Tuesday, August 31, 2010

How Not to Solicit a Blog That Exposes Scams

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Since we started publishing more guest blog posts here at Writer Beware, and especially since I added a page to the blog describing what sort of guest posts we want and how to submit them (there's a link just to the right), I've been getting a lot of solicitations. A few are appropriate. Most...not so much.

I'm especially amused when I get a solicitation as obviously inappropriate as the one below (and yes, I know these aren't generated by human beings--but still).

Hi my name is [[name redacted--not that I believe it's a real name, but never mind]] and I'm a blog spotter. I basically scour popular blogs in an effort to find great writers. I loved your post on Opportunity or Exploitation?, nice job!

I'd like to get straight to the point.

Our client wants people like you to sponsor their products and will pay you to do so.

They're launching an educational product on September 7th that teaches others how to make money on the internet by using Facebook and Social Media.

We want to pay you for recommending that product to your loyal blog readers and we will pay you up to $200 for each person that you refer. If you make just one sale a day you're looking at making around $6000 per month.

All you need to do is create a few blog posts that recommend this product. You may also use one of our nice banners and place it on your blog.

It's pretty simple, takes very little time (10 minutes or so) and will be very rewarding.

All sales that you refer are tracked through your own special link and you will get paid every week. Payments are always on time and will be sent to you via Check.

This deal is totally legitimate and we will NEVER ask you for any fee, or to sign any contracts.

What do you need to do if you are interested?

I have more details, a video and instructions for you here:

http://www.hyperfbtraffic.com/BlogOpportunity.html

Regards,

[[name redacted]]

So, like, a blog that exposes scams is really going to participate in a product referral pyramid scheme. Riiiiight.

Friday, August 27, 2010

How the Media Gets It Wrong

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Reported in the UK newspaper the Mirror, and subsequently picked up as a news item by PW, GalleyCat, the Bookseller, and the Times of India, among others:
A boy of six has won a book deal worth thousands.

Leo Hunter was awarded a 23-story contract with an American company after they read his first tale, Me and My Best Friend.

Leo started the book - about a little boy called Liam and his make-believe adventures with his dog Henry - when he was five.

It is now hitting bookshelves in America and is available online in the UK.
There's just one problem. Although the deal probably is worth thousands, the money isn't flowing in the direction the news coverage assumes--from publisher to author. In fact, it's going the other way. Because little Leo's publisher, Strategic Book Publishing, charges fees.

A minimal amount of research would have revealed this fact, had the various news outlets thought to fact-check a story that is improbable on its face (when was the last time you heard about anyone getting a 23-book deal, let alone a six-year-old child?). Do a websearch on Strategic, and the second listing is a link to Writer Beware's Alert on the company (which includes not just a publishing operation, but an editing service, a marketing service, and a complex of fee-charging literary agencies), about which we've been collecting complaints since 2001and which is currently being sued by the Florida Attorney General for deceptive business practices.

Strategic charges $995 for its "joint venture" contracts. Often further fees are due for editing (done by the associated editing service), and the author is later given the opportunity to purchase marketing from the associated marketing service. If, as often happens, the author is referred to Strategic by one of the associated literary agencies, they've already paid $70 to $90 for a critique, and, in some cases, even more for editing (again, courtesy of the associated editing service) and/or for submissions to unrelated publishers. According to the Mirror, Leo's books were given by his mother to her own literary agency, which passed the books on to Strategic--the agency isn't named, but since reputable agencies don't work with fee-charging publishers, I don't think it's a stretch to assume that Leo's mother's agency is part of the Strategic complex.

Leo's book (published under a pseudonym with a photo of a woman whom I'm guessing is his mother) can be seen here. It's likely that the illustrations had to be paid for, too.

This is a sad story of inexperience, ignorance, false hopes, and, probably in the end, dashed dreams. It's also a story (much like this one, a couple of years ago) of how the media can be led astray by the lure of a tasty headline. If a story sounds too good to be true, there's a fair chance it is.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

PW Select: Opportunity or Exploitation?

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Print on demand technology has done a lot over the past 10 or 12 years to change the publishing landscape. Among other things, it has created an explosion of fee-based publishing options, small publishers, and micropresses. These ventures in turn have driven an intense proliferation of services targeted to writers, all of them intended (theoretically, at least) to offset the minimal marketing and limited distribution that's typical of POD publishing services and small presses.

