Friday, April 18, 2014

Take the Money and Run: Kerry Jacobson, "Book Publicist"

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Starting in the summer of last year, self-published authors whose books made it onto Amazon's Movers and Shakers list began to receive solicitations from a publicist named Kerry Jacobson (here's an example).

Jacobson, who claimed more than eight years of experience boosting authors onto bestseller lists, promised a marketing push that would vault the authors' books onto the New York Times and USA Today lists, or propel them into Amazon's top ten. He also promised guidance and mentoring to help them make the most of the opportunity.

Jacobson's fees were enormous--a retainer of $2,500, $4,500, even $6,500--with, in some cases, a $10,000 "bonus" due after authors made the lists. Authors who tried to research him to verify his background and claims of success found little beyond a few social media profiles--and, somewhat worryingly, a number of defunct businesses.* But he was dynamic and persuasive--especially on the phone--and, in support of his services, offered a strong testimonial from one author who really had made the NYT list.** He also provided a money-back guarantee.

Many authors looked at Jacobson's fees and said "no thanks." But others bit. They signed contracts, sent funds, provided requested publicity materials, and waited for the promised mentoring and guidance to begin.

And waited.

Authors discovered that, after the initial setup, getting in touch with Jacobson was like pulling teeth. Basically, except for sending invoices, he never contacted them unless they contacted him first. To their questions and concerns, he offered excuses--he'd been sick, he'd been crazy busy--or promises that everything was good on his end. He also pushed back agreed-upon marketing dates--sometimes repeatedly--with vague but important-sounding explanations like "several big titles are being released that week, and I don't want your campaign to suffer from the sales competition."

As their designated campaign dates approached, authors began to be seriously concerned. But, as is often the case in such situations, they hung on to hope--plus, having already invested thousands of dollars, many felt that they had no choice but to stick. So they promoted the marketing push to readers and fans, paid for advertising, and prepared to lower their books' prices to 99 cents as demanded in Jacobson's contracts. When their launch weeks arrived, they held their breath and waited for their sales ranks to rise.

And waited.

Some authors told me that they did see a sales boost, which they attributed entirely to their own promotional efforts. But others' sales ranks barely budged--and either way, they got nothing even close to the mega-sales that Jacobson had led them to expect. As for Jacobson himself, he was MIA--no sign of any action at all on his end. Authors who contacted him to demand what the hell was going on got the same vague answers and promises as before: big sales would come "tomorrow." It was taking a while for the numbers to build. He was focusing on the end of the push week rather than the start, because that was the way to get sales to rise organically.

It was all B.S., of course. And when angry authors attempted to hold Jacobson to his money-back guarantee--either after their failed promos or after watching their friends crash and burn--I'm sure you can guess what happened.

The mess went public in early March of this year, when one furious author posted a webpage (since removed) about her experience. She sent me a link, I put out a call for contact, and a number of other Jacobson victims responded. They paid a variety of fees and were promised a variety of results, but otherwise their experiences are remarkably similar.

Jacobson seems to have gone to ground. He's removed his Twitter profile and I've had no word of any author solicitations past February. But his AuthorBub website (which promises promotion to a claimed 2.4 million email list for the low, low price of $2,800), is still online--and people who get started in the author-fleecing business have a tendency to come back for more. So I wouldn't be surprised if he reappears at some point.

* Jacobson is or has been the officer or the registered agent for a number of other Florida-based businesses, including Venture Direct Worldwide, Generation Health, Tank Top Media, KnowSomebody.com, Ovid Consulting, Collaborative Push, Mile High Swap, Pernax, and Invitation Only.

** I've corresponded with the author, who told me that Jacobson was not responsible for her book's appearance on the NYT list, and that her testimonial was presented out of context.

Jacobson also claimed to have been the "project manager" for the marketing campaign for Jordan S. Rubin's The Maker's Diet, which he said spent 47 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. The book and its bestseller status are real (although not necessarily its science; the same year the book was published, Rubin's company, Garden of Life Inc., was ordered by the FDA to stop making unsubstantiated claims about some of its products and supplements) but I could find nothing to verify that Jacobson was involved.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Another Small Press Horror Story: Silver Publishing is Gone

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Another small press disaster came to an ugly conclusion last week.

In mid-2012, I began getting complaints about Silver Publishing, which started up in 2009 as a self-publishing facilitator, but in 2010 transformed itself into a "traditional royalty-paying press" (I put that in quotes because, these days, it means so little).

Reported problems included poor editing, delayed and missing royalty statements/payments, royalty reductions due to claimed "overpayments," arbitrary changes in royalty payment schedules, and lack of communication--or, alternatively, rude responses to authors' questions and concerns. (See the Silver Publishing thread at Absolute Write for examples.)

All signs of a publisher in, if not terminal disarray, at least trouble.

Silver's owner, South African-born Lodewyk M. Deysel, made an appearance at Absolute Write in August 2012 to aggressively deny negative reports. By November of that same year, however, he was admitting in company email that there was "a deficit when it comes to paying our royalties"--in part, apparently, because he'd spent royalty income on business and other expenses. His solution: putting authors on a "partial payment plan" or giving them the option to terminate their contracts--contingent, in at least certain cases, on payment of a fee. Other authors, fed up, took matters into their own hands and hired lawyers to negotiate the return of rights or to compel payment.

Silver limped on through 2013, despite a lack of improvement on the financial front and mounting author dissatisfaction. Then, in March of 2014, Deysel abruptly announced that Silver's "South African division" would be closing* and its "US division" had been sold. The purchaser? A company called Empire Entertainment, LLC, a Wyoming corporation registered less than a year previously. According to an email sent to Silver authors by the alleged new owners, Empire was "new to the publishing industry and excited about the future of the company."

Is this starting to sound familiar?

Not surprisingly, authors were suspicious. Why, they wondered, did Empire Entertainment have no website and zero web presence? Why was it registered with Wyoming Corporate Services, a company specializing in the establishment of shelf corporations, that was the subject of a damaging Reuters expose? Who would pay good money, anyway, for a publisher in so much financial trouble?

Well, we all know what happens when authors start asking inconvenient questions. On April 8, Deysel announced that the (probably entirely bogus) sale had fallen through "due to the unrest among the author base which represents Silver Publishing LLC's value." Uh huh. Deysel claimed to be consulting with Silver's attorney to figure out what came next.

Apparently, "what came next" was absconding to South Africa. Just a few days later, Silver author A.J. Llewellyn broke the news: Deysel was gone. With him went any hope of payment for Silver authors (though at least it appears that rights reversion letters are going out). A notice on Silver's website indicates that it will go offline permanently on May 1; it's being left up only so that people who bought books can still download them.

