Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- News of the Weird: Author's For Reality Show

No, I haven't lost my apostrophe smarts. "Author's For Reality Show" is a direct quote from a Craigslist ad posted today. Can you believe it? Yet ANOTHER author reality show is threatening to rear its pointy head.

A brief recap of the others, both funct and defunct:

- Book Millionaire (defunct)
- Publish My Book! (possibly funct, but no one really seems to know--this is the only one of the lot that has even a whiff of credibility)
- The Ultimate Author (apparently funct)
- American Book Factory (defunct)

This one makes five.

According to Craigslist, Healeth Publisher, "an Independent Publisher located in New York with satellite offices in Atlanta and LA," is looking for contestants for a new reality show featuring writers, to be conducted in conjunction with The Next TV, an Internet TV and radio network (I think the radio part, which calls itself U Tube Radio, might have a small trademark issue).

Getting published is a very difficult challenge that most writers face. The most difficult task is convincing any publisher that you the new author has an audience that will generate book sales. The very first thing a publisher will ask a new author is How Do You Plan To Market & Promote Your Boook? We want to know how you plan to market and promote your book but we also give you the chance to show us. Most publishers want a written marketing plan but we want you to show us you can self promote. Now here's your chance to do so with our new author internet reality show...HP and THENEXT.TV have come up with a competition that will change the publishing game forever.

Okay.

Specifics on how the show will work are sketchy (and come only from Craigslist--the show is mentioned on Healeth's website, but without details, and I couldn't find any mention of it at all on Next TV's website). Apparently it will travel to 20 US cities searching for contestants, who will face a three-part challenge: "I.)Writing challenge II.) Editing challenge III.)Promotions challenge." Ten winner's (their apostrophe, not mine) will be chosen. All will receive book contracts (the publisher isn't named, but it's not a stretch to assume it will be Healeth) with "The Top Writer" also getting a publicist and a $5,000 "advancement."

According to Healeth's website, CEO Jay Williams "spent over a decade working in traditional publishing houses in New York...as an editor for Harper Collins [sic], Pocket Books; [sic] amongst other large book publishing companies," but the website's sparse content, unappealing design, and grammatically shaky text does not (to put it kindly) convey a strong impression of publishing professionalism. Despite Healeth's purported 2005 startup date, it has so far published just one book, Pam Pinnock's The Father Fracture. Interestingly, Healeth's URL is registered to Pam Pinnock--and if you Google Healeth, the only references, apart from its website, involve Pinnock and her book. Pinnock is the only one of the contest's "celebrity judges" who is named. She also claims to be a publicist. Remember the publicist who is promised as part of the contest winner's prize package?

Hmmm. That's a lot of roads leading to Pam Pinnock.

No bets on the longevity of this one.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- More on the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award

A couple of weeks ago, in a blog post about the brand-new Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, I commented on the mindboggling size of the potential applicant pool (Amazon will accept up to 5,000 entries, from which up to 1,000 semi-finalists will be chosen) and wondered how Amazon and Publishers Weekly would find people to do the capsule reviews that are promised to all semi-finalists.

Here's at least part of the answer. Last week, the National Book Critics Circle (of which I'm a member) sent this email to its members:

Publishers Weekly is looking for experienced book reviewers and book industry professionals to help it judge the contestants of Amazon.com's recently inaugurated Breakthrough Novel Award.

Each judge will receive $400 for reading 10 manuscripts before December 14th and for turning in a 150-word review of each work. (These reviews will be paid on delivery, then edited and published anonymously on Amazon.com's website, just like regular PW reviews.)

If you are interested in joining this judging panel, please send an email detailing your book review experience plus two clips to [name and email address redacted].


So Amazon is attempting to honor its promise to provide a "professional" review to all semi-finalists. Kudos for that. However, it's not a very appealing gig. The pay works out to just $40 per manuscript/review--better than PW's regular rate of $30 per 220-word review, but not a lot for such a big bunch of reading, especially considering that it must be completed in a very short period of time (although the registration limit for the award was reached on October 22, the guidelines state that the semi-finalist judging won't begin until after the submission period ends on November 5) and across a major holiday. There's also the probability that, even with the initial filtering, the job will be more like reading slush than regular reviewing.

