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.

March 31, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- News of the Weird

People in and around the writing world are always trying to invent a better mousetrap. No, I'm not talking about the advent of POD or harebrained schemes for "new and better" distribution or would-be groundbreaking ideas about self-promotion. I'm talking about the fringey stuff, like the plot patent.

Here's an example I ran across the other day. Granted, it's not as bizarre as the plot patent, but it's still pretty strange. Jim Bildner, whose previous professional credits include the creation of a chain of grocery stores and running a technology consulting company, has established a "venture philanthropy" endeavor called the Literary Ventures Fund, intended to apply the principles of venture capital to book publishing. "Using a venture philanthropy model," the press release says, "the LVF will support small presses book by book, granting both funds and expertise...Over the course of a two to five-year horizon, a selected manuscript may be granted writer advances, specialized marketing expertise, funds for participation in targeted marketing programs, and money for author tours and related activities. Projects will be selected based on their literary merits; those books that do produce a profit over time will pay back a percentage of profits to the Fund to help support future projects."

In other words, the Fund invests in a book, and in return owns a piece of it. Good news for some authors. But will it work?

The notion of making enough profit from small-press literary books to support a "venture philanthropy" fund sounds pretty farfetched to me. Maybe the Fund will find another Audrey Niffenegger (whose book, by the way, became successful without any philanthropical assistance)...but given the very unpredictable nature of bookselling, not to mention the extremely subjective process of choosing books "based on their literary merits," it seems more likely that it won't. The Da Vinci Code and The Traveler prove that cash can create a bestseller; The Jessica Lynch Story and numerous celebrity-authored children's books prove that in some cases, no amount of money is enough.

In January, the Fund geared up for its first round of grants, which will range from $5,000 to $200,000. According to an article in PW, some of which is readable here, one of the chosen books is a first novel: Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife by Sam Savage, "the story of a rat living in a bookstore that learns to read." (Hey! I didn't know bookstores could read!) Coffee House Press, the publisher, will get $10,000 to provide marketing support for the book (as any publicist could tell you, $10,000 is a pittance). Promo plans include sending 500 gummy rats to booksellers, participating in Baker & Taylor's and Consortium's galley programs, marketing on Amazon, and advertising in trade magazines. It'll be interesting to see what happens.

Oh, and Mr. Bildner? I know a writer of literary merit who could sure use a grant right now...


Edited to add: The folks at the Literary Ventures Fund got in touch to let me know that they now have a website.

March 28, 2006

A.C. Crispin - 47 Answers to Alphabeter's Questions

Q. If you listen to music while writing do you find yourself writing the scene(s) to fit the music or is it just pleasant background noise?

A. The only time I’ve used music to affect my writing was when I was writing tie-in novels. I found that playing a tape or CD of the Star Trek theme, or the Star Wars music, or Alien was a good way to get my mind “into” that universe so I could write in it.

When I write in my own universe, I don’t put on any music, or I just listen to whatever my husband is playing in the next room. (He has very eclectic tastes.) Mostly, when I’m writing, I prefer silence so I can concentrate. I must be weird.

Q. Would you rather self-publishing only or vanity publishing only exist (but not both like now)? Why?

A Actually, these days, vanity publishers play semantic games and CALL what they’re selling “self-publishing” – when it’s really just plain old vanity publishing. In true self-publishing, no POD or e-publishing or vanity publishing company is involved. Instead, the author is responsible for every aspect of his/her book – the cover design, the layout, the editing, etc., and then the author takes the print-ready book to a PRINTER to produce the actual bound volume. The author doesn’t have to buy books from another company. Instead, the author sets the print run, and takes possession of all copies produced.

I think that true self-publishing is actually a better thing for authors who are serious about starting a career. The author knows from the get-go that he/she is responsible for all costs, and it’s obvious that the author must handle all avenues of distribution. There’s much less chance of writers being disappointed after being drawn in with promises of bestsellerdom and booksignings.

Of course, POD/vanity publishing does have its valid uses. Some writers don’t want to bother with things like designing covers, or laying out a book’s text. They want to hire a company to do it for them. Valid uses for this kind of publishing include non-commercial volumes of, say, church recipes, family histories, personal memoirs to leave to descendents, poetry collections, etc.

So I would say that both types of publishing have their uses.

Q. If you could name full names of the naughty, would you or is it more amusing to refer to them as 'Publisher' AE/PA, Agent F, etc...?

A. Writer Beware bows to the wishes of our attorney in such matters. Basically, what “Jaws” says, goes. Sometimes he doesn’t object to us spelling out the identity of a scam publisher or agent. Sometimes he prefers that we obfuscate a bit. We’d be foolish to ignore his advice, so what he says pretty much goes.

