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.

January 29, 2016

The Fair Contract Initiative

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

I write a lot about publishing contracts on this blog, and questions about publishing contract terms make up a large portion of my Writer Beware correspondence. Unfair and even outrageous contract terms are a major problem in the publishing industry, whether they stem from a traditionally one-sided relationship that's being challenged by developing technology (Big Publishing) or the plague of ignorance, inexperience, and greed that afflicts the small press world.

Last year, the US-based Authors Guild announced its Fair Contract Initiative, whose goal is "to shine a bright light on the one-sided contract terms that publishers typically offer authors and to spur publishers to offer more equitable deals."
Why do publishers insist on offering their newest partners more than a hundred conditions so dubious that they’ll quickly back down on them if asked? It largely boils down to unequal bargaining power and historic lethargy. Anxious to get their works published, authors may wrongly believe that the contract their editors assure them is “standard” is the only deal available, take it or leave it. And much of that “standard” language has been around for years thanks to institutional inertia; as long as somebody signs an unfair clause that favors the publisher, the firm has no interest in modifying it.
The Authors Guild's primary focus is Big Publishing, but the paragraph above applies to any publisher, large or small, established or inexperienced.

The Guild is advocating eight principles for fairer publishing contracts. Whatever your opinion of the Authors Guild (and I know many writers think it's reactionary and behind the times; I myself can't quite forgive it for its hand in the failed Google Books Settlement), these are important principles with which every writer should be familiar.

- Half of net proceeds is the fair royalty rate for ebooks. Big publishers typically offer 25% of net; small presses may offer 30% or even 40%. That's not enough, says the Authors Guild: it advocates a 50/50 split. (A caveat: there's some inconsistency here--sometimes the Guild says "net proceeds" and sometimes they say "net profits." There's a significant difference, as anyone who has ever seen a net profit royalty clause can attest. My own preference here would be for net income.)

- A publishing contract should not be forever. The "standard" contract in Big Publishing, and many small press contracts also, is life-of-copyright--the author's lifetime plus 70 years. This is unfair, says the Authors Guild: "There’s no good reason why a book should be held hostage by a publisher for the lifetime of the copyright."

Instead, the AG advocates for limited-term contracts (as well as for a limited period in which publishers must either exploit subsidiary rights or give them back) and, just as important, for getting rid of "the entire outmoded concept of 'out of print'" as the standard for when rights reversion should take place.
Instead, the contract should define when book rights are being “inadequately exploited” and therefore available for reversion to the author when the book fails to generate a certain amount of income—say, $250–$500—in a one-year period. Using income as the yardstick, not a specific number of sales, is essential: Publishers might otherwise be able to game the clause by offering one-cent e-books the way they’ve gamed existing clauses by using e-books and print-on-demand..
 - Authors, keep your copyrights. This doesn't need explaining. Requiring authors to surrender copyright is a particular problem in the academic world, but it happens in the trade publishing world, too.

- Delete the non-compete. Many--in fact I would say most--publishing contracts include non-competition clauses that are overly vague, overly sweeping, or both.
Authors are routinely asked to agree not to publish other works that might “directly compete with” the book under contract or “be likely to injure its sale or the merchandising of other rights.” Even more broadly, they may be asked not to “publish or authorize the publication of any material based on the Work or any material in the Work or any other work of such a nature such that it is likely to compete with the Work.”
Clauses like this can bar authors even from self-publishing. If non-compete clauses can't be eliminated entirely, the AG advocates limiting the non-compete period to one year after publication, and, for fiction, specifically excluding prequels, sequels, and characters. (I'd add that it's also a good idea to limit the non-compete to books on the same subject or in the same genre.)

- Option clauses shouldn't hold authors hostage. It's a rare publishing contract that doesn't contain some sort of option clause giving the publisher the right to consider new work from the author. But option clauses can be greedy (I've seen many that give the publisher the right to consider two or three or even four books, or let the publisher pick and choose until they find a book they like) or unduly restrictive (the author can't refuse an offer if one is made--beware "first refusal" clauses--or must give the publisher the right to match any competing offer).

The AG recommends that option clauses should cover only the author's next work in the same subject or genre, and give the publisher a limited period to make an offer or release the book with no strings attached..

- Publishers' payment and accounting practices need to keep up with the times. Semi-annual royalty payments are standard in Big Publishing, with publishers allowing themselves long lead times in which to pay. The AG advocates for contracts that "specify quarterly payments of income received by the publisher no more than three months in the past." There need to be limits on reserve against return clauses, too: "any fair reserve clause must include limits, both for the dollars that may be withheld (no more than, say, 20% of royalties) and the length of time the clause may remain in force (say, one year)."

Many small presses pay royalties more often than quarterly. But many also account and pay royalties only when income from sales is actually received--which can make it very hard for authors to to tie sales to payments. Small presses also rarely maintain reserves against returns, since most don't distribute to physical bookstores--be wary of a small press contract that does include a reserve clause. And make sure that your contract requires the publisher to provide royalty statements for each payment period, whether or not payment is due. I've seen a number of small press contracts that do not oblige the publisher to provide royalty statements at all.

- End the discount double-cross. The AG calls out "deep discount" clauses, which reduce authors' royalties either by allowing publishers to sell to retailers and wholesalers at gigantic markdowns, or to slash royalty percentages on discounted sales. This is a problem mostly for authors with bigger publishers (some publishers have been caught selling books at steep discounts to subsidiaries, which then turn around and sell them at the regular rate)--but I've seen unfair royalty reduction clauses in small press contracts as well.

- Stop forcing authors to take unlimited financial risks. Warranty and indemnity clauses put writers in financial danger by requiring them to make a series of promises about their work--such as that it doesn't violate any laws--and to accept financial liability if those promises are found to be untrue, or if lawsuits arise from them. But how many writers are legal experts, or can afford to defray huge legal expenses?

The AG identifies elements of fair warranty and indemnity clauses--which will help you identify better ones, but probably won't be of much use if you encounter a bad one, since publishers are rarely willing to negotiate (and, especially in the small press world, may not even understand) these clauses.

January 15, 2016

Profit Engine: The Author Solutions Markup

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

As most of you already know, Penguin Random House dumped Author Solutions at the end of 2015, selling it to a private equity firm for an undisclosed amount. ("A Penguin Random House Company" has already vanished from Author Solutions' logo.)

The sale received quite a bit of media coverage, at least some of which acknowledged AS's troubled reputation--something else that won't be new to you if you're a regular reader of this blog.

One of the areas that I and others have often criticized is AS's huge range of marketing services, which are aggressively pitched to authors who sign up for publishing packages. Most of these services are dubiously useful (email blasts), jawdroppingly expensive (book signings at book fairs), or both (cinema advertising). Basically, they're the equivalent of liquor at a restaurant: relatively inexpensive to deliver, but extremely profitable because of the enormous markup at which they can be sold. (AS executives have actually admitted, in depositions related to class action lawsuits brought against AS, that selling books is not one of the goals of AS's marketing services.)

What's the actual markup, though? How much difference is there between the price for which AS sells a service, and AS's cost to deliver it?