Out of curiosity, I was tempted to respond (I planned to donate the money to charity if I reported on the experience here), but good sense intervened in the form of my husband, who reminded me that I have a book to write.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- Chutzpah

Christian-focused Anomalos Publishers devotes a good deal of space to warning would-be authors about the perils of print-on-demand self-publishing services. Along those lines, they "highly recommend" that unpublished writers read Writer Beware's Print on Demand page.

However, Anomalos neglects to suggest that unpublished writers also read Writer Beware's Vanity and Subsidy Publishers page, where they'd learn that Anomalos's requirement that its authors "partner" with them by buying 1,000 copies of their own books is what's known as back-end vanity publishing--which can be a lot more expensive than straightforward vanity publishing.

Gee. Wonder why?

But I'm not done yet. Anomalos has actually, without requesting permission of the copyright holder (me), reproduced a sizeable portion of Writer Beware's Print on demand page on its website.

Much as I object to Writer Beware being used to support a dubious publishing practice, I'm torn between demanding that Anomalos remove the excerpt, and demanding that they also reproduce "Vanity Publishers in Sheep's Clothing" from the Vanity Publishers page.

(Actually not. I want the excerpt gone. I'm going to wait a few days, and if it doesn't disappear I'll send an email.)

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- Worthy Causes

Here at Writer Beware, we tend to concentrate on the dark side of publishing. Every now and then, though, it's nice to take a look at people who are doing something good. To that end, here are a couple of organizations you might want to check out.

Reader to Reader is a public charity that collects and donates books to needy school libraries in the USA, free of charge, with a special focus on schools in inner cities, rural towns, and Indian reservations. Reader to Reader serves more than 240 schools in 29 states, and has collected and donated millions of books since its startup. Recent initiatives include the Hurricane Katrina Book Drive, which so far has resulted in the shipping of over one million books and textbooks to rebuild libraries in hurricane-devastated southern states, and a collaboration with Starbucks stores in Western Massachusetts to launch a holiday book drive.

I know about Reader to Reader personally, because it's located just a few blocks away from me in Amherst, Mass. I donate all the books I get for review; last year, I also donated most of the hundreds of books I received as a World Fantasy Awards judge. Though the books go to school libraries, donations don't have to be confined to books for children or young adults--all books are welcome, and if Reader to Reader founder David Mazor doesn't feel a specific book is suitable for his program, he'll find a way to donate it somewhere else.

I talk with David whenever I stop by to make a donation. He and his volunteer staff work incredibly hard at what they do, and are passionate about making a difference. Reader to Reader is a truly worthy cause, with an impact that belies its shoestring budget. Information on how to donate is here. Unlike some other library donation groups, Reader to Reader will accept used books (though they should be in good condition) as well as new ones.

Eco-Libris is a brand-new green business that seeks to combine the love of reading with environmentalism. The idea is to let readers balance out the paper used for the books they read by planting trees. The website explains: "All you have to do is to choose how many books you want to balance out with Eco-Libris, pay for it online, and a tree will be planted for each of these books." In return, you get stickers (printed on recycled paper) to put on the covers of the books you balance out, in order to "show your commitment to sustainability and responsible use of natural resources." Each tree costs just $1.

Even if you don't want to plaster your books with stickers, the basic idea is pretty nifty. Eco-Libris concentrates on regions where deforestation is a critical problem (such as Panama and Guatemala), and to plant the trees, they've partnered with several established non-profit organizations that work with local communities in developing countries. They're also looking to build collaborations with book-oriented businesses--publishers, bookstores, book clubs.

Eco-Libris pleges that trees will be planted within six months to a year of your donation (planting cycles are dependent on the seasons and local weather conditions). To monitor progress and accountability, it will publish a full annual assessment of its planting projects on its website.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- Christopher Hill Redux

One of the weirdest scams Writer Beware ever followed just got a little stranger.

