Friday, July 25, 2014

Self-Publishing and Author-Agent Agreements: The Need for Change

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Earlier this week, I ran across a blog post by best-selling author Claire King about the process by which she decided to become a hybrid author, ditching her high-powered agency in the process. It's an interesting story--but what really caught my eye was this:
And then one day on the phone my agent informed me that in order to continue to be represented by this mighty agency, I would have to turn over 15% of the proceeds of my about-to-be self-published book to said agency. Not only that, but I would have to publish it exclusively through Amazon, because the agency had a system in place with Amazon where I could check a box and their 15% would go straight to them, no muss, no fuss.
I've warned in the past about interminable agency clauses in author-agent agreements (language through which an agency claims the right to remain the agent of record not just for the duration of any contracts it negotiates for your book, but for the life of the book's copyright). One of the many concerns raised by such language is what happens if you want to self-publish backlist books that the agency originally sold for you. With an interminable agency clause, might your agency feel entitled to a share of your self-publishing income?

I don't know if King's agency agreement included interminable agency language. Even if it did, the agency's commission claim wasn't being made on her backlist books, but on an original novel that the agency had never submitted or sold to a traditional publisher. This is a completely different issue. Simply because King was the agency's client, the agency felt it had a claim on her original writing even though it had no hand in placing it--and, moreover, that it had the right to require her to use its own self-publishing channel, rather than a platform or platforms of her choice.

Contract language often lags behind technological innovation. For instance, years after the advent of digital publishing, many publishing contracts still don't include adequate rights reversion language (I've written here about why that's a problem).

The same is true for author-agent agreements, many--if not most--of which don't address self-publishing at all. Right now, I'm sure that most self-publishing questions are dealt with amicably one-on-one between author and agent. But with more and more writers choosing to become hybrid authors, and more and more agencies branching out into publishing and self-publishing-related activities, those kinds of informal resolutions aren't enough. For the protection of both author and agent, author-agent agreements need to explicitly address what happens (or doesn't happen) when clients self-publish, either on their own or through the agency. 

To date, I've seen one author-agent agreement that does this. I'm sure there are more out there, though I'm guessing they're the exception. They need to become the norm, and sooner rather than later.

In the meantime, authors would be wise to discuss self-publishing with their prospective agents, including:

- What happens if I decide to self-publish my backlist? (If you're a debut novelist, this possiblity may seem an awfully long way off, but you are hopefully signing on with your agent for the long haul, and at some point your books are going to go "out of print.")

- If the agency has its own self-publishing system or publishing venture, will I be required to use it?

- What's your position on hybrid authors? Will it be a problem if I want to self-publish original work? What, if any, claims will you make on such work?

- Will you market subsidiary rights for my original self-published books? (Responses on this will vary; some agencies may not be willing to rep subrights for books they didn't sell.)

Be sure to get, or confirm, the responses in writing.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Warning: Green Shore Publishing

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

If you've encountered Green Shore Publishing, you might be intrigued by an enterprise that describes itself as "The UK and Ireland's New Standard in Book Publishing," and touts both its success and (in the little video on its home page) its extreme selectivity.

But wait: Green Shore Publishing isn't exactly what it seems.

First clue: the Packages page, where you learn that you must pay between £300 and £1,500 for the privilege of publication. OK, so not really a publisher, then.

Misgivings growing, you move on to the Testimonials page, where three video clips from authors who provide neither their surnames nor the titles of their books carry an unmistakable whiff of canned ad script.

On to the Catalog page to check out the books. But wait--there's no catalog page, even though the home page verbiage, as well as the "testimonials", suggest that GSP has been releasing books for several months, if not longer. The only books that are even referenced on GSP's website (on the Publish With GSP page, ostensibly in order to demonstrate GSP's superior cover design and innovative marketing skills...hmm, not so much) do not appear to exist. In fact, if you search on the various Amazons, you will find that there are no Green Shore Publishing books at all.

Pay-to-play. Unverifiable (and probably fake) testimonials. Nonexistent books. Ready to run away?

Good. But you still don't know the worst thing about Green Shore Publishing, and that is this: it's run by Adam Salviani, owner of "thumbs down" vanity publisher Raider Publishing International.

