Monday, May 24, 2010

When Asking for Help

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

I get a lot of Writer Beware correspondence. I mean a lot--up to 20 emails a day. I also often hear from writers who don't have scams to report, or an agent's or publisher's reputation to research, but are looking for answers to general questions about writing and publishing, or are wondering where and how to start their agent or publisher search, or just want to reach out to someone who's been there, done that and may have a bit of encouragement to offer. It can take quite a bit more time to respond to such emails than to the more basic questions, but I'm glad to help if I can.

Because of my volume of correspondence, and also the fact that Writer Beware is something I do in my spare time, it often takes me several days to reply, especially where the question involves research. My Writer Beware email address has an autoresponder explaining this, so that people won't be upset (I hope) if they don't hear from me for a week. But there's no autoresponder on my personal email, which is where I receive a lot of the less Writer Beware-ish questions--including one, last week, from an aspiring writer who was worried that his friend's negative reaction to his work-in-progress meant the work was doomed. He wanted to know if I could give him some advice, since the subject of his book paralleled some of the themes I work with in my own writing.

For a variety of reasons, I never critique unpublished manuscripts. But his brief description of his book intrigued me, so I wrote back to let him know that while I couldn't read it, I'd be glad to dialog about ideas. He immediately sent me a very long plot summary. It looked complicated and I wanted to give it serious attention. Because I was very busy right then--a writing project, a trip out of town to work on a construction project, a similar project at home, and of course, Writer Beware--I put off looking at it.

So a week goes by, and just as I'm thinking that I really have to sit down and give this writer a thoughtful answer, I get a nasty note from him implying that I've wasted his time and asking me to "at least" tell him why I found his work so offensive I couldn't be bothered to respond. Now, maybe when I received his plot summary I should have dashed off a note letting him know that it'd be several days before I could reply. On the other hand, it's not like anyone is paying me to answer requests for advice from total strangers. Given that he was asking me for a favor, I assumed that he was willing to be patient. I wrote back to tell him so, upon which he informed me that he wasn't going to kiss my ass just to get my help.

Ooooookay.

Now, I'm not writing this to whine about mean emails, or to complain about rude and ungrateful writers, or to pat myself on the back for doing volunteer work. Yes, I help writers in my spare time, and it takes up a good deal more spare time than it probably should. But that's my choice. I don't have to do it; I want to do it.

But if, as an aspiring author, you're going to contact a professional writer--or a publishing professional of any kind--and ask for their help for free, you need to be aware that a) they have no obligation toward you; b) they are probably very busy with their actual jobs and helping you is extra; and c) you are not going to inspire them to be more helpful by reacting rudely if they don't get back to you fast enough or they provide advice you don't like.

The Internet has provided a truly astonishing degree of access to publishing professionals. In the olden days, when telephones and snail mail were the only options, agents and editors responded only to queries, and writers could be reached only through their publishers. Nowadays, that divide has all but vanished. Agents, editors, and others freely dispense opinions and advice online, and almost anyone is reachable at any time by email, blogs, websites, social media, etc. I think that many aspiring writers, especially those who don't remember the pre-Internet world, have come to take this incredible degree of access much too much for granted--and in some cases, even to see it as a kind of entitlement, where it's the professional's obligation to help, rather than his or her generous choice.

I'm not saying that you should fall at the professionals' feet and worship them, or that you should be uncritical of what they tell you. They are people, and even the wisest people make mistakes, have opinions that can be disputed, and manifest bias. But if you contact a professional with a question or a request for advice, you do need to be aware that you are imposing on their time, and that you yourself should behave professionally.

In other words, if you want the milk, don't diss the cow.

(I should say that 99% of the people who contact me are polite, professional, and very pleasant to deal with. I thank them for that!)

Friday, May 14, 2010

Hay House Establishes Publishing Service Division

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Last year, giant publishing services firm Author Solutions Inc. contracted with two major commercial publishers to create publishing service (a.k.a. self-publishing, a.k.a. vanity publishing) divisions: West Bow Press for Thomas Nelson, and DellArte Press (formerly Harlequin Horizons) for Harlequin. ASI also, at some earlier point, set up a similar operation, Cross Books, for Christian publisher LifeWay.

