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 28, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- Jones Harvest Publishing Redux

Okay, I know I said I wouldn't be posting again until after New Year's--but I'm sure you'll forgive me if I break that promise.

I've blogged before about vanity publisher Jones Harvest Publishing, whose business model's similarity to that of disgraced vanity publisher Airleaf is no accident, since Brien Jones, Jones Harvest's owner, is also one of Airleaf's founders (under its previous name, Bookman Marketing). I've blogged a number of times about Airleaf, too.

Well, Brien Jones is currently not a happy camper. He's furious with Bonnie Kaye, whose efforts on behalf of Airleaf victims were instrumental in enabling the Indiana Attorney General to bring suit against Airleaf, and who has also begun collecting complaints about Jones Harvest. He has excoriated her in posts like this one on the Jones Harvest blog, accusing her of lying about the complaints she has received. He even persuaded a lawyer to send her a cease and desist letter (though the impact of this missive is somewhat diminished by the fact that the lawyer doesn't appear to understand the difference between slander and libel, as evidenced by this, from the letter's third paragraph: "The elements of slander are a false and unprivileged written publication..." Bzzt. Wrong. No biscuit).

Brien is not a man to be stingy with his ire. As much as he has lavished on Bonnie, there's enough left over for me, Lee Goldberg (who has blogged about Jones Harvest ), and Julie Neidlinger (who hasn't blogged about Jones Harvest, as far as I can tell, but who did once blog about Airleaf). See for yourself, in this excerpt from his latest anti-Bonnie post:

I also understand cowardly women like Victoria Strauss, Julie Neidlinger and Lee Goldberg and their lies. After all they’re not saying anything bad — just repeating what they were told. And what do you know! They all have their own publishing companies too! I won’t say which publishing companies...but you can figure it out in less than 30 seconds yourself.

Unfortunately, a few of Brien's facts are, well, not exactly factual. Writer/producer Lee Goldberg was understandably quite surprised to discover that he has been transformed not just into a publishing CEO, but a woman. I imagine that writer/artist Julie Neidlinger might be equally bewildered by her sudden elevation to publisher. As for me, I'm certain I'm not just having a senior moment when I completely fail to recall ever owning, heading, or even working for a publishing company.

Hmmm. I guess there's a reason why Brien dare not speak these publishing companies' names. Kind of puts a different spin on the whole lying thing, eh?

Here's Bonnie's response to Brien on the Jones Harvest Fraud Victims blog.

December 24, 2008

Happy Holidays

To all our wonderful readers, subscribers, and followers--thanks for visiting us this year, and we look forward to seeing you next year as well. Have a happy and peaceful holiday season, and we'll be back with new blog posts in January 2009!

- The Writer Beware Team

December 21, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- Letter to a Desperate Author

Dear Desperate Author,

Once again, you sent me an email solicitation to buy your recently self- or small press-published novel. Perhaps you used Media Eblast or a similar spam generator, or hired one of those fake marketing services that prey on desperate authors just like you. Perhaps you crafted the email all on your own. Because it's the holidays and the world is spiraling ever farther into economic crisis, you may have suggested that books make good gifts, so I should buy yours.

What I want to know is, what made you think that the email address for a website called "Writer Beware" was appropriate to solicit? I mean, for one thing, there's that word, "Beware." Why would you imagine that the folks at a website that's all about Bewares, especially writing-related Bewares, would be receptive to a buy-my-book spam? (Of course, scammers also solicit Writer Beware, so I guess it's not that much of a deterrent.)

Another thing. If you aren't just spamming blindly, and actually know something about me or Writer Beware, you may also be aware of my opinion of bulk email as a promotional strategy. You may even know that I have a particular loathing for Media Eblast. Which would make your buy-my-book spam even less appropriate and even more annoying than it would otherwise be. (And if this is news to you, I guess you are spamming blindly. Naughty, naughty.)

Also, do you really think that spamming--even targeted spamming--is an effective way to drum up sales for your book? I mean, really? I've got news for you--it's not. No one buys a book because they got an email solicitation from someone they never heard of. Most people will respond as I did, and hit the delete button. (For your sake, I hope you didn't pay someone a lot of money to irritate me in this way.)

One last suggestion. Proofread your damn spams. A thriller is not a "triller." It's "heart-rending," not "heart-rendering." Apostrophes should not randomly adorn plurals and possessives, but should decorate only contractions. Yes, I'm a stickler for this stuff, and I'm not alone. You don't enhance your credibility with typos, grammatical errors, or malapropisms. (Again, I really hope you did not pay anyone to make these mistakes on your behalf.)

Desperate Author, I don't mean to be unsympathetic. I understand your desperation--heck, all authors are fairly desperate these days, no matter who their publishers are. I know you may be spamming me not because you really think I'll buy your book and give it to my Great-Aunt Edna for Christmas, but because it distracts you from your desperation by giving you the illusion of being pro-active. But trust me--you need to stop. Seriously. Because it's not doing you any good, and no one loves a spammer. Not even at the holidays.