(A mini-refresher: Christopher Hill of Hill & Hill Literary Agency was an Edinburgh-based fee-charger who went to extraordinary lengths to convince his clients that he was working on their behalf, including fabricating reams of documentation: submission records, publisher acceptance emails, even publishing contracts. When he could no longer keep all the scam balls in the air, he torpedoed his own operation by posing as a victim. I covered the scam last year in a series of blog posts. There's also a lengthy thread at Absolute Write, with many posts from writers he conned.)

Over at the Dear Author blog, Top 10 Tips for Plagiarists exposes the fact that author Lanaia Lee, whose novel Of Atlantis is about to be released via self-pub service Roval Publishing, appears to have plagiarized well-known speculative fiction author David Gemmell's novel about Alexander the Great, Dark Prince. (More coverage of the flap from Jim Macdonald over at Making Light.)

A frothing mob of torch-wielding villagers, righteously enraged at such wanton pillaging of a literary legend, rushed over to Lanaia's website to post angry comments on her message board. Defending herself, she first said (I'm reproducing her comments exactly as written):

Of Atlantis is totally mine. I have the original manuscript, and witnesses to my work. I put two years of my life in this book, the copy right, I own. I am appalled some one would think I am that dishonesy!

Later, she amended that a bit:

When I first started Of Atlantis, I hire a ghost writer Christopher Hill. I see what he did now and for that I aplogize. I was scammed. I apologize to Mr. Hemmel's memory and his family.

I believe she's telling the truth, folks.

This past June--months after the Hill & Hill insanity seemed to have concluded--Lanaia (not her real name) contacted me via Writer Beware to let me know that Christopher Hill was still in Edinburgh, still actively impersonating a literary agent. She told me that he solicited her as a client in June 2005, as a result of some of her online writings. She signed with him for a different novel, Chamber of Time, which he eventually claimed not to have been able to sell.

In September 2006, a former Hill client in Australia alerted Lanaia to the fact that Hill was a lying scambag. She confronted him, but he managed to sweet-talk her out of her misgivings. She then started the Atlantis book. Always helpful, Hill offered his services as a ghostwriter. From sometime in the fall of 2006 until May of 2007, she paid him $400 per month through PayPal. In the spring of 2007, he faked up a contract offer from Gryphon Publishing (there are a number of publishers by this name, so I'm not sure which one was meant), but eventually got tired of shining Lanaia on and blew her off with the following email, which she forwarded me a copy of:

Before you keep ranting on here is the manuscript as of now you are on my blocked list so do not bother trying to reply. We had no contract binding anything, the work I did is now yours I give you full copyright consent here. I wish you well for the future.

Attached to the email was a manuscript called The Chronicles of Archimedes. Judging by the often awkward writing, most of it is non-plagiarized--and may indeed have been "ghostwritten," because while a lot of it is written out like a novel, some of it is synopsis. Also, Lanaia is American, but the written-out portions of the ms. employ British spelling, lending credence to Lanaia's claim that Hill rewrote her novel. At the front of the ms. is stuck the entire first chapter of Gemmell's Dark Prince, with the names changed to match those of the characters in the rest of the manuscript.

I find it completely plausible that the ripoff of Gemmell was Hill's work, not Lanaia's. It would be absolutely typical of Hill to do something like this to screw over a client--especially one who'd twigged to his scam. His whole deal was false promises and head games, fakery and bullshit and general psychological torment. If she'd never read Gemmell, there's no reason why Lanaia would have recognized that stolen chapter.

So score one more for you, Chris, you sleazy weasel...almost. Because you can't outwit Writer Beware.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- The New Fad in Publishing

There's a new fad in publishing: People's Choice-style contests for book manuscripts. No fewer than three of these contests have sprung up over the past ten months. (Actually, if you count the bogus ones, there are more than three, but I'm going to confine myself to the ones that are conducted in conjunction with real publishers.)

- First Chapters Competition, sponsored by Gather.com (I blogged about the initial contest, for commercial mainstream fiction, and the currently-in-progress second contest, for romance novels).