In 2012, I blogged about the Raider complaints I'd received, and the many more that could be found on the Web (see examples here, here, and here). Since then, complaints have continued to mount, both in my Inbox and online. Authors--many of whom have paid four figures--report loooooong publication delays (as much as 18 months), lousy quality of finished books, nonpayment of royalties due, broken marketing and other promises, and total silence when they try to get the company to address their concerns. Authors have tried taking legal action, contacting the FBI, sending petitions to the Internet Crime Complaint Center, filing local police reports (despite his fondness for giving his businesses London addresses, Salviani is rumored to live in Newark, NJ), and speaking out (there's a whole Facebook page devoted to warning about Raider). None of it has made a difference.

At the time of my 2012 post, Raider had an "A" rating from the BBB. Now, thankfully, it has an F. I don't put a lot of stock in BBB ratings--that "A" is a good example of why--but people do check them, so I'm glad to see a rating that matches reality.

There are no staff names or other identifying information anywhere on Green Shore Publishing's website to link it with Raider or Salviani. So how do I know that GSP is him? Well, I have copies of contracts from both publishers (the GSP one was supplied by the author who tipped me off to GSP's existence--thank you!), and there's fair bit of overlap in language and terms. But the kicker is the signatures:*

Identical, right down to the dotting of the "i's". You'd think, if you were going to start a new author-fleecing operation to dodge the bad publicity over your old author-fleecing operation, you'd have the sense not to use a) the exact same scan of your signature, or b) your real name.

Salviani is no stranger to new startups. Previous satellite publishing ventures include Purehaven Press (which acknowledged the connection with Raider) and Perimedes Publishing (which didn't). Both are now defunct. As for Raider, it may be in trouble. Over at TIPM, Mick Rooney--who has been covering Raider and its offshoots since 2008--reports that only one book has appeared under the Raider imprint since November 2013, likely because Ingram has de-listed Raider from its catalog.

* To see the full contracts with the signatures, click here (Green Shore Publishing) and here (Raider Publishing).

UPDATED 7/24/14 TO ADD: The "testimonials" posted on the Green Shore website are indeed fake. Author and educator Jurgen Wolff has discovered that these supposed Green Shore authors are in fact actors who hawk their video testimonial skills on for $5 a pop.

Friday, July 18, 2014

On Trolls and Fake Bad Reviews

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

We've all read about the abuse of reviews on Amazon and Goodreads.

I'm not talking about soliciting your friends to write glowing testimonials for your books, or buying five-star reviews in batches from paid review services. I'm talking about people who post bad reviews for revenge, punishment, or intimidation. And there's a lot of that kind of thing out there, from angry readers one-starring ebooks whose prices they deem too high, to academic authors employing fake names to slag their rivals, to (alleged) packs of bully reviewers on Goodreads (Goodreads actually changed its review policies in response to this perceived problem).

I recently had the chance to experience review abuse for myself.

On June 29, one- and two-star reviews started appearing on the Amazon page of my 2012 novel Passion Blue--nine in all, over a period of less than two weeks. (I've pasted in screenshots below.)

Beyond the unlikelihood of nine genuine one- and two-star reviews appearing in succession over such a short period of time (the most recent review before that was five months ago), my brand new reviews shared a number of characteristics that suggested fakery. None were from verified purchasers. Most were from accounts that never posted a review before or since. None included any details to suggest they'd read the book, but all were unanimous: it sucked horribly. I mean, it REALLY sucked. Two of the reviewers were so traumatized that they had to take to drink. One wished for death.

Before this, Passion Blue had two one-star reviews and two two-star reviews. One of the one-stars is kind of unfair, since the person admits they didn't read the book--but the reviews are all real, or appear to be. It never occurred to me to challenge them--or indeed, to respond to them at all.

Responding to genuine negative reviews is a mug's game. Bad reviews go with the territory; if you're going to put yourself out there for the reading public to judge, you've got to be prepared to deal with them--and that means letting them go and moving on. Authors who can't resist the urge to strike back are more likely than not to wind up looking like fools (there's a list of some of the more notorious incidences here.)

Fake bad reviews, though--that's another story.

Amazon's little "report abuse" button is useless, but if you contact customer service with a complaint (you can do that here), they are pretty responsive. I had an easier way to manage this than most, because I'm an Amazon Publishing author. The outcome wasn't totally satisfactory, since they left two of the reviews up--one that appeared after I made my complaint, and the first one, which is maybe the most over-the-top one ("[The book] would make the Devil himself cringe with horror") but also the only one that isn't obviously from a fake account (though most of this person's reviews certainly look fake).

So who's behind this review fakery?