- Victoria

December 17, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- Subscriptions and Solicitations

I'm often asked whether it's worth an aspiring writer's money to subscribe to Writer's Digest. The answer I usually give is "maybe."

The features can be helpful (disclosure: Ann and I have written for Writer's Digest)--though principally for beginners--and the interviews can be interesting. However, the articles and filler pieces often seem superficial, the advertising is heavily oriented toward paid "services" including self-publishing services, and the Classifieds section is rife with ads for vanity anthology contests and scam literary agents (a number of whom are on Writer Beware's Thumbs Down Agency List). Not exactly helpful for writers are looking to break into the commercial publishing market.

Simply filling its pages with self-publishing advertisements is not enough for Writer's Digest. Its subscriber base, after all, provides a perfect captive audience for direct solicitation. The following was recently received by a WD subscriber who'd signed up for email "updates" from WD (my bolding):

As part of Writer's Digest's commitment to presenting our subscribers with useful information on new products, services, and educational programs for aspiring and professional writers, we want to share the following paid message from one of our advertisers.

It's been an exciting year for Trafford Publishing and 2009 is shaping up to be even better for authors who wish to publish their books independently. Never before have the advantages of Trafford Publishing's print-on-demand publishing service been more obvious: no inventory fees, no costly return credits, and the ability to order and ship just as many copies as are needed are just three of the ways POD is changing the way books are being published now and in the future. Trafford authors own 100% of their copyright and set their own book prices, giving them the freedom they need to target their specific markets. Interested in learning more?

Call us today at 1-888-232-4444 and ask to speak to one of our friendly publishing consultants.

There's more, but you get the picture.

Now, Trafford is a perfectly reliable, if somewhat expensive, print-on-demand self-publishing service. Writer Beware has gotten no recent complaints about it. However, it has in the past used questionable methods to promote its services, such as offering a 15% referral fee to literary agents who sent writers its way. So that it would direct-solicit the WD subscription base isn't really a surprise--nor, given the percentage of WD's advertising that's represented by self-publishing services, is it really surprising that WD would be OK with this. What crosses the line, for me, is WD's introduction, which reads a lot like an endorsement. It's one thing to sell your subscriber list. It's another to lend your name to the resulting solicitation.

Solicitation of writers by scam agents and vanity publishers is nothing new, of course. Long before the Internet and email, they were using not just magazine subscription lists, but information from the US Copyright Office, to lure writers into their clutches. They still are. If you register copyright for your book manuscript, be prepared to be solicited by Dorrance, a hugely expensive vanity publisher that wants to charge you five figures to print a few hundred copies of your book. (This is just one of several reasons not to register copyright for unpublished work.)

December 11, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- Why You Shouldn't Write for Essay Mills

I get a fair number of questions from writers wondering whether essay mills are legitimate freelance markets. My response: Caveat writer. Big time.

What's an essay mill? A website where customers can buy term papers, research papers, and/or dissertations, and writers can (theoretically) be paid for writing them. There are scores of these sites,,,,,, to name just a few. Sometimes, a single company will own multiple URLs.

Essay mills advertise for writers online or in venues like Craigslist, promising easy work and good pay. Some, such as, even claim to offer bonuses. Especially if you're an aspiring writer looking to build credits, you might be tempted. But there are reasons to think twice--and then to think again.

- It can be a pain in the ass. Many essay mills, such as, promise writers flexible schedules and the ability to pick and choose which orders they take. The flip side of this is that they typically allow purchasers to demand almost unlimited editing and revision. For instance, promises "free unlimited revisions." And, in its pitch to customers, describes its process thus: "Normally, the process starts with regular research, continues with planning, crafting a rough draft and then writing, re-writing, and editing until the customized paper meets your expectations."

What this means for writers: anything you write may come back to you multiple times for changes and revision (and remember, your customer will be a student too lazy to write his or her own research paper, who very likely knows way less than you do about the subject of the essay). This is time for which you get no extra money, because you're usually being paid on a per-page or flat fee basis. Hour by hour, what looks like attractive pay can work out to a pittance.

- You could lose copyright. Some essay mills claim copyright on all papers written for them--essentially, it's work-for-hire. Given that you're writing for others and may never want to use the work yourself, this may not be a big concern for you--still, it's something to be aware of.

- Payment is not guaranteed. Complaints about essay mills abound, most centering on money. Writers report slow payment, non-payment, and non-communication when they question or complain. Here's a typical nonpayment complaint involving These nonpayment complaints focus on

(Customers also report bad and are just two of several websites devoted to discussing customer problems with essay mills. I have no sympathy. As cheaters, it's only cosmic justice if they get cheated themselves.)

