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.

September 30, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- Solicitation Alert

Have you recently received an email solicitation from Cris Robins of St Louis, MO, titled "Is Your Writing Ready to Sell?"

It begins like this:
Good morning.

For over ten years I ran the largest literary agency in the Midwest (we ranked about 10 in the states, and 18 on the globe) and I made a difference in the industry by bringing out the potential of new writer's' works and showcasing them to some of the largest publishers and studios in the states. I closed the agency last year because the industry changed and I found that I could show new writers how to sell their work to publishers who didn't work with agencies; additionally, my clients found that our editing service increased their chances of being published and overall, made their work better.

Currently, I'm in a position of taking on a few new clients, and I'm cutting my price to do it. Although my editing service normally runs $6.50 per 250-word page I've dropped my price to the first ten respondents to $5.00 per page, and includes the initial editing and a finishing review. But, editing is just the first part of it; when the work is ready to be presented, I will also put together the package for submissions, the list of publishers looking for your work, and the methods that they prefer for submissions.
If you have gotten this email, here are a few things to consider.

- The agency Cris Robins ran was called The Robins Agency. Complaints and advisories about this agency were among the first that Writer Beware received when we started up in 1998, and we continued to receive them until the agency's apparent disappearance last year. Among the issues cited by writers: promotion of the agency's own paid editing services to clients and potential clients (a conflict of interest), with editing recommendations often based on the reading of just a few chapters; inadequate, unprofessional, and/or incomplete editing; and the charging of upfront fees ranging from $500 to $3,200. Other complaints can be found at Absolute Write.

- In May 2006, a default judgment against Cris Robins of The Robins Agency was entered in Washington Superior Court for breach of contract, fraudulent business practice, and consumer protection violations in regard to the promised provision of paid editing services and promised representation of the plaintiff's manuscript to publishers. Ms. Robins was ordered to pay $8,320 (treble damages) plus interest and attorney fees. (There's more detail on the judgment in this blog post. We actually think that the judgment and attendant adverse publicity had more to do with the agency's closing than changing market conditions.)

- To Writer Beware's knowledge, The Robins Agency never sold a single client's book to a commercial US publisher in the whole of its more than eight years of existence.

- The Robins Agency is included in Writer Beware's Thumbs Down Agency List.

September 28, 2007

From Chronicle Books

Joseph Ternes of Chronicle Books stopped by the blog the other day to post the following comment:

The information in the Newsweek article was incorrect. Chronicle Books will not receive a referral fee for recommending to aspiring authors or artists.

Just as from time to time our editors refer authors or artists to other trade houses, presents another option if they consider it an appropriate choice. This option will not be part of our response to every author submissions. There are many self-publishing options in the marketplace, though far fewer for illustrated book authors and artists. As an independent illustrated book publisher in San Francisco, Chronicle Books felt an affinity for the locally based and the quality of the product it is offering the public.

Good news!

September 21, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- And You Thought Kickbacks Were Just For Scammers

I had to read this article from Newsweek magazine twice before I could believe it.

According to the article, Chronicle Books, a sizeable commercial publisher, is teaming up with Blurb, a self-publishing service, in what Chronicle calls a "mutual referral deal." Chronicle, which accepts unagented submissions, will refer rejected authors to Blurb. If they buy Blurb's services, Blurb will pay Chronicle an "undisclosed cut" of the revenue.

Yes, you read that right. Blurb will pay a kickback to Chronicle for sending authors its way.

What's wrong with this picture?

Well, first of all, it's a conflict of interest. If someone can make money by recommending a service, how can you trust that the recommendation is in your best interest? This is exactly the way the Edit Ink book doctoring scam operated--agents and publishers sent rejected writers to Edit Ink in exchange for a percentage of whatever the writer wound up paying for (overpriced, unskilled) editing. The agents and editors who profited from Edit Ink referrals didn't reveal the relationship, nor did Edit Ink. Will Chronicle inform the writers it sends to Blurb that it gets a cut of what they spend? Will Blurb let writers know it paid to get their business?

