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

December 24, 2007

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Hi, Folks!

Ann Crispin here, with warm good wishes to everyone. I wish everyone a terrific New Year. May your ideal agent say "yes," and may every publisher pay you promptly!

Writer Beware just learned some excellent news. Yet another scammer has bitten the dust, and this is reason for much holiday cheer. Many kudos to Bonnie Kaye and her fellow authors for bringing about the official investigation into Airleaf that has caused this rip-off company to SHUT DOWN as of December 19, 2007. Way to go, Bonnie!

The world is now a little safer for authors thanks to Airleaf's demise.

What a nice Christmas present for the writing world!

Have a safe and happy holiday season, everyone.

-Ann C. Crispin
Chair, Writer Beware

December 23, 2007

Happy Holidays from Writer Beware

Writer Beware is taking some time off from blogging for the holidays. We'll return January 2 with a fresh crop of schemes, scams, and Very Bad Ideas.

Wishing all our readers a wonderful holiday season,

Victoria, Ann, and Richard

December 17, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- Reeling in the Kids

Last week, I saw a news article about Libby Rees, "Britain's youngest author," who at 12 is about to publish a self-help book for children called At Sixes and Sevens. It's actually her second book; her first, another children's self-help manual entitled Help, Hope and Happiness, was published when she was just 9 years old.

One off note in this happy story struck me: the name of Libby's publisher, Aultbea Publishing. Writer Beware has never received any direct complaints about Aultbea, but the Inverness-based publisher was exposed as a vanity press (cost: £10,000) in a series of critical blog posts by Michael Allen, a.k.a. Grumpy Old Bookman.

Libby Rees isn't Aultbea's only youthful author. Its first was 13-year-old Emma Maree Urquhart, whose novel Dragon Tamers was published by Aultbea in 2005. According to this article in The Independent, the book's claimed success--50,000 copies sold in the first few weeks of release, a figure that Aultbea's owner, Charles Faulkner, later admitted was spurious--spurred a deluge of submissions from young writers.

The company says it has uncovered literary nuggets which it believes could be hits among the hundreds of thousands of pages.

The first is by Robert King, 14, from Tain, near Inverness. On Saturday he signed copies of his book The Apple of Doom in Inverness. His publisher, Charles Faulkner, is already talking about overseas print runs and translation deals...Mr Faulkner's third protégé is the Yorkshire teenager Sophie Codman. Her 230-page fantasy novel Wizard-The Novice's Quest is due to be published next month under the pen name of Sophie Wainwright. Codman, aged 16, took up writing when she ran out of books to read during a family holiday.

Other young authors published by Aultbea include Adora Svitak, age 7, whose Flying Fingers was published in September 2006; the Risbridger brothers, ages 18, 15, and 12, whose The Third Millennium was published this summer; and Aultbea's youngest author ever, 6-year-old Christopher Beale, whose 1,500-word novel This and Last Season's Excursions was launched in November 2006.

A longer article about Christopher Beale, from The Scotsman, digs deeper than other news coverage of Aultbea:

Asked yesterday if the company took payments from authors, Lisa Redwood, Aultbea's operations manager, said: "We have done it in the past. As of next year, we are not doing it any more. It's not something we require for books to be published, but sometimes people wish to invest to get a higher return on royalties."

This is classic vanity publisher doublespeak. But it does raise the question of how many of these young authors' parents had to pay for the publication of their children's books. The answer: at least one. Emma Urquhart, the first of Aultbea's procession of child stars, has revealed her less-than-happy experience with the publisher in her blog (scroll down to the last post).

Aultbea isn't the only vanity publisher ensnaring young authors. Here's a recent news story about 11-year-old Joseph Voight, whose book about living with Alzheimer's Disease will be published next year by DNA Press. In addition to the $4,200 required to publish the book, Joseph and his family must pay for a book tour planned by DNA.

We all know the risks of vanity publishing, both to our bank accounts and to our reputations. But for young authors, there's a more insidious danger. A few writers have started very young--Jane Gaskell, for instance, was just 14 when she wrote her first novel, Strange Evil, and just 16 when it was published. Helen Oyeyemi wrote The Icarus Girl when she was 18, and got it published two years later. Amelia Atwater-Rhodes wrote In the Forests of the Night at age 13, and published it at age 15. And of course there's S.E. Hinton, 15 when she wrote The Outsiders and 18 when it was published, and the ubiquitously-cited Christopher Paolini.

