reversion to minimum sales within four consecutive royalty periods. Also, in email to me, Michael has indicated that PP is willing to consider my suggestion that PP revert print rights on request if they haven't used them within, say, 12 months of publication.

I've independently confirmed what the HWA statement says about reversion fees. Although some authors were originally asked to reimburse editing and artwork, PP has reversed that decision.

I hope to have a chance to review the new contract when it's presented to HWA.

************

So what's the final word? 
 
HWA's announcement indicates that some good has come out of all the uproar. By listening to critics and being open to change, PP has gone some way toward demonstrating that it's not the greedy, sleazy outfit some of its detractors have claimed. Having seen way too much of the bullheadedness and belligerence that infests the small press world, I think PP deserves major props for that.

However, even with an ideal contract, it's hard to predict anything about PP's future until it resumes publishing next year. And while I hope very much that PP will start publishing again, I remain concerned about the planning problems and the overambitious vision that precipitated this crisis.

Only time will tell. In the meantime, for authors seeking publication, I think wait-and-see is the best approach.

Friday, October 10, 2014

How Not to Register Copyright

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

A few years ago, I wrote a post on the difference between copyright (literally, the right to copy or reproduce, ownership of which guarantees authors control over their intellectual property) and rights (the bundle of rights contained within copyright, which authors can grant or license to others or exploit on their own).

This week, that post received a (likely spammed) anonymous comment:
Copyright protects works of original authorship such as text, artwork, photographs, sound recordings, screenplays, music, lyrics, etc. You can register more than one work under one copyright registration. Such as a collection of books, songs, photographs, etc. If you need to protect your work you will want to register it for copyright. Visit http://copyrightregistry-online-form.com/ and fill out the form on the site. Your work will be registered same day! In addition, there are representatives available day and night as well as a live chat box right on the website.
There's more than a whiff of ripoff here, so I decided to accept the challenge. The link led me to Copyright Registry Online, which promises that
Your U.S. Copyright will be registered in a matter of minutes through our online form submission processing, 256 Bit Encrypted SSL Secure Server. You will receive your copyright documentation in an e-mail and by first class USPS government mail.
Well, gee, that sounds nifty (or it might if you didn't know you can easily accomplish the same thing through the US Copyright Office's eCO service). The catch? As if you couldn't guess: the fee. Copyright Registry Online wants you to pay $135 for something that you can do on your own for just $35. If you want to splurge, you can add $25 for "Priority Rush Processing" (completely meaningless, since registration isn't valid until received by the US Copyright Office, which offers no "rush" option) plus $30 for a "Membership Reward Program," which--wow!--grants you a 15% discount on "further copyright submissions."

Copyright Registry Online will also file an infringement claim (a.k.a. a DMCA takedown notice) for you. All you have to do is hand over $99.50. Never mind that you can send a DMCA notice all on your own, for free. Here's how.

I've written before about faux copyright registration services--the kind that "register" you with their own websites, and give you a seal or some other trumped-up certification that's essentially useless for any legal purpose. Unlike these fake services, with Copyright Registry Online and outfits like it you might actually wind up with a genuine copyright registration--but you'd be paying a ridiculous fee to a third party to do what you can easily accomplish yourself for a fraction of the cost.

As with any other writer-targeted scheme, these "services" rely on authors' ignorance and inexperience. Here, therefore, are some resources for learning more about copyright and related issues.

- Writer Beware's Copyright page includes info on copyright, links to resources, and debunking of common copyright myths.

- My blog post on Rights and Copyright untangles the difference between the two, and suggests how to protect yourself when seeking publication.

- The US Copyright Office's Copyright Basics circular provides a lot of information, including how to register your copyright. The USA is unusual in that it has an official registration process (most countries don't) and makes registration a pre-requisite for legal action. Once upon a time, when publishing was just print and grant territories meant something, there really was no need to register in the USA if you weren't publishing there. These days, however, publishing--and especially self-publishing--is global, so it's probably a good idea to register US copyright, even if you yourself are not US-based.

- eCO, the US Copyright Office's online registration service.

- Schedule of fees for registration with the US Copyright Office.

