Shining a bright light into the dark corners of the shadow-world of literary scams, schemes, and pitfalls. Also providing advice for writers, industry news and commentary, and a focus on the weird and wacky things that happen at the fringes of the publishing world.

March 26, 2015

Second Class Action Lawsuit Filed Against Author Solutions Inc.

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

In April 2013, the law firm of Giskan Solotaroff Anderson & Stewart filed a class action lawsuit against Author Solutions, Inc. (ASI). The case survived various motions to dismiss, and this past February completed discovery and filed for class certification.

Now the same law firm has filed a second class action against ASI.

Dated March 23, 2015, the complaint was filed in District Court in the Southern District of Indiana (ASI's headquarters are in Bloomington, Indiana) on behalf of two new plaintiffs, Patricia Wheeler and Helen Heightsman Gordon. It alleges fraud, unjust enrichment, and violation of various statutes and consumer protection acts, including the Indiana Deceptive Consumer Sales Act and the Indiana Senior Consumer Sales Act (Wheeler is over 60 years of age).

ASI's parent company, Penguin Group (which was bounced from the first class action early on) is not named as a defendant.

The complaint, which can be seen in full here, focuses largely on ASI's sales tactics and marketing services.
5. In truth, Author Solutions operates more like a telemarketing company whose customer base is the Authors themselves. In other words, unlike a traditional publisher, Author Solutions makes money from its Authors, not for them. It does so by selling books back to its Authors, not to a general readership, and by selling its Authors expensive publishing, editing, and marketing services (“Services”) that are effectively worthless.

6. Author Solutions aggressively sells publishing and marketing services (“Services”) to its Authors through a large sales force of telemarketers, largely based in the Philippines, who introduce themselves as the Author’s personal "Publishing Consultant” or “Marketing Consultant.” This has the deceptive effect of leading Authors to believe that the “consultant” has a background in publishing or marketing and has the requisite skills to guide the Author through the publishing process. In fact, these “consultants” are simply commissioned sales people with aggressive quotas who are not required to have any publishing or marketing experience. Author Solutions never discloses this fact to Authors.

7. Similarly, the Company employs scores of “Book Consultants,” a sales team whose goal it is to sell hundreds of the Authors’ own books back to the Author. However, Author Solutions does not employ any sales force to sell an Author’s books to the general public - referred to as the retail channel – because, unlike with traditional publishers, an Author’s retail success is largely irrelevant to Author Solutions.
Both plaintiffs in this new lawsuit spent small fortunes with ASI: Ms Wheeler dropped nearly $25,000, and Ms. Gordon handed over more than $10,000. Details of their experiences are included in the complaint; even if, like me, you've seen a lot of ASI complaints, it makes for pretty awful reading.

If you've published with an ASI imprint and would like to share your experience, there's a form on Giskan Solotaroff's website where you can do so.

March 23, 2015

Rights Grab: Omni Reboot (Updated)

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Do you remember Omni Magazine? Created in the 1970s by Penthouse founder Bob Guccione, it published some of the most iconic names in science fiction, along with in-depth articles on science and the paranormal. It ceased publication in 1998.

In 2013, Omni's archives were purchased by Jeremy Frommer of media company Jerrick Ventures. In addition to putting all past issues of Omni online, Frommer resurrected Omni as an online-only publication called Omni Reboot.

Omni Reboot, which describes itself as "the intersection of science, technology, art, culture, design, and metaphysics," has published features and fiction, and is open for submissions. Its website offers no details about rights or payment. However, a writer who recently received a publication offer sent me a copy of the Jerrick Ventures contract (Jerrick Ventures owns several other webzines in addition to Omni Reboot)--and it includes a major rights grab.

Here's the relevant language (my bolding):
WHEREAS, by this Agreement, Author desires to assign to Company exclusive ownership of all the rights in the Approved Entries, including the copyright herein....

Section 3. Assignment. Author does hereby irrevocably assign to Company and its successors all right, title, and interest throughout the world, in and to the Approved Entries, including without limitation, any copyrights and other proprietary rights in and to the Approved Entries in any media now known or hereinafter developed, and in and to all income, royalties, damages, claims and payments now or hereafter due or payable with respect thereto, and in and to all causes of action, either in law or in equity for past, present, or future infringement of such rights.
The contract defines Approved Entries as entries chosen for publication. So if you publish with Omni Reboot (or other Jerrick Ventures webzines), you must surrender copyright--and this is not a temporary arrangement, as is sometimes the case with copyright transfers. The contract includes no provision for authors to request that their copyrights be returned.

What about money? Some writers might be willing to consider trading copyright ownership for a fat paycheck. The contract doesn't mention rates; all it says is:
Section 2. Payment. Company shall negotiate payment with author on a per assignment basis.
However, the acceptance email received by the writer who shared the contract with me did not mention money at all. Apparently, the writer was expected to sign the contract--thereby giving up copyright--without even knowing what Omni Reboot would pay.

Last December I wrote about The Toast, whose contract included a similar copyright grab. In response to the outpouring of criticism that resulted, The Toast agreed to change its contract to ask for First North American Rights only. Might Omni Reboot do the same--and perhaps, also, be more transparent about payment? Here's hoping.

UPDATE 3/23/15: Someone tweeted a link to this post to Omni Reboot. Here's its response:

Sean Sullivan, Omni Reboot's content manager also contacted me directly, with a similar statement.

However, the contract I saw did not read like a work-for-hire contract. The US Copyright Office  defines work-for-hire as "a work prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment" or "a work specially ordered or commissioned." The writer submitted through Omni's submission page--so the work was not commissioned--and the contract not only makes no mention of work-for-hire, it is very specific about designating the writer an independent contractor, rather than an employee:
Section 7. Relationship. Nothing contained in this Agreement shall be construed as creating a joint venture, partnership, agency, or employment relationship between Author and Company....Author shall at all times be an independent contractor (and not an employee or agent of the Company)
I've requested that Mr. Sullivan clarify if I'm misreading any of this, and also, if this was the wrong contract, that he share the correct one with me. I'll update this post when I hear back.

