Saturday, January 26, 2008

Richard White - Caution on the Internet (Part II)

In an earlier column, Victoria brought up several reasons why the Internet should not be your first stop when it comes to finding a publisher or an agent. Yes, I know. It’s the 21st century and that statement seems counter-intuitive, but consider this before warming up your favorite search engine.

Many new authors take advantage of places like Writer Beware, Predators and Editors and various bewares boards before starting their hunt. After all, an educated writer is harder to lead astray. I’ve seen people post, “I’ve done my research. I know what to look for. I’ll recognize any red flags I see.”

Sounds good . . .

But . . . (You knew there was going to be a but.)

The internet isn’t static. In fact, one of it’s strengths is how easy it is to update information. Writer Beware takes advantage ourselves by posting new warnings and updates as soon as we can, but it isn’t a one-way street. When authors and advocates identify red flags, many questionable publishers and agents are quick to “smooth over” their sites or simply delete the problem areas. Trust me, these people google themselves to see what’s being said about them. Let me give you a couple of examples . . .

On one of the bulletin boards I frequent, questions were raised about a vanity publisher. An anonymous poster showed up to point out that they were offering "traditional publishing for “qualified people”. A quick check of this site verified they were offering “traditional” publishing (a weasel-word if ever there was one), but a different page listed fees for the vanity track and the traditional track. I pointed this out and the same anonymous poster immediately claimed the fees were waivable and no one had ever paid them.

This was curious, since the poster claimed not to be an employee of the publisher. How would they know what fees could be waived? Why would the publisher list fees if they weren’t going to charge them? What author would want to pay these fees if others didn’t have to? So, to make my point, I did a cut and paste of the specific page to show what I was talking about.

Two days later the publisher in question modified their page, eliminating the “traditional publishing program” fee section. Have they stopped charging the fee or are they simply not advertising it on their web site any more? Who knows? More importantly, if you came across the site after the edits, how would you know they had made any changes?

The second example is another questionable publisher located in the UK. Their web site had already raised several questions and the publisher was engaged in a vigorous debate on the same bulletin board via new authors and an agent (who raised more questions than he settled). A few days into the debate, we discovered an announcement that they were swamped with all the outstanding submissions they’d received and they wouldn’t be able to publish all of them. Therefore, they were starting a “subsidy” publishing arm (or in plain English, another vanity press) for the people who didn’t get selected for publication. The sister company proudly trumpeted their association with the first publisher.

As you can imagine, eyebrows rose at that announcement. What were they saying? "You’re not quite good enough to be published, but for some cash, we’ll publish you anyway?" What was the criteria between being published and paying to be published? The potential for abuse was tremendous.

Once the companies realized no one was buying into their reasoning, the virtual shredding of evidence began. Here’s where the Internet’s fluid, chameleon-like nature isn’t so great. Both web sites were edited to eliminate any written trail between the two companies. The debate participants also deleted the majority of their posts on the board. If several of the regulars on the board hadn’t quoted the original posts in their responses, this publisher would be able to deny things they had posted early on.

Examples like these are all too common on the Internet today. So is the web useless? Of course not. The web is a tool. In terms of convenience, speed, cost, and the sheer amount of information available it can’t be touched. It is not, however, the only tool available to you. Do the leg work. Use your libraries and bookstores. Find the names of publishers and agents who have credits sitting on the shelves right now and publish what you like to write. Once you have your list in hand, then go to the Internet and look up their sites. It isn’t a guarantee, of course, but you have a better chance of dealing with legitimate businesses. You’ve spent all this time writing your book, don’t hand it over to just anyone for publication.

Or to quote one of my favorite TV shows, "Let's be careful out there."

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- Zooty Suit Riot

Introducing Zooty and Flappers, "The Worlds [sic] First Pre-Publisher."

What's a pre-publisher, you may ask? On the writers' conference circuit, calling yourself "pre-published" is a delicate way of saying you have no writing credits just at the moment, but intend to get some, like, really soon. That's not what Zooty and Flappers means by the term, however. From its cryptically-titled Things from the Post page:

The term Pre-Publishing, as used by Zooty and Flappers, simply means; If you have a good book, we will Publish and test it in the real world before a Standard Publishers [sic] comments [sic] to taking it on.

Beta testing for your book, in other words. Here's how it works:

If you have a good manuscript, and are unable to get published, Zooty and Flappers will publish your work as an ebook and CD. Readers will be allowed to down-load your book free, and give it a report and rating. If the rating is good, your book will be removed from the free section, and offered for sale...When your book has sold the required number, it will be sent along with a reader and sales report to agents who are AAR members in good standing.