Here's an example. One of my readers drew my attention to this recent ad on Craigslist, in which Author Solutions seeks "freelance coverage writers" to "read self-published books and provide detailed, coherent coverage on the work's potential for film/television/digital adaptation."

The basic pay rate is $110. What does AS charge the idealistic author with Hollywood stars in his or her eyes? $859. Even assuming that pay rates may go higher for some freelancers, and that there's some level of administrative cost involved in getting the coverage from the freelancer to the customer, that's a hell of a markup.

I could go on--AS's genre-specific advertising packages, for instance, some of which are marked up more than 300%, or its Trifecta Review service, which offers three pay-to-play reviews for well over double what you'd shell out if you bought them on your own--but you get the picture. Author and blogger David Gaughran has also looked into the huge profit AS makes from its marketing services.

Now that AS has been sold, might its new owner (which hasn't as yet made any statements about its intentions for AS, apart from continued expansion) take a hard look at these practices? We can hope, but I fear there won't be a lot of incentive to tamper with such a major profit engine.

January 13, 2016

Freelance Mills, Cyberbullying, and Plagiarism, Oh My!

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

If you're a regular reader here, you'll know that I love the strange and twisted stuff that happens (mostly) at the outer fringes of the publishing and writing worlds. Today, three head-shaking examples.

International Association of Professional Writers and Editors

Gosh, isn't that an impressive name for an organization? It certainly impressed the person who wrote to me to ask about the IAPWE's reputation.

Of course, professional is as professional does, and the person wouldn't have contacted me if they didn't feel at least a little uneasy. And red flags do fly at the IAPWE's website, from the cheesy-looking logo to the lack of substantive information about the organization and its members, to the dime-a-dozen advice blog posts. The organization also seems to be very new--its domain was registered only in November 2015 (which makes it a little odd that its first blog post is dated May 2015).

Another question: is IAPWE an organization "dedicated to bringing the most updated, legitimate and vetted writing and editing job opportunities to its members", as its About page claims, or is it a writing and editing services provider, as this Craigslist ad suggests?



And then there's this: a scam alert from an outfit called Translator-Scammers.com, a purported watchdog group that claims IAPWE is "One more monumental scam from the same operators behind the infamous Real Translator Jobs / Real Writing Jobs scamming ring." Whoa, that sounds bad! But wait--here's an entire blog devoted to alleging that Translator-Scammers is itself running a scam, contacting freelancers and demanding a fee of $50 to "verify" them and, if they don't pay up, listing them in a "scammers directory."

Whatever. Scam or no scam, there are enough red flags just on IAPWE's website to prompt serious caution.

Authors Behaving Badly--Again

Writers behave badly all the time--trashing-talking rivals, whining in public, savaging colleagues with pseudonymous reviews, even suing reviewers. But this is one of the most convoluted tales of authorial malfeasance that I've ever heard.

Last week, authors Steve Mosby and Jeremy Duns alleged in blog posts that fellow novelist Stephen Leather--a bestselling crime and thriller writer--cyberstalked them via blogs and websites set up to disparage them and tarnish their reputations, after they voiced criticism of Leather's admitted practice of using fake identities to promote his books. Mosby's post is here. Duns's much longer article, replete with links and screenshots, is here.

Mosby's and Duns's stories have garnered quite a bit of media coverage. As of this writing, Leather hasn't responded, but his publisher, Hachette, has issued a statement condemning "harassment and intimidation of any kind."

This story has particular resonance for me, since I've been the target of similar cyberbullying campaigns. Here's just one example (fake books with scurrilous versions of my own book titles). What the hell, here's another.

ParaDon Books, Spammer and Plagiarizer

A long post today from author and blogger David Gaughran details how ParaDon--via its satellite website, IndieWriterSupport.com--plagiarized text from one of his books in order to hawk a product and get a commission through affiliate links.

ParaDon is a prolific spammer--I should know, it's on my block list. It's been the focus of an expose at Indies Unlimited (essentially, it's a 419 scam), and is the subject of a long discussion thread at Absolute Write, which details, among other things, how it attempted to impersonate Amazon.

UPDATE: Here's another, extremely detailed expose of ParaDon Books Publishing, which charts the shenanigans of ParaDon's owner, Korede Abayomi, from 2011 to the present.

January 8, 2016

Best of Writer Beware: 2015 in Review

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

2015 was not my best blogging year, by a long shot! My mother's deteriorating health sidelined me for much of the second half of the year (and will probably sideline me again in 2016--after bouncing back surprisingly well from broken ribs this summer, my mom had a small stroke in December, which has messed up her vision and made her very weak).

Still, I do have some posts to highlight. Read on.

JANUARY

- Two Red-Flag Sentences in Publishing Contracts: Does that publishing contract you just received state that promotion is "at the publisher's discretion", or that the publisher doesn't guarantee that your book will sell? Be warned: this may be advance rationalization for zero promotion and tiny sales.

FEBRUARY

- Editing Clauses in Publishing Contracts: How to Protect Yourself: A bad editing clause can really come back to bite you, especially if your publisher doesn't employ qualified editors. This post discusses what to watch out for, and highlights some contract language that should ring warning bells.

- Who's Running Your Writing Group? Why You Should Be Careful: A writing group can be a terrific resource for peer feedback and support. But what if the writing group is run by a pay-to-play publisher? This post discusses why this growing trend may pose a conflict of interest.

MARCH

- Manuscript Pitch Websites: Do Literary Agents Use Them? Such sites purport to provide a submissions shortcut, allowing writers to post manuscript pitches for agents to peruse, instead of going through the tedious and uncertain query process. But do agents really use manuscript pitch sites? I asked some agents, and their answers may (or may not) surprise you.

- Author Solutions Losing Market Share As Production Numbers Fall: The much-maligned Author Solutions presents itself as a leader in the self-publishing services space. But according to a recent industry report, AS saw major production declines in 2012 and 2013. Is AS's POD-centric approach--not to mention its high fees and dubious marketing services--going the way of the dodo?

APRIL

- Warning: Raider Publishing International: Yet another warning about this predatory publisher, which has taken thousands of dollars from authors for services never delivered. (Raider is on Writer Beware's Thumbs Down Publishers List.)

- The Strange and Twisted Tale of Peter Senese, Serial Con-Man: For sheer weirdness, you can't beat the saga of Senese, for whom literary scams were only the tip of the iceberg.

JUNE

- Awards Profiteers: How Writers Can Recognize and Avoid ThemThe boom in small press and self-publishing has fueled a parallel boom in deceptive writing awards and contests, whose aim isn't to honor writers, but to make money for the award or contest sponsor. This post highlights the warning signs of a profiteering award, and names some of the worst offenders.

AUGUST

- Beware Social Media Snake OilFrom guest blogger Chris Syme, a great post on how to separate worthwhile social media strategies from pointless ones, along with warnings about some common social media scams.

- Want to Become a Better Writer? Stop Writing: Another terrific guest post, this one from Barbara Baig, who explains how the path to productive writing may sometimes be, paradoxically, to put your writing on hold for a while.