UPDATE 3/30/14: As of today, Sean Sullivan has not responded to my request, nor shared the "correct" contract. In the meantime, I've heard from another writer who was offered the "incorrect" contract--which shows, if nothing else, that this is not an isolated incident.

March 10, 2015

Manuscript Pitch Websites: Do Literary Agents Use Them?

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Last week, a writer contacted me to ask about,"a website that blends the worlds of literary agents and writers under one roof."

For Writers:
You’ll have the ability to have your pitch/pitches read by hundreds of literary agents. With the click of a button an agent can request your manuscript and instantly an email will be sent to you as well as a notice to your homepage....

For Agents:

As an agent you’ll have the ability to search through pitches by specific genres. With the click of a button a request of materials will be sent to any pitch you like, this request letter will be completely customized by you as a field in your personal profile.
The question the writer wanted to ask me was whether WriterPitch's Terms and Conditions posed a problem, specifically the User Content clause:
You grant to a worldwide, irrevocable, non-exclusive, royalty-free license to use, reproduce, adapt, publish, translate and distribute your user content in any existing or future media. You also grant to the right to sub-license these rights, and the right to bring an action for infringement of these rights.
I told her that this language was not ideal--it'd be preferable if the license were limited to operation of the service--but that it's also very common. You'll find similar language on just about any website that accepts user content. It's not intended to enable the site to rip off users' intellectual property, but to allow the site to operate online.

Such language is a concern, and if you're going to participate in a website whose Terms include it, you need to understand it and its implications. With WriterPitch, however, there's a much more pressing question.

Will agents use it?

Manuscript pitch websites, a.k.a. manuscript display sites or electronic slushpiles, often present themselves as new! Revolutionary! Disruptive! Truth is, they've been around for as long as I've been doing Writer Beware (more than 15 years now--gulp).

First appearing in the late 1990s, they were billed as writers' Great New Hope for getting around the antiquated system of gatekeepers. Problem was, agents didn't take to them. By the turn of the century, most were defunct. The earliest and biggest, Authorlink, survives only as a publishing service.

Over the years, many iterations of the same idea have surfaced. I've written about some of them here (Agent Inbox, AuthorForSale, Publishers Desk, Agent Artery). Other examples (and looking through my list, I had trouble finding ones that were still alive): The Author Hub, First 3 Chapters, TV Writers Vault, Inkubate.

All these sites are selling a dream: of access, of a shortcut, of a magic ticket that will somehow transform the world of publishing from a buyer's market, where agents pick and choose, into a sellers' market, where agents come to you.

But this was a fantasy in 1998, and it's a fantasy now. I have never seen a pitch site that is able to show evidence that reputable agents regularly use it. Agent Inbox, for instance, which boasts a large roster of agents and has been around since 2009, cites just one success story. Others cite none at all.

Unconvinced? I reached out on Twitter to ask agents whether they would use a website like WriterPitch.

The response was unanimous: No. (Scroll down to the bottom of this post for screenshots of agents' tweets). Some feel it's extra work they don't have time for--they're already awash in queries, why go looking for more? Others have no interest in a website full of pitches unvetted for quality. Still others point out that just as writers are looking for agents who get them, agents are looking for writers who want them. They prefer writers who target them specifically, rather than tossing a pitch out into the world for anyone passing by.

Another concern: even if pitch websites (or pitch events--#pitmad or #tenqueries, for instance) draw reputable agents, they may also draw inexperienced or questionable ones. There are some excellent names on WriterPitch's tiny list of member agents, but there are also some with iffy track records, or from fledgeling agencies that haven't yet made any sales. An agent contact you receive as a result of a pitch site listing may not be the kind of contact you're really looking for.

WriterPitch founder Samatha Fountaina says that WriterPitch aims to become more than just an author-agent matching service. "It's all about helping each other," she told me in email, "and giving writers a place to concentrate their web presence with a personal writers profile, their pitches, and blog posts about writing. Writers can even see how many page views their blog posts or pitches have received. This site is brand new and is evolving and that's in part because of the amazing writers that are part of WriterPitch. We hope to grow into something that writers look to."

Time will tell. In the meantime, unlike some other pitch sites, WriterPitch appears to be free. So there's probably no harm in using it. But if you do, don't pin all your hopes of finding an agent on it--and definitely don't stop querying the old-fashioned way.

EDITED 3/12/15 TO ADD: Writers take note: WriterPitch's Terms currently don't include any provisions for terminating your account and removing your material. Samantha has informed me that these will be added soon.

March 6, 2015

Update: Lawsuit Against Author Solutions Inc.

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Reported in Publishers Lunch last week (but apparently nowhere else): the lawsuit against Author Solutions launched in 2013 has completed the discovery stage, and has filed for class certification. 
A February 26 filing in New York's Southern District Court by Kelvin James, Jodi Foster, and Mary Simmons (added to the suit after Terry Hardy dropped out in the fall of 2013) asks Judge Denise Cote for certification of the class, covering 170,000 or more authors "who, during the period 2007 through the present, purchased a publishing package or service from Author Solutions."

The plaintiffs say their lawsuit is "a case about a publishing company that makes money from authors, not for them." They allege again that ASI "operates more like a telemarketing company, not a publisher, that employs a large, commissioned sales force to sell books and services to its target audience: the Authors themselves, not the general public." The filing quotes an Author Solutions executive saying in a deposition that the company "has no idea whether the services help authors sell books," which the plaintiffs call "struthious" and a pretense.

The plaintiffs believe the "evidence common to all class members will prove that Author Solutions deceptively sold Publishing Packages and other Services by making false, untrue, or misleading statements, and by concealing critical information from the Plaintiffs and Class" -- namely that its "consultants" are in fact telemarketers who do not need to have experience in publishing matters; that it lies about being "invested in Authors' success"; that its "Rising Star" program with Barnes & Noble is a fiction; that the company "does not know whether Authors succeed in the retail channel and makes no effort to find out"; and that services "are not reasonably designed to help Authors sell books or to accomplish their stated goal and are effectively worthless."
Memorandum of Law in support of plaintiffs' motion for class certification.

