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

December 29, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- Legitimate: A Word I Don't Like

Publishing is a dynamic field, and though a generally accepted (and understood) terminology exists, there's no Great Publishing Dictionary in the Sky where definitions are chiseled in stone. Thus, I can say (as I often do) that the term "traditional publisher" has no accepted industry meaning--that it is, in fact, an intentionally spurious label invented by one of the more notorious author mills--but I can't point to any definitive proof, or cite any recognized authority to support my statement.

Ditto for my currrent pet peeve, "legitimate agent."

Unlike "traditional publisher," "legitimate agent" wasn't always a meaningless term. Way back in the dark ages, when Writer Beware was first getting off the ground (okay, 1998), it was generally understood to denote an agent with standing in the industry--i.e., an agent who was reputable, experienced, and successful. Over the past few years, however, I'm seeing the term used more and more often to describe an agent who is merely well-intentioned, responsive, and non-fee-charging. Have you heard of Brand New Agent? someone will ask on a writers' message board. Yes, she doesn't charge a fee and she responded to my query in less than a week, someone else will reply. Oh good, the original questioner will say, without asking whether Brand New Agent has any relevant professional experience or whether she has ever sold a book. Looks like she's legit.

Why is this a problem? Because while it's great for an agent to be well-intentioned, responsive, and non-fee-charging, that doesn't necessarily mean the agent is reputable, experienced, and successful. Good intentions don't sell books, after all; promptness doesn't necessarily imply expertise, and not charging a fee, while commendable, says nothing about an agent's skill. (Here are some more thoughts on why skill is important.) Since you can no longer be sure, when someone says "legit," which set of descriptors they intend to invoke, "legitimate agent" has become as useless a term as "traditional publisher."

What I prefer:

- Reputable agent. An agent with a good standing in the publishing industry, i.e., a track record of commercial sales.

- Experienced agent. An agent with publishing industry experience, i.e., someone with the professional background to know what s/he is doing, as demonstrated by a track record of commercial sales.

- Successful agent. An agent who has sold, and is actively selling, books, i.e....someone with a track record of commercial sales.

Again, of course, there's no Great Publishing Dictionary in the Sky. So I can't claim any authority for my preferred terms, other than the fact that I think they are more useful. Nor can I assume that others will understand them in the same way I do--which is why I always try to pair a word like "reputable" with concrete information about the agent's clients and sales.

The point is that language is imprecise. Professional experience and achievement are far less ambiguous. Don't rely on terminology; always check the facts. And remember the Writer Beware mantra: Track record (or, if the agent is new, relevant professional background) is the bottom line.

December 23, 2006

A.C. Crispin - 70 - Meeting a Writer Beware "Ambassador"

Last night I went to a Christmas party at the lovely home of a very famous author I've known for years. I was sitting in the chair nearest the door, when it opened, and several folks came in out of the rain, newcomers to the party. As I turned toward them and smiled, seeing them shedding coats and scarves, a nice lady smiled back at me and said, "Hi, aren't you Ann Crispin?"

Thinking I had met her before at one of the author's parties, I said, "Yes, have we met here before?"

She shook her head, "No. I recognized you from your recent picture in the Writer Beware blog. Congratulations on the Martha Ivery sentencing!"

What a nice Christmas surprise, folks!

The Ambassador joined my husband and me and we wound up talking about Writer Beware as the evening progressed...laughing over the antics of Barbara Bauer and Melanie Mills, and cussing a bit at Bouncin' Bobby, while making an earnest wish that 2007 will bring an end to HIS chicanery.

It was such a thrill to realize how far Writer Beware's message has spread. This nice lady has not only been an Ambassdor, spreading the word to aspiring writers about avoiding scams, she had also helped alert Victoria to several scams that needed to be included in the Writer Beware database.

So...tonight, as I finish wrapping Christmas presents, I plan to lift my glass of eggnog in a toast to all Writer Beware Ambassadors, everywhere, and say, "Bless them, Every One!"

Have a terrific Holiday and New Year celebration, folks. Be happy, well, and safe.

-Ann C. Crispin
Chair, Writer Beware

December 15, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- Why Scammers Are Hard to Put Away

The recent sentencing of literary scammer Martha Ivery to 65 months in the Federal pen has generated a huge amount of response--including some interesting questions. What's the big deal? some people want to know. Criminals get sent away all the time--what's so special about Martha? Other people are puzzled by why more literary scammers aren't in jail. How can they continue to operate with apparent impunity?

The second question is the answer to the first--what happened with Martha Ivery is a big deal because it's so rare for a literary scammer to be caught, much less indicted and sentenced. Since Writer Beware's founding in 1998, just a handful of scammers have been successfully prosecuted. Here's the roster:

1998: Edit Ink
1999: Woodside Literary Agency
1999: Deering Literary Agency/Sovereign Publications
2001: Northwest Publishing
2004: Helping Hand Literary Services/Janet Kay & Associates
2005: Melanie Mills
2006: Martha Ivery

A few more--such as Cris Robins of the Robins Agency--have been successfully sued by individual authors, and a handful--such as Desert Rose Literary Agency--are currently under investigation.

So why is it so rare for literary scammers to be brought to justice? Why do they seem to fly so far beneath the radar of law enforcement? Here are some possible reasons.

- Literary scamming is a niche crime. Writers are a minority of the population, engaged in a specialized activity that most people don't pursue. There simply isn't enough of a threat to the general public to justify most law enforcement officials' interest. Also, because writers aren't necessarily very old, or very young, or members of other groups that are regarded as especially vulnerable, it's easy to say "caveat emptor." They should have known better.

- Per scam, the number of victims is small; per victim, the amounts of money are small. According to one lawyer we know, white collar crime doesn't get nearly the attention it should in the USA. When white collar crime is prosecuted, it tends to involve large numbers of victims and/or enormous amounts of money. Most literary scammers rook their clients for at most a few thousand dollars, and sometimes for as little as a couple of hundred. Their victim rosters typically number in the hundreds rather than the thousands. Over time, of course, this adds up--for instance, Martha Ivery's total take from her nearly 300 victims is estimated at over $700,000. Victim by victim and dollar by dollar, however, the take isn't impressive. It can be hard to convince busy law enforcement officials to get worked up about a dishonest agent who is averaging a few hundred bucks per client--especially where the agent appears to be providing some sort of service in return.

- Publishing is an arcane field whose rules are unfamiliar to outsiders. It can be very hard for people with no experience of publishing to recognize why certain things are potentially fraudulent. If you don't realize that literary agents work on commission only, it probably doesn't seem like a big deal for an agent to charge an upfront fee. If you aren't aware of the level of expertise an agent needs in order to be successful, you may not see why it's so deceptive for unqualified people to represent themselves as being competent to sell manuscripts (this is complicated by the fact that there's no licensing or formal training for literary agents, so there are no objective standards to point to). If you don't know the nature of the author-agent relationship, it may not seem especially unethical for agents to hawk their own editing services. If you don't know what an agent or publisher should be doing, it may be difficult to understand why what a scammer is doing is worthless. To make matters worse, none of these things are easy to explain concisely, and law enforcement officials may not want to endure a long lecture (and they're not always crazy about being told what they ought to consider a crime). Many of our efforts to lobby for interest in literary scams have been defeated by the information barrier.

- Scammery and incompetence look a lot alike. What's the difference between the fake agent who sets out to deliberately defraud clients of $500 apiece, and the amateur agent who believes that it's acceptable to keep his unsuccessful business afloat by charging fees? (For clients, zero--either way, they'll wind up with a smaller bank account and no sale.) In most cases, it's very difficult to tell--let alone prove it. When you take the other factors into account, you can see why law enforcement officials often would rather not bother.

In nearly every case where legal action was taken against a scammer, it has been the result of group action by the victims--as with the many writers who contacted the New York State Attorney General about Edit Ink--or the dogged persistence of a single individual--such as the unsung hero of the Martha Ivery investigation, FBI researcher Paul Silver, who simply would not let the case fall through the cracks of the system; or Det. Brian Elkins of San Angelo, Texas, who refused to allow scam artists Janet and George Titsworth to operate on his turf. This is why we ALWAYS encourage defrauded writers to complain to the authorities (the Overview page of Writer Beware includes a list of organizations where complaints can be filed), and why we persist in our efforts to alert law enforcement officials to the literary scams that are operating right under their noses.

This, by the way, is another reason why Martha Ivery's sentencing is a big deal. Since she was indicted on the actual literary fraud (as opposed to peripheral stuff like credit card fraud and bankruptcy fraud--she was indicted on those too, but the literary scam accounted for the bulk of the 17 counts to which she pleaded guilty), her case provides a precedent for law enforcement officials who may be wondering if it's possible to successfully prosecute a literary scammer. Not only that--the indictment and other court documents are an excellent crash course in literary scammery.

If she can help us change things, Martha may wind up doing some good after all.

December 11, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- Associated Content: Something to Beware

I've blogged before about the renewed popularity of content sites, where you can post your work (articles, videos, podcasts, photos) and earn some kind of income, often through ad clicks. While you shouldn't bet your next rent check on making significant money from such sites, there's no harm in using them--as long as you read and understand the fine print.