Among these new writers' services (or "services," depending on how incompetent or unscrupulous the providers are) are book review services that review for a fee. Many are independent, and often run by not-necessarily-highly-qualified people--for instance, Reader's Choice, which offers an Express Review Upgrade for $45 (you can pay more if you want a marketing package as well), or IP Book Reviewers, which charges between $50 and $90 depending on length.

Other paid review services are associated with a review publication that mainly does non-paid reviews. The "sponsored reviews programs" from San Francisco Book Review and the Sacramento Book Review cost $99 to $299, depending on how fast you want your review (if you're a writer, you may have been spammed by one or both of these magazines). ForeWord Magazine offers Digital Reviews for "worthy" books that can't be covered in the magazine ($99), and Clarion Reviews for authors "experiencing trouble getting your titles reviewed through traditional outlets" ($305). And of course there's Kirkus Discoveries ($425 to $575, depending on turnaround time). To preserve the appearance of impartiality, none of these services promises a positive review (and indeed I've seen some pretty negative ones from Discoveries)--and all of them segregate the paid reviews from the rest, publishing them only online or burying them in a special newsletter.

Is it ever worthwhile to buy a review? Not in my opinion. With independent paid review services, quality can be a problem; plus, there are plenty of non-professional book review venues out there that will review for free. With services like Discoveries, you may actually get a professional-quality review--but it will be a second-class review, stuck in some backwater on the service's website. Plus, no matter what altruistic motive the service offers to justify its fees, paid reviews are less an effort to expand review coverage to worthy books than an opportunity to make some extra cash by exploiting self- and small press-published authors' hunger for credibility and exposure.

Now there's a new entrant in the fee-for review arena: Publishers Weekly. This coming December, PW will launch PW Select, a quarterly supplement that will focus on...
...announcing self-published titles and reviewing those we believe are most deserving of a critical assessment...Each quarterly will include a complete announcement issue of all self-published books submitted during that period. The listings will include author, title, subtitle, price, pagination and format, ISBN, a brief description, and ordering information provided by the authors, who will be required to pay a processing fee for their listing. At least 25 of the submitted titles will be selected for a published review. There will also be an overview of the publishing trends that can be identified from among the titles from that reading period. We will also focus on the opportunities that the self-pub world offers. A resource directory will accompany the section offering names of companies providing services in the DIY space.

The entire PW editorial staff will participate in a review of the titles being considered for review, and we'll likely invite a few agent friends and distributors to have a look at what we've chosen. No promises there, just letting some publishing friends take advantage of the opportunity to see the collection.
The reading period for the December supplement will be September 1 through October 31. The processing fee is $149 (plus the cost of a book and postage), and includes a 6-month subscription to PW's digital edition (much of PW's digital content is available for free, so this is less generous than it appears). Finished books or bound galleys only; no ebooks or manuscripts.

So, let's recap:
  • PW, probably the best-known of the professional review venues, is opening its doors to self-published authors for the first time...
  • For a fee of $149...
  • Which will buy:
    - a listing in a supplement (not the main magazine) that includes advertising from publishing services and fee-based publishers...
  • Which may buy:
    - a review, but no guarantees...
    - a look-see from an agent or editor or distributor, though no promises.
Fees notwithstanding, those are powerful lures for exposure-starved writers. I suspect a perfect storm of books is about to head PW's way.

PW Select is not quite like other paid review services. You aren't paying for a review--just for a listing and the possibility of a review. This may seem like splitting hairs, but I think it's a meaningful distinction, since it allows PW to, in its words, "maintain our right to review what we deemed worthy." Precisely because authors aren't buying a review, a review, if they get one, may have more credibility--assuming of course that it's a real review, not a couple of lines of summary, which we won't know for sure until the first issue comes out. And whether or not PW follows through on its non-promise to involve agents, etc. in the selection process, I think it's not a stretch to imagine that at least some industry people may be watching PW Select with interest--at least to start.

For a self- or small press-pubbed author with a quality book, therefore, PW Select could--just possibly--be an opportunity. Problem is, most writers believe their books are quality, whether or not that's so. Many, if not most, of the writers who pay the $149 won't have a prayer of getting a review (sorry, self-publishing advocates, it's true. Large numbers of self-published books suck). All they'll receive for their money is a listing--and while the reviews may attract attention, who will look at the listings? It's hard for me to imagine that anyone beyond the authors themselves will care.