Excerpts from the depositions of plaintiffs and Author Solutions staff. A lengthy document that unpacks a lot of information about ASI's business model and internal operations, and makes for fascinating reading. For instance, if you wondered what the appeal of an ASI-run self-publishing division was for a traditional publishing house, here's how it worked for Thomas Nelson's WestBow Press (from the deposition of Don Seitz):

So the "partner" publisher earns a "royalty", a.k.a. a percentage of the fees authors pay (and ASI's salespeople earn a commission on sales, so they're highly motivated to sell as many services as possible). It would also appear that services like marketing are priced higher for partner publishers, to account for the "cost differential" of the royalty:

Author and ASI critic David Gaughran also offers some analysis, in his recent blog post about Barnes & Noble's partnership with ASI.

Giskan Solotaroff Anderson & Stewart, the firm that's conducting the lawsuit, has an update on the case on its website with a form that ASI authors can fill out.

March 2, 2015

Author Solutions Inc. Losing Market Share As Production Numbers Fall

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

On February 9, while doing research on something else, I noticed that Harlequin's Author Solutions, Inc.-run self-publishing imprint, Dellarte Press, had closed its doors. Dellarte's website is now a placeholder, with a "we're sorry" message.

Some of you may remember the outcry that greeted Dellarte (originally named Harlequin Horizons) when ASI and Harlequin rolled it out in November 2009. (By contrast, the earlier launch of WestBow Press for Thomas Nelson caused barely a ripple). Writers flipped out. A slew of pro writers' groups either issued statements condemning the move or de-listing Harlequin. Ultimately, the bad press forced Harlequin to change the service's name and also to distance itself from Dellarte. Of the several self-pub divisions run by ASI for traditional publishers, Dellarte was the only one that didn't prominently tout the connection with its parent publisher.

Why such an abrupt, unannounced closure for Dellarte? Harlequin hasn't talked, and neither has ASI. But maybe it was because Dellarte did almost no business.

Mick Rooney, writing about the closure in The Independent Publishing Magazine, discovered that over the past 5 years, Dellarte published just 16 titles. This is a shockingly small number, and understandably, some people were skeptical, including Nate Hoffelder of The Digital Reader*. However, it's been confirmed for me by an independent source (and also by the report I discuss below).

The question that immediately occurred to me: is Dellarte an exception? Or are other ASI imprints also doing tiny business?

The answer is "not really." A report by Bowker, Self-Publishing in the United States, 2008-2013, includes a special section on total print and ebook ISBN output at ASI**, which indicates that production at most ASI imprints is in the four-figure range. However, only Xlibris and AuthorHouse crack five figures. And the statistics show something even more interesting: production at ASI is in decline.

There's an up-and-down pattern for individual imprints, but overall, ASI production increased steadily between 2008 and 2011, when output hit a high of 52,648. (Though compare that to CreateSpace's 2011 ISBN output of 58,862.)

In 2012, things started to slip. Numbers rose at Trafford, WestBow, and Palibrio, but fell at other imprints (Xlibris and AuthorHouse by around 3,000 ISBNs each); as a result, overall output declined to 49,885. (For the same period, CreateSpace output more than doubled, to 131,460.)

The slide accelerated in 2013. With the exception of Balboa Press and Partridge India (which Bowker only started tracking that year), every single ASI imprint lost ground. Total output fell to 44,574, a decrease of 5,311. Meanwhile, CreateSpace continued its meteoric rise, leaping to 186,926.

We'll have to wait for 2014 stats to know whether this trend will continue, but my guess is that it will. In part, ASI is reaping the fruits of its poor reputation and the large amount of negative publicity and commentary it has received in the past few years (see, for instance, David Gaughran's The Case Against Author Solutions). Beyond that, though, I think that its business model--print-centric, high-priced, with outsourced operations (much of ASI is based in the Philippines) and an extreme emphasis on upselling--is simply becoming less and less relevant in this age of free-to-cheap digital self-publishing solutions.***


* Nate suggested that the number was so small because Dellarte titles have been folded in among other ASI imprints. But ASI has always been very careful to preserve the division between its own operations and the imprints it runs for others, and does everything possible to distance itself (for some of the imprints, you have to look at the Privacy Policy to know that ASI is involved). It has also kept Abbot Press running and separate, even after Writer's Digest bowed out. So I think it's unlikely that it made Dellarte titles disappear.

** Archway Press is not included because Bowker did not start tracking it until 2014. Many thanks to David Gaughran for sharing this report with me.

*** Other companies featured on this blog that lost ground in 2013: PublishAmerica, Dorrance, and, surprisingly, Smashwords (though overall, Smashwords' output is second only to CreateSpace's; the decline could also reflect fewer authors choosing to use ISBNs).

February 27, 2015

Crescent Moon Press, Musa Publishing Close Their Doors

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware 

Crescent Moon Press has announced that it is closing. From a mass email sent out to authors late last month:

On March 31st  at 11:59 pm, Crescent Moon Press will release all author [sic] from contracts.  All rights will revert back to authors for their manuscripts. If your contract expires prior to March 31st, it will not be renewed. Final royalty payments will be issued as well as any necessary documents as soon as they become available. Please be patient as we work to close out our business affairs.

Artwork will remain property of the company. If you would like to purchase the rights to your artwork, please let us know.

This is not done lightly, nor is it done with a heavy heart. We have enjoyed our experience as publishers immensely, but the time has come to move on with alternate endeavors.
While I don't imagine that Crescent Moon authors will much appreciate the "have a nice life" tone of the last paragraph, many of them will probably not be surprised. Though the letter makes no mention of financial or other problems, reports by authors who've contacted me over the past year suggest that Crescent Moon has been troubled for some time.

The litany of complaints is familiar: poor communication, missing or non-timely payments, poor editing, finished books with lots of typographical errors. The publisher's response (made to me in email) is also familiar: The authors complaining were on a "witch hunt" because they couldn't deal with their poor sales.

Some authors have expressed concern about whether the general release in the mass email is sufficient to return their rights. In my (non-legal) opinion, it probably is--but it would be much better if authors received individual reversion letters, and if I were a Crescent Moon author, I would definitely request one. Final royalty payments (and statements) are still an open question.

Crescent Moon's website doesn't say anything about the closure; in fact, as of this writing, it is still "open to general submissions."


