Monday, February 27, 2006

A.C. Crispin - 41 -- The Need to be READ...

Wow, my post no. 40 really stirred up some discussion! Bring it on!

I think I understand why that article inspired a lot of commentary. The urge to be read is something most writers feel. Writers like Emily Dickinson who are content to write totally or mostly for themselves, with no urge to share their work, are in the minority. After all, what is writing but the urge to reach out, to communicate with our fellow beings? To entertain them, tell them a story, educate them, enlighten them, frighten them, gladden their hearts and minds...for the vast majority of writers, this is WHY we write. To share. To communicate. To reach out to our fellow beings.

But as my post 40 discussed, sometimes writers choose poor venues in their efforts to be read. I've seen writers pop into Aol chatrooms begging all and sundry to "read my story! Please! Please!" There's an edge of real desperation there. Needless to say, this is not the best strategy to gain readers and useful feedback, any more than posting on those "blind leading the blind" sites.

So...what are some better ways to be read, short of being published and having your book on the shelves in the local Borders?

Most professional writers I know solve this problem by having one or more trustworthy BETA READERS. What's a beta reader? Well, obviously, since I'm the first reader on anything I write, I am the ALPHA reader. My "beta readers" are the second readers. My editor at Harper would then become my "gamma reader" and you, the reading public, are the "omega" or the "final" readers.

I have two or three beta readers I regularly call upon to read a book, or, once in a while, a section of a book, to give me feedback on how well I've told the story. Victoria is actually one of my beta readers. My other usual beta reader is my longtime friend and collaborator, Kathleen O'Malley. Both Vic and Kathy have good storytelling instincts, and are profressional writers. They read the book, praise me when I've done things right, but, FAR MORE IMPORTANTLY, they let me know when I have goofed up. That way, I can fix the problem(s) in the manuscript before it goes off to my editor in New York.

I am lucky that both Vic and Kathy are professionals, and can read with an experienced, critical eye. Such beta readers are to be treasured, trust me. They are NEVER to be subjected to fits of sulking, outthrust lips, defensiveness, or any spells of "golden-words syndrome." (This is an ailment suffered by many beginning writers. The ones who succeed recover from it, and are glad to have done so.)

Where can you find a good beta reader? Well, your writers' group is a good place to start your search. You'll need to look for someone on roughly the same level as you are, who is as serious as you are about writing well enough to be published. You'll need to learn to ask the right questions to help "train" your beta reader in helping you to identify problems. Orson Scott Card, in one of his excellent books on writing (I think it's the book he did on writing science fiction and fantasy, you can probably get it used, and I highly recommend both of his books) describes how he trained his wife to act as his beta reader.

Obviously, being a good beta reader requires some work on the part of the reader. One esstential component of a good beta reader is that he or she must FIRST be a READER. Trying to train your engineer spouse whose favorite reading material, like Scotty's, happens to be "technical journals" is probably a lost cause. The beta reader must also be able to be objective about what they're reading. Generally speaking, Mom is not a very good candidate either, (except for Victoria's Mom who happens to be a professional editor in New York!).

Why, you ask, should anyone take the time and trouble to become your beta reader? Aha! Well you may ask! They can do it for a variety of reasons, but unless the person loves you and has a vested interest in your career (as Mrs. Card does), the main reason is that YOU, in turn, will read THEIR manuscript and do unto them as they have done unto you. I serve as a beta reader for both Kathy and Victoria, in my turn.

Tit for tat. Back-scratching. Beta reading.

It's important not to have too many beta readers. Nothing is more confusing to a writer than getting five or six conflicting comments on a scene in a story or book. Three "betas" is probably plenty. (I generally have two.) I also have a specialized beta reader who reads my stuff for military accuracy. Steve doesn't comment much on the characterization, the style, etc., that's not his baliwick. But the battle scenes...!! The sword fights! The fist fights! The cavalry charges! The spaceship battle formations! Oh, yesssss...Steve has a LOT to say about those.

I think by now you're getting the picture. I'd be happy to discuss the matter, or make a second post on the subject if y'all feel one is needed.

Stay warm, keep your powder dry, and write on!

-Ann C. Crispin
Author: STORMS OF DESTINY/HarperEos
www.accrispin.com

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- When An Agent Calls...

From the comments section of my last post, courtesy of Anonymous:

So, what would you say about an agent who is contacting dozens of electronically published authors? She's always very flattering about their novels, and asks if they have representation. She's personable and polite, but the only web information on her is that it's believed she once worked for (named) reputable agency. The website for her agency only says "coming soon". And has said that for several months now. I know all this because I'm one of the people she contacted. Some of the people on the email lists I'm on seem inclined to trust her simply because she's nice.

Don't get me started on trusting agents just because they're nice. Or rather, do get me started...but that's something for another Makes Me Crazy post.

A new agent with the proper background really shouldn't need to be soliciting clients. If she did work for a reputable agency before setting up on her own, she might have brought clients with her; other than that, all she needs to do is to send an announcement to Publishers Lunch, or put up a membership page at Publishers Marketplace, and she'll quickly be beating off manuscripts with a stick.

That's not to say that agents never solicit clients. Sometimes they do (I've also heard of established agents trying to poach other agents' clients, but that's another story). But they tend to be pretty selective, which is to say they don't do it a lot. If an agent is contacting "dozens" of authors to offer her services, you have to wonder why. This actually makes me think of the agents who troll manuscript display sites, many of whom are obscure or marginal enough that they have trouble keeping a full client roster. Not a good sign.

I'm also concerned that she's contacting electronically-published authors. Epubbed authors don't need agents--nor, since most epublishers don't pay advances, are reputable agents much interested in working with epubbed authors. So what's the deal? Is this agent promising to take these authors to print publishers? Even looking at this in the most positive possible light--i.e., these are authors the agent likes a lot and believes deserve a wider audience--it's a very odd way to acquire clients.