Secondly, Blurb is among the most expensive of the self-publishing services. The book-creation software is free; it's when you order books that things get costly. The justification for this is that Blurb's books are "bookstore quality," which, let's face it, books from self-pub services aren't always. Still, if Chronicle is going to send writers to a pay-to-publish company, wouldn't it have been kinder to pick a cheaper one?

Last but not least--Chronicle's referrals to Blurb will come with the weight and reputation of an established commercial publisher behind them. A reputable publisher won't tell you to do something that's not in your best interest, right? It's likely, therefore, that authors will take the recommendation seriously. This is bad enough for books that aren't publishable. But what about the books that don't fit Chronicle's list, but might be a good match for another reputable publisher? What if those books get sidelined into Blurb? Again, Chronicle will not be doing authors any favors.

(Note that I don't intend to imply that Blurb is in any way disreputable. But it's a self-publishing service, with all the limitations that implies. Great for some books in certain circumstances. Not so great for most.)

So what about the "mutual" in "mutual referral deal?" According to Sarah Williams, Chronicle's executive director of business development (quoted in the article), the program will provide "an opportunity for writers to test their product in a digital marketplace where success might bring them back to us." Note the use of "might." Even if she's serious, the resemblance to Edit Ink is again uncanny. Agents and publishers who made Edit Ink referrals promised to reconsider manuscripts once they were edited--which of course increased writers' motivation to buy Edit Ink's services (in most cases, the promise was a lie). Also, not for nothin', but haven't we gotten past the whole farm team thing? I thought that idea died back around the turn of the century, when Random House acquired a stake in Xlibris.

And speaking of Xlibris...some of you may remember the trouble it got into a few years ago, when it contacted agents and editors with an offer of a 10% kickback for each rejected author who purchased Xlibris's services ("Now find out how your slush pile can actually become a source of revenue," the letter said). Uproar ensued (back then, the Edit Ink scandal was fresher in people's minds), Xlibris hastily backtracked, and the program got the kibosh.

Chronicle, Chronicle. You've got a great publishing program--in fact, you published one of my very favorite books of the past few years. I'm really disappointed in you.

September 18, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- Author Reality Show Meets Actual Reality

Remember Book Millionaire, the first-ever author reality show? I blogged about it back in April 2006. The brainchild of Lori Prokop, vanity publisher and purveyor of get-rich-quick schemes, the show was supposedly going to feature authors duking it out on national TV for the title of "America's next Book Millionaire and best selling author." Ms. Prokop got as far as persuading a bunch of people to send in video auditions for the show; these were posted on the Book Millionaire website over a period of 10 weeks in April and May 2006. Then...silence.

Thanks to a tip from Lee Goldberg of A Writer's Life, I've learned that Book Millionaire is in fact not has only been wounded, by eeeeeevil bloggers "who are allegedly blogging false, inaccurate information" not just about Ms. Prokop and Book Millionaire, but about "100+ companies and projects in the publishing industry." (In case you haven't guessed, this blog cabal includes me, Lee, a bunch of other skeptical folks, and the Museum of Hoaxes).

At first, writes Lori on the Book Millionaire website, I was very angry and wanted to punish the people for what I saw as attacks. But something deep inside of me looked around at our world and decided we didn’t need anymore [sic] thought forms of anger, hate or violence. Our world is at a critical point, we are either going to make it has [sic] a human race...or not.

To illustrate her point, Lori provides links to a number of articles with titles such as "Rudeness, Threats Make the Web a Cruel World" and "Battling Abusive Blog Comments" (I know a thing or two about that). She then continues:

It took some time for me to make my choice that instead of attacking or retaliating for what I perceived as false, misguided actions of others, I decided to find a spiritual understanding and develop a spiritual action plan. It’s my desire that this experience helps me spiritually grow as an individual and leader.

