Monday, June 28, 2010

The Case Against Reading Fees

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

I never thought I'd be re-visiting the issue of literary agents charging reading fees. After all, the problems inherent in the charging of reading fees are recognized by all four literary agents' professional trade groups (the USA's AAR,  Australia's ALAA, and New Zealand's NZALA prohibit them outright to members; the UK's AAA allows them only if the client or prospective client is first informed in writing). And "never pay a reading fee to a literary agent" is one of the few pieces of anti-scam wisdom that has passed into the collective consciousness. Even if they aren't aware of other scams and schemes, most new writers know that reading fees aren't kosher.

But one of the most surprising things--to me, anyway--to come out of last week's vigorous twiscussion of how agents should be paid (see the #agentpay hashtag) is the proposal that agents should once again charge reading fees. See, for instance, this blog post by writer Nadia Lee. Several commenters on my blog post last week also suggested a return to reading fees; similar suggestions are scattered in the comments of other blog posts about #agentpay (including Colleen Lindsay's partial roundup of these posts). The idea has even been put forward by some agents; see this pair of posts by Robert Brown and Sharene Martin of Wylie-Merrick Literary (though I have to say I have trouble taking seriously Sharene's suggestion that expecting agents to operate within ethical guidelines is equivalent to racial profiling).

Here are four arguments in favor of reading fees, and why, in my opinion, three of them don't hold up.

- The Darwinian argument. Requiring writers to pay a fee to submit their work would winnow out the non-serious and the non-ready, providing relief to agents' overburdened inboxes.

Unfortunately, one of the things you learn when you deal with large numbers of aspiring writers is that many are deeply deluded about the quality of their work. An unmarketable writer is just as likely to be convinced of his or her readiness as a marketable one, and therefore just as likely to pay a reading fee. (In fact, there may be an inverse relationship between confidence and quality--but that's a whole 'nother question.)

Some people believe that if writers are stupid or unschooled enough to throw away their money, they deserve what they get. Possibly. But again, that's a different question.

- The It's For Your Own Good argument. If writers had to pay to submit their work, it would force them be more cautious about whom they queried, diminishing the likelihood that they'd fall into the clutches of the scammers and amateurs who would also be charging reading fees.

In some cases this might be true. But more than twelve years of documenting the pointless and fraudulent things that writers can be persuaded to pay for tells me, sadly, that money is not a barrier to bad decisionmaking. Plus, this argument ignores the power of desperation, which drives some writers into the arms of dubious publishers whose charges make reading fees look like chicken feed. 

- The You've Got to Give Something to Get Something argument. One of the things that's most distressing to writers is the impersonal nature of rejection. A reading fee might offer genuine benefit if it guaranteed some sort of personal feedback or evaluation.

But what would ensure that the fee was commensurate with the feedback? If you're paying $150, or even $50, will a couple of scribbled lines suffice? A page of generic writing advice? More to the point, do overburdened agents have time to provide this kind of service? (That, I suspect, is why this argument is most often advanced by writers.)

- The Why Should I Work For Free? argument. It takes time and effort to carefully evaluate manuscripts. Why should agents undertake this crucial task without remuneration?

For me, this is the one convincing argument in favor of reading fees, at least at the partial and full level. It is time-consuming to read manuscripts--and more often than not, the reading results in a rejection, so this really is time for which the agent doesn't get paid.

Is it convincing enough to justify a return to reading fees, though? No, in my opinion.

- Reading fees would unfairly burden non-wealthy authors. Like hourly billing, reading fees would disproportionately disadvantage writers with fewer financial resources. Agents may justifiably feel they deserve income beyond their commissions--but creating a world in which only the well-off could afford to seek agents doesn't seem like the best long-term solution (especially since fewer writers looking for agents means less need for agencies).

- Reading fees are incredibly easy to abuse. How? Well, for instance, by requesting manuscripts in which the agent isn't interested, just in order to obtain the fee. Given the volume of queries most agents receive, even a small processing fee--under $50--can bring in a substantial yearly income.

Or using the carrot of possible representation to entice as many writers as possible to submit and pay--as the Scott Meredith Agency did with its (now discontinued) Discovery Program, employing a bevy of readers to bang out three-page evaluation letters for which writers paid several hundred dollars. Some writers did move from the Discovery Program to the agency proper--more than twenty-five, according to the agency's website. Compare that, however, to the hundreds or even thousands who paid for evaluations over the years that the program was running.