Then there's the matter of credentials. "It's believed she once worked for (named) reputable agency." Well, did she or didn't she? "Believed" and two bucks will get you on the subway. Unless the credentials can be confirmed, either independently or by asking the agent a direct question (in which case you should also ask what her position was [agent or assistant agent is good, receptionist is not so good] and what books she sold while she was there), they're meaningless.

As for the website, there could be all kinds of legitimate reasons why she hasn't gotten around to constructing it yet. On the other hand, if she has been actively recruiting for several months, she should have a client list by now and have started to make submissions. While the absence of a website isn't alarming by itself, when you put it together with the other factors, it does contribute to a feeling of unease.

Of course, there might be perfectly reasonable explanations for all of the above, and the agent's credentials could be completely bona fide. However, based on the information I've been given, I'd say that caution is in order. Anonymous, please feel free to send me the agent's name via Writer Beware email. I may be able to comment further.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- More Things New Writers Say That Drive Me Crazy

“Everyone has to start somewhere.”

This is the justification used by countless aspiring writers for signing with an agent who a) has no relevant professional credentials, b) has no track record of sales (sometimes after many years in business), c) has a website/contract/correspondence laced with mis-spellings and grammatical errors, or d) all of the above.

Just as every published writer was once an unpublished writer, this reasoning goes, just as every surgeon was once a medical student and every master carpenter was once a kid playing with a plastic hammer, every agent was once a non-agent. Everyone has to start somewhere.

Well, sure. But you don’t just wake up one day and decide you’re a surgeon. You don’t buy yourself a box of woodworking tools and call yourself a carpenter. You don’t graduate from college and immediately apply for a job as a senior editor. You need training. Knowledge. Relevant professional experience.

If you’re thinking this is pretty obvious, I agree. To do a skilled job, you need job skills. Duh.

The trouble is, huge numbers of new writers seem to feel that literary agents are exempt from this basic principle. All a new agent really needs, they think, is a website, some determination, and a can-do attitude. So what if the agent doesn’t know the ropes? She can learn them on the job. So what if her spelling’s a little erratic? Anyone can make a mistake. So what if it takes her a while to make a sale? Everyone has to start somewhere.

But it doesn’t work that way. Agenting isn’t like selling Avon products. You can’t just grow into the job with enthusiasm and a good work ethic. Agenting is a highly skilled profession that requires a range of specialized expertise (such as an understanding of rights and contract terms), negotiating savvy, a deep knowledge of the publishing industry, and personal contacts (since publishing is still very much a deals-over-lunch business). These are not skills that are easily acquired outside the publishing industry itself--which is why most successful agents have either worked in publishing in some capacity, or trained at a reputable agency. Nor are skills acquired in other professions--advertising, say, or sales--necessarily transferable. Publishing is a universe unto itself. The sort of selling and negotiating that goes on between agents and editors doesn’t much resemble the selling and negotiating that happens in the business world.

People who come to agenting from non-publishing-related fields rarely manage to make a go of it. I’m not just making a generalization here. Documentation gathered by Writer Beware over the past eight years bears me out. We have scores of files on inexperienced agents who gave up after a couple of years of fruitless trying. We have scores more on amateur agents who turned to fee-charging or editing schemes in order to keep their non-manuscript-selling agencies afloat. Many writers think that scam agents are their greatest danger, but amateur agents--who actually outnumber the scammers by a good percentage--are just as bad.

I’m not really sure why so many writers have a tough time believing this--why they think that anyone, experienced or not, can hang out a shingle as an agent and have as much chance of success as someone who has been an in-house editor for twenty years. Hey, if it were that easy, why would you need an agent at all? Possibly they don’t grasp the level of expert skill involved. Or maybe it’s because, apart from college creative writing programs, there’s no formal training for writers. Anyone can be a writer; why shouldn’t it be the same for agents?

In many cases, of course, it’s because the agent tells the writer what he most desperately wants to hear--that he’s talented, that his manuscript will sell. These are powerful promises, especially to someone who has experienced a lot of rejection. And if the agent is a failed novelist who turned to agenting because she thought she could do a better job than all the nasty agents who sent her form rejection letters, or a retired grade-school teacher who took up agenting because he thought it would be a pleasant home business and in three years of agenting has yet to make a sale, what’s going to be the more powerful motivator for the writer--the practical considerations of job experience, or the ego-boost of recognition, with all the dreams of success it invokes? Will the writer say This agent doesn’t have the skill to sell my manuscript? Or will he swallow the dream, and tell himself Everyone has to start somewhere?

So think twice before approaching new agents who don’t have an industry background. Avoid agents who’ve been in business for years and are still struggling to establish a track record. Run far and fast from agents who make spelling mistakes or grammatical errors or haven’t bothered to proof their websites. These agents started somewhere--but where they are isn't anyplace you want to be.

Edited to add: Not to pick on this person in particular--she's not unique--but this agent's website is such a perfect example of what I'm talking about that I had to post it.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

A.C. Crispin - 40 - Giving Your Work Away?

Sometimes, I can’t think of anything to post about in this blog. It’s a distinctly anxious feeling, rather like the experience of the newspaper editor protagonist of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novel, TRUTH, when he looks at the giant printing press, just squatting there waiting, waiting for content. “I must feed it,” he thinks, half in a panic, and, grabbing his notebook, races out into the night in search of a story.

Gotta love Pratchett!

Anyway, this time when I couldn’t think of anything to post about, I asked someone in the Aol Authors Lounge if she had a suggestion. “Why not write about those sites that get people to post their work for free?” she suggested. “Write about how that can compromise their publishing rights.”

Well, BINGO!

Great idea! Thanks!

