Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Important Update from Writer Beware

Hi, folks.

It's been a very long time since I posted, I know. Thanks so much to Victoria for keeping the blog going all these months. My dad passed away recently after over a year of ill-health. It's been difficult.

But that's not what I came to talk about today. Writer Beware is still doing our thing, fighting the good fight. So, in light of that, let me remind you that if anyone reading this message has experienced problems with any of the following agencies, they need to get in touch with me.

Writers' Literary Agency & Marketing Company (a.k.a. WL Writers' Literary Agency), formerly The Literary Agency Group, which includes the following:

- Christian Literary Agency
- New York Literary Agency
- Stylus Literary Agency
(formerly ST Literary Agency, formerly Sydra-Techniques)
- WL Children's Agency (a.k.a. Children's Literary Agency)
- WL Poet's Agency (a.k.a. Poet's Literary Agency)
- WL Screenplay Agency (a.k.a. The Screenplay Agency)
- Writers' Literary & Publishing Services Company (the editing arm of the above-mentioned agencies)

Yes, I'm talking about our old pal "Bouncin' Bobby."

My email address is at the end of this post. Even if you've contacted me before, please do so again. Feel free to pass along this post to your writers' group, etc.

Have a nice (and safe) Labor Day weekend, folks.

-Ann C. Crispin
Chair, Writer Beware
www.writerbeware.org
anncrispin@aol.com

Friday, August 24, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- Spam Alert: eQuery Online

If you've recently received a solicitation from eQuery Online with a 50% discount offer, you're not alone. This query blasting service appears to be engaged in an intensive round of spamming to drum up new business.

(What's a query blasting service, a.k.a. an automated query service, you ask? For a fee, these services promise to identify appropriate agents and editors, format or write your query letter, and send it out electronically to hundreds of addresses. Some services track responses for you, or set up a special email address; some let you get the responses directly. All you have to do, theoretically, is sit back and wait for the manuscript requests to roll in.)

I've blogged before on why query blasting is unlikely to be effective (poor targeting, no assurance that agents/editors are reputable, the probability that automated queries will be regarded as spam) and on why agents and editors hate them. eQuery claims to be different. For one thing, it says it limits its clientele to seven writers a week, "to avoid burning out the industry contacts and to maintain the best possible response rate for users." For another, it promises that its queries will go only to "traditional" publishers and non-fee-charging agents, and that its list of recipients is "custom tailored each time to the category and genre of your novel." (The fact that its email blasts include "over a thousand active industry people" rather undercuts this statement. For most books, there won't be even close to that number of appropriate, reputable prospects).

On its website, eQuery offers testimonials from clients. Frankly, given agents' expressed dislike of eQuery's techniques, not to mention the fact that most of the named publishers (Random House, Knopf, Bantam Dell, Penguin, HarperCollins) have agented-only policies, I find the testimonials improbable. But let's take a closer look.

Today I'm looking at 34 requests as a result of your wonderful work.
-- Elizabeth_King, Camarillo CA


Searches on Elizabeth King of Camarillo, CA turn up no publications.

It's only 8 P.M. on the day you sent out my pitch for my novel THE WRONG BUS, and I have 21 requests to submit my manuscript.
-- John_Hampton, Los Angeles CA


Searches on John Hampton and The Wrong Bus turn up nothing but the testimonial.

The day after you sent out my eQuery to publishers and agents, I got 30 requests.
-- Gerald_Schoenewolf, New York NY


Gerald Shoenewolf appears to be a well-published nonfiction author, which raises the question of why he would use eQuery. Possibly for a novel? At any rate, his most recent publication is a June 2006 re-issue of a book originally published in 1997. There's no sign of a novel in his book list.

Thanks to your service, I have 36 requests for my manuscript (including from Kensington Publishing, Writers House, Curtis Brown, Artists and Artisans).
-- Arthur_Montague, Ottawa Ontario


Arthur Montague's profile at WritersNet notes that he has no agent at present, and lists two books: a novel pubbed in 2003 by Best Books Online, a self-publishing service, and a nonfiction work that doesn't appear to be available.

I've had over 30 agents and publishers wanting to see my book.
-- George_Parker, N. Hollywood CA


No sign of publication for George Parker of North Hollywood, CA.

