Friday, July 27, 2012

Guest Blog Post: In Praise of Ripening

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

When I began doing research for the Writer Beware website in 1998, Marcia Yudkin's invaluable article on recognizing writing scams was among the first resources that I discovered. In this week's guest blog post, Marcia takes a look at a different issue, but one of equal importance to aspiring writers: taking the time to learn your craft before diving into the ever-more-easily-accessible world of publishing.

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IN PRAISE OF RIPENING

“Write a Book in a Weekend!”

“Write a Book Without Lifting a Finger!”

We have seen ridiculous headlines like these online for years, but a new variant from the Get Rich Quick world has sprung up, threatening much greater harm to vulnerable wannabees and to all of us who value writing worth reading.

The word has gone out that Kindle publishing is a great way to make money fast. Churn out a short novel or how-to text with series potential, follow up quickly with a sequel, price the ebooks at $.99 or $2.99, enroll in Amazon's KDP Select program and go for as many downloads as possible during your five free days. Then sit back and enjoy huge monetary success.

Advice for making a killing on Kindle emphasizes market research, speed and quantity. I have been watching a group of beginning fiction writers trade stories about novelists whose Kindle originals became best sellers, creating an end run around the confines of traditional publishing. They share tips on how to write 20 pages a day, congratulate each other on finishing and then publishing their first draft, post five-star reviews for one another (sometimes without reading the work in question) and then discuss how to bury negative reviews that disparage their work as boring and soulless.

Rarely mentioned in these circles are tips on how to write a better book. On the contrary, they applaud the attitude of John Locke, author of How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months: “Your book doesn’t have to be world-class. You just have to write well enough to sell lots of books.” Locke admits he doesn’t know anything about plotting, narrative or dialogue, and he is proud of not letting that stop him.

Such a know-nothing stance perpetuates a notion that effective writing can be instinctive. True, there’s probably one in a million who has a knack for writing that takes him or her far without any study or instruction. However, most of us improve in writing, as in music or acting or gymnastics, only when we have concepts for understanding what we’re doing and direction from those more experienced.

When I was an aspiring fiction writer, long ago, I attended writers’ conferences and studied books like Meredith and Fitzgerald’s Structuring Your Novel to learn how to craft satisfying plots and characters in a style that was free of telltale amateur moves. I learned why it was probably not a good idea to start a story with someone awakened by an alarm clock or a bad dream. I discovered how to avoid character stereotypes and mixed metaphors, the importance of a consistent point of view and ways to start a story with strong narrative momentum. When you skip all that, you inevitably – and unnecessarily – inflict a clumsy reading experience on buyers.

And by skipping writers’ workshops, classes or critique circles, you miss out on a crucial wake-up call that every author needs in order to mature as a communicator. This is the shock of discovering that what you meant in a certain sentence, paragraph or passage of your writing did not come across as you intended, and maybe even came across as the opposite of what you meant. In the light of this jarring revelation, you realize that readers aren’t stupid and that it’s your responsibility to take into account their expectations and ideas about language and the world. Then you have the foundation for becoming an ever-better storyteller and wordsmith.

Also missing from the Get Rich Quick paradigm for authors is a role for feedback from teachers, mentors and editors. I’ll never forget a workshop leader handing me a chapter I wrote with dozens of red-ink crossouts on every page. “Listen, I haven’t butchered your work. I’ve only shaved it,” he said. “See how much stronger it is without all the extra words.” Likewise, I have learned so much from my editors – lessons about word order, pacing, punctuation, closing story loops and much more. John Locke does say he spent $2,000 early on for a critique from an editor and profited greatly from the assessment of his strengths and weaknesses.

Even so, I lean more toward the wisdom of something I heard novelist Sue Grafton say once at a conference. “I figured writing books was at least as hard as being a doctor, and since medical school is five years, I gave myself five years to learn how to write a novel,” she said, acknowledging that this was not something beginners liked to hear. Similarly, the most recent issue of Writer’s Digest quotes Chris Cleave, best-selling author of Little Bee, saying that his writing process includes “weeks where I’m working but nothing great is coming out, and then I’ll have this insight into how I need to throw away 20,000 words and rewrite them.”