Associated Content ("The People's Media Company") is one such site. It offers users a choice between posting their content remuneration-free, or submitting for payment consideration (an Associated Content editor will review the submission and make an offer if appropriate). Unusually, if you choose the payment option, you don't earn from ad clicks--Associated Content pays you a fee. It's not a lot, and the amount is pegged to how much you post/how much you promote your content; nevertheless, it's actual cash money. And a lot of people seem to be signing on.

In order to post free content at the site, you must agree to Associated Content's Terms of Use. No doubt many people will simply click "I agree" rather than slog through the whole of this dense, small-print document--but that's never a good idea. If you read down far enough, you find the following clause (bolding is mine):

A. User Content.
By submitting any User Content through or to the AC Network, including on any User Tools or User Pages, but excluding any User Content you submit on AC Blogs, you hereby irrevocably grant to AC, its affiliates and distributors, a worldwide, royalty-free, non-exclusive, and fully sub-licensable license, to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, translate, publicly perform, publicly display, create derivative works from, transfer, transmit and distribute on the AC Network, in connection with promotion or elsewhere, such User Content (in whole or in part) and to incorporate the User Content into other works in any format or medium now known or later developed. Notwithstanding the foregoing, when you submit a text, video, images , AC may modify the format, content and display of such User Content. The foregoing grants shall include the right to exploit any proprietary rights in such User Content, including but not limited to rights under copyright, trademark, service mark or patent laws under any relevant jurisdiction. With respect to User Content you Post for inclusion on publicly accessible areas of AC Blogs, You grant AC the license to use, distribute, reproduce, modify, adapt, publicly perform and publicly display such User Content on the AC Network or on any media. You agree that the foregoing grant of rights by you to AC and its affiliates is provided without any the entitlement of payment of fees or consideration.

Just by posting on the site, you're granting Associated Content the right to exploit your work in any way imaginable--and possibly to make money from that exploitation--without any compensation or consideration to you. Of course, the chances that Associated Content will actually exercise this right for any given piece of content are probably fairly slim. Also, since it's a non-exclusive grant, you aren't prevented from selling, re-posting, or adapting your work yourself. You may, therefore, consider it worth the risk.

(This kind of language, by the way, is not unusual on the Internet. For instance, you'll find something similar--though not as encompassing--in Yahoo's Terms of Service (see Clause 9), and also in the User Agreement of (see Clause 5), another content site. As katya l. points out in the Comments section of this post, just about any online service will require you to grant certain basic rights, otherwise they won't be able to transmit content over the Internet without violating copyright laws. However, what Associated Content is asking its content providers to agree to goes some way beyond that basic license.)

For would-be paid content providers on Associated Content, the considerations are rather different. If you accept a payment offer from the site, you must abide by the Independent Contractor Licensing agreement--another dense, small-print document that contains the following license grant (again, my bolding):

(d) License Grant. Upon any Rights Grant, Content Producer hereby irrevocably (i) grants to Company a worldwide, perpetual, fully-paid up, royalty-free, transferable right and license, with right to sublicense, to reproduce, publicly display, distribute, and perform, transmit, edit, modify, create derivatives works of, publish, sell, exploit, use, and dispose of such Work for any purpose and in all forms and all media whether now known or to become known in the future, the right to retain all revenue and income derived therefrom, and any and all other related rights of whatever kind or nature; and (ii) waives and agrees never to assert any and all Moral Rights Content Producer may have in or with respect to any such Work in connection with Company's use thereof, even after termination of this Agreement (hereinafter, the grants described in subsections (i) and (ii) above are referred to as the "License"). The License shall be either (A) exclusive, or (B) non-exclusive, as designated and identified in the Application submitted by Content Producer in connection with such Work.

This is pretty much the same sweeping grant as the Terms of Use agreement; as with that agreement, you're required to renounce any financial compensation for Associated Content's use of your intellectual property. But there are two new wrinkles. The license you're granting may be exclusive--meaning that you could not exercise any of those rights yourself. And you must waive your moral rights.

American writers may not be familiar with moral rights, which the US (unlike many countries that are signatories to the Berne Convention) doesn't acknowledge as part of copyright law. Associated Content's definition of the term (also from the Independent Contractor Licensing agreement) is as good as any:

"Moral Rights" means any rights to claim authorship of any Work, to object to or prevent any modification of any Work, to withdraw from circulation or control the publication or distribution of any Work, and any similar right, existing under judicial or statutory law of any country in the world, or under any treaty, regardless of whether or not such right is called or generally referred to as a "moral right."

In other words, you aren't just giving up the right to earn money from someone else's exploitation of your work, or to object to someone else's use of your work, you're giving up your right to be identified as the author.

Worth it? For payments that, according to the Associated Content FAQ, "range from $3-$20"? Some writers may think so. But for every ten writers who agree to Associated Content's Independent Contractor Licensing agreement, I'll bet there's at least one or two who didn't carefully read through the agreement, and are not fully aware of what they have given up.

Caveat emptor. Always read the fine print.

December 7, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- The Sobol Award Again

As many of you probably already know, the Sobol Award is in the news again. According to a press release at the Sobol website, the organization has entered into an agreement with Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, to publish all three award finalists. Per an article by AP writer Hillel Italie, Touchstone will pay hefty advances--$100,000 for world rights, or $50,000 for US rights only. (This is in addition to the prize money Sobol will give out: $100,000 for the winner, $25,000 and $10,000 for the second and third place finalists respectively.)

Announced last summer, the Sobol Award has become the focus of an amazing storm of criticism, in part because of its very high ($85) entry fee. As I've noted before, I do have a problem with certain aspects of the contest--the size of the entry fee (though I believe the contest administrators when they say it will cover administrative costs--including an honorarium for readers--and do NOT believe that, as some have suggested, the contest is using the fees as a profitmaking scheme), the fact that the ten finalists must agree to literary representation by Sobol (whose literary agency doesn't even exist at this point), and most of all, the idea that a big, expensive contest to "discover" unagented writers is an answer for anything that's wrong in publishing. I also think that for the most part, contests are a waste of writers' time; the only real way to test your marketability is to submit your work for publication. However, I've never thought that Sobol is anything but a serious endeavor--and certainly not a scam, as some people have labeled it.

Given all the negative atttention that's been directed at Sobol, I'm not surprised that (as Sobol's executive vice president of contest management, Sue Pollock, admitted to Hillel Italie) they've received fewer submissions than they expected, forcing them to extend the contest deadline to March 31, 2007. I'm sure that Sobol is hoping that the agreement with Touchstone will not only increase submissions (which it may well do--for aspiring writers, the lure of a publishing contract is far more powerful than the possibility of a big cash award), but persuade more people to take the contest seriously (so far, it doesn't appear appear to have changed many minds).

Of course, there are still questions. Will the contract terms be standard? Will the contracts be negotiable? How about the conflicts of interest inherent in a situation where Sobol the literary agency will be representing authors in contracts offered by a publisher that already has an agreement with Sobol the awards organization? What if one or more of the winning manuscripts is outside of Touchstone's usual areas of interest--will they know how to effectively package and promote such a book? This is not an insignificant question. Being badly published can scuttle a book's chances of success. That's why agents are so careful when they choose where to send a manuscript.

I also have to wonder about Touchstone's intentions. According to Mark Gompertz, senior vice president and publisher of Touchstone Fireside, "We were very impressed with Sobol's plans to harness the broad reach of the internet and through a very well-thought out editorial process find three great works of fiction. We can't wait to read them." That's great, and though it seems risky for the publisher to commit to books it has not seen and will have no part in choosing, one can see that it's a calculated gamble. Perhaps Touchstone is hoping to reap publicity benefits from the firestorm surrounding the award, as Macmillan's controversial New Writing Program has done in the UK. But the advances? $100,000--or $50,000 if the writer gives Touchstone US rights only--is way above the typical advance for a first-time novelist, and Touchstone is promising these amounts for not one, but three entirely unknown quantities. Does this make good business sense? Given my criticism of Macmillan's no-advance policy, it might seem inconsistent of me to question advance amounts--but though I believe that writers should always receive advances, I believe that advances should be reasonable. Perhaps the book(s) will do well, and earn out. But Touchstone may also be setting these authors up for failure.

Whatever happens with this contest, whatever benefit it does or doesn't bring its winners, at the end of the day it's just another award. It's not going to fix what's wrong with publishing, because what's wrong with publishing is not that new writers need an alternative way to be discovered. Sobol isn't really an alternative anyway--it's just a different kind of slushpile, where most will be discarded and only a few will pass through the needle's eye.

Edited on 12/10 to add: M.J. Rose did what I should have done, and scoured the fine print of Sobol's Official Rules, Clause 5 of which has been amended to include the promised publishing contracts. The winner will indeed receive the big bucks, but the advances for the runners-up are somewhat more realistic: $20,000 for US rights, $40,000 for world rights ("at Simon & Schuster's sole discretion," which suggests it won't be up to the author to choose). Most interesting, however, are these two sentences:

Simon & Schuster shall in its sole discretion determine under which of its imprints it will publish the Manuscripts referred to herein. In the event less than 2000 entries meeting the minimum standard criteria of the Contest are timely received by Sponsor, Simon & Schuster reserves the right to not award any publication prize.

So S&S is aware of the importance of placing books with appropriate imprints--and it is also hedging its bets, in case the pool of entrants isn't large enough to make the contest really competitive.

Thanks to Teddy Gross, who drew my attention to this.