The eQuery was a fantastic success! "The Disavowed" has now been sent out on 4 requests with 4 more to be filled.
-- Don_Marnock, Calgary Alberta


Searches on Don Marnock and The Disavowed turn up nothing but the testimonial.

So far I've received over 19 requests to read my manuscript.
-- Marilyn_Kyd, Lynnwood WA


Here's Marilyn Kyd's bio at WritersNet. She lists several books, all of which, according to her website, appear to be self-published. This listing for The Questfore Caper suggests why.

I have received 5...requests and 4 synopsis requests since yesterday afternoon from my eQuery.
-- Brad_Meyer, New York NY


Could that be this Brad Meyer, whose only novel, A Matchless Age, was pubbed in 2006 by PublishAmerica?

The response rate with eQuery has been the best EVER and has made clear to me what the recipients want: a short, sweet note with all the info in plain sight.
-- Mike_Denison, San Francisco CA


No sign of any published books from Mike Denison of San Francisco.

Moving on to the testimonials offered in eQuery's recent spam (for the text of the spam, see this post from Absolute Write):

Using eQuery Online I just sold my first novel to St. Martin's press!
-- Steve Carlson / Jacksonville, Oregon


This testimonial checks out. Steve Carlson's novel, Almost Graceland, is due from St. Martin's Press in November. According to the book's catalog listing, St. Martin's Press holds both UK and foreign rights, which suggests that Mr. Carlson may indeed have sold his book without an agent (St. Martin's Press officially has an agented-only policy, which makes this very unusual, eQuery or not). Mr. Carlson is a professional actor, and the author of two nonfiction books on acting, both published by real publishers. Nonfiction authors often don't know the ins and outs of selling fiction, but he's not exactly a novice.

The agent who I snagged though eQuery online has just advised me that an editor at a major New York publishing house now wants to make an offer on my novel!
-- Wayne Arthurson / Edmonton, Alberta


Wayne Arthurson has published two novels, one in 1997 and one in 2002, both with small Canadian presses. No sign of either an agent or a major NY publishing house.

The dumbest thing I've ever done is NOT use eQuery Online sooner! I received responses to read my manuscript from people at Bantam Dell, Kensington Publishers, Penguin Group, and so many agents!
-- Julie Palella / Naples, Florida


Which, if true, makes it a bit puzzling that both her novels are published by PublishAmerica.

So eQuery can claim just one success (if there were more like it, you can bet they'd be listed). And that's assuming it really is responsible for getting Steve Carlson's novel over the transom at St. Martin's. This is not exactly an impressive track record. If you're still tempted to accept eQuery's discount offer, ask yourself whether it makes sense to pay for a service that at worst pisses off the industry professionals that are its targets, and at best, doesn't offer any better odds than you could manage on your own.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- Whoops, They Did it Again

Once again, in an effort to prove the sorry state of modern publishing, someone has pulled a fake submission hoax. Frustrated by his unsuccessful attempts to sell his novel, writer David Lassman pseudonymously submitted chapters from several Jane Austen books to top UK publishers and literary agents, to test whether they could recognize great literature when they saw it. The result? Rejection or nonresponse on all fronts.

(Fake submission hoaxes have been around for a long time, though those committing them often seem to believe they're the first to have conceived the idea. In 1979, a freelance writer called Chuck Ross submitted Jerzy Kosinski's bestselling Steps to fourteen publishers and twenty-six literary agents under a pseudonym, all of whom rejected it. He repeated the experiment in 1982 with the script for Casablanca, with similar results. Also in 1982, Doris Lessing submitted two of her own novels under a pen name to her long-time publisher, Jonathan Cape, and was rejected. [The novels did eventually find publication.] In 2005, the UK's Sunday Times pseudonymously sent opening chapters from Stanley Middleton's and V.S. Naipaul's Booker Prize-winning novels to 20 agents and publishers, to no avail. In 2006, an Australian newspaper submitted chapters of Nobel Prize-winner Patrick White's The Eye of the Storm to publishers using a made-up name, and was met with unanimous rejection.)

The books Lassman chose were Northanger Abbey, Persuasion, and Pride and Prejudice. A cover letter, synopsis, and the first two or three chapters from each novel were sent to four publishers and two agents each, for a total of 18 packages. Lassman used an invented name, Alison Laydee (a play on a pseudonym used by Austen, "A Lady"), and changed the titles and some of the characters' names, but otherwise left Austen's text unaltered.

