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.

June 28, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- A Short Post for a Hot Day

It's stinking hot in lovely Amherst, Massachusetts today, and my brain is as limp as my poor cats, who are sprawled like dishrags on the hardwood floor, hoping in vain for a cool spot. So I offer you the inspiration of others. Here are some great blog posts I've run across in the past few days:

- A fabulous post from agent Jessica Faust of BookEnds, LLC on Bad Agents: how to recognize marginal and incompetent agents, and why they're just about as bad for your career as dishonest agents.

- This post from editor Anita Diggs sheds some light on why. Editors remember marginal and incompetent agents, and not in a good way.

- Rachel Vater suggests a series of questions to ask to determine whether or not the agent who just made you an offer has a clue.

- Concerned about whether the independent publisher you're thinking of approaching is reputable? Writer December Quinn suggests some things to look for, and contrasts the website of a reputable small publisher with the website of one of the most infamous of the author mills (guess who?).

- Another great post from December on how to evaluate an epublisher.

June 19, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- Queen for a Day

A couple of posts back, I blogged about the efforts of certain agents on Writer Beware's Thumbs Down Agency List to defend themselves against criticism of their nonstandard business practices.

Not all Thumbs Down listers are so straightforward. Take, for example, Michele Glance Rooney (charges various kinds of upfront fees, does business under a number of different names, direct-solicts writers, and to Writer Beware's knowledge has never sold a book despite having been in business at least since 2002). Ms. Rooney has come up with an interesting alternative to self-justification and/or direct attack:

Fake blog posts.

Ms. Rooney kicked off her blogging adventure on November 1 of last year. Posting as herself (Blogger handle: Literary Sage), she describes A Million Dollar Lesson in Persistence. "It's a wonderful day in the literary life of Michele Glance Rooney!" the post begins, Mr. Rogers-style. "One of my favorite clients received their first book offer today for a first-time novel...This was not a slam dunk sale. I did a lot of hand-holding with this author. I endured the sting of rejection from some very prestigous New York publishing houses. But did I give up? No, I prevailed. And therein lies the essential difference between victory and defeat."

Huzzah! Just one thing is missing: the name of the publishing house. Not to mention the name of the author.

But wait. Could this be a clue? Also posted on November 1, 2006, by RomanceWriter: Nancy Has Scored Her First Book Sale. "Thank you God! Thank you fans! And special thanks to my literary agent Michele Glance Rooney for helping to motivate me to keep going when the going got tough!" rhapsodizes the surnameless Nancy. "Michele Glance Rooney...may not always tell you what you want to hear, but she will tell you what you need to hear and need to know to get your book published. Michele Glance Rooney is an agent who knows what it takes to sell a romance novel."

Er...that's great, Nancy, but who's your publisher? What's your book title? Why does your blog have only one post?

Moving right along, we arrive at April 29 of this year, and another one-post blog. Claims Bestseller in the Making: Michele Glance Rooney Just Sold My Book! "Next to the day I gave birth to my blessed Jasmine," avows this nameless future literary star, "this must surely be the happiest day of my life." Oh joy, oh rapture! Oh why are the publisher and the novel as nameless as the blogger?

April 29 was apparently Say Nice Things About Michele Glance Rooney Day, because encomiums are offered by yet another lone-post blog. No book sale this time, but Super Writer is happy to describe how she (or he) Was Motivated By Michele Glance Rooney. "I had the good fortune of seeing Michele Glance Rooney speak at a writer's convention, and I feel newly determined and dedicated to finishing my book project...I am half-way through chapter 8 and I've figured out how the hero is finally going to excape [sic] from the wrath of Mr. Bunstable." (No, no, not Mr. Bunstable! Please...I'll do anything...AIEEEEEE!)

Now, obviously I don't have direct proof that Michele Glance Rooney is the author of all these posts. But unless her fairy godmother is familiar with Blogger, it seems like a reasonable assumption.

The author of the April 29 posts--whoever s/he is--doesn't seem to have realized that if you create more than one blog under a single identity, you'll show up as the author of all of them. In this case, the identity is Author Extraordinaire, whose profile reveals yet a third blog: Washington Resume Service. Which, though discouragingly short on content, may shed light on how Ms. Rooney is actually making her living.

June 15, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- A Publishing Primer

Over at her blog, Diana Peterfreund has posted a terrific primer on the publishing industry. Not only does she provide great, specific information on agents, publishers, and others (and answer important questions in the Comments sections), there's a helpful glossary too.