According to the Path to Publishing page (worth reading in its entirety, but don't be drinking any liquids while you do), the "required number" is 10,000 copies.

I don't think I need to go into detail about how absurd this is--not just to anticipate those kinds of sales figures for an ebook from an obscure epublisher (for most epublishers, an ebook is a bestseller if it hits 500 copies), but to imagine that a successful agent will be impressed. Basically, Zooty is yet another attempt to game the system--another illusory shortcut to publication, like manuscript display websites, which are supposed to help you skip the slush pile, and query blaster services, which are supposed to help you skip the research. Let readers pick what's worthy of publication. Let their opinions influence publishers. A brilliant new idea--amazing no one has thought of it before!

Oh wait. They have.

Take, for instance, Worthy of Publishing, a website that claims to "revolutionize the way writers may attract publishers and gain exposure." (Note that wonderful qualifying word, may.) Writers upload their work for readers to comment on; if ratings are high, "this could attract the interest of publishers through some of our unique relationships." The service is free for writers, but publishers must hand over a 3% royalty to the site if they acquire a manuscript from it. Ludicrously, Worthy of Publishing appears to expect that publishers will be willing to pay this amount over and above the writer's royalties.

Or Digital Creation, whose mission is "to democratize publishing" (where have I heard that before?) Providing writers with "an opportunity that has never existed before in the realm of fiction publishing" (the deja vu is really killing me now), Digital Creations allows them to submit their stories for readers' critiques, and makes publishing decisions based on that feedback. The more critiques a work has, the more attention it gets. "What publishing houses have always offered," Digital Creations explains on its message board, "is credibility through a vetting process between crap and quality. At PRoF we provide that vetting through peer review; the professional opinion of fellow authors."

Or how about Slush Pile Reader? According to this article from The Book Standard, writers will submit manuscripts for reader votes and comments, "and then the site will publish those books deemed worthy of publication by the masses." Wait a sec--how about Slush Pile Reader? Its website, which went into beta testing in August, is already gone.

The man behind Zooty and Flappers is Domenic Pappalardo, whose self-published books are currently the only ones on the site. Mr. Pappalardo doesn't like critics--check out his response to a post by Jean Lauzier on the Storycrafters blog. Mr. Pappalardo dubs Ms. Lauzier a Mazzikin. Does this post make me a Mazzikin too? I don't quite fit the definition, but maybe I can be an honorary member of the club.

It is perhaps cruel to make fun of the clueless. But it's also cruel to entangle aspiring writers in a web of ignorance.

Victoria Strauss -- Tidbits

Bits and pieces of news and information that I found interesting this week:

Biblio Sold

Via Tuesday's Publisher's Lunch: Small press distributor Biblio is being sold by its parent company, National Book Network, to AtlasBooks, the distribution arm of Bookmasters Inc. There's an announcement on the Biblio website.

NBN, a distributor for independent publishers, started Biblio in 2001 to address the distribution needs of small presses with annual revenues of less than $50,000. Biblio rapidly signed up a large number of publishers--more than 900 at its height, according to PW--but then began to downsize, most recently in August 2007, when it announced that it would "substantially" cut its remaining client list.

Again according to PW, AtlasBooks (which took on 70 clients last fall when small press distributor BookWorld went belly up) has hired Biblio's sales team, and Biblio's inventory is already being shipped to Atlas's warehouses. Atlas doesn't plan to continue using the Biblio name.

What will the impact be on the more than 500 publishers in Biblio's catalog? According to some independent publishers I've spoken with, Biblio wasn't very highly regarded, and had a reputation for being willing to take just about anything. However, it had the benefit of the NBN connection, which enabled it to share NBN's back-office systems. Obviously it has lost that advantage, and AtlasBooks' reputation seems to be similar to Biblio's. My guess is that this is a step down for Biblio clients, rather than a lateral move.

(For anyone unclear on the difference between a distributor such as NBN and a wholesaler such as Ingram, this article by Dan Poynter provides a helpful explanation.)

Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest Semifinalists

With breathless excitement, Amazon.com announced Tuesday that the semifinalists in its Breathrough Novel Contest have been chosen--836 of them, to be precise. Excerpts are now up at Amazon, and can be downloaded or read on the site for free. Readers will have until March 2 to post comments. A panel of judges for Penguin will use reader comments as well as short reviews provided by PW to choose 10 finalists.