Musa Publishing is also going out of business. From the email received by authors last week:

On January 21, we held a quarterly budget and planning meeting to address some of the many challenges 2015 will present. We came away with some proposals and tasks which we hoped would resolve some critical budget and staffing concerns. Since February 6, we have been in daily discussions as a team. We met again on Friday February 13 to formally agree on a plan going forward for Musa Publishing.

As you all know, the publishing market changes rapidly. Most markets have suffered and eBook publishers are no exception. The rising costs of doing business and reduced sales have hit us extremely hard in spite of fantastic books and enthusiastic efforts of staff and authors alike....

Because we are absolutely determined to pay our authors and staff; to remain debt-free and empowered to live out our founding values, this week Celina, Kelly, Kerry, Jeanne, and Dominique together made the painful decision that Musa can no longer remain open.
Musa authors may be experiencing whiplash from the abruptness of the closure: as of February 28, Musa will cease to exist. (Though in retrospect, the November closing of Musa's ezine, Penumbra, seems like a warning sign.)

Musa claims in the letter that "we are not in financial trouble." However, authors have been reporting issues with Musa for a long time (see the long, long, long discussion thread at Absolute Write). Complaints include rapid editor changeover, a lack of marketing support, brusque responses to author concerns, and overextended staff. (It should be noted that, although many authors have expressed disappointment with sales, Musa does not seem to have had a problem with missed or late payments). Some authors felt that Musa, which expanded very rapidly after its September 2011 opening and quickly built up a huge catalog, ultimately became little more than an author mill.

Apart from the abrupt notice, Musa does seem to be going about the closure responsibly. It has pledged to provide individual reversion letters and to send royalty payments and statements due, and has announced the closure on its website.

This is a very sad situation. Musa arose in the wake of a small press horror story (Aspen Mountain Press, where some of its founders worked), and began with the best of intentions. In the end, I think it simply tried to do too much too fast, and stretched itself too thin to survive.

February 24, 2015

New Life For Old Books (Mine!)

Posted by Victoria Strauss

One of the greatest things about the digital revolution is the opportunities it has created to give new life to old books. Years ago, books rarely came back into circulation once they were taken off the market--but the proliferation of digital self-publishing options, as well as the rise of digital publishers specializing in reprints, has changed all that.

I've written nine novels, but until recently, only four were "in print" and available. Today, I'm thrilled to announce that four of my backlist books are being re-released as ebooks by Open Road Media. This brings all but one of my novels back into circulation (that one, Worldstone, was badly in need of updating; I'm planning on revising and self-publishing it later this year).

The Way of Arata Duology Way of Arata duology (The Burning Land and The Awakened City) was originally published in 2004 and 2006 by HarperCollins Eos (now Harper Voyager). It's epic fantasy for adults, featuring diverse characters in an exotic non-Western setting.

Of all my novels, these are the ones of which I'm most proud, and that I feel best represent me as a writer.

From Open Road: A magnificent tale of intolerance, magic, and holy war, the duology explores deep questions of faith and humanity as it transports readers to the kingdom of Arsace, a troubled realm where the newly reborn Brethren cruelly enforce the strict dictates of their once-outlawed deity, Ârata.

The saga chronicles the Brethren’s unrelenting persecution and attempted destruction of the mystical Shapers, powerful renegade mages who escaped into the sacred Burning Land years before, when the Brethren themselves were the victims of a tyrannical atheistic government. It is the story of a traveler in both worlds, a devout Âratist priest and Shaper named Gyalo Amdo Samchen, and the remarkable journey he makes from disciple to doubter to lover of the mysterious Dreamer Axane, and ultimately, to man of peace.

"An involving novel that shines with intelligence…Combined with a solid plot and Strauss’ crisp, clean and literate prose, this is one of those novels that envelops readers, the kind of book that makes it a pleasure to linger in its imagined world." --Science Fiction Weekly on The Burning Land

" Like A Canticle for Leibowitz, Strauss’s The Awakened City explores deeply reflective themes like the true meaning of faith, the pitfalls of zealotry, and the very dangerous non-spiritual influences of organized religion…[A] highly intelligent, profoundly thought-provoking work." --Barnes & Noble Explorations on The Awakened City

For more reviews, excerpts, the original (gorgeous) covers, and a large amount of bonus material (including maps), visit The Burning Land and The Awakened City on my website.


If you buy The Burning Land, Open Road wants to give you a free ebook of The Awakened City! Just tweet with the hashtag #BoughtBurningLand by March 1(and be sure to follow @OpenRoadMedia so they can notify you if you win). Official rules are here.

To celebrate the re-release, I'm running a Goodreads giveaway! Enter by March 1 to win one of five signed copies of the beautiful original hardcover edition of The Burning Land.

Guardian of the Hills
A historical fantasy for teens, Guardian of the Hills was my third novel, published by Morrow Junior Books in 1995. I had a lot of fun with the research, which included a visit to the fascinating Moundville historical site in Alabama.

Open Road keeps its covers simple, but the new cover is a vast improvement on the original, which I absolutely loathed (even though it was done by a pretty well-known cover artist). Take a look and see what you think

From Open Road: A young girl in Depression-era Arkansas discovers her Native American heritage when a series of strange and troubling spiritual events plague an archaeological excavation on sacred lands...An ingenious blend of historical fiction and dark fantasy, this is a page-turning tale that thrills and chills in equal measure.

"Mysterious dreams, suspense-filled legends, the terror that unfolds as the dig ensues, and the fine characterizations weave together beautifully to make this adventure fantasy a winner." --Booklist (starred review)

Guardian of the Hills was chosen as a New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age.

For more reviews and an excerpt, click here.

The Lady of Rhuddesmere
Published by Frederick Warne in 1982, The Lady of Rhuddesmere is a historical novel for teens.

Lady was my debut novel. I wrote it when I was 17; it got me an agent who found me a publisher (a journey of nearly 10 years), where a wonderful editor helped me re-write it from beginning to end, and in the process taught me more about writing than I've learned before or since.