Part 1
Part 2

Check it out! And remember this sage advice:

* There is no secret handshake.
* There is no magic ticket.
* You don't need to know anyone.
* Every author was once a debut author. New authors sell books all the time.

June 12, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- Canadian Aid Literary Award Contest Redux

Last February, I blogged about the Canadian Aid Charity, which was sponsoring a fundraising raffle whose prize was a contract "for a manuscript of the winner's choice" from a publisher called BookLand Press. Though they presented themselves as separate organizations, I discovered that BookLand (a publisher with a tiny list and POD prices) and Canadian Aid (a registered charity strangely lacking in organizational specifics, such as a staff list and a list of its Board of Directors--I worked in the not-for-profit field for years, and it's incredibly unusual for a charitable organization not to provide this info) appeared in fact to be related, sharing a contact person and a fax number. What kind of publisher offers a publishing contract based on a raffle win, anyway?

Possibly someone at these organizations saw my original post. The contact name for Canadian Aid has since been changed, and it no longer appears to have a fax--so the connections between the organizations are no longer easy to trace. I'm also not finding any sign or mention of the raffle or its winner on either website. The raffle drawing was to be held April 27th. What happened?

At any rate, Canadian Aid and BookLand are advertising another fundraiser--an actual contest this time, with a panel of judges and everything. The entry fee is $45 in Canadian dollars (a little more than the $40 per ticket charged for the raffle), which works about to about $42 US. That's pretty steep for a book contest.

Even leaving aside any questions about interconnectedness or nondisclosure, I have serious questions about the publisher. The cover prices average $25 US for trade paperbacks, and there's no sign of trade reviews (trade reviews are evidence that a publisher is marketing to the book trade). And based on the information available at BookLand's website, as well as the inconsistent availability of its books at online vendors--for instance, one book with a pub date of February 2007 doesn't show up at either Amazon or B&N (in fact, only one of BookLand's published books shows up at B&N, which is listed as one of BookLand's "suppliers"), and another with a pub date of April 2007 lists as shipping in 4-6 weeks--I'm guessing that distribution is limited, to say the least.

One last note: the back cover of that one book available through B&N, Christina Kilbourne's 2006 novel The Roads of Go Home Lake, includes this interesting bit of text: "This project was made possible by the joint efforts of the author and Canadian Aid Charity."

June 8, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- Protesting Too Much

In 1998, when Writer Beware was founded, literary fraud was very much an under-the-radar issue. Writers had just begun to realize that reading fees weren't kosher (in part because of the AAR's proscription of them a few years before), but other bad business practices (upfront marketing fees, editing referrals, relationships with vanity publishers) weren't widely recognized as a problem, either by people in the publishing industry or by the writers targeted by scammers. Remember, in 1998, Commmonwealth Publications had only just closed its doors, and some of the most notorious literary scams ever were still in operation, including Edit Ink, the Woodside Literary Agency, the Deering Literary Agency, and Press-Tige Publishing.

Nowadays, literary fraud has a much higher profile. In fact, "money flows toward the writer" has become such a universal maxim that questionable agents and publishers are more and more feeling a need to defend themselves against it--for instance, by devoting space on their websites to disinformation (high-powered agents aren't interested in new writers, new writers often get their start by paying to publish, etc., etc.), or publicly protesting their innocence and/or attacking the whistle-blowers.

Take, for example, the 20 agencies on Writer Beware's Thumbs Down Agency List. Of the 13 that have or have had websites, nearly half--six in all--have gone the protest route. Two--the Robins Agency ($1,000-3,200 upfront, no sales) and Desert Rose Literary Agency ($350 upfront, no sales)--currently have dead websites, but their efforts to refute negative information or to present themselves as injured parties have been preserved in our responses on this blog. Here's what the remaining four have to say, in order of bombast:

Mocknick Productions Literary Agency (charges $450 upfront and has no track record that Writer Beware has been able to locate, despite several years in business) is relatively restrained. On its Submission Requirements page, it declares:

On many occasions, we've been questioned regarding websites that clients have seen that taboo up-front fees. The sites state that it is not standard practice for an agency to charge. What they don't mention is the fact that most agents that don't charge belong to organizations such as the AAR and Writer's Guild. These organizations forbid fees. In addition, these agents will not take on new writers who are not already best sellers. The reason? There is little effort to pitch an established author, whereas pitching an unknown to a paranoid industry takes much more effort, time and money.