Readers have already begun to leave commments. PW reviews are not yet in evidence, but according to Amazon, they "will be available soon," along with reviews by Amazon top reviewers (proving, perhaps, that you don't have to be published to be Klausnered).

I indulged in a bit of spot checking in the science fiction and fantasy category, and while most of what I sampled caused my inner editor to hit the "back" button after only a few paragraphs (grammar lapses, stiff dialog, bad descriptions [note to authors: please, oh please, never give your heroine emerald green eyes], implausible settings), I did find a couple of excerpts that made me want to read more.

I don't envy the task Penguin faces in winnowing 10 finalists out of this mass of material, based just on short excerpts, PW reviews, and reader comments--which are not only dubiously reliable, but are likely, given the enormous number of entries, to be serendipitous.

(I blogged about the ABNA last October, and again a couple of weeks later.)

Non-Readers

According to the UK's Daily Mail, figures recently compiled by the Office of National Statistics reveal that 25% of Britons didn't read a single book last year. That's right--not one.

Last August, an AP/Ipsos poll showed that Americans did no better.

Amusingly, the Daily Mail article reports that "a third of Britons read 'challenging literature' in order to seem well-read even though they could not follow what the book was about," and that "40 per cent had lied about having read certain books 'just so they could join in with the conversation.'"

So how many books do you read in a year? I read anywhere between one and three a week, depending on length and how busy I am.

When is a Book Like a Pack of Cigarettes?

When it's a Tank.

Tank is "a think tank as well as a creative agency and publishing company" whose TankBooks division took advantage of the UK's recent public smoking ban in an unusual and clever way: it issued a series of classic books designed to look like cigarette packs. Series title: Tales to Take Your Breath Away.

Now, according to the Guardian UK, TankBooks is being challenged by British American Tobacco, which thinks one of the books too closely resembles the packaging for its Lucky Strike brand. Arguing trademark dilution, BAT wants the offending books to be pulped.

TankBooks, in response, points out that "members of the public are unlikely to mistake a Hemingway novel for a packet of cigarettes."

If they read a book last year, that is.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- Vezeo.com Wants You...for Free

Vezeo.com, a recently-launched ezine/blog focusing on reviews of retaurants and hotels, describes itself thus:

Ve - ze - o (veh-zee-oh)
-noun
1. a passion for living well.
2. an online magazine focused on international dining and travel.

Based in beautiful San Francisco, Vezeo features articles about superior restaurants, hotels and resorts. Our readers know that if it’s on Vezeo, it’s worth visiting.


Vezeo touts itself as "a modern day Michelin" and claims to be planning an eventual transition to print as a "high-end, glossy magazine." It's also actively seeking contributors. Its press releases invite submissions, and it is advertising on Craigslist, promising compensation of $25-$100 for articles with a 500-word minimum.

Sound interesting? There's a catch. According to Vezeo's FAQ,

One of the primary goals of Vezeo is to give aspiring writers a place to start. Your work will be read by thousands of people, including key players in the publishing industry. Developing a byline is a very important part of the process and we want to reward you with one. Those who are accepted as contributing writers for Vezeo will receive extensive information about how to maximize this exceptional opportunity. You will not be paid for your initial interview article.

That's right. Your first article for Vezeo is a freebie.

The FAQ goes on to claim that writers who are chosen as regular Vezeo contributors will be paid "our freelance rate." Puzzlingly (or maybe not), there's nothing on the Vezeo website to indicate what that rate is. The Craigslist ads provide a clue--maybe. There are several comments at Deborah Ng's Freelance Writing Jobs blog from writers who say they were told they'd receive a portion of Vezeo's ad revenue. (The folks who write for Helium can provide some pointers on how well that works out.)

Either way, it's pretty poor compensation--especially given that Vezeo wants reviews of "high-end" restaurants and hotels, and doesn't cover expenses. Your fancy meal could wind up costing a good deal more than whatever you were paid for your review.

If, of course, Vezeo intends to pay at all. How's this for a lovely way to get free content? Advertise heavily for writers. Require them to submit an "interview" article for free, with the promise of pay if they're chosen as a contributor. Accept their audition article...and never contact them again.

A few interesting facts about Vezeo:

- Timothy White, whose title on the Vezeo website is Publisher, was trying to sell the domain name last June.

- Since June, according to his LinkedIn profile, Mason Hibbard, Vezeo's President, has been "owner at Vezeo." Did he buy the domain from White? Maybe, but...

- White and Hibbard have been partners in at least two other ventures--a pair of nonfunctional hotel review blogs.

