Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Victoria Strauss -- Judge Extends Google Book Settlement Deadline

If, like me, you've been frantically devoting hours to reading up on Google Book Settlement in an attempt to make up your mind about what to do in the final days before the May 5 deadline...take a breath.

PW reports that "In a surprise move, New York Judge Denny Chin today granted a four-month extension to a group of authors, led by Gail Knight Steinbeck, delaying the May 5 deadline to opt out or object to the Google Book Search settlement to early September."

So you've got until September to decide.

I've pretty much made my decision, and was planning to blog about it this week...but I think I'll delay until closer to the date. What I will say now is that this is a historic settlement that presents the possibility of sweeping changes in many different areas, and has far-reaching implications for authors and publishers. If you're tempted to bury your head in the sand and do nothing (and I completely sympathize with that feeling--the volume of information and opinion is overwhelming)...don't. As I understand it, doing nothing is the worst of all possible worlds, since you will neither be able to direct Google to remove your books from its database nor collect the income generated by Google's commercialization of the database. Whether you agree with the settlement or not, whether you choose to opt in or out, you MUST do something.

In the meantime, here are some resources that I found helpful in clarifying the settlement and the issues surrounding it.

What the Google Book Settlement Means for Authors and Publishers--An admirably clear and concise (given the complexity of the settlement) summary of the settlement's key points from Joy R. Butler. I guarantee you'll find something here you didn't know.

From the Ashley Grayson Literary Agency, a guide to your options under the settlement and how (and whether) to exercise them.

From the Dear Author blog, a roundup of info on the settlement plus links to more articles.

The Google Book Search Settlement: Ends, Means, and the Future of Books: a thoughtful summary of issues of concern--including the huge control over orphan works Google will gain from the settlement--from James Grimmelmann of the American Constitution Society.

Law professor Pamela Samuelson discusses the orphan works issue, as well as the potential monopoly Google may gain from the settlement, in The Dead Souls of the Google Book Search Settlement.

More on the potential Google monopoly from Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing. The comments are interesting as well.

From literary agent Lynn Chu, an opinion on the possible costs of the Book Rights Registry, which the settlement establishes to administer rights claims and payments (by the way, I do not agree with her advice to do nothing).

From the Books and Corsets blog, a summary of a Columbia Law School-sponsored symposium on the settlement. Worth reading, because it highlights some issues that other sources don't seem to have picked up on.

Mike Shatzkin has questions about the distribution of revenues generated by the settlement.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Victoria Strauss -- The WRITE Stuff: Another Author Reality Show

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have a small obsession with author reality shows. It's the kind of concept that would seem like a complete non-starter--watching authors sit at their desks for hours at a time? Or, alternatively, avoiding sitting at their desks for any time at all? Not exactly riveting viewing. Yet over the past few years, no fewer than five author reality shows have attempted to get off the ground. Let's recap.

- Book Millionaire. The brainchild of Lori Prokop, owner of her very own vanity press, this show was to feature "Eight people with dreams of seeing their book ideas become published and being the next author launched to best selling and celebrity status." It never got beyond the video audition stage.

- The Ultimate Author. Created by journalist and self-published author Lauren Spicer, this show promised contestants "go[ing] toe-to-toe in a writing competition that tests their ability to develop attention-grabbing content." At least one show appears to have been taped, but there's no sign it was ever broadcast.

- American Book Factory. Four books were to be co-written by teams of authors "competing for what could turn into a major book deal." This one is dead as a doornail.

- Healeth Publisher. In connection with an Internet TV company, Healeth promised a reality show competition "that will change the publishing game forever." It's DOA as well.

- Publish My Book! Proposed by Tony Cowell, Simon Cowell's brother, this is the only author reality show that seemed even marginally credible. But it fared no better than the rest. Announced for the summer of 2007, it has never appeared.

Five shows; five failures. Nevertheless, a sixth author reality show appears poised for launch: The WRITE Stuff, which, apparently unaware of its predecessors, bills itself as "America's First Literary Reality Show" (caution: the website features intensely annoying music).

In a history-making reality show hosted by Conversations Book Club President/Publicist Cyrus A. Webb, a total of 14 contestants will be chosen to compete in a contest that will challenge not only their creativity but their drive and determination to make it in the business. Whether their desire is to pursue a career as an author, playwright or spoken word artist, this show will give them the ability to showcase nationally what they are able to do.

Exactly how is not detailed on the website, which provides no info on show formats or schedules. The winner receives a one-book deal and 10 "virtual copies" of their book from AG Press, two years of representation by Cyrus Webb's Shadow Play Entertainment, and a variety of other stuff, including "a detailed marketing plan," a Dell laptop, and features in online and print magazines, most of which appear to be ventures owned or operated by Mr. Webb.

