Friday, March 30, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- Author Identity Publishing Redux

A few months ago I blogged about Author Identity Publishing, a publisher of short story anthologies that required contributors to "demonstrate you have the ability to sell 25 copies prior to the books [sic] release." (Since then, possibly as a result of exposure here and at Absolute Write, AIP has backpedaled a bit on this requirement. Contributors are now only required to "demonstrate you have the ability to help market your book.")

AIP's first compilation, The Shortcut, has been released. Back in November, I wondered how AIP would deliver on its promise to include "well-known authors and literary figures" as well as newer authors, since with the publisher's dubious provenance (I couldn't find any names associated with it), its vanity pre-sales requirement, and its paltry royalties (around 9 cents per contributor), it was a bit difficult to imagine it attracting established writers. Well, the answer is in: public domain, baby. In addition to stories from writers you've never heard of, there are stories from Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott, Bram Stoker, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. This is good news for the lesser-known authors: not only are they in august company, but the, uh, non-living status of their fellow contributors means they'll get a bigger royalty.

On the flip side, the inclusion of so many dead authors must have presented a dilemma for AIP. Being deceased, they couldn't pre-sell books. What to do?

A couple of weeks ago, J.B. Dickey of the Seattle Mystery Bookshop got a call from a man calling himself Michael Evers, who wanted to know if the store carried The Shortcut, an anthology he'd been hearing about. Mr. Dickey found it wasn't in stock, and Mr. Evers placed an order with his credit card. It's store policy not to charge until the order comes in; when it did, Mr. Dickey discovered that the order had been made with a phony credit card and a disconnected phone number. Since he'd ordered a second copy for stock, he was stuck with not one, but two nonreturnable books. (He has written up an entertaining account of the experience at the store's blog.)

Mr. Dickey posted a warning to the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association listserv, and began hearing from other store owners who'd gotten fake orders for The Shortcut from the same Michael Evers. He also contacted Publishers Weekly, which did a writeup on the scam (the "Talkback" section of the article has comments from still more scammed booksellers). Meanwhile, one of the booksellers, ticked off enough to do some sleuthing, made an interesting discovery. "Michael Evers" is the protagonist of a novel by one of the anthology's contributors, Kevin A. Fabiano (The Palace of Wisdom: A Rock and Roll Fable, published by PublishAmerica). Coincidence? Not likely. In a truly breathtaking combination of sleazy "marketing" tactics (which may have come straight off the PA message boards--I've seen the fake book order ploy avocated there a time or two) and just plain dumbness (hint to scammers: if you're going to use an alias, pick a name that can't be linked to your real one), Kevin Fabiano has apparently been trying to achieve the fevered dream of every vanity-published author: to get his book onto bookstore shelves.

So who is Kevin Fabiano? Is he an overzealous writer attempting in an extremely ill-advised manner to ramp up his sales? Or is he someone with a much more personal interest in The Shortcut's success? Is he, in fact, Author Identity Publishing's mysterious owner?

There's quite a bit of evidence to suggest this. In November 2006, when AIP had barely started spamming potential contributors, Kevin was already promoting AIP on his own website and on writers' message boards, claiming that AIP was publishing one of his stories. The nickname he has chosen for his Amazon.com profile is...Authoridentity. Compare the similarities in design and layout between Kevin's website and AIP's--something that becomes even more apparent if you view the source code (check out the meta description on Kevin's website, according to which he is "a lawyer and professor who owns a publishing company"). And there's one final connection, though it's no longer extant. The URL of Kevin's personal website is registered to Corporate Roots, Inc, a company with a blank website whose snail mail address is that of a business entity formation service. Last November, so was AIP's.

AIP's Whois information now shows Domains by Proxy as the registrant, so it seems Mr. Fabiano was smart enough to cover some of his tracks, albeit retroactively. I'll bet he's wishing he could do the same for Michael Evers.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- Stealth Vanity Publishers

One important point that we at Writer Beware try hard to make is that the traditional definition of "vanity publisher"--a publisher you pay to print and bind your book--is outdated. Sure, there are many straightforward vanity publishers that want cash on the barrelhead and make no bones about the fact that you're paying to be published. But there are also many stealth vanity publishers--publishers that try to sanitize their fees by calling them something else or shifting them to some other aspect of the publication process, or that attempt to deceive writers by failing to disclose upfront that they require a cash infusion.