NOVEMBER

- Arbitration Clauses in Book Contracts: Signing Away Your Rights: Arbitration clauses are increasingly common in publishing contracts, as well as in the Terms of Use of some major self-publishing platforms. Many authors don't understand their implications--including the way they restrict the right to legal redress.

DECEMBER

- Author Solutions Sold to Private Equity FirmI actually put this post online just this week, but the sale happened in December, which makes it 2015 news. Just over three years after Author Solutions was purchased by Pearson Education and folded into the Penguin Group, Penguin Random House has unloaded it, selling it to the Najafi Companies for an undisclosed amount (probably much less than the $116 million Pearson paid). Will Najafi take steps to address AS's deplorable reputation? I'm not holding my breath, but you never know.

January 5, 2016

Author Solutions Sold to Private Equity Firm

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

I was working on my usual year-end roundup post, when I spotted this, in PW:
Penguin Random House has sold its Author Solutions division to an affiliate of the Najafi Companies, a private investment firm that at one point owned Bookspan and made an offer to buy several hundred Borders outlets after the chain filed for Chapter 11. 
The terms of the deal, which closed on December 31, have not been disclosed.

Quoted in PW, AS's CEO, Andrew Phillips, promises that "day-to-day operations will not change following the sale." Phillips also says that he's "excited to be part of a company where Author Solutions will be more of a focus," which I find interesting: has PRH been letting AS languish, or will the sale simply make AS a bigger cog in a smaller wheel?

The sale isn't as random as it might appear. The Najafi Companies have been involved in book- and publishing-related ventures before; also, Najafi CEO Jahm Najafi, along with several family members, apparently used AS services to publish their own books. Plus, in 2013 AS's former CEO Kevin Weiss became CEO of (now-bankrupt) SkyMall, which at the time was owned by Najafi.

Andrew Phillips alludes to AS's future plans for growth, which include international expansion and partnerships with publishers. Although AS was expanding vigorously via these avenues prior to its 2012 sale to Penguin's then-parent company, Pearson, since the sale it has done little beyond cloning its Partridge service and launching a self-pub division of PRH's Spanish-language trade subsidiary.

Elsewhere, it has lost ground. In 2014 it closed two imprints--Harlequin's DellArte Press, which at the time of its demise had published just 16 titles, and LifeWay's Crossbooks--and lost its partnership with Writer's Digest and F&W Media, for which it had created Abbott Press. In 2015, it lost another long-standing partnership with the Authors Guild. And its market share began to shrink--at least through 2013, when a report by Bowker showed major production declines across all AS imprints.

At the time of AS's acquisition by Pearson--for what I thought was a surprisingly low price, given AS's then-dominant position in the self-publishing services world--I wondered whether AS was really a good investment, with its old-fashioned POD-centric production model, not to mention its large fees and dreadful reputation. Just over three years later, AS finds itself with a new owner. You do the math.

As for AS's reputation, it's as bad as ever, and problems still plague its many imprints: poor customer service, problems with payment, deceptive advertising, high-priced services (particularly marketing services). Will the Najafi Companies take steps to address all of this? Or will they, like PRH, simply reap the profits and look the other way?

Only time will tell. In the meantime, AS needs to change its logo...

UPDATE: More coverage of the sale, from Mick Rooney at The Independent Publishing Magazine. "In a sense Author Solutions has now come full circle, back under private ownership, but with nothing like the foothold it once had in the self-publishing sector."

UPDATE: Frequent AS critic David Gaughran weighs in, pointing out that though PRH no longer owns AS, AS still runs four imprints for it: the three Partridges and MeGustaEscribir. Also, David says, "we must remember that Author Solutions isn’t closing down; it will continue to operate under a new owner – one which has announced no plans to reform the worst abuses, and which instead signaled its intent to continue the aggressive international expansion that was the hallmark of Penguin Random House’s ownership."

December 18, 2015

Almond Press Redux: Revenge-Rating a Critic

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Last week I wrote about Neoglyphic Entertainment, which responded to criticism of the rules of its Neoverse writing competition by engaging in productive dialogue and ultimately making the rules more author-friendly.

Not everyone in the small press world is so open to change. In my experience, and that of the countless authors who've contacted me about their publisher troubles, small presses are at least as likely to react to critiques of their contracts or business practices with defensiveness and anger. Or even, sometimes, attempts at retaliation.

Case in point: Almond Press, whose short story competition I featured here last July. Essentially, the competition was a way for Almond to gather free material for an anthology--the competition winner received a cash prize but none of the other entrants received any payment other than "exposure." (The anthology lineup can be seen here.) I wrote,
Even if Almond isn't reaping a secret profit from free stories, though, this is yet another example of the increasingly prevalent writing culture that urges authors to work for exposure, rather than for fair monetary compensation. Sometimes, exposure may be indeed be worth it--if Tor were to run a similar competition (not that it would), it might be worth entering. But where exposure is the main or only compensation for publication, you really need to parse its meaning. Does publication in an anthology from an obscure small press with Amazon sales rankings in the hundred thousands constitute "exposure?" If so, is it an equitable tradeoff for being paid for the exploitation of your intellectual property?
Well, Almond Press was not happy with that assessment, which is understandable. But did they change the competition rules? Did they decide to compensate all their authors? Did they contact me to discuss my post or even to threaten me with legal action?

No. Nothing that mature.

Last week I was checking my books on Goodreads, which I do sometimes to see if there've been any new reviews (yes, yes. I know). I noticed a brand-new one-star rating on one of them, from...could it be? Almond Press!


Interesting, I thought. So I clicked on Almond's profile...and what should I discover but this:


That's right. Almond Press had revenge-rated every single one of my books. Clearly, a small press staffed by grownups.

I contacted Goodreads, which told me that everyone is entitled to an opinion--which is certainly true, if it's actually an opinion and not a childish attempt at retaliation. So it would appear that Almond's revenge-ratings are there to stay. Not that big of a deal, really--unless, of course, you think that publishers should respond to criticism in a forthright and professional manner.

Hmm. Maybe I should check Amazon.

December 9, 2015

Neoverse Writing Competition Makes Its Rules More Author-Friendly

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

This is the kind of post I wish I got to write more often.

For the past couple of weeks I've been getting inquiries about the Neoverse Short Story Writing Competition, sponsored by Neoglyphic Entertainment.

The competition is free to enter--always a good thing--and offers cash prizes as well as anthology publication for the winners. But there was a problem: the Official Rules, which included a number of author-unfriendly provisions. All entrants were required to grant exclusive publishing rights, even though only the best 20 would be included in the anthology. While the top 10 entrants received cash prizes, entrants 11-20 got no payment at all. And Neoglyphic retained a right of first refusal for entered stories that received other publishing offers--not just an overly sweeping claim, but a conflict with the exclusive grant of rights.

I've devoted a lot of blog space to bad contest terms, but given the lure of writing contests, it's a subject that never goes out of style. I was preparing a post on the Neoverse competition when I received an email from Neoglyphic's co-founder and COO, David Ramadge, introducing himself and his company and asking for feedback. I sent back a list of questions...and to make a long story short, David and his colleagues--who were already working to change things based on advice from other experts--have re-written the rules.