But such successes are rare The truth is, no matter how much raw talent a teenager possesses, odds are that he or she is simply not skilled or experienced enough to write a publishable book. By reeling in kids (and their parents) with flattery and promises, vanity publishers like Aultbea are telling them the exact opposite. If a young writer really has talent, how much might this fake validation stall his or her development? If you're convinced that you are already good enough, how hard will you work to get better? Will you even realize it's necessary?

I wrote my first novel when I was 17. Afire with my new vocation, burning with ambition, I was sure that publishers would immediately recognize my talent, and I'd be a published author before I graduated from college. Some serious head-knocking with reality ensued. The book did eventually find a home--but not until I was in my 20's, and had become capable of rewriting it to publishable standards. That ego-bruising struggle, which taught me that I had a lot to learn and would have to work hard to learn it, was what made me a writer--not the mere act of scribbling down my first novel. If Aultbea or a publisher like it had gotten hold of me when I was 17, confirming all my naive and egotistical ideas about my talent, would I have figured that out? Maybe. But I think it would have taken me a whole lot longer, and wasted a lot more of my time.

Of course, if a vanity publisher had gotten hold of me when I was 17, my parents, who know better, would never have agreed to pay. Moms and dads, take note.

December 11, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- The Interminable Agency Clause

An "interminable agency clause" (sometimes called an "interminable rights clause" or a "perpetual agency clause") is language inserted into an author-agency agreement whereby the agency claims the right to remain the agency of record not just for the duration of any contracts it negotiates, but for the life of copyright. In other words, once the agency sells your book, it has the right to represent that book for as long as the book is in copyright (currently your life plus 70 years).

Why is this a problem? Suppose you decide to move to a new agency, as often happens. If your old agency's agreement included an interminable agency clause, you might not be able to bring with you any of the rights your old agency sold for you, even if the contracts covering those rights had long expired. Those rights, which can sometimes be profitably re-sold (especially if you score a success with a new work) are one of the things that can make you attractive to a new agent. Also, why would you want to leave your rights sitting with an agency with which you no longer see eye to eye?

Or suppose your old agency doesn't have a problem with you taking your rights elsewhere, but because of an interminable agency clause claims the right to collect commissions on any future sales of work it originally sold for you--even if it has nothing to do with those sales. Why should an agency be paid for a sale it didn't make? Obviously an agency's right to commissions should extend over the life of any contract it brokers, but once the contract ends, the benefit of the agency's work to you also ends, and so should its right to commissions.

Many professional writers' groups warn against interminable agency clauses, including the Authors Guild, SFWA, RWA, SCBWI, and Novelists Inc.. According to the Authors Guild, "the minimal prospective benefit the clause provides is far outweighed by the inconvenience it causes authors and their estates and by the responsibilities that accompany the clause." In addition to the concerns identified above, the Authors Guild points out that your agency is unlikely to be around for the life of copyright, that changes in personnel and ownership may have an impact on skill and reputability, and that interminable representation can greatly complicate not just the task of literary executors, but also of the agency, which would need to track and enforce interminable rights.

This isn't a new issue. The Authors Guild warning was issued in 2004. But the problem isn't going away. Just today, in fact, an author-agency agreement with interminable agency language came across my desk--the eighth I've seen in the past year. Clearly, authors need to be on their guard. Trouble is, the language can be subtle enough that it's easy to overlook or misunderstand. Several of the authors who sent me contracts were aware of the warnings against interminable agency language, but still failed to spot it.

Below are some examples of the different ways in which agencies frame interminable agency clauses, with the dangerous phrases bolded. All are taken from agency contracts in my possession.

** "The Agency and its right to receive commissions hereunder shall be co-extensive with the life of the copyright of the Work and any renewals thereof."

** "At time of termination of Agreement, all Work(s) sold by Agent shall remain with Agent and Agent shall remain Agent of Record in perpetuity unless otherwise agreed to by both Parties."

** "In the event that any Rights are sold, licensed, or otherwise disposed of by [agency], Licensor agrees that [agency] shall be irrevocably designated the agent for those Rights to the Work for perpetuity."