December 4, 2006

A.C. Crispin -- 69 -- Martha Ivery's Sentencing -- Part Two

As we sat back down in the Syracuse Federal Court, I studied the judge assigned to the case. He was perhaps in his early 60’s, regular features, a full head of graying hair, quite fit looking. His expression as he stared down from his high desk at Martha and Mr. Mott made me very glad that I was not on trial in his court. To say that his countenance was stern would be a vast understatement. At one point he looked out over the almost empty courtroom, and when his gaze crossed mine, I was instantly reminded of every legal transgression I’d ever committed...the funny ciggies back in the late 60’s, my speeding ticket a year ago (the first in over a decade, she said defensively...all of it flashed through my mind. I can’t imagine what it was like for Martha, with her double-digit record of felonies, to meet that gaze. I have a good imagination, but I couldn’t imagine this man smiling and playing with grandchildren.

After the formalities of stating the indictment and the plea were taken care of, Martha’s attorney, Richard Mott, rose and asked the judge to declare a hearing before passing sentencing. Mr. Mott pointed out that the two mental health professionals who had examined Martha Ivery arrived at different conclusions: the defendant’s psychologist claimed that Martha was so mentally ill that she was incapable of determining right from wrong, whereas the prosecution’s psychiatrist claimed that Martha was mentally competent, and that, furthermore, her tests showed evidence that she was lying about her condition.

Mr. Mott was thus asking the judge not to sentence Martha that day, but to agree to a hearing where each mental health professional would be heard and the judge could rule on whether Martha was mentally capable of determining right from wrong. The judge fixed Mr. Mott with a steely gaze and asked Mr. Mott, was he saying there were errors in the facts of the case? Mr. Mott admitted that the facts remained unchanged, but he said that the different opinions should be heard. The judge disagreed and said so. Mr. Mott fell silent.

Paul and I glanced sideways at each other, thinking “YES!” because this was something we’d been worried about. We were glad the judge saw it our way.

Next the judge asked if anyone was there who wanted to speak before sentencing was passed. I’d been coached by Paul, and knew that this meant were any of Martha’s victims present. The Assistant US Attorney stood up and said that the Victim-Witness Coordinator had brought statements that victims wished to be read before the sentencing was passed. The judge asked whether these documents were the same ones he had read, and the Assistant US Attorney said that the judge, Mr. Mott, and the representative from the Bureau of Prisons had all received copies of them. Mr. Mott objected to the statements being read. The judge responded curtly that he had read the statements before the hearing, and saw no reason for them to be read again. He did, however, order them to become part of the official record.

I had written one such statement myself, and I was tickled, because it was now going to be considered part of the official record. Yay!

I glanced surreptitiously at the clock hanging near the door of the courtroom. It was edging on towards 4:30. The judge looked straight at Martha and asked her whether she wished to say anything before he pronounced sentence. Martha and her attorney stood up, and she began to speak.

Martha began by saying that she really cared about “my writers” and wanted only the best for them. She said she wanted to make restitution to them, and to help them. She went on in this vein, talking about how much she cared about “my writers,” for perhaps three or four minutes, kind of rambling about how she’d never intended to harm anyone, and wanted the best for them. Surprisingly, she didn’t apologize or say, “I’m sorry” in any way. (Maybe her lawyer had told her not to? Because it would be admitting guilt? But she’d already pleaded guilty...) She didn’t break down, but the conclusion of her apologia ended by her invoking “Our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Coming from the woman who had gotten a lot of victims because she claimed to be “Christian” and to be looking for authors of “Christian and spiritual books” this went right over the top, as far as I’m concerned. The judge probably didn’t know about this, but the irony certainly wasn’t lost on Paul and me. We carefully did NOT look at each other during Martha’s little speech.

After she stopped speaking, there was a pause. Both Martha and Mott remained standing as the judge fixed Martha with that look that would have reduced me to quivering jelly. Then the judge started in, and it was plain from his first words to Martha that he wasn’t buying it. He mentioned her double-digit rap sheet, and said he was certain that Martha did indeed know right from wrong, and committed fraud against her victims quite knowingly. He used words like “manipulated” and “machination” to describe how she had treated her victims.

Finally, the judge coldly ended up telling her that, mindful of her “shenanigans” he hereby sentenced her to 65 months in Federal Prison, plus three years probation. He ordered her to report for incarceration on January 9th 2007. The judge also ordered her to make restitution to her victims in the amount of 10% of her income, or 100 dollars a month, whichever sum was greater. Regarding the mental health issue, he announced that he was ordering her to have mental health counseling and substance abuse counseling, while in prison and on probation.

I have to hand it to Martha. She bore up under this news, which was certainly harsher than they had hoped for (they’d hoped she’d receive only probation). She didn’t break down.

The judge then exchanged a few words with the Assistant US Attorney and the gentleman from the Bureau of Prisons, regarding some of the materials (manuscripts, etc., I suppose) that had been seized during the FBI’s search of Martha’s office and home. He asked for a memo detailing what the prosecution wanted him to order regarding them.

Court was then adjourned.

Paul and I waited while Martha, her husband, and Mr. Mott left the courtroom, heading for the US Marshall’s Office to be instructed on where to report, etc. I sure didn’t want to run into her in the hallway. Even though she gave no sign that she knew I was there, I’m pretty sure she knows what I look like – my picture is on my website.

After he had gathered up his documents, the Assistant US Attorney (a good-looking youngish gentleman who wouldn’t have looked out of place in one of those lawyer shows on television) came over to shake hands with Paul and me. He thanked us again for our work on the case, smiling this time, and saying that he thought justice had been done. He was very happy with the sentence, he said, which, I gathered, was a pretty major sentence for white-collar crime.

Paul and I walked over to look out the huge window, and saw the city lighting up. Darkness had fallen. The Christmas tree in the plaza blazed with colored lights, and skaters glided and twirled around the little skating rink beside it.

After we left the courthouse, Paul and I walked to a little nearby place and had something to eat. It had been a long time since breakfast. When the server brought our drinks, (he had water, because he was driving, I had a beer) we solemnly clinked the glasses together and then smiled.

The next day, Paul took me into the FBI Field Office in Albany and I met many of the people who had taken an interest and even helped out with the case. The one I knew was the FBI Victim-Witness Coordinator, Dorothy Copeland, a very nice lady that I’d talked to many times over the years. Dorothy was the person I referred victims to when they turned up. She’s a very caring lady.

Before I left the Albany FBI Office to catch my plane home, Dorothy, Paul and I all posed for a picture in the lobby of the FBI Building. I’m the one in the center.

-Ann C. Crispin
Chair, Writer Beware

December 1, 2006

A.C. Crispin - 68 - Martha Ivery's Sentencing - Part One

Hi, Folks!

I'm back home now, after attending Martha Ivery's sentencing in Syracuse, New York, on Wednesday, November 29th at 4:00 P.M. in Federal Court for the Northern District of New York.

I had put off buying my ticket until the last possible minute, in case the sentencing was postponed yet again, but finally, there I was, walking into Reagan National Airport, ready for the four hour flight to Albany, changing planes at JFK. Four hours turned into 11 because of fog and weather conditions at JFK. Once we finally took off from Reagan, I wound up scrunched into my seat next to a large foreign lady who not only sat with her arms and knees spread, she took off her SHOES, John Candy style (believe me, I thought of Planes, Trains and Automobiles frequently that day!). When I finally got off the plane at JFK, I walked into an airport filled with people, all experiencing delays, and all grumpy as hell. Discovering that my connecting flight was as delayed as everything else was some comfort, so I bought and nibbled a chicken sandwich. Luckily, I only ate about half...

When we finally were boarded onto the small prop plane headed for Albany, I was seated next to a delightful young English lady with a beautiful baby girl, just old enough to stand up holding on to things, with a headful of golden curls. This child could have modeled, she was so cute. Unfortunately, the day had taken a toll on the kid, and shortly after I'd sat down, she began vomiting...copiously. I have one of those sympathetic stomachs. When my own kid would barf, it never bothered me, but that must be some kind of essential mom-hardwiring, because when the little girl started in, I really, really thought that half a chicken sandwich and I were going to part company.

The flight attendant, seeing my green countenance and gulping attempts to hold back my gorge, hastily moved me. But it was a small plane, and the smell quickly permeated the entire cabin. Right as I was seated in my new seat, we were informed that we'd be on the runway for at least another hour before takeoff...

The things I do for SFWA and Writer Beware, I swan!

At any rate, I did eventually get to Albany, which was the important thing.

The FBI researcher who "made" the Martha Ivery case, whom we'd worked closely with for about six years now, is Paul Silver, and he is the unsung hero of this story. Without Paul taking an interest in the case, Wednesday's sentencing would never have happened. (See some of the first blog posts I ever made in this blog for some of the "history" of the Writer Beware's efforts to get law enforcement to recognize the crimes Martha was committing.)

When I'd learned that the sentencing would actually be held in Syracuse, rather than Albany, Paul very kindly offered me a ride up there. I saved quite a bit of money flying into Albany rather than Syracuse, so I owe Paul yet another debt I can never repay. We had a late breakfast, then hopped into his car for the two-hour drive up. As we drove along beside the Erie Canal, we talked, reviewing the case, reminiscing about the years of working on this case, recalling our interactions with the victims, and hoping they would finally gain some closure from seeing Martha put out of commission. We were hoping she would get at least 51 months in Federal Prison, but we knew that her attorney was trying, even at this last moment, to say that Martha should be given no jail time because she was too mentally ill to realize she'd been committing a crime. Having dealt with Martha for all those years, and been on the receiving end of her threats, I wasn't buying that, and neither was Paul. All we could hope was that the judge would not buy her new "defense."