The new rules can be seen here. (For comparison, the old rules have been left online.) The grant of rights is now non-exclusive, and only the 20 winners grant publishing rights; other entrants grant only the right for their stories to be distributed for the purpose of judging. All 20 winners now receive cash prizes, making the anthology a paying market.* The right of first refusal is gone, and the license terms overall have been simplified and clarified. And all these changes are retroactive. If you've already entered, you are now covered by the new rules.

I have to say that I'm very impressed with Neoglyphic's openness to change. So often, small presses respond to criticism and suggestion with anger and intransigence. Neoglyphic says it wants to be "a positive contributor to the writing community"; in my opinion, it has made a good start.

So should you enter? That's up to you. In addition to the cash prizes, the competition promises "Visibility, Recognition, Reward" for the authors published in the anthology--a promise that may or may not be deliverable, even for an established publisher.

And Neoglyphic is not an established publisher. It is a new company, and the anthology will be only its second publication (the first will be Sunborn Rising, an "immersive novel"). When I asked David Ramadge why authors should consider an as-yet untested publisher--especially given the volatility of the small press world, where new publishers are as likely to fail as to survive--he told me: "[W]e are a company aimed at building tools for storytellers and creators....In regards to the readership of this anthology, we obviously do not know with certainty what kind of distribution we will achieve but are confident in the relationships and marketing abilities of our team to provide a meaningful result for our winners. This is also why we made the entry free and the prizes generous, because we are new....[F]or us this contest is about building goodwill and a name for ourselves, and so it is in our interest to make this as successful as possible."