There are tons of “post your work here” sites on the internet. Some are incredibly sleazy, others are a little nicer looking. The main things they have in common are these:

1. They will post anything, no matter how poorly written. There is no editorial gatekeeping involved.

2. They tell you that the feedback you’ll get from posting on their site will help you become a better writer.

3. They all ask for money from you, the writer (or reader). Either in the form of donations, or as a subscription.

4. Some actually go so far as to imply that posting your work for free on their site, or even paying to have it placed there, will increase your chances of finding an agent or a publisher.

5. They all post your work in such a fashion that it’s easily accessible to the public. Anyone can read and comment on it. When you post on such a site, most commercial publishers would regard your work as “published” even though you weren’t paid for it.

I reviewed a few of these sites in order to write this post: www.fanstory.com, www.blogit.com, and www.your-poetry.com. One site, www.voxtango.net, I’d run into previously, due to complaints from authors who’d posted there.

Here are the problems I’ve noted with such sites, and some advice regarding them.

1. If you think you might EVER want to try and sell a story or a book to a commercial venue, then DON’T post it on one of these sites, especially in its entirety. The feedback you get as an unpublished writer can be seductive, I realize, but posting on such a site can, if publishers want to be picky about it, “use up” your First North America rights. (Remember…publishing rights are NOT the same thing as copyright. See my earlier post on this subject.) If a publisher deems that you’ve published the piece, even though you weren’t paid for it, then the best that you can hope to get for it is the payment for a REPRINT. Which is a fraction of the money the piece would be worth as a first-rights sale. And since these sites don’t pay the authors in the first place…well, I think you see my point. If you want to get feedback on a piece that you have no intention of ever submitting, or a small excerpt, that’s probably okay, though IMHO it won’t be all that useful.

2. The feedback you receive is from other unpublished writers, even those who style themselves “reviewers.” In many cases, this amounts to the blind leading the blind, sorry. One of the pieces I reviewed on fanstory.com had five stars and was rated “publishable.” I beg to differ. The writing was purple, and the story logic just didn’t hold together. The chapter rambled, and the writer obviously hadn’t done his research into police procedure, ballistics, and forensic procedures. And yet this writer is posting every chapter of his detective novel, and getting these five star reviews. By the time he’s posted the whole novel (thus effectively rendering his book a reprint, see above), he’s going to think he’s really hot stuff. He’s in for a rude awakening. Also, some of these “reviewers” get their ego-boo off trashing the writing of other aspiring authors. Most distasteful.

3. When you put your writing up on a site like this, it may be hard to get off. I’ve been told by several authors that Voxtango.net, has refused repeated requests to remove stories or poems they posted there. The site owner seems to think they have the right to have the pieces there in perpetuity. When you consider that newbie writers might post there on impulse, then later change their minds and decide to try and submit their work elsewhere, this can be a real problem.

4. These sites often try to imply that posting your work for free on their site will not only help you become a better writer, but that agents and publishers could see your work there. Yeah, right. And Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny will offer you publishing contracts, too. I can’t stress too strongly that legitimate agents and publishers just don’t have the time to go searching for more slush to read. They have all the slush they can handle – and more – delivered straight to their office via the US Mail every week. Ask Miss Snark, and I’m sure she’ll back me up on this one.

Now, a word before I go. There are a number of legitimate online magazines. Some pay, some do not, but they are well respected for their content, and they do editorial gatekeeping.

There are also password-protected online critique groups that are NOT the same thing as these “we post everything for everyone to see” sites. Critters is one such group. I think Zoetrope has another. These sites are designed for writers to workshop pieces, just as they would in a real-life writing workshop. The public can’t wander by and access the stories, because they’re password protected. The purpose of these sites is not to allow just anyone to read the story posted, but for a select group of other writers to read it so it can be workshopped..

These sites are not the kind of sites I’m talking about.

I’m also not talking about fanzine sites. Fanzine sites are where writers post stories written in someone else’s universe. These writers can’t possibly sell their Star Wars, or Star Trek or Alien story, so they post it so other fans can read it. (This is in violation of copyright law, of course, but most franchises ignore the practice as long as the authors don’t try to make any real money off these writings.)

Fanzine writing can have its own problems for aspiring writers. It can be seductive, and so much fun that the author never does move on and write in his/her own universe, despite earlier avowals that that’s what they wanted. However, as a hobby, for those who either want to indulge themselves for a while and play in someone else’s sandbox, or fans who really don’t have any desire to establish a writing career, then fanzine writing can be fun and harmless. Just make sure you don’t make money at it! (Some fanzine writers, publishers and artists do actually make some money at it, but they keep it very much sub-rosa, lest the franchise holder find out and shut them down.)

So…write on, write well, and resist the temptation to give your work away!

-Ann C. Crispin
Author: STORMS OF DESTINY/HarperEos
www.accrispin.com

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- Amazon Goes Into the Slush Pile Business

Like many authors, I sell some of my out-of-print books on Amazon through the Advantage program. Amazon takes a hefty percentage of each sale, but it lets me keep the books available.

The other day I got an email from the Advantage folks, with the following subject line: "Join Amazon's Talent Acquisition Program and get your books discovered by large publishers." Hmmm, I thought. I opened the email:

How would you like to rise above the clutter and get your titles in front of large, mainstream publishers? Are you interested in increased distribution and marketing support for your book? Does the prospect of signing a book contract with a major publisher appeal to you?

WTF??

I read on:

Amazon.com is proud to present its new Talent Acquisition Program (TAP), designed to help small vendors achieve these goals. Enroll in the program and Amazon.com will include your titles in monthly sales and marketing reports that reach the desks of acquisition editors at large publishing houses. If they express interest in a title of yours, we will provide them with your contact information and notify you.

Whoa. Had I accidentally stumbled into an alternate universe? Or was Amazon actually proposing a mass-mail submission program, using come-on language very much like that of a number of similar fee-based services of dubious value? Compare and contrast:
  • Bookblaster ("Picture this … you open your email inbox and there are numerous requests from literary agents and publishers, all wanting to read YOUR manuscript. Now gaining access to literary agents and publishers who handle fiction is possible with Bookblaster.")