Plus, there will be that "resource directory" of fee-based services and publishers--great for PW, which gets advertising income, not so great for anyone else, given how saturated we are already with these kinds of ads (and will PW vet them to exclude scammers?). Bottom line: as much as Kirkus Discoveries or any other paid review service, PW Select is a moneymaking venture that feeds on self- and small press-pubbed authors' hunger for exposure, in full knowledge that the majority of the writers who buy the service will not benefit from it.

Opportunity or exploitation? A little of the first. A lot of the second.

Possibly to PW's surprise, PW Select has generated some criticism from the self-pub community. And Lee Goldberg points out that there are conflict of interest concerns for PW review staff.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

How to Write a Query Letter

Apart from writing synopses, one of the tasks that writers hate most is creating query letters. It's a necessary evil, though, because in the USA at least, a well-written, dynamic query letter may be your one shot at getting a reputable literary agent's attention.

Below is my best advice on query letter writing. (It's excerpted from a much longer article that went live on the Writer Beware website today: How to Find a (Real!) Literary Agent--a complete tutorial on how to research, query, and submit to literary agents--while avoiding the bad guys.)

Enjoy!

- Ann C. Crispin
Chair, Writer Beware

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

What is a query letter? It’s a business letter, professionally written, carefully proofread (NO TYPOS!) that basically introduces your book and asks the agent “would you like to read this?”

A query letter is not a synopsis. It’s not your autobiography. It’s short, pithy, and very well written. I can’t overstress how important a good query letter is. It’s a chance to showcase your writing to the agent. A poorly written query letter will axe any chance you have of the agent wanting to see read your manuscript.

The most common mistakes aspiring authors make in writing query letters are as follows:
  • 1. Writers make it too long. A good query letter is brief, no more than one page long. When I say “one page” I mean a few hundred words long. Not one page crammed from top to bottom with narrow margins.

  • 2. The writer tries to include a synopsis of the book instead of a “sound bite” (I’ll cover writing this below). You can’t write an effective synopsis of a novel-length work in fifty words or less, honest. What you can do is write a “verbal snapshot” of the book in dynamic, fascinating language. That’s the “sound bite.”

  • 3. Writers tell too much about themselves and their lives. Agents and editors don’t care if you are mentally or physically handicapped, or your mother is sick, or your kid is sick, or you just escaped an abusive marriage, etc. Everything in the query letter, including in the credentials section, must relate to your book, and your ability to write it. Telling the agent about yourself in an attempt to gain the agent’s sympathy so they’ll read the book is kiss of death.

  • 4. Writers make a point of telling the agent or editor about all their friends and family members who loved their book. Or about the published authors who read and loved the book. I made this mistake myself when I started out -- it’s a natural one to make. But resist! Agents don’t want to be told what your friend and family thought. They also don’t want to be told what to think. “This book will be a surefire bestseller!” is not a line to include in your query.

  • 5. Writers who try to make their writing experiences look like credentials when they aren’t. Writing a few articles for local newspapers for no pay doesn’t count as a writing credential. The same goes for recipes in your parish cookbook. Or having a letter printed in the Washington Post. What counts is writing you were PAID to do.

  • 6. Writers who inform the agent that the book they’re submitting is the first book in a 12 book series they’ve spent the last ten years writing. This reeks of obsession, and agents will make the sign of the cross and back away. Concentrate on the book you’re trying to sell.

There are two kinds of effective query letters. The first type is a good, workmanlike business letter, and it does the job. It's short, to the point, written in dynamic, specific language, with NO errors of any kind -- no typos, punctuation, spelling, grammatical, etc. Remember, letter-perfect!

The other kind of query letter is weird, quirky, but so irresistible and creative that it will capture the attention of an agent even though it's far outside the "accepted" model. This kind of query letter springs from true talent and writing genius, and really can't be taught. I've seen some of them, and they leave me in awe -- and they immediately captured the interest of the agent(s) they were sent to. However, since they can't be classified or taught, I'm going to concentrate today on the first type of query letter.

My suggested "template" for a query letter runs like this:
  • 1. First paragraph: introduce your project in a one line description of the book, giving the title and genre. In this paragraph you also should specify the length of the manuscript, in number of words, not number of pages. Make it clear that this is a completed, polished book. Sometimes it can work well to quickly compare the book to another work the agent would recognize. However, instead of announcing that “My book is just like X,” use language such as, “In the tradition of X,” or, “Should appeal to readers of X.”