The submission deadline for the Neoverse Short Story Writing Competiion is December 20, 2015.

~~~~~

* Authors do not receive royalties from the Neoverse competition anthology; the prize money is their only compensation. Some people feel that a royalty structure is a more equitable form of payment, because it allows authors a share of profit--but especially for small press anthologies, where distribution may be limited and sales may be small, my feeling is that a flat fee is preferable to a percentage of income split among a big pool of contributors.

In any case, David Ramadge tells me that Neoglyphic plans to reinvest any profits the anthology may realize: "From a financial perspective, never has it been our goal to generate a direct profit with this contest; if we do happen to sell anthology copies to cover the costs of prizes, production and marketing then those funds will go directly back into the Neoverse contest."

November 18, 2015

Signing Away Your Rights: Arbitration Clauses in Book Contracts

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Recently, the New York Times published a fascinating three-part series of articles on arbitration clauses, and how such clauses "buried in tens of millions of contracts have deprived Americans of one of their most fundamental constitutional rights: their day in court." (You can also listen to an interview with the articles' author on NPR.)

The articles deal mainly with consumer and employment contracts, in which, according to the Times, arbitration clauses have created "an alternate system of justice" where "rules tend to favor businesses, and judges and juries have been replaced by arbitrators who commonly consider the companies their clients." But arbitration clauses are increasingly common in publishing contracts, too--as well as in the Terms of Use of some major self-publishing platforms. And most authors don't understand their implications.

What's an Arbitration Clause?

Here's one example, drawn from a contract I saw recently:
If any dispute shall arise between the Author and the Publisher regarding this Agreement, the Publisher and Author will first attempt to resolve such dispute through mediation, and, if that fails, such dispute shall be referred to binding arbitration in accordance with the Rules of the American Arbitration Association, and any arbitration award shall be fully enforceable as a judgment in any court of competent jurisdiction. Notwithstanding the foregoing, the parties shall have the right to conduct reasonable discovery as permitted by the arbitrator(s) and the right to seek temporary, preliminary, and permanent injunctive relief in any court of competent jurisdiction during the pendency of the arbitration or to enforce the terms of an arbitration award.
They don't all include such dense legalese:
Recognizing the expense, distraction, and uncertainty resulting from litigation of disputes which may arise under this Agreement, AUTHOR and PUBLISHER agree that AUTHOR and PUBLISHER shall submit any and all disputes arising in any way under this Agreement to the American Arbitration Association for final disposition in accordance with its rules.
Where will you find an arbitration clause in your publishing contract? Anywhere. It may appear under a separate caption (for instance, "Arbitration and Dispute Resolution") but more often is buried under other headings, such as "Reversion and Termination" or "Miscellaneous", where it can easily be glossed over.

How Arbitration Clauses Limit Your Rights

Arbitration is often portrayed as an easier, more friendly method of dispute settlement, allowing the parties to avoid the hassle and expense of litigation. But as the Times points out, this reasonable-sounding explanation leaves out some darker truths.
  • Arbitration clauses are binding, and supersede your right to go to court to settle a dispute. If you sign a contract with an arbitration clause, you are waiving your right to legal action. Many people don't realize this.
  • People often assume that arbitration is similar to appearing before a judge. But, says the Times, "arbitration...often bears little resemblance to court....Winners and losers are decided by a single arbitrator who is largely at liberty to determine how much evidence a plaintiff can present and how much the defense can withhold."
  • Arbitrators--many of whom are retired judges--are supposed to be impartial, but often they're not. Plaintiff and defendant choose an arbitrator from a list supplied by the arbitration company; for obvious reasons, defendants prefer to choose arbitrators with a history of defendant-friendly rulings, and plaintiffs, who may not have that inside knowledge, may not know enough to object. In turn, arbitrators feel pressure to favor defendants, since this makes it more likely they'll be chosen--and paid.
  • Arbitrators' decisions are hard to challenge. Courts have proved reluctant to reverse them, even where they are obviously unfair.
  • Arbitration can cost you, even beyond any judgment that may go against you. In addition to travel and filing fees, you may have to pay the arbitrator.
  • Christian organizations sometimes require Christian arbitration, such as that provided by Peacemaker Ministries. Prayer and scripture may be given preference over law and evidence. (I've seen publishing contracts with Christian arbitration clauses.)
  • Increasingly, arbitration clauses include bans on class actions. "By banning class actions," says the Times, "companies have essentially disabled consumer challenges to practices like predatory lending, wage theft and discrimination....Corporations said that class actions were not needed because arbitration enabled individuals to resolve their grievances easily. But court and arbitration records show the opposite has happened: Once blocked from going to court as a group, most people dropped their claims entirely."

    You don't see class action bans (or at least I haven't, yet) in contracts from publishers. But some self-publishing platforms' arbitration clauses do include them. That Author Solutions' Terms of Use would ban class actions (see Clause 13.3, Mandatory Arbitration/Class Action Waiver) is hardly surprising, since they've been a target (and changed their TOU as a direct result--compare their 2012 agreement to their current one)--but I'll bet that few KDP authors are aware that the same ban appears in Amazon's TOU (bolding is Amazon's):
    10.1 Disputes. Any dispute or claim relating in any way to this Agreement or KDP will be resolved by binding arbitration, rather than in court, except that you may assert claims in small claims court if your claims qualify. The United States Federal Arbitration Act and federal arbitration law apply to this Agreement. There is no judge or jury in arbitration, and court review of an arbitration award is limited. However, an arbitrator can award on an individual basis the same damages and relief as a court (including injunctive and declaratory relief or statutory damages), and must follow the terms of this Agreement as a court would. ... You and we each agree that any dispute resolution proceedings will be conducted only on an individual basis and not in a class, consolidated or representative action. If for any reason a claim proceeds in court rather than in arbitration you and we each waive any right to a jury trial. You or we may bring suit in court on an individual basis only, and not in a class, consolidated or representative action, to apply for injunctive remedies. You may bring any such suit for injunctive remedies only in the courts of the State of Washington, USA.
    Lulu's TOU also includes an arbitration clause with a class action ban. By contrast, Kobo Writing Life, Smashwords, Draft2Digital, Bookbaby, and IngramSpark don't have arbitration clauses at all (though some do qualify authors' ability to seek legal redress, such as requiring them to waive the right to a jury trial or restricting the amount of damages they can claim).
How to Protect Yourself?
 
Unfortunately, you don't have many options. It's a rare publisher that will be willing to amend its arbitration clause--let alone agree to delete it. As for Terms of Use, they are not negotiable; it's take it or leave it.

Things to look for in an arbitration clause: language that ensures you can go to small claims court for qualifying amounts; that the chosen arbitrator must have publishing expertise; and that if the parties can't agree on an arbitrator within a reasonable period of time, either party can proceed to court. Be sure, also, that arbitration will be conducted by an established group, such as the American Arbitration Association. A nonprofit like the AAA is preferable to a for-profit, such as JAMS, another major arbitration firm.

If your contract includes a Christian arbitration clause, see if you can get the publisher to substitute non-religious arbitration. If they refuse, seriously consider walking away.

How likely is it that you'll have a legal dispute with your publisher or self-publishing service, much less cause to unite with other authors in a class action? In the general run of things, not very. But as regular readers of this blog know, you can never say never. You owe it to yourself to understand how your publishing contract, or your self-pub platform's Terms of Use, does or does not restrict your right to legal redress.

UPDATE: Passive Guy (of the Passive Voice blog) has responded to this post, acknowledging that arbitration can be abused but suggesting that it offers some advantages:
Cost. In civil litigation, the panoply of procedural roadblocks and discovery tools are available to the wealthiest party to the lawsuit. Common defense practice is to delay, delay, delay. In some cases, an individual may simply be unable to afford the attorneys fees necessary to make it through the preliminaries to trial. In a complex case, arbitration can take time and cost money, but arbitration is intended to be a faster and less-expensive alternative to litigation. The arbitrator is able to cut through the preliminaries and move to a hearing on the merits in ways a judge can’t.

Expertise. The judges that hear contract disputes of the type that are likely to occur between authors and publishers or authors and etailers are generalists. Your judge may handle a hearing on a drug case in the morning and your contract dispute in the afternoon. There are no judges that only handle contract disputes involving books. Very few Intellectual Property attorneys ever become judges (PG doesn’t know any who have). One of the reasons for the rise and continued success of AAA and JAMS is that they offer arbitrators with substantial knowledge and expertise in a variety of specialized areas. In an author/publisher dispute, it would be reasonable to expect that the arbitrator might be a practicing or retired IP attorney who comes to the case knowing 95% of what an attorney would have to explain about copyright and publishing practices to a judge in a civil trial.

