Shining a bright light into the dark corners of the shadow-world of literary scams, schemes, and pitfalls. Also providing advice for writers and industry news and commentary. Writer Beware is sponsored by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Inc.

February 2, 2015

Who's Running Your Writers' Group? Why You Should Be Careful

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

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Joining a writers' group can be a terrific way to get feedback and support, and to make new friends. But what if that group isn't all it seems?

An alert Writer Beware reader drew my attention to what seems like a growing phenomenon: writers' groups sponsored by pay-to-play publishers.

A few examples--all from Meetup.com, where there are likely many more:

Onion Custard Publishing's Author Clinic is "looking to support authors who want to develop their ideas." Onion Custard also offers a suite of services for authors--all at a cost.

The Roswell Alpharetta Book Publishing Group for Authors, which helps writers "Network with other authors during your writing and publishing journey", is run by Firebrand Publishing, which provides "book publishing services at affordable rates."

PageCurl Publishing and Promotions runs two writers' groups, one in Seattle and one in Pennsylvania. Their aim: to "take the scary out of publishing." But not necessarily the cost: PageCurl offers publishing services at $45 per hour, as well as a la carte services and publishing packages starting at $3,500.

Grey Wolfe Publishing also has multiple groups, in Michigan and Missouri. They describe themselves as "a reliable pack of literary experts who will walk with you and protect you through even the darkest paths of the publishing forest!" One of those paths: Grey Wolfe's "all inclusive" publishing package, priced at $1,250. If you want, you can pay more...much more.

At Brisbane Self-Publishing Meetup, you can "Meet like-minded people and talk about your wins and challenges in getting your book published." The group is sponsored by Complete Publishing, "the new revolution in book publishing," which charges up to $6,500 AUD for a Premium Author Package (about $5,000 US). Not all that revolutionary--except maybe in your bank account.

The writers' group offered by Zimbell House Publishing has a "missions": "to help writers become quality authors." Quality authors can also buy one of Zimbell House's publishing packages, which start at $999.

The Greater Cleveland Writers Group is a large and well-established group that "exists to provide resources for novice to published writers in order to assist in developing, editing, publishing and marketing their work." Its MeetUP is sponsored by Cleveland Writers Press, which appears to provide some form of traditional publishing, but also sells self-publishing services.  

I've received no complaints about any of these publishing services. And I have no evidence that any of them are using these groups as a way to steer writers toward their paid services.

However, it's at least a possibility--and that potential conflict of interest is one reason why you should be cautious when a writers' group is sponsored by self-publishing service or pay-to-play publisher.

The other? The misinformation that such services and publishers often provide, whether about publishing or about themselves. Cleveland Writers Press, for instance, encourages authors to believe this common and pernicious myth:
Currently, the Publishing Industry basically ignores the up-and-coming author. Becoming a ‘published’ author is nearly a Black Art. There has been little interest in developing talented writers for decades.
And Grey Wolfe Publishing devotes an entire page of its website to explaining why its "unique 'hybrid' approach to publishing" is not vanity publishing. ("Hybrid," by the way, is one of the newest euphemisms used by vanity publishers, joining older deceptive terms like "co-op" and "joint venture".) So does Zimbell House Publishing. But if a company calls itself an "independent publisher" while at the same time requiring payment from authors, it's a vanity publisher, and no amount of verbiage about selectivity, partnership, expertise, or profound respect for authors can change that.

So be careful out there. Know who's running that writers' group you're thinking of joining--and if it's a publisher or a publishing service, be aware that it may be interested in more than just supporting you in your writing journey.

29 comments :

Chris Crawford said...

I'm leading a writer's group in Fort Worth - a few months ago we received an offer to partner with what turned out to be a vanity publisher. My reaction was to send our members an email warning them about the problems with those publishers.

I'd be leery of joining any group who entered a partnership like that.

Victoria Strauss said...

Out of curiosity, Chris--which publisher? Email me if you prefer: beware [at] sfwa.org. Thanks!

Greg Smith said...

I run a writers group http://AgileWriters.org and a publishing company http://AgileWriterPress.com. I offer assisted self-publishing services to my writers and all writers in general. I don't consider what I do "vanity press" - mainly because there is no minimum purchase necessary (vanity presses often require a purchase of 100 or 1000 books).

Nobody in the writers group is required to use my services. I don't like being lumped in with groups that take advantage of writers. I offer free seminars that help my writers pursue their interests in traditional and self-publishing - as well as paid seminars. I don't think charging writers for a service performed qualifies as either vanity press nor something that writers should "beware" of. I plan to offer both my writers club and my publishing services as long as writers come to me for help.