The result of all this spiritual expansion? "I have learned that anything perceived as an attack from another is an expression of his or her needs." That's right: Lori's travails have awoken in her the understanding that those of us who've made fun of her silly reality show concept are acting out of unmet needs. Evidently, one of those is money:

Could it be true that someone is paying for this group of bloggers to blog hate messages about more than 100 companies and projects in the publishing industry that compete with this company? Could this be how the bloggers are paying their bills and feeding their families?...If this is true, I am very sad for their chosen ways and tactics. I wish they had more trust in Divine Source that there exists [sic] other more life-enhancing ways to be successful than trying to hurt others.

In truly spiritual fashion, Lori concludes that All You Need is Love:

I believe Love is the answer to this. What I want in my life is compassion and a loving flow between me and others based on mutual giving from the heart...I envision and have joined a team co-creating an online community of cultural leaders helping people and businesses solve problems, make decisions, create and live from Love and Light in the Highest Good for All.

Lori, that is truly inspiring. I mean it. But...what about the show? You know--the show that 50 hopeful writers took the trouble to create elaborate video auditions for? The show that was supposed to be broadcast on national TV? The show that was supposed to make authors' dreams come true? Yeah, that show. The show of which there is currently not the slightest sign of actual existence.

Lori claims that she has gone to the blogs of the hateful bloggers and "contacted them to ask for open dialogues." Unfortunately, she seems to have forgotten to contact me, but I'm sure that's just an oversight. Lori, I look forward to sharing dialog with you, and maybe even benefiting from the glow of your spiritual enlightenment. I trust that the writers who sent in auditions will also be hearing from you soon? I'm not talking about your frequent spams offering them the chance to buy your seminars and books and other products (yes, I signed up for your email list). I'm talking about real, straightforward communication about the status of the show.

Thank you. Thank you very much. I'm off to count my blog money now.

September 14, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- Essential Reading

Click this link. Right now. It's an article by journalist Penni Crabtree of the San Diego Union-Tribune, and tells the sorry story of San Diego-based vanity publisher Ed Johnson (I'm quoted in the article).

In 1998, Johnson founded Simon & Northrop Publishing, which charged writers thousands of dollars to publish, reneged on promises, and racked up a number of lawsuits and judgments before its articles of incorporation were suspended in 2004. In 2005, Johnson opened Martell Publishing, which operated in pretty much the same way. Martell's phone has been disconnected, and its website, online as recently as July, is gone.

Johnson's story is classic Writer Beware material (for more stories like it, see the Case Studies page of Writer Beware). He advertised for authors in out-of-state newspapers and in the Yellow Pages. He ran his publishing operation out of one room in a converted motel; according to a former employee, he used pseudonyms and told lies to make authors think he ran large publishing houses. Authors say he took their money and didn't produce books, or produced books riddled with errors and formatting mistakes (one author got his "published" book in a spiral binder). When authors asked questions, or pressed for information ,or got angry, Johnson simply vanished--not returning phone calls, not answering emails or letters. He also didn't pay his bills. Authors and creditors sued, resulting in a number of court judgments.

Over the years Writer Beware received occasional questions about both Simon & Northrop and Martell. Based on what writers told us (especially the fact that they found the companies through ads), we were pretty certain they were vanity publishers. But believe it or not, we never got a single complaint about either publisher.

This may seem strange, given the apparent egregiousness of Johnson's behavior, but I can think of a couple of possible reasons. First, by running "writers wanted" ads, Johnson ensured that the writers who contacted him were among the most inexperienced and least knowledgeable--especially ripe, in other words, to be taken advantage of, and less likely to complain.

Second, as vanity publishers go, Johnson doesn't seem to have been especially prolific. Simon & Northrop registered copyright for just 27 books over its six years of existence; Martell didn't register any copyrights, but a former employee estimates that 40 or 50 authors were left in the lurch when the company vanished. Compare this with close to 300 victims for scam literary agent/vanity publisher Martha Ivery, several hundred for scam agent/vanity publishers Charles and Dorothy Deering, and thousands for fraudulent vanity publishers Commonwealth Publications and Northwest Publishing. Since Writer Beware typically hears only from a tiny fraction of people who are hooked by any given scheme, the smaller and more stealthy schemes are much more likely to fly beneath our radar.

