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.

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.)
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