We arrived in Syracuse with plenty of time to spare, thanks to MapQuest, and the parking gods were kind. It was my first time visiting a Federal courtroom. It was a far cry from my country traffic court! The wall behind the judge's seat was red and white marble, with a huge bronze seal for the Northern District of New York centered there. The observer benches were upholstered in an attractive pale flowered pattern. They floor was carpeted, some shade between turquoise and teal. All of the desks were polished hardwood. The room was 12 stories up, and overlooked the city and the city plaza where the Christmas decorations were shining brightly as the sky darkened.

Paul and I were the first people into the courtroom. We sat down in the observer's area, on the left (prosecution's) side and waited. When the Assistant US Attorney who was prosecuting the case, and the Victim-Witness Coordinator entered, they came over to speak to us and shake hands, and thank us for our work on the case. They seemed prepared to counter the defense's assertions that Martha was not capable of discerning right from wrong. The Victim-Witness Coordinator had brought statements from some of the victims that had requested they be read, but the case had been postponed so many times that none of the victims had shown up...apparently they all thought it would wind up getting postponed yet again. But not this time.

The next person to arrive in the courtroom was Martha Ivery's defense attorney, Mr. Mott. Martha and her husband, Thomas Ivery, came in a few minutes later. Martha sat down on the defense side, next to her attorney. Her husband was the only person who came to be with her.

Unlike her other times in court, Martha did NOT wear a sweatsuit. She wore a black blouse with a tan and rust colored pattern on it, over a black sweater or tee, black slacks, and black running shoes. Her hair was longish and black, brushed back over her shoulders. She's 58 years old. If she was wearing makeup, it was very subtle.

(I was dressed in a pantsuit with a turquoise blouse, and Paul was wearing a suit.) All of the lawyers looked, of course, just like lawyers. One could have picked them out in a crowd.

There were also a couple of US Marshals present, and the usual court reporter type individual who was recording the proceedings. And a gentleman that I suppose was the bailiff.

About fifteen minutes after the hour, the door opened and the judge entered. "All rise," said the bailiff, and we all rose to our feet.

(To be continued...)

-Ann C. Crispin

November 29, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- Martha Ivery Sentenced

This afternoon in Syracuse, New York, after several delays, Martha Ivery--vanity publisher, fee-charging literary agent, and woman of many aliases--was sentenced to 65 months in Federal prison, plus 3 years' probation. In December 2005, she had pleaded guilty to all counts of a 17-count indictment: 15 counts of mail fraud and acts against the United States as a principal in a conspiracy, one count of improper use of an electronic access device (legalese for "credit-card fraud not involving the mails"), and one count of false sworn testimony in a bankruptcy proceeding.

Martha's lawyer had argued for probation rather than jail time, pleading serious mental illness, but the prosecution's psychiatrist, while acknowledging that Martha is one majorly fucked-up lady, did not agree that this prevented her from distinguishing right from wrong. The judge, fortunately, saw it the prosecution's way.

Martha is required to pay restitution to her victims (or, if they die, their heirs), starting immediately, at the rate of 10% of everything she earns or $100 per month, whichever is greater. Since the total restitution amount is $728,248.10 (representing her "take" from nearly 300 victims), this is really more symbolic than anything else. She must also pay court costs of $1,700, and will be required to get mental health and sustance abuse counseling. If she's even one day late for her report-to-jail date of January 9, 2007, the three years of probation will be added to her prison time.

This closes a chapter not just for Martha's victims, but for Writer Beware. We've been tracking Martha since 1998, and were instrumental in providing evidence for the FBI investigation that resulted in her indictment. We're hoping her case will serve as a precedent for the prosecution of other literary scammers in other states (I'm sure y'all can guess who's #1 on our list).

There's more: Martha, who apparently has turned to religion, made a pre-sentencing statement, and the judge informed her that he was tired of her shenanigans. Ann was there (having endured the Flight From Hell to make it up to Syracuse), and will be filling in the details when she gets back home.

November 28, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- Clubs You Wouldn't Want to Be a Member Of

Groucho Marx's famous joke about not wanting to belong to any club that would invite him to be a member is a good maxim to keep in mind when an agent, publisher, or other literary enterprise approaches you out of the blue. On occasion, such an expression of interest can be legit (everyone knows a discovered-at-Schwab's-Drugstore-type publication story, and some of them are even true), but it's far more likely to be something you really don't want to get involved with. For instance, Author Identity Publishing, the vanity short story compilation publisher that's been emailing writers lately with invitations to submit.

Unfortunately, Author Identity isn't alone. Over the past couple of weeks, a brand-new crop of direct solicitors has come across my desk.

- Leading Brands Publishing. (Obnoxious website alert--if you click on this link, you might want to switch off your speakers to avoid the irritating sound effects). This company out of Dubai offers "a complete range of premium services to meet your company's publishing needs." Though this wording, along with the rest of the website, suggests that Leading Brands specializes in custom publishing for corporations, it is also energetically contacting individual authors to offer publishing services. "Are you sitting on the next bestseller or revolutionary book, and don't know how to get it published?" the pitch letter begins. If so, Leading Brands promises to help you "get published in a relatively short period of time, generating income and creating awareness at the same time, without potentially costing a single Dollar [sic]."

As you might imagine, this is not quite the whole story. Writers who request more information receive a much longer letter, revealing that in fact, there is a cost: anywhere from $1,500 to over $7,000. The letter is so poorly worded that it isn't totally clear how things work (major red flag: a professional publisher should be able to write a comprehensible business letter), but the upshot appears to be that the publisher will recoup the cost by publishing an ebook first and keeping all proceeds, after which authors will be able to pay $15 per book for a run of printed books.

It seems to me that Leading Brands is screwing itself as well as its authors with this deal--good luck getting that kind of income out of an ebook. More important, if you want to pay for publication, you can get a far more cost-effective package--not to mention, a proven and reliable service with clear and understandable parameters--from an established POD company like Lulu or iUniverse. The Leading Brands website is short on specifics to support its claims of custom publishing expertise, and though the company's owner, Mars Mlodzinski, appears to have genuine credits as a magazine editor, he has none that I can discover as a publisher. He's also a veteran of at least one apparently defunct business startup. This may not bode well for Leading Brands, which to date does not appear to have published a single book.

- Sterling Literary Agency has been contacting writers who have profiles at WritersNet with the following pitch: "We're Sterling Literary Agency and we are looking for talented new authors to represent. We represent both fiction and non-fiction. We do not charge any upfront fees. Best of all, we have a super competitive introductory special. Any author we sign up between now and Thanksgiving Day will get our special 7 percent commission rate on domestic sales."

What's wrong with this picture? As I've already discussed, there's no such thing as a bargain agent. Especially, there's no such thing as a reputable agency that offers "specials," as if it's Wal-Mart. If an agency is that desperate to sign up clients, something's not right--either the agency is so obscure that it's not getting submissions (big warning sign: an established agency, or a new agent with the right experience, will not need to beg for clients) or its clients are its main source of income (i.e., there's a fee involved).

It's possible that the folks at Sterling are clever enough to have deliberately chosen a name that resembles the name of a reputable agency (Sterling Lord)--dishonest agencies sometimes use this tactic in hopes of confusing potential victims. But it could just be a clueless coincidence.

- J & M Solution: Project Writer. This outfit has been soliciting writers who have posted work at several manuscript display sites. It isn't really clear what kind of publishing is being offered, and the promises of income ("no printing involved, so you get more compensation") are ludicrous. As is the website generally. Really, this is more sad than scammish--either English isn't the first language of the person behind it, or he (or she) is close to being functionally illiterate.

J&M's URL is registered to Michael Markgraf, who has this listing, among others, on eBay. It must be seen to be believed.

Not to whack a dead horse or anything, but this is one of the dangers of using manuscript display sites. Reputable publishing people rarely use them. Less-than-reputable people frequently do.

- Michele Glance Rooney. This "agent" has been direct-soliciting writers with offers of representation for some time now, but a recent rash of reports suggests that she's stepped up the pace of her spamming. Rooney has been doing business under one name or another since at least 2000, and in that time I'm not aware that she has ever made a sale. She's on Writer Beware's 20 Worst List, and has been discussed (not flatteringly) at Absolute Write and on various blogs.

November 26, 2006

A.C. Crispin - 67 - Update on Martha Ivery Case

Hi, folks.

Martha Ivery's sentencing hearing is scheduled to take place on Wednesday, November 29th, at 4:00 P.M. in Federal Court in Syracuse, New York.

Not surprisingly, Martha's attorney made another last minute request for postponement (his fifth, I think, or was it the sixth?) but this time, The Honorable Frederick Scullin, Jr., the Judge assigned to this case, denied the petition.

So it appears that, barring some kind of sudden illness on the part of the judge, prosecutor, or defense attorney, the sentencing will go off as planned.

I will be climbing onto a train or a plane on November 28th, crossing my fingers that this time the event will take place.