In essence, it is in fact a standard practice and quite necessary for an agency to charge some type of fee when taking on an unknown author. If they didn't, they would not stay in business.

Mr. Mocknick must be hoping that writers won't follow this claim to its logical conclusion: if an agency can't stay in business without charging fees, it must not be making much money from selling manuscripts.

Stillwater Literary Agency (a.k.a. Sherwood Broome Inc.--charges a $750 contract fee, promotes its own editing services, and has no track record as far as Writer Beware knows, despite the fact that it has been in business longer than us) offers a rebuttal (scroll down to the bottom) of "[Internet] postings which warn against paying any fees for editing or representation of literary material."

"We only offer editing on material that will benefit from such work and is needed before submission to publishers," Stillwater avers. As for its fees: "Since all marketing is undertaken on speculation, we do sometimes ask for an advance against potential commissions for unpublished first-time and/or unknown writers to help cover our overhead." Based on the documentation Writer Beware has gathered over the years, we think this happens a whole lot more often than "sometimes." Also, call me cuckoo, but I've always been under the impression that it's authors who are supposed to get advances.

Stillwater concludes its self-defense with a flourish:

Spreading dirt and mudslinging are not something we take lightly, especially when the ones doing so are selling their 'services' at our expense. We are available to discuss any and all aspects of an author's writing and its potential, not like the faceless, nameless blogs on the Internet.

Er...we aren't selling anything. Our names are right there in the sidebar. And if you click on the links to our websites, you can see our faces, too.

Mark Sullivan Associates (charges an "evaluation" fee of $165, makes frequent referrals to an editing service, has no sigificant track record of sales--according to its website, fewer than 10--even though it too has been around longer than us) describes itself as a hybrid agency, defined as an agency that's "willing to work carefully with both professional and new writers." It devotes an entire section of its website to an elaborate rebuttal of Writer Beware and Preditors & Editors.

Among other ripostes, I, Ann, and Dave Kuzminski are dismissed as "an unpopular fantasy author (#412,507 - #945,879 book rankings on Amazon); another fantasy author of minor impact; and one very unsuccessful writer, respectively." Mr. Sullivan claims that "Fees were once handled well in this country by major agencies and can still be used in a fair, positive manner" (he fails to note that the kinds of fees he charges have long been prohibited by the AAR due to rampant abuse) and claims that "In Britain, fees are accepted as a means for agents and new writers to work together." (In fact, reputable UK agents don't charge reading or evaluation fees any more than reputable US agents do.) Moreover,

Fees originated due to the large volume of book submissions. "No-fee" means that the few successful writers represented by an agency then subsidize all other writers submitting their books.

As a result, it is difficult for a developing writer to get a careful reading by a serious agency. Better to submit your manuscript to an established "no-fee" agency if you have been referred by one of their writers, a publisher or a friend of the agency. This is the reality, irrefutable in everyday practice.

Our very reasonable fees for reading or editing allow us to work with more writers, especially those demonstrating seeds of real ability. Our way of working guarantees that your work will be read with care and evaluated on paper by a MFA or equally qualified reader, and not by an intern. It may then be developed and submitted to a publisher for a fair reading.

One can't help observing that the charging of fees by an agency with fewer than ten sales over a decade of existence is likely to be due to reasons other than a concern for talented new writers.

The protests of Writers Literary Agency & Marketing Company (formerly The Literary Agency Group--charges a variety of fees, including editing fees and service/submission fees, and has no commercial sales Writer Beware knows of, despite having been in business under one name or another since 2001) aren't quite so public. One of these protests is hosted on an agency website, though it can't be accessed from any of the website's main pages. A link is provided to people who ask questions about the agency's fees or the widepread negative information on the Internet. Here's an excerpt:

Q) Is what is being said about TLAG [The Literary Agency Group] on the writers' blogs true?

A) Do you remember the game where the class sits in a circle and you start with a statement and whisper it in each ear around the circle? By the time it reaches the end of the circle, it's unrecognizable. That's what our diligence showed.
[Writers Literary is pretending here that it is a separate company that has "acquired" The Literary Agency Group.] Yes, they had some startup woes, and yes, they made some mistakes, but in general, they did what they said, they had sales, and they have pioneered some interesting concepts. We think there is value in the authors they have on their roster.