Q. Would you rather have to write three books a year to make ends meet or be contractually obligated to just one a year--but all the previous ones have been best-sellers with huge followings?

A. I’m not a fast enough writer to write three books in one year. I think I may have done it once during the past 20-odd years, and during that busy year, I collaborated on a Witch World novel with Andre Norton, plus I wrote two media tie-in novels.

My original novels take me much longer to write than the media tie-in books, because I have to create the world(s) and all the characters. I actually like writing them better, though they are more work.

I’ve had a number of bestsellers, but when I write these days I try not to let myself be pressured by that. I can’t think of a faster way for a writer to “choke” than to feel that kind of pressure. The best thing a writer can do is to write the very best book she can – the VERY BEST – and then hope that sales will be commensurate with the amount of effort she put into the book. Sadly, this isn’t always the case. It should be, but it isn't. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep trying.

Q. How much pulp would a scammer publish if a scammer could truly publish slush?

A. A lot of books published by scam publishers ARE slushpile rejects. Scammers publish as much as the author will pay them to publish. Quality is of no importance whatsoever. That’s what sets them apart from real, commercial publishers.

(I realize that last may have been a joke. If it was just meant to elicit a smile, sorry.)

-Ann C. Crispin
Writer Beware

March 27, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- More Egg on the Face of PublishAmerica

That's right, our favorite "traditional" publisher is in the news again. In the latest embarassing (to PublishAmerica) coverage, we learn about the successful arbitration conducted by one of PA's less-than-happy authors, Philip Dolan, which resulted in financial compensation, including the expense of arbitration, and would have resulted in the reimbursement of attorney's fees if Mr. Dolan hadn't represented himself at the hearing. According to Mr. Dolan's lawyer, an award of attorney fees indicates, almost without exception, that the side receiving reimbursement was the prevailing side.

In other words...PA lost.

The article contains two classic examples of PA-speak.

"We are very proud to have a lenient acceptance threshhold," said Danielle McDonald, a spokeswoman for PA.

Yes, folks, according to PA, that's a good thing (kinda like "[being able to] afford to sell all copies of a book on a non-returnable basis" is a good thing).

So what's "lenient?" Let's be kind and assume it doesn't mean "everything we get this week till we reach our quota." Or "everything we get that isn't written in crayon on cocktail napkins." Let's assume it means what PA has claimed elsewhere: variously, a 70% rejection rate or an 80% rejection rate. Invoking Sturgeon's Law (90% of everything is crap)--not to mention the rejection rates of commercial publishers, which accept maybe 2% or 3% of all available manuscripts--not to mention the reality of the average slush pile, in which a lot more than 90% of everything is crap--it's clear that PA's bar is set way too low to ensure quality.

So lenient isn't anything to be proud of. Unless you're a vanity publisher, of course.

When asked about the arbitration with Mr. Dolan, Ms. McDonald, the PA spokeswoman, said, "Both parties are required to keep the details of the arbitration confidential, and the true outcome has not been divulged, so you could not possibly have learned the outcome."

The article, of course, demonstrates exactly how the outcome not only could be, but was, learned.

La, la, la, la, la, mean PA-bashers. My fingers are in my ears. I don't heeeeeear yooooooou!

March 23, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- Go Ahead. Make My Day.

Recently, Ann and I compiled a list of Writer Beware's 20 Worst Agents, which we posted to WritersNet, Absolute Write, and Miss Snark (check out the comments from people who were rooked by agencies on the list). Since then, we've been waiting for the inevitable explosion, and taking bets on who'd be first. We were wrong: it wasn't Agent B, who has cease-and-desisted us several times over the past few months. It was Agent R.

Here's what Agent R, a.k.a. Cris Robins of the Robins Literary Agency, has to say on her website about Writer Beware and Preditors & Editors. Responding point by point:

For years I've sat back, quietly, and listened to Ann Crispin and Victoria Straus and even the Preditors & Editors page say how they've had all these complaints about us; how we are not recommended; how we do this wrong and that wrong.

Not quite quietly. Back in 1998 or 1999, when my phone number was listed in my name (rather than my husband's, who has a different surname), Cris called me up to yell at me for providing warnings about her agency, and to demand why Writer Beware thought it was such a big deal to recommend paid editing services to clients and potential clients (making editing recommendations was at that time a main focus of the agency). I tried to explain, though I could hardly get a word in edgewise. Eventually she hung up on me.

Cris also contacted Ann and me under an alias to try and find out what we were saying about her agency and, possibly, to tempt us into making actionable statements. And she showed up under another alias at a writers' message board where I was a regular participant (an alias she has used in the past to provide bogus testimonials about her agency) to argue vigorously in favor of agents charging huge upfront fees.

