Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- Subscriptions and Solicitations

I'm often asked whether it's worth an aspiring writer's money to subscribe to Writer's Digest. The answer I usually give is "maybe."

The features can be helpful (disclosure: Ann and I have written for Writer's Digest)--though principally for beginners--and the interviews can be interesting. However, the articles and filler pieces often seem superficial, the advertising is heavily oriented toward paid "services" including self-publishing services, and the Classifieds section is rife with ads for vanity anthology contests and scam literary agents (a number of whom are on Writer Beware's Thumbs Down Agency List). Not exactly helpful for writers are looking to break into the commercial publishing market.

Simply filling its pages with self-publishing advertisements is not enough for Writer's Digest. Its subscriber base, after all, provides a perfect captive audience for direct solicitation. The following was recently received by a WD subscriber who'd signed up for email "updates" from WD (my bolding):

As part of Writer's Digest's commitment to presenting our subscribers with useful information on new products, services, and educational programs for aspiring and professional writers, we want to share the following paid message from one of our advertisers.

It's been an exciting year for Trafford Publishing and 2009 is shaping up to be even better for authors who wish to publish their books independently. Never before have the advantages of Trafford Publishing's print-on-demand publishing service been more obvious: no inventory fees, no costly return credits, and the ability to order and ship just as many copies as are needed are just three of the ways POD is changing the way books are being published now and in the future. Trafford authors own 100% of their copyright and set their own book prices, giving them the freedom they need to target their specific markets. Interested in learning more?

Call us today at 1-888-232-4444 and ask to speak to one of our friendly publishing consultants.


There's more, but you get the picture.

Now, Trafford is a perfectly reliable, if somewhat expensive, print-on-demand self-publishing service. Writer Beware has gotten no recent complaints about it. However, it has in the past used questionable methods to promote its services, such as offering a 15% referral fee to literary agents who sent writers its way. So that it would direct-solicit the WD subscription base isn't really a surprise--nor, given the percentage of WD's advertising that's represented by self-publishing services, is it really surprising that WD would be OK with this. What crosses the line, for me, is WD's introduction, which reads a lot like an endorsement. It's one thing to sell your subscriber list. It's another to lend your name to the resulting solicitation.

Solicitation of writers by scam agents and vanity publishers is nothing new, of course. Long before the Internet and email, they were using not just magazine subscription lists, but information from the US Copyright Office, to lure writers into their clutches. They still are. If you register copyright for your book manuscript, be prepared to be solicited by Dorrance, a hugely expensive vanity publisher that wants to charge you five figures to print a few hundred copies of your book. (This is just one of several reasons not to register copyright for unpublished work.)

32 comments:

BuffySquirrel said...

I picked up a magazine for writers in the UK some time ago--I forget the title of it--and its whole slant was towards self-publishing. Not just advertising, but editorial and articles, too. Given these magazines are an obvious starting point for would-be writers, is it surprising they get the wrong idea?

What we need is a 'zine for paid writers. The larger and glossier the better....

December/Stacia said...

If I'm not mistaken, they've also run quite a few articles on writing and the business of publising by people who are--to put it kindly--unqualified to present themselves as experts in those fields.

Lee Goldberg said...

It's worse than that. Writer's Digest also hosts contests that are sponsored by vanity presses...contests that create the illusion that the winner will be published by a "real" publisher.

I have blogged often about the rampant conflicts-of-interest at WD and how they have become a shill for the vanity press industry. Here's a sampling...

http://leegoldberg.typepad.com/a_writers_life/2008/01/writers-digest.html

http://leegoldberg.typepad.com/a_writers_life/2006/05/writers_digest_.html

http://leegoldberg.typepad.com/a_writers_life/2006/01/writers_digest.html

Lee Goldberg said...

Here are those links again...they got chopped by Blogger..

http://leegoldberg.typepad.com/
a_writers_life/2008/01/
writers-digest.html

http://leegoldberg.typepad.com/
a_writers_life/2006/05/
writers_digest_.html

http://leegoldberg.typepad.com/
a_writers_life/2006/01/
writers_digest.html

Georgie B said...

Question: If the magazine seems to be so "bad", then what about the various reference guides that they publish under their name?

Or is that a separate entity?

Jill Elaine Hughes said...

I grew up in Cincinnati, where Writer's Digest's parent company F&W Publications is based. And while F&W does put out some decent books about the craft of writing, F&W also seems to have some questionable ties to the vanity/self publishing world.