While West Bow Press produced barely a ripple of concern, DellArte Press created a tidal wave of criticism and debate, not just among authors but among professional writers' groups (you can see Writer Beware's coverage of the controversy here). Was it unethical for commercial publishers to run pay-to-publish divisions, drawing in newbie writers with the lure of the publisher's name and the promise that successful books might make the transition to a commercial publishing contract? Or was it a pragmatic move on the part of cash-strapped publishers--a way to tap into a highly profitable business model and monetize the slush pile, and use the profits to support their other publishing programs?

Ultimately, the criticism forced Harlequin to change its publishing service division's name. But it didn't cause either Harlequin or Thomas Nelson to re-think the divisions themselves.

At the time, I speculated that Cross Books, West Bow Press, and DellArte Press were just the beginning--that other publishers wouldn't be able to resist the potential profits of adding publishing service divisions. And it seems I was right. According to a press release issued today, commercial self-help publisher Hay House has contracted with ASI to establish a publishing service division called Balboa Press.
"We receive thousands of manuscripts annually, but we can publish only 100 products a year," said Reid Tracy, CEO of Hay House. "Our self-publishing division, Balboa Press, has been formed to allow many more people get their message out. While these books won't be published by Hay House, Balboa Press will be monitored for success, and hopefully we'll find the Hay House authors of the future," Tracy added. "This is the legacy of Louise Hay-25 years later-she wants to help the next generation find their voice."
Although attributed to Hay House's CEO, this appears to be ASI's standard marketing pitch for services like Balboa Press. At any rate, it's the same trinity of enticements--greater access for authors, possible transition to commercial publishing, and the blessing of the parent publisher--that West Bow and DellArte employed. The Balboa Press website lays it on even thicker: "With Balboa Press, you have the freedom to self-publish your book in order to help others as well as achieve your own aspirations..." chart your own course and shape your future..." "Balboa Press is your gateway into the world of publishing..." "...explore the new opportunities that await you as a published author..." Canny use is also made of the fact that Hay House was originally established as a way for Louise Hay to self-publish her own books. And then there's this, from the About Us page:
As a division of Hay House, Balboa Press titles are monitored regularly by the parent company. Hay House is one of the fastest-growing self-help and transformational publishers in the world and hopes to find through Balboa Press new inspiring authors that display their potential to add to their catalog.
For PR purposes, Hay House will probably have to pick up a title or two. Beyond that, I'm not holding my breath, and neither should aspiring authors. Publishing service divisions aren't about finding fresh new voices; they're about making money for the parent publisher. But I'm sure that for writers who are unfamiliar with the publishing industry, who've bought into the prevalent mythology about self-publishing as a starting point for a commercial career, or who just don't think a major publishing house would lie to them, this will be a major inducement.

Balboa's publishing packages range from $999 to $7,999--at the top range, more expensive than the standard packages for either DellArte or West Bow (though West Bow's prices for its top-range packages are truly jaw-dropping). You can also buy marketing packages, some of which will cost you an arm and a leg. There are some similarities among DellArte, West Bow, and Balboa packages, but each company offers a different mix of services--presumably, ASI gives the parent publishers an a la carte menu of services, and the publishers pick the ones they want. It's also interesting to compare all three websites, which differ in the details and tailor their information to the parent publisher's genre or focus, but all contain similar basic information, author inducements, and overly rosy views of self-publishing's potential for commercial success.

As I've said in previous posts, I understand the attraction of publishing service divisions for publishers, especially in this time of economic pain and seismic change. Why not tap into a growing, profitable field as a way to support core publishing operations? But there has to be a way to do this ethically, without overstated promises and misrepresentation, and without exploiting the ignorance or innocence of aspiring writers.

So who's next?

Friday, May 07, 2010

Why Writer Beware Doesn't Provide Publisher Recommendations (Plus Some Advice)

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

When Writer Beware was founded in 1998, the main actors in the arena of literary scammery were literary agents (or people calling themselves literary agents). Though there were certainly many disreputable publishers out there (you can read about some of them on the Case Studies page of Writer Beware), complaints and questions about faux agents outnumbered complaints and questions about faux publishers by better than 4 to 1.