Of the 18 submissions, 3 went unacknowledged. 15 were returned, many with what writers accustomed to rejection will recognize as form responses: "not right for our list," "not publishing any new fiction," "not confident of placing this material with a publisher." Only one respondent acknowledged the hoax--Alex Bowler, assistant editor at Jonathan Cape, who sent Lassman this exquisitely snarky reply: "Thank you for sending us the first two chapters of First Impressions; my first impressions on reading these were ones of disbelief and mild annoyance--along, of course, with a moment's laughter. I suggest you reach for your copy of Pride and Prejudice, which I'd guess lives in close proximity to your typewriter, and make sure that your opening pages don't too closely mimic the book's opening. After all, there is such a thing as plagiarism, and I'd hate for you to get in any kind of trouble with Jane Austen's estate."

Quoted in one of a number of news articles on the hoax, Lassman professes himself boggled. "If the major publishers can't recognise great literature, who knows what might be slipping through the net? Here is one of the greatest writers that has lived, with her oeuvre securely fixed in the English canon and yet only one recipient recognised them as Austen's work."

Conclusion: publishing is broken. The system ignores great literature. New authors can't get a break. Etc. Etc. Cue violins.

I can think of a number of reasons for the results of Lassman's experiment, most having far more to do with the self-fulfilling nature of the experiment than with the current state of publishing.

1. A couple of Lassman's arch cover letters are on view here. The one for Susan (the re-titled Northanger Abbey) identifies its genre thus: "I suppose you would call it a Regency Romance (does this type of writing exist? because if not, I think there would be a great demand for it, especially from women readers.)" Now, I don't know whether the Regency romance is as moribund in the UK as it is in the US, or the degree to which the apparent cluelessness of the parenthetical statement might have prejudiced whoever opened Lassman's submission package--but identifying a book as romance, and sending it to an agent who doesn't rep romance or a publisher that doesn't have a romance line (for instance, Bloomsbury, one of the publishers that sent a form rejection for this submission), is a recipe for rejection, regardless of literary quality. Querying inappropriate publishers and agents is, by the way, an extremely common newbie writer mistake.

2. Lassman sent a number of his packages to publishers that only accept agented submissions. This is another recipe for automatic rejection with a form response. (One of the publishers, Penguin, says as much in one of the articles linked in above). Submitting unagented to an agent-only publisher may prove something about the mechanics of the modern publishing process, but it doesn't say a thing about the current state of literature.

3. One of Lassman's submissions was the first chapters of a re-titled Pride and Prejudice, complete with one of the most famous opening sentences in the English language. The fact that just one editor let Lassman know he'd seen through the hoax doesn't necessarily mean he's the only person who did--maybe he's just the only person who felt the hoax deserved response. I wonder how many other editors and agents recognized or suspected what was going on, and simply didn't bother to acknowledge it?

4. Publishing is all about context. Popular tastes and interests shift, often very quickly, as does literary style. Yes, people still eagerly read Jane Austen--her books outsell many popular present-day authors--but they do so in context, as classic literature. It's hardly a wonder that a 19th century novel, written in 19th century prose, couldn't find a home when presented as a new novel by a previously-unpublished modern writer. (It's worth noting that most of the other submission hoaxes mentioned above involved work that was several decades old.) More on context (and euphemistic form rejection letters), in this interesting commentary on the hoax from Profile Books publisher Andrew Franklin.

The only fake submission experiment that strikes me as at all relevant is the one conducted recently in France by the editors of Voici magazine, who wanted to show that the popularity of books written by famous people has little to do with literary merit. In 2000, they submitted a re-titled and slightly altered celebrity-written novel--L'Institutrice by Claire Chazal, a 1997 bestseller--to numerous publishers, every one of which responded by rejecting.

Anyone want to fake-submit The English Roses?

(Thanks to Hoaxipedia for the information on older submission hoaxes.)

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Victoria Strauss --Who's Wergle Flomp?

The winner of the sixth annual Wergle Flomp Humor Poetry Contest was announced today. The contest, conducted by Winning Writers, seeks to raise awareness of vanity anthology publishing schemes by "mak[ing] light of the low standards of widely publicized free poetry contests sponsored by Poetry.com (Owings Mills, Maryland), the Famous Poets Society, the League of American Poets, and similar organizations."