Auditions have been conducted and candidates chosen. Judges have been confirmed, some successful commercially-published authors among them. Reading/networking parties are being conducted in various locations. National and local TV channels are being "courted"; the show will also be broadcast on The WRITE Stuff's YouTube channel. It's even claimed that the show has entered into a deal with Coca-Cola-owned Vitaminwater, but I can't find any independent confirmation of this arrangement. (Though The WriteStuff has produced its own YouTube commercial featuring the product, that commercial, interestingly, isn't listed on the show's YouTube channel.)

According to the website, the first show is slated to air this June. So will The WRITE Stuff be the one author reality show to actually become, well, real?

Maybe not.

This recent article by journalist Adam Lynch, published in the Jackson Free Press, reveals that Cyrus Webb does not exactly have a strong track record when it comes to public events. Lynch reports that in in 2005, a Webb-organized talent show (for which participants had to sell sponsorships), failed to pay the winner the promised prize of $2,000, and rewarded him only with "[a] computer printout...of an award certificate in a cheap frame." In 2006, Webb sold $50 tickets for the supposedly exclusive Missisippi's Best Awards show, but delivered an event with "no celebrities, no food and paltry awards, which Webb printed himself on his personal computer." (The debacle is discussed in detail in an earlier article by Brian Johnson, and also in a couple of lengthy discussion threads on the Jackson Free Press website, which feature many angry comments from people who attended the show.) As part of the events surrounding the awards show, Webb announced that he was booking several contestants from the hit reality show Project Runway, but the contestants apparently later claimed that he never paid their promised appearance fees and expenses.

Lynch also reports that several of the TV stations that Webb claims as potential markets for The WRITE Stuff deny having any arrangement with him. “We were only aware of the show because the network brought it to our attention, and I made sure we didn’t have it scheduled. If it were to come to our attention, we probably wouldn’t air it because we believe it’s produced without our approval,” says the Vice President of CW69 in Atlanta, Tom Canedo. As of this writing, however, that channel is still listed on Webb's website.

It also turns out that the show isn't so much a show as...an infomercial. “When I was on WAPT-16," Lynch quotes Webb as saying, "I would buy a block of time, and you have 28 minutes and 30 seconds. That’s basically how it works, only instead of selling a blender, it will actually be a show.”

A show with prizes. But what about those prizes? There's not a lot of info floating around about Webb's Shadow Play Entertainment, but I can't discover that it has a significant track record of marketing or promoting books. As for that one-book deal with AG Press...remember the Lanaia Lee Of Atlantis plagiarism uproar? And Lee's "literary agent," Cheryl T. Pillsbury? Well, guess who owns AG Press (which, by the way, isn't really a publisher at all, but a self-publishing service). That's right: Cheryl T. Pillsbury.

I'll say this for Cyrus Webb: he's ambitious. Though The WRITE Stuff hasn't yet aired, he's already planning a spinoff...in Nigeria.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Victoria Strauss -- The Sun Sets on Desert Rose Literary Agency

Once upon a time, there was a pair of literary scammers named George Harrison and Janet Kay Titsworth. The Titsworths lived in San Angelo, Texas, and ran a "literary agency" called Helping Hand Literary Service (later re-named Janet Kay & Associates) that charged its victims an "expense reimbursement" of $100, $200, or $300, depending on how many publishers they wanted the Titsworths to contact for them.

For the money, writers received a "submission packet" consisting of a set of pre-printed publisher address labels, a form query letter on agency letterhead, and a return envelope. They were instructed to stick a stamp on the return envelope, place the letter, envelope, and accompanying materials (the writer's own query letter, synopsis, and sample chapters) in a manila envelope, affix the pre-printed label and sufficient postage, and drop the packet in the mail.

So unprofessional were these submissions, and so inappropriate the lists of publishers, that the Titsworths quickly became notorious among editors and editorial assistants. Writer Beware heard from more than one editor who contacted the Titsworths to forbid them from ever submitting to that publisher again.

More unusually for these kinds of cases, local law enforcement also took an interest. In early 2002, the San Angelo Police Department initiated an investigation, culminating in February 2004 with a raid on the Titsworths' home. Unfortunately, the Titsworths had already fled. A warrant was issued, and they were finally captured in September 2004 (having started not one, but two new "literary agencies" while on the lam). In April 2006, the Titsworths each pleaded guilty to one count of theft under $100,000, and received a sentence of ten years' probation apiece and a restitution order of $159,320.62.

A fuller account of the Titsworths' scam is provided in my blog post of May 2006.

Unfortunately, the story doesn't end here--for, as sometimes happens, one scam spawned another.

The Titsworths had an employee, Leann Murphy (a bird of a feather, having had a bit of history with the law herself: she was sentenced and fined at least once for writing bad checks). In early 2004, just before the demise of the Titsworths' scheme, she set up her own literary agency, Desert Rose Literary Agency.

Dozens of reports received by Writer Beware confirm that Leann followed in her former bosses' fee-charging footsteps, requiring clients to pay a "deposit to help cover marketing expenses" of $250 (for six months) or $350 (for a year), plus a "reinstatement fee" of $75 for authors who chose to re-up their contracts. Fortunately, Leann didn't adopt the Titsworths' editor-annoying paste-on-label submission scheme, but authors who signed with her told us that they rarely heard from her once they'd paid the fee, and had trouble getting her to respond to requests for contact.