  • ECPA 1st Edition ("You've got a great idea for a book...If only you could get the right people to take a look at it...Well, here's your chance. There are publishers that are always looking for good authors and fresh ideas. And you can submit your proposal to them directly--online.")

  • The Writer's Edge ("Do you have a publishable manuscript? Are you intimidated by the challenge of reaching decision-makers in the publishing houses?...The Writer's Edge provides you with an edge--an effective way to get your proposal into the hands of editorial directors.")

  • Airleaf, a.k.a. superspammer Bookman Marketing ("Every authors [sic] dream come true! Selling a book to a royalty paying, traditional publisher is always a long shot for unknown authors. However, Airleaf Publishing has developed a unique list of Senior Editors at the biggest publishing houses, and we also know how each publisher accepts new submissions. This puts you at least two steps ahead of the thousands of authors submitting books every week.")
It's no mistake, folks. If you’re in the Advantage program, you can sign up to have your self-published, small press-published, or out-of-print book included in some sort of monthly email to a list of publishers. The announcement mentions "participating" publishers, which suggests that this will be an opt-in list (at least as far as the publishers are concerned; the editors who actually get the email may not feel the same way)--so presumably at least some of the people getting the reports will be interested in them. But I wonder how long their interest will survive the inevitable deluge of sub-par self-pubbed books. I also wonder how many publishers actually will opt in. With huge slushpiles and floods of agented submissions, what's their incentive?

For the record, I don’t think that Amazon intends to rip anyone off. TAP is free to Advantage members, who only have to sign up to be included in the program--no (apparent) strings attached. But clearly Amazon (which describes TAP as "truly a unique opportunity") has no idea how much its pitch for TAP resembles the slick, deceptive pitches of fee-based submission services.

I’m reminded of the time that Xlibris, one of the big vanity PODs, contacted scores of editors and agents to offer them a kickback for “successful” referrals. Unlike the fraudulent vanity publishers that promote the same kind of deal, Xlibris didn’t mean to scam anyone; it simply didn’t know that such kickbacks were notorious because of the shenanigans of scam outfits like Edit Ink and Commonwealth Publications. Its ignorance did not last long; anger and ridicule ensued. Xlibris withdrew its offer in some embarassment, only a few days after making it.

Bottom line: Amazon is promoting a pipe dream. Submission services--no matter who runs them, and with what intent--are ineffective at best. Even so, I'm sure the eternally-springing hope of hitting the big time, as well as the equally eternal search for the magic short cut, will draw a lot of people into this program.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

A.C. Crispin 38 - Exploding Another Writing Myth -- "You have to KNOW someone..."

Okay, folks, here’s my next “Exploding Myth” post. Today the myth I’m torpedoing is probably the one most commonly passed around among aspiring authors. It basically goes something like this: “There’s no point submitting your book to a big publishing house, unless you are a celebrity, or your have an “in.” To get published by a big house, you have to know someone. They don’t even look at manuscripts submitted by unknown authors.”

I have actually had aspiring authors in Aol chatrooms who, after disocovering that my books are listed on Amazon.com as having been published by major publishing houses calmly announce to the room that the “know” in “know someone” was “know” in the Biblical sense. When I pointed out that I’m female, and that the vast majority of acquisition editors in today’s publishing houses are also female, my detractors didn’t miss a beat. “Well, it’s lucky that you swing both ways then,” was the riposte. I gave up in the face of such determined wrong-headedness.

I used to wonder why this myth was so prevalent, when I had concrete proof that it just isn’t so. I submitted my first book back in 1979, unagented, and was an unknown quantity. I knew no one. Then in 1982, Pocket Books bought the book.

(A clarification: the book was first brought into the Pocket Books editorial office by published science fiction author Jacqueline Lichtenberg, who had read it and thought it showed promise. But by the time anyone got around to glancing at the book, six or eight months later, the fact that she’d dropped it off in person while visiting her publisher in New York had been forgotten. Jacqueline didn’t write a cover letter for the book or anything like that. If anyone’s interested in the further chronology of how this book sold, I could go on…but the point is, by the time the manuscript made its way to an editorial desk, it was just another manuscript out of the slush pile.)

So if the time-honored Writing Myth was true, the book should have been shoved back into its return envelope and shipped home to me, unread. But it wasn’t.

I’m sure that at times that manuscripts that writers have sweated blood over receive very short shrift in editorial or agent offices, don’t get me wrong. But I suspect that it’s quite rare for a manuscript to be shipped back to the author without anyone ever reading any of it. Look at it from the editor’s or agent’s POV. It only takes a five-minute skim to determine if a writer’s style is professional enough to make the book worth looking at further.

One editor I know of in New York, in the science fiction field, makes it a practice to read the first three pages of everything that comes through his door. He was one of the editors who was working at Pocket Books when my book came through the door, matter of fact.

Okay…so it’s NOT true that publishers and agents just send your submission back without ever glancing at it, at least not in the usual run of things. But look at what you’ve got to impress them with – one query or cover letter, and possibly the time it would take to skim the first three pages. Maybe less.

This is why your writing style has to be at least as good as the style of the books you find on the shelves in bookstores. If there’s anything awkward or clumsy in your style, if you have no narrative hook, if in three pages nothing of any interest has happened…well, we all know what happens then, and it’s a word that starts with “R.”

In my time as SFWA Eastern Regional Director, over a decade, it was my job to introduce new writers from my region around at SFWA events. So I met lots of first-time published authors. None of the ones I met were celebrities, or had a relative at the publishing house that wound up publishing their book. Most of them, unless they had “come up through the ranks” of science fiction/fantasy fandom knew nobody in the writing field when they first submitted their book. Many of them had managed to land real agents. Some had not.

Point is, if they can do it, you can, too – IF you write well enough.