- According to the Internet Archive, between April and December 2006, the Vezeo.com URL defaulted to a home listing search website. That website leads to Assured Marketing, a lead generating service. And...

- A second LinkedIn profile for Mason Hibbard indicates that he's a Sales Manager at Assured Marketing.

Whatever all of the above may mean, there doesn't appear to be an abundance of publishing experience at Vezeo. Inexperience might possibly explain the unorthodox "interview article" arrangement, as well as the emphasis on aspiring writers (professional publications tend to rely on professional writers). On the other hand...aspiring writers are less likely to recognize (or protest) an exploitive situation when they encounter one. There's nothing wrong with a magazine that provides writers with only a byline, as long as it's upfront about it--but enticing writers to write for free by dangling the promise of money is exploitive, in my opinion--even if Vezeo really does intend to pay some of them.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- Thumbs Down Agency List Updated

When Writer Beware first put its Thumbs Down Agency List online, we didn't think we'd have to spend much time updating it, except for maybe adding someone every now and then. We were wrong. Name changes and aliases keep us busy.

We've just learned that Benedict & Associates/Phil Benedict, a.k.a. B.A. Literary/Phil Raia, is also doing business as R. Castro Literary Agency/Richard Castro.

How did we figure this out? Mr. "Castro's" M.O. is identical to Benedict/Raia's (a fee of $8.75 for each 100-page submission, sent out to publishers in batches of eight or ten). His response to writers who query him is virtually identical to Benedict/Raia's. He's located in Micco, Florida, which is where Benedict/Raia started out, and is just down the road from Benedict/Raia's current address in Barefoot Bay.

As far as Writer Beware knows, Mr. Benedict/Raia/Castro has no sales under any of his names. We first started getting questions about him in 2002.

It's worth noting that this came to my attention as a result of a listing at Firstwriter.com. I mentioned Firstwriter in my previous post as an example of online agent resources that don't screen the agents they list. Firstwriter's rationale (expressed to me in private correspondence some time back) is that its "word on the web" feature, which reports on negative info at other websites, and its system of author comments are sufficient to warn writers away from bad agents. This may work reasonably well for questionable agents who've been in business for some time, but for the newer ones or the ones who keep a low profile...not so much. As you can see from the link above, R. Castro has no red flags or negative comments. With his claim of "25 years in the publishing industry as an executive editor in two major publishers," he looks quite legit.

Writer beware, indeed.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- New Year's Resolution: Use Caution on the Internet

When new writers ask me how they should go about looking for a reputable agent, I tell them to start with a print market guide such as Jeff Herman's Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, & Literary Agents. They can then expand their search by reading industry publications, such as PW, that report on sales, and by identifying books that are similar to theirs in genre, style, tone, or content, and trying to find out who agents them.

I finish with this piece of advice: "Don't look for agents on the Internet."

This suggestion often meets with stiff resistance. What's wrong with the Internet? people want to know. What can you find offline that you can't find on the Web? Don't agents' websites and blogs provide more information than books? Aren't books, with their long publication schedules, more likely to be out of date than Internet resources? Besides, the Internet is easy. No poring through (not to mention spending money on) heavy tomes. No leafing through magazines. Just you, your computer, and your mouse.

First off, I'm not suggesting that the Internet should be avoided. Quite the opposite--the Internet is an invaluable resource for agent-hunters. Nor am I suggesting that you shouldn't research agents on the Internet, once you've identified them as submission prospects. In fact, there's an article on my website that provides many ideas and resources for doing exactly that.

But if you're a brand-new writer--and especially if you don't know much about the publishing industry--the Internet should not be your starting point when you are trying to identify agents to whom you can submit.

There is a tremendous amount of good information on the Internet. Unfortunately, anyone can slap up a website, whether or not they are honest or know what they're talking about. So there is a tremendous amount of bad information as well. If you don't already know something about agents and publishing (which, sadly, many writers just beginning their agent search don't, having skipped the important step of educating themselves about the publishing industry before plunging in) you may not know how to filter what you find.

As for being out of date...an online listing is a lot more likely to be out of date, incomplete, or just plain wrong than the most recent version of a print literary agency guide. For instance, this one, which an inexperienced author might assume was an authoritative list of AAR agents, but which appears to have been cribbed from the AAR website some time ago, and no longer matches the actual AAR list. Of course, there are also many reliable online agent guides and listings, but in searching for them, you will inevitably also turn up the bad ones--and are you sure you'll be able to tell the difference? Whereas if you go to a bookstore or the library, you'll find a selection of recently published, editor-vetted books that have been written by people with at least some claim to expertise. Print guides aren't perfect, but as a group, they are far more authoritative than much of what exists online.