Erica Angle-Newman of Alta Loma, California will take home a cash prize of $1,359 for her poem, "Pumpernickel: A Poem Written in Mock-Shelley," along with the undying renown of following in the footsteps of the original Wergle Flomp, poet David Taub, who went to heroic lengths in his (unsuccessful) attempts to get Poetry.com to send him a rejection slip. There are also second and third prize winners, and twelve Honorable Mentions.

Do check out the winning poems--they're hilarious. As a teaser, here's the last two stanzas of Ms. Angle-Newman's winning entry:

I ran out of the house—she had stopped in the lane
To roll down her window and scream at me, "Jump
Back Jesus! Letting kitties out in this street is insane—
But don't worry dearie, he felt but a bump."
Then she tossed out rouge samples, saying, "Now don't complain.
The kitty's kitty spirit will transcend the kitty lump."

And if this is true, then this new star tonight
Familiarly flicks like tail triumphant out in space.
I'll name thee Pumpernickel. Shine! Flick your light!
Among the kitty-littered stars, you now hold your place.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- American Author Contest

Make way, Gather.com and your "people's choice" style novel contests--here comes the American Author Contest. Claims the contest's website: "In the spirit of "American Idol™" a contest has been designed for authors to submit online up to 2,500 words of their book and let the public and their peers decide whose book is the best, by popular opinion!"

There are four segments to the contest: nonfiction, fiction, children's fiction and nonfiction, and religious fiction and nonfiction. Submission and judging schedules are provided on the website (according to the FAQ page, contestants can vote for their own entries, and should encourage all their friends to vote for them too). The winner of each segment will receive "a beautiful engraved plaque" and the opportunity to have their submission read by an (unnamed) movie company. The Grand Prize Winner will receive a $1,000 advance, plus "a full traditional publishing contract with bookstore placement!"

Let's suppress for a moment the feeling of unease that creeps over us whenever we see the phrase "traditional publishing" (there's no such thing). Let's ignore the red flag that unfurls at the mention of bookstore placement (for a commercial publisher, bookstore placement should go without saying). Let's set aside any concerns about logistics, such as the contest's plans for dealing with vote fraud and the question of how it's possible to judge the "best" book on the basis of a randomly selected 2,500 word excerpt. Let's look at what's really important: who's sponsoring the contest?

Warning bells begin to toll when we note the name of one of the "presenters:" Airleaf Publishing and Book Selling, a vanity publisher that also provides spam-based author "marketing" services (I've blogged about Airleaf a time or two). I don't think I need to elaborate on why this is a problem. Any bets on who will be offering the "traditional" publishing contract?

Also a "presenter:" CineMagic Entertainment, which according to a press release on Airleaf's website has formed a partnership with Airleaf to "develop one or more feature film projects in 2006 and 2007." Unfortunately, since the the links on CineMagic's website go nowhere, this can't be verified. In fact, apart from the website, the Airleaf press release is the only reference to CineMagic (not to be confused with Cinemagic Entertainment of Pompton Plains, New Jersey, a home theater installer) that can be found online. Could the apparently track recordless CineMagic be the unnamed movie production company that will read winners' submissions?

Or maybe the reading will be done by the third "presenter," Lite Stone Entertainment of California. Lite Stone's website links do work, and when you click "Films" you get a nice list of "Lite Stone films currently in production and pre-production." But there's something odd about the list...something very odd indeed...every single title is also the title of a book in Airleaf's Books to Film program ("The Next Great Adventure From Airleaf Publishing!") Apart from this and a YouTube trailer for a book-to-film called "Jessie's Girl," no trace of Lite Stone or its movies can be found.

(I note with amusement the premise of "Jessie's Girl," as given on YouTube: "The illegitimate daughters of the legendary James Gang seek revenge." The author of the book must have listened to Rick Springfield one too many times, because the name of that famous James brother isn't spelled with an "i.")

The fourth and final "presenter" is Mack Bookstore. Its website link leads us to a Coming Soon page, from which we learn that Mack Bookstore is located in Harrison, Ohio. Here's what we find on Airleaf's Author Services page: "All bookselling packages include listing your book on airleaf.com, bookatron.com, and in our catalog. We will also sell your book in our retail stores in Martinsville, Indiana & Harrison, Ohio..." (my bold). Gee. Looks like Mack Bookstore is actually Airleaf Bookstore.