- It won't count as a pro writing credit. Many sites claim to customers that their writers are BA's and PhD's, but in practice, they are likely to be much less selective. You yourself may turn out an impeccable research paper, but you'll be working alongside a lot of people whose writing isn't up to professional standards, or who aren't above borrowing their source material from someone else (many of the complaints at involve papers written by people whose first language clearly wasn't English, or papers later discovered to be partially or wholly plagiarized). More than that--although they aren't illegal, essay mills are widely recognized as disreputable. Which brings me to my final--and most important--point:

- It's ultra-sleazy. Your customers will be college and high school students too lazy to write their own papers. Essay mills don't want you to believe this, of course, and try to dodge such criticism by claiming that the papers they provide are only templates on which the students can model their own work, or that they're providing academic resources the students can cite in footnotes, or that they don't condone cheating and instruct their customers not to use the essays dishonestly.

Here's a typical disclaimer, from's terms of sale: "Custom written papers by are to be used for research purposes does not endorse nor tolerates any form of whole or partial plagiarism or any activity that will facilitate cheating." Or from's Terms and Conditions: " presents a prototype work that is intended to be used for further research.", which claims to hire only students or graduates of Oxford and Cambridge, explains itself thus: "Our service is dedicated to supplying model answers to client’s academic questions, and in this we consider our work no different at all from private tutors who guide students to the model way of answering a question, often by writing-out such an answer just as we do." They also claim to "strictly require of our clients that they never submit our work as their own." I'm sure their customers treat that stricture with the respect it deserves.

My favorite is the evocatively-named's delightfully weaselly rationale for why using its service is not, in fact, cheating:

Take, for example, a lecturer who sets a nice easy essay question: ‘Who was John F Kennedy?’. Most students will use Google to search for initial information on this topic and they will find some 7.6 million answers to their question. The process of reading through these answers is not cheating. However - if the student takes one of the answers and hands it in, passing it off as their own work, then without doubt, they are cheating. In fact, there are many more subtle ways they could use their material to cheat - rewording a website they found, rearranging words, citing the source but relying too heavily on the material - and so on. But they could also use the material as a guide and write their own, original answer to the question set. In the same way, a student who orders a custom essay can use the essay as a guide and can write their own original answer to the question that has been set for them. They can even do their own research.

Uh huh. But if they could do their own research, they wouldn't need to buy a paper, now would they?

Disclaimers are all very well. But the bottom line is that people who buy from these services are not looking for templates or footnote material or guidance--they are paying others to do work they should be doing themselves, and passing that work off as their own. Essay mills are almost universally condemned--and not just by colleges and universities whose harried instructors fight ongoing battles against plagiarism and cheating (see, for instance, In 2007, Google banned ads from paper-writing services, adding essay mills to its blacklist of unacceptable ad content, which includes, among others, ads for anabolic steroids, ads for escort services, and ads for illegal drugs and drug paraphenalia.

December 7, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- Publishing's Week of Gloom

Last week was not a good one along Publishers' Row.

- Random House USA announced a major reorganization, laying off staff, consolidating imprints, and axing the heads of two of its largest groups.

- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which previously suffered firings, staff departures, and a temporary freeze on acquisitions (though there are indications that the freeze may be more of a slushy than an ice cube), announced massive staff layoffs (probably in the hundreds) as part of sweeping reorganization plans aimed at streamlining its K-12 publishing divisions.

- Simon & Schuster eliminated 35 positions. PW reports that "the cuts came in all areas of the company, including S&S’s publishing divisions, operations and sales departments and international division."

- Thomas Nelson initiated the second round of job cuts this year, laying off 54 workers--approximately 10% of its workforce.

- Penguin Group announced that it would freeze pay raises for staff earning $50,000 or £30,000 or more.

- HarperCollins will defer all raises until after July 1, 2009.

One major exception: the Hachette Group, home of the Stephanie Meyers juggernaut, not only doesn't appear to be laying anyone off, but plans to give bonuses to every employee in the company.

All of this is certainly grim news. No doubt the coming weeks will bring more. Still, given the atmosphere of dread bred by daily reports of economic chaos, I can't help wondering how much of the rush to slash staff and expense is driven by actual planning for the future, and how much by simple fear. In an article about the staff cuts, the New York Times notes that according to Nielsen Book Scan, book sales are actually up slightly through the third quarter of 2008. Will they fall precipitously enough in October, November, and December to make the retrenchment frenzy look timely rather than panicked? The fourth quarter figures will tell the tale.

I also wonder whether all the downsizing and cost-cutting will have any impact on advance bloat. I've seen discussion over the past few months to suggest that midlisters have been feeling advance contraction for some time--but that's not where it needs to happen. It's the over-hyped debut novels, the celebrity children's books, the fad-of-the-moment projects where there needs to be some scaling back. And how about cutting lists? While it seems crazy to put a hold on acquisitions altogether, as at HMH, there are far too many books being published. The publishing industry has been shedding jobs since the 1980's, when the conglomeration trend began, yet the number of books published has continued to rise. This logic-defying trend damages authors--who must struggle for visiblity in an overcrowded marketplace--and publishers, which toss out books like spaghetti, hoping that at least some will stick to the wall.