Well, if you're a regular reader, you may know that I (along with other anti-writing scam advocates) have my very own troll. Trollbaby likes to target me directly, though lately they've been harassing my Twitter followers with spam tweets like this one:
I can't prove Trollbaby is my review faker, but fake reviews are certainly their style. (If I'm giving you too much credit, Trollbaby, please forgive me.)

Here's Trollbaby's "book," by the way. Aren't they clever punsters?

Product Details

EDITED TO ADD: Just hours after putting this post online, I heard from an author who was recently hit by a one-star attack very much like mine. She thinks that a scammer I did an expose on recently is behind the attacks, and what she says makes sense. I may have given Trollbaby too much credit after all.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Agenty Advice to a Hopeful Writer, From a Non-Agent

 Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Dear Hopeful Writer,

Today I received your snail mail query, beginning:
Dear agent,

I am seeking your representation on my [title redacted] novel. It has 600,000 word count, with the theme: betrayal, revenge, suspense, la femme Nikita, romance, mystery, women fiction, detective and blackmail.
Please consider this well-meant advice.

- Oh dear. You formatted your query (and the chapters included with it) in Lucida Italic. Perhaps you thought this would make you stand out. Well, it does--but not in a good way. Agents expect standard formatting--which means, among other things, a standard font (such as Times New Roman). One glance at your italic opus will cause most agents to toss it aside without even reading.

- Imagine that you're approaching your dream agent, the one you'd most love to represent you. Why would you not address him or her by name? Starting your query with "Dear agent" strongly suggests that you're blasting out a form letter, and agents hate form letters even more than they hate italics. Any agents who looked past your nonstandard formatting will likely stop reading at this point, just two words in.

- 600,000 words? No, no, no. That's the length of four books, not one. For those few, intrepid agents who've persisted this far, your query is now flying toward the recycle bin. (Here--have this handy guide to optimum word counts for fiction.)

- As you query, so do you write. Bad grammar, weird sentence construction, "women fiction": yet more reason for an agent to stop reading. I'm sorry to be blunt, but if you're not competent at this basic level, you aren't ready to be querying.

- Last but certainly not least--and please forgive me if this sounds overly obvious--do make sure that the person you're querying actually is an agent. Approaching a non-agent  (me, for instance) for representation is simply not productive. I hate to think of how many stamps you've wasted this way (and by the way, most agents are happy to accept email queries). Also, just out of curiosity: did "Writer Beware" really strike you as a plausible name for a literary agency?

I hope these observations will be of assistance in your future querying.


Not An Agent

P.S. Here are some links to help:

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Time to Bury the Hachette

 Posted by Michael Capobianco for Writer Beware

It’s a tough time to be an author advocacy organization. As you may or may not know, Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) has been catching a lot of flak about signing on to Douglas Preston’s letter asking Amazon to stop treating Hachette’s books differently from those of the other big publishers by refusing to accept pre-orders, refusing to discount prices, and slowing the delivery of Hachette books to Amazon customers.

SFWA wasn’t alone in signing the letter. Various prestigious authors, including Stephen King, Nora Roberts, John Grisham, at least two past SFWA presidents, and a few hundred other authors, many well known, also signed. Although the letter claims to not take sides in the Amazon/Hachette contractual negotiations, it is addressed only to Amazon, and several sentences seem decidedly biased toward Hachette.

The reaction, both inside the organization and outside, was fast and intense. The letter was perceived, rightly or wrongly, as an attack on Amazon, in which Hachette comes across as an innocent victim.

I’ve read the letter several times now, and I can see how it could be taken as being on Hachette’s side, but in my opinion the interpretations of it from both sides have been extreme. It’s almost as if a reader’s pre-conceived biases completely overshadow what’s actually in the letter. For example, there’s nothing in the letter that talks about self-publishing, but it has been taken by some as an attack on self-publishers. Admittedly, SFWA’s participation can be seen as continuation of a long-standing policy of excluding self-publishers, but still, self-publishing is not there in the letter, which, at least on its face, is pleading only for Amazon to change its policy towards Hachette books.

The traditional media, including the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, have portrayed Amazon as the bad guy here, hurting Hachette’s sales and authors deliberately as part of a negotiating strategy to get a better deal from Hachette. In a recent leaked proposal from Amazon floating the idea of a program to compensate authors hurt by the stand-off, Amazon seems to admit that it actually is doing in most of the things the Preston letter accuses it of, and could stop doing them if it so chose. Even that proposal is subject to reader bias, though. Many read it as a genuine offer, but others see it as a disingenuous ploy.

