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

December 24, 2007

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Hi, Folks!

Ann Crispin here, with warm good wishes to everyone. I wish everyone a terrific New Year. May your ideal agent say "yes," and may every publisher pay you promptly!

Writer Beware just learned some excellent news. Yet another scammer has bitten the dust, and this is reason for much holiday cheer. Many kudos to Bonnie Kaye and her fellow authors for bringing about the official investigation into Airleaf that has caused this rip-off company to SHUT DOWN as of December 19, 2007. Way to go, Bonnie!

The world is now a little safer for authors thanks to Airleaf's demise.

What a nice Christmas present for the writing world!

Have a safe and happy holiday season, everyone.

-Ann C. Crispin
Chair, Writer Beware
www.writerbeware.com

December 23, 2007

Happy Holidays from Writer Beware

Writer Beware is taking some time off from blogging for the holidays. We'll return January 2 with a fresh crop of schemes, scams, and Very Bad Ideas.

Wishing all our readers a wonderful holiday season,

Victoria, Ann, and Richard

December 17, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- Reeling in the Kids

Last week, I saw a news article about Libby Rees, "Britain's youngest author," who at 12 is about to publish a self-help book for children called At Sixes and Sevens. It's actually her second book; her first, another children's self-help manual entitled Help, Hope and Happiness, was published when she was just 9 years old.

One off note in this happy story struck me: the name of Libby's publisher, Aultbea Publishing. Writer Beware has never received any direct complaints about Aultbea, but the Inverness-based publisher was exposed as a vanity press (cost: £10,000) in a series of critical blog posts by Michael Allen, a.k.a. Grumpy Old Bookman.

Libby Rees isn't Aultbea's only youthful author. Its first was 13-year-old Emma Maree Urquhart, whose novel Dragon Tamers was published by Aultbea in 2005. According to this article in The Independent, the book's claimed success--50,000 copies sold in the first few weeks of release, a figure that Aultbea's owner, Charles Faulkner, later admitted was spurious--spurred a deluge of submissions from young writers.

The company says it has uncovered literary nuggets which it believes could be hits among the hundreds of thousands of pages.

The first is by Robert King, 14, from Tain, near Inverness. On Saturday he signed copies of his book The Apple of Doom in Inverness. His publisher, Charles Faulkner, is already talking about overseas print runs and translation deals...Mr Faulkner's third protégé is the Yorkshire teenager Sophie Codman. Her 230-page fantasy novel Wizard-The Novice's Quest is due to be published next month under the pen name of Sophie Wainwright. Codman, aged 16, took up writing when she ran out of books to read during a family holiday.


Other young authors published by Aultbea include Adora Svitak, age 7, whose Flying Fingers was published in September 2006; the Risbridger brothers, ages 18, 15, and 12, whose The Third Millennium was published this summer; and Aultbea's youngest author ever, 6-year-old Christopher Beale, whose 1,500-word novel This and Last Season's Excursions was launched in November 2006.

A longer article about Christopher Beale, from The Scotsman, digs deeper than other news coverage of Aultbea:

Asked yesterday if the company took payments from authors, Lisa Redwood, Aultbea's operations manager, said: "We have done it in the past. As of next year, we are not doing it any more. It's not something we require for books to be published, but sometimes people wish to invest to get a higher return on royalties."

This is classic vanity publisher doublespeak. But it does raise the question of how many of these young authors' parents had to pay for the publication of their children's books. The answer: at least one. Emma Urquhart, the first of Aultbea's procession of child stars, has revealed her less-than-happy experience with the publisher in her blog (scroll down to the last post).

Aultbea isn't the only vanity publisher ensnaring young authors. Here's a recent news story about 11-year-old Joseph Voight, whose book about living with Alzheimer's Disease will be published next year by DNA Press. In addition to the $4,200 required to publish the book, Joseph and his family must pay for a book tour planned by DNA.

We all know the risks of vanity publishing, both to our bank accounts and to our reputations. But for young authors, there's a more insidious danger. A few writers have started very young--Jane Gaskell, for instance, was just 14 when she wrote her first novel, Strange Evil, and just 16 when it was published. Helen Oyeyemi wrote The Icarus Girl when she was 18, and got it published two years later. Amelia Atwater-Rhodes wrote In the Forests of the Night at age 13, and published it at age 15. And of course there's S.E. Hinton, 15 when she wrote The Outsiders and 18 when it was published, and the ubiquitously-cited Christopher Paolini.

But such successes are rare The truth is, no matter how much raw talent a teenager possesses, odds are that he or she is simply not skilled or experienced enough to write a publishable book. By reeling in kids (and their parents) with flattery and promises, vanity publishers like Aultbea are telling them the exact opposite. If a young writer really has talent, how much might this fake validation stall his or her development? If you're convinced that you are already good enough, how hard will you work to get better? Will you even realize it's necessary?

I wrote my first novel when I was 17. Afire with my new vocation, burning with ambition, I was sure that publishers would immediately recognize my talent, and I'd be a published author before I graduated from college. Some serious head-knocking with reality ensued. The book did eventually find a home--but not until I was in my 20's, and had become capable of rewriting it to publishable standards. That ego-bruising struggle, which taught me that I had a lot to learn and would have to work hard to learn it, was what made me a writer--not the mere act of scribbling down my first novel. If Aultbea or a publisher like it had gotten hold of me when I was 17, confirming all my naive and egotistical ideas about my talent, would I have figured that out? Maybe. But I think it would have taken me a whole lot longer, and wasted a lot more of my time.

Of course, if a vanity publisher had gotten hold of me when I was 17, my parents, who know better, would never have agreed to pay. Moms and dads, take note.

December 11, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- The Interminable Agency Clause

An "interminable agency clause" (sometimes called an "interminable rights clause" or a "perpetual agency clause") is language inserted into an author-agency agreement whereby the agency claims the right to remain the agency of record not just for the duration of any contracts it negotiates, but for the life of copyright. In other words, once the agency sells your book, it has the right to represent that book for as long as the book is in copyright (currently your life plus 70 years).

Why is this a problem? Suppose you decide to move to a new agency, as often happens. If your old agency's agreement included an interminable agency clause, you might not be able to bring with you any of the rights your old agency sold for you, even if the contracts covering those rights had long expired. Those rights, which can sometimes be profitably re-sold (especially if you score a success with a new work) are one of the things that can make you attractive to a new agent. Also, why would you want to leave your rights sitting with an agency with which you no longer see eye to eye?

Or suppose your old agency doesn't have a problem with you taking your rights elsewhere, but because of an interminable agency clause claims the right to collect commissions on any future sales of work it originally sold for you--even if it has nothing to do with those sales. Why should an agency be paid for a sale it didn't make? Obviously an agency's right to commissions should extend over the life of any contract it brokers, but once the contract ends, the benefit of the agency's work to you also ends, and so should its right to commissions.

Many professional writers' groups warn against interminable agency clauses, including the Authors Guild, SFWA, RWA, SCBWI, and Novelists Inc.. According to the Authors Guild, "the minimal prospective benefit the clause provides is far outweighed by the inconvenience it causes authors and their estates and by the responsibilities that accompany the clause." In addition to the concerns identified above, the Authors Guild points out that your agency is unlikely to be around for the life of copyright, that changes in personnel and ownership may have an impact on skill and reputability, and that interminable representation can greatly complicate not just the task of literary executors, but also of the agency, which would need to track and enforce interminable rights.

This isn't a new issue. The Authors Guild warning was issued in 2004. But the problem isn't going away. Just today, in fact, an author-agency agreement with interminable agency language came across my desk--the eighth I've seen in the past year. Clearly, authors need to be on their guard. Trouble is, the language can be subtle enough that it's easy to overlook or misunderstand. Several of the authors who sent me contracts were aware of the warnings against interminable agency language, but still failed to spot it.

Below are some examples of the different ways in which agencies frame interminable agency clauses, with the dangerous phrases bolded. All are taken from agency contracts in my possession.

** "The Agency and its right to receive commissions hereunder shall be co-extensive with the life of the copyright of the Work and any renewals thereof."

** "At time of termination of Agreement, all Work(s) sold by Agent shall remain with Agent and Agent shall remain Agent of Record in perpetuity unless otherwise agreed to by both Parties."

** "In the event that any Rights are sold, licensed, or otherwise disposed of by [agency], Licensor agrees that [agency] shall be irrevocably designated the agent for those Rights to the Work for perpetuity."