I finally let my WD subscription lapse last year. The quality of articles has really gone down (I used to find many of their articles quite useful, but no more), and they do seem to be on an "all vanity publishing, all the time" mode ever since they went to a bimonthly schedule. The only thing I occasionally will pick up a copy for (at my local library, I won't buy it anymore) is if the WD interview is of an author I like. (rare; I think the last one I read was of Sara Gruen).

I think the new editorial slant there has a lot to do with the advertising base. Like most print mags, WD is probably struggling to keep ad dollars and may be kowtowing to its unscrupulous advertisers.

There are better writing mags out there. POETS & WRITERS and THE WRITER are better. I also used to like BYLINE, but that is now out of business.

BuffySquirrel said...

I suppose it could well be difficult to find advertising to support a writers' magazine. What do writers consume, after all? Coffee, paper...stamps! lol

BuffySquirrel said...

Hey, Lee, thanks for the linkage. I'm now boggling at the analogy that suggests Tiger Woods pays Nike to advertise their kit....

I'm thinking not.

(Word ver: hoothi--what Outskirts Press are talkin')

Janny said...

I dropped my subscription to WD when Lawrence Block was no longer the fiction columnist...I read one column by his replacement and decided that rag didn't need my money anymore. I have never regretted that decision in the ensuing years, especially not now when we as writers have so many more timely resources online, without the questionable/shady/conflict-of-interest advertising to contend with...

My take,
Janny

Robin Bayne said...

But everytime you let the WD sub. lapse, you are inundated with phone calls trying to re-sub you.

Judy said...

I subscribe to The Writers Digest and also to The Writer and have found helpful articles in both as I've begun my writing career. However, I'm thinking of letting the WD subscription lapse simply because The Writer fits my needs better. As far as the vanity press advertising, I just ignore it and/or delete it if something comes to my email. It's important for every aspiring writer to be aware of the vanity press aspect of the business. BTW--I'm really glad that I found Writer Beware and always check it out along with Preditors and Editors before submitting anywhere. Keep up the good work!

Nancy Miller said...

Hello to all. I am the Advertising Sales Representative for Writer's DIgest and I just want to make a statement as to our advertiser policy. Before a company advertises with us, we make every attempt to verify that it is solvent and that it is in a position to deliver the products/services it promises. While the marketing efforts of some companies may be considered a bit controversial (distasteful, even) by some of our readers, there are currently no known unresolved issues with our active advertisers. We take specific reader complaints very seriously, though, and while they often result from a misunderstanding on the reader's part, expecting more than the advertiser promised to deliver, there have been cases when an advertiser was prohibited from advertising with us because we found that reader complaints were justified and the advertiser had made an insufficient effort to correct the problem.

Our editorial coverage often addresses outright scams and red flags that writers should look out for before agreeing to pay for any editorial/publishing service or writing product. We also encourage our readers to regularly visit our online forums to ask questions of their peers and/or to keep each other informed of their experiences, positive and negative, with the variety of products and services available for writers. I personally have forwarded links for Preditors & Editors & this very site to readers who have asked questions of me. I will always encourage our readership to do their homework before signing on any dotted line!

Anonymous said...

"that writers should look out for before agreeing to pay for any editorial/publishing service or writing product."

Well, at least you acknowledge that WD is essentially in the business of promoting expensive writing "products" that are of dubious value. Professional writers are paid for their writing, not the other way around. It seems WD is only serving to sell products and services to wannabe amateurs with no other way into print.

Jessica Strawser said...

As the editor of Writer’s Digest, I value the service that Writer Beware provides to the writing community, so I wanted to take this opportunity to weigh in on the heels of Nancy’s comment.

Self-publishing is obviously a hot-button issue. The viability of this option is different for every writer depending on his or her book, platform, publication goals, and many other factors. As announced on our editorial calendar a few months back, we’ll be taking a more involved look at self-publishing in the feature package of our March/April issue, covering both the advantages and the disadvantages of the practice, as well as recent changes in the industry as digital publishing and POD technology progress. We’ll be featuring perspectives from an agent, publishing insiders, and writers who have self-published with mixed results. We hope this will make it clear that we are simply attempting to provide writers with the information they need to understand their options and make the decision that’s right for them—and to be sure they have realistic expectations regardless of which publication path they choose to pursue.

Victoria Strauss said...