** "The Agency is entitled to the above-mentioned percentages as specified...for the legal life of the Work on agreements pertaining to the Work."

** "Author grants to agents/representatives and assigns the sole and exclusive right of selling in book form the above work in the United States of America and its Dependencies and anywhere in the world during the full terms of copyright and any renewals thereof."

** "It is understood that if rights to the Work have been sold during the term of this Agreement, Agent's interest in the Work is irrevocable...In recognition thereof, and in such case, Author hereby acknowledges and agrees that, regardless of when made or by whom, any and all contracts or agreements...regarding the Work are covered by the terms of this agreement; [and] agrees to arrange for all such contracts and agreements, regardless of when made or by whom, to name Agent as Author's agent of record."

What should you do if you encounter this kind of language? Here's what the Authors Guild recommends:

The best approach is for agents to simply drop the clause. Agents who are determined to retain a contractual right to represent an out-of-print work could adopt a clause such as the one that follows:

"On termination of this [publishing] Agreement, Agent will continue to have the right to represent the Work and collect a commission for the placement of the Work provided that (1) Agent places the Work within 6 months of the termination of this Agreement and (2) Agent sought a reversion of rights on Author's behalf within 6 months of the time the Work was out of print as defined in this Agreement."

December 6, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- The Empty Canoe: Another Scam Gets Its Due

Once upon a time, there was a Washington state-based ghostwriting studio/publishing house "hybrid" (read vanity publisher) called The Empty Canoe, LLC (a bizarrely appropriate name, as it turned out). Here's how the company was decribed by founders Mike and Kristina Canu (a.k.a. Kristina Valocchi) in a 2004 press release:

The Empty Canoe's growth has been attributed to the fact that primarily, it is a publishing house. By offering the service of ghostwriting, the company is able to get a quality of both idea and client which otherwise would be missed. For centuries the art of ghostwriting, writing eloquently on another's behalf, has been used. Until recently though, only the rich or famous have been able to afford such a service. The Empty Canoe has implemented a business plan that enables a lower initial ghostwriting fee in exchange for the right to publish. The studio gets into the proverbial storm of publishing with its clients.

There was a storm, all right, though possibly not the one the Canus intended. The company first came to my attention in September of last year, when I began receiving complaints from The Empty Canoe authors. They told me about unpaid royalties, books contracted and never published, fees paid for "ghostwriting" that was never done (authors paid between $5,000 and $10,000), misrepresentations of the company's ability and/or willingness to market and promote its books, and ghostwriters and editors whom the company never compensated for their work. This rash of complaints was precipitated by the fact that in August 2006, probably as a result of increasing pressure from angry clients, the Canus did a bunk. They suspended their email accounts, shut off their phones, and put their house up for lease. They also allowed their corporate standing to expire.

Fortunately, defrauded authors were pro-active. They organized a network so they could stay in touch with one another, and filed complaints with local law enforcement and with the Washington State Attorney General's Office. And their efforts were effective. On November 19, the Attorney General announced a settlement with the company.

As is often the case in these situations, the defendants have no assets, so they are unable to pay substantial fines or provide restitution to their victims. The total judgment is $10,000 (which represents the legal and other costs of prosecuting the case), with $94,000 in civil penalties suspended on condition that the Canus comply with the injunctive provisions of the settlement, by which they are "permanently enjoined and restrained" from the following acts in the State of Washington or directed at Washington residents:

- Making misrepresentations in the sale or marketing of any product or service
- Operating, owning, or otherwise participating in a publishing, ghostwriting, or book marketing business without first providing restitution to the 21 victims identified in the settlement and establishing a reserve account of no less than $50,000
- Failing to perform promised services
- Representing that they can perform services they can't actually deliver
- Representing that they can complete work in less time than the work will actually take
- Representing that they'll promote books in ways they don't actually intend to promote them
- Falsely representing that they've received offers from third-party companies
- Violating any provisions of the Unfair Business Practices-Consumer Protection Act.

The Canus are also required to waive their right to assert a statute of limitations defense in answer to any restitution claim brought against them by any consumer (which means that they can be sued by victims at any time). If they violate any of the settlement provisions, the suspended civil penalty will be enforced, and they will be liable for the costs associated with enforcement.