Needless to say, no book sales ever resulted.

Leann knew that Writer Beware was watching her, and wasn't happy about it--hence this page on her website, accusing "hate" sites of attempting to destroy the livelihood of independent literary agents. But Writer Beware wasn't the only one with eyes on Leann. Texas law enforcement was watching too. In 2007, Sergeant John Walker of the Tom Green County Sheriff's Office opened an official investigation into Desert Rose Literary Agency. Writer Beware posted an Alert on our website, directing complaints to Sgt. Walker, even as we continued to receive them.

I'm very happy to report that the investigation has been concluded. On April 9th, 2009, a Search and Arrest Warrant was executed on Leann Murphy at her residence. Numerous boxes of files, manuscripts, computers and other items were taken as evidence, and Leann was charged with Theft by Deception, a felony in Texas.

So, happily, another scam goes down. We're very grateful to Sgt. Walker and other law enforcement officials of Tom Greene County, who refused to tolerate literary fraud in their community, and took action to bring it to a halt.

We'll keep you posted as to the outcome of Leann Murphy's case.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Victoria Strauss -- Lulu Acquires Poetry.com

Until very recently, www.Poetry.com was the Internet home of the infamous International Library of Poetry (ILP), the nation's premier (and I use that adjective with irony) vanity poetry anthologizer. But in early March, the Poetry.com domain was purchased by self-publishing service Lulu.

Why was the domain for sale? According to Wikipedia, "Publish Today and Noble House Books, the branches of Poetry.com that managed the publishing and printing of their books, have gone out of business." Wikipedia is never the most reliable resource, but Lulu appears to confirm this report on the new Lulu Poetry website: "Lulu.com, an award winning Internet company, recently purchased the URL 'www.poetry.com' from the previous failed business that owned it."

Here's PW's coverage of the purchase. And here's Lulu's rather arch press release.

I covered the vanity anthology scheme recently in a post on brand-new vanity anthologizer Eber & Wein, but briefly, here's how it works. The anthology company places ads in various high-visibility publications announcing a free poetry contest, with cash prizes for the finalists and guaranteed publication for finalists and semi-finalists. Everyone who submits is declared a semi-finalist, no matter the quality of their poem. The company then hits them up for money: $40 or $50 to buy the anthology, plus, often, substantial fees for "extras"--adding a biography to the anthology, having the poem mounted on a plaque, attending a big bash poetry convention...the list goes on. It's not exactly a scam, since if you buy something you do receive it--but the anthologies never see the inside of a bookstore (despite the companies' claims), and because there's no editorial gatekeeping, they are not regarded as a legitimate publishing credit.

So should we be rejoicing at the demise of a major deceptive scheme that for decades has been relieving inexperienced writers of their cash? Will Lulu use that bad old domain to turn over a new poetic leaf? Or will it be vanity anthology business as usual?

Lulu's press release claims that it is completely overhauling and rebuilding the domain. Granted, it's early days, but the new Lulu Poetry website doesn't so far show much sign of overhauling. It's got a new template, but otherwise is very similar to the old Poetry.com (courtesy of the Internet Archive), with many of the same categories (Greatest Love Poems, Need Help Rhyming?, Test Your Poetry IQ, etc.) and much of the same content. The 9/11 Poetry sections differ only in the number of posted poems. The Poetic Techniques section of the old website is identical to that of the new--including several articles by Len Roberts, who was Educational Director for the ILP, in charge of its fake poetry association/convention division, the International Society of Poets.

The free contest has changed, however. The annual prize amount has dropped from $10,000 to $5,000, and a daily prize of $25 has been added. And while much of the verbiage of the contest rules remains unchanged from the old website to the new, a community ratings element has been added to the judging, with (unnamed) judges selecting winners "from among the top 10% of poems with the highest daily, monthly and yearly ratings by the community."

Most significant, Lulu has removed the following language from the contest guidelines: "Additionally, various promotions are conducted from time to time." This innocuous-sounding sentence covered the ILP's shilling of anthologies and other products to contest "semifinalists." And compare the old Poetry.com FAQ, which includes an entire section on anthologies, to the new Lulu version, in which there's no mention of anthologies at all. A response from a Lulu staff member in the Lulu forums makes this explicit: "For the record, the 'crap poetry anthologies' have already ended and we have no interest in starting them again."

So it would appear that Lulu plans to discontinue the vanity anthology portion of the business (it does offer publishing services to poets--but it's a self-publishing service, after all, and there's no linkage to the contests). Nor could I find any evidence that Lulu plans to retain any of the ILP's associated vanity-style activities--the International Society of Poets convention website, for instance, now defaults to Lulu Poetry.