This particular Writing Myth is the most prevalent of all of them. You hear it everywhere, in writers groups, at conferences, online, etc. Why?

After some thought, I’ve concluded that it’s a control issue. Aspiring writers don’t want to admit that they have little or no control over what happens to their manuscript when they put it in that envelope and send it out, or click “send” on that email query. And the thought that their writing might not make the grade is anathema. So they go along with the “conventional wisdom” parroted by other aspiring writers that holds that nobody has a chance, because then everyone’s on equal footing. It’s much less threatening that way.

Okay, so you’re thinking. So if agents and publishers do actually read submissions, and recognize when they receive something that’s well written, is there anything I can do to improve my odds? Is there anything I can do to improve my chances that an agent or editor will pay special attention to my submission, for long enough to recognize its merit?

Well, as Victoria just pointed out, just writing well will make you stand out. Theodore Sturgeon once observed: “80% of everything is crap.” Well, these days, when you’re talking about slush piles, I’d put the percentage at 90% or a bit more.

But presuming that your writing IS good, that it IS of publishable quality, there is one thing you can do. It’s called “networking,” and I’ll talk about some methods for doing that in my next post.

Best,

-Ann C. Crispin
Author: STORMS OF DESTINY/HarperEos
www.accrispin.com

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- Things New Writers Say That Drive Me Crazy

Today I saw yet another comment on a writers’ message board comparing the process of finding publication to a crapshoot. The odds are stacked against new writers. There are so many people trying to sell a book, and so few publishing slots, that you’ve got a better chance of getting struck by lightning than you do of getting published. Etc. Etc.

This kind of thing makes me nuts. Sure, there’s some truth in it. There are thousands of manuscripts in circulation at any given time. The number that find publication in any given year is very small. But the assumptions that accompany this little bit of truth are incorrect, and so are the conclusions drawn from it.

The first assumption (unless you subscribe to the "you have to know someone" myth--see Ann's next post) is that all those thousands of manuscripts are on an equal footing in the marketplace--that all of them have basically the same chance. As anyone who has ever looked at a slush pile knows, this isn’t so. Most manuscripts stink. Less than 10% of what’s out there even approaches publishability--and of that small number, even fewer are polished/original/intriguing/whatever enough to be attractive to a publisher. Granted, agents’ and editors’ decisions are at least partly subjective. But if you’ve written a marketable book, you’re not in competition with every other writer out there, just with that publishable less-than-10%.

The second assumption is that there’s some sort of industry-wide prejudice against aspiring writers. Aspiring writers are lonely outsiders banging on the doors of an exclusive club that doesn’t want to let them in. But every published writer was once unpublished. If the industry doesn't want new writers, how could they ever have sold their first novels?

In fact, all other things being equal, A. Newbie can be a lot more attractive to a publisher than Joan Midlister. True, A. Newbie is an unknown quantity, which means his book may tank--but also means it might succeed (J.K. Rowling was once A. Newbie, and every publisher wants one of those). Whereas Joan Midlister, who’s got several books under her belt but has never quite stepped over the line into mass popularity, is a much too well-known quantity. Perhaps her books sell steadily but not in spectacular numbers. Perhaps her readership is slowly dwindling. Either way, Joan Midlister is constantly in peril of getting the heave-ho from her publisher--which means there’s now a slot for A. Newbie.

(This is the real crapshoot, folks. It’s no more difficult these days to get a first novel published than it ever has been. What’s hard is to sustain a career.)

I understand how tempting it is for writers who consistently receive rejections to assume that there’s something at work other than the quality of their writing. Sometimes this may be so. There’s no question that good books fail to find publication--sometimes simply because the writer gave up too soon. But in most cases, rejection is a result of the quality of the writing--or, less often, of bad research skills or an inability to craft a good query letter.

Of course, no writer wants to believe this. That’s what keeps scam agents, and vanity publishers, and incompetents of every stripe, in business.

If you’ve written a marketable book, if you do your research, if you’re smart and persistent, you have a good chance of finding publication. If not...you don’t. Either way, though, it’s not a crapshoot.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

A.C. Crispin -37 - Going Postal in Scammer Land

A quick addendum to my previous post about "Why I Can't Sell Your Book..."

The first and foremost line of excuse for any scammer is usually the poor, oft-blamed, and benighted US Postal Service. My husband, a retired postal worker, and s.f. writer, reminded me that I left this one out.

I've seen emails from Kelly O'Donnell/Martha Ivery where she strung some poor scammed writer along for weeks with repetitions of "Well, I can't understand this, I mailed your (galley proofs, check, release from contract, manuscript, artwork, you name it) six days ago! The post office must have lost it!" I've seen her claim that the post office lost no less than six attempts to get the writer their *whatever* in a row before the poor writer twigged that they had been "had" and wrote to Writer Beware to complain.

(sigh)

I've actually had a check from my agent get lost in the mail. Once. In twenty + years in the writing business.

So, if the agent or publisher you are dealing with winds up blaming the Post Office repeatedly for losing mailings, it's time to take a look at the agent/publisher with a jaundiced eye.

On a personal note, we're snowed in here. Good thing I stocked up on foodstuffs and cat litter. Tonight I'm going to cook spanish, mini-meatballs in saffron-vegetable sauce, over saffron rice.

Hope all of you East Coast readers are snug and cozy warm. Have a great Sunday.

Next post, I'll explode another Writer's Myth. "You have to know someone in the business...you've got to have connections to get published."

See you soon.

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

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- Song of the Mother-Squasher

Dave Kuzminski points out that Part 3 of Madison County Record's series on Lisa Hackney, currently calling herself (again) Melanie Mills, is online (thanks, Dave!). Some choice excerpts:

Her success as a writer/publicist while on the lam ironically led to her capture.

!!!!! There's some irony there, all right.

“I wasn’t going to go out there and get a fake ID or anything like that." [Mills said.] "It just wasn’t worth it. That’s what made it worse – always trying to be so honest and legal and wondering how in the heck do you do that."