So, I'm wondering why is it then, when presented with a sterling opportunity to bring all these so-called complaints to light, when the rubber hits the road and the chance to really put a sword in our hearts and potentially prove all their claims, do they back down? When they are in a position of having nothing to lose and EVERYTHING to gain, do they do nothing? When their claims finally have a chance of being brought into the light of justice, do they stand back and let them die?

We're not exactly backing down. Since this time last year, I've responded in email to 27 questions/comments about Ms. Robins: 6 general questions about the agency's business practices, 19 very similar complaints/advisories (many with documentation) citing fees and other irregularities (currently, the agency charges $3,250 for a year of representation, often using a hard-sell telephone approach to try and convince dubious writers) and 2 other problems (a publisher irritated about inappropriate submissions, a writer claiming nonperformance on a ghostwriting contract).

Perhaps it is as I've said all along - they have NO verifiable claims or complaints against us; they have not one letter, e-mail, or person who can stand up and declare with righteousness - "This is what the Robins Agency did to me and it was wrong."

Bzzt. Wrong. See above.

But, don't take my word for it, take theirs. Ann Crispin was approached by someone filing a complaint against our agency with the Missouri Attorney General's office. She was asked for any and all complaints against us to put with this complaint. Her response: "If you'd like to talk with us about the info and documentation regarding her in our database, please call me."

A point of correction: Ann was not approached by any complainant. She was responding to a request for contact by someone named Christopher Dahl, posted at the Robins Agency thread on Absolute Write. Also, I'd like to know how inviting someone to call for information is "backing down."

(P.S., Cris--posting someone's email online without their permission is a copyright violation.)

The results: NOTHING. Not one single piece of information in her so-called database was ever included in the filing. Why is this?

Uh...maybe because this Christopher Dahl never responded to Ann's invitation to phone? Neither Ann nor I ever heard anything at all from this individual.

We contend that it's because there is nothing that she has that can withstand the scrutiny of a legal filing. Yet, by her own admissions, she feels justified in warning hundreds of writers away from us? And this is a good service to her readers; to deny them opportunities just because she can?

Actually, we are happy to help writers pass up an opportunity to waste $3,250. And we feel comfortably justified in warning writers about the nonstandard practices of the Robins Literary Agency, which now and in the past include or have included:
  • Recommendation of the agency's own paid editing services, often on the basis of just three sample chapters (a conflict of interest: if an agent can profit financially by recommending editing, how can a writer trust that the recommendation is being made in his/her best interest?)

  • Charging upfront "retainers"--currently $3,250 for a year of representation (reputable agents don't charge these kinds of fees)

  • Misrepresenting the agency's qualifications (to potential clients, Cris claims to be one of the "top 10 agencies in the nation." She's currently claiming a sale--of her own book--to Adams Media, an established independent publisher that doesn't require authors to be agented. But before that, to our knowledge, the Robins Literary Agency had never placed a book with a commercial US publisher in the whole of its nine or so years of

  • Misrepresenting typical business practice among reputable literary agents (in her phone sell to potential clients, Cris claims that charging huge retainers is standard. And check out the agency's FAQ page, where, among other gems of misinformation, it's stated that agents don't "usually" reveal their track records "as past performance has little bearing on the type of job they can do for you.")
Dave Kuzminski, Editor at Preditors & Editors, had the same request made of him. His response: a listing of contact information of three former editors who used to work for us, a haphazard accounting of our business manager, and two former clients. Yet, he provided no complaints of any kind and preferenced all of his information with they MAY be able to help you.

The results: NOTHING. Again, not one of the people Mr. Kuzminski said could possibly help this claim against us did; not one single letter, e-mail, or person was presented to uphold their allegations of wrong doing on our part.

(Dear me, copyright violation again!) I'm guessing that Mr. Dahl never responded to Dave, either.

Here's something else. Supposedly, we're talking about a complaint to the Missouri Attorney General's Office--not a claim in court, where rules of discovery would apply. Is it the policy of Attorney General offices to share complaint files with the objects of those complaints? Somehow I doubt it. is it that Cris has Ann's and Dave's emails in her possession? Think about it.

And so it goes, they spread poison for no other reason than they can. They are the perfect examples of why information on the net is unreliable at best and harmful to the reader at worst. If they don't like the way we do business, fine. But, they have no right to rob their readers of opportunities they can't find elsewhere by spreading their unsubstantiated claims.

For a prime example of unreliable information on the Internet, I again recommend a visit to Cris's FAQ page.

If all the things they said about us were true, that would be one thing. But, when they are given the opportunity to put their money where their mouth is and back down that just shows the validity to their claims is non-existent. mouth.