From Open Road: In this powerful young adult historical fiction classic, a young man serving a sad and secretive lady in an isolated English manor makes a shocking discovery that could destroy those he loves....Nominated for the Dorothy Canfield Fisher Award, Victoria Strauss’s acclaimed debut novel bridges the gap between historical fiction for youth and adults with a chillingly provocative Gothic tale that sheds a stark, revealing light on human cruelty, ignorance, and intolerance.

“Riveting historical fiction . . . A compelling, suspenseful read, with fine accuracy and integration of historical detail.” --School Library Journal

For more reviews, an excerpt, and the (very dramatic) original cover, click here.

February 12, 2015

Editing Clauses in Publishing Contracts: How to Protect Yourself

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Editing clauses are one of those publishing contract areas where there should be a balance between the publisher's interests and the writer's.

Publishers need a certain amount of latitude to edit a manuscript to prepare it for publication. They also need to have the right of final approval--they don't want to be forced to publish a manuscript that the author can't or won't revise to their satisfaction.

Writers, on the other hand, need assurance that they will be a partner in the editing process, and that their work won't be changed in major ways without their permission.

Whether you're publishing an entire book, or a story in an anthology or magazine, the editing clause of your contract should ensure that content editing (the kind of serious editing that focuses on plot, pace, structure, style, and content) includes your cooperation (ideally, the editor will provide revision suggestions and you will carry them out yourself), and that alterations other than copy editing can't be made without your consent. If the publisher isn't happy with your revisions, or you don't want to implement the publisher's suggestions, the publisher's remedy should be to refuse to publish--not to unilaterally impose changes.

For copy editing, by contrast, the publisher usually has discretion. But you should have the opportunity to see and approve the copy edited manuscript before it goes to press.


Red Flag Editing Clauses

Here's an example of an editing clause that should be a dealbreaker (this and other clauses quoted below are taken from actual contracts in my possession):
Publisher shall have the right to edit and revise the Work for any and all uses contemplated under this Agreement.
What's missing here? Any obligation on the publisher's part to seek your approval before making the edits and revisions. A clause like this allows the publisher to edit at will without consulting or even informing you. If you sign a contract with this kind of language, you are at the mercy of the publisher and its editors (and if it's a small press, those editors may not be very qualified). You shouldn't be surprised if the publisher takes advantage of it.

This clause is more elaborate, but has the same effect (this language is fairly common, by the way; I've seen it in many contracts):
The Publisher shall be entitled to develop, alter, edit, and proof the content, usage, format, capitalization, punctuation, and spelling of the Work to conform to the Publisher's style, the subject matter, and intended audience previously agreed upon by the parties of this Agreement.
Here's another bad one, which is explicit about the publisher's right to edit at will:
Publisher has the right of final approval of Author’s manuscript. Publisher will assign an editor to work with Author in making revisions. The Author agrees that Publisher can make editorial changes to the manuscript, including, but not limited to spelling, grammar and punctuation corrections, and abridgments of text without Author’s consent.
Less obviously a problem is something like this:
Publisher shall have the right to correct errors, and/or edit and revise the Work for any and all uses contemplated under this Agreement (collectively "Editing"), provided that the meaning of the Work is not materially altered.
Again, this is a very common formulation. Many authors skip right over it, because on a surface reading it appears to protect the work from major changes. Not so. "Provided that the meaning of the Work is not materially altered" can cover a huge amount of ground, including stylistic alterations, abridgements, additions, and all sorts of things that might not change your manuscript's meaning but could seriously change its tone and style. Plus, the publisher is not required to consult you or get your permission before making those changes--and if you don't like the changes, you may not be able to persuade the publisher to undo them.

This one throws the author a bone, in the form of notification:
Publisher has the right of final approval of Author's manuscript. Publisher will have the right to correct errors and revise the work for all purposes of this Agreement. The Author will be notified prior to any and all substantial changes.
But although this may prevent you from being blindsided by enormous changes in your finished book or story (or not--the publisher's definition of "substantial" may not be the same as yours), you have no power to dispute or refuse those changes.

Alternatively, the publisher may be willing to give you input into the editing process, but reserves the right to ignore your suggestions:
Publisher shall have the right to edit and revise the Work for any and all uses contemplated under this agreement. Author shall be consulted if substantial changes are made, provided that in any dispute over such changes, Publisher's decision shall prevail.
A related issue is a clause like this one, which may appear in addition to the editing language:
If the Publisher considers it necessary and in the best interests of the Work, the Author agrees to revise the Work on request of the Publisher. The provisions of this agreement shall apply to each revision of the Work by the Author as though that revision were the work being published for the first time under this agreement, except that the manuscript of the revised work shall be delivered in final form by the Author to the Publisher within a reasonable time after request for revision...Should the Author not provide a revision acceptable to the Publisher within a reasonable time, or should the Author be deceased, the Publisher may have the revision done and charge the cost of such revision against royalties due, or that may become due, the Author, and may display in the revised work, and in advertising, the name of the person, or persons, who revised the work.
This is a Revision clause. While it's appropriate for a work of nonfiction, which may need to be revised from time to time to keep it up to date, it does not belong in a fiction contract: novels, once published, are not typically revised. If you see a revision clause in your contract, negotiate with the publisher to remove or strike it. I've heard of at least one publisher that used a revision clause to unilaterally enforce unwanted edits--at the author's expense.


What To Look For

Are clauses like the ones above a guarantee of malfeasance? Not necessarily. It's entirely possible that the publisher will be conscientious and ethical, that you will be a full partner in the editing process, and everyone will wind up happy.

Problem is, you have no contractual assurance of this. These clauses give all the power to the publisher--and in publishing, the letter of the contract is the bottom line. You should never assume that what the contract says could happen, won't happen. If the publisher has a dictatorial attitude, or employs not-very-competent editors, or is just a deadbeat--all of which, unfortunately, are pretty common in the small press world--you could find yourself with a badly-edited manuscript and no way to protest it or fix it. I have gotten hundreds of complaints over the years from authors who've found themselves in this position because the editing clauses in their contracts gave them no rights and offered them no protection.