    Your language in writing a query letter is very important. It must be smooth, flowing, and persuasive, without telling the agent what to think, or engaging in hyperbole. That one-line description of the work is often a make-or-break. In the writing business we sometimes refer to the one-line description as “the elevator pitch.” This term comes from Hollywood, and is based on the idea that writers should be able to summarize their books in one arresting, unforgettable line that will capture the attention of a producer or agent – while taking no more time than would be required for an elevator ride.

    (An example of a one-line description that actually sold a book to an editor occurred to me while I was waiting in line to get into a restaurant at a World S.F. Convention in Los Angeles in 1984. Harriet MacDougal, a Tor editor who’d acquired a previous collaboration from Andre Norton and me, was standing in line just in front of me, while waiting to get into the cafĂ© for breakfast. After we exchanged greetings, Harriet asked me what I was currently working on, and I replied, "Andre and I are writing Witch World: The Next Generation." Harriet promptly told me to send her a chapter or so when I got home, which I did. She put it under contract.)

  • 2. Second paragraph: here's where you’ll need to get very creative, and showcase your best writing skills. This is the paragraph where you provide the “verbal snapshot” of your book in the form of a “sound bite.”

    Michael Cassutt first described “sound bites” to me, and I'll never forget the example he used – the sound bite for an apocryphal television show. “Bongo and the Pontiff. She's a chimp. He's the Pope. Together, they solve murders."

    I never forgot it -- and that's the POINT of a sound bite. It sticks in your head, like a tune you can’t forget. I repeat, it is NOT a synopsis. Instead it’s a “verbal snapshot” of a book’s storyline, a few lines that are so vivid, so enticing, that the agent will immediately want to read the entire book.

    An example of one for my first published book, a Star Trek novel titled Yesterday's Son might have read: "While checking computer data from a recent mission, Mr. Spock discovers he sired offspring with Zarabeth back on ice age Sarpeidon. Grimly determined to do the right thing, he travels through time using the Guardian of Forever to retrieve the boy. But instead of a child, he encounters a young man, Zar, who has grown up with dreams of the father who would someday rescue him…and love him. When these two must work together to stop a Romulan takeover of the Guardian of Forever, conflict is inevitable -- and far from logical."

    That's a sound bite. It’s a brief encapsulation that captures the heart and soul and “flavor” of the novel. Not a synopsis, not a summary. It’s a verbal snapshot, designed to intrigue, to spark interest in reading. The language you use should be vivid, specific, and dynamic. When that agent puts down your query letter and goes off in search of more coffee, that sound bite should run through his or her mind.

  • 3. Third paragraph: this paragraph should contain a summary of your credentials for writing the book. If you don't have any, then don't try to manufacture them -- that looks really lame. Credentials fall into three categories:

    - Best and foremost, writing credentials. Writing credentials mean you’ve sold your writing. That means you received money for the right to publish it. Cite the venue, giving the title of the article, short story, or book. If you didn't receive any payment for the writing, chances are you shouldn't mention it. Things like letters to the editor published in your local paper don't count. A recipe in a parish cookbook doesn't count. POD books where you paid the POD publisher to make the book available for sale don’t count. Any vanity-published book definitely doesn’t count. E-books might count if you can document having sold a lot of copies. (Think thousands rather than dozens or hundreds.)

    - The other two categories of "credentials" you can mention would be lifetime experience, and/or academic degrees – providing they relate to the subject of your book.

    There's no point in mentioning that you have a degree in quantum physics if you've written a humorous fluffy unicorn story. Or a romance novel set in the Miami drug culture. If you’ve written a science fiction novel dealing with, say, the true nature of dark matter, mentioning your degree would be relevant.

    The same goes for lifetime experience. If you have written a detective novel, and you can truthfully state that you've been a homicide detective for 10 years, that's definitely worth a mention.

    Mentioning your age, marital status, number of children, grandchildren, whether you have bunions, or gout, is NOT relevant, so don't bother mentioning these things. (Corollary: do NOT send the agent pictures of yourself, gifts, cash, or anything except what the agent asked for. You wouldn’t believe some of the stories I’ve heard from agents about what aspiring writers have sent them. Nude photos were the least of it!)