Honest and legal. Is that like fair and balanced?

"I was married and divorced three times. The press had a lot of fun when I was on the lam in Canada because I had a lot of last names.”

No fooling. Sixteen aliases, according to the RCMP.

"That’s why I went to Canada eventually, but I had to wait because of 9-11. They looked me up on the NCIC list and I was there."

Ah yes, the old 9/11 gambit. We know it well.

Here's something I find fascinating:

Mills has authored a book, Sins by L.R. Thomas (her first married name). She said that book’s first chapter tells everything anyone needs to know about the night she ran into her mother with the car. She has another book – e Tangled – a romantic comedy waiting to be published..."I’d like to some how make a difference with my writing...Through my writing if I could maybe sway the public to be better and have more morals again."

Stop laughing, people! One of the more curious aspects of Hackney's saga is the fact that her North Carolina literary agency, apart from charging an upfront fee, operated relatively professionally at the outset--enough that she actually managed to sell a couple of manuscripts to legit publishers. I've always suspected that Hackney had real literary ambitions, and that the agency was perhaps an endeavor of the heart. True, it morphed into a scam--that was probably inevitable, given Hackney's prior history--but I think that in some way, at some point, she may really have been serious about becoming a literary agent, and tried genuinely to make a go of it, (re)turning to scamming only after things started to go sour.

So help her out, folks. Give an aspiring author a break. Place an order for Sins. I want to see those sales rankings soar!

Thursday, February 09, 2006

A.C. Crispin - 36...I Can't Sell Your Book Because...

Victoria’s posts about the wacky and woebegone world (like that alliteration, boys and girls?) of Melanie Mills reminded me of all the crazy excuses we’ve come across during our years of tracking scam agents. Some of these excuses are downright creative, yessiree bob! If only those scheming little minds could be turned to good…

Excuse No 1 for not selling your book: HEALTH –either the agent’s or a family member’s.

This is a perennial favorite in the “excuse lexicon.” We’ve heard agents say they couldn’t work because they (or a family member) had: cancer (various kinds, Kelly O’Donnell always claimed to have breast cancer, as I recall), knee surgery, heart attack, stroke, back operation, amputations, eye operations…seems scam agents are a sickly bunch.

Excuse No. 2 for not selling your book: NATURAL AND MAN-MADE DISASTERS.

With all the hurricanes lately, fake agents in the south have had a readymade excuse for failing to sell books. Agent F, for example, claimed to have lost his entire office down in good old Rat Mouth, Florida, and to still be suffering the effects. (The fact that Boca Raton actually escaped last year’s hurricanes doesn’t seem to have affected its usefulness to Agent F as an excuse…)

Kelly O’Donnell/Martha Ivery, who lives somewhat north of hurricane country in the Catskills, was forced to rely on a manmade disaster: 9/11. For over a year after 9/11, “literary agent” Kelly O’Donnell’s “clients” who called to find out why she hadn’t sold their books were told by Martha Ivery that dear Kelly had perished in the World Trade Center. Aggravated writers who’d been promised publication by PressTige Publishing and who wanted to air their grievances about the lack of publication to Martha Ivery had Kelly O’Donnell telling them that dear Martha had gone down in a maelstrom of concrete, glass and jet fuel.

What’s even more twisted (and even funny in a black humor sort of way), is that writers who called back after receiving the shocking news of their agent’s/publisher’s demise, reported to the FBI that Kelly/Martha seemed to forget what she’d told them before, and thus they received a real shock when the supposedly deceased agent/publisher identified herself on the telephone line.

All I can say is that it’s a pretty damned cold sociopath who will use one of our Nation’s greatest tragedies as a way to scam people. Thank goodness she will soon be where she belongs…in jail.

Excuse No. 3: DEATH.

Kelly/Martha isn’t the only scammer to come up with the idea of dying in order to get angry, scammed writers off her back. Melanie Mills did that too, remember? Frankly, keep expecting Agent F to up and “die” at any moment, to try and throw investigators off his track.

A few scammers have actually been cold-hearted enough to actually use a real death as an excuse. Dorothy Deering did that, when her stepson was murdered. Her shocked, sympathetic writers respectfully left their “agent” and “publisher” alone in her grief. During the months her stepson’s death bought her, Dorothy was able to scam dozens more writers.

Let me tell you, 46 months in Federal Prison was nowhere near enough!

Excuse No. 4: MISCELLANEOUS:

Fake agents have used all kinds of excuses to explain their lack of sales. Computer crashes are a perennial favorite. “The publishing climate in New York is not right” is another excuse we recall. “Our secretary quit.” “We had a break-in in our office.” “I’m going through a divorce.” The excuses are as varied as the agents themselves.

My favorite wacky excuse of all time came from Agent D.R., out west. HE claimed that he couldn’t sell his clients’ books because he could not work during the day. Why couldn’t he work? Because he was exhausted all the time. Why was he exhausted? Because he lived in a haunted house. He whined about how his ghosts kept him awake at night, doing whatever it is ghosts do…rattling chains? Flapping sheets? Moaning? Groaning? Turning down the thermostat?

I suspect you folks can see a pattern emerging here. Agents are people, and people have problems, but if you notice your agent putting you off repeatedly with a bunch of unlikely sounding excuses, chances are, you’ve fallen into the hands of a questionable agent and you need to GET AWAY as quickly as possible.

While most of these wacky “excuse maker” agents are also fee-chargers, not all are. Three that I can recall were once legitimate agents who turned to the Dark Side.

Charles Neighbors started out as a legitimate agent, selling books, but at some point he fell apart, and began lying to get clients off his back. You’d think he’d have just quit, or at least stopped signing on new clients, but no. He kept signing them on, and stringing them along, piling lie upon lie. Several of his clients were SFWA members, and one of them told me she actually hosted him in her home for Christmas dinner, and all the while he was lying to her about whether, and where, her book had been submitted. Neighbors’ final degradation came about after all his real clients had abandoned ship, and he was reduced to making a living by doing Edit Ink referrals. When he was named as one of the defendants in the Edit Ink case, he went on the lam, and the last we’d heard, he had fled the US.