A.J.'s lengthy blog post unpacks the whole sordid story of Deysel and Silver, including illegal entry into the USA, spending sprees with authors' money, secret deals to pay some authors but not others, altered royalty reports, and more. I can't corroborate most of the information cited--unlike the recent debacle with Entranced Publishing, and unfolding problems at another press I'll be blogging about shortly, I've heard from only a handful of Silver authors, and no former staff members--but given what I do know, the allegations seem plausible. A.J. has posted a followup that references Deysel's alleged prior legal troubles in South Africa. A group of Silver authors plans to pursue Deysel in hopes of bringing him to justice.** I hope they succeed.

So what's the takeaway here?

Silver was in business long past the "wait a year" precaution for small press publishers. Looking at it from the outside, authors could reasonably have assumed it was stable. Also, complaints didn't really start surfacing until well into 2012, nearly two years after Silver started up--so at least at first, authors trying to research the company wouldn't have found anything (and once complaints did start surfacing, authors trying to go public not only received pressure from the publisher, but were apparently pilloried by their fellow Silver authors, so there were probably fewer complaints to be found than there might otherwise have been).

However, for approximately half of Silver's existence, multiple reports of problems existed online; and if you'd contacted Writer Beware, we would have given you a warning. So for at least part of the time, the information was there to be found. Yet authors kept signing up.

Any publisher can go bad. You can't always predict which ones. And if a bad publisher is diligent about quashing complaints, or has a firm base of loyalists, it may not be easy to find out about even substantial problems. But that doesn't change the vital importance of thoroughly researching any publisher you're thinking of using--and just as important,  researching it BEFORE submitting, rather than waiting until later. Don't trust your ability to say no to a contract once it has been offered. I've heard from too many authors who delayed due diligence, and, in the flush of acceptance, closed their eyes to warning signs.

* Was there ever really a South African division? The company was originally registered in South Africa, and Deysel claimed that it was based there--something that, as he was no doubt aware, made legal action for his primarily US-based authors difficult--and that he was based there as well. According to A.J. Lewellyn, however, Deysel was living in the USA from 2006 on--and from 2011 on, Silver was registered in Michigan and Delaware.

** Will Deysel, like so many bad publishers, start up again under a different name? He may already have been contemplating doing so back in 2013, when Gia Press (its website is gone, but its domain registration remains; note the name server) popped up on people's radar.

#sfwapro

Friday, April 11, 2014

How to Succeed in Authorship Without Really Trying

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Got the yen to write a book, but lack that essential creative spark? Looking to ride the coattails of the Kindle self-publishing craze, but don't want to bother with all that pesky scribbling? Want an author to create a story for you, but don't know where to find one?

Fret no more. The Internet's got you covered.

Here, for instance, would-be but inspiration-challenged authors can "Cash In on the Kindle Fiction Publishing Craze" by purchasing a "MASSIVE SET OF PRE-WRITTEN FICTION PLOTS."

That's right! A diligent ghostwriter and her crack writing team are offering "THIRTY-SIX plots in one huge package!" For only $27! Romance, erotica, science fiction, fantasy...it's all here, ready to use. Just add a touch of butt-in-chair, bolstered by this helpful advice:
So, how do you actually USE these plots?

First of all, do NOT publish them as-is! Even though some of the plots are almost short stories by themselves, they are not meant to be published in their current form.

Instead, you will use the plots as a guideline and change up different parts to make your own unique story. No two people will write these plots just alike. Change the character names and descriptions. Change the setting. Change the time period, careers of the characters and any number of other plot points.
Don't want to go to even that much effort? Buy Now Books will sell you an entire completed book, ready to upload to KDP or another self-publishing platform of your choice. No research required! No creativity necessary! No writing at all!! Just content, ready to use. You get plenty of extras, too:
In your book package you get the following files:

a. Microsoft Word Source Documents for Print & Digital.
b. EPUB, MOBI and Web PDF versions for your Digital Book.
c. Print PDF for Large Print & Trade Paperback Books.
d. Book Detail File including all Metadata need to publish your book.
e. 5 300 DPI Images that are used inside your book.
f. Cover Art: An eBook Cover, Large Print and Trade Paperback Cover & Audio Book Cover.(includes PSD files for editing)
g. 7,500 Words of Unique Content inside your book.
Prepare for a hit to your bank account, though--these "book packages" cost a cool $397.

(Buy Books Now is at pains to explain that it's not a PLR scheme:
We don’t use any PLR. These books are created with unique content written by our own in house writers. The book is created and SOLD ONLY ONCE. After that the files are deleted from our harddrive and you are now the sole owner of the book, the content and the copyright attached.
Good to know your "ghostwritten" ebook won't trigger Amazon's inappropriate content algorithms.)

And then there's StoryMondo, which crowdsources the whole "get it written for you" thing. They take requests for stories and/or poems, do an email blast to writers who've signed up to receive notifications (and some who haven't--me, for instance), and let the customer choose from among the submitted works.

Just the thing for seekers of bizarre egoboo. For example,
Our customer is Jason Womack who is a leading workplace performance and productivity expert. Jason is based in Ojai near Los Angeles, California and he runs a company that provides seminars, executive coaching and team performance programs. Jason has also written a book “Your Best Just Got Better” and he produces a weekly podcast.

Jason’s requirements for a story are:
  • Stories only (unfortunately no poems for this request)
  • Maximum length of 1,500 words
  • Jason Womack must be the protagonist and the story plot must fit with what The Jason Womack Company does
  • Any genre is OK – but the story must be suitable for distribution to customers of The Jason Womack Company
  • Can be set anywhere in the world or have multiple locations
  • Some inspiration is http://vimeo.com/87092997 and http://vimeo.com/90717681
The writer of the winning story gets $250. The writers of the rejected stories get nothing.

(This, by the way, is the same Jason Womack who is running a "make money publishing" workshop at the Ojai Wordfest. Will he be advising writers to use StoryMondo?)

Thus endeth this bulletin from the weird fringes of the brave new digital world.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Pamela Wray and WordWorks Publishing Consultants: The Amazing Case of the Serial Plagiarizer

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Every time I consider purging Writer Beware's files to get rid of documentation on agents and others we haven't heard anything about in years and years, I'm reminded of why I hold onto that old paper.

Last Friday, I received an email from successful independent editor Jodie Renner. Apparently, client testimonials from her website had been plagiarized by an outfit called WordWorks Publishing Consultants.

I hopped on over to WordWorks' website, expecting to discover something on the order of faux publicist Mike Albee, who decorated his site with fake testimonials from known authors.

What I found was way more bizarre: plagiarism, plagiarism, and yet more plagiarism, plus a blast from Writer Beware's past. (Bear with me; this is a long post with lots of images, but I wanted to capture them in case WordWorks attempts to hide the evidence.)