Or charging an evaluation fee and providing not a real evaluation, but a form letter slightly personalized for each writer.

Or running a full-on scam, where the agency's sole purpose is to collect reading fees, wait a couple of weeks, and then send a form rejection. Reading fees are easy, easy money; of all the writing-related scams, they involve the least amount of work, and guarantee the least contact with the marks.

I'm not making any of these examples up. All come directly from information in Writer Beware's files. We have voluminous documentation of the ways in which literary agents--not necessarily scam agents, either--can abuse reading fees, and their ugly cousins, evaluation fees. You don't have to take my word for it; here's what the AAR's Canon of Ethics has to say:

Members may not charge clients or potential clients for reading and evaluating literary works, including outlines, proposals and partial or complete manuscripts...The AAR believes that the practice of charging for readings is open to serious abuse and may reflect adversely on our profession.
When Writer Beware was founded in 1998, reading fees were in decline among reputable agents, but were the dominant form of literary scam. That they are almost nonexistent today--even among scammers--is, I think, a direct result of their rejection by the AAR and other professional agents' groups.

Unfortunately, as sometimes happens when a bad practice is eliminated, people eventually begin to question whether the practice was really so terrible, or even whether it existed at all. In his post defending reading fees, agent Robert Brown observes, "As for the specter of abuse, I think it’s mostly fantasy made up by those who have prospered by spreading rumor and innuendo." It's hard to know what to say about a remark like this, except that the ethical codes of the AAR, the AAA, the ALAA, and the NZALA didn't just pop up out of the blue.

Is it impossible for agents to charge reading fees in an ethical manner? Certainly not. Even before the AAR, etc. prohibited them to members, there were agents who were entirely ethical and careful in their use of reading fees. I have no doubt that this would also be the case if reading fees came into wide use again. But they are also a green light to scams and abuse--and that's no fantasy. It's a can of worms I don't think we want to re-open.

Edited to add: It was becoming apparent that my original title, Should Agents Charge Reading Fees?, was causing people to assume I was advocating reading fees. Since I most emphatically am not, I've changed the title to be more reflective of the content of the post.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Are Agents Underpaid?

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

A fascinating discussion began today on Twitter (as of this writing, it's still going on--check it out under the #agentpay hashtag), kicked off by agent Colleen Lindsay, who asked, "How would publishing change if agenting moved from commission-based payment to billable hours?" 

Those in favor pointed out that agents' job descriptions have expanded over the past couple of decades, and that they must now do much more for the same 15% they earned twenty years ago. They also get no payment at all for a good portion of what they do on a regular basis--reading queries and manuscripts, editing, submitting books that never sell. In a highly competitive environment, with shrinking advances (at the midlist level, anyway) and cautious publishers, it's getting harder and harder to make a living.

Those against raised the specter of abuse (there are several questionable agents in Writer Beware's files who soak their clients for billable hours while doing little or nothing to place manuscripts with reputable publishers), the loss of agents' entrepreneurial edge if they got paid no matter what (the fact that the agent profits only when the writer does is at the heart of the traditional author-agent relationship); and, of course, the possibility that only wealthy writers could afford to have agents. Several lawyers participating in the discussion also pointed out that keeping timesheets for billing is a soul-sucking timesink that no one in their right mind would want to undertake.

For authors who at this point are feeling their blood pressure rising, I should point out that this is a hypothetical discussion; none of the participating agents are advocating an immediate switch. Colleen's question does, however, highlight an important issue: agents' job descriptions really have expanded over the past twenty years, while their commission percentage has remained the same. Just as writers are now routinely expected to take an active role in promoting their books (two decades ago, self-promotion was still very much optional), many agents now feel obliged to take an active role in promoting their writers. Selling books is also much more work than it used to be, especially in the hyper-competitive and risk-averse environment produced by the recent economic downturn. I also think that the droves of laid-off editors who've transitioned to agenting--not just recently but during the height of the publisher consolidation frenzy in the 1990's--have contributed to the problem, with more agents than ever vying for the time of fewer editors than ever.