However, the validity of our agency rests in that we have never had a claimed filed against us that we've lost in any court, jurisdiction, or government agency. THAT has to say something about the way we do business. We've proven ourselves time and time again when we've had everything to lose; why can't they prove anything when they've everything to gain?

It's actually rather pathetic that while other literary agents call on things like track record and reputation to demonstrate their validity, Cris can only call on the fact that she's never lost a claimed [sic] in court.

So Cris--how about you put your money where your mouth is? Tell us how you've proven yourself "time and time again." Have you proven that you have a track record of sales to commercial publishers? Have you proven that you have standing in the industry? Have you proven that you do more for your clients than take their money and give them empty promises?

It's up to you, the reader, to decide - are you going to believe someone who can't back up their own claims, or are you going to stop and believe in yourself, your gut, and your work.

That's right, dear Reader--it is up to you. It's up to you to do your research. It's up to you to learn the right questions to ask, and to ask them without timidity. It's up to you to educate yourself about the publishing industry and how it works. If you do--if you believe in yourself and your work enough to put in the time and make the effort--you'll have no problem knowing whom to believe. We promise.

March 21, 2006

A. C. Crispin - 46 Maggie's Question

Okay, here we are for the second question of the 7 posted. Maggie asked: "Do you think all these scams have made the publishing world distrustful? What impact will it have on, say, pseudonyms?"

Maggie, the world of the publishing and agenting scammer exists completely outside the world of the real publishers and agents. Many people in the real publishing world are only peripherally aware that publishing and agenting scams exist!

A few years ago, the then-President of AAR was asked to comment on the Deering scam. She fumfawed her way through the reporter's questions in a way that made it clear that she didn't have a clue what the Deerings had been up to. The closest she could come was to think of real agents that had been found guilty of embezzlement, ala Jay Garon that I talked about earlier.

These days, most first readers in publishing houses are fairly well aware of scam LITERARY AGENTS. Why? Because some scam agents (not all, by any means) actually do query on behalf of their clients. Most never submit any query packages, but a few do send in chapters, even.

Why would they do this, you ask? If they've already been paid by the author to submit, why bother to actually do it? Well, there are a couple of reasons. Some do it, I suspect, to have postal records that will prove they were submitting in case clients complain to the police or the postal inspector. Others do it because they want to rack up a string of rejections to soften the author up so they can then call the (increasingly desperate) author up and gush, "Are you sitting down? We have a sale!" Of course they neglect to say that the "sale" is to a vanity press, frequently one that the agent also owns...

So yes, there are first readers in publishing houses who know immediately upon receiving a submission from Janet Kay Literary Agency, or Deering Literary Agency not to even bother to glance at what's in the envelope. It goes in the round file, or the postcard enclosed is returned with a "no" checked off, if the "agent" provided one. (One very successful scammer does indeed provided stamped postcards of this sort, just so she can get a bunch of rejections.)

As for commercial publishing editors being aware of vanity and scam publishers, they are more aware of them than they used to be. The reason for that is, writers query all the time, claiming a PublishAmerica book (or the POD/e-book equivalent) as a "publication credential." Editors quickly realize what this means in terms of real publication: exactly ZIP.

As to what effect all of this will have on pen names, I don't think it really will have much. I think that writers of memoirs will experience some burden of proof as a result of the James Frey fallout.

Remember...the world of scam publishing and agenting operates independently from the real publishing world. It's rather like a negative of a photographic image. Everything in the scam world is twisted, distorted, and it bears little resemblance to the actual world of commercial publishing. Scammers deliberately twist, "spin" and invent so much, that their version of how publishing works bears only a very surface resemblance to the real thing in New York.

It's not like scammers ever get invited to book launch parties, or taken to lunch by publishers, etc.

There's an anecdote in Jim Fisher's book (and if you haven't read it, you should!) Ten Percent of Nothing: The Literary Agent from Hell that perfectly illustrates this. He described Dorothy Deering and Charles Deering waltzing into the lobby of a publishing house in Manhattan, dressed like country cousins, laden down with box upon box of manuscripts. When the bemused receptionist finally convinced an editor to come out and speak to this weird looking pair, and the editor introduced herself, Dorothy exclaimed, "It's about time! Here they are!" and let the boxes she was holding slide to the floor. Charles did likewise. They then turned without another word, and left the building, leaving a stunned editor and receptionist exchanging incredulous glances.

I think that incident illustrates pretty perfectly that there is little relationship between the "negative image" world of the scammer, and the real world of the commercial publisher/legitimate literary agent.

Maggie, I hope that answered your question.

-Ann C. Crispin
Writer Beware

March 16, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- I'm Ba-ack

Having touched on the downside of self-promotion in my last post, maybe it's ironic that this post should be all about...self-promotion.