So let's sum up. The American Author Contest is sponsored by: Airleaf. An Airleaf bookstore. A movie company whose only sign of existence, beyond an empty website, is an Airleaf press release. Another movie company whose only properties are Airleaf titles, and which does not appear to have ever actually produced a film.

Kinda puts those prizes in perspective, doesn't it?

For a thousand bucks and a plaque, this one ain't worth it.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- Writers and Money

In addition to queries about agents, editors, and publishers, Writer Beware often receives questions about publishing in general. I got an email the other day from an aspiring novelist who wanted to know how to achieve literary success--specifically, how to make money:

My problem is that I need to survive off my writing. I've mutilated my brain too much already. I couldn't function in any other capacity without severe withdrawal symptoms. Quality is the most important thing, but I still need to make a living. I'm not worried about publishing odds as much as----I hate this word----money.

I told this writer the truth: writing is not a big-money business. Sure, there are the Stephen Kings and the Charles Fraziers; there are the Nora Robertses who are so prolific that they'd make excellent money even if they didn't command huge advances; there are the brand-new writers whose books have been targeted for blockbuster-dom and who get half a million bucks right off the bat. But these folks are in the minority. For most of us, it's not like that, or even close.

A survey of American authors undertaken in 1979 found that the median annual income for writers was less than $5,000, with only 10% earning more than $45,000 (The Wages of Writing by Paul William Kingston and Jonathan R. Cole, Columbia University Press, 1986). In 1995, things hadn't improved much--the median income for respondents in a survey of freelance writers conducted by the National Writers' Union was $4,000 per year, with only 16% earning more than $30,000 per year. In 2004-2005, the UK-based Authors Licensing & Collecting Society funded a survey of 25,000 British and German writers, which revealed that professional UK authors had a median yearly wage of just over £12,000. The US-based Authors Guild estimates that its average member earns an annual writing income of less than $25,000.

The advance for my first novel, in 1982, was $2,500. Numbers have come up since then--today, the average first novel advance is somewhere between $5,000 and $10,000 (there aren't many hard statistics on this, but see Tobias Buckell's interesting survey of first-novel advances in the science fiction/fantasy field; Brenda Hiatt's Show Me the Money, which lists the average advances paid by major US romance publishers for first novels and others; Justine Larbalestier's essay on first novel advances; and this interesting article from the Guardian on first novel advances in the UK, which also discusses how huge advances can damage writers' careers if their books fail to perform). But there are still sizeable commercial publishers that pay what I was paid twenty-five years ago, or even less. How many careers can you think of where companies have not increased their starting salaries since 1982?

(Of course, after advances come royalty payments and subsidiary rights sales--maybe. Today more than ever, large numbers of novels don't earn out their advances, and many never sell subrights. For many writers, the advance is the only money they'll receive.)

Most of the professional novelists I know have a day job or a supportive spouse to fill the income gap, or have simply chosen to live a marginal lifestyle. Those who do make a decent living from their writing work like dogs to do it--either they're extremely prolific (I'm talking two, three, or even four books a year), or they do other kinds of writing or writing-related work to make ends meet: journalism, freelancing, work-for-hire, teaching.

Here's my opinion, for what it's worth. Obviously, we all want to be paid for our writing. Obviously, we'd all like to make a living, or at least come close. But money is one of the least predictable aspects of a writing career. It may come or it may not--and whether it does or doesn't won't necessarily have anything to do with how talented you are or how hard you work. If you take money off the ambition table right from the start, you'll be freer to concentrate on the things you can control: choosing the right agents and publishers to approach, polishing your query letter, networking--and of course, the constant, arduous, ongoing effort to master your craft.

Unfortunately, like many new writers who've read too many stories about giant first novel advances (like this one) and have unrealistic ideas about what writers can earn, this wasn't what my correspondent wanted to hear. Here's his response to my advice (which, by the way, he got for free):

You're not holding the gate closed, so I'm not worried about your discouragement. I understand, the history of the human race is but a brief spot in time, and its first lesson is modesty, but some people are better than others. I wouldn't discourage anybody from having high ambitions, because the good of their success outweighs the bad of their failure. The successful ones always tell everybody to be more ambitious, which is why I think you're biased and your judgement [sic] cannot altogether be respected.

And just to make sure I didn't miss the point:

And if you don't get it, maybe that's why you're not very successful. Write until your words bleed. I don't see that color in your prose.

Uh...you might want to check my last post about blacklisting, buddy.