Monday, February 26, 2007

Victoria Strauss--The Scam-peror's New Clothes

How do you dodge bad publicity on the Internet? You change your name. Or at least you do if you're a certain many-tentacled "literary agency" on Writer Beware's Thumbs Down Agency List.

But first, a brief history lesson.

Once upon a time, there was a small non-fee-charging literary agency called Sydra-Techniques. In 2000, it was sold to a dark wizard named Robert Fletcher, who'd previously gotten in trouble for some very bad magic in the state of Washington (he was fined for securities fraud). Fletcher waved his staff of sorcery, and poof! Little Sydra-Techniques was transformed into a fee factory employing a boiler-room approach, with writers getting identical form emails and responses depending on what questions they asked or where they were in the process. Complaints Writer Beware has received over the years include requiring writers to buy a critique as a condition of representation (the critique company is described as a "sister" company but in fact is part of the agency), recommendations for paid editing costing as much as $2,000, recommendations to buy other paid services (a website for $140, children's book illustrations for $300, an "Aggressive Agent Program" that charges around $19 per publisher submission), and disseminating outrageous misinformation (such as the claim that most agencies have only one or two sales to their credit) in order to entrap victims. Writer Beware has never found a commercial sale for any of Fletcher's agencies in the entire time they have been in business, despite the agencies' claims to the contrary.

Things might have moved along merrily for our black magical fee factory had it not been for fearsome white wizards Writer Beware and Preditors & Editors, whose public and private warnings about Fletcher's activities caused him to change the agency's name twice in an effort to dodge bad publicity: in 2002 to ST Literary Agency, and in 2003 or thereabouts to Stylus Literary Agency. This bit of name conjuring wasn't enough to keep him ahead of the fast-spreading news of the agency's dubious dealings, though, and in early 2005 Fletcher worked the same trick on a much larger scale, inventing a parent group called The Literary Agency Group, under whose evil umbrella nestled five brand-new baby agencies--Children's Literary Agency, Christian Literary Agency, New York Literary Agency, Poet's Literary Agency, and The Screenplay Agency. An editing service was also part of the happy family: Writers Literary & Publishing Services Co., previously called My Editor is a Saint. Stylus was initially included in this group, but over the ensuing months it was allowed to fade away like a forgotten enchantment, no doubt in hopes that the complaints associated with it would also disappear.

But Fletcher had worked his magic too well. While it's frustrating that the most callous and egregious scams never lack for victims, the flip side is that they piss people off a whole lot more than scams that operate at a lower level, or take more trouble to fool their victims. The links above are just the tip of the iceberg of Internet discussion of Fletcher's operations. Word has definitely gotten around.

So it's not really surprising that Fletcher is yet again dressing his empire up in new clothes. Introducing Writers Literary Agency, whose URL was registered just this month (and whose website template is a variant of the one used for the other agencies). According to WLA's About Us page, "The Writers' Literary Agency & Marketing Company has recently acquired The Literary Agency Group." Uh huh. A name change is in the works for the other agencies as well; per the Submissions page of WLA's website, they will all get a prefix. So instead of Children's Literary Agency, it'll be Writers Literary Children's Agency. There's also Writers Literary Poets Agency and Writers Literary Screenplay Agency. A similar metamorphosis may be in the works for Christian Literary Agency, though as yet there's no sign of it. As for New York Literary Agency, "Writers Literary New York Agency" is a bit of a mouthful. Given the notoriety of that particular branch of the operation, I wouldn't be surprised to see it fade away, a la Stylus.

So there you have it: yet another new face for this old trick. For the good of writers everywhere, please link to this post, or publicize the information in it. I'm off to update the Thumbs Down Agency List...again.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- A Publishing Raffle?

Recently brought to my attention: the Canadian Aid Charity is inviting writers to participate in the 2007 Annual Canadian Aid Fundraising Raffle. Cost: 1 ticket for $40 (Canadian), 3 tickets for $100, 6 tickets for $150, and 10 tickets for $200. Prize: a "trade book publishing contract" from contest sponsor BookLand Press. Tickets must be purchased directly from Canadian Aid Charity; according to its website, BookLand "does not sell the tickets and does not receive any proceeds from the ticket sales," all of which go to support the charity's projects.

