Sunday, May 18, 2008

Two Awards Banquets

Hi, folks:

A month ago, I attended the Nebula Awards weekend in Austin, Texas. And just one week later, I was a guest speaker at the Oklahoma Writers Federation's annual conference, which included their Awards Banquet.

My new black suit and periwinkle tank top with the sparkly decals got a workout. Two successive Saturday nights watching and listening as writers were honored and received their awards. It was a great watching Michael Chabon win a Nebula to pair with his Pulitzer, and Michael Moorcock receive his well-earned Damon Knight Grand Master award for a Lifetime Achievement. My biggest personal thrill was discovering that one of my former students was a Nebula finalist in the short story category!

Since was an outsider at the OWFI Awards Banquet, I had lots of time to sit there as their awards were handed out, and ruminate on writers in general, and the differences between the two events. It struck me as I sat there, listening to these writers, who had come from all over Oklahoma, Texas, and even from as far away as Kentucky or Arkansas, that all of the OWFI writers were having a wonderful time, enjoying their fellowship. And that these people really enjoyed their writing, and had FUN with it. It was really heartwarming to sit there and soak up the "vibe" from 400-plus writers. Their enthusiasm, fellowship, and commitment was tangible; it filled the room, pervading the entire conference.

A significant percentage of these writers were published, in one venue or another. Were most of them published by NY commercial houses? No. Some were, most weren't. But that didn't keep them from approaching their writing with zest, and working hard at their craft.

Contrast that with the Nebulas. There was fellowship there, longtime friends meeting and catching up, editors taking authors to dinner, writers sharing news about the current state of the markets, etc. But there's a difference between writers who do it for a living, and writers who are writing just for the joy of it, without worrying too much about payment, or credentials, or recognition.

Where did I feel most at home? At the Nebulas, naturally. I knew many of the writers there, and enjoyed meeting some new friends. The SFWA meeting made me think about several of the "new business" items that were raised. It's great catching up with how friends and colleagues are doing, and hearing the latest scuttlebutt.

In a way, though, I found myself envying the writers at the Oklahoma OWFI Conference. I envied their joy in the simple act of creating. I envied how much fun they all seemed to be having. The Oklahoma writers weren't nearly as FOCUSED, weren't nearly as driven as the SFWA members.

Not that either group was "right," or "wrong" in their approach. Just different. But I came away from Oklahoma with a resolution to take more joy in just creating. I think it's possible to lose sight of the joy of creation when writers become too obsessed with publication.

Both awards banquets gave me a chance to watch writers being rewarded for doing what they enjoyed...what they loved to do. I think the Oklahoma writers had more FUN with their writing. Let's face it, getting published these days is increasingly fraught with anxiety and frustration. This is just the nature of the beast.

I know that anyone wanting to achieve first-time publication, or to add to a track record of publications, has to stay focused. Writers these days can't afford to neglect the business side of things -- the networking, the information gathering, the pursuit of every scrap of information that might help them in their search for publication in a world of shrinking professional markets.

BUT, dammit, let's try not to lose the fun of it all. Writing is a kick. It can impart a real creative high. It can feel really GOOD to get that sentence or paragraph or chapter tweaked into the best, most polished shape it can be. That's just as tangible a reward as a check. We shouldn't get so focused and driven that we forget about the FUN.

I'm going to try to remember that, in the coming days, weeks, and months.

-Ann C. Crispin

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- A Victory for Airleaf Authors

Last November, I made a blog entry about the victims of vanity publisher and author "marketing" service Airleaf (formerly known as Bookman Marketing), who decided to go public with their problems, which included long publication delays, non-payment of royalites, non-provision of services, and substandard quality for those services that were provided.

Under pressure from angry authors, and apparently in financial trouble, Airleaf closed its doors in December. Since then, the Airleaf victims' network, under the leadership of the indomitable Bonnie Kaye, has been fighting to bring Airleaf and its owner, Carl Lau, to justice.

This past week, they succeeded.