Based in Alabama, WordWorks is owned by Pamela Wray Biron, who provides "Expert and Innovative Content Solutions," including editing, ghostwriting, graphic design, illustration, marketing, and web services. A veritable Renaissance woman. And, gosh, just look at Pamela's clients! The US Justice Department! 20th Century Fox! The President of the United States! Check out the impressive names on Pamela's Testimonials page! Steve Jobs! Bill Gates! Michael Eisner! Editorial and marketing staff from all the Big Five publishers!

There's just one problem: most of the testimonials are plagiarized, and not just from Jodie Renner.

For instance, this testimonial from Jodie's client SJ Sellers:

Here's Pamela's version, with names changed to protect the guilty:

From Jodie's client A.M. Khalifa:

Pamela has made hay with this one, turning it into three testimonials:

Here's a testimonial from the website of Charlie Neville, graphic designer:

Pamela's version, slightly paraphrased (but oh dear--she forgot to change "his" to "her"):

A testimonial from Foster Covers, the website of book cover designer George Foster:

Pamela's got this one too:

From well-known PR firm FSB Associates:

Pamela, Pamela, Pamela:

These are just a few examples; I confirmed many more. And that's not all. See Pamela's Portfolio! (Its lousy reproduction values don't match the high-powered jobs she's claiming--if you're working for Paramount, surely you can spring for something better than a crappy Vistaprint website--but never mind). See Pamela's poster for the hugely successful horror movie Drag Me to Hell!

Oh wait. That poster was actually designed by ad agency Cold Open.

Pamela's writing samples don't exactly belong to her, either. For instance, "Excuses Alcoholics Make," which can be downloaded from the Social Sciences section of her Writing Portfolio page, has been lifted whole from this article by Floyd P. Garret, M.D. Perhaps, if asked, Pamela would claim she ghostwrote it--but I suspect that might surprise Dr. Garret (though he'd surely be no more startled to find his words on Pamela's website than would Michael Eisner or Bill Gates).

But wait--there's even more. Pamela's also the founder and Executive Director for the The Lighthouse for Recovery Ministries, which is dedicated to easing incarcerated persons' transition back into society. A worthy mission--but since WordWorks is so extensively plagiarized, inquiring minds can't help but wonder...could Lighthouse's website also include, well, borrowings?

Sure it could. Large portions of Lighthouse's Transitioning for Ex-Offenders have been copied, with adaptations, from Butler University's Returning Students resource. Barriers to Employment and Overcoming the Barriers have been taken in their entirety, without attribution, from Chapter 8 of a publication from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Pamela's blog posts for Lighthouse are also plagiarized. Even Lighthouse's mission is not its own; a big chunk of it has been borrowed from the nonprofit Fortune Society.

Believe it or not, I'm not done yet! As I was undertaking the research above, the name Pamela Wray kept ringing a bell. I went back through Writer Beware's records, and...bingo. We have a file.

Back around 2000, Pamela was running the Pamela Wray Literary Agency. She came to our attention initially because she was falsely claiming SFWA membership. A couple of cease-and-desists later, Pamela removed the claim--but over the next year or so we were contacted by a number of unhappy clients who reported that, in addition to never managing to sell their books, she'd told them various fibs, including presenting herself as John Grisham's agent (supposedly he was planning a new series featuring a Southern female detective, and wanted a Southern female agent), claiming to have secured bookstore orders for manuscripts that hadn't yet been placed with publishers, and claiming that publishers required authors to "match their out-of-pocket consumer promotion budgets".

By 2001, Pamela was out of the faux agent game. But though she has moved on to other things, she still seems to be working from the same playbook.

And that's why I don't throw away my old files.

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Short Life and Strange Death of Entranced Publishing

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

When Entranced Publishing (its website is now gone, but a recent archived version can be seen here) opened to submissions in 2012, it looked like a promising small press, with a number of imprints, a sizeable staff, and a commitment not to churn out books, author-mill style.

However promising-seeming, though, authors always need to be wary of brand-new small presses, because there's such a high attrition rate for such ventures. Even if the staff are very experienced (which often isn't the case in the small press world), it's wise to watch and wait until the press has been publishing books for at least a year. This demonstrates some stability; it also makes it possible to evaluate things like quality and marketing. And--just as important--it allows time for problems and complaints, if any, to surface.

In the case of Entranced, that caution would have served authors well.

Entranced planned to start publishing in 2013, and its first books came out around April of that year, with attractive covers and decent sales rankings. The company drew the interest of reputable agents, a number of whom placed authors with Entranced. From the outside, things looked pretty good.

But inside the company, trouble was brewing.* In the summer of 2013, editors began leaving, citing lack of payment and general unprofessionalism. Orphaned books were left to languish, with no new editors assigned. Authors didn't receive marketing support; books weren't getting contractually-promised ISBNs or making it into the promised distribution channels. Authors were discovering major mistakes and formatting errors in published books.

And then there were the money problems. Bounced echecks. Late and missing royalty statements. In many cases, no payments at all--either of author royalties or staff fees.

To authors' increasingly anxious questions about the missing money, Entranced's owner, Ashley Christman, offered various excuses. She was out of the country and having bank troubles. Vendors were late with their own payments. The contract's 45-day payment window actually meant 45 business days. She was sick and hadn't been able to tend to business affairs. According to authors, she always had an explanation...but the money never arrived.

Then, on March 10, 2014, authors were stunned by this announcement from Christman:
As many of you know, I’ve been dealing with a prolonged personal illness. This illness has not been easy and is not going to resolve anytime soon. These next few months will involve therapy for me and require me to devote my focus on getting better. I’ve known for a while that this is not an illness that one can overcome overnight and as such began the search to find a new publisher for Entranced.

As of 1030AM CST today, I am no longer the owner or publisher of Entranced Publishing.

The new owner, Robert Oknik, comes from a background in contract law specializing in publishing. He has previously worked for Meredith Media in addition to a number of other companies. I have no doubt that he is what’s best for Entranced.
Christman supplied no other info about the new owner, and neither she nor Entranced staff would answer questions about his background or experience. Doing their own research, authors discovered that, apart from a skeleton profile on Google+, Oknik had no web presence whatsoever--quite surprising for someone who'd worked for a firm as prominent as Meredith. Putting this together with the continued problems and lack of communication, some authors began to wonder whether Oknik existed at all.** Had the supposed sale of the company been just another smokescreen?

On March 18, Entranced authors received an email from their new publisher:
Let me explain a little bit about how I'm prioritizing things: My initial goal is to go through author and staff accounts and make sure those are tied up and taken care of. After that, I want to look at other avenues of revenue, any reorganization, and re-branding, etc.