The news isn't bad for all segments of publishing. TeleRead reports that US wholesale ebook sales soared in the third quarter of 2008. Even with steady increases over the past few years, ebook sales numbers are still a tiny fraction of p-book sales numbers--but it's an interesting trend.

December 2, 2008

I Had a Dream...

Hi, folks!

Hope everyone had a nice Thanksgiving.

Last week I had a dream that made Victoria laugh out loud when I told her about it, so I thought I'd share it with you. I've never before had a Writer Beware dream...this was a first.

I dreamed that I read an announcement in my local paper saying that Agent X, whom I recognized as a notorious scammer, would be teaching a "how to write fiction and get it published" class at my local college. I was furious, and nobody at the college would believe me that this guy was a scam agent and publisher. You know how dreams are...I seemed to spend hours hunting for people who could help, with my feet encased in lead, only to be told that no, the class would go on, and did I want to sign up for it?

So I decided to go underground, and sign up for the class. I appeared in class the first day, and it was exactly what I had expected...Agent X gave some very generalized comments about writing, then began pitching his bogus "literary agency" at the attendees, who were, in typical desperate newbie fashion, only too eager to sign up and pay him money for worthless services.

As the hapless class members queued up, checkbooks and credit cards in hand, I slowly rose to my feet. In true superhero fashion, I metaphorically ripped open my blouse and ID'd myself as the Chair of Writer Beware. As I did so, Agent X's face twisted with hatred into a gargoyle mask. The students shrank back. I told the students to go to Writer Beware and read how to avoid scuzzy fake agents. I climbed atop my desk and waved my copy of Writer Beware's impressive printout of our "questionables" list (which contains over 300 questionable agencies, both living and now out of business -- because fake agencies, like vampires, do tend to Rise from the Grave) and told my fellow students that their so-called instructor was on it. Gasps of consternation ran around the classroom. (This is where you can tell it was MY dream. In real life, newbie writers would have reacted with expressions of "Huh?")

Raging, the instructor strode out. My fellow students cheered me.

But wait! There's more!

I left the classroom and headed for my vehicle. The parking lot was deserted and dark. Suddenly I heard a squeal of wheels, and I saw Agent X, still with his gargoyle mask of fury, behind the wheel of a white pickup truck. He gunned the truck towards me. I tried to jump aside, but he hit me, and I rolled to the pavement.

I "lost time" then, in true dream fashion. When things resumed, I had casts on both arms and legs. I was hobbling on crutches. But I was determinedly heading back for Round Two, the second class.

When I got back into class (I was late because of my crutches) I found the instructor happily collecting money from the students who were signing up to "publish" their books with his vanity press. I went ballistic. I did another rant, pointing out that X Publishing could not get their books onto the shelves in bookstores, that they were being charged not only for publishing, but for all kinds of "extras" like editing, etc. I rose to heights of eloquence never before seen, waving my crutches in the air for emphasis.

Agent X's face underwent its gargoyle transformation again! This time, instead of hurling himself out the door, he hurled himself straight at me, and bore my plaster-encased self to the floor. He locked his hands around my throat and began strangling me, raving aloud about how he thought he'd killed me when he hit me with his pickup.

Fortunately my fellow students rallied, and pulled him off me. THIS time I had witnesses to the attack! They called the police, and he was led away in handcuffs, charged with two counts of attempted murder (because my fellow students had overheard his confession of trying to run me down). I stood there, ruffled and plastered, but grinning exultantly, because I knew he was going to go to the hoosegow for a good long time.

Just before the cops dragged him out the door, he shouted, "And I would have got away with it, too, if it wasn't for Writer Beware!" in true Scooby-Doo fashion.

But this was actually a weirdly REALISTIC Writer Beware dream. Because the next image in the dream was of me staring glumly at the letter from the college to the students of the writing class. Since "Agent X" had become "unavailable" the letter said, they had hired "Agent Z" to teach the remainder of the class.

You guessed it. Agent Z was ALSO on Writer Beware's Thumbs Down List of Questionables.

The name of the game is "Whackamole," my friends.

Happy holidays, everyone!

-Ann C. Crispin
Chair, Writer Beware

November 28, 2008

Victoria Strauss --

Even if you're not a natural cynic, like me, a good rule to follow if you're a writer is "If it seems too good to be true, it probably is." Case in point:, a website that promises easy money for your writing.

"Why not stay home and get paid for typing on your computer?" the website asks. Freelance Home Writers are needed immediately to make blog posts for up to $15 per hour, write "simple articles" for up to $45 per hour, and write fiction or nonfiction stories for $450 per tale! It's "A Great Job even if you're not a 'natural born writer.'"