You may have noticed that the book cover over my name has changed. That's because my newest novel, The Awakened City (sequel to The Burning Land), is out! Official release date was March 14th.

I have one on my desk right now, and it's a lovely object. Eos does a really nice job with design and production. And I am thrilled with the cover, by UK artist Mark Harrison. I was ambivalent about the cover of The Burning Land--it certainly is striking artwork, but I'm not crazy about the female figure. This one, though, is fab.

The Awakened City has its very own page on my website, with several sample chapters, review quotes (pretty good so far), the inevitable author blurbs (I was especially thrilled to get a wonderful blurb from Robin Hobb, whose latest book, Shaman's Crossing, you should all run right out and read--after you read mine, of course), and info on my research and world building. And there's a contest to win free books.

There's also a short article about the book at SciFi Wire.

So have I promoted enough? Maybe I could manage to squeeze in a few more links?

Seriously, though...this book was not easy to write. I'm not naturally a series writer; I tend to think in terms of single novels, and even if I know I'm going to do a followup, I don't usually know what the story will be until I'm finished with Book One. With The Awakened City, I had the additional problem of having the plot fall apart about a third of the way in. I knew what the ending had to be, but as I made my way through the initial chapters it became horribly apparent that my original plan for getting there just wasn't going to work. For a while I was writing into a blank--very stressful, as I'm not a seat-of-the-pantser, and usually work from a detailed synopsis. But the story did eventually knit itself up again, and I think the book has a rawer and more immediate feel than The Burning Land, which unfolded pretty much according to my original intent.

Another major challenge of series writing for me (as noted in the article linked in above) is revisiting viewpoint characters. Spending one book inside a character's or a group of characters’ heads is usually enough for me. One of the thrills of a new project is the chance to launch myself into something unknown, as opposed to returning to something familiar.

I had no choice but to keep the viewpoint of Gyalo, the Shaper ex-priest who may be the true Next Messenger. His story is the backbone of the duology. But it was a real challenge to come back to a character whom I’d left at a point of transition at the end of the previous book, and move him on from there. I wanted him to continue to grow and change; I was very conscious of the danger of relying on my familiarity with him, and letting him become static and boring as a result. So even though the books are two halves of a single story, Gyalo has a separate character arc in each.

Axane, the second viewpoint character in The Burning Land, remains a major player in the sequel, but I don't go inside her head at all. Instead, I use the viewpoints of two characters who were seen only from the outside in the previous book: Râvar, the False Messenger who creates the cult of the Awakened City, and Sundit, a leader of the Âratist church, who’s caught between the church’s fear of change and the possibility of true revelation. Writing Râvar was the third big challenge of this project--portraying from the inside a character who has a lot of unpleasant characteristics, who does some really awful things, yet must remain not just understandable, but to some degree sympathetic. Readers may condemn Râvar, but I also would like them to pity him.

The second book of my Stone duology was a standalone novel that could be read without reference to the previous book, but I'll be honest and admit that The Awakened City is not. As noted above, the two books are halves of a single story, and while I think you could read the second without having read the first and not find yourself totally lost (I've tried to weave enough backstory into the action to clue new readers in and jog returning readers’ memories), you'll appreciate the characters and the themes a lot more if you read both.

And if you do, please let me know what you think.

March 12, 2006

A.C. Crispin - 45 - First Question...

Okay, Dave has asked me how much walking or digging in my garden influences my writing?

Answer: Not much. (smile) Victoria is the gardener, and she is an excellent one. You might want to ask her about the influence on her, since she does have a garden in her new book that's coming out, the sequel to The Burning Land, titled The Awakened City. The garden is a minor, but important setting in the book. (Which I've read, being a beta reader. It's EXCELLENT!)

I will, however, talk about how places I've been have influenced my writing. I don't actually take notes, but I have an excellent memory. I can close my eyes and call up my sensations, my perceptions, when I visited a place or experienced something I could use in my writing.

For example, if anyone in here has read Storms of Destiny, my newest book, you'll notice there are a lot of scenes that take place aboard sailing vessels. Once character even goes through a typhoon out on the deck of an old fashioned sailing vessel.

My dad had a salboat, and I used to go sailing with him on the Chesapeake Bay. I've experienced a bad thunderstorm out on the water. Sailing with my dad is where I learned the sensory details that, I hope, helped me create the illusion of reality for Storms.

In creating the illusion of reality, the devil is indeed in the details. You have to know just how much to include. You have to learn to edit out the extraneous or the overkill. You have to learn to use ALL FIVE OF YOUR SENSES. Most beginning writers just focus on describing the visual. That is fine, so far as it goes.

But in describing a ship under sail, it helped me so much to have actually sailed. To get the "period" feel of a larger vessel, I relied on my memories of visiting. period ships, like Old Ironsides, the replica of the Ark, here in Maryland, and the replica of the Mayflower in Plymouth.