The rise of digital publishing has changed all that. Digital technology, which makes it easy and cheap to set up a publishing operation, has created a tidal wave of publishers--small and micro, POD and electronic. These publishers don't work with agents (nor, since they typically pay no advances and generate few sales, would a reputable agent be interested in working with them). The result has been a reduction in authors' perception of the need for a literary agent, and thus, a reduction in the ability of fake literary agents to make a killing--er, a living.

That's not to say there aren't still literary agent scams (there are), or amateur "agents" attempting to break into the business without any vestige of publishing industry knowledge or contacts (sadly, there are still plenty of these). But new ones aren't popping up every couple of weeks, the way they once did. Nowadays, Writer Beware receives far more reports and complaints about questionable publishers.

Perhaps as a result, one of the most frequent questions we receive (often after we've told someone that they should maybe think twice before signing that publishing contract they've just been offered) is Can you recommend an honest publisher that won't rip me off? Or Can you send me a list of publishers you'd recommend for my kind of book? Or, from really frustrated writers, You only talk about bad publishers, why don't you ever talk about the good ones and help us writers out?

We think we are helping out by identifying questionable publishers and questionable publishing practices. But the main reason we don't provide "good publisher" lists, or recommend specific publishers, is that even the best publisher is only "best" for some writers. There are many, many excellent publishers, large and small, digital and non-digital--but their focuses vary so widely that any one publisher won't necessarily be right for any particular author. For instance, Tor is one of the top US science fiction and fantasy publishers, but if you've just completed a memoir or a romance, it's not an appropriate choice. It's really best, therefore, for writers themselves to choose which publishers to approach, rather than relying on recommendations from others.

(My 2006 blog post about providing agent recommendations offers more detail on why Writer Beware prefers to stay away from recommendations.)

In looking for a good publisher, it's very important to know the warning signs of a bad one. One of the most obvious warning signs is fees of any sort. I'm not talking about the fees charged by publishing services such as iUniverse and its ilk, but about operations that identify themselves as "publishers" yet want their authors to pay something or buy something as a condition of publication. This includes (but isn't limited to) publishing fees, editing fees, design fees, publicity fees, or a requirement that you buy your own book or find an "investor" to fund it. Don't be fooled by publishers that claim that your money covers only part of the cost, or try to convince you that they invest substantial resources of their own--it's far more likely that your fee or payment includes not only the whole cost of publication, but also the publisher's overhead and profit.

Other (but by no means the only) red flags: amateurish cover art (suggests a lack of professionalism), bad writing/editing/interior formatting (suggests poor quality standards and/or a low acceptance bar--it's always a good idea to order a book or two from any small press you're thinking of signing with so you can assess quality), a gigantic catalog of mostly new authors (suggests the publisher may be an author mill), nonstandard contract terms (you can write to us with questions--we're not lawyers, but we have seen a lot of publishing contracts), complaints of any sort (always do a websearch on a publisher you're thinking of querying, or contact us and we'll let you know if there's anything in our files), verbiage on the publisher's website about how fresh new voices are tragically being lost because of the shortsighted, exclusionary practices of the big publishers (suggests the publisher is run by frustrated writers, which is rarely a good recipe for success), staff with no discernible professional writing or publishing credentials (someone running a business should have at least some relevant credentials).

Something else to avoid: brand new publishers. There's a very high attrition rate for new small publishers, so unless you're sure that the people involved have real publishing experience--not to mention a business plan--it's best to take a wait-and-see attitude. We've written several posts on this subject:

- An Open Letter From a Writer to New Publishers
- New Publishers: To Query or Not to Query
- Precautions for Small Press Authors

Okay, that's how to avoid questionable publishers. So how to search for reputable ones? One of the most obvious ways is to go to the bookstore, and spend some time in the area where books similar to yours (in subject, genre, and/or focus) are shelved. The ability to get books into physical stores is one of the key characteristics that separates commercial publishers from other kinds. You can also identify books you like, or authors you admire, and find out who publishes them.

A print market guide that includes publisher listings can also be helpful. (Why a print guide? Because you can run into a lot of trouble if you begin your publisher search on the Internet. This blog post discusses why.) Writer's Market, from Writer's Digest Books, and Jeff Herman's Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents, are just two examples.