    If you have no credentials to cite, simply state that (Title) is your first novel, and that you’re working on your second. And then make sure that statement is true. Agents are not enthusiastic about “one shot” writers.

  • 4. Fourth paragraph: this last paragraph is simply a polite conclusion to your business letter. Thank the agent for considering your query. Tell them you hope to hear from them at their earliest convenience.

    Then you write "Sincerely," and sign your name. Don't forget your business-letter-sized SASE (unless you are e-querying).

Remember the old adage: “knowledge is power.” In the publishing field, ignorance is not bliss. The more you can discover about an agent you’re targeting, the better (which means thoroughly researching the agent BEFORE you query, not after). Not only will diligent research help to keep you safe from scammers and amateurs, it'll enable you to “tweak” your query so it will appeal to the particular agent you’re approaching. Remember also to read up on each agent's guidelines--not every agent wants to see the same thing--and to send them exactly what they ask to see, no more, no less.

Work hard, work smart, and stay professional. Good luck!

Friday, August 13, 2010

Bowker Manuscript Submissions

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

A few of life's inevitabilities:

Death.

Taxes.

Writers' quest to find a way around the submission process.

There's nothing you can do about death. Taxes are pretty non-negotiable as well, unless you're prepared to retreat into a fortified compound and teach your children to be sharpshooters. But finding a way around the submission process...just about everyone seems to think there's an app for that.

In the olden days, before email, there were submission catalogs. You paid for a listing in a paper catalog, which was then supposedly circulated to agents and publishers--who, if they received it at all, promptly tossed it into the trash (this was before recycling, too).

Manuscript display websites, which allow writers to display their work for (theoretically at least) the attention of agents and editors, were born of the early days of the Internet and have been popping up ever since. Many display sites, such as HarperCollins' Authonomy, are able to boast some successes, but agents and editors have never really warmed to them. As a route to representation or publication, they offer considerably worse odds than the conventional submission process.

Then there are the query blast services. Instead of the tedious process of researching and querying appropriate agents and editors, wouldn't it be great to hire a service to mail out the queries for you? Problem is, there's another word for these services: spam. (I've blogged before about query blasters, and why agents and editors hate them.) You'd be better off spending your money on a good book about publishing.

Yet another kind of submission work-around is the online submission service, which, for a fee, lets you submit electronically to a participating list of agents and/or publishers (as opposed to passively displaying your work, as with display sites). For instance, Agent Inbox, which enables writers to submit to member literary agents. Again, though, success stories are few and far between (plus, not all online submission services take care to recruit only reputable publishers and agents). At best, you stand no better chance of snagging an agent's or editor's attention than you do through ordinary querying--which also has the advantage of being free.

Bottom line: despite many attempts to invent a better submission process, no one has yet managed to displace the existing one. That doesn't stop people from trying, though--or from re-purposing old ideas, even when those old ideas haven't really worked.

Case in point: Bowker (yes, that Bowker) has just launched its own submission service, Bowker Manuscript Submissions (BMS for short). BMS allows authors to upload book proposals into a database, which publishers can search according to their needs and interests, and contact authors directly if they want to read more. Cost to authors: $99 for six months. Membership is free for trade publishers. POD services and vanity publishers must pay a subscription fee.

Hold up a moment. POD services and vanity publishers? Why would authors need a submission service to contact fee-based publishers, which have no barriers to entry? Why would a submission service allow fee-based publishers to troll its database? Authors who use BMS can choose not to be contacted by fee-based publishers--but still.

The answer is twofold. First, BMS isn't a service for writers; it's a service for publishers. The verbiage on BMS's website makes this abundantly clear: "BowkerManuscriptSubmissions.com was initiated as a cooperative effort between Bowker and the Publishing community for Publishers looking for new authors and desiring an efficient way to discover and evaluate new manuscripts." So why not include fee-based publishers? After all, they need manuscripts too.