Writer Beware has been pursuing this case actively for six years, and warning about Martha Ivery/Kelly O'Donnell since we were founded in 1998. It's been a long, long road. I hope her many victims will finally get some comfort from seeing her sentenced, since they will almost certainly never receive a dime in restitution.

I have been asked to read the statement I wrote to the judge's attention prior to the sentencing, and will do so unless there isn't time or something happens to prevent me from going.

I'm going to be very glad to get this whole thing over with, I can tell you that. I have a book due, and it will be good to just put this chapter of my life as a scam hunter behind me.

My heart goes out to Martha's victims. I have resolutely squelched any sympathy for Martha itself as it surfaced; when she attempted to justify/rationalize her behavior (or her attorney did) by claims of mental illness, alcohol abuse, spousal abuse, childhood abuse, etc. Maybe these claims are real, and maybe they're not.

But I know for a FACT that Martha Ivery knew what she was doing was wrong, despite her claims that she didn't understand she was committing a crime. I know this because I TOLD her she was defrauding authors and committing a crime in doing so. Her response to Writer Beware's warning writers against signing on with her was to tell Victoria and me that we were soon going to look just like the female protagonists of the movie "Death Becomes Her" (which had been recently released). In other words, we'd be dead and mutilated.

Threatening a Federal witness wasn't such a smart idea, but nobody ever accused Martha Ivery of being smart. Cunning, mean, and conniving, maybe, but not smart.

Do I sound heartless? Maybe I do. But Victoria and I were the people who wound up having to tell a lot of Martha's hundreds of victims that they'd been scammed. Many times at writing conferences I wound up standing off in a corner with some distraught writer who had just realized, after hearing me speak and give the "20 Worst List" to my audience, that she had been scammed, and that the book she'd labored so hard over wasn't going to be published -- at least not by PressTIGE, the company she'd paid thousands of dollars to.

Some of these writers cried. Being the bearer of bad news of that magnitude was no fun at all.

So...I hope that, as of Wednesday the 29th, it finally ends.

Of course, seeing the end of another of WB's many cases is good. It will give me more time to focus on Bouncin' Bobby and his Florida shenanigans.

We go on...

-Ann C. Crispin
Chair, Writer Beware

Victoria Strauss -- For AW Addicts Only

If you're an Absolute Write Water Cooler addict and have noticed that your drug of choice is offline today, fear not--the absence is temporary. Here's the Official Announcement:

The Absolute Write Water Cooler is scheduled for intensive Techno-Therapy, Sunday morning, at approximately 6 a.m., Pacific zone (9 a.m., Eastern). We will be temporarily closing the boards to make the move to our new server. Keep your fingers crossed for us--if all goes well, we should be back up by Monday.

This is a Very Good Thing for the Water Cooler and should be well worth the minor discomfort of going without our online community for one day.

In the meantime, PLEASE DON'T TRY TO ACCESS THE FORUMS! Give the techies time to work their magic.

For those who cannot stand the exile, the chat room will still be functional. Click here, change the 'Guest' listed next to 'Nick' to your AW userid, and click 'Connect to Starchat'.

Also, Roger has erected a few tents at the old Refugee Camp for those who would like to hang out there. You'll need to bring your own food and drinks. Since we anticipate only being down for a day, we have not brought in supplies. If we are down longer than anticipated, Mac or one of the mods will post updates there.

November 20, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- The Identity of Author Identity

I've been getting a lot of questions recently about Author Identity Publishing, a publisher of short story compilations that has been emailing writers with invitations to submit. To avoid the appearance of a spam campaign, the solicitations are personalized with the writer’s name and the title of the story; in true junk mail style, however, they urge writers to act right away: “Please realize if you are interested in having your story published for the December 2006 compilation, this will put us under a severe time constraint, so please submit your short story within the next week.”

Let’s ignore the spamming for the moment, as well as the fact that reputable publishers don't generally direct-solicit contributions from strangers. Is Author Identity Publishing a worthwhile market?

On the opening page of AIP’s website, we find the following mission statement:

In the past the demand for quality short stories was high, and authors were more than willing to submit their work to publishers. Unfortunately, today the demand has diminished with the high cost of publishing. Large publishers have shied away from this art form. This has left fewer and fewer people the opportunity these days to read short stories. This is unfortunate so few will ever experience the joy reading such fine work can give. The goal of our company is to give a nice cross section of short stories in the hope these short stories will excite readers into rediscovering this excellent source of entertainment.

This is not encouraging. Apart from the silliness about publishing costs and sadly neglected art forms, it’s poorly written. Your publisher doesn't need to be Hemingway, but s/he should at least have a command of basic grammar.

According to its FAQ page, AIP is looking for stories "in the genres of suspense, horror, humor, legal thriller, literature, juvenile, romance and chick lit." (Hmmm. All in one anthology?). There will be twenty stories per compilation; it's claimed, without offering any specifics, that well-known authors as well as newer ones will be participating. Payment will be a 10% royalty divided among the authors of the compilation, which will be priced at $17.95. AIP must be hoping that potential contributors won’t do the math: 10% of $17.95 is $1.79, and $1.79 divided by 20 authors works out to about 9 cents apiece.

(Just in case someone does do the math, AIP has a rationalization ready (again from the FAQ page): "[R]emember that being a short story writer will not make you rich. Author Identity will publish your story and you will have a tangible book with your story in it. The money, depending upon how many books are sold, is just an added bonus so [sic] get your story off the shelf or out of a dusty file and submit it." Gosh.)

How will the compilations be marketed? On the Policies page, there’s a list of the usual suspects--Amazon, Barnes &, (Can you say POD?) Read down the page, though, and you’ll discover AIP’s master plan. In addition to asking bookstores to stock the book and providing the names of local newspapers for press releases, authors "must also demonstrate [they] have the ability to sell 25 copies prior to the books [sic] release."

Bingo! AIP is a vanity publisher.

No, the authors aren't required to pay upfront. And they (theoretically) don't have to buy the books themselves. However, it’s clear that the company's main source of sales will be its own authors--and that's a vanity publisher as far as Writer Beware is concerned. 20 authors guaranteeing sales of 25 copies each works out to 500 copies--not bad for a POD book, certainly enough to offset any expenses (which could be zero if a service like Lulu is used) and yield a bit of profit (AIP says it will invest "thousands" of dollars in each compilation, but I think it's exaggerating just a bit). All of which leaves little incentive for AIP to make any real effort to get the book into the hands of readers.

One more thing. The company’s solicitations instruct would-be contributors to provide this statement along with their story: "I, ________, agree to Author Identity's Policies." No doubt many people will suppose that they are binding themselves only to the terms that appear on the company's Policies page--but what about other terms? There's nothing on the website about what rights you will be giving up, or whether you'll have a say in editing. Are you agreeing in advance to whatever the company decides?

Who's behind this vanity venture? According to its home page, AIP is "a division of West Publishing." I'm quite sure that's not this West Publishing, but no other publisher by that name can be found. A domain name search reveals that AIP's URL is registered to Corporate Roots, Inc.--a company with a mostly blank website whose snail mail address is that of a business entity formation service . In other words, this is all but a phantom company; potential contributors have no way to investigate whether or not the person or people running it have experience that would qualify them to acquire, edit, publish, and market short story compilations. I know I've said this before, but it can't be said too often: researching the qualifications of a new agent or publisher is an essential step that should not be skipped, no matter how tedious you may find it. If, as in this case, you can't do that, it's the publisher that should be skipped.

So. Spammer. Vanity publisher. Unknown rights situation. Unresearchable owner. 'Nuff said (I hope).

November 13, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- I've Been Tagged... Cathy Clamp to write five things about myself that few people know, and tag five others to do the same. So here goes...

1. I have tattoos. Two of them. One is embarrassing. One isn't. (And no, I'm not going to say where they are.)

2. I have two middle names. My full name is Victoria Mary Craig Strauss. (You can see why few people know this.) Mary Craig is a family name on my mother's side.

3. I've been married for 28 years. To the same guy. (I'm not actually as old as that makes me sound.) We're still best friends. (All together now: Awwwww.)

4. I'm mildly claustrophobic. Elevators, planes, and other confined spaces make me extremely uneasy. I can control it most of the time, but every now and then I come close to flipping out. This happened to me once on a's not a happy memory. Luckily, it was a short flight.

5. I'm a distant (very, very distant) cousin of William Faulkner, again on my mother's side of the family. My mom and I discovered this just last year, poring over an old genealogy.


Ann Crispin (sorry, Ann)
Dave Kuzminski
Lara Leung
Barbara Bauer (evil grin)

November 11, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- A Small, Well-Mannered Rant

Today I want to talk about something that has been bugging me...well, pretty much since Writer Beware was founded.

Ann, I, and several others who prefer to remain nameless are volunteer staff members of WRITER BEWARE. Not the most inventive or exciting name, perhaps--but simple and descriptive and our own. Note that there are no plurals or possessives. There's a functional, attractive space between Writer and Beware. The W and the B are capitalized, and the rest is in lower case.

You wouldn't think there'd be much margin for error, would you? Nevertheless, people get it wrong. A lot. For instance...

- Writers Beware (this is an understandable mistake, since our warnings are aimed at all writers. However, we wanted our name to be declarative. Hey! You over there! Writer! Beware!)