You won’t ever find folks who tout ebooks as a route to easy riches talking about studying for five years or throwing away such a large chunk of effort. And that’s why, with the absence of any gatekeepers and the lack of respect for quality in their publishing model, readers and writers everywhere stand to suffer. As the current trend spreads, we risk having literary marketplaces that are drowning in unripened works, making it harder for superb new writers who deserve attention to find readers.

Publication of clunky first drafts harms those authors as well. Pre-Kindle, eager writers had to spend much longer in the learning phase. Beginning writers could self-publish in paperback, but the expenses involved deterred most neophytes until they were certain they had something that merited the investment. Publishing on Kindle, however, costs little or nothing, encouraging novices who don’t have a clue about their amateurishness to publish half-baked embarrassments. Then instead of improving from feedback in workshops or from teachers, they will get hammered by most readers and quit or get acclaimed by a small, uncritical audience. Either way, the belief that craft is not worth their time gets reinforced.

If you care about good writing, please help me spread the word that both authors and the public are better served by learning to write well before getting published. The money earned by letting your skill ripen is probably greater and more reliable. You would just get rich more slowly – and enjoy the intrinsic delights of excellence along the way.

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Marcia Yudkin’s 16 paperbacks include a Book of the Month Club selection from HarperCollins and two self-help titles that were featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Her short stories have appeared in both literary and high-circulation magazines and she has delivered commentaries on National Public Radio. She teaches a course for nonfiction writers who want to join the ebook revolution while living up to traditional publishing standards: http://www.yudkin.com/kindle.htm.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Pearson Buys Author Solutions

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Last March, word went out that  self-publishing giant Author Solutions Inc (owner of AuthorHouse, iUniverse, Xlibris, Trafford, WordClay, Palibrio, and several others, and contractor for the self-pub divisions of several major publishers) was looking for a buyer.

Now it has one: Pearson, the parent company of Penguin Group.

According to the official press release, Pearson is paying $116 million in cash for ASI (which, frankly, doesn't seem like all that much, given ASI's dominant position in the self-publishing services market).
Penguin’s chief executive John Makinson said: “Self-publishing has moved into the mainstream of our industry over the past three years. It has provided new outlets for professional writers, a huge increase in the range of books available to readers and an exciting source of content for publishers such as Penguin. No-one has captured this opportunity as successfully as Author Solutions, which has rapidly built a position of world leadership on a platform of outstanding customer support and tailor-made publishing services. This acquisition will allow Penguin to participate fully in perhaps the fastest-growing area of the publishing economy and gain skills in customer acquisition and data analytics that will be vital to our future.”

In 2011 Author Solutions generated revenues of approximately $100m, growing at an average annual rate of 12% over the past three years. Its business is split broadly evenly across three key areas: publishing, marketing and distribution services, with revenues generated primarily from services to authors.

The company has approximately 1,600 employees, located primarily in Bloomington, Indiana and Cebu City, the Philippines. Pearson will be expensing integration costs relating to Author Solutions in 2012 and expects the acquisition to enhance adjusted earnings per share and to generate a return on invested capital above Pearson’s weighted average cost of capital from 2013, its first full year. Author Solutions will be integrated into Penguin’s back office and technology infrastructure but will continue to be run as a separate business.
I tweeted this news this morning, and got several responses along the lines of "publishing is changing rapidly." But I don't think this is about shifting publishing paradigms so much as it is about Pearson seeing the profit potential in a lucrative consumer service that is a good lateral match to its core business. While I'm sure there will be those who feel that Pearson--and by association, Penguin--has sold out (again), publishing companies increasingly need to look for alternative ways to support their bottom lines.

There's a brief breakdown of ASI's output and profitability here. Among other interesting facts, ASI estimates "the 'lifetime value' of an author relationship to generate $5,000 for the company"; and although it sold only 15 more publishing packages in 2011 than it did in 2010, it's predicting a rise in package sales of over 3,000 for 2012. ASI also claims " a 90% satisfaction rate," with 20% of sales coming from repeat customers.