So what should you look for? Here are several examples of better editing clauses, taken from various book contracts I've seen, including my own:
The Publisher shall make no changes in, additions to, or eliminations from the manuscript, except for typographical, spelling, and grammatical errors, without Author's consent. Any other edits will be requested of the author and agreed upon between the author and editor prior to preparation for sale.
Publisher has the right of final approval of Author's manuscript. Publisher may assign an editor to work with Author in making revisions. The Author will be notified prior to any and all substantial changes, which will be made only with the Author's approval and participation...Publisher may make corrections of typographical errors without Author's consent.
If the complete manuscript for the Work delivered by the Author is not acceptable to the Publisher, the Publisher shall give the Author a written request for changes and revisions for such work...After the Work has been accepted by the Publisher, no material changes may be made in such Work without the Author's approval. However, the Publisher may copyedit the Work in accordance with its standards of punctuation, spelling, capitalization and usage. The Publisher shall send the copyedited manuscript to the Author, who shall make any revisions and corrections and return it within two weeks of receipt.
The Publisher shall request that the Author work cooperatively with the Publisher to make the Work satisfactory to the Publisher, in which event Author shall use best efforts to do so...Upon acceptance by the Publisher, no changes shall be made in the Work without the author's approval, except that the Author authorizes the Publisher to make the manuscript of the Work conform to its standard style in punctuation, spelling, capitalization and usage.
From an anthology contract:
The Publisher will make no major alterations to the Work's text or title without the Author's written approval. The Publisher reserves the right to make minor copy-editing changes.
And from a magazine contract:
The Publisher will make no alterations to the Work’s text or title without the Author’s written approval in e-mail or hardcopy. The Publisher reserves the right to make minor copyediting changes to conform the style of the text to its customary form and usage.
What's common in all these clauses: the author's consent is required before serious changes are made.


In Closing

What to do if the publisher that has just made you an offer has a bad editing clause in its contract?

Try to negotiate. Ask that the publisher add language ensuring that your consent is required for changes other than copy editing--a la the clauses directly above. Many publishers will be willing to be flexible. If they aren't, as hard as it seems, you may want to seriously consider moving on.

Don't be swayed if the publisher assures you that in practice, you will always be consulted, or says something like "That's just in there for the lawyers; we won't do anything without your consent." This may be true at that particular moment--but you have no guarantee that it will still be true at some future point. Again, never assume that what the contract says could happen, won't happen.

Obviously, with even the best contract language, things can go wrong. But if you sign a contract that doesn't protect your rights in the editing process, you are really making yourself vulnerable. Just another reason to be smart and careful out there.

For some tips on cultivating the right mindset when evaluating a publishing contract, see my recent blog post: Evaluating Publishing Contracts: Six Ways You May Be Sabotaging Yourself.

February 5, 2015

SFWA Opens to Self-Published Authors; Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction Makes Contract Changes

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

I have two pieces of SFWA-related news to share today.


Members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) have voted to open membership to self-published and small press authors. From the official statement:
Specific details will be posted at by the first of March, but the basic standards are $3,000 for novel, or a total of 10,000 words of short fiction paid at 6 cents a word for Active membership. A single story of at least 1,000 words paid at 6 cents a word will be required for Associate membership. Affiliate, Estate, and Institutional membership requirements remain unchanged.

Self-published and small-press works were already eligible for the Nebula and Norton Awards, SFWA’s member-voted genre award, and will remain so.

SFWA will open to applications from small press and independent publishing qualifying members on March 1, 2015. Further information will be available at that time at SFWA's Membership Requirements page.
Voting members supported the change 6 to 1. This has been a long time coming, and I am thrilled that it's here at last.

SFWA's Contracts Committee has issued the following announcement:
Several months ago, a number of members of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) raised questions with the SFWA Contracts Committee about the contract then in use by The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (F&SF).

The SFWA Contracts Committee and Gordon Van Gelder, Publisher of F&SF, have worked together over the past several months to resolve problems with the contract. As a result of the discussions, the contract has been revised to address issues involving the length of exclusivity requested and the registration of copyright. The Committee will continue to follow implementation of the new contract.

Mr. Van Gelder was offered an opportunity to make a statement, but declined. We would like to thank him for his professionalism and courtesy in working with the Committee.

Michael Armstrong, Chairperson
SFWA Contracts Committee
The Contracts Committee consists of Michael Armstrong, chairperson, Michael Capobianco, Victoria Strauss, Ken Liu, Jim Fiscus, and Michael Stackpole.

February 2, 2015

Who's Running Your Writers' Group? Why You Should Be Careful

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware
Joining a writers' group can be a terrific way to get feedback and support, and to make new friends. But what if that group isn't all it seems?

An alert Writer Beware reader drew my attention to what seems like a growing phenomenon: writers' groups sponsored by pay-to-play publishers.

A few examples--all from, where there are likely many more:

Onion Custard Publishing's Author Clinic is "looking to support authors who want to develop their ideas." Onion Custard also offers a suite of services for authors--all at a cost.

The Roswell Alpharetta Book Publishing Group for Authors, which helps writers "Network with other authors during your writing and publishing journey", is run by Firebrand Publishing, which provides "book publishing services at affordable rates."

PageCurl Publishing and Promotions runs two writers' groups, one in Seattle and one in Pennsylvania. Their aim: to "take the scary out of publishing." But not necessarily the cost: PageCurl offers publishing services at $45 per hour, as well as a la carte services and publishing packages starting at $3,500.

Grey Wolfe Publishing also has multiple groups, in Michigan and Missouri. They describe themselves as "a reliable pack of literary experts who will walk with you and protect you through even the darkest paths of the publishing forest!" One of those paths: Grey Wolfe's "all inclusive" publishing package, priced at $1,250. If you want, you can pay more...much more.

At Brisbane Self-Publishing Meetup, you can "Meet like-minded people and talk about your wins and challenges in getting your book published." The group is sponsored by Complete Publishing, "the new revolution in book publishing," which charges up to $6,500 AUD for a Premium Author Package (about $5,000 US). Not all that revolutionary--except maybe in your bank account.

The writers' group offered by Zimbell House Publishing has a "missions": "to help writers become quality authors." Quality authors can also buy one of Zimbell House's publishing packages, which start at $999.