Victoria Strauss said...

Hi, Greg,

Thanks for your comment.

I'm not one of those people who lumps all fee-based publishers or publishing services under the "vanity" label. I think there's a legitimate distinction between vanity presses (fee-based companies that self-identify as publishers) and self-publishing services (in my post, I do mention self-publishing services as well as vanity publishers).

I visited your website, and see that you characterize your company as "assisted self-publishing". I think that's probably an accurate designation. But I still think there's a potential conflict of interest when a writers' group is sponsored by a fee-based publishing service, or vice versa--which is why I advise authors to be cautious, not necessarily of your service in particular but of such situations in general.

I note that your Agile Writer Press website doesn't describe your services in detail or mention prices (where that's the case, the service is usually pretty expensive). I think that for the sake of transparency, that information should be prominently provided by any self-publishing service.

Denise Beucler said...

There is a group in Ohio that charges members a per session or per year fee. I ran into them at a convention claiming that they were "the agent of record" for one of their members, and that Harper Collins require repayment of advances if the book didn't sell enough copies.

I'd come across them when I originally searched for writing groups in my area. There were a ton of other flags, they only let you submit about a thousand words at a time, and they had you read them out loud at the group, and they seemed largish (over 20 people). I found a much better group... no fees and actual feedback, but charging for writing groups seemed really odd.

AmyShojai said...

Interesting that you'd characterize "hybrid" as a synonym for "vanity" publishing. My publisher, Cool Gus Publishing (Bob Mayer and Jen Talty) coined the term "hybrid" to describe those authors like myself who chose to both self-publish and publish "traditionally" based on what best fits the project. Pay-to-play has nothing to do with it. I've never heard this used in conjunction with what you describe. I'll flag this discussion for Bob, if he'd like to weigh in.

Laura said...

I second what AmyShojai says. A hybrid author is one who is self-published and traditionally published (e.g., a currently traditionally published author who has self-published her backlist). The service is abusing the term.

Jennifer Ruth Jackson said...

Grey Wolfe Publishing is, I'm sure in no way, trying to confuse people by sounding like the reputable Graywolf Press.

Victoria Strauss said...

Amy and Laura, thanks for your comments.

There are indeed a number of pay-to-play publishers that use the term "hybrid" to characterize their publishing model (as in, "a hybrid between traditional publishing and self-publishing"). One example: She Writes Press, which charges $3,900.

I'm well aware of what hybrid authors are and I agree that these companies are abusing the term. Other new euphemisms for vanity publishing that I've seen include "third way" and "author-driven."

Dennis Latham said...

If you want to self-publish, learn how to make cover art and format manuscripts for a printer like Ingram. You can put out a 300 page book for a few hundred dollars, and you will get as much promo as you would from all these places who charge thousands of dollars. Writers groups can be bad or good. I believe most are bad because they will tear apart anything you write and nit-pick it to death, especially if some members feel superior. And there is always at least one. Just write and rewrite and learn the ropes. It's a hard road.

Anonymous said...

Probably irrelevant, but Onion Custard just sounds gross.

TCinLA said...

What's worse is the writer's group run by the one member who will never ever be published/produced, who has turned his/her leadership of the group into their substitute for the success of publication/productiohn.

I'm a screenwriter in addition to writing books (which is a helluva lot more enjoyable than slogging through Okeefenokee West, if less profitable). Joined a writers group that shall remain un-named (since it still exists and the problem was ultimately solved), with a charismatic "Chairman" who - once he found he had a produced screenwriter in the group (me) - asked me to read his 240 page screenplay written in 12-pitch Courier New (a violation of every rule that exists about screenplays). I told him when he got it to 120 pages in 10-pitch Courier New, I would read it for him since it would then be an actual screenplay. Needless to say, he was not happy that I was not kowtowing to him like the wannabees who didn't know the business did. I realized the group was being run by a Wannabee/Neverwouldbee and left. The good news was I did run across a couple good writers in the group, one of whom became a Writing Partner on a produced project.

Writer's groups have to be approached with caution, particularly if you're already a rung or two up the ladder.

A.E. Snow said...

The ladies at PageCurl are fantastic. They are patient, helpful, and not scammers in the slightest. They do everything from editing to marketing to publishing and I couldn't recommend them enough.

Sheri Williams said...