So it's not surprising that some agents feel they are underpaid. In my opinion, though, billing hours is not the way to go. It's too open to abuse. It shuts too many writers out of the picture. It also might have a backlash effect--if only well-heeled writers could afford agents, there would be less need for agents, putting a lot of agents out of business. (Which might in turn limit publishers' choices. Could that spell the end of big publishers' agented-submissions-only policies?) Compromise measures--charging commission until the first sale and billable hours thereafter, flat per-project fees, fees charged for adjunct services such as editing, even reading fees--create the same concerns. Would agents select clients on the basis of their ability to pay? Would they drop clients who took a long time between books and didn't use enough billable services? As for reading and editing fees, that battle was fought years ago. Most agents' trade groups prohibit them for members.

So what's the answer, for agents and others who think the current system should change? A commission hike is the most obvious solution. During the 1980s and 1990s, US agents raised their commissions from 10% to 15%; it seems to me that an increase to 20% could be undertaken with relatively minimal pain on all sides. This would acknowledge the ways in which agenting has changed and expanded, but wouldn't unfairly burden writers.

Another idea might be for agents to sell their expertise. Branches of an agency could be established for fee-based editing, marketing, publicity, packaging, consulting to self-publishers, and the like. These services wouldn't be sold to clients, however--that would be a conflict of interest (if an agent can make money from a service s/he is urging you to buy, how can you be sure that buying it is really to your benefit?) and could easily be misused. The agency would need to erect an impenetrable wall between the agenting and the fee-charging sides of its business--for instance, no client would ever be sold editing services, and no one who bought editing services would be eligible to become a client. This would be made clear on the agency's website and in its literature.

Agents can also become publishers. Of course, that's even more fraught with ambiguity than selling editing or marketing services. If an agent can publish a client's book herself, how driven will she be to sell the book to another publisher? If an agent is selling a client's book to himself, how can he adequately represent both parties' interests? (See the blogs of authors Stacia Kane and Courtney Milan for a more detailed examination of these potential conflicts of interest.) There are very good reasons why the AAR and the ALAA prohibit members from representing both buyer and seller in the same transaction (the AAA allows it, but only if the client is first informed in writing). Again, to ensure ethical practice, there would need to be an impenetrable wall between the agency and the publisher. 

All of these things are already happening. A number of established US agents charge 20%. There are agencies with editing and consulting businesses; there are even agencies that own or co-own publishers. In coming years, I think this blurring of lines will become commonplace, as authors, agents, and publishers all struggle to survive in the digital age. As agencies expand their capabilities, it's essential that they consider the importance of ethical practice, and take the time and trouble to establish rules and customs that ensure that their clients are protected, and their potential clients are fairly dealt with.

(One last thing. I'd love a lively discussion of these issues, but I don't want this post to become a forum for anti-agent hostility. Please don't comment if all you want to do is rant about how greedy, elitist, capricious, undeserving, etc. agents are.)

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Lie Down With Dogs, Get Up With Fleas

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Part of Writer Beware's mission is to accept complaints from writers who've had bad experiences with questionable agents and publishers (first-hand complaints only--we have to hear from the writer directly--and always documented, if possible). But questions, not complaints, make up the biggest portion of our email. How do I start my publication search? How should I format my manuscript? Is self-publishing a good way to kick off a writing career? Is Agent A reputable? Is Publisher B's contract language standard? Is Editor C experienced?

Often, when I let someone know that the agent who just requested their manuscript has no sales, or the publisher that just promised a contract charges fees, they will sadly say something like, "My manuscript is a magnet for the bad guys," or "My writing must suck, since the only interest I ever get is from people who want me to give them money."

Of course, it's always possible that your manuscript isn't publishable. The hard truth is that most manuscripts aren't; whether you've written a publishable book is one of the biggest "ifs" that you must face as a writer. But when the only publishers and agents who are responding to your queries are disreputable, it's likely that the quality of your writing--along with bad luck, karma, or whatever outside influences you may fear are holding you back--is only incidental. Other factors are likely to play a much bigger part.

1. Fee-chargers respond to everyone. Whether they're dishonest, inexperienced, or just plain clueless, the money that fee-chargers extract from authors represents the bulk--or possibly the entirety--of their income. So quality is not a pressing concern. Or it may be no concern at all. Bottom line: regardless of how bad or good your manuscript is (and fee-chargers will as happily take on a good manuscript as a bad one), if you query fee-chargers, you will hear back from them.