There are a number of stealth vanity publishers on Writer Beware's Thumbs Down Publishers List. New World Media, a.k.a. American Book Press, doesn't require authors to pay for printing and binding--just for editing (cost: $3,000-$3,500). American Book Publishing also doesn't charge for printing and binding--just for "setup" (cost: around $700). Durban House Publishing doesn't charge for any aspect of book production at all--just for marketing (costs reported to Writer Beware range from $15,000 to $25,000). Harbor House and SterlingHouse Publisher also don't charge for book production--but they do require authors to buy their own finished books, with the money due on contract signing (1,000 copies and 550 copies, respectively).

The only "traditional" vanity publishers on the list are Helm Publishing and Tate Publishing. Their fees (Helm charges $750-1,500, and Tate asks for $3,985) are clearly identified as being for printing and production. There's a catch, though: authors don't find out how much they have to pay until after they've submitted.

Other stealth vanity tactics, from Writer Beware's archives: the now-defunct NovelBooks at one point bound ads into its books, requiring authors to sell ads for their own books and pressuring them to buy ads for other authors' books. Picasso Publishing, which closed its doors a couple of years ago, made its authors pay for a publicity campaign. Authors with Gardenia Publishing (also out of business) had to sell a minimum quantity of books prior to publication--they didn't have to buy the books themselves, but if the money wasn't turned in to the publisher, publication was off. Still other stealth vanity publishers only accept submissions through the publishers' own paid assessment services, or keep all royalties until the book's production costs are reimbursed, or force authors to buy "adjunct" services (such as cover art or interior design) from approved vendors.

A special variant of stealth vanity publishing is the "subsidy" or "joint venture" or "cooperative" or "partner" publisher. Such publishers claim to match your fees with their own money, or to contribute goods and services of substantial value. In other words, you aren't paying the whole freight. However, while there are a few genuine subsidy publishers (mainly in specialized fields such as academic publishing), a claim of subsidy or partnership publishing is much more likely to be a marketing ploy designed to make you feel better about handing over cash. In fact, the fee has probably been carefully calculated to ensure the publisher's profit, and is far more than the actual value of the services provided. Subsidy publishers often claim to support their authors with significant marketing efforts, but they have little incentive to market their books, since they've already been paid upfront.

Recently, a new wrinkle in the stealth vanity publisher game came across my desk. Blue Dolphin Publishing presents itself as a "traditional" publisher. No fees are mentioned in its submission guidelines. Authors who submit, however, receive a "Dear Author" letter informing them that they have "a worthy project" but in order for their book to be published there must be "a separate contract with an outside investor." While Blue Dolphin "never expects an author to finance a project," they "do, however, ask the author if he or she knows anyone who can help us."

This is clever psychology. It isn't an actual demand for cash, nor is the author herself being directly asked to "invest." Heaven forbid! That would be vanity publishing! But the ball is now firmly in the author's court, and the publisher is counting on the carrot of publication to inspire her to "help"--either by raiding her own bank account, or borrowing money from a relative. (Complaints Writer Beware has gotten about Blue Dolphin suggest that this is exactly what some authors do.) So the publisher never actually requests money--but obtains it even so. Stealth vanity publishing indeed.

Bottom line with the stealth tactics described above: you're paying to be published. Don't fall for deceptive terminology, and don't be fooled by elaborate rationales. A publisher that requires you to lay out your own cash for ANYTHING, at ANY point in the publication process, is a vanity publisher. Period.

For a detailed discussion of why vanity publishing is never a good idea for writers, see the Vanity Publishers page of Writer Beware.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- Literary Agents Online: Another Query Blasting Service

"Finding the right agent is hard, but finding Literary Agents Online is easy." This is the subtly punning come-on for query blaster service Literary Agents Online (finding it is indeed easy, since it has invested in Google ads).

Query Letters are hard work, the website's homepage declares. Once you have the perfect query for your next bestseller, you still have months of research and rejection waiting for you, as you send queries to literary agent after literary agent.

What if there was a way to skip all that? What if you could write your query, then get only manuscript requests from legitimate literary agencies who have seen your work and like it? And what if you could start the process without any cost or obligation?


What's this? A query blaster service that will send out your query for free? No, you aren't dreaming. Here's how it works. Literary Agents Online sends your query to lots of agents, at no charge. LAO then sorts through all the positive responses, and shows them to you. That's where the costs come in--but you pay nothing unless you actually get responses. And the first response is free.

So what's the catch? (Apart from all the other reasons not to use query blaster services, that is, such as poor screening and targeting of agents and pissing agents off by spamming them.)