Second, per Bowker's official press release, BMS is modeling itself on an existing submission service: ChristianManuscriptSubmissions.com (formerly known as ECPA 1st Edition), a project of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association. CMS  has long included a variety of fee-based publishers and publishing services, offering this not-entirely-convincing rationale for their presence:

While it is the desire of most aspiring authors to contract with a major royalty publisher for the publishing of their book, self-publishing is another option. Self-publishing means that you contract with a publishing company that publishes your work at some cost to you. Many of our self-publishing members offer far more than just the printing of your book (the old "print-on-demand" approach) and so we refer to them as partner-publishers.
"Parner publisher" is certainly a nicer name than "vanity publisher," but it doesn't change the fact that authors may have to pay thousands of dollars to publish. Both of the companies featured on CMS's "partner publisher" testimonal page (Anomalos--which also does business as Challenger Publishing--and VMI) require authors to buy 1,000 copies of their own books.

Bowker's press release describes CMS as "highly successful." But how successful is it really? For publishers, it's certainly  handy--not because they discover a lot of manuscripts there, but because CMS siphons off the ever-rising flood of aspiring writers who'd otherwise be bombarding them with unsolicited manuscripts. CMS shifts the slush pile to a location where publishers can either ignore it or pick through it, but don't have to deal with it directly. You can see the appeal.

For authors, though...maybe not so much. Another testimonial page on CMS's website lists 11 publishers that have acquired manuscripts from CMS, and author testimonials add four more--a total of 15, less than a quarter of CMS's more than 70 member publishers. Moreover, three of the publishers mentioned in the testimonials are fee-based (VMI, ACW, and Xulon). According to an article by writer and former submission service-user Terri Pilcher, non-fee publishers bought just nine book proposals from CMS in 2007. (I've attempted to contact CMS myself to ask about sales stats, but have yet to receive a response.) CMS doesn't say how many authors use its service, but I think it's safe to assume that membership is in the hundreds, if not in the thousands. Those are pretty poor odds.

CMS's popularity among authors is boosted not just by the fact that many Christian publishers don't accept unagented material, but because so many Christian publishers steer writers in CMS's direction. Thomas Nelson, for instance, after it finishes pitching its POD publishing service West Bow Press, advises writers that "If you are interested in pursuing a traditional publishing relationship, you may consider submission of your manuscript proposal to ChristianManuscriptSubmissions.com where royalty publishers will have the opportunity to review your work." It is, in my opinion, highly irresponsible to suggest that writers pay a fee for a service that offers such minimal benefit, when they'd be much better off looking for a reputable agent.

Bowker is clearly hoping to benefit from the same kind of recommendations--its Platinum Membership requires publishers to "direct all unsolicited manuscripts to BMS from their website."
The culture of Christian publishing is different from that of trade and academic publishing, where Bowker is directing its efforts, so whether BMS can duplicate CMS's level of publisher participation remains to be seen. But even if it does, I think it's highly unlikely that secular publishers (non-fee-charging ones, anyway) will be any more inclined to use a submission service as a genuine source of manuscripts than Christian publishers are.

Bottom line: save your cash.

One last note. BMS's Author Services page provides a link to a list of literary agents. One might reasonably assume that the list has been carefully researched--because this is Bowker, right? The company that issues ISBNs? That publishes Books in Print? But before I'd gotten a quarter of the way down the list, I'd found eight agents Writer Beware has received multiple complaints about (mostly for fee-charging, but also for things like placing books with vanity publishers)--three of them on our Thumbs Down Agency List.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Indiana Attorney General Investigates New Century Publishing

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Between December 2009 and July 2010, I received a number of questions and advisories about a company called New Century Publishing, located in Indianapolis, Indiana. On its website (shut down now, but here's a cached version), New Century presented itself as a selective small press--but in fact it was a vanity publisher. The contracts I saw required authors to pay $1,750 (supposedly, 50% of the costs of publication) and to buy 40 of their own books.

Since fees were nowhere mentioned on New Century's website, the writers who contacted me had all approached it in the belief that it was a reputable small publisher, learning about the fees only when they received the contracts. Leaving aside all the other issues surrounding paying to publish, deceptive presentation is a really basic red flag. If your publisher is dishonest in its dealings with the public--if it misrepresents itself in order to attract submissions--how can you trust it to be honest in its dealings with you?

That question has come home to roost for a number of New Century authors. The Indiana Attorney General's Office has received at least seven written complaints from authors who paid New Century's owner, David Caswell, between $1,500 and $10,000 to publish their books, and got nothing for their money. According to the Indianapolis Star,
Carla J. Jackson, a mother of 12, filed a complaint saying she had used two credit cards to pay Caswell $1,800 to publish a book that she dedicated to her mother. It was to have been printed months ago, she said.