Time. Big Publishing contracts always specify New York state or federal courts as the place where an author must go to pursue his/her legal claims. PG is not familiar with detailed backlog statistics for New York courts, but he feels confident in saying if you file a suit against a publisher today and the publisher wants to delay, it will be several years before you actually get to trial. Federal judges are overwhelmed with criminal cases, primarily drug cases. Because of constitutional requirements for speedy trial, etc., in criminal matters, etc., the drug cases will bump civil cases down the calendar over and over. 99% of arbitration hearings are completed months or years before the same matter would be resolved by the courts.

Privacy. Unlike courts, which are open to the public, arbitration hearings and files are private. During the recent litigation between Ellora’s Cave and Jane Litte of Dear Author, several different blogs followed the court filings and commented about what they said. Indeed, for many, the Ellora’s Cave suit revealed Jane’s identity as the person behind Dear Author. In some cases, PG has used publicity or the threat of publicity to the advantage of his clients, but a great many authors don’t necessarily want to see their names and faces associated with a court case and spread all over the internet.
I would point out, though, that while these advantages may exist in ideal situations, one of the points the Times articles make most strongly is that situations are often not ideal. Also, Big Publishers may specify NY or federal courts, but of the many, many small press contracts I've seen, I've yet to encounter one that requires a federal court filing, or is not governed by the laws of whatever state the press is located in.

As to privacy--the Ellora's Cave lawsuit was filed in federal court. For lawsuits filed in state courts, court documents are not nearly as easy to get hold of.

November 13, 2015

Why Writer Beware Doesn't Make Agent or Publisher Recommendations

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Since Writer Beware was founded in 1998, we've run a free email advice service to help writers who are looking for info on an agent's or publisher's reputation, or have questions about publishing in general (you can reach us at beware [at] sfwa.org).

Two of the most frequent questions we receive: Can you recommend a good agent/publisher? and You publish "Thumbs Down" lists--can't you also publish "Thumbs Up" lists?

For obvious reasons, Writer Beware avoids recommending fee-based services (this is why, if you ask us to suggest a reputable freelance editor, we will say no). But we don't feel comfortable providing other recommendations, either. There are several reasons why.

- A bad agent or publisher is bad for every writer, but a good agent or publisher is only good for some writers. Just as every writer has their own subject, genre, style, and tone, every agent, publisher, and editor has their own focus, specialty, and strength. For the best results, there needs to be a match.

It's just common sense that if you're a fantasy author, you won't submit to someone who doesn't agent or publish books in your genre. But other issues also need careful consideration. How active a role do you want your agent to take in steering your career? In editing your manuscript before submission? Is your goal one of the big publishers, or would a smaller publisher be preferable? Is a print edition important, or would you be satisfied with digital-first? It's a complex web of factors, and they all need to be taken into account when choosing agents or publishers to approach.

It really is best, therefore, for you to do the choosing, since you know your work and your goals best. That's why, rather than providing recommendations or Thumbs Up lists, Writer Beware prefers to offer information and suggest research techniques to help you make up your mind (and, just as important, to avoid the deadbeats),.

- "Good" is subjective. How do you define a good agency? A premier New York City firm that represents famous names and deals mainly with the Big 5? A boutique agency with a small client list and sales to solid independent publishers? If your idea of good doesn't tally with mine, any recommendations I give you might not be helpful. That subjectivity is another reason why you should do the choosing.

- Change happens. Agencies and publishers get sold, come under new management, switch specialties, or just, sometimes, fall into decline. The change isn't always public knowledge, or doesn't become apparent until well after the fact. Recommendations and Thumbs Up lists--even where based on best knowledge--have the potential to unintentionally mislead people, and Writer Beware doesn't want to risk that. (By contrast, bad agents and publishers don't change: once bad, always bad. Which is why we feel comfortable pointing our thumbs down).

- We don't have the resources. Writer Beware's mission is to provide warnings and collect documentation to help writers avoid questionable agents, publishers, and others. We don't have the staff to also function as an agent- or publisher-matching service--something that, to be done right, would require careful, time-consuming research (we are all volunteers). Also, while there's only one other organization we know of that provides warnings about schemes and scams (Preditors and Editors), there are many, many resources to help writers find and identify reputable agents and publishers.

- Writer Beware strives to be impartial; we don't endorse people, companies, or services. This is another reason not to provide recommendations or Thumbs Up lists, which could be taken as such.

I hope this clarifies things. As always, comments are welcome!

October 22, 2015

Guest Post: Imitation is Much More Than Flattery

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

I've been scarce around here over the past few months. As I mentioned in my blog post of July 26, I've been coping with a family medical emergency that has gobbled up much of my time and strength. But I'm glad to say that my mother is doing better, and things are less frantic for me and my family. At least for now.

I don't know what the future will bring--there is only one direction in which the situation can go, and there are certainly more emergencies to come. So I may disappear again for a while. But for the moment, I'm back, on social media (mostly Twitter, and to a lesser degree on Facebook) and this blog.

This week I've got another great guest post from author and writing teacher Barbara Baig, who explains why imitating the styles and techniques of writers you love can be a terrific learning tool.

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Imitation is Much More Than Flattery
 by

The word imitation makes many aspiring writers nervous. If they have spent any time in the academic world, then the word imitation will probably remind them of plagiarism, a crime punishable (when discovered) by lowered grades or even expulsion. Everywhere in the writing world—especially on blogs—beginning writers are advised that their work, their story, their writing voice must be unique, entirely their own. For some, this message reverberates so loudly that they refuse even to read other writers, for fear of being denounced as “imitative.”

But fear of imitation keeps writers from making use of a fabulous learning tool, one that humans have depended on probably forever. How do we learn to speak? By imitating the sounds the people around us make. How do we learn to walk? By imitating the way these people move. How do artists learn to paint, baseball players to hit? By imitating the professionals who already know how to do these things. Many professional writers have begun their careers with “imitative” work.

Imitation comes into its own as a learning tool when we use it, not to produce a finished piece of work, but to learn and develop skills. The writers we love give us models of the kind of writing we’d like to be able to do. Many aspiring writers read their favorites, sigh, and say to themselves, I wish I could write like that!

Well, you can—if you’re willing to put your work-in-progress aside and instead devote yourself to practicing skills. Say, for instance, that you love the kinds of words your favorite writer uses. You can pull some of those words out into a notebook and examine them. Are they concrete, sensory words? What sense or senses are they speaking to? Do you like some combination of sounds in a word or group of words? Take note of what you think is good about these words; then practice collecting some just like them.

Now select some of these words and put them into sentences. These sentences will be somewhat imitative of the originals, true, but it doesn’t matter because they are just practice sentences. The practice is training your mind to choose certain kinds of words, to tune it to particular qualities or sounds that please you. The more you practice, the more easily words like these will come to you when you return to your work-in-progress. The sentences you write then will not be imitative, but they will be of higher quality than those you might have written previously, because practice has educated your writer’s mind and ear to new possibilities.

The same thing is true with sentences. Most beginning writers use the same kinds of sentence structures over and over, without even realizing they’re doing so. But skilled professional writers know that to master all the sentence structures available to us in English is to gain a power that enables us to captivate our readers’ attention, to seize and control their emotions. Take sentence variety, for instance. If your sentences are all the same length, your readers will soon be bored. But mix up long and short sentences, using the long ones to lull readers, perhaps, and the short ones to jolt them awake, or create emphasis, and your readers’ experience will be completely different.

Here, again, you can use your favorite writer as a model. Copy out a paragraph or two from his or her work and study the sentences. How many long ones are there? Short ones? Fragments? What kind of effect is this particular combination of sentences creating? Now write a paragraph of your own, imitating as closely as you can the sentence structures from your model. Try to create some kind of effect with this technique of sentence variation. Read over what you’ve written. If you’re not satisfied, try again.

Learning through imitation is not something that can happen in a day. If you really want to improve, you’ve got to devote yourself to practice long-term, just as aspiring professional athletes and musicians do. With this kind of regular practice, though, you’ll learn all the techniques you need to become a skilled writer.

In fact, if you practice enough, perhaps some day a young aspiring writer will be learning his or her skills by imitating your published work.

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Barbara Baig is a writer and veteran writing teacher, who is passionate about showing writers what can be done with the English language. She is the author of two books from Writer’s Digest: How to Be a Writer: Building Your Creative Skills Through Practice and Play and Spellbinding Sentences: A Writer’s Guide to Achieving Excellence and Captivating Readers. She offers free writing lessons at WhereWritersLearn.com.