Hugh Howey, an author who has become a spokesperson to the self-published and who has studied the actions of Amazon and Hachette extensively, has put forward a compelling case that Hachette, in fact, is the bad actor here, and makes his case even more convincing by listing the worst aspects of the way Hachette treats its authors--and there are a lot of them, most especially the 25% of net digital royalty that it and the other big publishers force on their authors. He contends that Hachette is actually in the catbird seat, here, and has much less to lose than Amazon if the negotiations are not concluded successfully. Howey is also at least partly responsible for a petition on supporting Amazon that has garnered several thousand signatures at this point.

I think it’s safe to say that so far the Board of SFWA has tended towards the pro-Hachette position, but the organization’s primary purpose is to advocate for the Hachette authors, especially Hachette authors who also happen to be members. As a first approximation, the Preston letter at least seems to be doing that. Does the Preston letter make unwarranted assumptions about the battle between Hachette and Amazon? Who knows? The fact is, very few people outside those two companies know what’s really going on. Hachette could be the good guy, Amazon the bad guy. Or they both could be bad guys. Or both good guys. There’s an infinite smorgasbord of possibilities. How do you advocate for Hachette’s authors and remain completely neutral?

As I mentioned earlier, Amazon has put forth a tentative proposal to fix the problems in their ordering system that disadvantage Hachette authors, and compensate those authors for the harm done to them during the negotiations. Amazon offered to join with Hachette to pay the authors 100% of its proceeds for their ebooks while the negotiations continue, but only if Hachette agrees to also give all of its proceeds to the authors.

It sounds good, right? Amazon is clearly thinking of the authors, and is even willing to forgo its profit on those books. What could be fairer? Unfortunately, a closer look reveals the flaw: while Amazon would be sacrificing a small profit on a small percentage of its ebook sales, Hachette would be sacrificing a large profit on all of its ebook sales through Amazon (estimated as 60% of its ebook sales total in the USA, and even more in the UK). Hachette, not surprisingly, refused this offer in a matter of hours. Pundits opined that Amazon just made the offer as a publicity stunt, as a way to sway opinion to their side, at the same time making Hachette look like pikers.

No matter how it looks, I’m convinced that the proper course for SFWA and other author advocacy groups is to urge Hachette to negotiate a better, more fairly determined payment to the authors who have been harmed, or, if Hachette stonewalls, to ask Amazon to make good the harm independently.

Here’s an analogy: if you saw the most recent Superman movie, Man of Steel, you undoubtedly noticed how Superman and General Zod destroyed much of Metropolis during their battle at the end of the film. Should the people whose homes and business were destroyed accept compensation for the damage, even if it's offered by General Zod? What if you can’t tell who demolished your apartment building, Zod or Superman? What if you didn’t even know that Superman was the good guy?

The Authors Guild, perhaps predictably, is firmly on the side of Hachette. They’ve been issuing warnings about Amazon for years now, and there’s some indication that their failed settlement with Google was at least partly aimed at addressing Amazon’s dominance. Roxana Robinson, president of the Authors Guild, commented to the NYT: “If Amazon wants to have a constructive conversation about this, we’re ready to have one at any time,” she said in an email. “But this seems like a short-term solution that encourages authors to take sides against their publishers. It doesn’t get authors out of the middle of this — we’re still in the middle.”

If there is a better example of publisher-centric author advocacy, I haven’t seen it. Maybe Amazon’s offer doesn’t get the authors out of the middle, but at least it compensates them for the inconvenience. There are precedents for this type of compensation, too. Amazon and Macmillan reached a similar deal to pay authors a “Kindle Outage Adjustment” back in 2010, after Amazon temporarily disabled the “Buy” buttons on Macmillan books during a dispute over ebook pricing. SFWA’s approach to Amazon’s offer should be to urge Hachette to negotiate and do everything possible to facilitate such payments. It should insist that any compensatory payments will not be counted as royalty income and will be paid directly to the authors, above and beyond any unearned advance.

While the main thrust of this advocacy should be aimed at Hachette, at least initially, I can see also urging Amazon to make a fairer offer in which the payment to authors is more evenly shared, and, if Hachette doesn’t budge, it would be reasonable to approach Amazon about paying out these moneys directly to authors, bypassing Hachette entirely. If Amazon acknowledges that it has harmed these authors and wants to make them whole, surely it would have no problem paying them directly.