- Copyright registration is important for published work. However (and contrary to much popular belief), there's no need to register copyright for unpublished work. Despite writers' fears (and recent alarming plagiarism incidents), theft is highly unlikely at the submission stage. It's not until a work is exposed to a wide audience (i.e., published) that you need to worry.

- A helpful explanation of the DMCA takedown notice, and how to file one.

- Sample DMCA takedown notices, from the Plagiarism Today blog.

- From the Popehat blog, things to consider before sending a DMCA notice (often, contacting the infringer directly works just as well).

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

How to Request Rights Reversion From Your Publisher

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Partly in connection with the controversy surrounding troubled publisher Ellora's Cave, I've been getting questions about how to go about requesting rights reversion from one's publisher.

There's no official format for a rights reversion request, and if you do a websearch on "rights reversion request" you can find various pieces of advice from authors and others. Here's the procedure I'd suggest. (Note that I'm not a lawyer, so this is not legal advice.)

First of all, if you have a competent agent, ask your agent to handle it. Especially if you're with a larger publisher, your agent is more likely to know exactly whom to contact, and in a better position to push for a response.

If you don't have an agent, or if your agent is not very competent or not very responsive:

1. Look through your contract to find the rights reversion or termination language. Sometimes this is a separate clause; sometimes it's included in other clauses. See if there are stipulations for when and how you can request your rights back. For example, a book may become eligible for rights reversion once sales numbers or sales income fall below a stated minimum.

The ideal reversion language is precise ("Fewer than 100 copies sold in the previous 12 consecutive months") and makes reversion automatic on request, once stipulations are fulfilled. Unfortunately, reversion language is often far from ideal. Your contract may impose a blackout period (you can't request reversion until X amount of time after your pub date), a waiting period after the reversion request (the publisher has X number of months to comply, during which time your book remains on sale), or provide the publisher with an escape mechanism (it doesn't have to revert if it publishes or licenses a new edition within 6 months of your request).

Worse, your contract may not include any objective standards for termination and reversion, leaving the decision entirely to the publisher's discretion; or it may include antiquated standards ("The book shall not be considered out of print as long as it is available for sale through the regular channels of the book trade"--meaningful in the days when books were physical objects only and print runs could be exhausted, but useless for today's digital reality).

It's also possible that your contract may not include any reversion language at all. This is often the case with limited-term contracts, so if your contract is one of those, you may just have to wait things out. Unfortunately, I've also seen life-of-copyright contracts with no reversion language. This is a big red flag: a life-of copyright contract should always be balanced with precise reversion language.

2. Begin your reversion request by stating your name, the title(s) of your book(s), your pub date(s), and your contract signing date(s). I don't think there's any need to create separate requests if you're requesting reversion on more than one book; but there are those who disagree.

3. If you do meet your contract's reversion stipulations, indicate how you do ("Between August 1, 2013 and July 31, 2014, Title X sold 98 copies") and state that per the provisions of your contract, you're requesting that your rights be reverted to you. If the contract provides a specific procedure for making the reversion request, follow this exactly.

4. If you don't meet your contract's reversion stipulations, if reversion is at the publisher's discretion, or if your contract has no reversion language, simply request that the publisher terminate the contract and return your rights to you. If there's an objective reason you can cite--low sales, for instance, or your own inability to promote the book--do so, even if those reasons are not mentioned in the contract as a condition of reversion.

5. DO: be polite, businesslike, and succinct.

6. DON'T: mention the problems the publisher may be having, the problems you've had with the publisher, problems other authors have had, online chatter, news coverage, lawsuits, or anything else negative. As much as you may be tempted to vent your anger, resentment, or fear, rubbing the publisher's nose in its own mistakes amd failures will alienate it, and might cause it to decide to punish you by refusing your request or just refusing to respond. Again: keep it professional and businesslike.

7. Request that the publisher provide you with a reversion letter. Certain contract provisions (such as the author's warranties) and any outstanding third-party licenses will survive contract termination. Also, publishers typically claim copyright on cover art and on a book's interior format (i.e., you couldn't just re-publish a scanned version of the book), and the right to sell off any printed copies that exist at the time of reversion (with royalties going to you as usual). Some publishers are starting to claim copyright on metadata (which they define not just as ISBNs and catalog data, but back cover copy and advertising copy).