** "The Agency is entitled to the above-mentioned percentages as specified...for the legal life of the Work on agreements pertaining to the Work."

** "Author grants to agents/representatives and assigns the sole and exclusive right of selling in book form the above work in the United States of America and its Dependencies and anywhere in the world during the full terms of copyright and any renewals thereof."

** "It is understood that if rights to the Work have been sold during the term of this Agreement, Agent's interest in the Work is irrevocable...In recognition thereof, and in such case, Author hereby acknowledges and agrees that, regardless of when made or by whom, any and all contracts or agreements...regarding the Work are covered by the terms of this agreement; [and] agrees to arrange for all such contracts and agreements, regardless of when made or by whom, to name Agent as Author's agent of record."

What should you do if you encounter this kind of language? Here's what the Authors Guild recommends:

The best approach is for agents to simply drop the clause. Agents who are determined to retain a contractual right to represent an out-of-print work could adopt a clause such as the one that follows:

"On termination of this [publishing] Agreement, Agent will continue to have the right to represent the Work and collect a commission for the placement of the Work provided that (1) Agent places the Work within 6 months of the termination of this Agreement and (2) Agent sought a reversion of rights on Author's behalf within 6 months of the time the Work was out of print as defined in this Agreement."

December 6, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- The Empty Canoe: Another Scam Gets Its Due

Once upon a time, there was a Washington state-based ghostwriting studio/publishing house "hybrid" (read vanity publisher) called The Empty Canoe, LLC (a bizarrely appropriate name, as it turned out). Here's how the company was decribed by founders Mike and Kristina Canu (a.k.a. Kristina Valocchi) in a 2004 press release:

The Empty Canoe's growth has been attributed to the fact that primarily, it is a publishing house. By offering the service of ghostwriting, the company is able to get a quality of both idea and client which otherwise would be missed. For centuries the art of ghostwriting, writing eloquently on another's behalf, has been used. Until recently though, only the rich or famous have been able to afford such a service. The Empty Canoe has implemented a business plan that enables a lower initial ghostwriting fee in exchange for the right to publish. The studio gets into the proverbial storm of publishing with its clients.

There was a storm, all right, though possibly not the one the Canus intended. The company first came to my attention in September of last year, when I began receiving complaints from The Empty Canoe authors. They told me about unpaid royalties, books contracted and never published, fees paid for "ghostwriting" that was never done (authors paid between $5,000 and $10,000), misrepresentations of the company's ability and/or willingness to market and promote its books, and ghostwriters and editors whom the company never compensated for their work. This rash of complaints was precipitated by the fact that in August 2006, probably as a result of increasing pressure from angry clients, the Canus did a bunk. They suspended their email accounts, shut off their phones, and put their house up for lease. They also allowed their corporate standing to expire.

Fortunately, defrauded authors were pro-active. They organized a network so they could stay in touch with one another, and filed complaints with local law enforcement and with the Washington State Attorney General's Office. And their efforts were effective. On November 19, the Attorney General announced a settlement with the company.

As is often the case in these situations, the defendants have no assets, so they are unable to pay substantial fines or provide restitution to their victims. The total judgment is $10,000 (which represents the legal and other costs of prosecuting the case), with $94,000 in civil penalties suspended on condition that the Canus comply with the injunctive provisions of the settlement, by which they are "permanently enjoined and restrained" from the following acts in the State of Washington or directed at Washington residents:

- Making misrepresentations in the sale or marketing of any product or service
- Operating, owning, or otherwise participating in a publishing, ghostwriting, or book marketing business without first providing restitution to the 21 victims identified in the settlement and establishing a reserve account of no less than $50,000
- Failing to perform promised services
- Representing that they can perform services they can't actually deliver
- Representing that they can complete work in less time than the work will actually take
- Representing that they'll promote books in ways they don't actually intend to promote them
- Falsely representing that they've received offers from third-party companies
- Violating any provisions of the Unfair Business Practices-Consumer Protection Act.

The Canus are also required to waive their right to assert a statute of limitations defense in answer to any restitution claim brought against them by any consumer (which means that they can be sued by victims at any time). If they violate any of the settlement provisions, the suspended civil penalty will be enforced, and they will be liable for the costs associated with enforcement.

Sadly, the many boxes of material the Canus left behind when they absconded were destroyed by a cleaning company, so authors won't get their materials back.

In one sense, the judgment against The Empty Canoe is only a limited victory for writers, since it won't result in restitution, and doesn't prevent the Canus from starting up a similar scam in a state other than Washington. It's a huge victory, however, in that the Washington State Attorney General found this case worth pursuing. As I've noted before, it's tough to get law enforcement to pay attention to literary fraud. Hopefully, the judgment against the Canus will be another step on the long road to change.

There are two other lessons here. First, while a single complaint filed with the police or the Attorney General probably won't have much impact, a volume of them may--and the volume may be smaller than you think. In this case, just 21 complaints were enough to cause the Attorney General to take action. Second, where action occurs, it's often the result of scam victims working together. The network established by The Empty Canoe victims, who encouraged each other to gather together their documentation, file complaints, and not give up, was crucial to the Canus being brought to justice. Similar victim networks brought down Commonwealth Publications and the Deering Literary Agency. This should give hope to the authors who are currently uniting against Airleaf.

Believe it or not, The Empty Canoe's website is still online.

December 2, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- Tidbits

Some interesting items I've picked up in my travels around the Internet.

It sucks, but we love working here...

In October, Publishing Trends published the results of its First Annual Industry Survey, in which publishing professionals were asked how they feel about the wacky world of publishing. Interesting stuff. Here's a taste:

- What respondents felt were the worst aspects of the industry: compensation (39%) and the instability of the market (38%).

- Over half of all editors responding also identified themselves as writers.

- When asked about the best and worst aspects of the industry, twice as many respondents wrote in with complaints as with praise--yet about 32% say they'd never consider leaving their jobs, and another 18.5% only rarely feel frustrated enough to consider quitting.

Writers, get moving!

Writing is a notoriously sedentary activity. Whether you're "in flow" and have lost all track of time, or are paralyzed in front of your computer screen by the fact that you have absolutely no idea what to write next, it's easy to let hours slip by without getting up from your chair. If you also have a family, a day job, a hobby, or any of the other responsibilities and duties and pleasures known as "life", finding time for exercise can seem impossible.

We all know exercise is good for us. People who exercise regularly weigh less, live longer, and have fewer chronic diseases than people who don't. Regular exercise also helps ease insomnia and depression--a pair of afflictions to which writers seem to be particularly prone.

Now there's news that exercise may actually boost your creativity. According to a recent study by scientists at Rhode Island College, exercise enhances creativity not just immediately following exercise, but for several hours afterward. According to the study abstract:

The results supported the hypotheses that creative potential will be greater on completion of moderate aerobic exercise than when not preceded by exercise (immediate effects), that creative potential will be greater following a 2-hr lag time following exercise than when not preceded by exercise (residual effects), and that creative potential will not be significantly different immediately following exercise than after a 2-hr lag time following exercise (enduring residual effects).

I'm a bit of an exercise nut, and have been for many years. I exercise for an hour a day at least five days a week, dividing it about 50/50 between moderate exercise (brisk walking) and vigorous exercise (running, stairclimbing, elliptical trainer). I've followed this routine for so long that I can't really say whether it enhances my creativity--but I do know that when I'm planning a book, working out the shape of my next chapter, trying to solve some knotty character problem, or just plain stuck, I need to be on my feet. A fast four-mile walk never fails to focus my mind, move me forward in my planning and/or problem solving, and revive my enthusiasm. For me, nothing else works as well.

(Thanks to the Guardian UK's book blog for this reference.)

No, you will not have to pay. Yes, you will have to give us money.

The rationalization of the week award goes to vanity publisher Starving Writers Publishing, for its inspired explanation of why a fee is not a fee. To writers who ask Do I have to pay a fee to get published, Starving Writers responds:

No, you will never have to pay a fee to get your book published. We are a independent traditional or trade publisher. Our service fees are simply that - fees for services such as editing, cover design, and marketing to help make your book better so it will be a book that we select for publishing. We always reserve the right to reject your work if its not something we want to publish even if you are willing to pay the service fees.

So...because you pay before publication, it's not a fee, even though if you don't pay, you won't get published. And because Starving Writers may decide to kick you to the curb even as you're pulling out your credit card, it's also not a fee, even though if they choose you, they'll be glad to take your money.

Riiiiiight.