This is good news--although we shouldn't get too comfortable. Any gap that might be left by the demise of the ILP will easily be filled by any of the many other vanity anthologizers still in business--or by the new ones, such as Eber & Wein. There's also the question of whether Lulu can transcend the toxic associations of the notorious URL it has acquired. There's some bitter discussion of this in the Lulu forums, and Lulu is clearly aware of the problem--a followup article in PW quotes Lulu's PR Director, Gail Jordan, who notes that "people have been contacting Lulu with questions about its association with Poetry.com’s former incarnation and that the company is 'trying to be very transparent and be very up-front' about the difference." Given the shortness of the public attention span, my guess is that the bad memories will soon fade. But only time will tell.

A final note: though this doesn't seem to have been officially announced, Whois records indicate that Lulu has also taken ownership of several other domains associated with the ILP: www.Poets.com (the ILP's social networking website, which remains unchanged); www.Picture.com, a.k.a. the International Library of Photography (the ILP's vanity photography counterpart, whose website is still active but which is currently closed to contest entries and claims to be "revamping the contest in an attempt to improve the entire system"); and www.ArtsandKids.com (the ILP's vanity arts contest for kids, which targets educators and is still soliciting entries).

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Guest Blog -- Playwriting in America: Percentages, Pitfalls, and “Pay-to-Play”

On the Writer Beware blog, we talk a lot about the danger to book writers of reading fees, submission fees, and vanity or "partnership" publishing arrangements. But being forced to pay for the promise (not necessarily the actuality) of exposure isn't just a danger for aspiring writers--it's a problem in all areas of the arts.

Our guest blogger today, writer and playwright Jill Elaine Hughes, provides a fascinating expose of fees and pay-to-play in the theater world.

**************

In the United States, the theater world is, for the most part, not-for-profit. Only Broadway productions and national tours (think shows like The Producers, Rent, and Jersey Boys) actually make money (on paper, anyway). Theatres are generally nonprofit, tax-exempt organizations that are chartered under the 501(c)3 section of US tax code, and rely heavily on donations for their income. Even when these theatres charge hefty admission prices for their shows (and they often do; the average price of a professional theatre ticket in this country hovers around $40 and is often higher, especially on Broadway), admission fees generally cover only a tiny fraction of production costs. The rest of the money comes from--you guessed it--donors.

When we think of “donors” to the arts community, we generally don’t think of the artists themselves--we think of wealthy individuals, corporate sponsors, and private foundations. In a perfect world, the donated monies would always go towards paying the professional artists--who in the theatre, include actors, directors, designers, and playwrights. But increasingly, theatres that produce new plays are exploiting a new source of income--the playwrights that write those new plays themselves.

Why target playwrights? Actors aren’t charged to audition, directors aren’t charged to submit resumes; neither are designers. But more and more, in the American theatre, playwrights must pay for the privilege of having their work produced, even read. Why? Well, probably because playwrights are often quite willing to shell out the cash.

Percentages and Pitfalls

Playwrights are already accustomed to poverty. Very few theatres produce new plays at all--because they are financially very risky endeavors. With American theatres cash-strapped as it is, small wonder they will avoid new works altogether and instead choose to produce already well-known and popular plays like The Sound of Music or the (royalty-free) works of Shakespeare.

Because theatres take a big risk whenever they do produce a new work (especially a new work by a relatively unknown writer), most mid- and large-sized theatres require something called subsidiary rights from playwrights in the initial production contract. In a nutshell, subsidiary rights is a rights agreement that guarantees the first theatre that produces a new work a certain percentage of that new play’s earnings for as long as that play is in copyright. (In other words, if the Goodman Theatre in Chicago produces your play for the first time, and you agree to give them a subsidiary right percentage of 20%, then the Goodman Theatre gets 20% of that play’s earnings, whether from production, publication, film, translation, whatever--forever.)

That might not seem like a lot, but consider this. Playwrights who get produced by big-name theatres like the Goodman must also have literary agents, and those agents take 15-20% off the top of their clients’ earnings. Playwrights generally earn very little from a play’s first production, anyway (5% of gross, if they’re lucky, 10% of gross if they’re very lucky; but it’s usually a flat fee averaging about $5,000-$10,000), and therefore they rely heavily on future production, publication, and film rights earnings for income. (That’s assuming the play ever gets produced more than once--they often don’t.)

And the first producer of a new work is seldom the only organization that demands subsidiary rights. These days, new plays must often spend years in “development” (i.e., staged readings, workshops, etc) before they even see a full production, and all the theatres and dramaturgical organizations that do play “development” usually want a cut of subsidiary rights, too. This can really eat away at a playwright’s earnings As an example, a few years ago a new play called Intimate Apparel by New York playwright Lynn Nottage became quite popular, and was produced in theatres across the United States. But that play spent years and years in “development” at numerous other theatres and development organizations, to the point that when it finally made it to its first big production, a huge percentage of its royalties were already committed elsewhere. (Rumor has it that when combined with the first producer’s cut, the subsidiary rights percentage was in excess of 60%, which means when combined with her agent’s cut, Ms. Nottage was only earning about 25% of what she’d otherwise be entitled to.)