For now, releases will still be moving forward on their release dates. I will handle those temporarily while I learn the process from Ashley....Please bear with me and realize that none of these things will happen overnight. I'm still settling in and learning things.
Not surprisingly, authors' fears weren't much assuaged by this vague message. Some continued to ask questions; others requested reversion of their rights. By this point, also, I was looking into Entranced. I sent an inquiry to Oknik, requesting his comments on the reported problems and asking what he planned to do to fix them.

A company in disarray; unruly authors; curious watchdog. Apparently it all became too much. On March 24, authors received another bombshell, in the form of this terse message from Oknik***:
To our Authors,

Today, I regret to inform you that a decision has been made that Entranced Publishing will be exiting the publishing business.

We are not insolvent, we are not going bankrupt, we simply have decided that we no longer wish to be in the business and therefore we will be exiting this business in a professional, orderly fashion.

Over the next 30 days, we will remove all books for sale through all sales channels.

We will compile finalized statements for all titles and pay all royalties owed once all vendor payments have been collected. We anticipate that this could be as soon as June, but we do not completely control third party sales.

This means that your rights will automatically revert to you per your contracts and at the end of the thirty day period. If after this period you still find your title available, please email me and I will promptly have it removed. If your title has yet to be released, this reversion is immediate.

I wish to thank all of you who have been good partners with us and wish everyone nothing but the best.

Regards,
Bob
And just like that, Entranced was dead, less than a year after releasing its first books.

While I don't think authors should be holding their breath for the promised royalty payments, I'm glad to report that Entranced seems to be fulfilling its promise to issue reversion letters, and that, as of this writing, most Entranced books have been removed from retailers' websites. It sounds awful to say it, but in situations like this, that's about the best result that can be hoped for. Many small presses not only take their authors' money with them when they go, they fail to relinquish rights as well.

So what really happened here? Is the story of Entranced a sadly familiar tale of a well-intentioned but inexperienced publisher who got in over her head, began to lie to get authors and creditors off her back, and eventually decided to cut her losses and run?

Or, as many Entranced authors are convinced, was something more sinister going on? Authors tell me that Entranced's street address and phone number seem to have been fake, and point out that Christman seems to be trying to delete herself from the web: her Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook accounts are gone, and she is reportedly now calling herself Ashley Michele. Entranced also seems to be erasing itself, though for the moment, a Tumblr and a Pinterest page are still live.

I doubt we'll ever know for sure. In the meantime, Entranced is a useful object lesson on the risks of the small press market--and on the wisdom of letting a publisher mature before trusting it with one's intellectual property. No comfort, I know, to the authors who were exploited by this publisher, and then so callously kicked to the curb.

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

* The information in this post comes from the reports of Entranced authors and staff who contacted me directly, and also from the Entranced discussion thread at the Absolute Write Water Cooler.

** Does Robert Oknik exist? Christman appears to have lied about a lot of things in order to get out from under her troubles at Entranced, so it's certainly plausible that she made him up too. Sleuthing by Entranced authors further suggests this. Here's Robert (Bob) Oknik's Google+ profile...


...but his picture is identical to one on Facebook for a man named Robert Mate...


...who is currently a Senior Student Support Specialist at Purdue University (if you click on his name on this list you can see his photo, which matches both the photos above)...

...and while there's no trace of a connection between Robert Oknik and Meredith, the company where Ashley Christman said he worked, there is a connection between Meredith and Robert Mate...

...but that Robert Mate, who is currently CEO of a company called Tabbed Media, is not the same Robert Mate who works at Purdue and whose image appears in "Bob Oknik's" Google+ profile.

Confused yet?

*** I can't quite find the words to express how unprofessional--and cruel--I think this message is. First the bombshell: we're closing. Then the "screw you": we aren't in trouble, we're just bored with book publishing, so we're packing up our toys and going home. And finally, the brushoff: Thanks, losers! See ya! No apology for running the company into the ground; no acknowledgment of the devastating impact Entranced's death spiral has had on its authors. Disgusting.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Why Poets Should Not Seek Literary Agents

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware 

NOTE: One of the most frequent search phrases that brings people to Writer Beware's Literary Agents page is "literary agents for poets" or some variation thereof. I originally published this blog post in 2012, but given a recent rise in the number of writers who come to us with the question, I thought it would be worth running again.

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

Writer Beware hears from a lot of poets.

Often, they're contacting us to ask about self-publishing, or to check the reputation of a journal or a contest. Sometimes, unfortunately, they've gotten mixed up with one of the vanity anthology companies, such as Eber and Wein.

More frequently, though, they want to know about literary agents. Is the brand-new agency with an interest in poets a good one to query? Is the agent who just asked for the entire manuscript of their poetry collection reputable? Can Writer Beware recommend good literary agents for poets?

I've never yet been able to answer yes--and not just because Writer Beware has a policy of not making agent (or publisher) recommendations.

Apart from celebrity projects, writers who are already well-known, or as a favor to established clients, successful literary agents rarely represent poets. Even in the best of circumstances, poetry collections are a tough sell, and the poetry market, which is dominated by small presses, simply isn’t lucrative enough to make it worth most agents’ while.

Poets generally get their start by selling individual poems to reputable markets. Entering reputable contests can also be helpful, if you win (for instance, there are a number of reputable first-book contests, such as the Walt Whitman Award). Once you've built up a track record, you can submit your collection to small publishers on your own.

Beware, therefore, of literary agents whose guidelines indicate that they are looking to represent poets, or who put out calls for poetry collections. Be especially wary if a literary agency claims to specialize in poets. Nearly always, they’re either unscrupulous operators looking to charge a fee, or amateurs who know nothing about the realities of publishing. Even if they don't want to drain your bank account, it's likely that they have no track record of sales to reputable trade publishers.

A few examples:
- WL Poetry Agency, a (now-defunct) division of the company that currently calls itself the Strategic Book Publishing & Rights Agency (SBPRA). SBPRA, which was sued by the Florida Attorney General for deceptive business practices, is the subject of an Alert at Writer Beware.

- Clark, Mendelson, and Scott, a fee-charging agency that's actually a revival of another long-running scam.

- Writers in the Sky Literary Agency. Not scammish but clueless, this agency never made any sales and went out of business just two years after starting up.

- Helping Hand Literary Agency was run by scammers who eventually went to jail for their crimes.
Here are some helpful links for poets looking to get their work into the hands of readers:
- A comprehensive FAQ from the UK's Poetry Society.

- Writing and Publishing FAQ from the Academy of American Poets.

- Commonsense advice on how to submit and publish poetry from published poet Neile Graham.

- Poet Beware is my own article detailing some of the schemes and pitfalls poets may encounter.