November 28, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- Wake Up and Pay: Yet Another Vanity Scheme

Most of us are familiar with inspirational series like Chicken Soup for the Soul, A Cup of Comfort, and Chocolate. Along with articles by celebrities and established writers, many of these series actively solicit articles and stories by unknowns.

Take, for instance, the Wake Up...Live the Life You Love series, compiled by Steven E. and Lee Beard. According to Amazon, there are currently eleven books in the series, the most recent of which came out this summer. They cover subjects like Giving Gratitude, Finding Personal Freedom, and A Search for Purpose, and include contributions from such luminaries as Dr. Wayne Dyer, Tony Robbins, and Deepak Chopra. Unknown writers are also encouraged to submit and become "co-authors." Proclaims the website: "You have a story to tell and here is your chance to get your message to the world!"

There are a few jarring notes, however.

For one thing, many of the Wake Up books have Amazon sales rankings of 1 million and higher...not really what you'd expect for a series touted on its covers as "Best-Selling." For another, there's a peculiar proliferation of websites for the series. In addition to the one I've already mentioned, there's this one, this one, this one, and this one, all with similar URLs, and also this one, which appears to be an earlier version. These websites seem less oriented to finding readers than to soliciting writers, in language distressingly reminiscent of late-night infomercials. "For the first time ever you can get the Insider Secrets of How to Get Fame and Fortune as a Published Author!" one of the websites exclaims. According to another, "With Wake Up Live's Team Publishing Concept, you can achieve the ultimate credential that will propel your life and business to new heights by being a best selling co-author in this amazing program!" Enthuses yet another, "Wouldn’t it be great to get Instant Credibility™ with your clients and customers as a co-author?"

So what's the deal?

As most of our readers will have figured out, it involves money. You send in your 1,000-1,200 word story or article (don't worry if you can't write--"expert editors" are on hand to help you, for a fee, of course). Once your story is complete and submitted, the Wake Up Live team "does the publishing in record time" and "promotes your book to the best seller list making you a best-selling co-author." All you have to do is agree to buy 200 books for $2,697 ("When you sell your books," the website assures you, "you will receive $2,990.00 in sales, not to mention the benefit to your business or career"). That's the Gold Program. If you're feeling flush, you can spring for the VIP Platinum Program, and buy 500 books for $5,497 ($7,475.00 in sales). For the extra bucks, you get your name on the cover.

(This makes me think of those vanity anthology schemes where the anthology is customized for each purchaser by binding his or her poem or story into the front--often in different type or on different paper from the rest of the volume. For the amount the Wake Up people are getting, one hopes they do things a bit more professionally.)

The Wake Up folks don't just take writers' money--they also give them the chance to earn, via an Ambassador Affiliate Program. Affiliates invite their friends and acquaintances to submit to the series. For successful referrals, they get a commission--and it's a fat commission, too. Persuade up to four people to buy into the scheme, and you'll receive $250 or $500 per person (I'm guessing the amount depends on which plan the person chooses). Talk five or more people into laying down their cash, and you'll get $500 or $1,000 apiece.

This surely explains why the writer who alerted me to the Wake Up scheme got this out of the blue solicitation to submit to the series. He can probably expect to receive two more solicitations in short order. Affiliates are given three different email templates, which, "for best results," they're advised to send within a one-week period.

Oh, and the emails don't mention the commissions.

So now I guess we know how the Wake Up books became bestsellers. (Check out the weasel wording here, "Over 12 million stories in print," which overeager writers might misread or misremember as "Over 12 million books in print.") We've also learned a new euphemism for vanity publishing (as if we needed one): Team Publishing.

November 21, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- A New Agent Blog (Not)

Blogs by and about literary agents are legion. Another one seems to pop up every week. Take, for example, the brand-new Literary Agent News, which launched in October.

According to its little self-description, Literary Agent News provides "Literary Agent profiles, industry news, top agents for every fiction and non-fiction category." The blogger is anonymous--his or her profile reveals only that s/he is in the publishing industry and located in New York--but that's not terribly unusual. The agent "profiles" featured on the blog provide names and addresses, but little other useful information--but hey, bloggers come in all shapes and sizes, including those who pad their blogs with puffery as a method of self-promotion.

And some self-promotion can be pretty sneaky.

In Literary Agent News's October archive, there's a series of Top Agent lists. Young adult novels, business books, memoirs, mysteries, romance--there's a Top Agent list for them all. While these lists do (mostly) include reputable agents, they are not particularly accurate. To take just one example, the list for science fiction agents omits most of the people who arguably are top SF agents, and includes others who don't appear ever to have sold any SF--such as Randi Murray, an established agent whose submission guidelines specifically exclude science fiction.

The lists also recycle names. A lot. Anne Hawkins appears on the Mystery, Horror, and Young Adult lists. Victoria Gould Pryor appears on the True Crime, Literary Fiction, Travel, and Romance lists. Jennifer Dechiara appears on the Horror, Mystery, Literary Fiction, Memoirs, and Romance lists (but not the Young Adult list, despite the fact that she specializes in children's and YA books). Michele Glance Rooney appears on the Mystery, Fantasy, Young Adult, Business, and Romance lists.

Hold on a sec. Michele Glance Rooney?

Writer Beware readers will recognize Michele as a fee-charging agent featured on our Thumbs Down Agency List. She's notorious for direct-soliciting writers, and also for name changes--since 2002, she has done business as Creative Literary Agency, Creative Concepts Literary Agency, Simply Nonfiction, Michele Glance Rooney Literary Agency, and most recently, before being exposed, as May Writers' Group. To our knowledge, she has never sold a book to a commercial publisher. Not one. Ever.

So what's a fee-charger with no track record doing in the august company of agents like Theresa Park, Noah Lukeman, and Daniel Lazar? The same thing your face might be doing on Mount Rushmore if you had a yen for a gag photo and a knack with Photoshop--except you wouldn't be expecting anyone to seriously believe you'd been memorialized on the side of a mountain. Michele must be hoping that people doing websearches on the agents on her lists will find the lists, see her name there, and assume she has been designated a "top" agent by some independent authority. In fact, this is exactly how the blog was found by the Writer Beware reader who alerted me to it.

Michele is no stranger to fake blogging, by the way--she has tried it before. She is also currently blogging using her own name (and an interesting description of her business background).

There's a larger moral to this story than exposing the inept attempts of one questionable literary agent to boost her reputation by fake blogging. Never take Internet-based literary agent listings at face value. They may have been put together by someone without the proper expertise--or, as in this case, they may conceal a nefarious agenda. Even if you are absolutely certain of the credentials of the person who has compiled the list, do some extra research, because bad agents can slip in despite the best efforts even of knowledgeable people. And if the list is anonymous, forget it. Like Literary Agent News, it's probably not there to help you.

November 17, 2007

Ann Crispin -- Writer Beware Welcomes New Team Member

Hi, Friends:

Well, it's been a difficult year for me, but I have one thing to be very thankful for--we have a new Writer Beware team member! His name is Richard White, and he's a SFWA member. He's spent the last six months or so "apprenticing" and getting up to speed on Writer Beware matters, and he's now ready to fly solo, I assure you. Rich will be helping out when Victoria and I are unavailable, and we're still trying to think of ways to transfer some of the email volume to him. In addition, he'll be available to answer questions from folks here on the blog, and on message boards. He'll be taking on projects of his own as they crop up.

And, no doubt, he'll soon win the ultimate "accolade" for a Writer Beware team member--having some agent get foaming at the mouth mad at him, and bluster online. Fun and games!

Seriously, it's great to have another team member. Rich will also be helping us by serving on panels at s.f. and fantasy conventions. So many aspiring writers have first encountered Writer Beware via panels at conventions.

So please join me in welcoming Rich!

-Ann C. Crispin
Chair, Writer Beware

I asked Rich to give you a little background on himself, and here's what he sent me.

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

Hi, I'm Rich White, the newest member of Writer Beware. I'm a fairly new novelist but I've been following the workings of Writer Beware for a while now. I joined SFWA two years ago and offered my services to Writer Beware earlier this spring.

One of the things I think I bring to WB besides a lot of enthusiasm and tenacity (both of which are definitely needed for this job) is 15+ years training as an Analyst in the Military. I hope to be able to help Victoria and Ann spot trends that we see in the database as well as noting when things are "a little too quiet". I'm also a tech writer at my day job, so doing formal papers and reports is definitely up my alley.