August 25, 2015

Author Solutions Class Action Lawsuit Settled

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

A class action lawsuit against Author Solutions Inc. has been settled and discontinued.

Filed in April 2013 by law firm Giskan Solotaroff Anderson & Stewart, LLP against ASI and its parent company, Penguin Group, the suit alleged breach of contract, unjust enrichment, various violations of the California Business and Professional Code, and violation of New York General Business Law. Penguin was later dismissed from the case, along with some--but not all--of the claims against ASI.

The case proceeded to discovery, and in February of this year Giskan Solotaroff filed for class certification. On July 1, Judge Denise Cote denied certification. The parties then proceeded to settlement, which apparently has been reached, because on August 12, Judge Cote ordered the case to be discontinued.
It having been reported to the Court that this case has been settled, it is hereby ORDERED that the above-captioned action is hereby discontinued without costs to any party and without prejudice to restoring the action to this Court's calendar if the application to restore the action is made within forty-five days.
The terms of the settlement have not been released. PW has more.

ASI is not clear of legal actions, however. Another lawsuit was filed in Indiana in March of this year, also by Giskan Solotaroff, with similar claims of fraud and unjust enrichment. According to Sarah Weinman, writing in Publishers Lunch (subscription required), this suit has been consolidated with another into a single case. Weinman notes:
Back in April, after the second suit was filed in Indiana, Oren Giskan told us the Indiana cases were filed "because we came to understand that all of the claims we wished to have resolved could only be done in the State of Indiana," where ASI has their headquarters.
UPDATE 9/15: The Indiana lawsuit has also been dismissed. From PW:
A brief notice filed September 14 showed the case against Author Solutions in Indiana was voluntarily dismissed, with prejudice, with the parties agreeing to end litigation and to pay their own costs and attorney fees.

August 20, 2015

Beware Social Media Snake Oil

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

This week I've got another great guest post for you, from marketing expert Chris Syme.

We writers have all heard that we "have" to be on social media, which is presented to us--both by experts and the not-so-expert--as the Holy Grail of marketing and self-promotion. But apart from the thorny questions of which platforms to use (Twitter? Facebook? Pinterest? Some of them? All of them?), and how to use them (How often should we post? What's the proper mix of friendly interaction and self-promotion?), there's the problem of "services" that want to exploit our confusion to rip us off.

Read on for solid advice on how to separate the worthwhile from the worthless, and warnings about some common social media scams.

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Social Media Snake Oil Comes In All Shapes And Sizes
by 
Chris Syme

Authors want to sell books. But most indie authors know very little about how to promote their books. And when it comes to social media, authors everywhere are throwing up their hands. Is it a waste of time? Do I need to be on Twitter? How often should I post on Facebook?

I get email from authors who are frustrated. They see social media as a minefield and don’t want to step in for fear they will never come out. Sometimes the easiest thing to do is just buy that package of hundreds of tweets for twenty dollars and cross your fingers hoping that somebody will buy your book. After all, everybody says you have to be on Twitter, right? We hear words like platform, brand, discoverability. How can an author break through the firehose of noise on the Internet and decide what, if anything, to do?

Separate The Wheat From The Chaff

My husband is a grain farmer. Every year we pull out the massive combine and dust it off, getting ready for the magic of harvest. Gone are the days when workers had to beat the grain shocks by hand to separate the wheat from the chaff. These days, those big expensive machines cut the wheat and feed it through a mechanism that separates the grain from its stalk The stalks are chewed up into chaff and spewed out the back of the combine to be absorbed back into the soil.

In marketing, we need to do the same. We have to learn how to separate the snake oil from the good stuff. Authors should want to learn how to spot a worthless marketing scheme. But there’s a learning curve. And sometimes that Facebook ad that worked for your friend isn’t going to work for you. This is where education comes in. The book marketing sector, more than any I have ever worked in, is full of bad marketing advice. My objective here is to help you separate the wheat from the chaff -- to be able to spot snake oil when you see it.

It’s The Principle Of The Thing

Every business sector has best practices. It’s possible to circumvent those and get a modicum of success, but that is an anomaly. Social media marketing has basic principles of success. They aren’t rocket science, they are based on data. Take this example on hashtags.

In early 2014, Dan Zarella, a social media data researcher for HubSpot, found that if hashtags are used in a tweet (# -- a pound sign -- followed by a phrase of reference that is followed by many people), that tweet is 55 percent more likely to be retweeted than one with no hashtags. His results were based on mining data from over one million tweets. So, people jumped on the hashtag band wagon. The more, the better, or so people thought.

In 2014 Buffer, another reliable social media research company, published data that showed that after two hashtags, engagement of a post actually goes down (graphic courtesy of Buffer).

This is a principle that most savvy marketers take for granted now. But there are some unethical snake oil salespeople out there telling authors that the more hashtags the merrier. They didn’t get the memo on too many hashtags tanking engagement. And, for a mere $19, you can buy a day’s worth of tweets loaded with hashtags from beginning to end that promise to hike your books sales. Here is a sample ad:


Not a day goes by that I don’t see this scam retweeted by several authors, maybe because they promised to help promote the service for more free tweets that will “reach millions of people generating a truly astonishing amount of traffic.” All these hashtag-laden tweets do is annoy people. To the savvy social media user, they reek of stupidity. The outlier may sell a few books, but I wonder how many more books that person could have sold if they had used their money wisely.

Another popular Twitter scam offered by more than one company offers authors hundreds of thousands of followers worth of exposure for your tweet for a fee. I experimented with one of these snake oil outfits recently just to test it. I knew I was blowing my money, but it was a mere twenty bucks to prove my thesis.

This company boasts three different Twitter accounts with 375,000 followers. I want to add that it is fairly easy to amass Twitter followers if you know what you are doing. For instance, this particular company is supposedly followed by LeBron James, according to the report I ran on their followers on Simply Measured. But the real LeBron James only follows 184 people. So, on a whim I looked through them all. This company was not there. And, their fake LeBron James has only three million followers while the real King James has 23 million. This LeBron James page is a fake account built to fool people into following. It has been followed by millions of people who think it’s the real thing. These fake accounts automatically follow back so other unscrupulous people can amass large follower counts. It’s a well-known racket in marketing circles. Fake follower companies search diligently for these auto-following accounts to increase their fake reach. (Did you notice I use the word fake a lot?)

Also, an analysis of this company’s top 20 influencers did not produce one account that would be in the market for my books. My $19 produced zero sales and zero new Twitter followers. Maybe I should have spent more money. But alas, here’s a review of their service from an author who purchased five days worth of tweets. Also no sales.

Scam artists know what they are doing. They are playing on peoples’ pain points and ignorance. They can build fake followings completely on accounts that follow back automatically. Keep in mind that all you need to start a Twitter account is an email address. It’s an ugly, dark business. There is no verification to make sure that real people are setting up accounts. These companies abound on the internet. Hint: if the website looks rinky-dink and boasts of millions of daily impressions from loyal fans, beware.

We Will Promote Your Book…For A Price

There are more bad promotion sites out there than you can shake a stick at. How can you tell the difference between the good, the bad, and the ugly? Many of them have slick websites, Facebook pages, and multiple Twitter feeds boasting of thousands, maybe millions of followers. Here are a couple pointers to help you make up your mind.

1. Good sites: There are many sites out there that are based on good marketing principles and have a large audience of both authors and readers. They validate their expertise with blog pieces, authentic peer recommendations, podcasts, books they write, webinars, speaking engagements, and they can prove success by numbers over a long period of time. Not everyone in this category is spot on when it comes to social media strategy, but most are trying. The resource may be membership-gated such as Jim Kukral’s Author Marketing Club (I am a member), Where Writers Win, and others. They usually offer a subscription at a reasonable yearly price and offer a large variety of tools to help authors succeed. The large variety of marketing tools is a key.

There are also many knowledgeable marketers that cater strictly to authors such as Penny Sansevieri’s Author Marketing Experts, Joel Friedlander’s The Book Designer, and Book Marketing Tools.

In the good category are also author forums like Writers Café (KBoards) and The Alliance Of Independent Authors (I am a member). Forums like these are populated by authors and are a good place to get recommendations and reviews for everything from editors to marketing services.

There are also a number of authors out there that share their validated expertise with other authors through a combination of free resources and pay-per webinars and classes. Joanna Penn and Jane Friedman come to mind.