Jessica, I appreciate your comment here, and Nancy's also. I'm just wondering how sponsoring an email solicitation from a self-publishing service helps writers to better understand their options.

Jane Friedman said...

As Publisher & Editorial Director of the Writer's Digest community, I thought it might be helpful for me to jump in at this point.

I think the issues being discussed here related to self-pub (as well as advertising) are very important to the writing community as well as Writer's Digest.

Victoria & Ann: I would be happy to agree to a phone or e-mail interview on all of the issues raised here, plus any others you'd like to address, and I think you'll find my answers frank and direct. Then you could share it with your readers however you wish.

ALC said...

I notice that none of the representatives of WD who have commented here have felt any need to address Victoria's concern (my concern as well - hopefully the concern of most of the writers who frequent this blog) about the implied endorsement of their email intro for Trafford.

Advertiser or not, it seems to be a conflict of interest for WD to do this. It also feels "icky" (yes, that's a technical term).

Nancy Miller said: Before a company advertises with us, we make every attempt to verify that it is solvent and that it is in a position to deliver the products/services it promises.

While that is a good business practice it still doesn't change the fact that most of these businesses prey on inexperienced & ill-informed writers. Real writers write. They don't need expensive editorial services to pick through every line of their MS's. WD would be doing far more service to aspiring writers by publishing numerous articles stressing the necessity of grammar & punctuation skills for all writers. They would be doing far more service to aspiring writers by printing articles to inform them that it is not a publishing house's job to make a horrendously written MS readable & that any writer lacking in basic grammar & punctuation skills would save time, MONEY & tears by learning them (yes I know this post is probably riddled with errors- but it's late & I'm not looking to find an agent with it).

Jessica Strawser said: Self-publishing is obviously a hot-button issue. The viability of this option is different for every writer depending on his or her book, platform, publication goals, and many other factors.

Personally, I have never known ANY aspiring writer whose goal was to pay out the nose to have a book "published" with no hope of ever seeing it on store shelves or having it sell enough to pay out their expenditure (which is the case with about 99.9% of all self-published books - if not more).

In fact, I'm fairly certain that the dream of being published & being heard of & read encompasses more of a "Gee, if only I could be the next big thing", or "One day millions of people will read my novels" sort of idealism. And, as a tool that is supposedly geared toward helping aspiring writers WD actually does a disservice to those same writers by perpetuating the illusion that Vanity Publishing is even remotely similar to mainstream publishing.

Aspiring writers look to publications such as WD for advice & information. They look to these things to "learn the ropes". Emailing these people with what can only be viewed as an endorsement of legitimacy without a disclaimer pointing out that any time you PAY for the privilege of being published you are Vanity Publishing & cannot use these "published" works on your resumé for legitimate agents & main-stream publishers, is misleading.

As for your upcoming look at the pros & cons of self-publishing, we'll see.

Perhaps you should conduct a survey of your subscribers & find out which ones have a desire to have their books on store shelves for millions to see & have the opportunity to buy, & which ones just don't care so long as they have a bound copy of their MS & they can SAY that it's available online to anyone who happens to actually hear about it because heaven knows that's the only way anyone will ever see it.

Granted there are some writers who get desperate enough to fall into the just don't care category, but these are usually over-eager newbies who leave the starting gate way too soon OR are long-term disillusioned writers who have never tasted of any form of success (often because they are not publishable - sometimes just because of ill-fated luck), but I'm guessing the majority fall into the "Wanna be the next Stephen King or J.K. Rowling" category.

Anonymous said...

all I know is that years ago I saw an ad for PublishAmerica on the back of a WD issue...

'nuff said.

Jane Smith said...

I've lost count of the number of times I've heard (or read) aspiring writers insist that certain agents or publishers have to be reputable because they are listed in the Writer's Market, or the Writer's Handbook--you can insert the title of any of the published guides there.

It's a common perception that these guides vet their entries before publication: but they don't. And that's a problem.

I'd like to see a prominent warning at the beginning of each section warning people of the perils of the less-than-reputable organisations, and advising on what to look out for. It might be clumsy, but it would be a start.

Victoria Strauss said...

Ms Friedman, thanks for the interview offer. I'd love to take you up on it. Could you please contact me by email at beware@sfwa.org? Thanks again.

Taymalin said...

I bought a one year WD subscription from one of those fundraising magazine sales high schools often have.

I hate it. In a year there has been one article I've found useful.

The emails, which I'm planning on unsubscribing to, are incredibly annoying and far too frequent.