This illustrates how vital it is to make a complaint if a publisher--or an agent, or an editor--does you wrong. If any of the authors who won judgments against Johnson had contacted Writer Beware or Preditors & Editors, we'd have been able to list the publisher--with a "not recommended" on P&E, or an Alert on the Writer Beware website. Writers researching the publisher on the Internet might have found these listings, and thought twice about sending their money.

We've got a file on Johnson now. If he starts up again under a different name, we're hoping we'll hear about it.

September 10, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- iUniverse and AuthorHouse Merge

Proving that consolidation isn't just an issue for commercial publishing, POD self-publishing service AuthorHouse has just acquired rival service iUniverse. The merger was announced on Thursday, September 6 by AuthorHouse's parent company, Author Solutions Inc. (which was itself acquired by Bertram Capital, a private equity investment firm, in January 2007).

According to AuthorHouse's official press release,

“At AuthorHouse, we have built our brand by making service to the author our first priority,” said Bryan Smith, president and CEO of Author Solutions and AuthorHouse, “and iUniverse has done a great job leveraging their traditional publishing experience to make authors successful. By bringing the two biggest forces in self-publishing together, we will draw on the unique strengths of both brands and offer an even better suite of publishing services for authors.”

iUniverse CEO Susan Driscoll put an equally positive spin on things in her email to iUniverse authors:

Quite simply, the strengths and the capabilities of AuthorHouse and iUniverse complement one another, and by building on our individual strengths we can expand the range and enhance the quality of the services that each company offers. Under the Author Solutions umbrella, we are dedicated to becoming the preeminent provider of publishing services to authors.

In addition to AuthorHouse/iUniverse, Author Solutions owns AuthorHouse UK, which is basically, a clone of AuthorHouse USA; brand-new Wordclay, which follows the Lulu model of DIY self-publishing; and Rooftop Publishing, which describes itself as "the trade publishing operation of Author Solutions, Inc." Spot-checking the books listed at Rooftop reveals that many were previously published by AuthorHouse, suggesting that, like iUniverse's Publisher's Choice Program, Rooftop is at least in part an outlet for AuthorHouse books and authors that rise to the top of the POD heap. (Last year Ann investigated the Publisher's Choice program, which promises to make books that meet certain sales and editorial criteria eligible for limited bookstore placement.)

Like some iUniverse authors I've heard from, I'm not thrilled by news of the merger. iUniverse is usually the company I name when writers ask me which POD self-pub service I prefer; in my opinion, it offers an excellent combination of price, quality, reliability, and service. Currently, iUniverse's publishing packages cost as much as $1,299 for the Premier Pro program (or $1,399 if you order it by mail rather than online), or as little as $399 for the Fast Track program (these costs, of course, may be increased if you buy any of the many extras iUniverse offers).

By contrast, AuthorHouse's cheapest publication option costs $698, and because it offers a la carte many of the services that are included in iUniverse's higher-priced packages, expenses can really mount up. The AuthorHouse equivalent of iUniverse's Premier Pro program would cost more than $2,000. AuthorHouse also charges an annual Distribution Channel Access Fee of $20 (waived for the first two years), and a nonrefundable processing fee with submissions of $30. According to reports I've received, there can also be steep charges for changes made in proof.

And speaking of reports...In the late 1990's, when POD self-publishing was a brand-new business, Writer Beware got regular complaints about nearly all the major POD companies. Some of these complaints reflected problems along the road to a viable business model, others resulted from authors' unrealistic expectations--but many involved real screwups on the companies' part. As time went by, though, the companies worked out the glitches and writers gained a better understanding of POD self-publishing and what it could and couldn't accomplish, and the complaints dwindled down to nothing. Or almost. AuthorHouse is the one large POD self-publishing service about which we still get a steady trickle of complaints. Most frequently cited are production delays, disappointing physical quality of books, and aggressive phone sales tactics. Given the huge number of books AuthorHouse publishes, these complaints represent a very, very tiny fraction of the whole. Nevertheless, we think it's significant--and disturbing--that we still receive them.