There are many open questions here. Here are some of the most pressing, in my opinion.

- Under new ownership, will ASI manage to improve its customer service? Despite ASI's claims about customer satisfaction, the comments threads of my posts about ASI's acquisition of Xlibris, Trafford, etc. (see the links in the first paragraph of this post) are replete with complaints from unhappy authors, and I receive many more via email. Others can be found online (author and editor Emily Suess is one of those who has been keeping track).

Amazon faced a similar problem years ago when it acquired self-pub service Booksurge, which at that point had a terrible reputation for quality and service. Under Amazon's management, Booksurge (which eventually became Createspace) was overhauled and improved, and was able to shed its negative image. Will Pearson be able to do the same with ASI?

- Will the payment glitches that currently seem to be plaguing the ASI "brands" be addressed? Over the years, I've gotten a steady stream of complaints from authors who've used one or another of the ASI brands, and believe they aren't being paid what's due them. Often enough, this turns out to be the result of unrealistic sales expectations or other misconceptions about sales.

Lately, though, the volume of payment complaints has increased significantly. I've also heard from agents whose clients are experiencing similar issues; ditto for authors in the Authors Guild's Back In Print program. While I don't think ASI is deliberately witholding and hoarding authors' money (as some of the authors who contact me believe), it does look as if something is seriously wrong with ASI's payment systems, and urgently needs to be fixed.

- Will ASI begin to advertise itself more transparently? So far, the company has put out two whitepapers that promulgate the misleading claim that it is an "independent publisher" (along with other inaccuracies about the publishing industry). Other less-than-transparent marketing efforts include maintaining sites like Findyourpublisher.com, which purport to be utilities to help writers choose a publishing company, but which all default to ASI brands.

- Will ASI continue to offer--and to aggressively promote--all those overpriced, dubiously useful marketing services and incentives? One of the most frequent annoyances reported to me by authors who use ASI brands is the constant email and phone solicitations to buy ASI's hugely expensive marketing services. I'm guessing that, like liquor in a restaurant, these are a major profit center for the company, since many can be provided at low cost and sold at a high fee (according to PW, for instance, ASI's "Hollywood services" generated over $3.5 million for the company during 2011). Still, it would be wonderful if Pearson would rein in this aspect of the business--if only just to downplay the hard-sell sales tactics that exploit the ignorance and inexperience of many new authors.

- Is this really a good investment for Pearson? Will ASI's customer base and profits continue to grow? Or, with all the free options out there--not to mention the fact that the main action in self-publishing these days is in ebooks--is its high-priced, POD-centric business model already on the way out?

All in all, an interesting situation to watch over the coming months and years.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Call for Guest Bloggers

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Would you like to be a guest blogger for Writer Beware?

To vary our subject matter and present differing points of view, we publish occasional guest blog posts on subjects relating to publishing, self-publishing, books, writing, the writing life, and, of course, literary schemes and scams. If you're interested in writing about a current issue or problem in the industry, if you have a point of view about writing or publishing that you'd like to share, if you've had a writing or publishing experience that you think would help, inform, and/or warn other writers--we'd like to hear from you.

Here are some examples of guest blog posts we've hosted:

One Author's First Month in KDP Select

How Deliberate Practice Can Make You An Excellent Writer

How Libraries Choose Books to Purchase


Self-Promotion: Starting Too Soon?


Grants for Writers: As Diverse As You Are

The Scam of Private Label Rights Articles

Distributor vs. Wholesaler--Getting Your Book on the Shelf

Posts must be at least 500 words, and can be as long as 1,200 words. We're not a paying market, but we'll give you a byline, a bio, and links to your website, blog, or whatever; we currently have over 21,000 subscribers, as well as more than 13,000 followers on Facebook and Twitter combined, so your post will definitely get some eyeballs. We'll also expect you to be available to respond to comments on your post.

Please note our guidelines--and follow them.

- You must have expertise in your subject. That doesn't mean you have to be a literary agent, editor, or even a published writer (though we would love to have guest blog posts by industry professionals)--but you do need to have some experience or skill that qualifies you to know what you're talking about, and to write an informative, useful post that will be of interest to our readers.