I've also seen publishers claim copyright on editing (which means they'd revert rights only to the originally-submitted manuscript). This is ridiculous and unprofessional. For one thing, it provides no benefit to the publisher--what difference does it make if an author re-publishes the final version of a book from which the publisher has already received the first-rights benefit? For another, if edits are eligible for copyright at all, copyright would belong to the editor, not the publisher. If you find a copyright claim on editing in a publishing contract, consider it a red flag. If the publisher makes this claim without a contractual basis--as some publishers do--feel free to ignore it.

To give you an idea of what an official reversion letter looks like, here's a screenshot of one of mine.



8. If the publisher registered your copyright, ask for the original certificate of copyright. Smaller publishers often don't register authors' copyrights--again, check your contract, and double-check by searching on your book at the US Copyright Office's Copyright Catalog.

9. Send the request by email and, if you have the publisher's physical address, by snail mail, return receipt requested.

Hopefully your publisher will comply with your reversion request. But there are many ways in which a publisher can stall or dodge, from claiming that your records are wrong to simply not responding. If that happens, there's not much you can do, apart from being persistent, or deciding to take legal action--though that's an expensive option.

One last thing: a publisher should not put a price on rights reversion. Charging a fee for reversion or contract termination is a nasty way for a publisher to make a quick buck as a writer goes out the door. A termination fee in a publishing contract is a red flag (for more on why, see my blog post). And attempting to levy a fee that's not included in the contract is truly disgraceful.

Friday, September 26, 2014

A Hand in Your Pocket: Monetizing the Business of Writing

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

There is a natural law in writing and publishing (as elsewhere): where need and desire are greatest, moneymaking enterprises follow.

Vanity publishers are an easy (and long-standing) example of this law, presenting themselves as a way around the bottleneck of traditional publishing--as long as the writer is willing to "invest" in his/her work. Ditto for literary agent "middleman" services, in which an individual or company offers to "represent" writers to agents, supposedly to increase their chances of snagging a super-busy agent's attention.

More recently, there's the huge variety of services that have sprung up around self-publishing--some worthwhile, some distinctly not. In some cases, these are new services, addressing (or purporting to address) needs created by new technology. In others, they're an attempt to monetize what was formerly free.

I've one of each to talk about today.

First up: Kickstarter (and other crowdfunding platforms) promotion services. I've encountered two of these in the past couple of weeks--both soliciting authors with spam-style approaches--and I'm sure there are more.

KickstartMyAds.com "specializes in launching targeted Facebook promotions to drive the most lucrative crowd to your live crowdfunding campaign." Packages range from $199 to $450. Crowdfundbuzz.com offers to create press releases, social media campaigns, and more, all "designed to help any crowdfunding project get more visibility to radically increase the chances of reaching a crowdfunding goal." Costs are between $149 and $349.

Now, I'm not saying that these services are disreputable or dishonest. Both offer success stories, and apart from the solicitations, I'm not aware of any complaints. But it's interesting to see the ripple effect of successful technology. Crowdfunding has become so popular, and the crowdfunding sphere so competitive, that it has spawned opportunities for monetization via ancillary services promising to help authors stand out from the crowd. Worth the money? Open question. But if you decide yes", it's yet another expense to add to your crowdfunding budget.

Second up: paid beta readers. Yes, you read that right. A writerly function that by its very definition is non-professional, and thus not fee-based, is being extensively monetized. I'm not addressing competence or honesty in this post, so I don't want to call out any particular individual(s), but if you Google "beta reading service" you'll see what I mean (and here's a link to one that seems more spammish than the rest). Sample costs: $1.05 per page, $0.003 per word (with a $10 minimum), $55 for a book of more than 250 pages, $199 for an entire manuscript.

In actual fact, what these services are selling is not really beta reading, but a paid critique. Nothing wrong with that, as long as the provider is competent (a whole other question). But associating a term that already has an established meaning with a moneymaking service is going to confuse a lot of people. Evidence of this: the two writers who've contacted me in the past month asking me to suggest a good and not too expensive "beta reading service".