So...what kind of publisher guarantees a publishing contract to the winner of a raffle drawing? BookLand does reserve the right to refuse a manuscript if it contains "excessive use of coarse language, pornographic materials or other offensive matters of similar nature," and also the right to "edit the winning manuscript at publisher's discretion"--but that's the only evidence of any kind of selectivity.

If BookLand were a vanity publisher, there'd be good reason for this apparent unconcern with quality. But though some of the wording on BookLand's website is suggestive (references to BookLand's "services," for instance), there's no obvious evidence that it's a vanity operation. On the surface, it looks like the many other micropresses that litter the Internet, with a small number of published books and what appears to be very limited distribution capacity.

OK, so the raffle is weird, but it's a charitable cause, right? Look a bit closer at Canadian Aid Charity, though, and things start to get odd. The charity's website is long on inspiring verbiage, but short on specifics--such as, for instance, any mention of the staff or board of directors. I worked in the not-for-profit/charitable field for nearly 20 years, and it is incredibly unusual to encounter a charity that doesn't prominently display the names of its staff and board. Odd also is that other than the charity's own website, I can't find any mention of any specific charitable projects in which Canadian Aid is involved. In fact, apart from online directory-type listings, the only references that come up in a search on Canadian Aid Charity (in English or French) involve the raffle.

Canadian Aid is a registered charity; its registration number is provided in the raffle publicity materials, and it's listed at CanadaHelps.org, a charitable organization that accepts donations for other Canadian charities. Note Canadian Aid's contact person: Robert Morgan. Now have a look at BookLand Press's PMA listing. Who's the contact person? Robert Morgan. A coincidence? I don't think so. BookLand Press and Canadian Aid also share a fax number.

So it would appear that the same person is behind both the charity and the publisher.

Is something fishy going on? I have no idea. But the raffle information is worded to encourage people to assume that Canadian Aid Charity and BookLand Press have no connection other than their cooperation in this fundraising venture--and to my mind, that's deceptive.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- Should a Writer Query an Overseas Agent?

I recently had occasion to exchange some emails with Peter Buckman of the UK-based Ampersand Agency Ltd. In the process of discussing other matters, he made the following comment: "I wish you'd also make clear to American hopeful writers that if they're writing on American subjects in an American setting, they really need an American publisher on board before the British and European editors would take notice. I am constantly surprised by how many Americans write to us when they should first secure an American agent--and equally surprisedby the number of Americans who seem to think their stamps (for return postage) will work outside the USA!"

Overseas submitters take note: you need to deal with the return postage issue in a way that will actually work overseas. Or if possible, use email.

But that's not really my subject today. What I want to focus on is Mr. Buckman's comment about the appropriateness, or not, of overseas submissions.

Writer Beware often gets questions from writers in one country about agents in another. Mostly we hear from US writers who want to know about British agents, but we also hear from UK writers who are interested in querying American agents, and occasionally from Australian writers looking for agents in the US or the UK. Sometimes these writers feel they've exhausted agent possibilities in their own countries, and are looking for fresh options overseas. Sometimes they think that as long as the agent is interested in their market or genre, one agent is as good as another, no matter where in the world the agent is located.

Unfortunately, that's not the case. Agents generally focus their selling efforts in their own countries, where they know the market and are easily able to maintain the contacts and business connections a successful agent needs. For overseas sales, they use co-agents who have similar connections and contacts in those countries. A British agent won't try to sell to American publishers himself; he'll send the ms. to his co-agent in the US, and that agent, who knows American editors and what they're looking for, will submit it out.

However, it’s usually only once a book has been published and has picked up some momentum--good sales, excellent reviews, media interest--that it becomes a viable candidate for foreign sales. Your agent, therefore, will concentrate on selling your book for first-time publication before he starts thinking about foreign and/or other subrights--and since he’ll be doing that in his own country, your book needs to be a good fit for that market. Books with American characters in American settings usually aren't suitable for first sale in the UK, just as books with British characters in British settings usually aren't suitable for first sale in the US. It's tough enough for any book to find a readership; it's even tougher when the subject matter may not resonate with with the prospective audience. That's certainly how publishers see it.