I know what it sounds like to hear the rigging creaking, and the sails filling with wind. I know what it's like to duck when the boom swings over in a brisk wind, and the boat suddenly heels over until the gunwales are almost in the water. In visiting the period vessels, I have gazed at those tiny hammocks and bunks, and shivered at the imagined sound of the rats scurrying and chewing at night. I've imagined the bedbugs and other vermin, and scratched as my skin twitched in sympathy.

I know what it sounds like to hear a cannon or a musket fired, and what the stench of the burned powder is like. I know how much smoke they belch out.

All of these things go into creating the illusion of reality.

I also know what it feels like to ride a horse at a full gallop, to jump downed trees, how the horse smells when it sweats, and the harsh sound of its breath laboring if it gallops uphill. (Of course I've never pushed a horse as hard as Jezzil pushed Falar in Storms! But I know what it would feel like.)

I've walked on a glacier. I've hiked in the mountains, and washed my hands in a mountain stream. I've camped there. I have cooked outside, over an open fire. I know how much brighter the stars are in the wilderness. I've shivered, trying to get dressed when the ground is silvered with frost.

All of these sensory details go into my writing, in one way or another. They came in very useful during the writing of Storms of Destiny, because it's epic fantasy. They'll continue to be useful during the sequel, Winds of Vengeance.

Now...what do you do if you can't experience something? I have never stood on the bridge of the Enterprise as it hurtles into warp drive, for example.

Well, obviously, here's where you must call upon your imagination, coupled with lots of research.

Remember, use ALL of the five senses. When I finish a chapter in a book, during one of my edits, I concentrate on locating visual description and seeing if any of it can be changed to utilize another of the five senses.

Happy writing, my friends. Next post, I'll address Maggie's question about how I think various scams will affect, or have affected, the writing world.

-Ann C. Crispin

March 11, 2006

A.C. Crispin - 44 - Choose Your Own Topic - Here's Your Opportunity!

Okay, I confess. I can't think of a single thing to write about on this beautiful spring day. Spring fever has hit my brain and I want to go outside and measure my tulip shoots rather than site here and think up some scam-related words of wisdom. And I know better than to post a recipe or talk about the new book I'm writing!'s the deal: I'm going to devote Post 44 to answering the first, or the first few, writing, publication, or scam-related questions you folks pose. I'll answer as many questions as I can, depending on the complexity of the questions and the answer required.

If I don't know the answer, I'll say so. There are lots of things I don't know. Most of them aren't related to writing or scams, however. (smile)'s your chance. Fire away!

-Ann C. Crispin

March 8, 2006

A.C. Crispin - 43 Where Have You Gone, Bill Appell?

Victoria is out of town for a while, so I'm holding down the fort.

Does the name "Bill Appell" or "Denise Sterrs" mean anything to anyone here? I sure hope not! They were the "dynamic duo" who ran one of the biggest writing scams in history, the infamous "Edit Ink."

Edit Ink was up and running in full swing before Writer Beware was even formed. We did some warning about it, and managed to dissuade some writers from submitting work to agents like Charles Neighbors and Kelly Culmer after we became aware of it, but by the time Writer Beware had been given its "go ahead" from SFWA, Edit Ink was already starting to crumble. The New York Attorney General had them on the ropes. Eventually they were shut down, and ordered to pay restitution to their victims, but they cried poormouth, because they had already spent all the money they'd made on a posh house, lots of cars, etc.

Bill Appell was the founder of Edit Ink. He was a swimming pool salesman in Buffalo, NY. Now if you've ever been to Buffalo, you probably know that in order to sell swimming pools for a living that close to the Canadian border, you'd have to be a pretty good salesman. Old Bill was a real snake oil specialist, and his wife, Denise, was every bit as bad as he was.

In its heyday, Edit Ink had several dozen questionable agents funneling manuscripts to them every day. They paid a nice little kickback for every manuscript sent on to them. "You're getting closer to publication!" was their slogan, and they told all writers that the "rule" in New York publishing was that they HAD to have their manuscript "professionally edited" before it could be submitted.

Professionally edited, HAH! During their trial, expert witness and top literary agent Perry Knowlton, who had reviewed a number of Edit Ink's manuscripts, and seen for himself the kind of editing they'd done, told the judge that the manuscripts he'd reviewed were hopeless, that no amount of editing could have salvaged those books, and that the level of editing was so sub-par as to be useless to a writer trying to achieve publication.

Edit Ink actually had a few real editors work for them, but that turned out to be more or less accidental. During the trial, one of the witnesses described Bill Appell coming into the room with an armload of manuscripts, seeing that everyone else was full up, and then putting them down on an empty desk, and yelling to the pool cleaner, "Hey! C'mon in here, I've got a job for you!"