Think that’s bad? It gets worse. In addition to the very poor financial terms that playwrights already must endure, many legitimate professional theatres (and countless amateur and semiprofessional ones), as well as reputable play development organizations and playwriting contests, are now actually charging playwrights for the privilege of reading their plays. Peruse any call for unagented play submissions (and even some agented ones) and you’ll see requirements for “submission fees,” “processing fees,” “reading fees,” “donations,” etc. These fees can be as low as $5 per play for small theatres and playwriting contests, to as high as $30 per submission to the internationally renowned New York Fringe Festival and even $35 per submission to the highly prestigious Eugene O’Neill Theatre Conference (the US’ most highly respected venue for developing new plays; the latter two organizations also require participating playwrights to agree to significant subsidiary-rights grabs). Submission fees upwards of $50 or even $75 have been reported.

The fact that prestigious theatre organizations like the O’Neill are now charging monies just to read professional playwrights’ work is bad enough, but when you consider that even the most successful playwrights rarely--if ever--earn a living wage, it’s even more despicable.

Pay-To-Play

Playwrights’ member organizations that provide production and development opportunities for playwrights, especially those that maintain prestigious (and free) “residency” programs for a select group of playwrights, are also jumping on the submission fee bandwagon, especially in the current economic downturn. Those fees can range from $40 a year for The Playwrights’ Center of Minneapolis (which buys you access to a submission-opps newsletter, some script-review resources, and access to some local programs) to hundreds of dollars annually (such as the Chicago Dramatists’ Playwrights’ Network, which in my opinion does not offer a good return on investment.)

There are indeed still prestigious residency programs out there for playwrights that provide new play development, promotion--and even productions--free of charge to a select few playwrights, such as the venerable New Dramatists in New York City. But the once-venerable Chicago Dramatists (which in addition to its pay-to-play Playwrights Network also runs a free-of-charge, prestigious playwright residency program modeled on New Dramatists in NYC), recently started something it calls the “Senior Network Membership,” where for the bargain price of $300, a playwright supposedly can get fast-tracked into its prestigious (and “free”) residency program--something that used to be offered based on merit and professional accomplishment alone.

If all of this weren’t bad enough, playwrights are frequently called upon to make individual donations to the theatres that produce their work, especially now that the economy has soured. Recently I received an impassioned plea from none other than Chicago Dramatists (full disclosure: I used to be a dues-paying member of their Playwrights’ Network) for “urgent” donations; that email got instantly deleted from my inbox. While many playwrights are happy to assist theatres in fundraising efforts (such as appearing at benefit parties, selling raffle tickets, etc), I don’t believe any playwright should be asked to donate his or her own money to keep a theater going. Playwrights are broke as it is, and there are plenty of other sources for donations beyond an arts organization’s own artists.

It’s disheartening to any up-and-coming playwright to see how much of the legitimate American theatre operates on a “pay-to-play” model. But there are bright spots to report. The Dramatists Guild of America has recently enacted a policy that it will not publicize any production opportunities or playwriting contests that require submission fees. Many playwriting newsletters (such as The Loop for Playwrights) have adopted similar policies. And I’m pleased to report that despite the fact I don’t submit plays to any producing organizations that require submission fees (even the prestigious ones, like the O’Neill), I still manage to get my work produced--a lot (for example, I recently had several plays produced by the nonprofit Love Creek Productions in NYC, a theatre where I knew no one prior to submitting, have never paid a submission fee, and have never been asked to donate or help fundraise a dime). I also no longer support playwrights’ organizations like Chicago Dramatists that have gone heavily over to the “pay-to-play” model, and that hasn’t hurt my playwriting career, either (though I’m sure they’d rather I didn’t say that in public).

My advice to any aspiring playwright is this: Learn how the business of the theatre world operates (it’s very different from the publishing world), get an agent, and watch your back. And never, ever pay a submission fee to anyone--no matter what.

And keep your day job.

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JILL ELAINE HUGHES’ plays have received productions and staged readings in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle, Atlanta, Boston, Phoenix, Ohio, Toronto, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere. She also founded the nationally renowned Stockyards Theatre Project, Chicago’s only theatre company dedicated exclusively to women’s theatre and performance art in 1999, and served as its artistic director/producer for five years. She served three years as President of Chicago Women’s Theatre Alliance (2000-2003) and formerly served as Treasurer on the executive board of the International Centre for Women Playwrights (ICWP). Her plays and monologues have been excerpted and anthologized by Smith & Kraus, Applause Books, and Meriwether Publishing, and she has written plays for the high school drama market which are published and licensed by Brooklyn Play Publishers.