If you want to buy a critique, buy a critique (but check the critiquer's credentials first). If you want a beta reader, find someone who won't ask you to haul out your credit card.

Writers, there is a second natural law in writing and publishing: through changing paradigms, through shifting technology, through opportunity and roadblocks, there will always be someone waiting to put a hand into your pocket.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

COLOR SONG Release Day!

We don't often do self-promotion here at Writer Beware--but I have a new book out!

Today is publication day for my young adult historical novel, Color Song. A tale of art, intrigue, and romance set in glorious 15th century Venice, it's a followup to my previous YA historical, Passion Blue, but can be read as a standalone.

I'm incredibly excited to have Color Song out in the world at last, and for the wonderful reviews it has been receiving on Goodreads and elsewhere. It's published for the older teen market, but there's plenty of crossover appeal for adults.

I've got a virtual book tour scheduled for the next few weeks, with interviews, reviews, and more. The full schedule is posted here and on my personal website; I'll be tweeting and Facebooking tour stops as they happen.

There's also a HUGE giveaway, with Kindle Paperwhites in custom covers, signed books, and swag.You can enter here. Feel free to tweet about the giveaway, feature it on your blog, tell your friends, or all of the above! Thanks so much.


Color Song
Skyscape (Amazon Children's Publishing)

Hardcover: $17.99
Paperback: $9.99
Ebook: $3.99

Order from Amazon
Order from Barnes & Noble
Order from IndieBound

By the author of the acclaimed Passion Blue, a Kirkus Reviews Best Teen Book of 2012 and “a rare, rewarding, sumptuous exploration of artistic passion,” comes a fascinating companion novel.

Artistically brilliant, Giulia is blessed – or cursed – with a spirit’s gift: she can hear the mysterious singing of the colors she creates in the convent workshop of Maestra Humilità. It’s here that Giulia, forced into the convent against her will, has found unexpected happiness, and rekindled her passion to become a painter – an impossible dream for any woman in 15th century Italy.

But when a dying Humilità bequeaths Giulia her most prized possession – the secret formula for the luminously beautiful paint called Passion blue – Giulia realizes she’s in danger from those who have long coveted the famous color for themselves. Faced with the prospect of lifelong imprisonment in the convent, forever barred from painting as a punishment for keeping Humilita’s secret, Giulia is struck by a desperate idea: What if she disguises herself as a boy? Could she make her way to Venice and find work as an artist’s apprentice?

Along with the truth of who she is, Giulia carries more dangerous secrets: the exquisite voices of her paint colors and the formula for Humilità’s precious blue. And Venice, with its graceful gondolas and twisting canals, its gilded palazzi and masked balls, has secrets of its own. Trapped in her false identity in this dream-like place where reality and reflection are easily confused, where art and ambition, love and deception hover like dense fog, can Giulia find her way?

This compelling novel explores timeless themes of love and illusion, gender and identity as it asks the question: what does it mean to risk everything to follow your true passion?

The combination of page-ripping plot and insight into the creative process is as rare and luminous as the color Strauss imagines.
- Kirkus – 

Monday, September 15, 2014

Alert: Trouble at Ellora's Cave

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware


One of the original digital pioneers, erotic romance publisher Ellora's Cave has reportedly had financial and other problems for some years. But in 2014, things seem to be coming to a head. In May, news surfaced of late royalty payments (though this was not news to EC authors), which EC's CEO blamed on faulty software. Then, in August, EC announced that it was laying off the majority of its staff, attributing this to a precipitous decline in ebook sales via Amazon.

Since then, rumors have been swirling, and authors have started to go public with complaints.* Update 9/17: Managing editor Whitney Mihalik and COO Susan Edwards have reportedly resigned.

I'm on vacation at the moment and not doing much Writer Beware work, so this isn't my usual detailed post. But I wanted to feature a warning--since what's happening at EC is ominously reminiscent of events that have preceded the demise of other independent presses. Below is a roundup of links to articles and posts that provide a picture of the current situation.