Wishful thinking? For over a year, Amazon’s subsidiary Audible directly paid authors one dollar for every audiobook of theirs sold if they signed up for the program. This was not a royalty. It was unrelated to whatever contractual arrangement the author had to his or her publisher. It was an honorarium; a gift. So Amazon definitely has the technical ability to do it again with Hachette authors. If some authors didn’t register for the program, either the Authors Registry (run by the Guild, so they might not be interested) or the Authors Coalition’s Individual Author Distribution system could be used to find and pay them.

I hope that this approach would be viewed as pro-author, neutral towards the combatants, and would help to reassure those who thought SFWA’s participation in the Preston letter was siding with Amazon.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Writer Beware Has a New Logo and a New Look

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Introducing Writer Beware's brand-new logo! It was designed by awesome artist James F. Beveridge, and hopefully will help us to build more of a brand identity. After sixteen years, it's about time, right?

Over the next few weeks, I'll be updating Writer Beware's various online presences to include it.

I've already re-designed this blog, within the limits of available Blogger templates (while I would love to switch to Wordpress, I can't figure a way to do so without losing all our wonderful followers). I hope you find it more attractive and readable.

Comments, as always, are welcome!

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

American Writing Association: A Service Writers Don't Need

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Recently I've gotten a number of questions about the American Writing Association (note the .org suffix, implying altruism and good will), a group that describes itself thus:
We are a group of professional writers and editors that are committed to helping people become published writers. We work with a wide range of people - from the every day writer with a story to tell, to the experienced writer looking for the big publishing contract. Whatever your goal is, we are dedicated to helping you achieve fulfillment from the time and effort you have put into your writing.
What exactly does that mean? Well, if you ignore the abundant red flags and submit your writing, you receive an offer like this:
If we do feel the book has the potential for success, then we would offer to represent you. That includes:

1) Writing a Query Letter to represent you and the book
2) Offer to copyright the completed book if necessary
3) Our attorneys will represent you when signing contracts
4) Submit you directly to Literary Agents in our expansive network

This requires an investment of $699. Again, past that there are no other fees other than the 5% Commission, but we will not surprise you with any hidden fees within our business. We are very up front about what we plan to do.
In other words, American Writing Association is a new iteration of a very old scheme: the literary agent middleman.

For a savvy writers, AWA should set off multiple warning bells based just on its particulars: the lack of substantive information about staff; the vague promises about connections and networks; the last-names-missing testimonials; the non-verifiable success stories on its Twitter feed. Not to mention the big fee and the 5% commission.

But there's a bigger issue here as well. Literary agents are the ONLY recognized middlemen in the publishing business. And you don't need a middleman to approach a middleman.

Unfortunately, services like AWA--which can carry fees into the four figures--have a fatal appeal for writers frustrated by the research and query process, not to mention multiple rejections. The concept even makes superficial sense, in a hall-of-infinite-reflections kind of way: since you need an agent to get the attention of publishers, why wouldn't you need an agent to get the attention of agents?

You don't. In fact, you're far less likely to get a favorable response than you are with your own query letter. I've seen a number of these middleman-to-the-middlemen schemes over the years, and they all have one thing in common: literary agents hate them. You don't have to take my word for it--here's the recent reaction of two successful literary agents to a middleman approach--one that I'm betting was a lot more professional than AWA's:
So who's behind AWA? Its website offers no clue; those highly-touted "professional" writers and editors and attorneys aren't named (though I did manage to find one of AWA's editors; I'll let you judge her level of experience), and the URL is anonymized.

I was able to find several names that appear to be associated with AWA: Bruce Allen, AWA "Vice President"; Jerry Moore; and Adam Goldson. AWA alleges that it's located in Downers Grove, Illinois (home, perhaps not coincidentally, to Silver Screen Placements, a fee-charging agency about which I got a number of complaints in the mid-aughts). A toll-free number on the website thanks callers for contacting AWA and invites them to dial staff members' (non-existent) extensions.

However, the phone number included in the AWA emails I've seen belongs to something called Big Rock Florist Concierge in Big Rock, IL, just down the road from Downers Grove. I called that number too, and was routed to Adam Goldson's voice mail. So he, at least, appears to be a real person, though I was unable to find out anything else about him--leaving open the question of how being a florist concierge, whatever that is, qualifies you to have anything to do with writing and publishing.

Writers, don't waste your money on a needless "service" like this.