Note that the statements in the previous paragraph are qualified by "usually" and "generally speaking." Obviously, there are exceptions. You read about them in the trade press: the hot manuscript put out to bid simutaneously in the US, UK, and Germany; the blockbuster that took the Frankfurt Book Fair by storm and sold rights in thirteen countries before the fair was finished. This kind of thing, however, is rare, and it’s a whole lot more likely that your book is not suitable for this kind of treatment than that it is. There are also books that by their nature are less culture-specific: historical epics, for example, or science fiction and fantasy, or thrillers that take their characters around the world. For those books, it's feasible to approach an agent in another country if you’ve researched the agent and feel he or she would be perfect for the book. But if your work is culture-specific--if you're an American writer who has written a detective novel set in Chicago, or a British writer who has penned a literary novel set in Glasgow--you're best off seeking an agent in your own country, who will market to appropriate publishers there.

This brings me to a "beware." If an American agent tells you he can sell your book in Britain as easily as in the US, or if a British agent encourages you to believe he can sell "anywhere" because he has contacts all over the world, be wary: it may be a sign of inexperience (the agent doesn't know the way things work) or of fraud (he doesn't care where you come from as long as you pay his fee--a late, unlamented example of this is the notorious Christopher Hill). Experienced, reputable agents target their own domestic markets first--and so should you.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Happy Valentine's Day from Writer Beware!

For the most up-to-date version of this list, visit the Writer Beware website. We've left this post in place, despite its age, because of the very long comments thread.
Well, here it is, the Valentine's "gift" we've been promising our faithful readers for what seems like a long time now: the companion piece to our "thumbs down" list of agents--Writer Beware's "Two Thumbs Down" publishers list!

Keep in mind that this list is far from all-inclusive. And remember, when in doubt, you can write to Writer Beware and ASK us if a publisher or agent is okay BEFORE you sign on that dotted line. The service is free. The email address is beware@sfwa.org

So...read and enjoy, while you nibble your Godiva truffles. Oh--and if you want to disseminate the list, please link to this post rather than copying and pasting.

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Writer Beware’s "Two Thumbs Down" Publishers List

Below, in alphabetical order, is a list of the currently active publishers about which Writer Beware has received the largest number of complaints over the years, or which, based on documentation we've collected, we consider to pose the most significant hazards for writers. All have two or more of the following abusive practices:

1. Fee-charging--whether for the actual printing/production of the book, or for some other item related to the publishing process, such as editing or publicity. Some publishers require authors to buy bulk quantities of their own books. Fees range from a few hundred dollars to more than $25,000. A nominal "advance" in the face of other fee-charging practices does nothing to legitimize them.

2. Author-unfriendly contracts--including rights grabs, taking copyright, restrictive option clauses, sub-standard royalty provisions (including reverse-accounted royalties), inadequate reversion clauses, draconian "defamation clauses," and a host of other inappropriate and abusive contract terms.

3. Deliberately misleading advertising--including directly soliciting authors, misrepresenting services to authors in an effort to masquerade as commercial publishers, hiding the fact that they are vanity operations, and making false claims about distribution and bookstore presence.

4. Conflicts of interest--some of these publishers are the vanity "arm" of (or otherwise under common control with) a fee-charging literary agency, which directs clients to the publisher under the guise of having made a "sale"--often without revealing the financial and personnel links between the two businesses.

5. Lack of editorial gatekeeping--as befits vanity operations, many of these publishers have few, if any, standards for the books they acquire. Some don't even bother to read the books they accept for publication.

6. Poor or inadequate editing. Some of these publishers don’t even pretend to provide editing. Others do little more than run the text through a spell and grammar checking program, or employ unqualified, inexperienced staff.

7. Repeated breach of contractual obligations--such as nonpayment of royalties, refusal to provide royalty statements, incorrect accounting, publication delays, ARCs not sent for review as promised, failure to ship books or fulfill orders, failure to make author changes in proofs, and failure to respond properly to author queries and communications. Some of these publishers have been the focus of successful litigation and other legal actions by authors.