Meanwhile, Ellora's Cave is still accepting submissions. In Writer Beware's opinion, authors should not approach this publisher until it's clear what the resolution of the current situation will be.


* Writer Beware has heard from only a handful of EC authors, but their complaints are similar to those reported by Dear Author, Cat Grant, and Avril Ashton. I've also heard from an EC editor, who says that the volume of manuscripts she's being asked to work on has increased (likely due to the staff layoffs) and that editors are now being asked to do light copy editing only.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Guest Blog Post: Author-Editor Compatibility: The Crucial Element for a Successful Editing Experience


Independent editors. What do they do? When do you need them? How do you find them--and, most crucial, how do you determine whether they're qualified to be doing what they're doing? These very important questions are addressed on the Editors page of the Writer Beware website.

Just as important, however, is a question that arises after you've determined your editing needs (and budget) and done your due diligence: are you and your chosen editor compatible? To get the most out of the editing experience, you must feel comfortable with your editor and be able to communicate openly with him or her.

Today's guest post, from experienced editor Katherine Pickett, addresses the issue of author-editor compatibility (which she calls "workability") and how to determine whether you and your chosen editor will be able to work well together.

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Author-Editor Workability: The Crucial Element for a Successful Editing Experience

With all the people out there calling themselves editors, finding a qualified, reputable editor for your book can be a challenge. Finding the right editor for you adds another dimension to the task.

To locate a reputable editor, conventional wisdom tells you that you must track down the names of editors, research each of them, contact those who seem qualified to edit your book, and then ask for a cost estimate. Some authors are tempted to stop right there and make their judgment based on the cost estimate alone. However, there is one more crucial element to be assessed. You must evaluate your ability to work well with this person—what I call your potential editor’s “workability.”

When it comes to the author-editor relationship, workability encompasses many things, including agreement on writing and editing styles, availability to meet your editing needs, and personal compatibility. Each of these has a significant impact on the quality of your editing experience.

Editing Styles Vary from Editor to Editor

Each editor you interview will have different strengths and weaknesses as well as a different approach to the editing process. These make up that editor’s style.

To learn your potential editor’s style, ask for a sample edit when you request the cost estimate. With a sample edit, your potential editor takes a few pages from your manuscript and edits them as she would the full book. Review this sample carefully to see how it compares with your own expectations and goals. As you go through the sample, ask yourself a few key questions: Are you comfortable with your editor’s approach to the rules of grammar? Is your voice intact? Are the editor’s queries to you clear and on target? Has she uncovered problems you didn’t know were there? Do you feel she gets what you are trying to accomplish?

If you went into the editing process thinking you needed a light copy edit and you came out of it with a completely rewritten piece, you have to determine if your editor was correct in making those changes or if you want to find someone who will tread more lightly. Similarly, if you wanted help with big-picture items and your sample was returned with punctuation and grammar corrected but nothing else, you may decide you need someone else.

Ultimately, the changes you find in the sample edit should make you confident that this editor will support you and help you achieve your vision for the book. When you have that, you know you are close to finding the right editor for you.

Availability Means More than Space on the Calendar

Let’s assume you really like the sample you received and you think this editor might be the one. Now what?

Now you have to check her availability. On a very basic level, your editor has to have room on her calendar. It’s possible she is unable to start on your project for a few weeks. You will then have to decide if you can wait until she is free or if you need to move on.

A more important question, however, is whether she is able to commit the necessary time to your project to fully meet your needs. Many editors carry three or four projects at once. Although they can do high-quality work this way, they don’t always have the time to answer long lists of questions or explain the publishing process. If this is your editor, you will need to be fairly self-sufficient in the review of the editing, asking specific questions rather than asking her to explain each change. This describes most author-editor relationships and it often works very well.

However, if you prefer someone who is available to go through each page of the manuscript with you or help you with more than just editing—for example, you would like to discuss which publishing option is best for you, how to increase the marketability of your book, or how best to research your competition—let your potential editor know that. That way she can tell you up front if she can give you and your project the attention you are looking for. You will likely pay extra for these services, but this help is available to you.