Let's say I'm Jane Everywriter, and I'm intrigued by the possibility of getting paid for my scribbling. Or maybe I'm Joe CouchPotato, and I'm excited by the prospect of making money by sitting on my butt. Hey, I wrote a few papers in high school. All I have to do Get Started Now is to provide with my first name and email address.

I'm whisked to the job description page, where I learn that "Thousands of smart people just like you are are [sic] already brining [sic] in an easy $1,000, $2,000...even as much as $5,000 every single week just by doing this easy writing in their spare time...and now it's your turn!" I'm so excited now I can hardly stand it. With bated breath and pounding pulse I read down the page...websites are starving for content...I can make as much as $10,000 a year writing as few as 3 articles a day...yes, yes...the jobs come to me...I don't have to have a resume or writing credits...Oh boy! Oh crap. I'm at the bottom of the page and I still haven't found out how to access this fantastic opportunity. So I click the "Complete Registration" button.

And I discover there's a catch.

This wonderful world of easy writing money can be mine...for a small fee. A $2.95 Special Risk Free Trial Membership Fee, to be exact (normally $69.95), which gives me access to the Freelance Home Writers system for 7 whole days. There's also a monthly membership fee of $47.00--hmmm, a bit more than I bargained for, but as the website reminds me, just a fraction of the boodle I can make with this wonderful system. And hey, if I'm not happy, I can cancel anytime. I'm going to do it. Yes I am. I'm going to take the plunge. Just have to heave myself off the couch and get my credit card. And a bag of chips.

Writers, don't fall for this. is the writers' version of the familiar work-at-home schemes that are the subject of warnings from the FTC and the BBB. These schemes tempt you with promises of easy money, but require you to spend money first in order to access their "systems" or receive their kits. Much of the time, the materials or leads you are given are substandard, or the company misrepresents the demand for whatever business you're supposed to be establishing, or it's not revealed that there are substantial additional costs. Consumers have lost thousands of dollars to these schemes. isn't the only website of its kind. There are others--some more subtle, some more crude. Cultivate your inner cynic, and never trust anyone who offers you an "easy" way to sell your writing.

(If you get as far into the site as I did, and try to leave, a little "STOP! DON'T GO YET! message box appears on your screen. If you click it, another little box implores you not to leave empty handed, and offers to send you a "make money success kit" for FREE! Yes, delivered to your door absolutely FREE [you pay only shipping and handling]. What a deal.)

November 25, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- A Day in the Life

I usually stay away from personal stuff in this blog. But I'm currently in Alabama with my 81-year-old mom, helping my 89-year-old aunt pack up the big old historic home in which they both were born for my aunt's impending move to a retirement community--and my mind is pretty far from Writer Beware right now. So here's a snapshot of a more or less typical day.

Get up around 8:30, having been disturbed only twice in the night by the raccoon doing the tarantella in the chimney (it climbs up through the open stone fireplace in the dirt basement, which is where all the cooking was done in 1830, when the house was built). Transition from the temperate zone of the house (my bedroom) to the tropical zone (the rest of it). Eat breakfast in the kitchen, which is around 90 degrees because my aunt gets cold--but we can't eat in the dining room, which is slightly cooler, because the table is completely covered by an ever-changing collection of porcelain and silver, as my aunt tries to make up her mind which fraction of her vast possessions to take to the retirement community, and there's no room to put down a plate.

Move to the sun room--which is not sunny due to the fact that the curtains, which shut out most of the light, have been draped with blankets, to shut out even more light--to do some catching up on email. It's 80 degrees in here--not as bad as the kitchen, but I can't go back to the temperate zone because this is the only place I can piggyback on someone else's non-security-enabled wireless and get access to the Internet. Tap, tap, tap away at my computer, while listening to my aunt and my mom arguing in the office. My mom wants my aunt to throw out useless papers, of which there are enough in this house to furnish a Presidential library. My aunt doesn't want to. My mom gets frustrated. My aunt gets angry. It's all complicated by the fact that my aunt is getting quite deaf. Fun, fun, fun.

Around noon, go out for a run. Lovely sunny weather--around 58 degrees. Alabamians all bundled up in winter gear (I've lost count of the number of people I've heard complain about how cold it is). Me, the Massachusetts-ite, in capri tights and a sleeveless top. Freedom. Ahhhh.

Lunch in the 90-degree kitchen. My mom misses NYC, where she lives. My aunt, a Southerner to the bone, is skeptical about all aspects of the nawth. Then they start reminiscing about their childhoods, which is fun and interesting. But it's too hot, so I go off to do some drawer-mining. There are about 100 drawers in this house, and they are all stuffed full of, well, stuff. I'm hunting for things to throw away and things we can sell (money is pretty tight), but also scouting for important papers, which have been turning up in some exceedingly odd places, such as the drawer of the vanity in my aunt's bathroom (my aunt, by the way, has all her marbles and then some, but she's the most disorganized person I've ever known). I've managed to find documents pertaining to the renovation of the house in the 1980's and its subsequent placement on the National Historic Register (both important for the realtor we're planning to hire) and I've hidden them in my room so they won't vanish.