"My mother died July 10th, before she could see it," said Jackson, whose husband is deployed in Iraq. "They delayed and made excuses and never got the book done. I still don't have it."

Others who filed complaints include Tracy Martin, Indianapolis, who said she paid $2,000 to have her book printed.

"They took the money and said it would be done in a few weeks, but it wasn't. They just kept stringing me along with excuses and promises," she said.

Another Indiana author, Cheri Moser-Coomer, signed in March 2009 for New Century to print her first book in a potential series of Bible stories. She said Caswell had a meeting of many of the authors and promised their books would be done and asked them to pay $500 each for a website to promote their books.

She paid a total of $2,500 and has no copies of her book and no Web page. "I just got excuses," she said.
Other alleged victims include former US Representative Andy Jacobs Jr., who picked up a $12,500 printer's bill for his book when Caswell defaulted on payment, and Kip Tew, who ran Barack Obama's presidential campaign in Indiana, and wound up taking his book about the campaign to another publisher after New Century repeatedly failed to publish by the promised date. Caswell also apparently stiffed editors and designers (see this blog post from a former New Century staffer, as well as the comments that follow this news story), and his landlord, who says that Caswell owes thousands in back rent, and is being evicted.

New Century's troubles are far from Caswell's first brush with the law. As another Indianapolis Star article reports, the Indiana Attorney General sued him in 1990 and in 2005 over consumer complaints involving his employment and job placement companies (consumers alleged he took their money and didn't provide services). He was ordered to pay a total of $99,000 in fines and restitution, but according to the AG's office, he has paid nothing on the 1990 judgment, and only $600 on the 2005 judgment. And that's not all:
The Indianapolis Star reported in 1990 that Caswell had been posing in the 1980s as an attorney, when he isn't. And in an extended tape-recorded interview at that time, he acknowledged that he had been a bigamist -- married to two women at the same time for two years during the 1980s.

He later served 14 months in the federal prison at Terre Haute after a conviction on charges of fraud and income tax evasion.
The AG's office says that it's conducting "an investigation into potential violations of the state's consumer protection laws" after "[n]egotiations with Caswell and his attorney Bruce Walker failed to lead to restitution to the authors." But given that the AG has neither been able to force Caswell to pay up, nor to prevent him from launching new consumer-defrauding ventures, New Century's victims may justifiably wonder what will be different this time around.

"I didn't know about the costs and other details of publishing a book," says former GOP state chairman Rex Early, who paid New Century $10,000 to publish his book, and got stiffed when he ordered a reprint. "But I had these bundles of handwritten yellow pages." It's not just clueless, overeager newbies who fall victim to publishing scams. Smart, accomplished people can be hoodwinked too.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

ShortStoryBook.net (Or, it's Not a Good Idea to Spam Writer Beware)

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Think twice before you attempt to promote yourself or your service in the comments sections of what you believe to be similarly-focused blogs.

I probably would never have known about the contest currently being promoted by ShortStoryBook.net, had they not posted this to my Tuesday blog post:
Hi there!

Shortstorybook.net is organizing a short story writing contest.

We do think that you too might have a marvelous story to tell, one that is your own! So if you can compose it in not more than few words, we would want to hear from you. Also, you stand a chance to get your story published on our site and win cash prize of USD 100.

“Then what are you waiting for? …put on your thinking cap and get writing. For registration and other information check - http://bit.ly/short-story-contest-2010

Happy writing!
(Clue #1 to this outfit's lack of cluefulness: their failure to include actual linkage. I will provide it for them: Short Story Contest.)

The contest runs from August 1 to August 10, is for stories of 400-500 words in any genre (including some you may not have thought of: "The prominent categories for writing are Short Children, Love, Horror, Mystery or Fiction Stories"), and is free to enter. All entries will be published at ShortStoryBook.net, where readers can comment and vote. The story with the most votes wins USD $100.

OK, so it's silly (Short Children?), and the wording leaves something to be desired ("So gather up your pens & paper along with your intangible imagination"), but basically it's fairly innocuous, right? Well...