The Greater Cleveland Writers Group is a large and well-established group that "exists to provide resources for novice to published writers in order to assist in developing, editing, publishing and marketing their work." Its MeetUP is sponsored by Cleveland Writers Press, which appears to provide some form of traditional publishing, but also sells self-publishing services.  

I've received no complaints about any of these publishing services. And I have no evidence that any of them are using these groups as a way to steer writers toward their paid services.

However, it's at least a possibility--and that potential conflict of interest is one reason why you should be cautious when a writers' group is sponsored by self-publishing service or pay-to-play publisher.

The other? The misinformation that such services and publishers often provide, whether about publishing or about themselves. Cleveland Writers Press, for instance, encourages authors to believe this common and pernicious myth:
Currently, the Publishing Industry basically ignores the up-and-coming author. Becoming a ‘published’ author is nearly a Black Art. There has been little interest in developing talented writers for decades.
And Grey Wolfe Publishing devotes an entire page of its website to explaining why its "unique 'hybrid' approach to publishing" is not vanity publishing. ("Hybrid," by the way, is one of the newest euphemisms used by vanity publishers, joining older deceptive terms like "co-op" and "joint venture".) So does Zimbell House Publishing. But if a company calls itself an "independent publisher" while at the same time requiring payment from authors, it's a vanity publisher, and no amount of verbiage about selectivity, partnership, expertise, or profound respect for authors can change that.

So be careful out there. Know who's running that writers' group you're thinking of joining--and if it's a publisher or a publishing service, be aware that it may be interested in more than just supporting you in your writing journey.

January 27, 2015

Lost in Translation: In Which I Investigate a Translation Service, and They Are Not Amused

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Last week, I got a question about the reputation of a service called Author Translation. I'd never heard of it before, so I paid a visit to its website.

Logically enough, given its name, AT offers "literary translations for authors, online and worldwide." The website doesn't say which languages are AT's specialty, but per its Twitter feed, that would appear to be Spanish only. Also not revealed: exactly who is doing the translations, and what qualifications they have. It's said only that they are "literary translators, proofreaders, bloggers and reviewers with English and Spanish literature studies."

The cost? $5 per translated page. This relatively low fee (good translations are expensive) was what attracted my correspondent, who would like to be able to sell her book into the Spanish-language market.

Unfortunately, I had to tell her that you tend to get what you pay for. AT raises a bunch of red flags. Not knowing who the translators are is the big one, because you have no way to investigate their qualifications and expertise--especially vital when you're hiring someone to render your work into a language you don't speak, and can't judge the finished product on your own. Also: there are unsubstantiated claims (AT says it works with publishing houses, but doesn't say which ones). Testimonials with stock images. And the website reads as if it were written by someone with an imperfect command of English--not really what you want to see in a translation service.

I decided to try and find out more about AT. So I emailed them, using my own name and my personal email address.
I'm interested in finding out more information about your company. Could you please tell me about your staff and their qualifications? Also, could you please let me know what publishing houses you've worked with, and provide me with some author references?

Thank you very much.

- Victoria
AT responded promptly (all errors are theirs):
Dear Victoria,

thanks for your interest. I think you can find some of that information on our webpage, for example which publishing houses or authors. We have a samples page for that, but at this time we only have one example because our startup is very new and under construction. We are based on Spain and We don't have staff but a group of freelance friends who are willing to lend a hand when it would be possible. As you may know the name of the translators rules are the same than the author's names: they can be published or not, depending on personal choice.

Kind regards

Author Translation Team
This seemed a tad vague to me--not to mention confusing; that last sentence is a bit of a syntax-twister. I wrote back:
Thanks for your quick response. So I gather from what you're saying that the people who do the translations are not professional translators? You can see the problem for the author, who wants their book translated into a language they can't speak or read themselves, and has no way of judging the quality of the finished product--so it's very important to know that they are working with qualified people.

I did look on your webpage, but I couldn't find the names of publishing houses or authors other than the one testimonial. Is that the only client you've worked with so far?

Thank you for answering my questions.

- Victoria
Well, it appears I went too far, because the tone of their next communication was very different.
You seem to gather what you want to gather. I told you the translators publish their names depending on personal choice (you can be published or anonymous), why do you gather from this sentence that "they are not professionals" ? Maybe you need psychological treatment if you understand so badly. In addition, why do you say that " a language they can't speak or read themselves " if I told you that we are Spanish? Are you crazy ? And why you say that "the author has no way of judging the quality of the finished product" if everybody can pass some few translated pages to any Spanish person in order to judge? Please, don't disturb us any more, I answered you and I didn't have any duty of doing that. I did it only because you seem to be part of a bigger organization, but your "watchdog" is the more stupid thing I have ever seen in my life. Go away you and your dog.
If I had a dog, I'm sure she would be crushed. Perhaps I should have let it go at that point, but I couldn't resist.
Thank you. You've now told me everything I need to know about your service.

- Victoria
Imagine my surprise to receive this:
I warn you that slander anybody on the Internet is a legal felony; and if we see any of your liars out there we will report that to the police and our lawyers.
So now, dear reader, I think that you, too, know all you need to know about Author Translation.

January 23, 2015

Two Red-Flag Sentences in Publishing Contracts

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

A publishing contract just came across my desk for evaluation. From a publisher that sometimes charges fees (but didn't in this case), it's a pretty poor contract--just two pages long, because it's missing a lot of important language: nothing to indicate when the contract term starts to run (on publication? on signing?), no editing clause, a claim on subsidiary rights with no breakout of the rights claimed, no copyright notice requirement, the same royalty rate for all formats including ebooks...the list goes on.

As if that weren't bad enough, it also includes two provisions that, even in contracts that are more professional and complete than this one, can be red-flag warnings.
Promotion and publicity shall be at Publisher’s election and discretion as to the character, scope and extent thereof.
With this or similar language, the publisher may be trying to convince you that it actively promotes and publicizes its books (because of course you want that from a publisher), while ensuring that it can blow off your dissatisfaction when it turns out to do little or nothing. "It says right in the contract that publicity is at our discretion," it may tell you when you ask it to explain why its sole marketing strategy is a poorly-written press release sent to a list of people you provided. "We didn't promise anything else."