Writer Beware gives two big "thumbs down" to:
  • American Book Publishing (Salt Lake City, UT)
  • Archebooks Publishing (Las Vegas, NV)
  • Helm Publishing (Rockford, IL)
  • Hilliard and Harris (Boonsboro, MD)
  • Oak Tree Press (Taylorville, IL)
  • Park East Press (Dallas TX) (formerly Durban House, formerly Oakley Press)
  • PublishAmerica (Frederick, MD)
  • Royal Fireworks Press/Silk Label Books (Unionville, NY)
  • SterlingHouse Publisher (Pittsburgh, PA--imprints include, among others, Pemberton Mysteries, 8th Crow Books, Cambrian House Books, Blue Imp Books, Caroline House Books, Dove House Books, and PAJA Books)
  • SBPRA/Strategic Book Publishing/Eloquent Books (Boca Raton, FL--formerly known as The Literary Agency Group and AEG Publishing Group)
  • Tate Publishing (Mustang, OK)
  • Whitmore Publishing Company (Pittsburgh, PA)
[Edited 12/31/11 to reflect closures and name changes]

    Thursday, February 08, 2007

    Victoria Strauss -- Yet More Contest Stuff

    Writers worry a lot about theft and plagiarism. They really don't need to; theft of unpublished work is so rare as to be functionally nonexistent. It's not till your work is published--i.e., exposed to a wide audience--that the issue of plagiarism comes into play.

    Over the past few months, a couple of contests have certainly been exposed to a wide audience: the Sobol Contest and Gather.com's First Chapters Writing Competition. So maybe it's not surprising that someone has decided to do a little borrowing. What do you get when you take Gather.com's first three chapters concept and combine it with Sobol's excessive entry fee and unpleasant stipulations for winners? Premiere Fiction, a contest that invites initial submission of the first three chapters, has an entry fee of $125 (no, that's not a typo), and takes publication rights to the winners' manuscripts.

    (On the other hand, maybe I'm being too hard on these guys. After all, if they'd seen the Sobol discussion, they probably wouldn't be charging $125, right?)

    Publication will be through the contest's sponsor, Terracopiae Press, a practically nonexistent "traditional" publishing company (according to Amazon, it has published just one book) that offers a three-year contract. The wording of the Rules and Regulations ("This competition retains all the book publishing rights to the winning entry of each genre in the United States") suggests that this may be an offer the winner can't refuse.

    Also not reassuring: there's no contest timeline. No entry deadline, no schedule for notifications or announcements. If you enter this contest, you have no benchmarks with which to track the contest's progress, and no way to hold the contest sponsor accountable.

    Terracopiae has apparently been soliciting contest entries by means of that tried and true publicity method, spam. Here's their description of the contest:

    We at Terracopiae Press are looking for a few good books! Right now, we are holding our Premiere Fiction contest for finished, unpublished manuscripts in several genre.

    Why is it worth your while to submit to our contest? The obvious answer is that the first prize winner in each genre will recieve a publishing contract for the submitted winning work. Your book could be the next winner to be placed on bookstore shelves! Of course, there are also second and third place prizes within each genre that are targeted at authors who are prepared to publish. These prizes are to help you get there.

    Not enough? Are you still wondering why you should submit your work? Every person who submits their work WILL get a response and real feedback from our panel of readers. They include teachers, editors, publishers, librarians, bookstore owners, readers groups, and individual readers from around the country. This is YOUR reading public. You will get feedback from them on YOUR book.


    Don't you all want to run right out and enter?

    Tuesday, February 06, 2007

    A.C. Crispin - 72, Looking Forward to Valentine's Day...

    Hi, Folks!

    I've been kind of scarce here for weeks due to illness in family, then catching THE COLD FROM HELL.

    But I thought I'd just give you a heads-up...Victoria and I have a very special treat planned for our faithful blog readers on Valentine's Day -- because we LOVE you!

    So keep watching this space...

    -Ann C. Crispin

    Sunday, February 04, 2007

    Victoria Strauss -- News of the Weird

    It has been said that a million monkeys typing might one day produce the complete works of Shakespeare. Then the Internet came along, and disproved the theory.