According to the contest guidelines, "Short stories which are accepted and published on Short Story Book cannot be published on any other site or personal blog." That's a bit vague--does it mean stories can't have been previously published? Or that, if entered in the contest, they can't subsequently be published? In the comments that follow the contest announcement, a would-be entrant requests clarification.
One of the rules mentions that the story may not be published on any or site or blog. Does this mean previously published or published after the competition (or both)? Does the author retain copyright on material submitted?
ShortStoryBook.net replies:
1. Yes, previously published short stories on any page on the internet cannot be submitted for this contest.

2. If your short story is published on shortstorybook.net then do not retain the copyrights for it. But we really want the world to know that its your story and hence we have asked for 2-3 lines of description about you which will be added below your story and this could even include a link to your blog.
Still puzzled, another prospective entrant asks:
Can you clarify this, pls

“If your short story is published on shortstorybook.net then do not retain the copyrights for it. ”

Seems a word might be missing.
And finally, from ShortStoryBook.net, a straight answer (my bolding):
Stories once published on shortstorybook.net cannot be published anywhere else [the writer does not retain the copyrights].
In other words, there's a provision of the contest that's not specified in the guidelines--a serious contest red flag--and that provision is itself a major red flag: surrendering your copyright.

Given that there's no official entry form (you just send your story in an email) or Terms of Use to which you must agree in order to enter, the odds that ShortStoryBook.net could or would enforce this provision if you went ahead and published your story somewhere else are probably pretty slim. However, the fact that they believe they own your copyright means they also probably believe they can use your story in any way they wish (for instance, for their short story gift program). Plus, even a copyright transfer as ambiguous as this might be a problem for another publisher, if you wanted to sell your story as a reprint or publish it as part of a collection (even most POD publishing services require you to warrant that you are the copyright owner).

Bottom line: your understanding of the guidelines of any contest you're thinking of entering needs to be crystal clear. If there's any ambiguity at all, don't make assumptions: ask questions. If you can't clarify to your satisfaction, don't enter.

This goes for passing on contest announcements as well. Don't take announcements at face value; research the contest before you blog or tweet about it so you're sure it's reputable.

Additional red flags at ShortStoryBook.net:

- There's no "About" page, or any information at all on owners or staff (Whois data reveals that the URL is registered from India). You thus have no way of verifying who runs the website or why it exists.

- There are no Terms of Use. For any website where you can upload or submit content, there should be a Terms of Use or Terms of Service page describing exactly what your and the site's obligations are, and what, if any, rights you surrender.

- There's no Submissions page, even though there are stories on the site that aren't part of the contest.

All in all, I suspect that ShortStoryBook.net is clueless rather than evil...but that doesn't make its copyright-claiming contest worth entering.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Writer Beware® is Officially Registered!

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware®

"Writer Beware" is now an officially registered service mark of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. (A service mark is like a trademark, except it's used in the advertising of services while trademarks are used in the sale of goods and products.) You'll note the addition of the ® symbol to the WB blog, WB website, and WB Facebook page.

We've discussed the advisability of registering several times over the past few years. What finally prompted us to do it was our discovery of a forthcoming self-published book about writing and publishing scams called Writer Beware. Not only was the author of the book not connected with us, in our judgment she didn't have the expertise to write authoritatively on the subject. Given the book's title and subject matter, we worried that writers might assume that the book had our endorsement, or even had been produced by us.

Service marks and trademarks carry some legal force even if they're not officially registered, and with the help of SFWA's counsel, we were able to persuade the author to change her title. To help avoid any future confusion (and to make it easier to deal with if it happens), we decided (with the permission of SFWA's President) to go ahead and register.

So now every time you say or type "Writer Beware" you owe us a royalty. (Just kidding. And please, no comparisons to Paris Hilton.)

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If you're looking for some interesting reading, check out this fascinating blog post from The Bookshop Blog: 2000 Year Old Technological Marvel Still in Use Today.

What's the marvel? The book--or rather, the written word. The post traces the history of written content from cuneiform tablets to ebooks, placing the book--that practical and durable marriage of form and function--in the wider context of the history of writing. In that view, ebooks are not a paradigm shift, but merely a point on a continuum.

Here's a teaser:
You could make a drinking game out of headlines proclaiming the death of books. But the book itself was just a change from previous writing and record keeping systems… and in many cases never fully got rid of the predecessors. Tablets, scrolls, and stone inscriptions are still in use today, they just aren’t the primary form of conveying written information. Each time there’s a leap forward in written records it doesn’t totally displace the old system, it just expands who has access to writing in any form.