Well, as seems to be my refrain lately, you have to read the fine print--in this case, LAO's Terms of Service agreement, which can be found on its Send the Query page. Here's the relevant excerpt:

SERVICE FEES

The Company shall be entitled to fees equal to $100.00 USD for each manuscript or partial manuscript request that the Customer chooses to purchase, at his sole discretion. The first manuscript or partial manuscript request shall be provided by the Company free of charge, while the second shall be provided at twice the above mentioned rate.


So if you want to see those positive responses, you must buy them for $100 apiece. I never thought I'd ever say anything good about Bookblaster, but it only costs $89. And that free first positive response? Not really all that free, since you pay double for positive response #2. No wonder this info is buried in the TOS, where unwary writers may miss it.

Literary Agents Online promises that the agents it queries are legit. But while other query blaster services may include questionable agents in their lists out of sloppiness or ignorance, LAO would appear to have an actual incentive to include questionable agents. Its income is based on its clients receiving positive responses--and let's face it, you can't count on disreputable literary agents for much, but you can be sure they'll want your manuscript.

Oh, and if you need help with your query letter, LAO stands ready. For just $24.99, you can buy the book, in which "Industry insider S. Glenn invites you to dive into the art of Query Letter craft." (There's a little "as seen on Amazon.com" logo, but I couldn't find the book on Amazon under any permutation of title, author, or search terms.) As for "industry insider" S. Glenn, he (or she) doesn't appear to exist. LAO's URL, however, is registered to one Pete Michaud of Jacksonville, FL. He doesn't appear to be an industry insider either.

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Edited on 3/26 to add: Since I put this post online, LAO has added a Terms page, which more prominently provides its Terms of Service, including the $100 fee.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- Content Site Cautions

In the Comments section of my recent post on content site LifeTips, Fleur says:

Hi, I've heard about Lifetips before but it is only now that I've given attention to it. I've searched for info about it and I found yours. I would be glad to know your recommendations on what sites are reliable and do not take advantage of writers' abilities. Thanks.

I'm not comfortable providing recommendations. There are too many of these sites out there, and they all work differently. As with agents, one size does not fit all. I can, however, suggest some cautions, which it would make sense for anyone who is considering writing for a content site to keep in mind.

First, I should probably define what I mean by a content site, because I don't think this is a term of general use. A content site is a website where individuals can publish content--often just writing, but sometimes also photographs, artwork, animation, film, etc.--for the public to view. Many content sites present themselves as a promotional opportunity for creators, claiming that publishing to the site can provide valuable Internet exposure. Many also allow the creator to earn money--for instance, through ad revenue-sharing with the website owners, direct payment, or sale of the work to third parties. A few examples of writing content sites (there are many others): Triond, Helium, LifeTips, Associated Content, Buzzle, GoArticles, Article Axis, Schvoong, and iSnare.

Are such sites a worthwhile place to publish your writing--for exposure, for money, or just for fun? Maybe, depending on what you want to get out of it. Whatever your reasons for using a content site, though, there are some important reasons why you shouldn't use one.

Don't do it for the money. No matter how attractive the site's payment package sounds, the odds are that you will earn very little. Some sites share Adsense revenue, from Google ads matched to your writing. Google ads earn pennies per click, most of which is kept by Google; the remainder is split between you and the content site. Unless you have tens of thousands of visitors (unlikely: see below), this will not add up to much. (Search on Helium + earnings to see all the people who earn pennies per week from their articles there.) Other sites pay a very small flat fee--often in exchange for major concessions from you, such as handing over copyright. Still others reserve the right not to pay at all, under circumstances that aren't adequately defined; and many have a minimum payment threshhold before they'll issue a check or credit your Paypal account. It can take a while for those pennies to add up to $25.

I'm sure there are exceptions; there always are. For most writers, however, content sites will probably generate the equivalent of pocket money--if that.

Don't do it for exposure. Many content sites tout themselves as research resources or communities of experts, where people can go to get solid information and/or advice. Contributing to the site, they claim, can establish you as an expert in your field, or help promote your work. But like vanity publishers, content sites market themselves to potential contributors, not to the general public. (Triond and Helium, for instance, are soliciting members in writers' forums and on message boards.) People doing online research are not very likely to seek out a content site--not just because most people don't know they exist, but because the content is unreliable (see below). However large or small your audience turns out to be, a significant part of it will probably not be Internet surfers drawn to your wisdom, but other site members checking out the competition.

