Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- The Top Twelve Things Writer Beware Can't Do

Ann's last post got me thinking about expectations.

Writer Beware's mission is described (pretty clearly, I think) on our About Writer Beware page. We maintain the Writer Beware website and blog, providing the most up-to-date information on the many schemes, scams, and pitfalls that lie in wait for writers. We maintain an enormous database of complaints and documentation, which allows us to offer a free research service for writers with questions about agents, publishers, and others. We constantly research the problems we discuss, and keep current with issues and changes in the publishing industry. We assist law enforcement agencies with investigations of literary fraud. Last but not least, we help build public awareness of literary fraud by writing articles, appearing at writers' conventions, conducting workshops and classes, and participating in online writers' discussion groups and message boards.

That's what Writer Beware does. Of course, there are also many things that Writer Beware doesn't or can't do--some of them because we don't have time, some because they don't fit our mission, some because...well, because they just aren't appropriate. That doesn't stop people from asking, though.

Without further ado, here are the Top Twelve Things Writer Beware Can't Do.

12. Submit your work to US publishers because you're overseas and we're in the United States and it's cheaper for us to buy stamps. I have actually been asked to do this. More than once. Really.

11. Tell you that normally, upfront fees are a warning sign of a questionable agent, but your agent is the exception. Sorry. We understand how much you want to believe it, especially if the fee is already on your credit card--but we can't lie to you. Go ahead--shoot the messenger. We can take it.

10. Admit that whatever writers' mythology you're clinging to is absolutely true, and we were wrong to contradict you. I've had extended email exchanges with writers who vigorously and sometimes angrily attempted to convince me I was in error when I told them that new writers can get good agents without having to be published first, or that commercial publishers do market all their books, not just the bestsellers, or that it's not an author's job to get his or her book onto bookstore shelves, or that writers don't have to give back their advances if they don't earn out. These pernicious myths are astonishingly deeply rooted--especially when they're shoring up a bad decision.

I do still get irritated when someone with no publishing experience thinks they know more about the business than I do--but I don't argue as hard as I used to. Some people have a deep need to believe that their problems come from outside themselves, and I've learned to accept that mere argument is not enough to change that.

9. Tell you what decision to make. We often hear from writers who want us to tell them whether they should sign with Agent X, even though he charges an upfront fee, or accept a contract from Publisher Y, even though it has been the focus of author complaints, or terminate their relationship with Scammer Z, who they just discovered is disreputable. We understand that such decisions can be tough (to many of us, avoiding vanity publishers and fee-charging agents seems like a no-brainer, but it gets more complicated when you factor in ignorance and desperation)--and we will be glad to tell you what we know: that reputable agents don't typically charge upfront fees, that vanity publishing is not a good way to start a writing career, that we've gotten complaints about Agent X and advisories about Publisher Y. But we can't tell you what to do or decide. That's up to you.

8. Read and critique your manuscript or query letter. We know how important it is to get knowledgeable criticism, and how tough it can be to find reliable beta readers. But critiquing is not part of our mission (not to mention, between Writer Beware and our own writing careers, we just don't have the time).

7. Post a warning about the agent or publisher that defrauded you. We have strict criteria for what can be posted as an Alert on Writer Beware. We must have received an extraordinary number of complaints (100 or more), or else the individual or company must be the focus of a lawsuit, a police or other official investigation, or a criminal or civil proceeding. And we must have documentation. Short of that, we aren't able to post warnings.

6. List an agent or publisher as "not recommended." That's Preditors & Editors, not Writer Beware. No, we are not the same.

5. Exchange links. We welcome it when people link to Writer Beware, but we can't promise a link in return. We are very careful about the resources we list on our website, and choose only those we feel are most accurate and helpful.

4. Recommend independent editors, intellectual property lawyers, or other paid services. We don't recommend any paid services, in order to avoid the appearance of conflict of interest.

3. Recommend agents or publishers. Many people think it's easy to toss out a recommendation or two, but it's not--at least, not if you want to be responsible about it. The right agent or publisher for one person might be the wrong agent or publisher for another. In order to make helpful recommendations, we would need to know the person's work--and as I've said, we don't read manuscripts. (This is a beef I have with agent-matching sites, which provide broad general recommendations that are not necessarily well-tailored to the individual).