- Poets and Writers has an extensive Grants and Awards section, which includes chapbook contests.

- More poetry contests, from the Poetry Society of America.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Rights Concerns: Amtrak Residency Program

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

The Internet has been buzzing over the past week over the announcement of a writer-focused initiative from Amtrak: the Amtrak Residency Program.
#AmtrakResidency was designed to allow creative professionals who are passionate about train travel and writing to work on their craft in an inspiring environment. Round-trip train travel will be provided on an Amtrak long-distance route. Each resident will be given a private sleeper car, equipped with a desk, a bed and a window to watch the American countryside roll by for inspiration. Routes will be determined based on availability.
Now, I personally can't figure out why anyone would find this tempting. Then again, I'm a veteran of Amtrak's overcrowded Boston-to-Washington corridor, where late arrivals and yucky restrooms are always a possibility. I've also done long-distance train traveling, and am painfully familiar with what Amtrak means by a "bed." (Have any of you seen the Sex and the City episode where Carrie and Samantha, anticipating a romantic train trip, discover the reality of a sleeper car? Yeah. It was like that.) So consider me battle-scarred.

Nevertheless, the idea of writing on a train seems to have wide appeal. Announcement of the Residency Program was greeted with many happy tweets and glowing social media shares. Until, that is, writers started looking at the fine print, a.k.a. Amtrak's Official Terms.

The major concern is the Grant of Rights (bolding is mine):
6.   Grant of Rights: In submitting an Application, Applicant hereby grants Sponsor the absolute, worldwide, and irrevocable right to use, modify, publish, publicly display, distribute, and copy Applicant’s Application, in whole or in part, for any purpose, including, but not limited to, advertising and marketing, and to sublicense such rights to any third parties. In addition, Applicant hereby represents that he/she has obtained the necessary rights from any persons identified in the Application (if any persons are minors, then the written consent of and grant from the minor’s parent or legal guardian); and, Applicant grants Sponsor the absolute, worldwide, and irrevocable right to use, modify, publish, publicly display, distribute, and copy the name, image, and/or likeness of Applicant and the names of any such persons identified in the Application for any purpose, including, but not limited to, advertising and marketing. For the avoidance of doubt, one’s Application will NOT be kept confidential (and, for this reason, it is recommended that the writing sample and answers to questions not contain any personally identifiable information – e.g., name or e-mail address – of Applicant.) Upon Sponsor's request and without compensation, Applicant agrees to sign any additional documentation that Sponsor may require so as to effect, perfect or record the preceding grant of rights and/or to furnish Sponsor with written proof that he/she has secured any and all necessary third party consents relative to the Application.
I don't think anyone should be surprised that Amtrak wants to use the Residency Program for advertising and marketing. In this, it's little different from many other organizations. Even many publishing contracts require authors to grant the right to use their names, images, and excerpts from their work for publicity purposes. If you don't like that, don't apply.

However, the open-ended nature of the Grant of Rights is troubling. It includes all applicants--not just those who are accepted for Residencies. It extends indefinitely. And the whole application, which doesn't require applicants to provide a street address or phone number, but does require them to share their email address and Twitter handle, is non-confidential and can be copied and distributed at will.

What problems might this pose? Well, you might not want to grant a big corporation the power to share your email address.

You also might not want to grant it sweeping publishing rights (and, as I was reminded the other day, Amtrak is a publisher: it has its own magazine, Arrive). For most people, the writing sample they submit (just 10 pages) is going to be a partial; if it's unpublished and part of a much longer work, rights conflicts probably aren't an issue. A professional book publisher, for instance, isn't likely to care that you've encumbered rights to 10 pages of your 350-page novel. But what if the sample is part of a shorter work, of which 10 pages is a much larger proportion? A short fiction or freelance market might well have a problem with that. And if the sample is a complete story or article, forget it--you won't be able to place it anywhere else.

Also, if your sample is part of a published work, how might the rights you've already granted conflict with the rights Amtrak is demanding? And why should writers who submit and are not chosen for the Residency have to struggle with these questions at all?

There's been a fair bit of concern over all of this over the past few days. In a discussion on Reddit, Amtrak's Social Media Director, Julia Quinn, has said that negative feedback is being "forwarded on internally." Let's hope so. In the meantime, if Julia happens to be reading, here are my suggestions for improvement--and don't worry, they're pretty easy:

1. Terminate the Grant of Rights on rejection. If you're not chosen for a Residency, your rights automatically return to you, free and clear.

2. Make the Grant of Rights nonexclusive. If successful applicants decide to market the work of which their sample is a part, this would eliminate any question about whether someone else has the right to publish.

3. Limit the term of the Grant of Rights. To a period of 5 years, for instance.

4. Limit the application's non-confidentiality to writers' names, writing samples, and writing question responses. This would allow Amtrak plenty of material for marketing and publicity, while relieving writers of the worry that their contact info might be made public.

5. Make the changes retroactive. If the terms are improved, writers who've already applied should be included.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Rights Concerns: Simon451 Novel-Writing Contest for Students

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Recently, Big 5 publisher Simon & Schuster announced the launch of two adult trade speculative fiction imprints: Saga Press, which will do both print and digital, and Simon451, which will also do print and digital, but will concentrate on digital-firsts and ebook originals. Simon451 currently is accepting submissions from unagented authors.

Simon451 is also running a novel-writing contest for college students. Students submit a synopsis ad the first 50 pages of a novel. A panel of judges will select ten finalists, who will be asked to submit their entire manuscripts. The winner receives a publishing contract with Simon451, a $3,000 advance, and a trip to NY Comicon.

In the past weeks, I've heard from a number of writers who are wondering about an apparent rights-grab in the contest guidelines (you can download the guidelines here). The language that's the source of concern appears in two places. First, on page 2 of the guidelines, where it refers to the initial 50-page submission, a.k.a. the Initial Entry:
Submission of an Initial Entry grants Sponsor and their agents the unconditional, irrevocable, perpetual, worldwide right to excerpt in part or whole, use, adapt, edit and/or modify such Entry in any way, in any and all media, without limitation, and without consideration to the entrant, whether or not such Entry is selected as a winning Entry.
The writers who've contacted me worry that this is a rights grab enabling S&S to do anything it wants with their 50 pages, including steal their ideas and give them to others. I frankly think that's highly unlikely. As one of the USA's biggest trade publishers, S&S is drowning in submissions; I really doubt they need to pilfer ideas (which, in any case, aren't protected by copyright law).

A more realistic concern is that this language could empower S&S to produce an anthology of the best entries, without compensation to the entrants--though again, I don't know how likely that is. Overall, my feeling is that the intent is principally to enable S&S to display contest entries online, and also possibly to archive them once the contest is done. Entrants should think about whether they want their entries archived; but I don't think they need to fear theft.