I've had a good amount of contact with PageCurl Publishing. I can't say enough good things about that company or the ladies who run it. I don't know about the others mentioned in this piece but I'd advise people to just do research. Know what you are getting into. And hopefully be lucky enough to work with a group like PageCurl who honestly wants to help indie authors.

Victoria Strauss said...

Looks like someone told PageCurl about this post.

Sheri Williams said...

Why wouldn't someone tell PageCurl about this post? Let me saying don't work for them, but I've worked with them. If someone you had worked with was being lumped unjustly with a large group, wouldn't you tell them? I mean all press is good press right? No, I would say honest press is good press. All I'm saying is do your research. Don't believe one snippet as the whole truth about a company.

Ally BIshop said...

I have to be honest, this kind of post really bothers me. You have not done your research to find out if these companies are actually doing anything untoward or not. You've made assumptions.

I run the writers' group in PA for Page Curl. It's a fun group, strictly to get writers together and hang out. I've met some great folks there. I am not paid to do this -- I simply like the women who own Page Curl, and when they talked about putting together more opportunities to get writers together, I offered to host one in my area.

They are not sharks. When you self-publish, you will have to pay money to do so if you want a quality product. That means you pay for editing, graphic design, and possibly promotion. That's a service you choose to pay for.

Page Curl is not overpriced -- I'm in a technically competing business as a freelance editor (PC offers editing as well). Their services are honest, genuine, and yes, they expect to be paid for that expertise. How do I know all of this? Because I pay for their editing services. I am a paying, satisfied customer -- I've also known these women for some time. They are good people, some of the best you'll find in this business, and they care about their clients.

Putting out fear about other companies when you have NOT BOTHERED TO CONTACT THEM FOR THEIR SIDE OF THINGS is irresponsible at best, and unethical at worst.

I get it -- I check the websites, too, before I do business with people. But I hope--and I personally vet my contractors--that they do a bit more work than you do before shaming companies on their websites.

Shame on YOU, Writer Beware.

Victoria Strauss said...

Ally,

Possibly you didn't read this sentence of my post? "I've received no complaints about any of these publishing services. And I have no evidence that any of them are using these groups as a way to steer writers toward their paid services."

This post is intended to highlight possible conflicts of interest, and to advise writers to research any writers' group they may be thinking of joining.

I'd have more respect for PageCurl if its owners would contact me directly, rather than organizing customers and associates to leave comments here.

PageCurl Publishing and Promotion said...

Hello Victoria and everyone else reading,

My name is Samantha Williams. I’m one of the founders of PageCurl. We have a policy. We don't malign anyone unnecessarily and we try very hard never to respond in anger. We didn’t ask our customers or associates to respond to your post. The thread was brought to our attention by some of our clients who have commented here. We’ve taken the time to formulate a calm, respectful response to you, rather than fire off a response in anger. We even gave serious thought to just letting this thread die and not responding at all. However, as this thread has gotten, in our opinion, out of hand, we'd like to address the points made here.

1. Yes. We are a publishing company. Yes. We have run meetup groups. No, we do not, in any way, shape, or form, try to sell our services at these meetups. In fact, not one person in our writer groups (that’s Michigan, Washington, and Pennsylvania) is paying PageCurl for a single service. Our writer groups are exactly what they are meant to be: a place for writers in any stage of publishing to learn the craft, form relationships with other writers, and take advantage of free services and events to help them grow their author brand.

2. We offer a variety of services at a variety of prices. The publishing package you quoted includes cover design, marketing, editing, formatting, social media, and launch events. But that is one single package on our website. We have a lot of different services, as do most companies who sell things. And unlike a lot of other companies, we also offer a large number of free services to help authors succeed and regularly host twitter chats, Facebook events, and promote authors we feel produce quality work, without charging a dime.

What several of our customers objected to, and what we object to, was the fact that you called us out without ever contacting us. You say you lost respect for us because we did not respond to you directly. Well, we'd like to know why you didn't offer us the same courtesy. We’d have been happy to explain our mission or talk about our meetup groups with you.

Had you done so, you’d have learned that we haven't even held a meetup in months. These groups were first created around National Novel Writing Month, as opportunities for write-ins and craft support. Yes, the groups still exist, and yes we hope to do something with them again soon. But we aren't currently using them. And yet you felt the need to call us out publicly as a group to beware of. We’d really like to know why.

The internet makes it very easy to publish information without researching or worrying about consequences. But, and here is the main reason why we purposely did not respond earlier when we found out about the post, it also has a very long memory. One poorly researched post, one inflammatory comment, and someone's online reputation is tarnished. We work very hard to help authors succeed, whether they work with us or not.