As I said, I'm fairly new at the writing gig, but I do have one novel (Gauntlet Dark Legacy: Paths of Evil), a novella (Star Trek: Starfleet Corps of Engineers #63 "Echoes of Coventry"), and a few short stories under my belt. I do not currently have an agent, but I'm certainly taking advantage of the information at Writer Beware as well as other sites like Preditors and Editors before I send out my queries.

As I joked with Ann at Capclave, right now, I see myself as the gofer for the team right now, but I expect to take on more responsibilities as I get more comfortable with the mission. I look forward to working with some of you and for all of you in the future.

Rich
Website: www.nightwolfgraphics.com/
Blog: nightwolfwriter.livejournal.com/

November 13, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- Lessons for Self-Publishers

The media loves self-publishing success stories. They make excellent human interest articles, feeding as they do into the American dream of entrepreneurial achievement, the rags-to-riches certainty that you can come from nothing and yet attain everything. A recent example: the $2.5 million sale of Brunonia Barry's self-pubbed debut novel to William Morrow, which has garnered a lot of press and spawned a flurry of blog posts. (Scratch a self-publishing success story, though, and you usually find a special circumstance of some sort--this article enumerates some of the advantages Barry had that most self-pubbed authors don't.)

Self-publishing advocates love self-publishing success stories too, because they appear to support the advocates' view that self-publishing is a viable alternative to "traditional" publishing. There's a long list of such stories at John Kremer's Self-Publishing Hall of Fame. However, some of the stories are apocryphal--like the myth that John Grisham self-published his first book (Kremer acknowledges that this is false, but includes Grisham anyway, on the grounds that Grisham was "actively involved in promoting his first novel")--while others are misleading--starting out with an established epublisher, as Mary Janice Davidson did, is not exactly equivalent to self-publishing--and still others are irrelevant--you can't really compare a pamphlet printed by Thomas Paine in 1776 to the activities of modern self-publishers such as Richard Paul Evans. (For more debunking, see this blog entry by writer Jim C. Hines.)

And of course, there are the shills trying to make a buck on the writerly pipe dreams that inevitably result from this kind of hype. Buy a marketing package from Fred Gleeck Productions for $97, for instance, and you can learn How To Self-Publish Your Own Book, Get Famous, and Make Well Over $250,000 per Year. Or if you don't want to spend that much, you can order Self-Publishing Success Secrets 101 from Bob Baker for just $11.95 ("Ideal for Newcomers and First-Time Authors"). The Internet is crammed with stuff like this.

I have nothing against self-publishing. In certain very specific circumstances, it can make a lot of sense, and for writers who have direct access to their audiences, it can be more profitable than commercial publishing. However, the people for whom self-publishing is right, and the people who parlay self-publishing into major success, are vastly outnumbered by everyone else.

You don't often see coverage of this in the media. Here's an exception, from the Wall Street Journal: "Writing the Book on Self-Help: A Publisher's Cautionary Tale." It's the story of C. Ben Bosah, who was certain his wife's nonfiction book about women's health was a bestseller in the making, and, unwilling to share the profits, decided to publish it himself. Unfortunately, his ignorance of the publishing industry led him to make a number of basic mistakes, from failing to line up a distributor, to neglecting to solicit pre-publication reviews, to disregarding the advice of experts and ordering too many books. Over the course of a year and a half, he has managed to recoup his $40,000 investment--but to do so has required more than 2,500 hours of his time.

Despite the problems and the errors, the book has done pretty well for a self-published title. Less than half the original order of 15,000 books has been sold, but that still means sales of several thousand, figures that might well interest a literary agent or a commercial publisher. Perhaps, ultimately, the book will find a commercial home. But for would-be self-publishers, there are a couple of lessons to take away from Mr. Bosah's experience. First, the importance of knowing something about publishing before deciding to become a publisher, even if your only client is yourself; and second, the incredible amount of time and energy self-publishers must expend in order to have even a hope of breaking even. These are things the self-publishing boosters and the Internet shills often forget to mention, as they're encouraging your starry-eyed dreams of publishing entrepreneurship.

November 8, 2007

Agents and Publishing in Film and Television...Ahem

Hi, Folks:

I went to see the film made from David Gerrold's story "The Martian Child" last week. As I'm a diehard John Cusack fan, I enjoyed it. I also have known David for years, so I was curious about how his story would translate to film.

The story itself translated pretty well, I thought. But Hollyweird did its usual number in presenting the main character's life as a writer, and his relationship with his agent and publisher. (In a word: unrealistic.)

As Michael and I left the theater, it suddenly occurred to me that Hollywood is at least partially to blame for the inordinate numbers of aspiring writers that are scammed by literary agents and publishers these days. The agents and publishers shown on the silver screen bear little to no resemblance to the way it really is, and that helps create a lot of confusion in the public perception.

In "The Martian Child," the writer, "David Gordon," has a close personal relationship with his literary agent. The agent comes over to his house frequently, they play golf together, they go out to dinner every few weeks, etc. And, of course, this high-powered agent lives in the same town where David the writer lives. The agent continually begs David the writer to let him read a bit of what he's working on, giving the impression that if David handed him manuscript, he'd plop down on the curb without moving another step and read it then and there.

Ahem.

This is hardly an isolated instance of Hollywood's skewed portrayal of the publishing industry. Remember Romancing the Stone with Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas? At the end of the movie, we see Kathleen Turner's romance writer character sitting in her editor's office, having just brought in the ms. for her new book. The editor is reading the last page of the ms., and crying like a wee infant. The editor looks up, eyes brimming with tears, and tells her writer that she's wonderful, the story is wonderful, it's the best thing she's ever read, etc., etc.

Ahem. Ahem.

Need I tell you sophisticated folks who read this blog that these kinds of things are completely unrealistic? My agent and I have certainly shared meals on many occasions (I've been with her since 1984). We even went horseback riding at my house together on one notable occasion. But I'm a longtime client, and we get along well together, and always have. Still I suspect I could count on the fingers of one hand the social (not business) interactions we've shared in the 23 years of our association.

I believe that Hollywood's distorted portrayal of agents and publishers inadvertently softens up aspiring writers, making them vulnerable to the blandishments of scammers. Imagine a writer who knows nothing about how things work in publishing (and hasn't done a speck of research, of course). This writer may have submitted her book to a real agent or two, almost by acccident, only to receive cold form-letter rejections. Then our writer queries Bouncin' Bobby or Cris Robins or Leanne Murphy or any experienced fee-charging bottom-feeder. And voila! The writer is suddenly told, in the warmest, friendliest possible terms that her book has "promise," that the agent wants to "represent" it. Even if the scuzzball doesn't say it right out, the implications are clear: "I like you, I like your book, we're going to be good buddies and you're going to have a career, just like those writers you see on television and in the movies!!!"

No wonder they fall willingly into those fee-charging arms.

There's an old joke told among professional writers, one that aspiring writer types never "get." Seems there is a writer who has (typically) missed his important deadline for turning in his latest book. This writer comes home from yet another session of procrastinating, rather than writing, to find chaos surrounding his house. Police cars are slewed all over the road, fire trucks are pouring water on his burning roof, his wife has a black eye, his children are sobbing hysterically. The writer leaps from his car and races over to the nearest cop. "What happened?" he yells.

"Well, sir," says the officer, "it seems that your literary agent was here to talk to you about your missed deadline, and when you weren't home, he went ballistic. Punched out your wife, terrified your children, and then set fire to your house. He's still at large."

The writer stares at the officer, his mouth agape in incredulous shock. For a moment he can't even speak, then he whispers, "My agent...came...to MY HOUSE?"

-Ann C. Crispin
Chair, Writer Beware
www.writerbeware.com

November 3, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- Airleaf Update

I've blogged several times about vanity publisher/author "marketing" service/uber-spammer Airleaf Publishing and Book Selling (formerly Bookman Marketing): in July 2006, about its silly and factually inaccurate response to criticism by watchdog groups such as Writer Beware and Preditors & Editors; in January 2007 about its overpriced author cruise; and in August 2007 about its American Author Contest, an amateurish attempt to cash in on the current fad for American Idol-style writing contests. This post also takes a look at Airleaf's filmmaking "partner," Lite Stone Entertainment, all of whose supposed movie projects trace back to Airleaf's book-to-film program.

Over the years, Writer Beware has received complaints and advisories about Airleaf from writers annoyed by its relentless spamming, dissatisfied with its "marketing" services (I put "marketing" in quotes, because most of the services Airleaf offers are ineffective or downright useless--see my July 2006 post for a more detailed discussion), and unhappy with its publishing services. So we weren't entirely surprised to learn that a large group of angry Airleaf authors has gone public.