Again, we'll tell you what we know in response to specific questions, and we try to provide tools writers can use to do their own investigating and make their own decisions--such as this research technique designed to identify appropriate agents and eliminate questionable ones. But we don't do recommendations.

2. Represent your manuscript. We aren't agents. We're writers. We like it that way! (To the guy who keeps sending me screenplays via snail mail: please take note.)

And the number one thing Writer Beware can't do...

1. Publish your book. I shouldn't need to point out that Writer Beware is not a publisher. Nevertheless, I hear several times a year from people who want to submit their manuscripts to us for publication. Usually this just involves a query--as with the inquiry I got recently from a Romanian writer whose written English was, well, not very fluent. But every now and then the entire manuscript will be attached--or, in a few memorable cases, pasted into email. Once, I even got illustrations.

9 comments:

Patti said...

but, oh you can make us laugh!

Low Power Radio Guy said...

I really enjoy reading about these experiences. Reading about what others are going through is really helping me stay the course. I'm not going to get rich, it's not going to be easy, but if I stay focused I might get published - the right way :-)
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You might also enjoy http://lowpowerradio.blogspot.com/

Harry Connolly said...

Number 10 drives me buggy, because it's so embarrasingly simple to find, for instance, new writers who landed an agent with no connections and nothing more than a couple short fiction sales. Sometimes not even that.

And agents get new writers deals with NY publishers all the time. I should know, because I'm one of them. (Whoo-hoo!)

All anyone needs to do is google "debut novel" or "first-time author" or ask on someplace like Making Light for recommendations for first novels by brand new authors and the list will keep you reading for months. It did for me.

Stephen Bloom said...

You said, "Some people have a deep need to believe that their problems come from outside themselves, and I've learned to accept that mere argument is not enough to change that."

It's crazy enough when people reject your great but free advice. As a lawyer, I sometimes run into the same phenomenon with clients, only it makes even less sense, because they are paying me dearly for the good advice they refuse to accept!

Sasha said...

Thanks for your blog, Victoria, Richard and Ann. Nice to see there are some ethical people talking about agents and publishing.

I was directed here via a search on WL Childrens to which, in my innocence, I had submitted an MS. I felt kinda suspicious when they offered to represent me within the week!

James Goodman-Horror Writer said...

So, which of you should I address my query letter to? I figure one of you can represent me and sell the MS to the other for them to publish. It's clearly a win/win situation for all concerned. :D

Seriously, I know I, for one, appreciate all of the good work the WB team does and all the abuse you must suffer because of it.

We'd all be drowning in scammers if it weren't for you ladies. My hat's off to you.

green_knight said...

to many of us, avoiding vanity publishers and fee-charging agents seems like a no-brainer

I've recently watched, with a degree of awe, the mindset which _appreciates_ the kind of 'publishing programme' that means you hand over a significant amount of $$$ and get your own POD book; and that particular blogger - an astute and by all accounts intelligent person - appeared far less reluctant to hand over significant sums to a vanity publishers like iUniverse than to go all the way and self-publish with lulu.com.

At the bottom of that attitude seemed to be two convictions. One, that the packages - editing and marketing - were worth paying for, as these were services the writer could not otherwise acquire/good value for money services. (I disagree partly - it's not that difficult to hire independents; although one would expect to pay a fair price for a good service. I am not going to edit a whole book for $150, and I don't know an editor who could afford to.)

But the other belief - the one that is difficult to argue with because it's more of a religious conviction than a fact-based argument - is that the process of submitting to agents and publishers is long, strenuous, and unlikely to be successful anyway, so why not take the short cut and get your novel out there *right now*?

It was quite an eyeopener in that I believe that there may be a lot of people who do *not* feel they've been ripped off by the vanity presses; and I'm no longer certain that 'deluded' is _quite_ the right word for them. They're getting a service they think is worth paying for.

bookfraud said...

great post -- probably a needed corrective to expectations.

but can you slice, dice, and juillien fries?

this is terrific stuff, needed in the publishing world. i see way to many misguided folk trying to publish...

bookfraud said...

i just realized -- perhaps someone by the name of "bookfraud" shouldn't be commenting here.