In addition to her theatrical endeavors, Jill Elaine is a fiction writer, essayist, and humorist, and has contributed to many newspapers and national magazines, including
The Chicago Tribune, Chicago Reader, Missouri Review, New Art Examiner, Dialogue, Cat Fancy, Black Gate, and many others. She is also a published novelist under her pseudonym “Jamaica Layne.” She is represented by Lori Perkins of the L. Perkins Agency.

www.jillelainehughes.com
www.jamaicalayne.com

Friday, April 10, 2009

Victoria Strauss -- Appeal to Airleaf Victims

Last May--largely as a result of tireless campaigning by writers' activist Bonnie Kaye--the Indiana Attorney General's Office filed suit against fraudulent vanity publisher Airleaf and its CEO, Carl Lau. The suit seeks restitution for 120 identified authors (the true number of the defrauded is closer to 450), civil penalties of up to $5,500 per violation, and reimbursement for the cost of the investigation.

In addition, complaints for criminal charges were filed with the Indiana U.S. Attorney’s office. But last week, Bonnie learned that the U.S. Attorney has decided not to proceed with bringing criminal charges against Lau and Airleaf.

I just received this letter from Bonnie, which I'm publishing in its entirety. If you can help by signing Bonnie's petition to reverse the U.S. Attorney's decision, please contact her at Bonkaye@aol.com. You don't have to be an Airleaf victim--just a concerned member of the writer community.

Dear Victoria,

As the organizer of the Airleaf Victims, a group of over 600 authors who have joined together over the fraudulent activities of the now defunct company of Airleaf Publishing in Martinsville, Indiana, I was extremely disheartened and shocked when the FBI informed me on April 3, 2009, that the United States Attorney of Indiana, Timothy Morrison, had decided that our case was not going to be prosecuted by his office. According to Mr. Morrison, our case does not meet the "criminal codes" of Indiana.

When my campaign against Airleaf started in August 2007, I gathered from authors in this country as well as Canada, the UK, Australia, Mexico, and South America concrete proof of money that was paid for services that were never provided. For the 18 months that I helped the federal agencies gather this information, it was very clear to me that according to their codes, as explained to me, I was able to make a case separating what they could construe as "bad business practices at best" from "criminal practices."

Hundreds of forms were sent to the FBI, Postal Inspector, and Attorney General's office during this investigation from authors who had hundreds to thousands of dollars disappear with no services. The fraudulence of Airleaf went way beyond book publishing; blatant scams included promises to sell books in Europe on trips that were never taken; selling a cruise to authors that was never booked nor the money returned; selling magazine reviews that were never sent to the magazines; promising to make movies out of books but never turning them into films; and continuing to collect royalties (though not pay them to authors) from Internet distributors such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble long after Airleaf was shut down. This is just a small sample of Airleaf's efforts to steal money from authors. Your readers can read the list of charges, and some of the stories of our victims, at my website at www.AirleafVictims.com.

Some of our victims spent their entire life savings on these scams. Many of them are elderly or disabled people who were sold a dream that became a nightmare. If Airleaf had no intention of fulfilling their promises, then it was their responsibility to return the money to the authors. No money was returned, but the owner, Carl Lau, certainly enjoyed a plush lifestyle with an airplane and a cabin cruiser from our hard earned money. The Executive Vice President, Brien Jones, was earning a six-figure salary with our money until he decided to open his own publishing company, Jones Harvest. His authors are standing right in line behind the Airleaf Victims, with over 70 documented complaints to date, which you can read about on my website www.JonesHarvestFraudVictims.com.

I am asking the author community to express its outrage and give support to our victims by signing a petition to the U.S. Attorney, Timothy Morrison, which I will personally deliver to his office in June with some of my fellow authors. I have just launched my new website at www.IndianaWelcomesCrooks.com to publicize this injustice. I am hoping that the good people of Indiana will stand by us as we push to have this decision reversed, so that criminal charges will be pressed against those who cheated so many of us.

The Attorney General's office filed a judgment against Carl Lau and Airleaf nearly a year ago; unfortunately, he is claiming bankruptcy and there is no money to be returned. That is why criminal charges on the federal level are so important. If they are not handed down, then the criminals will walk away without punishment after taking over $2 million of our money. If the U.S. Attorney's decision isn't reversed, predatory publishers will see it as a green light to proceed in Indiana. This is an outrage.

If your readers are willing to sign our petition, please have them contact me at Bonkaye@aol.com and I will email them a copy.

Thank you such much for your help.

Sincerely,

Bonnie Kaye, M.Ed.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Victoria Strauss -- Articles on Self-Publishing: The Need for Balance

The growth of the self-publishing industry is a popular journalistic subject. Some articles on self-publishing, such as the New York Times's recent Self-Publishers Flourish as Writers Pay the Tab, provide reasonably balanced coverage of the issue, while others, such as Time's Books Gone Wild: The Digital Age Reshapes Literature, are fatuous and overstated, with a distinctly triumphalist "old publishing is dead, and good riddance!" feel to them.

With each of these articles, I get a flurry of emails from writers wanting to know what I think. Is it really true that that print publishing is "over?" Has the self-publishing stigma really vanished? Are publishers really combing through offerings from self-pub services for likely prospects? Has paying for POD really become a viable way for a new author to break into commercial publishing? So with the latest example, Elham Khatami's April 6 article for CNN, More Authors Turn to Web and Print-On-Demand Publishing.