Compatible Personalities Make for Better Communication

The final piece to the workability picture is having compatible personalities.

This is hugely important during the editing process because editing can be a painful time. The manuscript that you have worked long and hard to craft is being judged and manipulated by someone else. You may feel defensive, vulnerable, and deflated when you see your editor’s suggested changes. You may experience this regardless of who edits your book, but it will sting a little less if you have someone you trust and respect doing the work.

The best way to know if you are compatible with your editor is to speak with her on the phone. When two people have compatible personalities, they tend to communicate well, and that is key to making your manuscript the best it can be. If you don’t communicate well—you make a joke and your editor doesn’t laugh, or you can’t tell when she is being sarcastic or supportive—you will have a difficult time taking criticism in the best possible light. When you can make a connection, you will know that she understands your vision and has your best interests in mind as she edits your manuscript, and that is when the editing process is the most rewarding.

#

Your editor doesn’t have to be your best friend, and she doesn’t have to be a teammate. However, you do have to work well with each other, and that includes professional and personal characteristics.

With the right author-editor combination, the editing process is not drudgery. It is challenging and emotional but also invigorating and exciting as you see your work transformed into something even better than you thought possible.

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Katherine Pickett is the owner of POP Editorial Services, LLC, and the author of Perfect Bound: How to Navigate the Book Publishing Process Like a Pro. Through POP she offers copyediting, proofreading, and developmental editing to authors and publishers across the country. She has been involved in the publishing industry since 1999, including five years as an in-house production editor with McGraw-Hill and two years with Elsevier Inc.

Throughout her career Katherine has edited more than 300 books in a wide range of topics and genres. She is an active member of the Editorial Freelancers Association and the St. Louis Publishers Association and is president of the Montgomery County chapter of the Maryland Writers’ Association. She is also a polished speaker and workshop leader, educating writers and indie publishers about the book publishing industry since 2008. You can find her blog here.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Haters Gonna Hate: The Smear Campaign Against Absolute Write

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

NOTE: Before writing this post, I thought a lot about linkage. I didn't want to increase traffic to propaganda blogs and websites by linking to them--but I did want readers to be able to see the kind of nastiness involved. So most of the links in this post are to cached versions.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I've been a member of Absolute Write since the early 2000's, and was a moderator there for several years.

Last week, I received an email from the owner of a website that, among other things, posts lists of resources for writers.

One of the website's users had objected to the inclusion of the Absolute Write Water Cooler (which, if you're not familiar with it, is an online writers' forum and community), pointing to a slew of blogs and websites with names like Absolute Wrong and Absolute Blight that purport to expose AW as a bully board populated by losers and wannabees whose main recreational activity is persecuting members and dispensing bad advice. The website owner wanted to know if there was any truth to these allegations.

This isn't the first such question I've gotten, and it made me sad. Sad at the volume of anti-AW propaganda (which has been proliferating rapidly over the past year). Sadder still that people might believe it.

The truth: AW is a valuable resource, one of the largest and most active writers' forums on the Internet. (As of this writing, it boasts nearly 60,000 members, over 8 million posts, and anywhere from 1,000 to 3,000 users active at any given time--scroll down to the bottom of AW to see these statistics.)

At AW, you can discuss every aspect of craft and genre, learn about the ins and outs of publishing and self-publishing, share your work-in-progress, get your query letter critiqued, connect with beta readers and writing buddies, commiserate about rejection and rejoice about success, and participate in discussions about culture, music, art, politics, and just about anything else you want to talk about. AW members include writers at every stage of their careers--from just thinking about publishing to multi-published--along with a wide variety of publishing industry experts and professionals: literary agents, publishers, editors, illustrators, designers, and more.

So why the hate? Well, AW is a private forum, and it is strongly moderated. Flaming, shilling, spamming, sockpuppets, trolls--all the things that turn so many writers' forums into swamps of ugliness--aren't tolerated, and moderators don't hesitate to step in when discussions become heated or veer off-track. Members who engage in disruptive behavior are warned (often bluntly); those who don't heed the warnings may be banned.  This active moderation policy helps AW to remain a good deal more relevant, civil, and supportive than many other writers' communities--but it also, as you can imagine, creates resentment among those who've been kicked out. If you Google ["Absolute Write" + banned] you'll see many of their stories.