- Your primary purpose must be to inform, not to promote. We understand that guest blogging is a way to raise your online visibility, and that's fine. But please don't contact us if you're just interested in writing a puff piece in order to drive traffic to your own website or business. Obvious self-promo or SEO bait will be deleted without response.

- Your subject must be appropriate for the blog. If you're not already a reader, please spend some time here to get a sense of what we're all about. We often hear from would-be guest bloggers who haven't done that--and we can always tell.

- Your views must be compatible with the general outlook of this blog. Again, if you're a reader, you'll probably have a sense of what that is. If you're new to Writer Beware, read back for a few months to get a feel. We're not suggesting that guest bloggers have to toe any sort of party line--we are always open to different and provocative viewpoints. But if, for instance, you want to argue that literary agents are greedy, cruel, and indifferent to real talent, we're not interested, because we think you're wrong. Or if you want to predict that in ten years there will be no more publishers and every author will be a mini-entrepreneur servicing a niche audience...we aren't going to go for it, because we think that's a pipe dream.

- You can pitch us your idea to see what we think, or simply write the post and send it in. Whichever works best for you.

- We reserve the right to reject your post, or if we accept it, to edit it. Editing is usually on the order of light copy editing (if your post needs content editing, we'll probably reject it).

- We prefer original content, but will take reprints if they're especially helpful. Be sure to let us know if your article has already been published.

So if you'd like to blog for Writer Beware, please contact us or leave a comment here, and we'll be happy to discuss it!

Monday, July 02, 2012

Rights vs. Copyright

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

You may have noticed that there were no posts last week. Apologies! I've got a humongous workload, and have had to cut myself off from the web almost entirely in order to deal with it. 

I thought I'd be finished by now...but guess what. There's still more to do. So, rather than leave the blog bare for another week, I'm re-running my post from 2009 on the difference between rights and copyright, in slightly updated form. The subject is as relevant now as it was then: copyright is an area of tremendous confusion, both for writers and--more troublingly--for some publishers.

I'll be checking in from time to time to monitor and respond to comments. Otherwise, I'll see you next week!

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Copyright, literally, is "the right to copy." It guarantees the authors of creative works--including books, artworks, films, recordings, and photographs--the exclusive right for a set period of time to allow other people to copy and distribute the work, by whatever means and in whatever media currently exist. It also prohibits copying and distributing without the author's permission.

In countries that are signatory to the Berne Convention (which includes the USA, the UK, Europe, and many other countries), you own copyright by law, automatically, as soon your work is fixed in tangible form--i.e., the minute you write down the words.

Contained within copyright is the entire bundle of rights that an author can grant to others or utilize him/herself. For book authors, this includes the right to publish in print and electronic formats, to make translations and audio recordings and films, to create serializations or abridgements or derivative works...the list goes on, and continues to expand as technology makes different forms of publication and distribution possible.

When you sign a publishing contract, you are granting the publisher permission to exploit (i.e., to publish and distribute for profit) some or all of your rights for a defined period of time. Because you own the copyright, granting rights doesn't mean you lose or abandon those rights--merely that you authorize someone else to use them for a while, either exclusively (i.e., no one else can use them at the same time) or nonexclusively (i.e., you can also grant them to others).

Eventually, once the contract term has expired or the book has ceased to sell in significant numbers, the publisher will cease publication and relinquish its claim on your rights. This is known as rights reversion. Sometimes reversion is automatic (as in a fixed-term contract); sometimes you must request reversion after the book has been declared out of print (as in a life-of-copyright contract). Once your rights have reverted, you are free to re-sell them if you can or use them yourself, as you choose.

For many readers of this blog, the above will seem pretty elementary. But confusion between rights and copyright is common--not just among authors (one especially frequent misplaced fear is that granting rights to a publisher means you lose them forever), but among inexperienced publishers. If I had a dollar for every small press contract I've seen that hopelessly conflates rights and copyright (for instance, requiring writers to relinquish copyright, but then reserving a variety of subrights to the author), my husband and I could treat ourselves to a very fancy dinner.