    Still, some people haven't given up hope. Publisher Penguin Putnam has just launched amillionpenguins.com, the world's first collaborative, Wiki-based novel. "The buzz these days is all about the network, the small pieces loosely joined," the project description begins. "But what about the novel? Can a collective create a believable fictional voice? How does a plot find any sort of coherent trajectory when different people have a different idea about how a story should end-–or even begin? And, perhaps most importantly, can writers really leave their egos at the door?"

    Over the next five weeks, amillionpenguins.com aims to learn. According to Jeremy Ettinghausen on the Penguin blog, this is an open-ended experiment, fueled by curiosity, with no expectations or projections as to how it will all turn out. A team of creative writing students has "seeded" the novel to get the ball rolling, and Jon Elek of Penguin's Viking imprint will be monitoring s progress and reporting on the project's blog.

    The project has generated a lot of attention--and input. As of this writing, there's the makings of sixteen chapters, as well as an alarmingly large cast of characters, some with extensive (and very amusing) biographies. Some people seem to be taking the exercise pretty seriously; others appear to be actively attempting to sabotage the, er, narrative flow (see Chapter Three and a Half). As you might expect, it's disjointed, repetitive, and no one part of it bears any obvious relationship to any other part (except the bits that have been copied verbatim from one chapter to another). But it's early days yet.

    Will the end result be readable, or even make sense? Having lived in collective housing, I don't have much faith in the wisdom of collectives (especially the ability of any invidividual member to clean the collective bathrooms). Still, this a fascinating experiment, and it'll be interesting to watch how it shapes up over the next few weeks.

    Friday, February 02, 2007

    Victoria Strauss -- When is a Display Site Not a Display Site?

    ...When it's a contest!

    A manuscript display site called Zirdland, which describes itself as "The literary marketplace for the 21st century" and promises to "provide a solution to the ever-widening rift between the writers and the market," has been threatening to open its doors since late 2004. As of this writing, it still hasn't done so. (For the math-challenged among us, which might just include the Zirdland folks, that's two whole years.)

    That hasn't stopped it from running a contest, however: That First Line writing contest, launched in 2005. Here's a description, from the official press release:

    "Every great book, every hit song, every moving poem, every inspired speech, every intriguing article, every movie, play and opera, all began with that first line," spouts the new writing contest: ThatFirstLine.com - where writers (professional and amateur) can enter an original, unpublished opening line from a book manuscript, screenplay, poem, song lyric, article or essay and vie for the opportunity to win a cash prize of $500.

    I don't know about you, but a writing contest that spouts gets my vote for originality.

    The entry fee is a modest $5 (with all profits, it's claimed, going to literary charities), and entries will be judged by "a panel of 50 editors, literary agents, and published authors" (no word on who they are. Hmmmm). Winners are profiled on Zirdnews (which also features industry newsbytes that are more than a year out of date), and finalists from the most recent contest (Spring/Summer 2006) have their lines posted on the contest website. So far, it looks as if many people are treating it like the Bulwer-Lytton contest. I would have voted for this entry:

    Gruber, the ground-breaking, hip-shaking master of plaster frescos, edged back on his stilts, smelling cinnamon somewhere, wondering if he should add one more stroke, but then--bounding madly round the Rill corner--came the tricycles, the sprinting nuns, the peanut vendors, all but one of the city council and what appeared to be a dwarf rhino...

    Ummm...so what's my point about all this? I don't have one, really, except that it all strikes me as rather silly.

    Oh, and for anyone who was wondering about the expertise behind Zirdland...Zirdland's sites are registered to InterMedia Development Corp, which seems to specialize in producing TV shows for cable access channels. InterMedia's owner, Joel Ratner, has a page on Publishers Marketplace, where you can assess his literary success to date. Of Zirdland's other apparent front man, P. Barry Jones, there's no information other than his own description of himself (see message 3), which is rather short on specifics. A third individual involved with Zirdland, Jami Harrah (responsible for a spam campaign to publicize the site in early 2005), shows up only on Writers Net.