2. You may not have done your research. If you're experiencing Factor Number One, this is probably why.

Writers: research is essential! There is no substitute. You CANNOT count on others' recommendations, on the publisher's or agent's expressions of goodwill, on a listing in what you believe is a reputable resource--you MUST investigate the publisher or agent for yourself. If you don't, and you wind up getting offers from the bad guys, it's not your writing or your karma that's to blame--it's you.

The timing of the research is important too. Don't wait to investigate a publisher's reputation, or to make sure an agent has publishing industry experience or a track record of sales, until you get a nibble. Check them out before you ever start to query. If you eliminate the scammers and amateurs at the beginning, you will never have to deal with them. Not only will this save you time and aggravation, it will protect you from the trap that many writers fall into, especially if they've been querying for a while without success: It can be very hard to say no to an actual offer of representation or publication, even if it comes from a bad agent or publisher. When your emotions come into play, when your desire for validation and success is triggered, your good sense may fly out the window. I can't count the number of writers who've told me that the excitement of an offer caused them to ignore their gut feelings of caution.

Don't know how to research, or where to start? The better you understand publishing and the publishing industry, the easier the process will be, so begin by becoming informed (my blog post, Learning the Ropes, offers some suggestions on how to accomplish this). For researching agents, see my article, "Researching an Agent's Track Record." For researching publishers, agent Rachelle Gardner offers a great blog post on how to figure out whether a publisher is reputable.

These are just a few resources; there are many more, in the archives of this blog, in the links on the sidebar, and at the Writer Beware website. Never forget: knowledge is your greatest resource, and your best defense.

3. You may be selling yourself short. Many writers believe--often based on misguided information they've found on the Internet--that reputable agents aren't interested in unpublished writers or that big publishers seldom take on newcomers, and that the only path open to them is lesser-known agents, small publishers, or publishing services.

This is a myth. Newcomers absolutely do get picked up by top agents and publishers--the pages of PW, or any other publishing industry publication, amply demonstrate this. That's not to say there aren't excellent small presses and savvy lesser-known agents--but the problem with scouting the margins of the publishing business is that the individuals and companies you'll find there are, well, marginal. When you set your sights low, you vastly increase your odds of running into inexperienced, unscrupulous, or just plain crazy people. Rather than beginning at the bottom in hopes of working your way up, start at the top and work your way down. You'll never know whether you could have landed that top agent or publisher unless you try.

So don't lie down with dogs. Do your research, eliminate the questionables at the beginning of the process, and never, ever sell yourself short.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Guest Blog Post: Ten Percent of Nothing (Book Review)

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Whether or not you're interested in literary scams, former FBI agent Jim Fisher's Ten Percent of Nothing makes for fascinating reading. It's a true-crime account of the Deering Literary Agency/Sovereign Publications scam, which flourished during the 1990s and cheated hundreds of writers out of thousands of dollars. To date, the Deering scam is one of the very few that has attracted the attention of law enforcement, and has resulted in jail time for the perpetrators. (There's more info on the Deering scam on the Case Studies page of Writer Beware.)

In the years since the Deerings plied their deceptive trade, technology has changed, but the methods--and the psychology of the victims--hasn't. Below, author Marian Perera provides a review of a book that should be required reading not just for authors, but for anyone in the publishing industry.

(Check out Jim Fisher's website as well--there's an interesting segment on publishing scams.)

-------------------------

by Marian Perera

Selling the Dream

A review of Ten Percent of Nothing: the Case of the Literary Agent from Hell


“I’ve built my publishing company by helping unknown authors and first-time authors fulfil their dreams. I will help you!”

Dorothy Deering, 1998


This is the story of a fake literary agent, a fake publisher and a real nightmare – for the writers who were bilked.

Dorothy Deering was behind one of the most infamous literary scams, and is even more noteworthy because she was actually brought to justice. I read Jim Fisher’s book about the scam and the case which brought it down, Ten Percent of Nothing: The Case of the Literary Agent from Hell, and found it fascinating. Any writer will be able to use the information in it – the tactics employed by the Deering Literary Agency in 1994 are the same as those scammers use today.

Deering started out as a writer who couldn’t get published, but after being taken for a ride by a fee-charging agent, she may have decided that there was more money in that particular game. She opened her own fee-charging literary agency and later set up a vanity press into which she funneled her own clients.