And if you're thinking that your articles will show up in Google searches, think again. Many of the sites bury their articles so deeply that search engines don't find them, or else give them a low relevancy ranking, so that the typical Internet searcher, who abandons a search after only a few pages, will be unlikely to see them.

Again, I'm sure there are exceptions. Most writers, however, shouldn't count on content site articles as a self-promotion method--or at best, should use this as an adjunct strategy.

Don't do it to build your writing resume. Some sites claim at least some level of editorial gatekeeping--screening submissions and rejecting those that don't meet their criteria, or employing a peer ranking system that supposedly drives the better articles to the top of search results. However, any selectivity is trumped by the sites' mission, which is to aggregate content. The result is extremely variable quality--which is a gentle way of saying that large numbers of the articles on content sites suck. In approaching established newspapers, journals, or other publications, don't assume you can use articles published on content sites as clips. Even if the articles are excellent, the general unreliability of the sites makes them unusable as professional writing credits.

And one final caution, perhaps the most important of all:

Read the fine print. Don't assume that uploading your writing to a content site is similar to posting to a message board or on a blog. All content sites have (often very complicated) Terms of Service or Users' Agreements, which lay out the conditions under which you can utilize them. Read these carefully, no matter how boring they are, and make sure you understand them. There can be user-unfriendly clauses--for instance, some content sites take copyright to your work (see my post on LifeTips), or claim an overly broad license (see my post on Associated Content). Be certain you know what, if anything, you will be giving up by publishing to the site.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- SterlingHouse Publisher Wants YOU!

If you're an agent, that is.

Several established agents have sent me copies of a solicitation email they recently received from one Dave Waeltz at SterlingHouse Publisher (SterlingHouse plays a starring role on Writer Beware's Thumbs Down Publishers List). "Greetings from SterlingHouse Publisher, Inc!" the email begins. "In a continued effort to build relationships with more and more superior literary agents, and on behalf of the editors here at SterlingHouse, I welcome your submissions in fiction and non-fiction to our company." The letter goes on to identify SterlingHouse's imprints--which keep metastasizing, there are now ten of them--and to offer "a face-to-face meeting with someone from our company at the BEA."

What the email doesn't say:

- SterlingHouse is a vanity publisher. It offers contracts that require authors to (and I'm quoting now) "receive five hundred and fifty (550) copies of the Work in trade size paperback in consideration for $6,395.00 to be paid in US dollars and is [sic] due upon the signing of the Agreement by the Author." Oh--and that $6,395 doesn't include shipping costs.

- SterlingHouse is owned by Cynthia Sterling, who also owns the Lee Shore Company, a literary agency that at various times has charged reading, marketing, editing, and other fees, and as far as Writer Beware knows has no recent track record of commercial book sales. According to documented complaints Writer Beware has received, Lee Shore has placed clients with SterlingHouse without fully disclosing the connection between the companies.

- Lee Shore, which has been in business since the 1990's, has worked with a panoply of fraudulent vanity publishers, including Northwest Publishing, Commonwealth Publications, and Press-Tige Publishing. Some of these publishers actively solicited submissions from agents, promising kickbacks for "successful" submissions. Hmmm.

I think it's safe to say that AAR members won't be sending any manuscripts to SterlingHouse anytime soon. Fee chargers like Lisa Martin of Martin-McLean Literary Associates, on the other hand...well, unfortunately for writers, that's another story.

SterlingHouse, by the way, has been promising a new website for a while now (a lot of the links on its current website don't work), but the promised rollout date, November 22, 2006, has come and gone and there's still no sign of change. Maybe they're too busy spamming agents.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- LifeTips (or, Be Sure to Read the Fine Print)

A Writer Beware reader recently drew my attention to LifeTips, yet another of the content sites that are currently proliferating like mad across the Internet. According to its About page, LifeTips offers career opportunities, services for businesses ("We’ve got the web’s largest pool of 500+ freelance writers all screened, tested and experts in particular topics")--and opportunities for writers, namely "...a big writing career boost with paid writing assignments, free book publishing and promotion of your profile page to hundreds of clients that may hire you for assignments."