A new round, for mystery/crime novels, has just been announced, co-sponsored by Court TV. Interestingly, Simon & Schuster, which co-sponsored the first two rounds, appears to have bailed--this time, the grand prize publishing contract will be offered by Borders. As before, an advance of $5,000 will be paid and the contract will be non-negotiable, but other terms are less favorable than in the previous contests. Borders will publish the winner's novel in mass market format, and it will be available for sale exclusively--i.e., only--in Borders US stores, and not necessarily all of them.

- Project Publish, co-sponsored by MediaPredict, an online game that uses a prediction market setup to rate media content, and Simon & Schuster. (I blogged about this one, too.) Project Publish is now in its final stages, and it's telling (at least for those of us who are skeptical that prediction markets are a good way for publishers to find books) that in the Books section of MediaPredict, Project Publish listings are just about the only action.

- The brand-new Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, announced last week, co-sponsored by Amazon.com, Hewlett-Packard, and the Penguin Group.

Contestants have until November 5 to submit an unpublished, English-language manuscript (up to 5,000 manuscripts will be accepted). Submissions will be read by Amazon editors and top Amazon customer reviewers, who will pick up to 1,000 semi-finalists (the contest rules make reference to "judging criteria," but I wasn't able to find these listed anywhere). On January 15, 2008, 5,000-word excerpts from the semi-finalists' manuscripts will be posted at Amazon for customers to review and rate (according to the contest FAQ, you can vote for your own entry), with each semi-finalist receiving a review of his or her manuscript from PW and a special page on the Amazon website. A panel of experts from Penguin will then pick up to 100 mss. to read "based on customer feedback and Publishers Weekly reviews," and select ten finalists, whose excerpts will be posted for reviewing and rating on March 3rd. The winner, selected by customer vote, will be announced on April 7th.

(I have to laugh at this description of Amazon reviewers from Penguin's announcement of the Breakthrough Award: "Building on Amazon's strong tradition of customer reviews, all submissions will first be read by Amazon.com Top Reviewers—individuals recognized for the high quality and frequency of their comments on the site." Harriet Klausner, anyone?)

Here's a description of the prizes, from Amazon's website (a more detailed description is here):

The winner of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award will receive a full publishing contract from Penguin Group, including promotional support for their novel on Amazon.com, and a media suite from Hewlett-Packard. The nine remaining finalists will receive a free Total Design Freedom self-publishing package from BookSurge and a media suite from Hewlett-Packard. Semi-finalists will receive a review of their manuscript by Publishers Weekly. Upon conclusion of the contest all entrants will be eligible to make their books available for sale to Amazon.com customers via the CreateSpace self-publishing service at no charge. In addition, all entrants will receive discounted self-publishing services from BookSurge for custom cover design, formatting, and editing.

So now we know what's in this for Amazon (and also why it's willing to accept such a huge number of manuscripts): publicity for its revamped CreateSpace service, a Lulu lookalike (contest entrants must register through CreateSpace), and potential customers for BookSurge. I find this a little unsavory, especially since the nine non-winning finalists--whose books, chosen by the Penguin advisers, seem likely to be commercially viable--will receive incentive to self-publish via a free package from BookSurge. But you all know what a stickler I am, and I doubt many people will share my reservations.

As for Penguin, it will get a novel with (theoretically) ready-made promotional potential. The Breakthrough Award is a much richer contest than either First Chapters or Project Publish: Penguin plans to pay a $25,000 advance, as long as the winner is willing to sign its publishing contract as is, without negotiation. Penguin also reserves the exclusive right to make publication offers (which are negotiable) to finalists and semi-finalists until their manuscripts are eliminated from the competition. As quoted in Publishers Lunch, Penguin's Director of Online Sales and Marketing, Tim McCall, has "every hope that we're going to see many interesting voices." (Er...check your slush pile.)

As I've said before, I have general problems with the methodology of people's choice-style awards applied to books, where voting is conducted based only on excerpts. More specifically in this case, I have misgivings about the sheer size of the contest. Damn, that's a lot of manuscripts! On the whole, though, this seems like a decent contest, with no nasty surprises in the official rules.

So who'll be the next on the people's choice bandwagon? HarperCollins? Random House? Also, where Amazon goes, Barnes & Noble can't be far behind. Stay tuned.