Fisher provides a meticulous accounting of the various schemes that brought in the money, how much of it they produced and how they eventually folded, one by one. Deering’s inventiveness was outdone only by her greed. In 1996, her vanity press, Sovereign Publications, charged a “standard author’s contribution” of $6125. Within a year, Sovereign Publications took over a million dollars from writers, and in the same year, the Deering Literary Agency bled writers for a further four hundred thousand.

All of the details and figures are extremely readable because they’re balanced with the human element, the writers involved and the psychology behind the con.

Just having an agent made him feel like a real writer. He liked that feeling. Now when people asked him about his new book, he could say that his agent was shopping it around to publishers. This part of being a writer was the most exciting.

The story is both insightful and heartbreaking. At one point, I longed to be able to tell a writer not to do it, not to trust the agency to the point where she wrote out another check to them. Nothing was too small or too sacred to be used as an opportunity for solicitation: after Deering’s son was murdered, she asked for donations to a memorial college fund. And her knee replacement surgery was an ongoing excuse for why Sovereign wasn’t publishing books.

With short chapters and an brisk, engaging style, the story unfolds almost as rapidly as Deering’s house of cards eventually did. Fisher also shows why law enforcement is often slow to react when it comes to literary fraud. When an FBI agent called Clay Mason did the research, though, he found that Deering had deliberately defrauded writers rather than just being a poor businessperson.

In Mason’s interview with her, Deering painted herself as a victim to the (replaced) bone, and explained that when she claimed to be related to William F. Morrow, writers drew the wrong conclusions. You know how imaginative writers can be. Her stock answers were that she either didn’t recall or that she had represented so many clients that she couldn’t be expected to remember specific claims she had made to individuals.

Deering divested herself of all responsibility, saying that as an agent she was obliged to pass all offers on to her clients, even those from vanity presses. So it wasn’t her fault if the clients signed up. There’s a semi-happy ending to the precedent-setting case, though, since she eventually pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 46 months in prison. The writers’ money was long since spent.

This book chronicles the glory days, the deceit and the downfall of the various literary scams that Dorothy Deering ran. It’s a wrenching story told with both facts and clarity, the story of a scammer who sold the dream of publication and the writers who paid for it.

------------------

Marian Perera studies medical laboratory technology when she isn’t writing, or blogging about writing. Her debut novel, Before the Storm, is a fantasy that combines steam engines and a steamier romance.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

American Author Contest (or, Why Writers Should Use Craigslist With Caution)

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Craigslist is a fantastic resource if you want to buy bikes, furniture, kitchen equipment, etc. There's some research involved, and the listings don't always work out, but if you're diligent, you can find some amazing deals. For writing jobs, though...not so much.

It's pretty much a given that any agencies and publishers advertising for clients on Craigslist should be avoided. Let's just say that Craigslist is not a top literary venue; the best that can be said for these operations is that they're clueless (the worst, of course, is that they're scams). You need to be careful about freelance writing opportunities, too (here's just one example of why)--though this is true of just about any jobs listing site. And contests are another potential problem. I've heard from a fair number of writers who've had the experience of entering a Craigslist-advertised writing contest and having their entry fees vanish into a black hole.

Recently, I've gotten a number of questions about this Craigslist listing:
American Author Contest

Just like American Idol - but for writers.

If you are already finished or still working on your munuscript [sic], contact us for complete details.

Writers who respond receive the following:

Thanks for your interest. We are looking for the next generation of great American Authors. Please see our website: www.booksbybauer.com - American Author link.

Thanks & good luck.

I look forward to hearing back from you.

[name redacted]
Author / Editor
Bauer Communications

As it turns out, the American Author contest is not so much a contest as a promotion--though what exactly is meant by "promotion" is not at all clear. "We are excited about the opportunities we are providing for aspiring authors with our American Author promotion," the website declares. "We are providing access and opportunities where they previously didn’t exist from pretentious inaccessible publishing companies." (Uh oh. Badmouthing "traditional" publishers--never a good sign.) "Like American Idol’s phenomenal impact on unknown singers, if you are a great author, we’ll make you shine too. Granted, they are two totally different markets and processes." (Gee. Ya think?) "[B]ut the potential for both is unparalleled."