What if you become a finalist, though, and are asked to submit your entire manuscript? Per pages 3 and 4 of the guidelines, you are subject to the exact same grant of rights, expressed in identical language. The only difference is the use of the term "Entry," rather than "Initial Entry," referring to the full manuscript:
Submission of an Entry grants Sponsor and its agents the unconditional, irrevocable, perpetual, worldwide right to excerpt in part or whole, use, adapt, edit and/or modify such Entry in any way, in any and all media, without limitation, and without consideration to the entrant, whether or not such Entry is selected as a winning Entry.
Now, as I said, I don't for a second think that S&S is in the business of theft-by-contest. But we're talking now about full manuscripts, which--unlike excerpts--aren't routinely posted online before they're actually published.

I don't see why, for this part of the contest, such sweeping language was necessary--or why it couldn't at least have been qualified by limiting the grant of rights to the contest itself (for instance, by adding "for the purposes of this contest" after "entrant")--even though I would still, in that case, wonder about archiving. In fact, we don't know what plans S&S may (or may not) have for those ten full manuscripts, or what they feel they need this language to empower them to do. All in all, I personally would be very hesitant to submit my entire manuscript to a contest where submission meant granting the contest sponsor such a vague and open-ended claim on my work.

I'd be interested in hearing from readers with legal expertise. What do you think? Please weigh in.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Justice For Authors: 2 Moon Press Authors Raising Funds to Sue Their Deadbeat Publisher

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Last November, I wrote a post about deadbeat vanity publisher 2 Moon Press, which closed its doors in May 2013 amid competing claims of wrongdoing by its former and current owners. In the process, it left large numbers of authors in the lurch--many of whom had paid thousands of dollars and never seen a single book.

Despite all this, prosecutors initially declined to bring charges against former owner Don Semora (even though, according to news coverage of the situation, he has a prior history of fraudulent activity, and has served time in prison) or current owner Melinda Lundy. That changed when a local news channel produced an investigative segment on 2 Moon Press's demise (well worth watching, if only for the confrontation between Melinda Lundy's son and the reporter, in which a camera gets smashed). As a result of the segment, the case has been re-opened.

In addition, a number of 2 Moon Press authors are trying to recover their lost resources through civil action. They've filed a lawsuit against Semora, Lundy, and 2 Moon Press alleging breach of contract, unjust enrichment, fraudulent misrepresentation, and other charges. They are seeking damages, interest, costs, and attorneys' fees, as well as the return of their materials and property. (The full complaint can be seen here).

These authors have lost thousands of dollars to 2 Moon Press, and none of them were wealthy to begin with. Coming up with money for legal fees is very tough. So they're asking for the public's help with an IndieGoGo campaign called Justice for Authors. Their goal is $15,000, and as of this writing, they have 17 more days to raise it.

I'm not in the habit of asking my readers to support crowdfunding campaigns. But these authors have lost so much, and even though it now seems possible that charges will be brought against Semora and Lundy, such cases, even when successful, rarely result in much in the way of restitution. Please take a look at Justice for Authors. Support it if you can, and even if you can't, please spread the word.

Amazingly--or maybe not--Don Semora has formed a new company, Fall River Publishing and Graphics, LLC.

If you're a 2 Moon Press author and feel you've been defrauded, there's a Facebook group you can join. Also, the City of Marshall police department is assisting the Calhoun County prosecutor in collecting information. You can get in touch with:

Officer Rebecca Ivey
Marshall Police Department
323 West Michigan Avenue
Marshall MI 49068
269-781-2596
rivey@cityofmarshall

(Researching Don Semora, I discovered that he has several books on Amazon. In his bio, he claims that he "in 2009 won a Blue Nebula award for fantasy," a claim that also appears in the sig line of his emails [some of which I've seen]. Hmm, thought I, could this be a bogus attempt to make people think he'd won a real Nebula award--you know, the one presented by SFWA? So I Googled "Blue Nebula Award," and apparently it really was a thing, given out by some group I've never heard of called Creative Authors Guild. Interestingly, the award no longer seems to exist, and all reference to it has been deleted from CAG's website, as you can see from following links in the discussion that follows one winner's announcement of his win.)

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Questions to Ask Your Prospective Literary Agent

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware


I often hear from authors wondering what questions they should be asking when they receive The Call--the agent representation call, that is. How can you be sure if this particular agent is really right for you--if his plan for your manuscript matches your goals, if her style is a good fit for your needs?

Well, of course, the answer is...you can't, not completely. No matter how many questions you ask or how much research you've done, there's no way to know everything, or to predict the future. The best manuscripts sometimes fail to sell. The most promising relationships sometimes wind up on the skids. When you sign with an agent--even if he or she is your dream agent--you're launching yourself into the unknown.

You can, however, do your best to be  prepared and informed. Following are some resources to help.

- First, an important caution from agent Steve Laube: Really, You Don't Have to Ask. Steve identifies a number of questions that often appear on "questions to ask a prospective agent" lists, but which you really should not need to ask, because you will have done your preliminary research.
These questions are good ones when asked at the very first stages of considering an agent. But the answers can be found so easily on your own that to ask them after you’ve gone through the submissions process shows the agent you didn’t do any homework. She may wonder why you chose her.
- Literary Agent Offers: Don't Settle! This post from author Sarah Ockler is a few years old, but still very relevant. Rather than specific questions to ask, she identifies important areas that you need to craft questions to learn more about, such as communication style. Sarah's post also includes helpful tips on recognizing the warning signs of a bad agent.

- When Agents Offer Representation... This advice from AgentQuery includes not just a list of questions to ask a prospective agent, but suggestions for what to do in multiple offer-related situations, such as receiving an offer while still waiting to hear from other agents who are reading.