The other protest is a form letter, also provided to people who ask awkward questions. There have been a number of versions; here's a recent one, posted to the Absolute Write Water Cooler by a recipient (Writer Beware has also received several copies of this letter from other recipients). Here's a choice quote:

Let me tell you where that stuff [negative information about the agency on the Internet] comes from. First, we insist on working only with edited work. There is an entire camp of people that believe that we should pay for the writers' editing. If the writer's name is Hillary Clinton, we'll pay for the editing, but for a new author, we just can't afford it. Also, because the value of editing and critiquing stays with the owner/writer of the script, even if we were fired, then it would make logical sense that the author would pay for editing.

The next group is basically just upset that they can't make it as a writer and they are spiteful and generally upset with the way the world treats them. And to add to their angst, telling a writer their story isn't good enough to sell is like telling a parent that their kid is ugly. And, when a writer is upset, they write hateful things. We just toughen up and ignore them. I suggest you do the same.

Yeah! Ignore the bad stuff. That'll solve the problem.

Literary agencies with bad business practices thrive on the ignorance and desperation of aspiring writers. There's little to be done about desperation, but over the years Writer Beware, Preditors & Editors, and others have chipped away at ignorance, and our success may be judged by the fact that the four agencies discussed above, which in 1998 would not have needed even to explain their practices, now find it necessary to publicly justify them. They are by no means the only ones. We're still a long way from achieving universal awareness, but we're a lot closer than we were when we started out. On the dark days, that's something to remember.

June 5, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- News of the Weird: The Ultimate Author

Proving that there is no idea so bizarre or silly that it can't be conceived of by more than one person...Yet another writing-related reality show appears to be in the offing: The Ultimate Author, which describes itself as " awesome television program packed with entertaining, engaging and interesting events" in which "contestants go toe-to-toe in a writing competition that tests their ability to develop attention-grabbing content."

The show, which has put out a casting call for June 16th at the Hilton Garden Inn in Dania Beach, Florida, will start out with eight contestants. Each week, they'll have two hours in which to research and write a chapter in a different genre, with the contestant scoring the fewest points being eliminated. Performance will be assessed by a panel of judges made up of "literary magazine publishers, veteran authors, journalists, book store representatives, and creative development managers from publishing houses." (Who they are is not revealed.) "The show climaxes in the last episode," says the website, "as the final three contestants battle it out." (Is it very lowbrow of me to hope that jello is involved?) The lucky winner will receive "a myriad" of prizes, including "the coveted prize of a book deal to write their own paperback."

What qualities will the folks at the casting call be looking for? According to the website, "Contestants...must be smart enough to spell well, creative enough to coordinate a themed book club gathering, savvy enough to handle an ambush interview, wise enough to develop an effective marketing plan, and talented enough to help design an eye-catching book cover." (Literate enough to write a coherent book? That's not mentioned, but the show's level of expectation may perhaps be gauged by this Writing Challenge.) Illustrating some of these skills, a video clip on the website's home page shows a trio of hopeful writers engaging in such vital authorial activities as arranging a dinner table, participating in a spelling bee, and reading short writing samples they've composed using genre, characters, and themes provided by the producer. Contestants must also agree to follow a few rules, including signing "a statement of morality" and refraining from profanity (though you'll be relieved to know that "ass" and "bitch" are fine).

The Ultimate Author is the brainchild of Lauren Spicer, owner of Von Enterprises International. Ms. Spicer is the "celebrated" author of the Spice Rack series of books, published by...Von Enterprises International. Any guesses as to where the "coveted prize of a book deal" will be coming from?

Ms. Spicer claims two Emmy awards and a long career in broadcast journalism and publicity. Will she actually be able to produce and complete the show? Maybe--but remember the not-with-a-bang-but-a-whimper fate of Book Millionaire, a similarly-themed reality show that got 50 writers to submit audition videos and then went radio silent. There's also the, uh, problematic nature of the concept. Basically, it's boring. Unless you can follow them on bar crawls or spy on them while they're shooting up, writers are dull. Watching them pursue their craft is really dull. (Tap-tap-tap-tap-tap. Pause. Run hand through hair. Sigh. Tap-tap-tap-tap-tap. Pause. Leave office, pace around, read newspaper. Return to office. Repeat.) You would need pots of money, plus much trimming of celebrity glitz and glamor, to distract the average TV viewer from the sheer ennui of it all. The above-mentioned video clip, which cries public access channel rather than major network, doesn't bode well for that.

Only Tony Cowell and his author reality show would seem to be in a position to provide the necessary American Idol gloss--though even he may be encountering glitches. There's word that the show has been pushed back, possibly to 2008.

Writers, you might want to reconsider that ticket to Florida. Unless you want a vacation, of course.
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