On Thursday, May 8, in Morgan County court, Indiana Attorney General Steve Carter filed suit against Airleaf, LLC for taking money without providing services in return. 120 authors (identified as "customers") are named in the suit. Carl Lau is accused of violating Indiana's Deceptive Consumer Sales Act, of using company assets to cover expenses not related to the business, and of continuing to solicit authors, promise services, and accept payment for months after Airleaf became insolvent. The suit seeks restitution for Airleaf authors, civil penalties of up to $5,500 per violation, and reimbursement for the cost of the investigation.

(Though 120 names are mentioned in the suit, the actual current Airleaf victim count, according to Bonnie Kaye, is 434. Why the discrepancy? Apparently the Indiana AG's office has a two-year window for filing suit, which means it doesn't have statutory authority to include any victims prior to May 2006. That doesn't bar individuals from hiring attorneys and filing suit on their own behalf--but given Airleaf/Lau's likely financial situation, it probably wouldn't be worth their time or money.)

There are many things to be thrilled about here. Vindication for Airleaf's victims, obviously (though it's very slim odds that Lau, who has threatened to declare bankruptcy and claimed to be too poor even to afford to give victims their materials back, has any assets to pay restitution, even if it's ordered). Punishment for their victimizer (along with fines and restitution, Lau will hopefully be enjoined from operating or owning another publishing business). And another precedent for official action against a scam aimed at writers (it's still difficult to get law enforcement officials interested in this issue, so every case is a major step forward).

I'm also very pleased that PW picked up the story. There's certainly much more awareness of literary scams now than there was when Writer Beware got started, but the publishing industry remains largely blind and/or indifferent to this issue, and it's encouraging that Airleaf registered high enough on PW's attention meter to rate a mention.

While kudos are certainly due to the Attorney General's office, especially Deputy AG Tom Irons, the real credit goes to the Airleaf victims, who joined together to put the scam on public view, and to lobby the authorities to take action. Their victory is yet another example of what can be accomplished when defrauded writers organize. Victim networks brought down Commonwealth Publications, the Woodside Literary Agency, the Deering Literary Agency/Sovereign Publishing, and The Empty Canoe.

But the hero of the hour, in my opinion, is Bonnie Kaye, who organized the victims' group and served as a resource for its members, facilitated the filing of reports and complaints, campaigned tirelessly to obtain official and media attention for the case, and refused to give up, no matter how many stone walls or dead ends she ran up against. Ann and I have been in close contact with her throughout the battle, and we've both been incredibly impressed with her energy and drive. Bonnie has given me permission to print the following statement:

"This victory is strictly through the efforts of the victimized authors who joined together and refused to allow Airleaf Publishing to continue defrauding innocent people out of their dreams, hopes, and money. We would like to give special thanks to Tom Irons from the Attorney General's office who took our cries for justice seriously when other government officials in Indiana refused to help us. This is just the beginning of the battle because we are determined to see criminal charges pressed against Carl Lau through the federal government. When people commit criminal acts against innocent people, they need to be punished accordingly. Even if we don't get back our money, we are determined to gain back our pride and dignity. Let this be a lesson for all predatory publishers in the future. If you can't be honest and deliver what you promise, you will be forced out of business and face the same punishments as Airleaf."

A final note: mycelium-style, Airleaf has spawned several publishing enterprises run by ex-staff--including Fideli Publishing, a fee-based publisher whose marketing packages bear an eerie similarity to Airleaf's, and Brien Jones's Jones Harvest Publishing, which also charges fees for publishing and offers many Airleaf-style services (Writer Beware has gotten some advisories about Jones Harvest's email solicitations, and Mr. Jones has recently chosen to reimburse several Jones Harvest authors who alleged performance problems). If you trace the family tree backward instead of forward, you arrive at the Big Daddy of POD vanity publishing, AuthorHouse, where Brien Jones was employed before he co-founded Airleaf's predecessor, Bookman Marketing. It's a tangled web indeed--which, sadly, is not unusual in the murky world of vanity POD.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- Reeling in the Kids, Part 2: Operation Teen Author

In a previous post, I highlighted Aultbea Publishing, a (sometimes) vanity press that appears to have a penchant for publishing very young writers.