- 10 Questions to Ask When Offered Representation. Agent Mary Kole suggests questions she herself would ask if offered representation. She also provides this important advice:
If you get an agent who is unwilling to answer questions or seems to balk at these basic ones, that would be a red flag for me, personally. Communication problems and transparency are big issues in a writer-agent relationship, and if there are issues from the word “go,” the situation is unlikely to get better.
- From agent Janet Reid, The Next Set of Questions to Ask Prospective Agents, especially if you're trying decide among multiple offers. Janet provides not just the questions, but suggests some of the answers you may receive. As she points out,
One answer is not better than the other; it's information that might help you figure out what you want in an agent and agency, and thus how to select from among several good agents.
- What to Ask an Agent, from agent Rachelle Gardner: a big list of questions about important areas of the author-agent relationship, including management style, money, and editorial issues. Rachelle cautions that
...you probably won’t want to ask all of [the questions]. Choose what’s most important to you...Also, there aren’t necessarily “right” answers to all of these, because there are many legitimate ways for agents to do business. Your main goal is to be informed so you’re not surprised by something later.
- Agent Victoria Marini offers a number of helpful Questions to Ask a Prospective Agent. She also provides this reminder about crap agents, a.k.a. "schmagents"--not necessarily scammers, just people who have zero skills and knowledge to do the job:
"What is a Schmagent?" You ask? A Schmagent is someone who claims to be a literary agent, but has no real skills, work history, clients, sales, contracts, or resources. It's not like pretending I have a medical degree; I can't go around saying "I'm Victoria Marini,  M.D." because it's crazy illegal! But anyone can say "I'm John Doe, Literary Agent."
25 Questions to Ask Your Potential Agent: Agent Wendy Lawton suggests questions not just for The Call, but for other scenarios: agent panels at conferences, and changing agents at a later stage of your career.

- The Association of Authors' Agents (the US literary agents' membership organization) has created a helpful FAQ, including some of the more technical questions you might want to ask.

- The publishing world is in the midst of a massive paradigm shift. I know--not news. However, all this change affects the author-agent relationship. In A New Digital Dialogue for Agent Representation, agent Carly Watters suggests questions that reflect the realities of the new world of digital--including digital imprints and self-publishing.

- Last but certainly not least--what if you're a successful self-publisher who has received an offer of representation? In addition to the conventional questions, what concerns should you have? Orna Ross of the Alliance of Independent Authors identifies Five Questions Indie Authors Should Always Ask an Agent. She states,
As self-publishers, we have built our readership and already have a following. Our e-rights are very valuable to us and we're not keen to bundle them with other rights. We expect publishers to understand that our situation is different -- and to reflect this in their contractual terms and conditions.
You'll definitely want to pick and choose among the many questions suggested in the articles above, and select just those that are most important to you--you don't want to alienate your prospective agent by bombarding her with queries, or by asking questions to which you should already know the answer, such as "what have you sold" or "who are your clients". (And if that information is so hard to find that you do have to ask, be wary: the agent may be a schmagent.)

Ultimately, I think the most important thing--once you've asked the practical and technical questions, and satisfied yourself that the agent really is enthusiastic about your work--is to figure out whether you feel comfortable with the agent, both personally and professionally. Your agent doesn't need to be your best friend. But you shouldn't feel awkward or intimidated, and you shouldn't have any niggling doubts about how s/he sees you and your work or how s/he intends to market it (and you).

Pay attention to your gut feelings. I do know how hard that is, especially if you've been querying for a while and this is your only offer. But I hear much too often from writers who allowed their dreams to override their doubts, and later came to regret it.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Alert: Jane Dowary Agency

 Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

A while back, I wrote a funny post about a "literary agent" who popped up under one name, then another, then a third. To give you the gist...In 2009, I began hearing from writers who'd submitted to a Boston-based literary agent called Sara Levine, only to be contacted by Levine's supposed assistant, who told them that Levine had died suddenly of a heart attack and referred them to Levine’s colleague, Julia Levin of the Florida-based Julia Levin Literary Agency.

However, things about Julia Levin didn't quite add up. None of her clients were published. Her sales claims didn't check out either, and the physical address she gave for her agency turned out to be bogus, as did the agency where she claimed to have trained. The weirdness of Sara dropping dead and Julia emerging out of thin air began to look even weirder--could Sara and Julia, with only an “e” of difference between their last names, possibly be the same person?

Writers began to smell a rat, and to say so in public. Eventually it all got to be too much for poor Julia. Within a month, she'd vanished from the Internet.

A few weeks later, I started getting questions about another Florida-based agent called Drew Montgomery, of Drew Montgomery Literary Associates. Drew's online presence exhibited exactly the same inconsistencies and falsehoods as Julia Levin's (including a telltale mis-spelling of the name of publisher Houghton Mifflin)--and within a few days, I found out why. The owner of an agent-tracking website emailed me to say that he'd been recently contacted by the now-vanished Julia Levin about a listing, which he refused because she couldn't prove she'd made any sales. About a week later, Drew Montgomery approached him with the same request. Since she couldn't prove any sales either, he gave her the same response. But he happened to notice something odd: Drew's IP address was identical to Julia's.

Bingo! Outed here and at Absolute Write, Drew vanished too (though not before reappearing as Julia Levin in a bizarre attempt to impersonate one of Drew's clients).

End of story? Not quite.

Enter Jane Dowary, of the Jane Dowary Agency. I first started hearing about Jane in April of 2012, from writers whose work she'd submitted inappropriately or to whom she'd given bizarre writing advice. In at least one case, I'm convinced, she fabricated an editor's comments.

At the time, Jane's LinkedIn page looked like this (click to enlarge):


Note Jane's claimed location (Boston area) and her claimed education (Yale, Berkeley). Note also the mis-spelling of "Houghton Mifflin" as "Houghton Miffin"--a telltale mistake made by both Julia and Drew--and the agency at which she claims to have trained, which, like the agencies claimed by Julia and Drew, does not appear to exist. Based on these things, as well as on Jane's M.O. as reported to me by clients, I was pretty sure that this was Julia, or Drew, or whatever her name was, in yet another guise--although I couldn't prove it.

Well, now Jane has put up a website and created a new LinkedIn page where she cops to being Julia Levin. She may also now be honestly disclosing her location and education--at least, her current LinkedIn page makes very different claims from her original one:


So should she get points for coming clean? Not so much. She's still lying about her agency's startup date (early 2012, not 2013 as claimed on her website). She still doesn't have any relevant experience that would qualify her to be a literary agent, and, apart from one book placement with a small press that doesn't typically work with agents, she still doesn't have any sales.

I would probably have been much later in discovering all this had Julia not, once again, been unable to resist torpedoing herself by another appearance at Absolute Write:


Asked why she was presenting herself as a new agent when she'd previously had two (or possibly three) agencies under two (or possibly three) different names, she claimed she wasn't trying to mislead anyone:


When I asked her the same question in private email, she told me "I kept changing names because I wanted to have a agency that was free and clear from all of this so that I could earn people's trust and respect and become a legitimate and successful agent and actually get novels published for my client."

Okay then.

In many ways this is a sad story. I think some kind of pathology is at work here, with the repeated name changes and the serial lying. Whoever Julia is, she seems to be a troubled individual. But she's not someone who should be acting as anyone's literary agent--and, judging by the number of questions I'm receiving about her, she is reaching out to authors.

Writer beware.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Bookseller Takes a Stand: No More Advertising From Author Solutions, Inc.