The second agent was a fellow over in Germany, and he went even further. He started taking his clients’ money. He claimed he “had” to do this because the German Mafia was going to take his son and sell the boy into a brothel if he didn’t pay them money. He had lost all of his own funds, so he took his clients’ money. Last I heard, this guy was back in the business, over in Germany, acting as a literary and artists’ agent.

Our third case is one of the most infamous in the annals of agents. Big-name agent Jay Garon embezzled millions of dollars from writers such as John Grisham. Garon escaped punishment/prosecution by dying. (Though the timing was convenient, enough people went to his open-casket funeral that I’m pretty sure he actually bought the farm. Garon was pretty old.) I heard that his writers and other creditors received only pennies on the dollar.

I bet Jay Garon had a zillion excuses.

But for every real agent who goes bad, there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of fake or incompetent agents who start out being unable to sell books, and giving writers excuses. No one has a crystal ball to predict the future, but you can protect yourself by doing your research BEFORE querying, and BEFORE signing with an agent.

After all, you’d much rather hear about sales than excuses, right?

-Ann C. Crispin
Author: STORMS OF DESTINY
www.accrispin.com

Monday, February 06, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- And You Thought It Couldn't Get Stranger

Serial liar, scam literary agent, amnesia faker, and alleged mother-squasher Lisa Hackney (who in yet another alias switcheroo, now appears to be calling herself Melanie Mills) embellishes her imaginary life in this interview in the Madison County Record. A few heart-wrenching quotes:

“I’d never had anything like this happen to me before,” Mills said. “This involved my Mom. I allowed my emotions to control my intelligence. I didn’t have any intelligence at the time. I allowed my emotions to rule my actions. I didn’t want to deal with the pain.”


Oh, man. I'm bawlin' here.

Mills said being on the run and hiding out, not being able to befriend many people, was a complete change from her normal personality.

Yeah. Running a literary agency scam, real estate rental scams, eBay auction scams, and writers' conference scams is really really different from embezzling, kiting bad checks, and jumping bail.

Mills would do some research on her father while she was hiding out in South Carolina before eventually ending up in Canada, discovering that her father had tried to bribe both the United States and Canada with secrets to Hitler, such as his plans to build flying saucers.

I knew aliens were involved somehow.

“My Mom was actually investigated for that,” Mills said [of her father]. “He had cancer for 10 years. He was on morphine and he was threatening to kill himself and threatening to kill her. I remember she was calling me begging me to contact the doctor to not let him get released. But he did. He wasn’t home 24 hours and he shot himself twice in the abdomen. So, they suspected her. They took them both to the hospital. She had a nervous breakdown. He came to long enough to say that he shot himself.”

How convenient!

Do I sound heartless? Here's why. The Saga of Lisa Hackney:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- Author-Agent Contracts

From audiate, a question in the Comments section of my Breaking Up post:

"Victoria, thanks for sharing this info about termination clauses. Can you tell us what other things should be covered by an author-agent contract?"

From an author's perspective (agents may feel differently), here's what I'd want to see covered.

The scope of representation. What's being represented. Contracts can be for a single project, all the author's works, or for whatever works the author and agent agree on (that would be my choice.)

The duration of the contract. Some agents use time-limited contracts--a year, for instance, renewable either by mutual agreement or automatically unless the author or the agent decides to terminate. Others use open-ended contracts--you're represented until you or the agent say otherwise. The latter is my preference. It's easier--no worrying about renewal--and it's more in keeping with the long-term relationship you'll hopefully be establishing with your agent.

As I mentioned in a previous post, be wary if the contract is for six months or less.

Commissions. Commission percentages should be clearly spelled out, including split commissions and the use of co-agents (agents often use co- or sub-agents to sell in markets where they don't have contacts or expertise--foreign countries, Hollywood. The agencies split the commission, with the commmission being higher to ensure that each agency is adequately compensated). Standard commission percentages are 15% for domestic sales and any other sales the agent makes directly, and 20-25% for co-agented sales. (There are some exceptions. A handful of successful agents charge 20% domestic to newcomers, and some agents want 30% for co-agented sales. This isn't the norm, however.)

Note that the higher commission should be charged only when a co-agent is used. Where the agent direct-sells to overseas or dramatic markets--as larger agencies are increasingly doing--the commission should still be 15%. Many inexpert agents want to charge 20% across the board for any and all foreign or dramatic sales. Of course that's a moot point, since an inexpert agent is unlikely to sell your foreign rights. Still, something to watch for.

Beware of agents who only charge a 10% or 12% commission on book manuscripts. I think there may be one established agency that still does this, but in most if not all cases a low commission is an inexpert or fraudulent agent's ploy to try and hook you with a "bargain" rate so you'll feel better about paying an upfront fee.

Reimbursable expenses. Reputable agents don't charge upfront fees, retainers, deposits, etc., etc. You already know that. However, most agents do expect their clients to bear some of the cost of submission--postage, photocopying, Fed Ex, long distance phone calls. These should be clearly defined in the contract, as well as how they'll be reimbursed--ideally, accrued and deducted from your advance; less ideally (and less typically) billed as they're incurred. It's also a good idea to have a cap for any single expense (say, $50) beyond which your permission must be sought.

(A cap on a single expense isn't the same as a general expense cap, where the agent tells you he'll spend no more than $75 per month or $500 per year. Where you see wording like this, beware: the agent may use it like a blank check.)