Aultbea isn't alone in targeting youngsters. Now there's Operation Teen Author.

"From now until May 10th," the OTA website breathlessly announces, "you have the opportunity to apply for one of the 50 places to become a best-selling author this year! Yes, while you are still a teenager!!"

All teens have to do to apply is write a 150-300 word essay explaining such important things as why they should be chosen and what they've done in life so far to demonstrate their creativity (they are advised to "be convincing"). If they're accepted into the seven-month program, they will be assigned a Team Leader who will mentor them through a series of webinars, teleseminars, e-mail exchanges, and online forums. At the end of the process, each teen will have created a 1,500-2,000 word chapter, to be included in a printed anthology called Just Let Me Be Me.

But wait, there's more. Not only will teens become published authors (although how they will become "bestselling" authors isn't exactly explained), they will learn "skills that you can apply throughout your entire life!" These include writing and editing, personal appearance ("This is far more important than you might think!"), personal promotion, how to build and maintain a website, financial responsibility (quite ironic--see below), and publishing and marketing.

Awesome!

You know what I'm going to say next, right? There's a catch.

Way, way down in the fine print at the bottom of the OTA website's index page (and also in the FAQ section), we discover that teens need to consult their parents before applying. Why? Because there's a "one time investment of $2495 for those chosen to participate."

Cha-ching!

Don't be alarmed, though. That big fat chunk of change is actually a bargain. As the FAQ explains, "This first 2008 OTA will be under priced. Programs with similar attention and length are double in price." Uh, really? Teens will also have the opportunity to earn the money back by selling the 100 books they'll receive once the anthology is published (I imagine them going door to door, like Girl Scouts), and by becoming affiliates of Operation Teen Author, which will offer "a possibility for additional income and earning money beyond the initial investment." What possibility, exactly? That isn't said. But OTA is careful to cover its butt by posting an earnings disclaimer statement--the equivalent of those little "Results Not Typical" messages that appear for microseconds at the bottom of your TV screen during diet supplement commercials.

Operation Teen Author is not just weird, it's also kinda creepy. One of the questions teens must answer in their little application essay is "How can you show your willingness to do as your Team Leader instructs you?" Are we talking about a writing course here, or a cult? Well...OTA is the brainchild of Don-Allen Renkow, who has invented something called "COnCEPT Q, a philosophy of life and a Model of Faith [which] was conceived and developed over...2 decades as a result of an inspiration received in 1986." Hmmm.

Renkow is also the founder of SabER Mountain Publishers, which according to the About Us page of the OTA website "was created to publish and promote the literary works of Don-Alan Rekow after having been turned down by various publishers." Mr. Renkow also reveals that the publisher went bust in 2005 due to "under-funding, nervous investors, uncooperative and deceptive banks, poor equipment purchased from shady salesmen, an inexperienced team and finally the unexpected death of a key person," causing one of the investors and a couple of court-appointed officials to show up with a moving team and repossess all the equipment.

Are these the qualifications and business background you want to see in someone to whom you will be entrusting your teenager, never mind more than two thousand dollars of your hard-earned cash?

Parents, don't let your children grow up to be vanity-published authors.

(Thanks to the anonymous commenter in a previous post who alerted me to this bizarre scheme.)

Friday, May 02, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- WEbook Update

My recent post about collaborative writing website WEbook identified some significant concerns about its Terms of Use. A comment on that post from a WEbook staffer indicated that the TOU were about to be revamped.

Yesterday, WEbook members received a chirpy email announcement:

WEbook aims to be the best place for new and experienced authors to publish. To make that a no-brainer, today we posted our revised Terms of Use. In between the requisite lawyer stuff, you’ll find that authors and contributors now share 50/50 in the profits of published WEbooks. And there’s more. Write and receive reactions on anything you wish at WEbook without giving up any rights to your creative genius. If your work is picked by the community for publishing, you’ll have the choice. With WEbook’s platform, engaged community, and industry-leading royalties, we hope the choice will be simple.