Later, run some errands. Dinner in the 90-degree kitchen--I'm a vegetarian and my aunt and mom are not, so I cook for myself. My mom tired and frustrated. My aunt sweet and cheerful. I clean up. Then, back to the sun room, to WATCH TV FOR DEAF PEOPLE! REALLY LOUD!! REALLY, REALLY LOUD!!! But I need to answer email, and it's better than the 90-degree kitchen.

Then bedtime, with my friend the raccoon. And ghostly knocking in the middle of the night. And peculiar noises as if people were banging planks together in the basement. But at least it's cool.

November 22, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- Tidbits

Things that caught my eye over the past week or so:

Really bad sex

I don't pay much attention to literary awards, but I always enjoy this one: the annual Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction Awards. This year's winner: Iain Hollingshead, for a passage from his novel Twentysomething. To spare my readers who don't like this sort of thing, I won't quote the passage--but it's a good example of the extremely thin line that divides a sizzling sex scene from a silly one.

Read the shortlisted passages here. And for more fun, previous years' winners are here.

Giving, taking, and giving again

Via the Los Angeles Times: Massachusetts author Stona Fitch has founded the Concord Free Press, a nonprofit publisher with an unusual business model: "We publish books and give them away for free—online and via a network of independent bookstores. In exchange, we ask readers to make a voluntary donation to a local charity or someone in need in their community. And we ask them to pass the book on, so that every time the book changes hands, it generates more contributions."

You can order a book from the website, or from a list of participating independent booksellers (mostly in New England), and donate to whomever you choose. The press, which is supported by grants and contributions, generated more than $12,000 in donations during its first month in business. Donation recipients include charities, nonprofits, churches, food banks, and local organizations of all kinds. One individual handed $20 to a homeless person. Another gave bus fare to someone who needed it.

Mr. Fitch, who has commercially published several books, is using his own novel, Give and Take, as the press's first offering. A neat twist on self-publishing, for sure.

Hope for books in tough economic times?

Amid daily bulletins about economic crisis, and uber-gloomy publishing and bookselling news (B&N third quarter losses, Random House slashing pensions, big layoffs at Doubleday, Rodale, and others), an annual holiday shopping survey by Minneapolis's University of St. Thomas suggests that books may benefit from reduced consumer spending--at least in Minnesota. According to the survey, "Shoppers said they'll be giving more books this holiday season, as well as clothing, gift certificates and gifts of cash."

Random House is hoping for the same thing. It's launching a Books=Gifts campaign, with banner ads and video trailers featuring well-known authors.

The dreaded query letter and synopsis

I don't know about you, but I hate writing synopses more than I hate going to the dentist. As for query letters, it's been a long time since I had to write one...and I'm really really grateful.

For those who are struggling with both tasks, here are a pair of truly useful resources, put together by author Joshua Palmatier: the Query Letter Project and the Plot Synopsis Project. At these links, you can read examples of query letters and plot synopses that actually sold books. The focus is on speculative fiction authors, but the basic principles are pretty much the same no matter what field or genre you write in.

Green printing

This isn't exactly writing-related, but it's pretty nifty even so: GreenPrint, software that saves you paper and ink by eliminating wasted and extra pages from your printouts--such as the legal verbiage that's attached to some emails, or banner ads that accompany articles. The software displays the pages of the document you want to print on a single screen, with the wasteful pages highlighted so you can remove them from the print job. You can also remove stuff you don't need, such as images, to save even more ink.

It's cool and it works. The ad-supported World version is free to home users.

November 18, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- FieldReport: Yet Another Update

Back in June, I blogged about the then brand-new website FieldReport, whose contest for true-life stories offered significant money prizes, but also involved significantly unfavorable terms in its submission agreement and contest rules.

FieldReport later modified its submission agreement and contest rules, getting rid of many of the terms I objected to and making things somewhat more fair and author-friendly. There were still some issues, though--as I noted in a followup post. A dialog with FR CEO Will Petty ensued in the comments section. Eventually, FR implemented still more changes to its submission agreement, getting rid of one of the conditions that I felt was most unfair--the requirement that authors pay a 25% commission to FR on any third-party sales of their FR articles, if those sales were made by them--and making it clear that FR's definition of "derivative work" did not include the re-use of FR articles or material in memoirs or autobiographies.