Articles on self-publishing often follow a similar formula, and Khatami's is no exception.

1. Pick a rare instance of self-publishing success--in this case, Lisa Genova, whose iUniverse-published novel Still Alice garnered a major publishing deal. Make sure not to tell the whole story--omit, for instance, the fact that Genova hired PR firm Kelly & Hall--the same firm that propelled self-published Brunonia Barry to success--to publicize her book, and acquired a literary agent as a result of the attention Kelly & Hall was able to generate.

2. Segue to the growth of self-publishing and the great possibilities it offers for budding authors, while taking a swipe at the commercial publishing industry. Totally ignore the contradiction inherent in the fact the success of the self-published author just discussed hinged on her transition to a commercial publisher.

3. Toss out a few random facts about self-publishing (not all of them necessarily relevant--Khatami notes that the self-published author "retains the copyright to his or her book," as if this were not the case with commercial publishing), while ignoring the issue of low sales (the average self-published book sells fewer than 200 copies) and limited distribution (most self-pubbed books are not distributed beyond the Internet).

4. Mix in some boosterish quotes from representatives of self-pub companies, such as Keith Ogorek, Author Solutions' VP of Marketing, who "cited several pluses of print-on-demand publishing: the speed with which a book gets into the marketplace; the fact that readers, not critics, 'decide whether your book is any good or not,' and the environmental benefit of fewer printed copies." (Now, there's a comfort! My book only sold 50 copies, but at least I saved some trees.) Rhapsodize a bit about democratization. "'Anyone can publish, that's the beauty of it,' said Gail Jordan, Director of Public Relations at Lulu. 'Nobody's going to say, We don't like your cover. Chapter 10 should be Chapter 6.'" (Actually, a commercial publisher isn't going to say that about your cover, either...because commercial publishers don't expect authors to provide their own covers.)

5. Feature a happy self-pubbed author. Khatami's example: Melinda Roberts, author of Mommy Confidential: Adventures from the Wonderbelly of Motherhood, who turned to self-publishing after being turned down by three publishers, and is pleased with her experience despite the fact that "she has sold fewer than 300 books, mostly by word-of-mouth."

6. Conclude (explicitly or by implication) that "traditional" publishing is [pick one] dead/dying/running scared. For bonus points, include something that encourages inexperienced aspiring authors to make completely inaccurate assumptions about the possibilities of self-publishing. Keith Ogorek again: "'Traditional publishers are looking at us to find new and upcoming authors,' he said. 'We provide that for them.'"

There doesn't seem to be any question that the self-publishing industry continues to grow, even as the commercial publishing industry enters a period of contraction. Nor is there any dispute that self-publishing can be successful in specific circumstances: for writers who are able to sell directly to their audiences (frequent conference speakers, for instance); authors with niche nonfiction books that can be marketed directly to interested readers; people with non-commercial projects such as genealogies, family recipe books, or memoirs for limited distribution; and anyone who, for whatever reason, isn't interested in commercial success.

For most writers, however, the path of self-publishing offers substantial downsides and pitfalls (for a full discussion of these, see Writer Beware's Print on Demand page), and successes on the order of Lisa Genova's remain few and far between. These hard facts are way less sexy than the vision of a brave new technological world that makes it possible for (a few) authors to bypass the traditional route to success--but they are no less real. In my opinion, journalists who write about this issue have a responsibility to cover both sides.

It's a responsibility they too often seem to neglect.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Victoria Strauss -- Author Solutions Buys Trafford Publishing

Consolidation continues in the self-publishing sector: the Wall Street Journal is reporting that Author Solutions (which already owns AuthorHouse, iUniverse, and Xlibris) has acquired Trafford Publishing. As with its January 2009 acquisition of Xlibris, terms of the deal were not disclosed.

As with Xlibris and iUniverse prior to their acquisition, Trafford appears to suffer from relatively few consumer issues. Writer Beware has received no substantive complaints about Trafford over the past few years, and there's not much complaint to be found on the Internet either. Not so for AuthorHouse--something that, post-acquisition, seems also to have become true for iUniverse. Which prompts the question: whither Xlibris and Trafford?

In blogging about the Xlibris acquistion, I wrote the following. It's even more true now:

This new merger is not good news for authors in another sense: it reduces the field of choice. As choices decrease, so does the pressure to compete, and decreased competition does not benefit consumers. While Writer Beware doesn't generally recommend the use of POD self-publishing services, except in certain specific circumstances (see our Print on Demand Self-Publishing Services page for a discussion), we feel that writers who do choose to self-publish are best-served by having the widest possible range of options, in a robustly competitive environment.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Victoria Strauss -- Agentfail

In March, there was Queryfail, an initiative in which literary agents Twittered their worst queries ever. The intent was to let writers know where queries go wrong, and while many people appreciated the straight-from-the-source info, others were less happy.