Will iUniverse maintain its separate focus and identity within the larger company? Susan Driscoll's email claims it will: "...we are committed to retaining separate iUniverse and AuthorHouse brands, and to maintaining all of our current operating locations." Or will it gradually vanish into the AuthorHouse juggernaut? I know which alternative I'm betting on, but it'll be interesting to see what happens.

September 6, 2007

How Do You Tell Who's Going to "Make It?"

Hi, folks:

I just returned from Dragoncon this week, and while I was there, attending panels on writing and teaching my Basic and Advanced Writing Workshops, I began thinking about the "profile" of an aspiring writer who stands a good chance of "making it" into publication. Assuming, of course that the writer is creative and has a good style and can put a story together, there are other attributes that help immeasurably in succeeding these days.

Aspiring writers who stand a good chance of achieving success:

1. Write...and re-write. They write consistently, not just when the mood strikes them. They complete projects, and they rewrite them until they're polished and as good as the writer can make them.

2. Accept constructive criticism. These writers know that the story comes first, and their ego comes last. They listen with equanimity when their work is critiqued, and they strive to maintain professionalism when working with a critique group or beta readers. They do not allow themselves to become defensive, angry, or sullen when readers find problems or mistakes in their work.

3. Network. They network with their peers in writing groups, and they network by attending conferences, etc. where they can listen to agents and editors speak about the publishing industry. They find out everything they can about how the industry works. Knowledge is power.

Caveat about writing groups: avoid the ones where "bashing the unpublished newbie" is considered an acceptable sport. These groups are useless at best, and can be amazingly destructive. A good writing group is composed of people who are writing the kind of work you're writing (for example, mixing poetry and fiction is not a good idea) and working toward the same goals. The group is supportive, but honest, and it doesn't degenerate into a kaffeeklatch atmosphere where people read their works, get praised to the skies, and never get around to submitting anything.

4. Submit. Let's face it, no magazine or book editor is ever going to come knocking on your door asking to see those manuscripts you've got filed in your cabinet. In order to have a chance of getting published, the work has to be submitted. We all know people who just want to TALK about writing, rather than actually working on their craft and actually submitting their stuff.

5. Accept rejection in a professional manner. Rejection is just part of the game. Even established professionals get rejected, you know? I know it’s no fun, but don’t allow yourself to take it personally. There really isn’t a cabal of publishers/agents out there who are just slavering at the thought that they’re going to crush the hopes of another newbie. Really. Honest. Pinky swear. I know a lot of publishers and agents and all of them, every single one of them, really hope that when they start reading submissions that they’ll find something they love and can accept.

Anyhow, hope this has been helpful.

-Ann C. Crispin

September 2, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- Laray Carr Publications, a.k.a. LC Publications, a.k.a. LCP Media

At the beginning of August, I got a question about Laray Carr Publications, a magazine publisher whose ads on Craigslist and elsewhere offered writers a fee of $50 per article for ten articles on subjects to be provided by the publisher. My questioner was concerned because she couldn't find any information on the company, and its answers to her questions were vague and evasive.

(Parenthetical note: I know that tons of people think Craigslist is fab, but I mostly hear about it in connection with scams. Please, writers, treat any writing-related opportunity advertised on Craigslist--or any other free jobs listing--with extra care. If your research doesn't turn up enough information to absolutely satisfy you that the company is for real, move on, no matter how tempting the opportunity seems.)

I looked at LCP's contract and accompanying material, did some additional research, and noted the following issues.

- Apart from the aforementioned Craigslist ads and one or two other job postings (the multiple grammatical and spelling errors in these ads aren't tremendously confidence-inspiring), information on LCP was nonexistent. No website. No press releases. No publications. Not even a street address or phone number.