FR's current submission agreement and contest rules now represent what I think is a reasonable balance between authors' rights and FR's interests. That's not to say that FR contributors shouldn't carefully read the fine print--they need to be aware, for instance, that rights to contest entries are exclusively granted to FR for a term of between 18 months (if winnings are less than $5,000) to 14 years (if winnings are $100,000 or more), and that even once the term expires, FR's basic site license (which applies to all content submitted to the site, and gives FR the right to create and sell print and electronic publications containing the content) remains in force. But the problems that so disturbed me--the unclear language, the demand for copyright, the 25% commission, the iron grip on derivative works--are all gone.

While it does seem that the discussion on this blog played a part in spurring the changes, much credit must go to Mr. Petty and other FR staff for being willing to listen and to compromise.

FieldReport has been the subject of recent articles in the Telegraph, Time, and the San Francisco Chronicle--which reveal that it has encountered a great deal of suspicion because of the very large prizes it's offering. Could such a contest possibly be for real? Where was the money coming from? Most of all--what was in it for FR? If you were curious about this (I know I was), the SF Chronicle article provides some answers:

Petty explained a "three and a half point" business model for turning the prize money (which comes from investors) into profit. The first component is advertising, which he expects to generate a third of the company's revenue; second is a self-publishing service that FieldReport plans to offer next year, which would allow users to compile books from content on the site - their own or others' stories - and then buy copies of those anthologies directly from FieldReport. Enterprising members could also opt to sell these anthologies (splitting any proceeds with the writers included in their selection).

The third part of the company's business plan is a "perpetual trust" that Petty said will allow users - for a $20 fee - to archive "the stories of their lives as a kind of legacy." This digital storage service has been created independent of FieldReport, so that it will survive regardless of FieldReport's long-term success as a business. The data would be publicly accessible so that, Petty said, "your great-grandchildren could conceivably look up your account (or whatever parts of that account you chose to make available to them) after you die."

The half-point in Petty's business model is a plan to expand FieldReport's ranking system to other genres of writing, including novels.

...for which the rights issues would be rather different. I'll be interested to see what kind of terms are offered if FR does indeed expand in this direction.

FR has given away $90,000 of prize money already, and is counting down to the grand prize of $250,000, to be awarded on February 15, 2009.

November 14, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- Again, Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award

You may have noticed a new look to the blog. We've been tired of the old green template for some time--plus, it wasn't so easy on the eyes. So we've upgraded to a new, more visually pleasing design--which also brings with it improved functionality, and nifty extras like the Followers display.

Via Publishers Lunch: and Penguin Group will sponsor a second Breakthrough Novel Award in 2009. (Hewlett-Packard, a co-sponsor of the previous award, will not return.) Here's the announcement on the Penguin website.

Once again, the winner will be published by Penguin, with an advance of $25,000, as long as he or she is willing to sign a non-negotiable publishing contract within 7 days of receiving notification of his/her win. Finalists receive an expense-paid trip to Seattle for the awards ceremony, and semi-finalists receive a review from PW (all prizes are described here). As before, only Amazon customers will be allowed to post reviews of contestants' entries.

There are some procedural changes, presumably as a result of issues encountered during last year's contest. Up to 10,000 entries will be allowed (double last year's 5,000), with 2,000 of these selected by "expert reviewers from Amazon" based on their pitch statements (a 300-word summary of the book--kind of like a query letter on steroids). 500 will be chosen as quarter-finalists by "Amazon Editors and Amazon Vine Reviewers" based on a review of 3,000-5,000 word excerpts (last year, the contest went directly to semi-finals, with 1,000 semi-finalists chosen). The quarter-finalists' excerpts will be displayed on Amazon for review and comment, and reviewed by PW (half the number of reviews PW provided last year).

Penguin editors will then winnow the quarter-finalists down to 100 semi-finalists, of which 3 will be selected as finalists (last year, there were 10 finalists). Finalists will receive detailed reviews of their manuscripts from an expert panel of authors, editors, and agents. Popular vote will determine the winner. (For full info, see the contest FAQ, and also the official contest rules).

I blogged twice about the Award last October. My reservations about people's choice-style awards for literature remain unchanged, with the additional proviso that entrants can expect to be spammed by Amazon with come-ons for its CreateSpace self-publishing service (to enter, you must first register with CreateSpace). That said, this is a solid competition with a worthwhile prize--and possible fringe benefits, as Penguin offered contracts not just to last year's winner, but to four of the finalists. Also, unlike many contests, the Breakthrough Novel Award doesn't tie your manuscript up in exclusive submission for a huge amount of time.

In fact, those possible fringe benefits may be the main reason to enter the contest. Last year's winner, Bill Loehfelm, was announced in early April, and his book was rushed to market, coming out just four months later, in August. A rush to publication isn't such a great thing; as frustrated as writers sometimes get with the year or more that elapses between contract signing and publication, there are good reasons for that long lead time. For the four finalists, whose books are due in 2009 and 2010, Penguin allowed a more normal timeline, making possible not just a more leisurely editing process, but also the important pre-book marketing that plays such a vital role in books' success. In my opinion, they got the better deal.