How money will be collected and disbursed. The publisher pays your agent; your agent deducts her commission and any expenses and forwards the balance to you. (This arrangement is formalized in the "agent of record" clause of a publishing contract.) The procedure for this should be clearly stated. Ideally, it should conform to the AAR's Canon of Ethics--authors' money should be deposited in a separate account, and payment should be disbursed no more than 10 days after the publisher's check clears. Some agents just say they'll disburse "promptly" or use a different time period such as two weeks--that's OK too, as long as you're sure they're reputable.

Speaking of the agent of record clause, here's something to watch out for: the so-called "perpetual representation clause" in a publishing or author-agent contract, whereby the agent designates himself "the sole and exclusive agent with respect to the work for the life of the copyright." Your agent should be the agent of record for the life of the publishing contract only.

A termination clause. Whether your contract is time-limited or open-ended, you (or the agent) should be able to terminate it at any time, for any reason, with adequate notice. NEVER sign a contract without a termination clause, and be wary of contracts that place limitations on your ability to terminate--for instance, an excessive notice period (90 days or more), or a demand that you show cause.

What happens after termination. After you sever a contract, an agent will continue to collect commissions on any contracts she brokered for you. She'll also usually claim a commission on any deals that were in progress at the time of termination, even if the deal is concluded after you've parted ways, and also, often, on any deals that result from contacts she made for you, even if those deals post-date termination. All of this should be spelled out.

Beware of unreasonable demands: claiming commission on "successor" works--for instance, a sequel to a book your old agent sold--even if the agent has nothing to do with the sale of that work; claiming commission on anything you sell for a period of years after termination, even if it's sold through a new agent; claiming commission on any deal you make with a publisher the agent contacted, even if it's for a different manuscript. These are all terms from actual author-agent contracts that I've seen.

What happens on the agent's death, disability, or bankruptcy. How will your work be represented and your royalties paid if the agent dies or liquidates his business? Ideally, you should be able to terminate your contract at once, and instruct publishers to pay your royalties directly to you.

Other things. Language stating that all contracts or licenses are subject to your approval; a non-assignment clause stating that the rights under the author-agent contract can't be assigned without your approval; language binding the agent to provide at least an annual accounting, with a Form 1099.

That's it. Oh, and to keep my favorite Law Shark happy: since I'm not a lawyer, the above shouldn't be construed as legal advice, but as commentary based on experience and research.

Friday, February 03, 2006

A.C. Crispin - 35 Scamming in Snowbird Land, or how I spent my Florida Vacation (Not Really...)

Hi, folks. I'm back, a bit tanned and rather rested. I actually did write while on vacation, whoohoo! Love my new notebook computer!

While I was traveling around Florida, zipping by towns on the interstates, or even traveling around in some towns, I couldn't help remembering how many scam or questionable literary agencies have Florida addresses. Just now I went to my printout of the WB database and counted them up: 27 mentions of Florida in there.

Whoa! That's a lot of crummy agents.

Note: There are some legit agents in Florida, let me say this right upfront. But I think they're gravely outnumbered!

Of course some of the mentions of scuzzy agents in the WB database are of agencies that have changed their names, listing both the old and new names. So there actually aren't 27 scuzzy agents hanging out and spinning their little webs in the Sunshine State. But if I were a writer looking for an agent these days, and I saw a Florida address for an agent I was thinking of querying, sure as shooting I would check that agent out thoroughly, track record and all, before sending off that query letter.

Appropriately, the fake Agent F, who now has a plethora (7 and counting last time I checked) lives and "works" out of the town with a Spanish name that means "Rat Mouth."

I remember one time on a trip to Miami, I saw a dockside rat that was, I swear, the size of a tabby cat we had back home. But remember...all the rats in Florida aren't on the Miami docks!

I'm glad to be back. Victoria did some great posts while I was gone, didn't she?

-Ann C. Crispin

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- The Blooker Prize (no, that's not a typo)

Just ran across this--Lulu, a POD publishing service provider (which, depending on your bias, can be called with equal honesty a vanity publisher or a self-publishing service) has initiated Blooker Prize. (The entry deadline was yesterday, so obviously I'm discovering this rather late.)

If you're not familiar with the concept of a blook, the contest website FAQ defines it thus: "...a book with content that was developed in a significant way from material originally presented on a blog, web-comic or other website."

The FAQ continues: "...traditional publishing houses, ever in search of the next big name author, have begun to mine blogs and websites for new talent." Hmmm. Sounds to me like the same old promise offered by manuscript display websites, which want writers to believe that agents and editors eagerly surf the Internet in search of manuscripts. 'Tain't so, folks. Sure, there's always an exception or two or three--but as a rule, the Internet is not a primary source of book-length literary material.

(And by the way, "traditional publisher" is a meaningless term. Here's why.)

One sentence on, Lulu's self-interest becomes clear: "It is becoming ever easier for bloggers and other independent web publishers to make the transition into print by using web-based publishing services such as Lulu...[Lulu wants] to raise the visibility of the growing number of talented writers who are using blogs and websites to develop quality content." And perhaps to persuade them to use Lulu to quickly print up a few copies? Only printed, bound books are eligible for the contest--anything in electronic form does not qualify.

I don't mean to cast aspersions on this contest, which is entirely legitimate, or on Lulu, which is a straightforward, reliable service that doesn't use deceptive wording and doesn't try to present self-publishing in an overly rosy light. However, I do think the contest feeds a delusion that seems to be very common these days: that a blog is a meaningful source of self-promotion or exposure for aspiring writers.

Six or eight years ago (an equal number of centuries in Internet time), the same expectations centered on author websites, which for a little while exhibited the same kind of delirious proliferation that's now happening with blogs. But the problem with a blog is the same as with a website--or with a book: there are just too many of them. You can't self-promote without an audience, and the sheer volume of material out there means that the audience is spread pretty thin. Unless you work hard to publicize yourself, or already have some kind of following or name recognition, the odds that anyone will find you are slim.

Blogs are great. If you can make a blook of your blog, that's great too. Just don't expect it to be a magic ticket.