We aren't interested in fueling this fire. Fighting on the internet never ends well, for either party. But don’t take that attitude to mean that we’re willing to be libeled without cause.

In closing, we hope your readers will do their own research, and may it be a little more in-depth than simply stopping by our services and pricing page.

Victoria Strauss said...

Hi, Samantha,

Thanks for visiting and presenting your point of view.

As I mentioned above, the aim of this post is to provide a general caution about the potential conflicts of interest that may arise when a fee-charging publisher or self-publishing service sponsors a writers' group.

To illustrate the phenomenon of such groups, I've provided a number of specific examples, including the groups sponsored by your company. I have also explicitly stated that I've received no complaints about any of the companies mentioned--yours included--and have seen no evidence that they're steering the members of the writers' groups they sponsor into buying their services.

As to the specific information I've provided about your company, it's entirely factual (which your comment acknowledges). Since it's all taken from your own website--links included--I didn't see a need to contact you directly.

All in all, I'm a little confused as to how you feel you've been libeled.

Thanks again for your comment.

Dennis Latham said...

I'm enjoying this thread. I've made steady money writing for the past 25 years, some fiction, most non-fiction, all while working a day job because very few people live the full time writer life without starving. I sold my first story in a foxhole in Vietnam for 10.00 to another Marine after I bet him I could write a story in twenty minutes. We didn't have anywhere else to gamble so this fit the circumstance. I won the bet and thought, wow, I can be a writer. This is easy. It would be 1981 before I published anything.

One thing I learned is no one can teach you to write. A writer's group can't teach you to write. You have to teach yourself to write. There are no shortcuts. Who would want a relationship with another writer? Writers are moody and often boring and don't exercise much and many of them can drink you under a table. You can spend a million dollars on self-help books, writer groups, and seminars, but in the end there are three things you must do: write, edit, and avoid being ripped off. That's it. That's why I like this blog. Victoria tells the truth. I don't agree sometimes, but I know there is no easy way to become a writer.

You can join writers groups and get 900 different bits of advice on one story, all going in different directions and be more confused than when you started. The only thing I can see positive about any writer group is to tell you when they don't understand something you wrote. Other than that, a writer group is useless, unless they buy something you write. Most writers can't read for fun. They mentally edit as they go along.

I don't expect anyone to listen to me because I don't make the big bucks writing. I just chip away year after year and make what I can. I've already accepted that If I'm going to be famous for fiction, it will be after I'm dead. I repeat: there are only three things you need to know about writing: learn to write, learn to self-edit, and don't pay anyone for the first two. Like anything else, you learn by experience, and like anything else, a lot of people don't want to hear the truth.

Dave Van Horn said...

Thanks for mentioning Cleveland Writers Press, and The Cleveland Writers Forum MeetUP!.

First, we are THE ONLY Writer MeetUP! to FINANCIALLY BACK our writer members. We have put our own money into Members work who meet our publishing standards for quality and marketability.

Alan Osi: Moondust Sonatas

Shannon Eichorn: Rights of Use

Second, while it may be YOUR OPINION, it isn't a myth that it is VERY difficult for new writers to gain the ear of a traditional publisher, and get published. Yet we teach our members month in and month out what they need to do in order to have the best shot at getting picked up. You could not be more wrong, and since we work month in and month out with grassroots writers, we'll gladly stack up real experience, against an unresearched, poorly written Op/Ed.

Next...

Dave Van Horn said...


Third, we are, and will offer a variety of digital marketing services to Authors who want to Self Publish. There is a huge gap of knowledge that exists now in the world of Self Publishing. It has become relatively straight forward for writers to be able to move their manuscript into print, and get it on places like Amazon where it can be sold. That is the easy part. The difficult part is getting 'an audience' to not only go and check out the work, but buy it. Most writers, especially of fiction, lack these skills.

Selling Fiction is extremely difficult for Self Published Authors.

Next.... due your character restrictions.

Dave Van Horn said...


Four, as a MeetUP! Organizer myself for 10 years I bristle at people like you who suggest that an Organizer of one of these groups can't monetize it. Do you have any idea how much time, energy, and out of pocket money it takes to offer a venue each month, literally out of the goodness of one's heart? That we should have real expertise to share that might be valuable, and we do our best to steer people to reputable vendors, that we don't make a dime from, and if we did, why is that a bad thing?

Five, I would encourage you to take a deeper look at what we will soon roll BACK out. A 'catalogue' of our member Authors where they can sell their books from. We're investing OUR money into this and essentially offering it at NO Charge until we get it right, then we'll ask a whopping $60 a year, for something we put up thousands of dollars to create.