Airleaf Victims Fightback is a website organized by writer and relationship counselor Bonnie Kaye, who paid Airleaf $1,850 to publish her book. She tells her own story on the site, along with the stories of many other Airleaf authors who feel they've been ill-used by the company. Problems include the usual menu of questionable-publisher issues: non-payment of royalties, non-provision of paid-for services, substandard services, long publication delays, non-production of books, and nonresponsiveness to authors' questions and concerns.

Currently, there are more than 90 authors in Ms. Kaye's network.

Other Airleaf victims have taken independent action. This past May, the Indiana Attorney General's Office issued an Assurance of Voluntary Compliance requiring Airleaf to return nearly $7,000 to two authors, pay $1,000 in costs to the AG's office, and refrain from promising services, benefits, and timeframes it knows it can't provide or doesn't actually intend to sell.

The above is just the tip of the iceberg. There is much, much more to this story, which I hope I'll be able to tell in the coming weeks and months.

Also worth noting: former Airleaf CEO Brien Jones (who started his pay-to-publish career with AuthorHouse) left Airleaf earlier this year to form Jones Harvest Publishing, a virtual clone of Airleaf.

Bonnie Kaye's efforts have also been covered by Lee Goldberg at A Writer's Life and Angela Hoy at Writers Weekly.

Edited to add: Bonnie Kay also maintains an Airleaf Victims Blog, where regular updates are posted.

October 30, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- News of the Weird: Author's For Reality Show

No, I haven't lost my apostrophe smarts. "Author's For Reality Show" is a direct quote from a Craigslist ad posted today. Can you believe it? Yet ANOTHER author reality show is threatening to rear its pointy head.

A brief recap of the others, both funct and defunct:

- Book Millionaire (defunct)
- Publish My Book! (possibly funct, but no one really seems to know--this is the only one of the lot that has even a whiff of credibility)
- The Ultimate Author (apparently funct)
- American Book Factory (defunct)

This one makes five.

According to Craigslist, Healeth Publisher, "an Independent Publisher located in New York with satellite offices in Atlanta and LA," is looking for contestants for a new reality show featuring writers, to be conducted in conjunction with The Next TV, an Internet TV and radio network (I think the radio part, which calls itself U Tube Radio, might have a small trademark issue).

Getting published is a very difficult challenge that most writers face. The most difficult task is convincing any publisher that you the new author has an audience that will generate book sales. The very first thing a publisher will ask a new author is How Do You Plan To Market & Promote Your Boook? We want to know how you plan to market and promote your book but we also give you the chance to show us. Most publishers want a written marketing plan but we want you to show us you can self promote. Now here's your chance to do so with our new author internet reality show...HP and THENEXT.TV have come up with a competition that will change the publishing game forever.

Okay.

Specifics on how the show will work are sketchy (and come only from Craigslist--the show is mentioned on Healeth's website, but without details, and I couldn't find any mention of it at all on Next TV's website). Apparently it will travel to 20 US cities searching for contestants, who will face a three-part challenge: "I.)Writing challenge II.) Editing challenge III.)Promotions challenge." Ten winner's (their apostrophe, not mine) will be chosen. All will receive book contracts (the publisher isn't named, but it's not a stretch to assume it will be Healeth) with "The Top Writer" also getting a publicist and a $5,000 "advancement."

According to Healeth's website, CEO Jay Williams "spent over a decade working in traditional publishing houses in New York...as an editor for Harper Collins [sic], Pocket Books; [sic] amongst other large book publishing companies," but the website's sparse content, unappealing design, and grammatically shaky text does not (to put it kindly) convey a strong impression of publishing professionalism. Despite Healeth's purported 2005 startup date, it has so far published just one book, Pam Pinnock's The Father Fracture. Interestingly, Healeth's URL is registered to Pam Pinnock--and if you Google Healeth, the only references, apart from its website, involve Pinnock and her book. Pinnock is the only one of the contest's "celebrity judges" who is named. She also claims to be a publicist. Remember the publicist who is promised as part of the contest winner's prize package?

Hmmm. That's a lot of roads leading to Pam Pinnock.

No bets on the longevity of this one.

October 23, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- More on the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award

A couple of weeks ago, in a blog post about the brand-new Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, I commented on the mindboggling size of the potential applicant pool (Amazon will accept up to 5,000 entries, from which up to 1,000 semi-finalists will be chosen) and wondered how Amazon and Publishers Weekly would find people to do the capsule reviews that are promised to all semi-finalists.

Here's at least part of the answer. Last week, the National Book Critics Circle (of which I'm a member) sent this email to its members:

Publishers Weekly is looking for experienced book reviewers and book industry professionals to help it judge the contestants of Amazon.com's recently inaugurated Breakthrough Novel Award.

Each judge will receive $400 for reading 10 manuscripts before December 14th and for turning in a 150-word review of each work. (These reviews will be paid on delivery, then edited and published anonymously on Amazon.com's website, just like regular PW reviews.)

If you are interested in joining this judging panel, please send an email detailing your book review experience plus two clips to [name and email address redacted].


So Amazon is attempting to honor its promise to provide a "professional" review to all semi-finalists. Kudos for that. However, it's not a very appealing gig. The pay works out to just $40 per manuscript/review--better than PW's regular rate of $30 per 220-word review, but not a lot for such a big bunch of reading, especially considering that it must be completed in a very short period of time (although the registration limit for the award was reached on October 22, the guidelines state that the semi-finalist judging won't begin until after the submission period ends on November 5) and across a major holiday. There's also the probability that, even with the initial filtering, the job will be more like reading slush than regular reviewing.

Out of curiosity, I was tempted to respond (I planned to donate the money to charity if I reported on the experience here), but good sense intervened in the form of my husband, who reminded me that I have a book to write.

October 19, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- Chutzpah

Christian-focused Anomalos Publishers devotes a good deal of space to warning would-be authors about the perils of print-on-demand self-publishing services. Along those lines, they "highly recommend" that unpublished writers read Writer Beware's Print on Demand page.

However, Anomalos neglects to suggest that unpublished writers also read Writer Beware's Vanity and Subsidy Publishers page, where they'd learn that Anomalos's requirement that its authors "partner" with them by buying 1,000 copies of their own books is what's known as back-end vanity publishing--which can be a lot more expensive than straightforward vanity publishing.

Gee. Wonder why?

But I'm not done yet. Anomalos has actually, without requesting permission of the copyright holder (me), reproduced a sizeable portion of Writer Beware's Print on demand page on its website.

Much as I object to Writer Beware being used to support a dubious publishing practice, I'm torn between demanding that Anomalos remove the excerpt, and demanding that they also reproduce "Vanity Publishers in Sheep's Clothing" from the Vanity Publishers page.

(Actually not. I want the excerpt gone. I'm going to wait a few days, and if it doesn't disappear I'll send an email.)

October 16, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- Worthy Causes

Here at Writer Beware, we tend to concentrate on the dark side of publishing. Every now and then, though, it's nice to take a look at people who are doing something good. To that end, here are a couple of organizations you might want to check out.

Reader to Reader is a public charity that collects and donates books to needy school libraries in the USA, free of charge, with a special focus on schools in inner cities, rural towns, and Indian reservations. Reader to Reader serves more than 240 schools in 29 states, and has collected and donated millions of books since its startup. Recent initiatives include the Hurricane Katrina Book Drive, which so far has resulted in the shipping of over one million books and textbooks to rebuild libraries in hurricane-devastated southern states, and a collaboration with Starbucks stores in Western Massachusetts to launch a holiday book drive.

I know about Reader to Reader personally, because it's located just a few blocks away from me in Amherst, Mass. I donate all the books I get for review; last year, I also donated most of the hundreds of books I received as a World Fantasy Awards judge. Though the books go to school libraries, donations don't have to be confined to books for children or young adults--all books are welcome, and if Reader to Reader founder David Mazor doesn't feel a specific book is suitable for his program, he'll find a way to donate it somewhere else.

I talk with David whenever I stop by to make a donation. He and his volunteer staff work incredibly hard at what they do, and are passionate about making a difference. Reader to Reader is a truly worthy cause, with an impact that belies its shoestring budget. Information on how to donate is here. Unlike some other library donation groups, Reader to Reader will accept used books (though they should be in good condition) as well as new ones.