Sadly, the many boxes of material the Canus left behind when they absconded were destroyed by a cleaning company, so authors won't get their materials back.

In one sense, the judgment against The Empty Canoe is only a limited victory for writers, since it won't result in restitution, and doesn't prevent the Canus from starting up a similar scam in a state other than Washington. It's a huge victory, however, in that the Washington State Attorney General found this case worth pursuing. As I've noted before, it's tough to get law enforcement to pay attention to literary fraud. Hopefully, the judgment against the Canus will be another step on the long road to change.

There are two other lessons here. First, while a single complaint filed with the police or the Attorney General probably won't have much impact, a volume of them may--and the volume may be smaller than you think. In this case, just 21 complaints were enough to cause the Attorney General to take action. Second, where action occurs, it's often the result of scam victims working together. The network established by The Empty Canoe victims, who encouraged each other to gather together their documentation, file complaints, and not give up, was crucial to the Canus being brought to justice. Similar victim networks brought down Commonwealth Publications and the Deering Literary Agency. This should give hope to the authors who are currently uniting against Airleaf.

Believe it or not, The Empty Canoe's website is still online.

December 2, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- Tidbits

Some interesting items I've picked up in my travels around the Internet.

It sucks, but we love working here...

In October, Publishing Trends published the results of its First Annual Industry Survey, in which publishing professionals were asked how they feel about the wacky world of publishing. Interesting stuff. Here's a taste:

- What respondents felt were the worst aspects of the industry: compensation (39%) and the instability of the market (38%).

- Over half of all editors responding also identified themselves as writers.

- When asked about the best and worst aspects of the industry, twice as many respondents wrote in with complaints as with praise--yet about 32% say they'd never consider leaving their jobs, and another 18.5% only rarely feel frustrated enough to consider quitting.

Writers, get moving!

Writing is a notoriously sedentary activity. Whether you're "in flow" and have lost all track of time, or are paralyzed in front of your computer screen by the fact that you have absolutely no idea what to write next, it's easy to let hours slip by without getting up from your chair. If you also have a family, a day job, a hobby, or any of the other responsibilities and duties and pleasures known as "life", finding time for exercise can seem impossible.

We all know exercise is good for us. People who exercise regularly weigh less, live longer, and have fewer chronic diseases than people who don't. Regular exercise also helps ease insomnia and depression--a pair of afflictions to which writers seem to be particularly prone.

Now there's news that exercise may actually boost your creativity. According to a recent study by scientists at Rhode Island College, exercise enhances creativity not just immediately following exercise, but for several hours afterward. According to the study abstract:

The results supported the hypotheses that creative potential will be greater on completion of moderate aerobic exercise than when not preceded by exercise (immediate effects), that creative potential will be greater following a 2-hr lag time following exercise than when not preceded by exercise (residual effects), and that creative potential will not be significantly different immediately following exercise than after a 2-hr lag time following exercise (enduring residual effects).

I'm a bit of an exercise nut, and have been for many years. I exercise for an hour a day at least five days a week, dividing it about 50/50 between moderate exercise (brisk walking) and vigorous exercise (running, stairclimbing, elliptical trainer). I've followed this routine for so long that I can't really say whether it enhances my creativity--but I do know that when I'm planning a book, working out the shape of my next chapter, trying to solve some knotty character problem, or just plain stuck, I need to be on my feet. A fast four-mile walk never fails to focus my mind, move me forward in my planning and/or problem solving, and revive my enthusiasm. For me, nothing else works as well.

(Thanks to the Guardian UK's book blog for this reference.)

No, you will not have to pay. Yes, you will have to give us money.

The rationalization of the week award goes to vanity publisher Starving Writers Publishing, for its inspired explanation of why a fee is not a fee. To writers who ask Do I have to pay a fee to get published, Starving Writers responds:

No, you will never have to pay a fee to get your book published. We are a independent traditional or trade publisher. Our service fees are simply that - fees for services such as editing, cover design, and marketing to help make your book better so it will be a book that we select for publishing. We always reserve the right to reject your work if its not something we want to publish even if you are willing to pay the service fees.

So...because you pay before publication, it's not a fee, even though if you don't pay, you won't get published. And because Starving Writers may decide to kick you to the curb even as you're pulling out your credit card, it's also not a fee, even though if they choose you, they'll be glad to take your money.

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