For larger commercial publishers, you will probably need an agent--most of the bigger houses are closed to unagented submissions. (My article, "The Safest Way to Search for an Agent," suggests some research techniques.) But there are also many reputable independent publishers that are willing to work directly with authors. Here are a few reasonably reliable online resources to help you find them:

- Association of American Publishers
- Independent Publishers Guild (UK)
- Independent Publishers Group
- The Complete Review (US)
- The Complete Review (UK)
- NewPages.com's list of independent publishers
- Association of American University Presses
- Locus Magazine's list of specialty SF/fantasy/horror presses
- Fictionwise's list of electronic publishers

I've saved till last the most important piece of advice: Know something about the publishing industry BEFORE you start submitting your manuscript. Not only will this help you target your submissions appropriately, it'll make you a better researcher, and help to keep you out of the hands of scammers and amateurs. If you know how the publishing process should work, you'll be more likely to spot a problem publisher before you waste your energy querying it. This investment in education takes time at the outset, but it's one of the most worthwhile investments in your future writing career that you will ever make.

My blog post, Learning the Ropes, goes into a lot more detail, and suggests resources.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

You may have read a recent article in PW called "Self-Published Titles Topped 764,000 in 2009 as Traditional Output Dipped," about the amazing growth in "non-traditional" (a.k.a. print-on-demand-produced) books.

Or you may just have read about it, given how many tweets and blog mentions it received. If the latter, you may have wondered what such a gigantic surge in self-publishing portends for the commercial publishing industry (where output did indeed dip, though only by about half a percent)--or, if you're one of those folks who believes that "traditional" publishing is or should be dead, you may have felt a surge of righteous vindication.

However, while that staggering 764,000 figure (actually, 764,448, more than twice the output of traditional books--the info comes from the latest US publishing statistics released by Bowker) is real, PW's title is misleading. In fact, those numbers include not just self-publishers, but "self-publishers and micro-niche publishers," a much larger category that encompasses the print-on-demand sector as a whole. Self-publishers aren't even the biggest portion of this category; in fact, they're very much in the minority. Says PW,
The category consists largely of reprints...According to Bowker, the largest producer of nontraditional books last year was BiblioBazaar which produced 272,930 titles, followed by Books LLC and Kessinger Publishing LLC which produced 224,460 and 190,175 titles, respectively.
BiblioBazaar (whose motto is "Old Books, New Life") "support[s] projects for the digital preservation of classic material and make[s] these works available for sale in printed form as a new book." Ditto for Kessenger Publishing (whose reprinting program has actually been the target of allegations of copyright infringement.)

So better than 687,500 of 2009's 764,448 non-traditional titles were reprints of previously-published works, most in the public domain. That leaves around 77,000 titles for the self-publishing and micropress sector. According to PW,
The Amazon subsidiary CreateSpace produced 21,819 books in 2009, while Lulu.com released 10,386. Xlibris and AuthorHouse, two imprints of AuthorSolutions, produced 10,161 and 9,445, title respectively.
Bowker's press release rounds out its top ten POD book producers with few more numbers: General Books LLC, 11,887; International Business Publications USA, 8,271; PublishAmerica, 5,698 (I hate to admit that PA is tops in anything, but there it is).

There's something a bit curious about these numbers. Reported title output for Bowker's top ten actually adds up to more than 764,448. And what about the many other publishing service companies (including three more Author Solutions brands, Trafford, iUniverse, and WordClay), and all the POD-produced small press and micropress titles? Where are they in these figures?

2009's improbable growth in POD titles makes it clear that digital publishing is continuing to change the landscape for readers and retailers (although see this article for a discussion of how reprint companies like BookBazaar and Kessenger, which benefit from the public domain, may not be doing it any favors), and to a lesser extent (since publishing services have been around for more than a decade now) for writers. They also suggest that here's still some life in the mostly-discredited long tail theory, at least for retailers that don't have to worry about physical inventory.

But I have to wonder--who is buying all these books? Or, put another way--how many of these books are being bought at all? In the long-tail digital universe, where books are nothing more than bits and bytes, it really doesn't matter if you offer thousands of books that never sell a single copy, as long as you offer tens of thousands that sell just a few. Which is why I think it would be very interesting to compare sales figures for the POD sector (info that does not seem to be available) to title growth over the past couple of years. It might place that huge increase in titles in a somewhat different perspective.