I can see how it would be frustrating from the magazine's point-of-view too. They need to make money, subscriptions alone aren't enough to keep a mag in the black--but I'd rather see ads for general products, like cars, clothes and electronics in WD than self-pub nonsense.

B

Dave said...

I worked briefly for Trafford, and they aren't a bad company to work for. I even think there are some good reasons for using such a service (local or family history books come to mind).

My problem is that WD is associated in my eyes with markets - and Trafford and other self-publishing options are in no way markets for authors. I don't like the implied endorsement because I feel it's trading on that association.

A. C. Crispin said...

To Georgia B:

This fall Victoria and I looked at a copy of the current hardcopy Writers Market that F&W was kind enough to send me, at my request. We found that, with a few relatively minor exceptions, the book was free of outright scammers. There were a couple of publishers or agents who fell into a somewhat "grayish" region, but there was no listing, for example, for PublishAmerica.

I'd say use the book, or the online version, but keep doing your standard background checks. Which is always good advice to follow.

-Ann C. Crispin

Victoria Strauss said...

Well, I guess I need to cut Writer's Digest some slack. I just signed up for a free trial of Publishers Weekly, and this morning I was solicited by BookSurge:

BookSurge, a member of the Amazon group of companies, has a special offer for readers of Publishers Weekly who are ready to publish a book. Through December 31, 2008, BookSurge is offering you 20 free trade paperback copies of your book when you sign up to self-publish a book with BookSurge.

Self-publishing is a great way to get your publishing career moving forward, whether you aspire to commercial success through self-publishing or ultimately a mainstream publishing deal. Independent of your publishing goals, one element of publishing with BookSurge is a constant: the BookSurge staff will be there to support you throughout the publishing process.


Bleah.

BuffySquirrel said...

It's good to see that Writer Beware is of such note in the industry. Keep it up!

ALC said...

Yes, but did Publishers Weekly have an intro on the Booksurge email?

Victoria Strauss said...

The intro was "You are receiving this email as a subscriber to Publishers Weekly magazine or eNewsletter," followed by a big title: "Featured Vendor Content." And it offers the option of unsubscribing from such promotional messages. So not an endorsement--but certainly annoying, and not something I expected (naively, perhaps).

ALC said...

I'd consider that far less questionable (no less annoying). It only mentions that the individual is receiving the email because of their subscription to the magazine & because the sender is an advertiser with the magazine.

However the WD intro is very misleading (in my opinion) since it sounds like a glowing endorsement of the paying advertiser:

As part of Writer's Digest's commitment to presenting our subscribers with useful information on new products, services, and educational programs for aspiring and professional writers, we want to share the following paid message from one of our advertisers.

Sounds like they're the advertiser's cheerleader, which lends the illusion of credibility & value.

Jennifer said...

No one has mentioned the outrageously expensive contests that WD runs and advertises incessantly via email. I mostly zap 'em.

Those must be a serious cash cow for the company and a money-pit for new writers.

A sucker born every second, I say.

Lee Goldberg said...

I would ask the editor of WD about their conflict-of-interest policy regarding the line between editorial and advertising. How many contests does WD host each year that are sponsored by vanity presses like Outskirts Publishing?

Lee

Lee Goldberg said...

Here's an example of what I spoke about in the previous email...

Back in January 2009, Writer's Digest announced "The 77th Annual Writer's Digest Publishing competition." The contest was sponsored by Outskirts Press, the self-proclaimed "gem of custom book publishing." The grand prize was $3000 in cash, a "free diamond publishing package from Outskirts Press," and a three-day trip to New York to meet with four editors and agents (it wasn't made clear whether these "editors" would also be from POD vanity presses). All the winners were promised publication in a special book by, you guessed it, Outskirts Press, which was probably counting on the naive winners spending their award money on copies. And WD even CHARGED fifteen bucks to submit to this vanity press contest..

They shouldn't call this the 77th Annual Writer's Digest Publishing competition...they should call it the Writers Digest Publishing Contest To Lend False Legitimacy to the Vanity Press Scam Artists Who Advertise in our Magazine....but I guess that title is too long. And accurate.

I'd like to hear how the WD editors justify lending the magazine's name to the contest and how it is in the best interests of writers.

Lee Goldberg said...

oops...mistake in my previous email...the contest was in January 2008, not 2009...though it will be interesting to see if WD and Outskirts team up again next month to offer this scam to their readers.

Lee