Career boost! Paid assignments! Magic words indeed! So how does it work? Well, you apply to become one of LifeTips' experts, a.k.a. a Guru, which makes you eligible to receive paid freelance writing assignments creating expert tips for clients (which, LifeTips claims, include "...heavy hitters like Circuit City, Dunlop Tire, H&R Block, LowerMyBills, Merck, Verizon Wireless, and many more"). You can earn up to $10 per tip (according to LifeTips' FAQ page, "Prices vary according to the quality of the tip you submit"), with writing assignments typically including 100 tips, or up to $1,000 in revenue. The tips are short and sweet--for example, here's what I found when I searched for tips on "vanity publishing." If there's a subject you know something about, you could probably turn out a hundred of these little wisdom nuggets without too much difficulty.

(Or even if you don't know very much. Do take a look at the "expert" tips at the link above--including Tips #1 and 4, which are largely plagiarized from the definitions on Writer Beware's Vanity Publishers page--and see how expert you think they are. I'm really hoping that the people who wrote them didn't get paid for them--but if they did, they owe me $20.)

There's also a book publishing option. Create 101 tips, and LifeTips will compile them into a book and make it available via POD. You'll get a flat fee of $3.00 per book if the book is sold from the LifeTips website, $2.00 per book if sold elsewhere. Given that the books cost $9.99, that's a pretty good deal--especially since LifeTips seems to be planning a lot of promo for the initial rollout of the book program.

But... (you knew there'd be a "but," didn't you?)

The worm in this apple shows up in the Terms and Conditions (at the bottom of the Guru signup page) to which you must agree if you want to write for LifeTips:

5. OWNERSHIP

Any tips or content you submit to LifeTips, in any form, shall instantly become the property of LifeTips. This includes sample content submitted in your application, as well as all content submitted to LifeTips. I fully understand and agree to these terms, and especially confirm that by depositing any checks for compensation deems consent to, agreement with, and understanding of, full release of my copyright claim for the content submitted to LifeTips.


That's right. You must surrender your copyright to LifeTips. You will not own your (hopefully non-plagiarized) tips--or your book, if you choose that option. You won't be able to re-use your tips, re-sell them, or fold them into a bigger project. Ten bucks--and they're gone forever. Judging by the tips I spot-sampled in the self-publishing category, loss of ownership would not, for the most part, be cause for grief. Still, not a pleasant surprise for anyone jumping into Gurudom without carefully perusing LifeTips' Terms and Conditions.

For LifeTips, of course, this is a great deal. It's simple--promise writers easy money, and they'll come running; flatter them with heady titles like Guru and they'll run even faster--and since LifeTips takes ownership of content, it doesn't have to worry about the content providers except at the very beginning of the process. I also think we can rest assured that LifeTips is getting a whole lot more than than $10 per tip for hooking Gurus up with businesses. In fact, the arrangement strikes me as being very much like piecework, where sewing machine operators are paid a few dollars for a garment that wholesales for ten times more.

Exploitive? I think so. But that's nothing new in the writing world. Once again, it's all about the fine print.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- Helium

No, not the gas, the content site. Which, according to reports I've received recently, is soliciting writers for membership on the basis of their online profiles at WritersNet.

What's a content site? It's a website where people can post their work for the public to see and, often, earn money for it. (I blogged about the resurgence of content sites a few months back, with a focus on Associated Content and its unfavorable Terms of Service). There's a growing number of such sites, each with a different focus and remuneration method.

Helium ("Where Knowledge Rules") employs peer review plus a (patent pending and supposedly cheat-proof) ranking engine that decides which of its member-posted articles are the most useful. There's also a payment system. According to the What Is Helium page: "Sure, Helium is an outlet for the writer in all of us, but it is also a place where you can earn not only the adoration of your peers, but money, too! We want you to be part of the success here. Helium shares a portion of revenue with you. Every article you write is an asset which can earn you revenue---into perpetuity."

Perpetuity sounds good. Unfortunately, the Helium website is sparse on details. According to the fine print of the user agreement, "Your earnings are directly related to the number of your articles and the quality of your articles, as determined by other Helium writers, as well as the popularity of the subject and the corresponding advertising value to our sponsors." Nowhere on the site, however, could I find a clear description or breakdown of exactly how this works, or what writers might expect to earn. In fact, the clearest discussion of earnings is the FAQ page's description of a quasi-pyramid scheme whereby Helium writers who bring in new members get a "bonus" of 5% of those writers' earnings.

Apart from this, Helium looks okay--it seems easy to use and its Terms of Service aren't any worse than those of other content sites (and better than some).