The inefficiency of Internet searches also makes it dicey to look for agents online. Your search may well turn up the names of reputable agents, but they won't necessarily be appropriate for you--and as many names as you find, there will be many more you don't. This is true of any agent resource, of course. But the sheer mass of information on the Internet, as well as the ways in which search engines aggregate it, makes online agent-searching a hit-and-miss affair.

To illustrate the points above, I did a couple of Google searches using common search strings that bring writers to this blog. Here are the results from the first pages of each of these searches.

Search string: literary agents.

- First link: a sponsored link, "Literary Agency Expanding." It leads to Writers Literary Agency. We all know why this is not a good thing, right?

- Second link: Writers Net. Writers Net is well-intentioned, and has an active message forum. But its agent listing is a database where anyone can add information. It includes large numbers of marginal and amateur agents, and excludes similarly large numbers of reputable agents, who aren't likely to take the time to make an entry here.

- Third link: Writer Beware's Literary Agents page. Good!

- Fourth link: AgentQuery. One of the more reliable agent-matching websites.

- Fifth link: the Andrea Brown Literary Agency. A successful agency, but this link is useful only if you write in genres it represents.

- Sixth link: Preditors & Editors. Another great resource.

- Seventh link: Writers' Free Reference Agent List, a list of agents' email addresses. Many bad agents are listed here, and some of the info is outdated.

- Eighth link: Donald Maass Literary Agency. Another successful agency.

- Ninth, tenth, and eleventh links: a solid, but very limited, list of agents from an ebook-focused website (with Google ads for Writers Literary Agency); a Wikipedia page on literary agents that provides decent basic information; and the Irene Goodman Agency, an agency with a solid track record.

- Sponsored links along the right side of the page: one each for vanity publishers AuthorHouse ("Skip the Literary Agent"), Universal Publishers, Inkwater Press, and BookSurge; one for a site that wants to sell new authors its books and other products (Author101); and one for a freelance editor who offers a fee-based agent-matching service, and has mirrored his main website at a URL designed to appeal to agent-hunting writers, Literary-Agents-Information.com. (Sponsored links vary from search to search; other searches I've done throw up Desert Rose Literary Agency, the subject of an Alert on Writer Beware, and something called Agent Wizard, software you can buy that will supposedly help you look for an agent.)

So, some good information, but also quite a bit of bad, questionable, and irrelevant information. Suppose you're an aspiring writer who doesn't know a great deal about agents or publishing, and is trying to learn as you go. Will you be able to judge which links are helpful and which are not? Will you click on the ad for Writers Literary Agency? True, the search turned up three reputable agents--but it's a pretty random grouping, and not all of them may be suitable for any given writer. Bottom line: an inexperienced author could get into serious trouble as a result of this search.

Let's get more specific. Search string: literary agents for fantasy novels.

- First link: A list of UK fantasy agents. A solid resource.

- Second link: WritersNet. Not so great--see above.

- Third link: something called AuthorNetwork.com, an agent listing that includes numerous fee-charging agents plus out-of-date info.

- Fourth link: a blog called Literary Agent News, which Writer Beware recently exposed as a scam.

- Fifth link: my article, The Safest Way to Search for an Agent. Yay!

- Sixth link: website of John Jarrold, a successful UK agent who reps a good number of speculative fiction authors.

- Seventh, eighth, and ninth links: an Amazon listing for Donald Maass's The Career Novelist, a book I recommend; LitAgentX, the blog of the savvy Rachel Vater; and solid agent advice from established novelist Holly Lisle.

- Sponsored links along the right side: Writers Literary Agency again, The Paris Review (irrelevant for agent-hunters), AuthorHouse, and that freelance editor with the agent-matching service. (Again, sponsored links vary; other iterations of this search have brought up ads for Dorrance, a very expensive vanity press, and Firstwriter.com, a fee-based agent-matching service that doesn't vet the agents it lists, and whose database includes many marginal and dishonest agents.)

Once again, a fairly even mix of bad and good information, with plenty that could get an unwary author into trouble.

Also worth noting: just about any Google search that includes the words "literary agent" brings up a link, usually sponsored, to Writers Literary Agency or one of its divisions. WLA is also likely to be present on any website that includes Google ads. It's no wonder that so many of the hundreds of writers who have contacted Ann and me with complaints and advisories about WLA report that they found it on the Internet.

So do your best to assemble your query list before you go online to do more research--and make Internet caution your New Year's resolution.