There was some talk of an Agentfail day on Twitter, with authors giving tit for tat. As far as I know, that never came off. However, the lovely ladies at BookEnds decided to make April 1 Agentfail day on their blog. More than 250 comments have been posted so far, and they're still mounting up...and some are pretty angry.

Nathan Bransford comments on this in his blog, offering some thoughts about why one of things that seems to make writers angriest--agents who have a "we'll respond only if interested" policy--shouldn't. He concludes,

I understand that the publishing process can be frustrating and that the people who really ranted in that post are in the minority, and that these responses were all requested. But I just wonder if we could all get along and stay constructive instead of turning agents into pinatas.

I'm often struck by the extraordinary amount of anger that's directed at agents--far more, it seems to me, than is directed at publishers or editors. I get a lot of email from writers, and bitterness and resentment at agents' behavior, policies, and presumed motives is a constantly recurring theme.

Why? Well, as Nathan points out, there's the frustration of the quest for publication. There's the hope writers invest in their manuscripts, and the pain of having it thwarted. There's writers' unrealistic expectations of the agent/publisher process, or overconfident assessment of their own ability. For some writers, unable to snag an agent's interest, outrage becomes a substitute form of validation.

Beyond that, however, I think the root cause of agent-focused anger lies in the uneven power balance between agents and unpublished writers. Since, query by query, the agent has the power to strike the writer into outer darkness, the agent acquires superhuman qualities. Since being represented is a state of ultimate desirability, the agent is elevated to the status of the Holy Grail. The agent becomes an archetype, rather than a fallible human being doing business the best s/he can. Many writers are very reluctant to allow agents to have any human qualities at all, or to envision agents acting within real-life scenarios (busy office, hundreds of queries, calls from editors, manuscripts to read and edit, and--oh yes--a personal life to squeeze in around the edges).

Of course, agents really do screw up. Or are rude. Or nonresponsive. Or drop the ball in a hundred different ways. Plus, for beleaguered agents--bombarded by queries that are too often substandard or inappropriate, seeing the same misconceptions and mistakes over and over and over again--it's got to be as much of a temptation to dehumanize writers as it is for writers to dehumanize agents. But the bottom line is that a rude agent is simply a rude person--not a representative of agentdom in general. As Nathan says, getting mad about something like that is like being mad at oxygen.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Exciting News for Writer Beware!

Hello, Friends!

I know I've been a bit scarce lately, and I'd like to thank Victoria for doing such a great job of maintaining the blog. The reason I've been scarce was one I wasn't free to discuss until now, and it's Big News for us and for writers everywhere.

Over the past ten years, Writer Beware and other publishing industry watchdogs like Preditors and Editors have worked hard to increase public awareness of writing scams and the toll they take on aspiring and even experienced writers. It's been an uphill job, but gradually, both law enforcement and civil authorities have begun to realize that writing scams are something they should and will fight. And now there is a new Administration, so a new wind is blowing.

It's for that reason that the Federal Bureau of Investigation decided to create a special task force to help agents in their field offices recognize and deal with writing scams, since most can be prosecuted under Federal jurisdiction due to the fact that they are internet based, and payments cross State lines.

And to us, the Writer Beware team of Rich White, Victoria Strauss and myself, the most exciting part of this special task force is that we've been asked to be part of it!

We'll be touring the country, going to FBI field offices and meeting the agents and research teams, helping them learn how the real publishing industry works, and how to spot all the different kinds of writing scams. We'll actually be sworn in so we can view evidence and help with the analysis. It's possible we may even be able to go along when the FBI raids a scammer's home and/or office looking for manuscripts and other evidence! (One of our duties will be to work with Victim Witness Coordinators to help authors recover their work that has been seized as evidence.)

It's the Bureau's intention to expand this work beyond simply book publishing to include bogus script agents and people posing as producers to bilk unsuspecting aspiring screenwriters out of their money -- which, believe me, can add up to some high dollar scams, in the tens of thousands of dollars, and sometimes even more.

So...this blog will remain inactive for the next eight weeks, because Rich, Victoria and I will be reporting to Quantico for special training next Monday. At the end of our training, we'll be issued our badges and guns, and begin our tour of the country. We'll be traveling on and off for the rest of this year, both singly and as a team. We'll maintain the blog as best we can, and we know we can count on your understanding and support, because much of our work won't be something we can discuss publicly.

Our first stop after completing our training will be Los Angeles, where we'll be meeting with WGA scriptwriters to learn about the ways that scriptwriting and "movie production" scams differ from book-related scams.

The official announcement about the formation of the Special Council on Agents and Media won't be made by the Justice Department until next week, but we were given permission to tell our loyal readers about this today. And...you're not going to believe this, but --!! Apparently enough word about this project has leaked to the media to spark some interest in making a movie! Both Victoria's and my agents reported getting calls yesterday!

Do you suppose they'd let us play ourselves???

-Ann C. Crispin
Chair, Writer Beware
www.writerbeware.com