So should you join? Whatever floats your boat--but don't do it for the cash. As with other content sites, I suspect that the average Helium member won't get much more than a pittance. No doubt there are exceptions--but for most writers, content sites are not the way to go if you want to earn income from your writing.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- Writers' Conferences: When to be Wary

Attending writers' conferences can be a great way to learn about the publishing industry, network with colleagues and professionals, and meet new friends. Be careful, though. All writers' conferences are not created equal. Many are sponsored by established organizations and have highly qualified faculty--successful agents, working editors, commercially published authors. Others...not so much.

On my desk this morning: an announcement of the Third Annual San Antonio Round Table Writers Conference, sponsored by NF Publishing. There'll be workshops, panels, consultations with the faculty, readings, social occasions--the usual panoply of events you'd expect at a writers' conference. Dates: November 8-11, 2007. Cost for the full four days: $299 before March 10th, $369 thereafter (accommodations and meals not included). The conference hotel, the Crowne Plaza San Antonio Airport, seems to be offering a reasonable group rate.

Is this a conference worth paying for? Let's look first at the sponsor, NF Publishing. Founded by Nicole Moens, a.k.a. Nickie Fleming, a PublishAmerica author (uh oh), the company offers a variety of paid adjunct services (such as a self-publishing package for $700) in addition to "conventional" publishing (uh oh again) and boasts a staff that appears to be almost entirely devoid of professional publishing, editing, or writing experience (uh oh yet again). As for distribution, NF offers less than your average POD self-publishing service, with books orderable only through Baker & Taylor.

There is also this omninous phrase, on the Company Profile page: "We are not a vanity or self-publishing organization but you, the author retain full control of the content, design and layout." To date, Writer Beware hasn't gotten any reports of fees associated with NF Publishing--but in our experience, it's usually only vanity publishers that feel the need to deny being vanity publishers. We can't help wondering whether there's a cost attached to some aspect of publishing with NF (we especially wonder about the company's Writer's Consultants, nearly all of whom also appear to be NF authors) or whether authors are encouraged to buy their own books, a la PublishAmerica.

So what about the conference itself? Let's take a look at the faculty:

- Stacey Kohan, NF staff member and author of Five To Go
- Linda Daly, author of Sea Of Lies, which can't be found on Amazon, though I did find two other novels by her, Virtuous Dove and Rebel Dove
- Merlin Fraser, NF staff member and author of Inner Space
- Peter Leeds, author of Understanding Penny Stocks
- Toney Cowell
- Janelle Marks, author of Spades

Of the six authors above, four are current or forthcoming NF authors and/or staff members (Stacey Kohan, Merlin Fraser, Peter Leeds, and Janelle Marks); one is a PublishAmerica author, with another book forthcoming from a micropress about which Writer Beware has gotten questions (Linda Daly); and one I can't find any information on at all, except in association with the conference (Toney Cowell). To put it mildly, this is not a professional lineup. Not to mention, it's a bit incestuous to put on a conference and staff it entirely with your own people (although probably quite cost-effective, since you can presumably avoid paying honorariums).

The conference program does promise author-agent speed dating, so there may be additional faculty in the form of literary agents. But I wonder how likely it is that established agents will be interested in attending--especially if they are invited in the same way as one well-known agent of my acquaintance, who was urged to "Come share your unique voice and your passion for writing with us!" as a paying guest.

All this for just $299--or, if you don't get it together before March 10th, $369. If even 50 people sign up, that's a nice chunk of change for NF.

NF isn't the only dubious publisher that boosts its income by putting on conferences featuring its own staff and/or authors. PublishAmerica (on Writer Beware's Thumbs Down Publisher List) hosted a self-staffed writers' convention in 2003 (apparently, once was enough). Archebooks (also a Thumbs Down honoree) conducts an annual Professional Novelist Workshop run by publisher Robert Gelinas, which it actively encourages its authors to attend. Now-defunct publisher Gardenia Press hosted a yearly FirstNovelFest, and heavily pressured its authors to participate. And of course there was the notorious Melanie Mills, literary agent of a thousand aliases, who put on not one, but two, fake writers' conferences, and absconded with the proceeds.

The moral of this tale: don't take writers' conferences at face value. Always research the sponsor to assure yourself that it's a professional organization or established writers' group. Always research the faculty to make sure they're as professional as the conference claims they are--and to uncover any undisclosed connections or hidden conflicts of interest. Be wary of conferences that don't provide detailed faculty lists and bios, as well as a full description of conference activities and schedules--or, worse, don't mention these things at all. And if any pressure is associated with attendance, especially if it's coming from your own publisher or agent...beware.