And the pool cleaner was pressed into business as an "editor."


My favorite Edit Ink story was the one told me by Mary Doria Russell. She'd completed a book titled "The Sparrow," and had been unable to find an agent. She had the manuscript with one last agent, but she also had run into one of Edit Ink's ads, promising to greatly increase the marketability of her manuscript. Feeling increasingly desperate, Mary overnighted her manuscript to Edit Ink on a Friday morning, and gave Bill Appell her credit card number to pay for the edit.

That afternoon, the agent called. The agent told Mary that they really liked her book, even though they usually didn't handle science fiction, and they were thinking very seriously about taking her on as a client. During the chat with the agent, Mary mentioned that she'd sent her book to Edit Ink as a way to improve the writing so it would be professional enough to submit. The agent gasped, and told her, "Get it back! Get it back!" Stunned, Mary listened to the agent assure her that the quality of her writing was not only of professional quality, it was excellent, and that it sure didn't need to be edited by Edit Ink.

Mary realized that she'd been had.

But this story (unlike most of the Edit Ink tales) has a happy ending!

Mary, who is a smart, savvy lady, called the credit card company and cancelled her credit card. She then left a message on Bill Appell's phone, asking for her manuscript back, and telling him she'd changed her mind.

Appell called her over the weekend and argued vociferously that Mary was making a terrible mistake. Her book desperately needed editing, he claimed, or it would never sell. Mary stood firm. Appell grew ever more strident, but when she wouldn't budge, he finally gave up.

Appell continued to call and write Mary every few months thereafter, urging her to change her mind, insisting that her book desperately needed his expertise. Mary told me it was fun for a while, especially after The Sparrow came out in a major printing, got wonderfully reviewed, won all kinds of awards, and was promptly optioned for a film. (By Antionio Banderas, no less!)

At some point, Mary tired of the game and told Appell to quit calling her. By that time, Edit Ink was on the ropes anyway, with enraged writers protesting to the NY Attorney General in droves.

That's one of my favorite stories, and one of the few with a happy ending.

BTW, I'm working on the question I was asked about the B&N connection with iUniverse, trying to get some official statements out of B&N. We'll see if they'll talk to Writer Beware.

Write on, my friends.

-Ann C. Crispin

March 5, 2006

A.C. Crispin - 42 Become A Writer Beware "Ambassador"

To paraphrase a famous television ad: "Writers don’t let writing friends (and acquaintances) get scammed.”

Yesterday, I attended a women’s conference up at PG Community College. The keynote speaker was a dear friend of mine, a mystery writer who writes both as Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Michaels. (If you haven’t read her work, it’s great, check it out!) During the last part of her Q&A session, my friend said, “Well, if you have questions about writing and publishing, my friend Ann Crispin is sitting right there, and she’ll be happy to talk to you about it!”

Which was fine by me. My friend got to spend time autographing her books for her readers, chatting with them about what she writes, while I handled talking to the aspiring writers. This gave me a chance to spread the word about Writer Beware. Since this conference took place in Maryland, I also made sure I warned these aspiring women writers away from PublishAmerica. (PA has been known to send representatives to writing conferences to try and dig up victims…so far they’ve never sent anyone to any conference that I’ve attended. Probably a good thing…)

I suspect they won’t attempt to send any reps to the Maryland Writers Association 2006 Annual Conference, as I’m the keynote speaker.

Still, PA is getting more and more victims every month. And not all writers in Maryland have been warned. So I keep talking. I keep warning. Not only about PublishAmerica, but about Agent F, and Agent B, and Agent R, and Agent M, and Agent V, and so on and so on.

I am a Writer Beware “ambassador.” And guess what? You can become one too! All you have to do is become AWARE of how the agent and publishing scams work, and spread the word. Refer writers you encounter to the WB website, and to Preditors and Editors. Refer them to Absolute Write. Make sure they understand that real agents work off commission, and that they don’t advertise in Writers Digest. Make sure they understand that no “real” publisher pays a one-dollar advance or pushes their writers to buy a thousand copies of their own books before publication.

On my website ( is a one-page handout called Excuse Me, How Much Did it Cost You? I gave up copyright on that handout years ago. Anyone can copy it and reproduce it at will. Pull it off my website, print it out, and take it to the organizer of your local conference, and see if he/she will agree to print up a couple hundred copies (it’s designed so it fits on one page, front and back) and then put the handouts on the “freebie” table they always have at writing conferences.

Victoria also has an excellent handout, The Safest Way to Search for An Agent. It’s several pages long, much more detailed than the one I wrote, which was designed to cover both agents and publishers. It’s a great companion piece to the “Excuse Me” handout.