- LCP's contract (which, like its ads, was punctuated with errors) was exclusive for only one month after first publication, but gave the company unlimited rights to re-use and re-publish articles without further compensation to authors. Publishers re-using articles without compensation has been an item of major contention in the writing world over the past few years, and the subject of legal decisions (such as Tasini vs. the NY Times).

- No word count was specified for the articles. $50 for a capsule review isn't so bad, but for a 1,000-word or longer article, it's pretty poor. (Apparently, LCP is actually paying only $25 for shorter articles--see some of the complaints linked in below--but this was not mentioned anywhere in the materials I saw.)

- Payment was on publication--which in real-life terms means "possibly never," especially where, as in this case, the company hasn't actually published anything yet.

- Did I mention that LCP hadn't published anything yet? Nevertheless, it was planning to launch 35 different magazines--with titles such as Foodie ("focus on good living and fine food"), Shake 'Em ("written for the specialty drink and cocktail consumer"), Satire ("features fashion, beauty, health and entertainment news"), Urban Bride ("a must have for the African American bride to be"), Scope and Barrel ("ultimate sportsman magazine"), and Tricked ("for enthusiast [sic] of the specialty culture of the fixed up rides")--on September 20, 2007.

Say what? 35 different magazines? All at the same time? By September 20? When here it was the beginning of August, and they were short enough of articles to still be advertising for writers??? I've been involved in a magazine startup, so I know a little bit about the enormous amount of time and money it takes to launch just one magazine, and the intense effort that's required to shepherd it through the promotion, publicity, and distribution process after it's published. Even with a successful launch, it can be a long time before the publisher sees a profit--if indeed it ever does. No publisher in its right mind would try to launch 35 magazines simultaneously.

All in all, LCP seemed extremely suspicious to me. Not a scam, maybe, but certainly not a professional endeavor. I suggested that my questioner steer clear.

Fast-forward to September. LCP is still running ads (in addition to writers, it's now calling for sales reps--note the familiar spelling/grammatical/typing errors), but there's still no sign of a website, advertising, or any other publicity for the imminent magazine launch. Nevertheless, LCP's web presence has dramatically increased, due to a burgeoning number of comments from writers who are skeptical about LCP's credentials or are having second thoughts about writing for the company. See, for instance, this post from Matt Finley's A Musing Scribe blog; this thread from the Absolute Write message board; and these two threads at Deborah Ng's Freelance Writing Jobs blog (LCP staffer Hope Hunt shows up in the second thread to defend the company). Another thread posted at the Online Writing Jobs website, in which Roger Owens of LCP appeared to make legal threats against writers who voiced doubts about the company, has been removed.

Summing up writers' concerns:

- LCP's pay rates are not as advertised. Ads say $50 per article, but writers have been told that shorter articles pay only $25.

- LCP's business plan is insane. See above.

- Questions about the company and its magazines yield vague, contradictory responses. LCP staff don't seem to know anything about the company, its finances, its goals and objectives, or its personnel.

- Little hard information about LCP can be found. No website. No street address or phone number--not even on LCP's contract or in its writers' guidelines (I have copies). One writer alleges that the fax number provided by LCP staffer Hope Hunt in her emails traces to a steam cleaning company in Virginia. I've confirmed this. It's actually not so surprising, considering that the cleaner's website is registered to Hope Hunt. (Here's Hope Hunt's own website; note the similarities.)

- Will writers be paid for their work? Many writers have turned in articles. Given the questions about LCP's viability and the fact that payment is on publication, they're concerned about whether they'll ever see a check.

Writer Beware is concerned as well. We advise writers and other job seekers to be extremely cautious with this company.

Names under which LCP has presented itself: Laray Carr Publications, LCP Media, LC Publications.

Staff names associated with LCP to date: Austin Beck, Howard Davis, Hope Hunt, Roger Owens, David Person.
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