Eco-Libris is a brand-new green business that seeks to combine the love of reading with environmentalism. The idea is to let readers balance out the paper used for the books they read by planting trees. The website explains: "All you have to do is to choose how many books you want to balance out with Eco-Libris, pay for it online, and a tree will be planted for each of these books." In return, you get stickers (printed on recycled paper) to put on the covers of the books you balance out, in order to "show your commitment to sustainability and responsible use of natural resources." Each tree costs just $1.

Even if you don't want to plaster your books with stickers, the basic idea is pretty nifty. Eco-Libris concentrates on regions where deforestation is a critical problem (such as Panama and Guatemala), and to plant the trees, they've partnered with several established non-profit organizations that work with local communities in developing countries. They're also looking to build collaborations with book-oriented businesses--publishers, bookstores, book clubs.

Eco-Libris pleges that trees will be planted within six months to a year of your donation (planting cycles are dependent on the seasons and local weather conditions). To monitor progress and accountability, it will publish a full annual assessment of its planting projects on its website.

October 11, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- Christopher Hill Redux

One of the weirdest scams Writer Beware ever followed just got a little stranger.

(A mini-refresher: Christopher Hill of Hill & Hill Literary Agency was an Edinburgh-based fee-charger who went to extraordinary lengths to convince his clients that he was working on their behalf, including fabricating reams of documentation: submission records, publisher acceptance emails, even publishing contracts. When he could no longer keep all the scam balls in the air, he torpedoed his own operation by posing as a victim. I covered the scam last year in a series of blog posts. There's also a lengthy thread at Absolute Write, with many posts from writers he conned.)

Over at the Dear Author blog, Top 10 Tips for Plagiarists exposes the fact that author Lanaia Lee, whose novel Of Atlantis is about to be released via self-pub service Roval Publishing, appears to have plagiarized well-known speculative fiction author David Gemmell's novel about Alexander the Great, Dark Prince. (More coverage of the flap from Jim Macdonald over at Making Light.)

A frothing mob of torch-wielding villagers, righteously enraged at such wanton pillaging of a literary legend, rushed over to Lanaia's website to post angry comments on her message board. Defending herself, she first said (I'm reproducing her comments exactly as written):

Of Atlantis is totally mine. I have the original manuscript, and witnesses to my work. I put two years of my life in this book, the copy right, I own. I am appalled some one would think I am that dishonesy!

Later, she amended that a bit:

When I first started Of Atlantis, I hire a ghost writer Christopher Hill. I see what he did now and for that I aplogize. I was scammed. I apologize to Mr. Hemmel's memory and his family.

I believe she's telling the truth, folks.

This past June--months after the Hill & Hill insanity seemed to have concluded--Lanaia (not her real name) contacted me via Writer Beware to let me know that Christopher Hill was still in Edinburgh, still actively impersonating a literary agent. She told me that he solicited her as a client in June 2005, as a result of some of her online writings. She signed with him for a different novel, Chamber of Time, which he eventually claimed not to have been able to sell.

In September 2006, a former Hill client in Australia alerted Lanaia to the fact that Hill was a lying scambag. She confronted him, but he managed to sweet-talk her out of her misgivings. She then started the Atlantis book. Always helpful, Hill offered his services as a ghostwriter. From sometime in the fall of 2006 until May of 2007, she paid him $400 per month through PayPal. In the spring of 2007, he faked up a contract offer from Gryphon Publishing (there are a number of publishers by this name, so I'm not sure which one was meant), but eventually got tired of shining Lanaia on and blew her off with the following email, which she forwarded me a copy of:

Before you keep ranting on here is the manuscript as of now you are on my blocked list so do not bother trying to reply. We had no contract binding anything, the work I did is now yours I give you full copyright consent here. I wish you well for the future.

Attached to the email was a manuscript called The Chronicles of Archimedes. Judging by the often awkward writing, most of it is non-plagiarized--and may indeed have been "ghostwritten," because while a lot of it is written out like a novel, some of it is synopsis. Also, Lanaia is American, but the written-out portions of the ms. employ British spelling, lending credence to Lanaia's claim that Hill rewrote her novel. At the front of the ms. is stuck the entire first chapter of Gemmell's Dark Prince, with the names changed to match those of the characters in the rest of the manuscript.

I find it completely plausible that the ripoff of Gemmell was Hill's work, not Lanaia's. It would be absolutely typical of Hill to do something like this to screw over a client--especially one who'd twigged to his scam. His whole deal was false promises and head games, fakery and bullshit and general psychological torment. If she'd never read Gemmell, there's no reason why Lanaia would have recognized that stolen chapter.

So score one more for you, Chris, you sleazy weasel...almost. Because you can't outwit Writer Beware.

October 4, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- The New Fad in Publishing

There's a new fad in publishing: People's Choice-style contests for book manuscripts. No fewer than three of these contests have sprung up over the past ten months. (Actually, if you count the bogus ones, there are more than three, but I'm going to confine myself to the ones that are conducted in conjunction with real publishers.)

- First Chapters Competition, sponsored by Gather.com (I blogged about the initial contest, for commercial mainstream fiction, and the currently-in-progress second contest, for romance novels).

A new round, for mystery/crime novels, has just been announced, co-sponsored by Court TV. Interestingly, Simon & Schuster, which co-sponsored the first two rounds, appears to have bailed--this time, the grand prize publishing contract will be offered by Borders. As before, an advance of $5,000 will be paid and the contract will be non-negotiable, but other terms are less favorable than in the previous contests. Borders will publish the winner's novel in mass market format, and it will be available for sale exclusively--i.e., only--in Borders US stores, and not necessarily all of them.

- Project Publish, co-sponsored by MediaPredict, an online game that uses a prediction market setup to rate media content, and Simon & Schuster. (I blogged about this one, too.) Project Publish is now in its final stages, and it's telling (at least for those of us who are skeptical that prediction markets are a good way for publishers to find books) that in the Books section of MediaPredict, Project Publish listings are just about the only action.

- The brand-new Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, announced last week, co-sponsored by Amazon.com, Hewlett-Packard, and the Penguin Group.

Contestants have until November 5 to submit an unpublished, English-language manuscript (up to 5,000 manuscripts will be accepted). Submissions will be read by Amazon editors and top Amazon customer reviewers, who will pick up to 1,000 semi-finalists (the contest rules make reference to "judging criteria," but I wasn't able to find these listed anywhere). On January 15, 2008, 5,000-word excerpts from the semi-finalists' manuscripts will be posted at Amazon for customers to review and rate (according to the contest FAQ, you can vote for your own entry), with each semi-finalist receiving a review of his or her manuscript from PW and a special page on the Amazon website. A panel of experts from Penguin will then pick up to 100 mss. to read "based on customer feedback and Publishers Weekly reviews," and select ten finalists, whose excerpts will be posted for reviewing and rating on March 3rd. The winner, selected by customer vote, will be announced on April 7th.

(I have to laugh at this description of Amazon reviewers from Penguin's announcement of the Breakthrough Award: "Building on Amazon's strong tradition of customer reviews, all submissions will first be read by Amazon.com Top Reviewers—individuals recognized for the high quality and frequency of their comments on the site." Harriet Klausner, anyone?)

Here's a description of the prizes, from Amazon's website (a more detailed description is here):

The winner of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award will receive a full publishing contract from Penguin Group, including promotional support for their novel on Amazon.com, and a media suite from Hewlett-Packard. The nine remaining finalists will receive a free Total Design Freedom self-publishing package from BookSurge and a media suite from Hewlett-Packard. Semi-finalists will receive a review of their manuscript by Publishers Weekly. Upon conclusion of the contest all entrants will be eligible to make their books available for sale to Amazon.com customers via the CreateSpace self-publishing service at no charge. In addition, all entrants will receive discounted self-publishing services from BookSurge for custom cover design, formatting, and editing.

So now we know what's in this for Amazon (and also why it's willing to accept such a huge number of manuscripts): publicity for its revamped CreateSpace service, a Lulu lookalike (contest entrants must register through CreateSpace), and potential customers for BookSurge. I find this a little unsavory, especially since the nine non-winning finalists--whose books, chosen by the Penguin advisers, seem likely to be commercially viable--will receive incentive to self-publish via a free package from BookSurge. But you all know what a stickler I am, and I doubt many people will share my reservations.

As for Penguin, it will get a novel with (theoretically) ready-made promotional potential. The Breakthrough Award is a much richer contest than either First Chapters or Project Publish: Penguin plans to pay a $25,000 advance, as long as the winner is willing to sign its publishing contract as is, without negotiation. Penguin also reserves the exclusive right to make publication offers (which are negotiable) to finalists and semi-finalists until their manuscripts are eliminated from the competition. As quoted in Publishers Lunch, Penguin's Director of Online Sales and Marketing, Tim McCall, has "every hope that we're going to see many interesting voices." (Er...check your slush pile.)