Now, this kind of language isn't always a sign of a deadbeat publisher. You can also find it in contracts from quite decent publishers, which simply want to emphasize that marketing is under their control. But many deadbeat publishers do use it as a get-out-of-jail-free card--so where you encounter it, you're well-advised to find out for yourself whether the publisher really does provide marketing support for its books.
It is further understood that Publisher has not guaranteed the sale of any specific number of copies of the said Work, or receipts from any source.
This is a sentence you will not find in the contract of a reputable, professional publisher. Quite simply, it's advance justification for failure--another way for the publisher to both justify and dismiss poor performance. It's an almost certain marker for little or no promotion and tiny sales. Vanity publishers frequently include it in their contracts, as do amateur publishers that have no clue what they're doing.

For more on assessing publishing contracts, see my recent post: Evaluating Publishing Contracts: Six Ways You May Be Sabotaging Yourself.

January 21, 2015

New Look for Writer Beware

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

If you're a regular here, you'll have noticed our new look!

It's courtesy of the talented Tiana Smith of The Blog Decorator, who offered to donate a custom blog template just because she thinks Writer Beware is awesome. We're grateful for her generosity, and thrilled to finally have a design that lives up to our new logo. We hope you like it, too.

Thanks, Tiana!

January 6, 2015

2014 in Review: The Best of Writer Beware

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Welcome to 2015! It's time again for our annual look back at the year just past, to remind you of our most important, helpful, or amusing posts.

Here goes.


Scribd's Ebook Subscription Service: A look at Scribd's ebook subscription service--which in January 2014 was brand-new--and the related concerns raised by the rampant piracy on the site. Says Writer Beware's Michael Capobianco: "[B]eneath all the new things, the old Scribd--offering not-necessarily-legal user uploads of copyrighted works--is still there."(Scribd later responded, stating that it's concerned about illegal uploads and working to prevent them.)


Questions to Ask Your Prospective Literary Agent: What are the right questions to ask when you receive The Call? How can you be sure if the 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? This post provides a big list of resources to help you formulate the right questions--and to assess the answers you receive.

PublishAmerica Is Now America Star Books: A name change does not a new company make--but it can sometimes create the appearance of one. Notorious PublishAmerica took the name change plunge in early 2014, re-christening itself America Star Books.

Alert: Jane Dowary Agency: I love the weird stories, and this is one of the weirdest--an "agent" who appeared under three different aliases, and then cluelessly outed herself while adopting a fourth.


The Short Life and Strange Death of Entranced Publishing: The cautionary tale of a small press that started too big, got into trouble, and went bust in less than a year. A good example of why it's smart to avoid new publishers for at least a year post-startup.

Rights Concerns: The Amtrak Residency Program: This new program from Amtrak promised "to allow creative professionals who are passionate about train travel" to write while experiencing round-trip train journeys along Amtrak's most scenic routes. The response from writers was huge--but so were concerns about the Grant of Rights to which authors had to agree.


Take the Money and Run: the saga of Kerry Jacobson, faux book publicist, who solicited thousands of dollars from self-published authors for publicity campaigns that never happened.


Robert Fletcher of SBPRA Required to Pay Author Resititution: At long last, the Florida Attorney General's civil lawsuit against Robert Fletcher and his companies (see Writer Beware's Alert for a full catalog of the many names under which this business has operated) drew to a close, with a settlement that did not require Fletcher to admit guilt but did require him to submit to a number of conditions and to pay $125,000 in author restitution (an amount that increased to $135,000 when Fletcher missed the payment deadline).


Bait and Switch for Self-Published Authors: In which apparently helpful feedback from readers turns into a sales pitch.


Self-Publishing and Author-Agent Agreements: The Need for Change: You don't sign with an agent unless you're planning to pursue traditional publishing--but even so, your author-agent agreement should include language addressing self-publishing. Unfortunately, most don't. This post explores why that can become a problem, and suggests questions about self-publishing that your new agent should be willing to answer.

Time to Bury the Hachette: Michael Capobianco takes a look at what was maybe last year's biggest publishing news--the standoff between Amazon and Hachette over sales terms--and suggests a role for author advocacy groups in resolving such disputes.


Haters Gonna Hate: The Smear Campaign Against Absolute Write: A look at the ugly troll campaign to discredit one of the Internet's better writers' resources. The post that got me doxxed.

Writer Beware's Self-Publishing Page Renovated and Updated: Our completely overhauled Self-Publishing page includes an overview of how technology has transformed self-publishing, pointers on making the decision to self-publish (or not), an expanded list of cautions for self-publishers (including common scams), and many new links to articles, experts, and statistics.


Author-Editor Compatibility: If you're thinking of hiring an independent editor, don't miss this excellent guest post from editor Katherine Pickett on a crucial, but often overlooked, element of the author-editor relationship.


How to Request Rights Reversion From Your Publisher: A primer on requesting your rights back from your publisher--even in difficult or adversarial circumstances.

Kindle Scout: The Pros and Cons: A detailed look at Amazon's new crowdsourced publishing venture, which I feel occupies an uneasy middle ground between publishing and self-publishing, embracing characteristics of both while offering the benefits of neither.


Scam Warnings for Freelancers: Two scams--one common, one not--against which freelance writers should be on their guard. 


Wrong Ways to Try and Escape Your Deadbeat Publisher:  If your deadbeat publisher won't let you go (and I hear almost daily from writers who are in this situation), you may be considering ways to get around your contract and re-publish on your own. This post details some common ideas on how to do this--and why they won't work.

Evaluating Publishing Contracts: Six Ways You May be Sabotaging Yourself: Should you believe your publisher if it promises that a nasty contract clause will never be enforced? Or trust it if it tells you that contract language doesn't mean what you think it means? This post explores how these and other assumptions could come back to bite you. Never forget that in the author-publisher relationship, the exact wording of the contract--not the publisher's assurances--is the bottom line.

December 23, 2014

Happy Holidays

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

The Writer Beware blog will be on holiday hiatus for the next two weeks. I will still be answering email, though, so if you have a question, feel free to contact me at the email address in the sidebar.

Many, many thanks to our readers, followers, and fans--and especially to all the writers who contact us to let us know about their writing and publishing experiences, good and bad. You are why we do this.

See you in 2015.
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