Reason number two: the Bewares, Recommendations, and Background Check forum. Here, writers discuss literary agents, publishers, editors, manuscript display sites, contests, PR services, and more. Most of the hundreds of threads in this forum consist of questions and sharing about guidelines, querying, rejection, staff changes, new imprints, closures, and the like. Who could object to that? Well, no one, really. It's the Bewares threads, where writers discuss bad business practices and expose scams, that generate the anger. An especially volatile aspect of this forum is the often-harsh analysis of new small presses, especially those started up by amateurs with weird ideas about publishing.

So that's where the anger comes from. But who is behind the smear campaign?

Some of the propaganda comes from individuals or groups who've been outed at BR&BC. Some, such as Absolute Wrong and the Absolute Write section of Blogination, are projects of angry AW ex-members. Still more is disseminated by groups with a general axe to grind, such as The Write Agenda, a blog that attempts to discredit anti-scam activists, and Stop The Goodreads Bullies, a site that bullies those whom it claims bully others.

Right now, though, the most concentrated attack comes from a group of anti-AW blogs: Absolute Blight, Absolute Banning, Forums Review, and Write Absolute Reviews of Bully Boards (the "s" at the end of "Boards" is cosmetic; the only board discussed is AW). If they seem similar--not just in format, but in the circular way they all reference each other--that's no coincidence: there's substantial evidence that they've been set up by the same individual, a long-time forum troll who has made trouble not just at AW, using dozens of sockpuppet accounts, but at the now-moribund WritersNet (a WN member set up this special forum to memorialize her antics).

These anonymously- or sockpuppet-run blogs (check out the origin story at Write Absolute, which includes lots of fanciful detail but neglects to supply any verifiable specifics) demonstrate not just an unhealthy obsession with the goings-on at AW, but a truly over-the-top level of venom toward AW owners, moderators, members, and supporters. They're replete with sockpuppet comments (the blogs' owner likes to talk to herself) and larded with misinformation, including mistaken guesses about the identities of AW moderators (I know this because I know some of the people involved) and libellous unsourced allegations about AW members and defenders (again, I know some of the people involved). More unpleasant pastimes include attempting to doxx AW's owner, her parents, and AW admins, and to interfere with their livelihoods (Absolute Blight is the worst offender in this regard). 

The very nastiness of all this should be enough to discredit it. Unfortunately, when people receive anonymous emails or alerts and don't look closely at the sources, they may be fooled. I'm guessing this is the reason Piers Anthony, in his otherwise helpful Internet Publishing resource, cites some of the anti-AW propaganda.

AW is not a haven of sweetness and light. Discussions can be harsh; moderators are sometimes heavy-handed; feelings do get hurt. If you have a thin skin and are inclined to take things personally, AW may not be for you (nor may be most other writers' forums). But if you're tempted to believe the hate campaign, consider this: if AW were really the cesspit of evil that it's alleged to be by the anti-AW crowd, wouldn't members be fleeing in droves? Wouldn't they stop posting? Wouldn't AW be on its way to becoming moribund, like the unfortunate WritersNet?

That this is not the case should tell you something, not just about Absolute Write but about its obsessed detractors.

________________

Amusing footnote: The troll messaged me on Facebook this week (using a fake account), so she could do this:


Here's the whole exchange. Note how the troll is unable to restrain her ire.



EDITED TO ADD: Predictably, the smear blogs have responded. Write Absolute Reviews of Bully Boards calls me the Tariq Aziz of Absolute Write" and Absolute Blight styles me "a totally paranoid wingnut and cyberstalker, hurling unfounded accusations around like Frisbees." Check out both posts if you care (and don't forget to scan the rapidly-proliferating comments on Absolute Blight's post).

EDITED TO ADD: Via Absolute Blight, the troll has admitted the links between four of the smear blogs: Absolute Blight, Absolute Banning, Forums Review, and one I neglected to include: Absolute Write Complaints.