That stuff about killing all the lawyers? Maybe we can let some of ‘em live.


The new TOU is here. For comparison, the old version is still available.

What has changed:

- Royalties are better. Before, WEbook paid royalties of 5% of net, allocated in truly byzantine fashion among collaborators, contributors, and non-authors who provided feedback.

The allocations process has been considerably streamlined, with project leaders receiving a set percentage and the rest divided among the actual authors on a pro-rata basis. Feedbackers have been cut out of the royalty picture entirely, unless the project leader decides to cut them in. This is good.

Rather than that measly 5% of net, WEbook now promises to pay "50% of the total Net Profit for a particular calendar quarter." 50% sounds great--but those two little words, "Net Profit," should strike fear into any writer's heart.

Here's how WEbook defines Net Profit: "...all monies actually received by WEbook from WEbook's sale of Copies of a Work published by WEbook less any applicable taxes; bad debt; returns; a 10% administrative and operational cost; and commission expenditures incurred by WEbook in making or deriving from such sales, licensing transactions, or other business dealings." Like all net profit clauses, this has the potential to considerably reduce the author's share--but unlike many net profit clauses, it's reasonably straightforward and the terms seem to be clearly defined. Collaborative or anthology authors' royalties under this new system will not be princely, but they will be significantly better than the pennies they got under the old system.

By the way, I hope the new royalty rate has been extended to the authors of WEbook's one published project to date, the collaborative novel Pandora.

- No more option clause. Before, WEbook demanded an exclusive and restrictive publication option on any work put up for public feedback and/or ratings, ending 180 days after the ratings phase concluded. Now they just reserve the right to consider publication of books voted into the top 10%.

- No more kill fee. Before, if an author chose to remove his or her work from the site after it had been opened up for public comment and/or ratings, WEbook demanded a 2.5% share of any income the author subsequently earned from the work. This provision, happily, has been eliminated. Members can now remove work at will without penalty--subject to WEbook's archival license.

What hasn't changed:

- Authors must still grant WEbook a sweeping archival license. WEbook still retains "irrevocable" and "perpetual" archival rights to all content ever posted on the site, and "has no obligation to Member to disclose any aspect of how, where, and when WEbook exercises and employs the Archival License." Years from now, your work could still be online--but you'll have no way, other than Internet searching, to find out where or how.

- Posting comments or feedback still involves a transfer of copyright. "Write and receive reactions on anything you wish at WEbook without giving up any rights to your creative genius," declares WEbook's announcement of its TOU changes. Sounds groovy--but if you decide to give reactions instead of receiving them, the situation is a little different.

Each time a member posts comments or feedback on a work during the writing stage (i.e., at any point before the work is opened up for voting), the member "immediately assigns all rights, title, and interest in and to the Feedback" to the author, if it's a single author work, or to the project leader, if it's a collaborative work or an anthology. Once a work is put up for voting, the rights assignment goes to WEbook.

In most cases, probably, this won't be a big deal. But I can imagine circumstances in which it might be--for instance, if you posted a review and then wanted to use the review elsewhere. Also, how many members will read the Terms of Use carefully enough to be aware of this provision?

What isn't clear:

- Must published authors still relinquish copyright? The old TOU made it clear that if WEbook decided to publish a work, authors had to transfer ownership of the work to WEbook. A copyright transfer makes a certain amount of sense for collaborative works, where authorship may not be directly attributable--but for single author works and anthologies, authors should be able to retain their copyrights.

WEbook's new TOU makes no reference to what rights authors will have to grant, saying only that if WEbook chooses to publish a work, "the parties will have to negotiate a publishing contract with a variety of other terms." Has WEbook re-thought its draconian copyright policy, or is it just no longer mentioning the policy in public? I can't help wondering what surprises lurk in the WEbook publishing contract.

I'd love to see one, by the way, if anyone would like to share.

Bottom line: WEbook has definitely made things better. But there's still cause for concern.