Okay, so that's about as clear as mud. But there's no ambiguity about the fact that, to be eligible for the American Author contest or promotion or whatever it is, writers must enroll in Bauer Communications' "First-Time Author Program," which costs $295 and appears to be a sort of mentoring/publishing program, providing a "getting started" tutorial, a couple of consultations, a finished product review, and a publishing and marketing strategy.

I expect I don't need to expound upon the obvious issues of excessive entry fees and contests that serve as shills for paid services. However, is it possible that the First-Time Author Program might be worth it? Could it provide enough value that authors wouldn't feel ripped off, even if they didn't make it into the contest?

Well...

The "Getting Started" tutorial (which is described as "a concise crash course on a proven formula for the book writing process," and is sent out as a teaser to writers who respond to the Craigslist ad) is rich in advice such as "Next, you will come to the middle of the book which will arise on its own once you have gotten past the beginning" and "Make sure that your ending is relevant to the beginning and the middle." I don't know about you, but that's not the sort of information I expect to pay for.

As for the consultations and reviews, Bauer Communications claims to have "over 100 entry-level and advanced editors standing by ready to work with you." Leaving aside the question of why one would want to work with an entry-level editor, the fact that no names are provided means that the editors' credentials (not to mention how many there actually are) can't be verified--and if you can't verify an editor's credentials, you have no way of knowing whether they're qualified to comment on your work.

As for publishing and marketing strategies, the existence of Additional Services suggests that further fees will apply. Also, it turns out that Editor [name redacted] of Bauer Communications is also Author [name redacted] of Bauer Communications (this information can be inferred from emails, but is not indicated on the Bauer Communications website). In other words, Bauer Communications appears to be an outgrowth of a self-publishing endeavor. Draw your own conclusions about the level of publishing and marketing expertise that implies. (If you think that's snobbish, consider that neither of the two books Bauer Communications has published to date are available at Amazon.)

So...a contest that's not exactly a contest, and can be entered only by paying $295 for a package of services of, shall we say, debatable value. Yet more evidence that on Craigslist, as elsewhere, it's Caveat Scriptor.

[This post edited 1/20/11 to redact the name of an individual no longer associated with Vauer Communications.]

Friday, June 04, 2010

Author Solutions Inc. Expands (Again)

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Per a press release issued yesterday, POD publishing service juggernaut Author Solutions, Inc. continues to expand--this time, into the Spanish-language market.

Its new brand, Palibrio, is targeted to Spanish-speaking authors. "Palibrio authors will work closely with a team of Spanish-speaking designers, consultants, marketing professionals, and customer service experts to transform their manuscripts to finished books efficiently, affordably, and professionally."

The Palibrio website has the same cheery, upbeat look as the websites ASI has set up for the commercial publishers for which it runs pay-to-publish services (Cross Books for LifeWay, West Bow Press for Thomas Nelson, DellArte Press for Harlequin, and Balboa Press for Hay House), with vibrant colors and photos of happy authors. Prices for publication packages range from $599 to $6,499, and there's the usual a la carte menu of add-ons, from editing to marketing.

Where will ASI expand next? Stay tuned.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Copyright Protection Service: Another One You Don't Need

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Ah, the Internet. An endlessly expanding universe of opportunities...and opportunism. Whatever the latest hot-button issue is, there's a schemer or a spammer waiting to cash in.

In the world of authors, the rush to digital is the hottest of hot-button issues right now--and with it (at least for some authors), comes the fear of piracy. Accordingly, if you've published a book, you may have received the following solicitation from an outfit called Copyright Protection Service:
RE: Copyright Violations

Dear [name redacted],

As of today, [date redacted], copies of your books are being sold on UN-Authorized internet sites in pdf and ebook format.

This is NOT an advertisement. Like you, I truly hate receiving email advertisements. There are currently pirated copies of your books being sold on unauthorized sites that I have personally located and have proof of, or you would NOT be receiving this message.
Words calculated to plunge a cold spike of dread deep into an anxious author's heart! Copyright Protection is, of course, eager to help.
My company specializes in locating and stopping copyright violations. We have a very successful 7 step process to stop the violators.