As I've said before, I have general problems with the methodology of people's choice-style awards applied to books, where voting is conducted based only on excerpts. More specifically in this case, I have misgivings about the sheer size of the contest. Damn, that's a lot of manuscripts! On the whole, though, this seems like a decent contest, with no nasty surprises in the official rules.

So who'll be the next on the people's choice bandwagon? HarperCollins? Random House? Also, where Amazon goes, Barnes & Noble can't be far behind. Stay tuned.

September 30, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- Solicitation Alert

Have you recently received an email solicitation from Cris Robins of St Louis, MO, titled "Is Your Writing Ready to Sell?"

It begins like this:
Good morning.

For over ten years I ran the largest literary agency in the Midwest (we ranked about 10 in the states, and 18 on the globe) and I made a difference in the industry by bringing out the potential of new writer's' works and showcasing them to some of the largest publishers and studios in the states. I closed the agency last year because the industry changed and I found that I could show new writers how to sell their work to publishers who didn't work with agencies; additionally, my clients found that our editing service increased their chances of being published and overall, made their work better.

Currently, I'm in a position of taking on a few new clients, and I'm cutting my price to do it. Although my editing service normally runs $6.50 per 250-word page I've dropped my price to the first ten respondents to $5.00 per page, and includes the initial editing and a finishing review. But, editing is just the first part of it; when the work is ready to be presented, I will also put together the package for submissions, the list of publishers looking for your work, and the methods that they prefer for submissions.
If you have gotten this email, here are a few things to consider.

- The agency Cris Robins ran was called The Robins Agency. Complaints and advisories about this agency were among the first that Writer Beware received when we started up in 1998, and we continued to receive them until the agency's apparent disappearance last year. Among the issues cited by writers: promotion of the agency's own paid editing services to clients and potential clients (a conflict of interest), with editing recommendations often based on the reading of just a few chapters; inadequate, unprofessional, and/or incomplete editing; and the charging of upfront fees ranging from $500 to $3,200. Other complaints can be found at Absolute Write.

- In May 2006, a default judgment against Cris Robins of The Robins Agency was entered in Washington Superior Court for breach of contract, fraudulent business practice, and consumer protection violations in regard to the promised provision of paid editing services and promised representation of the plaintiff's manuscript to publishers. Ms. Robins was ordered to pay $8,320 (treble damages) plus interest and attorney fees. (There's more detail on the judgment in this blog post. We actually think that the judgment and attendant adverse publicity had more to do with the agency's closing than changing market conditions.)

- To Writer Beware's knowledge, The Robins Agency never sold a single client's book to a commercial US publisher in the whole of its more than eight years of existence.

- The Robins Agency is included in Writer Beware's Thumbs Down Agency List.

September 28, 2007

From Chronicle Books

Joseph Ternes of Chronicle Books stopped by the blog the other day to post the following comment:

The information in the Newsweek article was incorrect. Chronicle Books will not receive a referral fee for recommending Blurb.com to aspiring authors or artists.

Just as from time to time our editors refer authors or artists to other trade houses, Blurb.com presents another option if they consider it an appropriate choice. This option will not be part of our response to every author submissions. There are many self-publishing options in the marketplace, though far fewer for illustrated book authors and artists. As an independent illustrated book publisher in San Francisco, Chronicle Books felt an affinity for the locally based Blurb.com and the quality of the product it is offering the public.


Good news!

September 21, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- And You Thought Kickbacks Were Just For Scammers

I had to read this article from Newsweek magazine twice before I could believe it.

According to the article, Chronicle Books, a sizeable commercial publisher, is teaming up with Blurb, a self-publishing service, in what Chronicle calls a "mutual referral deal." Chronicle, which accepts unagented submissions, will refer rejected authors to Blurb. If they buy Blurb's services, Blurb will pay Chronicle an "undisclosed cut" of the revenue.

Yes, you read that right. Blurb will pay a kickback to Chronicle for sending authors its way.

What's wrong with this picture?

Well, first of all, it's a conflict of interest. If someone can make money by recommending a service, how can you trust that the recommendation is in your best interest? This is exactly the way the Edit Ink book doctoring scam operated--agents and publishers sent rejected writers to Edit Ink in exchange for a percentage of whatever the writer wound up paying for (overpriced, unskilled) editing. The agents and editors who profited from Edit Ink referrals didn't reveal the relationship, nor did Edit Ink. Will Chronicle inform the writers it sends to Blurb that it gets a cut of what they spend? Will Blurb let writers know it paid to get their business?

Secondly, Blurb is among the most expensive of the self-publishing services. The book-creation software is free; it's when you order books that things get costly. The justification for this is that Blurb's books are "bookstore quality," which, let's face it, books from self-pub services aren't always. Still, if Chronicle is going to send writers to a pay-to-publish company, wouldn't it have been kinder to pick a cheaper one?

Last but not least--Chronicle's referrals to Blurb will come with the weight and reputation of an established commercial publisher behind them. A reputable publisher won't tell you to do something that's not in your best interest, right? It's likely, therefore, that authors will take the recommendation seriously. This is bad enough for books that aren't publishable. But what about the books that don't fit Chronicle's list, but might be a good match for another reputable publisher? What if those books get sidelined into Blurb? Again, Chronicle will not be doing authors any favors.

(Note that I don't intend to imply that Blurb is in any way disreputable. But it's a self-publishing service, with all the limitations that implies. Great for some books in certain circumstances. Not so great for most.)

So what about the "mutual" in "mutual referral deal?" According to Sarah Williams, Chronicle's executive director of business development (quoted in the article), the program will provide "an opportunity for writers to test their product in a digital marketplace where success might bring them back to us." Note the use of "might." Even if she's serious, the resemblance to Edit Ink is again uncanny. Agents and publishers who made Edit Ink referrals promised to reconsider manuscripts once they were edited--which of course increased writers' motivation to buy Edit Ink's services (in most cases, the promise was a lie). Also, not for nothin', but haven't we gotten past the whole farm team thing? I thought that idea died back around the turn of the century, when Random House acquired a stake in Xlibris.

And speaking of Xlibris...some of you may remember the trouble it got into a few years ago, when it contacted agents and editors with an offer of a 10% kickback for each rejected author who purchased Xlibris's services ("Now find out how your slush pile can actually become a source of revenue," the letter said). Uproar ensued (back then, the Edit Ink scandal was fresher in people's minds), Xlibris hastily backtracked, and the program got the kibosh.

Chronicle, Chronicle. You've got a great publishing program--in fact, you published one of my very favorite books of the past few years. I'm really disappointed in you.

September 18, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- Author Reality Show Meets Actual Reality

Remember Book Millionaire, the first-ever author reality show? I blogged about it back in April 2006. The brainchild of Lori Prokop, vanity publisher and purveyor of get-rich-quick schemes, the show was supposedly going to feature authors duking it out on national TV for the title of "America's next Book Millionaire and best selling author." Ms. Prokop got as far as persuading a bunch of people to send in video auditions for the show; these were posted on the Book Millionaire website over a period of 10 weeks in April and May 2006. Then...silence.

Thanks to a tip from Lee Goldberg of A Writer's Life, I've learned that Book Millionaire is in fact not dead...it has only been wounded, by eeeeeevil bloggers "who are allegedly blogging false, inaccurate information" not just about Ms. Prokop and Book Millionaire, but about "100+ companies and projects in the publishing industry." (In case you haven't guessed, this blog cabal includes me, Lee, a bunch of other skeptical folks, and the Museum of Hoaxes).

At first, writes Lori on the Book Millionaire website, I was very angry and wanted to punish the people for what I saw as attacks. But something deep inside of me looked around at our world and decided we didn’t need anymore [sic] thought forms of anger, hate or violence. Our world is at a critical point, we are either going to make it has [sic] a human race...or not.

To illustrate her point, Lori provides links to a number of articles with titles such as "Rudeness, Threats Make the Web a Cruel World" and "Battling Abusive Blog Comments" (I know a thing or two about that). She then continues:

It took some time for me to make my choice that instead of attacking or retaliating for what I perceived as false, misguided actions of others, I decided to find a spiritual understanding and develop a spiritual action plan. It’s my desire that this experience helps me spiritually grow as an individual and leader.