- Writer's Beware (a manifestation of the misplaced aspostrophe disease which seems to afflict so many people. Think about it. Which writer does Beware belong to?)

- Writer Bewares (this kinda sorta makes sense, I guess, since there are lots of Bewares. However, it's clunky and awkward--and it's a noun. Our name is meant to suggest the general action of Beware-ing.)

- Writer BEWARE (Ann and I are much too ladylike to shout. OK, you can stop laughing now.)

- WriterBeware (this is our URL, not our name.)

- writerbeware (the discount version of the above. What, we don't deserve capital letters?)

- WritersBeware (this is neither our URL nor our name. It is, unfortunately, the URL of one of those ad sites that hijack people who mis-type the names of legitimate sites. Check out the first listing.)

- Author Beware (what's the difference between an author and a writer? Publication? State of mind? Level of income? We'd rather not get into that controversy. "Writer" is more inclusive, anyway.)

So please, folks, get it right. It's Beware. Writer Beware.

So endeth the lesson.

November 7, 2006

A.C. Crispin - 65 - The Cult of PArsonality...

Hi, folks. Thought I’d offer some thoughts today indirectly related to the IILAA and the “cabal” accusations by pointing out -- One More Time! -- that cluelessness (frequently tinged with deep denial) is rampant in the world of aspiring writers. It’s there, it’s scary, and I guess not much can be done about it, because many of the people I’m talking about are doing the equivalent of covering their ears and chanting “LALALALALALA, Can’t HEAR you!”

A few days ago I saw a particularly egregious thread on the PublishAmerica message board, which I feel duty-bound to look at every once in a while. It seems one PA author was so proud of her newly minted PA book that she sent a copy to her favorite author, asking the author to read it and give her feedback and “constructive criticism” (translation: praise).

Imagine this poor benighted author’s dismay when Favorite Author not only failed to read the book, but replied that the sender hadn’t gotten really published because it was a PA book, and therefore, “self-published.” “Her response was downright mean,” wailed the PA author, who went on to explain that Favorite Author should have been flattered by her request. The PA author concluded her post by announcing that she felt “awful” and “insulted” because Favorite Author’s response implied that having a book published by PublishAmerica meant the book wasn’t up to the same standards as a book published by “mainstream” publishing.

Oh dear. Oh, dearie me. Leaving aside the fact that it’s terribly tacky to send a Favorite Author a copy of your book and request this kind of feedback/constructive criticism, the sheer clue-free nature of the PA author's post left me shaking my head.

But wait, there’s more! It gets BETTER!

The first response our dispirited poster received said: “…keep in mind that PA is a threat to mainstream publishing…” and went on to point out that’s why the industry, and other writers, call PA self-publishing, even when “they know that’s not true.” This supportive person concluded with, “If we weren't a threat, why would she answer you at all?”

The second response was even more to the point: “That author was probubly (sic) scared out of her skin to see someone better than she is at writing. Bet it scared the begeebers (sic) out of her. Her only defense was to fire the first shot.” There was more in the same vein, but I just don’t have the heart to continue.

These poor, poor people. They have been so suckered, and they don’t realize it…yet. Maybe they never will. They’ve formed an insular community where the truth is never revealed and the hopefulness and supportiveness of the posters is used against them. Eventually, many do wake up and whiff the java, and the more they see the truth, the madder they get, but, unfortunately, as soon as they start to post negative things, they’re kicked off the PA message boards, never to be heard again. You have to wonder what the PA authors left behind think of all the mysterious disappearances. At any given time on the PA message boards, 80% or more of the authors posting there are brand new to PA, still in the “honeymoon” phase, so maybe the rapid turnover is never noticed.

It’s plain from reading the above that it’s not a baseless charge to claim that PublishAmerica fosters a cult mentality: You read it over and over on the message boards…diatribes to the effect that: They’re all against us! We’re a threat to them! We’re a threat to the elitists! We’re going to get all the readers to read US, not them, so they’re scared of us!

Oh, please.

The problem with my post is that few people who actually need to see it will ever read it. The PA authors who embrace and stay with the cult mentality WANT to stay snookered. A dose of reality is the last thing they want handed to them with their morning coffee.

And it’s not just PA authors, though they certainly typify The Clueless of the writing world. Ignorance abounds, and that’s why scams flourish.

Remember, my friends. We can all be Writer Beware Ambassadors, spreading the word out there in the world of the aspiring writer: “Ignorance is NOT bliss.” “Knowledge IS power.” Aspiring writers…learn everything you can about the business of writing and publishing in the real world! It will pay off, trust me.

And for goodness sake, don’t touch that Kool Aid!

-Ann C. Crispin
Chair, Writer Beware

November 6, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- Home from WFC...

...the World Fantasy Convention, that is, held this year in Austin, TX. The hotel was luxurious (though located way out in suburbia, disappointing to those of us who'd hoped to see some of Austin), the programming stimulating, the event well-planned and attended (I heard a rumor that it was the biggest WFC attendance ever). I sat on a couple of panels, and attended the autographing session--which I was dreading, because I hate it when you sit there and no one comes over with books--but it actually went well. One person even had a copy of my very first novel, which was extremely cool. Best of all, I had the chance to connect with people I don't see very often, such as my editor, Diana Gill, and to meet in the flesh a number of people whom I'd previously only known online or via email.

I also attended the awards banquet, feeling somewhat self-conscious in my fancy duds (when you work at home and don't really have any pressing reason to get out of your pajamas, it's a serious shock to the system to put on pantyhose and high heels) and a little like a deer in the headlights as well, because I was one of the WFC judges this year, and we were all a bit afraid people would throw food at us if they didn't like our choice of winners. There were some gasps as the winners were announced, and I heard a few disapproving comments, but all in all, no one seems too unhappy. So far.

Going into the judging process, I heard many stories of judge-ly discord and disagreement, and wasn't sure what to expect. But I and the others (Steve Lockley, Barbara Roden, Jeff VanderMeer, and Andrew Wheeler) were a very friendly group (it sounds awfully boring--at the Judges' Panel on Sunday, where we got to explain the process and our choices, people looked at us rather skeptically when we said it--but it's true). While there inevitably was some variance of opinion, we were able to resolve it--and in many of the categories, we were remarkably of a mind. I think all of us are happy with the final ballot and with the winners--plus, we're all still speaking to each other, which I gather isn't always the case.

It was, however, a tremendous amount of work. Over a six-month period (February to July), we saw more than 300 books from publishers large and small--plus magazines, printouts, fiction published online, and sundry items to be considered for special awards, such as Jess Nevins's fabulous Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana. To answer one of the questions I was most frequently asked over the weekend, I wouldn't rush out and do it again next year, but it was an extremely rewarding and challenging experience. I feel that I gained a much more concrete sense of the breadth of the field--there is a HUGE variety of work being done in fantasy, from the pulpishly popular to the impenetrably literary and every conceivable style and nuance in between. I also was introduced to wonderful authors whose work I hadn't encountered before (such as Haruki Murakami, whose transcendent Kafka on the Shore was the winner in the Novels category), and was reminded of how much wonderful work is being put out by small presses such as Prime Books (winner in the Special Award, Professional category), Wheatland Press, PS Publishing, Monkeybrain, Telos (winner in the Special Award, Non-Professional category), and others.

Most rewarding of all, I rediscovered my love of short fiction, which had fallen by the wayside over the past few years. All the short stories, novellas, and collections on the ballot are very fine--but if you've any interest in short fiction (and even if you're not normally a fantasy reader), I urge you to seek out this year's winner in the Collections category, Bruce Holland Rogers's small press-published The Keyhole Opera, which unfortunately seems to have flown below most people's radar. Rogers is an astonishingly subtle, accomplished, and innovative writer. He's capable of compressing an entire story arc into five hundred words, of turning a story inside out with a final line, of showing you connections you didn't think were there. While others experiment with style and content, he experiments with form, pushing the short fiction envelope in fascinating and entirely original ways--for instance, he has transposed a staple of poetry, the fixed form, to prose narrative, creating a fixed prose form that he has named the symmetrina. As original and subversive as some of the collections on the final ballot are, Rogers's is in a class by itself--far and away the best work I've read this year. I hope (and I know my fellow judges do also--I wasn't the only one who was passionate about this collection) that the award will bring him more of the recognition and acclaim he deserves.

So now I'm home, and thoroughly exhausted--more so than I might be otherwise, actually, because my flight home yesterday was canceled and I had to stay the night in a motel (with no restaurant, nor any within walking distance, which the airline people kindly didn't see fit to tell me when they handed me my meal voucher, so I went to bed hungry) and then get up at 4:00!! am!!! to drive to the airport to catch a 6:00am flight (I had a meal voucher for breakfast too, but it was too early for any of the airport restaurants to be open--I was ready to eat my baggage, or maybe my fellow passengers, by that time). But it's a good kind of tired.

I now return you to your regular Writer Beware programming.

November 1, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- Why You Shouldn't Believe Them

Since the sudden birth and equally swift demise of the infamous IILAA, with its ridiculous allegations about "hate sites on the Internet," I've been mulling over the idea of blogging about the accusations and falsehoods leveled at the anti-scam activists by the people and companies we warn about.