2. Questionable sites (the bad and the ugly): It is impossible to list all the suspect author marketing services out there but I do write about them often on my agency’s blog for authors. These sites ask for money for their suspect services. There is no information on their “about” pages that validates their expertise or existence, just blabbing about the reach of their audience. They are not published authors or even legitimate marketing services. They are product-only.

Beware of offers like this one from Contentmo. Besides the fact that their website design is a red flag, their claim that they have 23 million impressions a month on social media is irrelevant. There is no explanation or proof of who or where those impressions come from other than a list of their interconnected Twitter feeds and low-volume Facebook pages. Another red flag here is the absence of real people’s names in the About section of their site, a Gmail address as a contact, no address or location information, and their testimonials are suspect. I am also wondering why a company that brags 23 million impressions a month has only 167 likes on their Facebook page.

Many sites in this category have some free services. If you want to give them a try, keep track of your results. I recommend recording results with every marketing strategy you try. If they are free, give them more than one try so you can make sure your initials results were correct. Free is okay but you often get what you pay for…nothing.

The world of social media marketing is a quagmire for many authors. If you’re just not sure what to do, I would recommend starting with self-education. I have a list of resources (mostly blogs) on my website that I personally recommend. The more educated you become, the easier it will be for you to spot snake oil when you see it.

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Chris Syme has over 25 years experience in the communications industry and is principal at CKSyme Media Group. Her agency specializes in social media marketing, virtual assistant services, and digital communication services for self-published authors and higher education. She is a former university media relations professional. Chris is a frequent speaker on the national stage and the author of two books on social media: Listen, Engage, Respond and Practice Safe Social 2.0. Her agency won the 2014 SoMe Award for Social Media Agency Of The Year. Her new book, SMART Social Media For Authors, will be released in fall 2015.

Contact: Chris Syme | email chris@cksyme.com | phone 406.599.6079 | website: www.cksyme.com

August 6, 2015

Guest Post: Want to Become a Better Writer? Stop Writing.

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

As I explained in my last post, I'm still mostly M.I.A., but I've lined up some terrific guest posts that will appear over the next few weeks.

Today's guest post comes from author and writing teacher Barbara Baig, who reveals how the path to productive writing may sometimes be, paradoxically, to put your writing on hold for a while.

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Want to Become a Better Writer? Stop Writing.
 by

These days, aspiring writers are told constantly that, to attract the attention of agents and editors, they must develop a platform and learn to promote themselves. But just about every article or post offering such advice also includes this reminder: First, you must write an excellent book.

But how do writers achieve this excellence?

Certainly not by following another piece of writing advice, very prevalent these days: Just keep writing, you’ll get better. Really? Can you imagine a hitting coach saying to a kid who wants to be a professional baseball player, Just keep swinging the bat, you’ll get better?

Aspiring writers can’t walk a path to excellence by repeatedly doing what they already know how to do; like aspiring major-leaguers, if they want to become professionals, they have to learn and develop professional-level skills.

This isn’t easy: there are a large number of skills to learn. For instance, can you reliably come up with and develop ideas and materials for pieces of writing? Do you have a writing process that works for you? Do you know how to establish and maintain a natural relationship with readers? These are some of what I call “content skills,” the ones writers must have to come up with material for stories or poems or nonfiction pieces.

Then there are the “craft skills” we must also have. Everyone knows about the importance of mastering genre—being able to shape a mystery or a romance or a memoir. But what about the “small craft”--the craft of choosing words and arranging them into powerful sentences that take hold of a reader’s mind and won’t let go? When you’re working on a draft or a revision, does your mind give you the words, the sentence structures, you need to accomplish this? And, if not, why not?

The default answer to this last question is “talent”: Some people have it; others, less fortunate, do not.

But the default answer, happily, is not true. Researchers in the scientific field of expertise studies have for years been studying experts in various fields, to answer the question, “What makes certain people really good at what they do?” They’ve discovered that innate talent has very little, if anything, to do with expertise. Instead, they’ve learned that what creates experts is a particular approach to learning: They call it “deliberate practice.”

This approach requires (among other things) breaking down a complex skill--like writing--into its component sub-skills, then practicing each skill separately until it’s mastered, then putting them all together. This is the approach professional athletes and musicians have been using for decades; they spend much more time practicing and training their skills than they do in performance. Writers can--and, I believe, should--do the same thing. Oh, sure, you can struggle through the writing of five novels, learning things about the craft each time, and finally make the sixth one work; lots of successful writers have taken that path.

But you can also learn your skills much more efficiently: by identifying the ones you need to learn, and practicing them. This is especially true in the realm of craft. Many aspiring writers have good ideas for stories, but they don’t know how to use the English language with precision and power. Many of them have been told this doesn’t matter: ”Just write. Some editor will fix your writing later.” This, too, is bad advice. Excellent writers are people who have mastered the power of language, who know how to use words and sentences to communicate, to move their readers, to keep them turning pages. You may not believe that you can ever get to their level; but you can.

Through practice, you can train the part of your mind that comes up with words to work more effectively, so that, as you’re writing, it gives you exactly the words you need. Through learning and practice you can acquire a large repertoire of sentence constructions, so that, as you write, you can choose the ones that will give your prose energy, focus, phrasing, rhythm, and other qualities that hold and keep the attention of readers.

Naturally, you need time to learn these things, time to practice them. Many aspiring writers have been advised that, if they just get those five hundred (or two thousand) words on the page every day, they can call themselves real writers. But what if their daily words have no power? How is this kind of unproductive writing helping them move towards excellence?

So, consider this approach instead. Stop writing. Figure out what skills you need to learn, and develop a routine for practicing them. If you don’t know where to begin, try this little experiment: Take a sheet of paper and fold it in half. On one half, write down all the things you can do well as a writer (for example, “I can come up with great ideas for stories”); on the other half, write down all the things you don’t do so well, or can’t do at all (for example, “My sentences are clunky.”) If you have a hard time thinking of things you can’t do, consider your favorite writer: What can he do on the page that makes you love his work? Can you do those things? Can you do them as well? Add those items to your list. (Do not include on your list any skills you have in promoting your work; we’re talking about writing here.)

What you’ve done is the first step towards becoming a better writer: You’ve assessed your skills. Perhaps you’re happy with where you are now; perhaps you’re appalled at how feeble your skills appear. Or perhaps, if you are just getting started as a writer, you are like beginners in any field: You don’t know what you don’t know. In any case, you now have, however tentatively, a starting point for your learning. You’re ready to embark on what I like to call The Mastery Path for Writers Seeking Excellence, a path whose focus is practice.

Now choose some skills to practice--let’s say, for example, the “small craft” skills ofwriting short, simple sentences, then elaborating them with bound and free modifiers,appositives, nominative absolutes and other techniques. Practice one technique everyday until you feel you have mastered it, then try another; in the process you will betraining your brain to use these various techniques without thinking about them.

When you’ve mastered a repertoire of skills, return to your work-in-progress or to one of your story ideas. Now your “small craft” skills, well-honed through weeks or months of practice, will give you a solid foundation from which to produce work that approaches the excellence agents and editors in the book business yearn for.

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Barbara Baig is a writer and veteran writing teacher, who is passionate about showing writers what can be done with the English language. She is the author of two books from Writer’s Digest: How to Be a Writer: Building Your Creative Skills Through Practice and Play and Spellbinding Sentences: A Writer’s Guide to Achieving Excellence and Captivating Readers. She offers free writing lessons at WhereWritersLearn.com.

July 26, 2015

Writer Beware Blog on Temporary Hiatus

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Last Sunday, my elderly mother, who's fighting cancer, fell in her apartment and broke three ribs. Cue nightmare scenario: 911 call...12 hours in the emergency room...confusion over hospital admission...fighting the massive hospital bureaucracy that wanted to discharge her ASAP despite the fact that she couldn't even get out of bed unassisted...it was the week from hell.

Stubbornly independent, my mom still lives alone, with a ton of assistance from me and my husband, my brother, and family friends. But as much help as she's needed over the past two years, now she's going to need even more. So the Writer Beware blog has to take a back seat. You may see a guest post or two (I have a great one scheduled for the first week in August), and Michael Capobianco may stop by with a post. But I'm going to be scarce around here for a while, and you won't see me much on Twitter or Facebook, either. 

I will still be answering email, so please don't hesitate to write to me: beware [at] sfwa.org.

Thanks, and see you (hopefully) soon.
 
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