The result of all this spiritual expansion? "I have learned that anything perceived as an attack from another is an expression of his or her needs." That's right: Lori's travails have awoken in her the understanding that those of us who've made fun of her silly reality show concept are acting out of unmet needs. Evidently, one of those is money:

Could it be true that someone is paying for this group of bloggers to blog hate messages about more than 100 companies and projects in the publishing industry that compete with this company? Could this be how the bloggers are paying their bills and feeding their families?...If this is true, I am very sad for their chosen ways and tactics. I wish they had more trust in Divine Source that there exists [sic] other more life-enhancing ways to be successful than trying to hurt others.

In truly spiritual fashion, Lori concludes that All You Need is Love:

I believe Love is the answer to this. What I want in my life is compassion and a loving flow between me and others based on mutual giving from the heart...I envision and have joined a team co-creating an online community of cultural leaders helping people and businesses solve problems, make decisions, create and live from Love and Light in the Highest Good for All.

Lori, that is truly inspiring. I mean it. But...what about the show? You know--the show that 50 hopeful writers took the trouble to create elaborate video auditions for? The show that was supposed to be broadcast on national TV? The show that was supposed to make authors' dreams come true? Yeah, that show. The show of which there is currently not the slightest sign of actual existence.

Lori claims that she has gone to the blogs of the hateful bloggers and "contacted them to ask for open dialogues." Unfortunately, she seems to have forgotten to contact me, but I'm sure that's just an oversight. Lori, I look forward to sharing dialog with you, and maybe even benefiting from the glow of your spiritual enlightenment. I trust that the writers who sent in auditions will also be hearing from you soon? I'm not talking about your frequent spams offering them the chance to buy your seminars and books and other products (yes, I signed up for your email list). I'm talking about real, straightforward communication about the status of the show.

Thank you. Thank you very much. I'm off to count my blog money now.

September 14, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- Essential Reading

Click this link. Right now. It's an article by journalist Penni Crabtree of the San Diego Union-Tribune, and tells the sorry story of San Diego-based vanity publisher Ed Johnson (I'm quoted in the article).

In 1998, Johnson founded Simon & Northrop Publishing, which charged writers thousands of dollars to publish, reneged on promises, and racked up a number of lawsuits and judgments before its articles of incorporation were suspended in 2004. In 2005, Johnson opened Martell Publishing, which operated in pretty much the same way. Martell's phone has been disconnected, and its website, online as recently as July, is gone.

Johnson's story is classic Writer Beware material (for more stories like it, see the Case Studies page of Writer Beware). He advertised for authors in out-of-state newspapers and in the Yellow Pages. He ran his publishing operation out of one room in a converted motel; according to a former employee, he used pseudonyms and told lies to make authors think he ran large publishing houses. Authors say he took their money and didn't produce books, or produced books riddled with errors and formatting mistakes (one author got his "published" book in a spiral binder). When authors asked questions, or pressed for information ,or got angry, Johnson simply vanished--not returning phone calls, not answering emails or letters. He also didn't pay his bills. Authors and creditors sued, resulting in a number of court judgments.

Over the years Writer Beware received occasional questions about both Simon & Northrop and Martell. Based on what writers told us (especially the fact that they found the companies through ads), we were pretty certain they were vanity publishers. But believe it or not, we never got a single complaint about either publisher.

This may seem strange, given the apparent egregiousness of Johnson's behavior, but I can think of a couple of possible reasons. First, by running "writers wanted" ads, Johnson ensured that the writers who contacted him were among the most inexperienced and least knowledgeable--especially ripe, in other words, to be taken advantage of, and less likely to complain.

Second, as vanity publishers go, Johnson doesn't seem to have been especially prolific. Simon & Northrop registered copyright for just 27 books over its six years of existence; Martell didn't register any copyrights, but a former employee estimates that 40 or 50 authors were left in the lurch when the company vanished. Compare this with close to 300 victims for scam literary agent/vanity publisher Martha Ivery, several hundred for scam agent/vanity publishers Charles and Dorothy Deering, and thousands for fraudulent vanity publishers Commonwealth Publications and Northwest Publishing. Since Writer Beware typically hears only from a tiny fraction of people who are hooked by any given scheme, the smaller and more stealthy schemes are much more likely to fly beneath our radar.

This illustrates how vital it is to make a complaint if a publisher--or an agent, or an editor--does you wrong. If any of the authors who won judgments against Johnson had contacted Writer Beware or Preditors & Editors, we'd have been able to list the publisher--with a "not recommended" on P&E, or an Alert on the Writer Beware website. Writers researching the publisher on the Internet might have found these listings, and thought twice about sending their money.

We've got a file on Johnson now. If he starts up again under a different name, we're hoping we'll hear about it.

September 10, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- iUniverse and AuthorHouse Merge

Proving that consolidation isn't just an issue for commercial publishing, POD self-publishing service AuthorHouse has just acquired rival service iUniverse. The merger was announced on Thursday, September 6 by AuthorHouse's parent company, Author Solutions Inc. (which was itself acquired by Bertram Capital, a private equity investment firm, in January 2007).

According to AuthorHouse's official press release,

“At AuthorHouse, we have built our brand by making service to the author our first priority,” said Bryan Smith, president and CEO of Author Solutions and AuthorHouse, “and iUniverse has done a great job leveraging their traditional publishing experience to make authors successful. By bringing the two biggest forces in self-publishing together, we will draw on the unique strengths of both brands and offer an even better suite of publishing services for authors.”

iUniverse CEO Susan Driscoll put an equally positive spin on things in her email to iUniverse authors:

Quite simply, the strengths and the capabilities of AuthorHouse and iUniverse complement one another, and by building on our individual strengths we can expand the range and enhance the quality of the services that each company offers. Under the Author Solutions umbrella, we are dedicated to becoming the preeminent provider of publishing services to authors.

In addition to AuthorHouse/iUniverse, Author Solutions owns AuthorHouse UK, which is basically, a clone of AuthorHouse USA; brand-new Wordclay, which follows the Lulu model of DIY self-publishing; and Rooftop Publishing, which describes itself as "the trade publishing operation of Author Solutions, Inc." Spot-checking the books listed at Rooftop reveals that many were previously published by AuthorHouse, suggesting that, like iUniverse's Publisher's Choice Program, Rooftop is at least in part an outlet for AuthorHouse books and authors that rise to the top of the POD heap. (Last year Ann investigated the Publisher's Choice program, which promises to make books that meet certain sales and editorial criteria eligible for limited bookstore placement.)

Like some iUniverse authors I've heard from, I'm not thrilled by news of the merger. iUniverse is usually the company I name when writers ask me which POD self-pub service I prefer; in my opinion, it offers an excellent combination of price, quality, reliability, and service. Currently, iUniverse's publishing packages cost as much as $1,299 for the Premier Pro program (or $1,399 if you order it by mail rather than online), or as little as $399 for the Fast Track program (these costs, of course, may be increased if you buy any of the many extras iUniverse offers).

By contrast, AuthorHouse's cheapest publication option costs $698, and because it offers a la carte many of the services that are included in iUniverse's higher-priced packages, expenses can really mount up. The AuthorHouse equivalent of iUniverse's Premier Pro program would cost more than $2,000. AuthorHouse also charges an annual Distribution Channel Access Fee of $20 (waived for the first two years), and a nonrefundable processing fee with submissions of $30. According to reports I've received, there can also be steep charges for changes made in proof.

And speaking of reports...In the late 1990's, when POD self-publishing was a brand-new business, Writer Beware got regular complaints about nearly all the major POD companies. Some of these complaints reflected problems along the road to a viable business model, others resulted from authors' unrealistic expectations--but many involved real screwups on the companies' part. As time went by, though, the companies worked out the glitches and writers gained a better understanding of POD self-publishing and what it could and couldn't accomplish, and the complaints dwindled down to nothing. Or almost. AuthorHouse is the one large POD self-publishing service about which we still get a steady trickle of complaints. Most frequently cited are production delays, disappointing physical quality of books, and aggressive phone sales tactics. Given the huge number of books AuthorHouse publishes, these complaints represent a very, very tiny fraction of the whole. Nevertheless, we think it's significant--and disturbing--that we still receive them.

Will iUniverse maintain its separate focus and identity within the larger company? Susan Driscoll's email claims it will: "...we are committed to retaining separate iUniverse and AuthorHouse brands, and to maintaining all of our current operating locations." Or will it gradually vanish into the AuthorHouse juggernaut? I know which alternative I'm betting on, but it'll be interesting to see what happens.
 
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