Great minds work alike, however, and my friend and fellow scam-hunter Jenna Glatzer beat me to it. Her comments, originally posted at Absolute Write, identify the lies the scammers tell about us, and why you shouldn't believe them. She has kindly given me permission to reproduce them here.


by Jenna Glatzer

As you might imagine, there are a number of bad "agents" and "editors" who don't like it when we issue warnings, or allow people to share their experiences. There are many businesses that depend on writers staying in the dark and not learning about what publishing is really like, and what warning signs to watch out for.

There are also victims of these companies who don't realize that they're victims yet, and thus see us as an enemy. ("If you're saying bad things about My Wonderful Agent, you're standing in the way of me getting my book published!" they think. Or, "If you're saying bad things about my publisher, you're the reason why bookstores won't stock my book!")

Anyway, there are a number of us "watchdog" types, and the lies people tell about us tend to fall into a few categories, which I'll try to address here.

1. "They're just jealous of the competition!"

One popular refrain is that we’re worried about the competition from up-and-coming writers. If we were truly worried about competition, we'd gladly allow all writers to get stuck with lousy agents and publishers. That would clear the way for us to be the only ones submitting to legitimate publishers and agents, and thus, making all the sales.

It's really simple to find each of our bios. Google our names, visit our websites, check Amazon. As a group, the "watchdogs" are very successful writers. Unpublished writers are not our competitors. Vanity published writers are not our competitors.

2. “They want to keep new agents down!”

Nope. We love new agents. We love any agent who can actually help writers. We define “helping” as: selling writers’ books to reputable publishers, never lying about kickbacks with editorial services, and never charging upfront fees. Those standards are not very hard to meet. Hundreds of agents manage to meet them with no problem.

If an agent is unproven, that's OK with us. We're likely to point that out, but it's not a slam against the agent. Those who turn out to be successful agents typically don't just show up out of nowhere and decide to start their own agencies, however. Generally, the agent starts out either as an assistant or "junior agent," or works in another area of publishing first (as an editor or assistant editor, usually). They learn the business from others who've been there and done that.

A new agent at an established agency usually gives us more hope than a new agent who starts his/her own agency out of nowhere, with no track record in publishing. "Making it up as you go along" doesn't work with heart surgery, and it doesn't often work with literary agenting, either.

3. “They’re bashers! They’re naysayers! They love negativity!”

Most of us have had to take breaks from this kind of activity from time to time, because it’s depressing. We hate the fact that there are so many schemes and scams out there designed to take advantage of unsuspecting writers, and it’s a downer to have to speak out about them. It’s an even bigger downer to have to burst people’s bubbles when you know that they have their hopes all wrapped up in a bad agent or publisher. They think they’ve found someone who really believes in their talent, and we have to be the ones to say, “Sorry, you’ve been duped.” That stinks.

Then there are the clueless agents and publishers, and there are a huge number of them. These are people who do NOT mean to be scammers… they think they’re being useful. They are often failed writers themselves, and they think publishing is broken and they’re going to fix it. They’re going to give new writers a chance. Almost inevitably, they find out that they can’t actually make any money, though, and someone has to compensate them for this new unpaid hobby of theirs—so they charge writers upfront fees or partner up with an editing service that gives them commissions for each new writer they lure in (often convincing themselves that this is fair, and that other people do it). Or, in the case of POD publishers, they begin pressuring writers to buy their own books, or making them pay for “optional” services.

Believe it or not, even as loudly as we have to denounce them, we often feel bad for these kinds of people. We know they’re clueless, not evil. They may really think that this is The Way and that they’re going to make big sales. Nevertheless, the result for writers will be the same: the clueless people will NOT succeed in getting writers’ books onto bookstore shelves. They’ll spout out misinformation about the publishing industry, convincing writers that real publishing is scary and impossible to break into. They’ll tie up writers’ rights, smash their dreams, and waste their time and money.

We’ve seen enough of these cases to recognize the warning signs by now, so we feel responsible for making those signs as tall and bright as possible so newer writers can spot them. Even if that makes it look to some like we're being mean.

What I’m saying is: We don’t want to do what we do. We just feel we have to do what we do. If no one were going to get hurt, we could keep our mouths shut.

4. “They want to make money off you!”

Preditors and Editors won’t take donations. I know this because I tried, and Dave would not take my money.

Writer Beware is a nonprofit organization funded by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Writer Beware won’t take your donations, either.

Absolute Write takes donations. Here’s a rough breakdown of our main expenses: $406 per month for website hosting fees, $3000 per month for salaries (NOT mine) and payments to writers for articles and columns, $105 per month for newsletter hosting, $15 a month for backup space, plus fees for the forum software, domain registration, post office box, etc. The contributions that people make toward the site cover part of our hosting fees each month. I think it’s probably obvious that we don’t get anywhere near our totals in donations each month. We received approximately $120 in donations last month. The bulk of our expenses is paid by Google ads and advertisers in our newsletters. In earlier times, I paid all the site expenses out of pocket. My job is writing. Absolute Write has always been my labor of love, and I’ve been happy that it’s usually paid its own expenses.

5. “They’re in cahoots with the big agents and publishers!”

Sometimes people accuse us of being funded by established agencies or publishers. That’s… well, that’s weird. Real agents and publishers don’t need us to stick up for them. They do fine. No one’s paying us to say bad things about anyone.

6. “They’re all working together!”

Yes and no. We are all separate entities, and do not make any decisions for each other. Dave has his rules for Preditors and Editors, Ann and Victoria do their thing with Writer Beware, I run Absolute Write (with Jim and Victoria moderating the Bewares and Background Check board), Miss Snark runs her blog, Teresa and Patrick run Making Light, and so on—but we all respect each other’s work, and many of us are friends. (Mostly, we got to know each other because of this shared interest in scam-fighting.)

We don’t have secret meetings, and we don’t work for the same organization.

7. “People get paid to post at Absolute Write!”

How cool. I wish that were true. I’ve posted more than 7,000 times. That could be a big check…

I have no idea how to even respond to that one, because it just doesn’t make sense. Why would I (or anyone) need to pay people to post here? Sometimes I want to pay people to stop posting here, but that’s another story…

8. “They don’t want people to revolutionize the industry!”

Sure we do. It’s just that we already know what doesn’t work. We’ve watched people who think they’re being pioneers crash and burn again and again with ideas such as: (a) starting a bookstore just for self-published books, (b) websites to display manuscripts to agents and publishers, (c) mass-mailing services, (d) start-up publishers with no distribution who are going to specialize in “new writers,” (e) e-book and print-on-demand book publishers who think they’re going to compete with Simon & Schuster, (f) publishers who invent creative “returns” policies for bookstores, (g) vanity radio shows, (h) pay-per-click websites… the list goes on and on.

We’re all for innovation in publishing. We just don’t want writers to be sucked into the “great new thing” that’s already failed several times before.

9. "They were probably rejected by the company they warn against!"

Between us, we've been published by HarperCollins, Tor, Simon & Schuster, McGraw-Hill, Penguin, Baen, and bunches of others. Do you really think vanity presses and fee-charging agents are turning us down? In nearly all cases, we've never submitted anything to the companies we warn others about. We just find out about them from people who have submitted their work. Those people wind up writing to us to ask if the companies are legit (so we do some legwork to find out), or to tell us about their bad experiences.

10. "The naysayers expected to get rich and famous, and when they didn't, they blamed the publisher!"

This one's not usually directed at us, but rather, at people who come forward about their bad experiences with scammers. In either case, it's bunk. Very few people expect to get rich and famous with their writing. Normally, people's goals are much more humble. They want to see their book on real bookstore shelves. They want strangers to read it. They want a few reviews.

I've never seen a complaint that says, "I hate this publisher because I was planning on being rich and famous and it didn't happen!" What I do see are complaints that say things like, "I worked my butt off for six months promoting my book, and found out that bookstores won't stock it because my 'publisher' has terrible policies and no editorial standards, so booksellers see it as a vanity press even though they claim not to be one." Or, "The only people who have bought my book are my relatives and my next-door neighbor." Or, "I had no idea my book would be so overpriced, and full of typos."

This is closely tied in to the "they didn't read their contract!" argument, which is silly. It doesn't say in anyone's contract, "We're going to insert typos into your book, overprice it, and make sure that we make it as unattractive as possible to bookstores so they will not ever stock it."

11. “They’re elitists!”

That's easy to decide for yourself, if you hang around for just a few days. Consider this: If we were actually opposed to new writers in any way, why would we spend so much time with them? Look at the thread “Learn Writing with Uncle Jim” on the Novels board. Look at the decade of service Victoria, Ann, and Dave have each given freely to steer writers away from trouble. Look at the time and attention Miss Snark gives to critiquing writers’ work and Teresa Nielsen Hayden gives to detailing the publishing process.

We are thrilled when new writers succeed. That’s why we do what we do.

(I should also mention something—above, I’ve named the names I think of most often when I think about scamhunters, but there are lots of other sites and people who are rarely mentioned even though they’ve acted as scamhunters, too, or at least supported our efforts—Mindsight Series, Speculations, Authors Guild, C. E. Petit, John Scalzi, Charlie Hughes of Wind Publications, Kristen Nelson, Cathy Clamp, PODdy Mouth, Lauri Berkenkamp, Jim Fisher, and bunches of others.)

October 30, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- The IILAA Strikes Back

Ridicule can work, my friends.