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

I've written many hundreds of words on this blog about the problems with Author Solutions, Inc., the biggest of the self-publishing service providers and the one with (as far as I'm aware) the worst reputation. Misleading PR strategies, overpriced marketing services, customer service nightmares, payment issues, relentless upselling--the list goes on.

Author Solutions is currently the focus of a class action lawsuit for alleged deceptive business practices.

And yet, despite the huge and growing litany of complaints and problems, many reputable publications accept advertising from Author Solutions--advertising that doubly exploits AS authors, not only because they have to pay ridiculous amounts of money to be included, but because magazine and newspaper ads are arguably among the least effective book promotion methods. For instance, The Bookseller, the UK's equivalent to the USA's Publishers Weekly. As author and self-publishing expert David Gaughran wrote in 2013,
Author Solutions has a variety of (what they call) Bookseller Magazine packages – ranging from £2,199 (approx. $3,300) to a jaw dropping £6,999 (approx. $10,500). When you see how many books they squeeze into one page, it’s clear that this is quite lucrative for them. I don’t know what The Bookseller charges for ad space, but I’m sure Author Solutions are adding a significant mark-up (as they do with all their services).
But now--good news. Gaughran has announced on his blog that The Bookseller will no longer accept Author Solutions advertising.
Last week, [Philip Jones, the editor of The Bookseller] told me that The Bookseller is no longer accepting such ads. Here’s the money quote, reproduced with permission:

The Bookseller is no longer taking advertising from Author Solutions or its subsidiary companies. We’ve previously asked them to update the information they display about us on their websites, and have now asked them to remove it entirely.
This is wonderful, and kudos to The Bookseller for taking this action. However, as Gaughran points out:
Advertising packages with The Bookseller were just one of many such packages that Author Solutions re-sold to its customers at eye-watering prices. You can still buy packages to advertise with the London Review of Books, Guardian Weekly, Library Journal, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, New York Review of Books, Readers’ Digest, ForeWord, Clarion, Ingram, and the New York Times.
So there's much more that needs to be done. Writer Beware joins David Gaughran in calling for these publications to follow The Bookseller's example, and stop taking money from a company whose advertising is little more than an exercise in author exploitation.

In fact, I'll go further: I'll call on ALL publications to stop taking ANY ads from self-publishing services and pay-to-play publishers where authors must pay to be included. Whether the ads are from Author Solutions brands or Outskirts Press, Bookwhirl or New Generation Publishing, these are exploitive packages that do not benefit the writers who buy them.

How can you help? Gaughran offers several suggestions:
[A]sk Publishers Weekly when they are going to stop taking ads from vanity presses, ads which Author Solutions re-sell for $16,499 to authors. Email them and ask them. Even better, confront them publicly. Hound them on Twitter. Annoy them until you get a response. Post it on your Facebook Page. Post it on their Facebook Page.

Ask the LA Times Festival of Books what they think about Author Solutions scamming writers out of a million dollars at their event. Ask them on Facebook and Twitter what they are going to do to stop that happening again this year. Ask all the companies listed above about their links to Author Solutions.

Then ask the Authors Guild when they are going to break their silence on this issue, why the only advice they give on self-publishing is a package with iUniverse, and if they receive any financial benefit from such referrals.

Friday, February 14, 2014

On Petitions and Flame Wars: My Thoughts About SFWA and Change

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Before I start, let me emphasize that what follows is my own personal opinion. I'm not speaking here for anyone but myself.

Many of you may be aware of the controversy that erupted last year over the content and format of SFWA's quarterly publication, the Bulletin. This resulted in the Bulletin's temporary suspension while a task force appointed by SFWA's then-President, John Scalzi, investigated the Bulletin's role within the organization, with the goal of recommending changes going forward.

Over the past week or so, controversy has engulfed the Bulletin once more, with a petition circulated by former SFWAn Dave Truesdale protesting "politically correct censorship" of the currently non-existent Bulletin. (It's also worth reading the original, much more wordy, version of the petition, which can be found here.) Among the 30 or so signers of the petition are a number of eminent speculative fiction authors. Current SFWA President Steven Gould has posted a response.

I'm not interested in addressing any of the allegations and counter-allegations over the petition (which in any case is protesting an imaginary issue: there's no Bulletin "review board", nor is one planned). What concerns me is the by-now predictable SFWA pileon, with commentators (many of them not SFWA members) tut-tutting about how backward, sexist, and juvenile the organization is (here's just one example). What value, many of these commentators demand, can SFWA actually offer writers, dominated as it is by flame wars and trumpeting dinosaurs?

For me--and again, I emphasize that this is my personal opinion--there is another way to look at this. Truesdale's petition, as well as the earlier brouhaha over the Bulletin, are actually symptoms of something positive: namely, SFWA's long, slow journey of transformation from an advocacy organization with its roots in the insular, clubbish spec fic community, to an open, modern, professional writers' group.

I wish this transformation were proceeding faster, because many younger SFWA members, as well as new writers who should be interested in joining, are alienated by the clubbish, fannish atmosphere that still dominates SFWA's public persona (including the Bulletin before it was suspended). But it is happening--the overhaul of the Bulletin is just one instance of that--and many older SFWA members, especially those who may feel they're being left behind by the huge shifts that are changing the face of publishing, are fighting to keep SFWA the way it always has been, and are angry and resentful that they're losing the battle.

I think the petition is a symptom of this. I think that many of the signers were still furious over the original Bulletin controversy, and saw the petition as a way to express that anger--which basically is anger over the ways in which SFWA is changing...and must change, if it is to remain relevant.

So what value can SFWA offer writers, both established and aspiring? Here are a few suggestions:

- The Grievance Committee
- The Young Adult/Middle Grade Authors list
- The Emergency Medical Fund and Legal Fund
- Resources for educators and readers
- SFWA's Speakers Bureau
- SFWA's Estate Project
- SFWA's awards: the Nebulas and the Norton Award for YA SF/Fantasy
- Amicus briefs and position papers on important issues like orphan works and the Google Books Settlement
- The new (well, relatively new) discussion forums, where members talk shop 
- And of course, Writer Beware

These are just some of the educational, advocacy, outreach, and support activities SFWA conducts. Unfortunately, because they mostly happen quietly and efficiently, they get much less press than the flame wars.

I am a strong supporter of SFWA. Without SFWA, Writer Beware could not exist--and I'm not just talking about financial and logistical support, but about SFWA's staunch and unwavering backing of Writer Beware and its mission over the years.

But Writer Beware isn't the only reason I believe in SFWA. I see great value in the organization, and I know that it is filled with good people whose priorities and views are in no way represented by this latest controversy. Despite the upheavals and flame wars and bumps in the road, I do believe that SFWA will find its way in its long journey of change, and will provide value for writers for years to come.