1. Violation located
2. URL immediately saved in our system
3. Request immediately sent to Violator to remove copyrighted material
4. URL revisited/checked every 24 hours
5. If URL is still live in 72 hours - Web Host is notified
6. If URL is still live in 96 hours - Web Host is contacted via telephone and/or certified mail
7. Author receives proof of violation and removal

This process allows an unaware violator to respond accordingly and willingly remove copyrighted material in a timely manner. In the event such response and removal is not forthcoming, Copyright Protection Service will send necessary notifications to Web Hosts and payment processors and make every effort to remove the violation.
Now, you don't get all this for free. But don't worry--the cost is "minimal." Just $25 per month, $75 per quarter, or $275 per year ("pay annually and save $25!").

Okay, so we're Writer Beware, and we're skeptical by nature. But piracy is a growing feature of our  increasingly digital world. Mightn't there be a good reason to pay for a service like this?

No.

First of all, Copyright Protection's website is innocent of any information about the company or the people who work for it. We're assured that they are "Highly Trained Personnel using Professional Tracking Skills," but there's no hint of who these highly trained individuals might be, or exactly what professional tracking skills they possess. (Copyright Protection's URL is registered to a Clint McCord of Dallas, Texas, who, based on a web search, could be a car dealer, a real estate agent, or none of the above.) Since you have no way to verify who works for the company, and thus to check out their resumes, you have no way to know whether they're actually competent to provide the service.

Secondly, copyright infringers and their web hosts don't have to respond to notifications or phone calls or certified mail. Copyright Protection's 7-step process might work for individual infringers who want to avoid trouble, but for companies such as Scribd, or for auction sites, or for torrent sites, it's all but guaranteed to be completely ineffective. There is, however, a very specific process that any infringer  does have to respond to if it's located in the USA, and will often honor even if it's not: a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown notice. Will Copyright Protection send DMCA notices? Is that what they mean when they say they'll "send necessary notifications to Web Hosts" if the 7-step process fails? Who knows? Bottom line: if a copyright protection service can't or won't send DMCA notices, they aren't worth using, even if they don't charge a penny.

Thirdly, everything Copyright Protection claims to do, you can do yourself (for free), from monitoring the Internet to sending takedown notices.

Keeping an eye out for infringement isn't hard. Just set up Google Alerts for your name and the titles of your books (and any other phrase or subject you want to keep track of online), and you'll receive an email every time they pop up on the Internet. It's also a good idea to periodically do websearches on yourself and your books; you can also search on character names or distinctive phrases or sentences. If your work is cyber-lurking anywhere it shouldn't be, you'll probably find it.

If the infringer is a blog or a personal website, start with a cease and desist letter to the owner. In my experience, this is often all that's needed. But if the owner doesn't respond, or if you can't find contact info, or if it's torrent site or a company like eBay or Scribd, a DMCA notice is the best option. For info on DMCA notices and how to send them, see these three informative posts from Jonathan Bailey of the Plagiarism Today blog: DMCA Takedown 101, Takedown FAQ, and Stock Cease & Desist and Takedown Letters.

As I noted, US-based sites and services are required by law to respond to DMCA notices, and those based in other countries often have a policy of honoring them as well. Still, it's possible your notice will be ignored. In that case, you can send a notice to search engines such as Google, which will then block the site from search results. Another option, for non-self-published authors: enlist your publisher's help. They won't be any happier about pirated books than you are.

A final question to consider: how much does the infringement matter to you? When I find content from Writer Beware, or from this blog, reproduced without permission or attribution, I take immediate action--it's important to control such information, since part of its authority derives from its provenance, plus it quickly becomes out of date. I do the same if I discover that any of my work is illegally being sold in electronic form (I sent a DMCA notice just the other day to a buy-sell website where some jerk was selling PDFs of both my most recent books, whose electronic rights reverted to me in December; it took the website less than an hour to yank the listing). I'd also take action for any online plagiarism of my articles or stories (to date I've never found an incidence of this). But for the most predictable and frequent infringement--torrent sites, where pirated versions of two of my books are available for free download--I don't bother. I don't condone piracy, but torrent sites are hard to deal with--plus the books are out of print, so it's not as if I'm losing any royalty income. With a new release, I might feel differently.

Ultimately, you may not be able to resolve every incident of infringement. Or you may quash one only to discover another. Honestly, though, this is not an issue you should be losing sleep over. The truth is that for the average writer, infringement and piracy aren't nearly as ubiquitous or as damaging as the alarmists and those who would like to profit from alarmism want you to believe. And what incidences do occur aren't hard to track and deal with on your own. There's certainly no reason to pay some anonymous service to do it for you.