As many of you may already know, Leann Murphy yanked the IILAA website last night. At first, the content was replaced by an amusing (though not, I suspect, in the way Leann intended) nyah-nyah message. Second thoughts apparently prevailed, however, and the message was removed. Currently, the website consists of an opening page and a page of links, but the rest of the content is gone. (Fortunately the Cabal, ever watchful and prepared, has screenshots.)

So anyway, I logged in at Absolute Write this morning, and what should I find waiting for me but this Private Message (to fully appreciate it, you need to visit the link above).

"Hello old, ugly one,

Hello. I saw your post about IILAA.....and I just want to ask by which evidence do you and your friends on that website favor the idea of a scam?

I do know there are scams out there-people who take money and do not do their jobs......then again there are some writers who just plain....suck. They suck and they cannot handle disappointment or rejection so they turn their feelings outwards towards places who have made people like me successful.

I am not about hate...but I do wish to know why people try to attack others in such ways that are considered hateful.

IILAA is not Desert is an organization which includes Desert Rose....I know...I have checked...I was skeptical too.....and as a published writer with Desert Rose, I will have to defend them in saying that I have never had a problem with them. It did cost a bit to get things going, but I do not expect ANYONE to work for me for free which is the essence of all those who post such hateful text.....I dont understand why people believe that they can get things for costs money to make money. The only ones I see making money are those who do and those who try-not those who complain that a scam is occurring which they cannot identify. This is also the mark of a mentally ill person. Sites such as the one I got your info. from seem to draw the attention of the mentally ill.....

I do not understand why sites such as the one you post on clone themselves all over the internet and act as if they know not about one another.....if anyone is involved in cyber-terrorism, scams or fraud-it is those websites who do those things. Having watched for a while now, I DO know that absolutewrite, writers beware, sfwa, and a few others are in fact run by the same people. It is called search engine bombing...and what it does is allows people to saturate the search engines with their content- until they search engine finds out-and bans them Some of us have connections that can make that happen at no cost. It is just a matter of code.

Yes this can be done....

I am keeping my identity secret for now because I do not wish to waste my time reading or sifting through the mounds of hate email I may recieve as a result of expressing my opinion. God knows that sort of thing is not allowed on the kinds of websites that you post. Are you sure they are not run by Islam?

I feel I may be wasting my time writing this and sending it out to eveyr single person I can find...maybe I am........just watch who you are in company with...there are people out there who are REAL scammers- and those like Victoria who are so good at scamming that they lead others to me... I know all about her I would stay as far away from her and her organizations as I could if you dont want to end up in jail with her someday.

Have a great weekend!"

My response:

"Hi, Leann. If you believe you have the evidence to prove even one of your allegations, I invite you to make it public. I'd welcome the chance to refute it. I also invite you to have the guts not to lurk behind a cloak of anonymity. If you are really as Young and Fabulous as you claim, what do you have to hide? Other than your poor writing skills, of course.

Have a nice day."

So. Anyone think I'll be hearing from her again?

October 27, 2006

Victoria Strauss --The IILAA, or, What You Do When They Won't Let You Into the Club

...You set up your own.

There's a brand new literary agents' association in town, y'all. It's called the International Independent Literary Agents Association, and it ain't just playin' around. Its mission: "The International Independent Literary Agents Association (IILAA) is composed of independent agents who have formed an association for the purpose of better serving our clients. As individual and independent agents, the main priority and loyalty of each agent is to his/her personal clients, as it should be. We are proud that our members serve their clients first and foremost, rather than any organization or association."

Now, that is a very worthy goal. Cue applause. Writer Beware approves. We love agents who are dedicated to their authors and aren't afraid to say so. And look here--the IILAA website includes a description of an agent's job, for the enlightenment of potential clients. What a helpful resource! And, oh wow! There's a section on retainer fees! Hooray! Another literary agents' organization that takes a firm stance against this common form of writer exploitation!

But...oh dear. What's this I see? "Although reading/evaluation fees are still considered a no-no, a reasonable upfront fee became the norm. If you hire an attorney for representation, you are expected to be [sic] a retainer fee. This is now the case for literary agents." Hold on. That can't be right! But there's more of the same on the Publishing Myths page. "Most first time writers don’t receive more than $3,000 advances, although some receive as much as $5,000. The agent’s commission for these amounts isn’t enough to make it worth the agent’s efforts without some advance help with the marketing expenses for the writer. An agent’s expenses add up!"

Oh sadness, oh woe! I can hardly bear the disillusionment. Could it be that the IILAA isn't dispelling publishing myths, but perpetuating them?

Why should it do such a dastardly thing? Let's drop down the page a bit, to Purported Publishing Myth #5: "Websites such as SFWA, Writers’ [sic] Beware, Predators [sic] & Editors, along with associated blogs and chatrooms/forums are operated and monitored by people who are dedicated to you, the writer." According to IILAA, this is a myth because "The operators/monitors of these groups have an agenda...and it isn’t to protect you. Their agenda is to destroy the reputations, and therefore, the business of independent agents. They do not do this out of the kindness of their hearts, or because they truly care about you, the writer. They do this for a reason!"

Cue scary music. And just to enable you, the writer, to identify this Axis of Evil, this HYDRA, this SMERSH of the Internet, there's a helpful page entitled How to spot hate sites who [sic] prey on the insecurities of writers. There, the terrible truth is once again revealed: "There are numerous websites trashing agents. Because of the number of these websites, the average writer who is simply browsing the internet is not aware that most of these websites, forums, chatrooms, etc., are operated by the same group of people who claim to serve the interest of you, the writer. But honestly, do you believe that the operators of these websites spend so much of their time, effort, and money because they truly care about you? Or do they have an agenda."

Okaaaay. Now I get it. It's a CONSPIRACY. Me and Ann and Dave and Jenna and Jim and Snark and Teresa aren't the autonomous individuals we pretend to be: we're a covert cabal with a Master Plan. What, you thought I was going to tell you more? Uh uh, my friend. Like any good Master Plan, ours depends on absolute secrecy.

Speaking of conspiracies, let's have a look at the agents of whom IILAA approves (they aren't identified as members): the Top Ten Best Independent Literary Agents. (Actually, there are only nine of them. Psst--SammyK--there's a space for you.) Guess what? Writer Beware has a file on every single one.

- Barbara Bauer Literary Agency, Inc. Need I say more? All right, I will. According to Writer Beware's documentation, Barbara Bauer charges a $650 upfront annual fee (and has asked for as much as $1,000), plus expenses. Barbara has been around for longer than us, but we can't find any recent evidence of book sales.

- Capital Literary Agents. Also d/b/a American Literary Agents of Washington Inc. and Washington Literary Agency. Charges $250 for a 4-month contract, owns a vanity publisher. Has been ripping writers off since 1998, with nary a sale, as far as WB is aware.

- Desert Rose Literary Agency. Charges a $250-350 "office retainer." Is currently the focus of an investigation by the Tom Green County Sheriff's Department. No sales as far as WB is aware. (Desert Rose is the only agency on the list that identifies itself as an IILAA member. Probably not coincidentally, the server for IILAA appears to be located in San Angelo, TX, Desert Rose's home town.)

- Harris Literary Agency. Offers clients a choice of providing a large amount of submission material at their own expense, or paying $250 upfront. Guess which option most clients choose? To WB's knowledge, Harris has never made a sale to a major US publisher in the whole of its more than nine years in business.

- Martin-McLean Literary Associates. This agency charges $30 per submission, submits to inappropriate publishers, and has recently placed several clients with a notorious vanity publisher. I've blogged about Martin-McLean before.

- Milligan Literary Agency. Actually, this is not a literary agency at all, but a publisher. A vanity publisher.

- Mocknick Productions Literary Agency. Charges $450 upfront. Has been in business for nearly four years, but has no sales as far as WB is aware.

- Nancy Ellis Literary Agency. Unlike the other agencies on the list, Nancy Ellis has a sizeable track record of commercial sales. She's also the subject of two warnings from the Authors Guild.

- Sligo Literary Agency LLC. We haven't heard anything about Sligo since 2004, so this was a blast from the past. Currently, it's charging $175 upfront (since 1999, when we first started getting reports, its charges have dipped as low as $95 and risen as high as $250). To WB's knowledge, it has no recent record of commercial book sales (the few small press sales mentioned on its website date back to 2002 and earlier).

Uh...who was that with the agenda again?

Actually, I think it's backfiring. Not surprisingly, IILAA's launch has triggered a tsunami of ridicule. In San Angelo, someone's ears are burning.

Oh, and by the way, if you have a half hour of spare time and want a yuk, give a listen to Barbara Bauer's recent "special presentation" podcast. Hear Barbara and a rogue's gallery of fee-chargers (Tom Wahl of the Austin Wahl agency: $525 upfront (used to be $650), no discoverable recent sales; David Hiatt of the David Hiatt Literary Agency: $295 reading fee, no discoverable recent sales, worked with fraudulent vanity publisher Northwest Publishing) discuss "the crisis in publishing," a.k.a. all those meanie-weenies like Writer Beware who are criticizing agents who charge upfront fees. I'll close with Mr. Hiatt's assessment of Writer Beware and its sponsor, SFWA:

"The parent organization is the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers, and gosh, it's been my experience that there's a lot of writers out there that really do live in a fantasy land regarding the business of writing."

Yup. And the agents of IILAA will be waiting for them.
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