If all else fails, hey, you could always spend 10 bucks of your own money and take a handful of handouts to any conference you’re attending. We’d be ever so grateful, and there is no better feeling than knowing you’ve saved some fellow writer from signing on with the likes of Agent F, or PublishAmerica. It makes you feel warm all the way down to your toesies, trust me.

Our checks of this blog indicate we have approximately two to three hundred readers each day, checking in here. That’s a lot of folks. If each of you handed out 10 bucks worth of handouts, and talked to even 10 other writers, warning them against scam agents and author mills like PublishAmerica, think of how many people would be warned. And if you gave those other writers the URL to this blog, and THOSE new writers each talked to ten other writers (when I say “talk” I also mean, of course, posting on the internet, or via email to online writing groups)…and then THEY talked to 10 more…etc., and so on, then it wouldn’t be too long before PublishAmerica’s supply of victims would take a Big Hit. Ditto for Agent F’s seemingly endless supply of prey approaching the “I Need An Agent” watering hole.

Yesterday, I talked to seven or eight new and not-so-new writers. NONE of them had ever heard of Writer Beware, or realized how prevalent writing scams are. They reminded me of limpid-eyed gazelles, hanging out by a water hole, totally unaware of the lions gathering, hidden in the underbrush, licking their chops. Now these particular gazelles have had their eyes opened, and they’ll be wary gazelles, not sweet and trusting ones.

It was a great feeling, and it’s one you can share. Victoria and I are both reachable. Give anyone who needs it, Writer Beware’s website address. Urge them to write to us.

My personal email address is:

I really hope that if you haven’t already done so, that everyone reading this post today will decide to become a Writer Beware “ambassador.”

Let’s create some predator-savvy gazelles, shall we?

-Ann C. Crispin
Writer Beware

March 1, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- Plog, plog, plog, plog, plog...

Is there anyone out there who doesn't know what a plog is? (With all the permutations of "blog" I wouldn't be surprised. Blog, blawg, flog, vlog, splog, plog--I'm sure I'm forgetting a few.)

At any rate, "plog" is a trademark of, and refers to "a personalized web log that appears on your customer home page." Through a new program called AmazonConnect, authors can now post blog-style entries that will appear on their books' detail pages, and also in the plogs of Amazon customers who've bought that author's books (at least, that's how I understand it. Amazon's explanation of the process is incredibly confusing). To make a long explanation short, it's yet another avenue for authorial self-promotion, and agents and publishers are urging their authors to jump on board.

A lot of authors feel ambivalent. Some have blogs already and aren't thrilled about having to maintain another. Some feel the plogs are too overtly commercial. Some are just tired of the pressure to self-promote. Readers seem to be ambivalent too. Many don't really want to read authors' blogs--especially if they're obviously self-promotional--or if they do, would rather seek them out on their own than have blog entries force-fed to them via their Amazon customer page.

There's been a good deal of talk about plogs; some representative opinions (including mine) appear in this article by Lauren Roberts at BiblioBuffet, and in the lively Comments section of this post at Miss Snark's blog. From this and other discussions, I gather that many authors, who aren't enthusiastic about plogging but feel compelled to participate, are using the plogs mainly as a way to direct readers to their own websites and blogs, or to occasionally announce news and appearances. Others intend to deal with the problem of new content by posting book excerpts and press releases, or by recycling previously-written material.

Evidently this has come to Amazon's attention, and they aren't happy about it. Last week I received an email from the staff at AmazonConnect.

We would like to take the opportunity now to give you some constructive feedback on posting practices that we feel do not contribute to a good customer experience.
  • Re-purposing or serializing material from your books (keep in mind that many of the customers receiving your messages have already bought your books…)

  • Flat marketing/promotional messages

  • Posting reviews in place of writing posts

  • Using brightly colored or bold type to write your full post (can be hard to read)

  • Filling your post with multiple links to other sites
Busted! Apparently Amazon wants us to be Good Dobees and provide real content for the plogs.

I do plan to plog, though I'll limit my posts to announcements and information on my new books. The reader feedback on plogs, both at the links above and elsewhere, has been a real eye-opener for me, and I don't want to risk alienating readers by bombarding them with information they may not want. It's a good reminder of why dashing down a new avenue of publicity the instant it opens up isn't necessarily a good idea. Better, I think, to wait and watch and see what develops.

Oh, and one more thing for ploggers to consider: this disclaimer, from Amazon's Conditions of Use:

If you do post content or submit material, and unless we indicate otherwise, you grant and its affiliates a nonexclusive, royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable, and fully sublicensable right to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, publish, translate, create derivative works from, distribute, and display such content throughout the world in any media.
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