Next.... due to your character restrictions

Dave Van Horn said...


Six, Tonight we'll host, at our own expense an event for our members GLADLY at a cost of $250 out of pocket, and will the pass the 'hat' literally for $5 donations from our members who show. We will likely NOT recover that $250, and we won't bitch as loudly as you are about an Organizer who might try to monetize a MeetUP for writers. Should I write a scathing email to our members excoriating them for NOT showing up and causing me to reach INTO my pocket to carve out $250 and not enough people show, or 'miss' donating because many times our members don't have that $5.

Six.Point.1, I have personally opened my HOME to a member who was homeless, helped him get on his feet, drove him to job interviews, paid for work shoes, etc; he's repaid me 10,000 times over by turning his life around, and continuing to write. So when you stick your nose in OUR 'ethics' as MeetUP! Organizers, sneer or question a 'profit motive' you might want the full story.

Next.... due to your character restrictions

Dave Van Horn said...


Seven, since I've got real skin in the game, and folks like you DON'T, since we've put up real cash, and 'bloggers' like you haven't.... let me give you some observations about 'writers', whom I DEARLY LOVE......

1. Stop crying about being 'ripped off'. Writers are the ONLY class of artists I know who think they don't need to 'invest' in themselves. For example, when I ask our Members if they would invest $100,000.00 in their work, a large part of the oxygen is pulled from the room..... 'Why NOOOOOO' is what we hear. Then I ask them... 'Then why should a Publisher?' Because that's the kind of money you are asking a Publisher to 'sink' into an 'unknown' 'unproven' entity. Let that sink in.

2. Unlike other professionals from golfers, pro athletes, musicians, actors, artists, etc, writers think they don't need ANY professional help from editors, copy editors, etc. Much less PAY PEOPLE to help them.

That's why most writers fail right there. They don't 'learn the Business of Writing' and they have this false notion that the industry of writing owes them something without any real investment in sharpening their skills, building an audience etc.

Next....

Dave Van Horn said...

Oh they might go to a creative writing workshop and pay $50 to $250, but they largely don't invest in a writing 'coach' the way any of these other 'professionals' do. No writers show up and slam down a manuscript and DEMAND huge advances for something that isn't proven.

I am bringing this up because some how you carry FORWARD the biggest MYTH OF ALL.... that some how EVERYONE BUT THE WRITER, can't earn a dime, and that IF you should DARE to charge these people to help them BECOME BETTER WRITERS.... oh you're stealing the food from the mouths of these people. Sorry. You are wrong. Writers need to invest in themselves, and especially in creating their audience.

I won't apologize for sharp edge. We've got over 750 members, have conducted this MeetUP as a labor of love for 10 years every month. Nearly 40 books of all genres have been published either traditionally, or by the Member.

For YOU to come in and question our motives, on providing 'paid services' or 'charging fees' is a pure insult. Why didn't YOU as a REPORTER CALL US first? If you had, and still can, you'd find we are the BEST WRITER MEET UP IN THE COUNTRY.

You have violated the first rule of journalism. Courtesy. Your comment section is blown up with people who have called you out for shoddy work.

Next....

Dave Van Horn said...


Since you won't pull the comment by Denise Beucler, since we ARE a large Writer Group in Ohio, we do charge a fee, and we only alot 10 minutes of reading and critique per writer... I don't believe I know Denise, but we've had over 1500 people cycle through, she obviously has no concept of what it takes to run one of these groups.

When you have 10 to 12 people who wish to be heard, 10 mins each is nearly two hours. We offer our members the ability to form smaller groups so you can not only get more feedback, but work within your genre. You should only bring a 'snippet' to share. People don't have the benefit of reading your entire work, so you should only be asking for feed back on 1,000 words. It is rather selfish to think you can command the attention span of a room for longer, especially when people are digesting 10 to 15 others.

Create a smaller group, and commit to it.

Further, after successfully running a LARGE Writer MeetUP!, the people who are offended by the nit-picking, are generally those who need the advice the most. When one of our members who may have 10, or 40 titles to their name offers 'nit-picking' advice, my suggestion is to leave your ego at the door, and take it. It's the ones who come back month after month and remain open, are the ones who benefit most.

Next.....

The original Webwildcatter said...


Sincerely,

Dave Van Horn
Cleveland Writer MeetUP
Cleveland Writers Press Inc.
440-725-7587
dave@clevelandwriterspress.com

 
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