Some suggestions on how to untangle the confusion and protect yourself:

- First and foremost, understand copyright and the rights it gives you. The US Copyright Office, the UK Intellectual Property Office, and the Australian Copyright Council all offer information. The more you know, the more likely it is that you'll recognize bad contract clauses when you run across them.

- Try to submit only to established and reputable publishers. This can involve a lot of research (you can always contact Writer Beware to see if we've heard anything), but it's well worth it on many levels. It's not a guarantee of a standard, author-friendly contract--but it gives you much better odds.

- Except in specific circumstances, such as doing work-for-hire, don't give away your copyright, not even temporarily. Inexperienced publishers sometimes ask for this, believing they need it to properly exploit authors' rights. They don't--and if things go wrong, it can work out very badly for you...for instance, if your publisher goes out of business without bothering to return your copyright.

- You don't necessarily need to be afraid of life-of-copyright contracts. In a fixed-term contract, you grant rights for a defined amount of time--say, three years. In a life-of-copyright contract, you grant rights for the duration of copyright (currently, in the USA and most of Europe, your lifetime plus 70 years). New authors often find life-of-copyright contracts very scary--but they're standard in commercial publishing, and many smaller presses have them also. They are not intended to allow the publisher to hold your rights until 70 years after your death, but rather to create an open-ended situation in which the publisher can keep your book in print for as long as it continues to sell.

Of course, you need to evaluate the situation. For a new small publisher, life-of-copyright might not be such a great idea, since the failure rate for new publishers is high. A fixed-term contract might be better, as it would at least ensure you got your rights back eventually, even if the publisher didn't return them before disappearing. And a life-of-copyright grant term must be balanced by a rights reversion clause (see below).

- Speaking of grant terms, make sure there is one. Whether it's three years or life-of-copyright, your contract should state the term for which rights are being granted. I've seen small publishers' contracts that lack this important detail.

- Make sure your contract includes some provision for rights reversion. While you want to grant rights to a publisher that will properly exploit them, you also want eventually to get your rights back. When and how this happens should be clearly spelled out in your contract.

A time-limited contract is one way to ensure reversion--but beware of automatic renewal clauses that make it difficult for you to terminate, or that rely on you remembering to send the publisher notice before the renewal date and thus can easily be forgotten. Beware also of excessive grant terms--for instance, the contract of one well-known author mill extends for seven to ten years, which is longer than many commercially-published books remain in print. For a smaller publisher, three to five years, with the possibility of renewal if both parties agree, is probably the most you want to consider.

For life-of-copyright contracts, there should be a rights reversion clause detailing when the work will go out of print (ideally, this should be tied to minimum sales or royalty levels, rather than mere availability for sale, so that the publisher can't hang on to your rights if your book is selling just a couple of copies a year) and what steps you can take to demand that the publisher return your rights (usually, a letter asking the publisher either to republish or return rights, and providing a timeframe for the publisher to respond). Never sign a life-of-copyright contract that does not include such a clause. Yes, they exist; I've seen them. (For a much more detailed discussion of the importance of reversion clauses, see my blog post.)

Also look for a clause requiring the publisher to publish within a specific period of time (say, 12-24 months), or else return rights. This will prevent the publisher from sitting on your book without ever publishing it, or from pushing the publishing date back indefinitely due to incompetence or malice.

- Last but very definitely not least, never rely on a publisher's verbal assurances. A confused or devious publisher may assure you that, even though its contract requires you to give up copyright, "you aren't really losing your copyright, because we'll give it back later on." Or, even though its life-of-copyright contract doesn't include a reversion clause, "you don't need to worry, because we never hold on to rights forever."

Maybe the publisher means it, maybe it doesn't--but do you really want to risk signing with a publisher whose contract doesn't match its promises? One principle by which authors should always abide is this: If it's not in writing, it doesn't exist.

For more information on copyright, including the reasons why you don't need to register copyright for unpublished work and a discussion of several common copyright myths, see the Copyright page of the Writer Beware website.