November 11, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- Some Good Reading

A midweek post to draw attention to some interesting blog posts I've read recently.

Impressed with the courtesy and promptness of that brand-new agent with no publishing industry experience? Don't be. Stacia Kane/December Quinn on how it's not about being nice.

Trying to convince yourself that fee-charging publisher isn't really a vanity press because it pays royalties, and only reputable publishers pay royalties? Thinking it's selective because it doesn't accept absolutely everything that's submitted to it? Think again. Marian Perera at Flights of Fantasy reveals five misconceptions about vanity presses.

Did the publisher that just asked you for several thousand dollars to publish your book assure you that paying to publish is a sign of your faith your own work? Or that paying to publish is the way many first-time authors get started? Be skeptical. Marian Perera again, on the many ways fee-charging publishers justify their upfront fees.

Frustrated with the agent search? Considering going it alone? Before you decide, read Editorial Ass on why you should never submit unagented to publishing companies. (Just one caveat: She's talking about the Big Guys here, as well as the larger independents. For smaller independents, it may be perfectly feasible to approach directly.)

Curious about how bookstores decide which books to order? From Jane Smith's How Publishing Really Works blog, a short explanation of the book-stocking policies of UK chain bookseller Waterstone's, from former Waterstone's staffer Sally Zigmond.

Thinking about parlaying your blog to writing fame and fortune? Via Galleycat: only two percent of bloggers earn a living from their blogs. More from Technorati's State of the Blogosphere 2008 report, and how Writer Beware Blogs! compares:

- Median annual revenue among bloggers surveyed was $200 (revenue for the Writer Beware blog: $0).
- As tiny as bloggers' median annual revenue is, men STILL make more than women (grrr).
- The majority of bloggers have advertising of some sort on their blogs (to avoid any possible conflict of interest issues, the WB blog does not host ads or accept ad revenue).
- More than 133 million blogs have been established since 2002 (yikes).
- Only 5% of these (or 7.4 million) were updated in the past 120 days (the WB blog updates at least weekly, and often twice a week).
- 59% of bloggers have been blogging for more than two years (the WB blog started in September 2005, so it's just over three years for us).
- Half of all active blogs attract more than 1,000 monthly visitors (average monthly visits for the WB blog: 15,800--which sounds more impressive than it is, because only about a quarter of those visitors stick around to read).
- 57% of US bloggers are male; in Europe and Asia they're 73% (being a natural contrarian, I love it when I don't fit the stats).
- More women than men have personal blogs; more men than women have professional blogs (yay, bucking the stats again: neither Ann nor I have personal blogs; our only blogging is professional).
- One in four bloggers spends ten or more hours blogging per week (I probably average five or six hours, including research).

November 7, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- Zimbo Books Fiction Competition

Have you recently received an email from Zimbo Books about a new, big-money literary contest? If so, you aren't alone. This company appears to be engaging in a sizeable spam campaign. I've gotten a number of questions, and there's discussion in many writers' forums. Zimbo even spammed me--at my Writer Beware email address, no less.

According to the email announcement,

Zimbo Books is pleased to announce the Zimbo Books Fiction Competition 2008 commemorating the launch of Zimbo Books. This exciting competition as described in the competition rules has 2 major benefits:

* A prize pool of USD $100,000 with a first prize of USD $80,000.

* The next four runners up get USD $5,000 each.

* One year's subscription for all Authors to sell their books online via Zimbo Books (value USD $45).

The official contest rules reveal that the competition is for unpublished book-length manuscripts of between 50,000 and 300,000 (!) words. Entries must be accompanied by a synopsis of no more than 750 words. Zimbo takes no rights to submitted manuscripts--though by entering, you grant it the right to list and sell your book on the Zimbo website (more about that below). The entry deadline is April 21, 2009, so there's plenty of time to enter. And get this--if you refer another writer to the contest, you can get a referral fee of $15.

Wouldn't it be nice to win $80,000? Or $5,000? Or even net a few $15 referral fees? I could use some extra cash, and I'm sure you could too. But wait. It's not that simple. There are some factors to consider first.

- The entry fee is a whopping $85. Contest fees don't automatically tag a contest as disreputable, but for a book contest (as opposed to a screenplay contest, where entrance fees tend to be high) $85 is way too much. (For instance, the Atlantic Writing Competition, sponsored by the Writers Federation of Nova Scotia, charges $25. The San Diego Book Awards Association charges $15. There are many others.)

Zimbo reserves the right to reject entries "that it deems, in its sole discretion, to be inappropraite [sic], for any reason whatsoever", in which case your fee will not be refunded. Zimbo also reserves the right to cancel the competition "in the event an insufficient number of entries are received"--in which case, you get a refund of $40 (the difference between the entry fee and Zimbo's regular $45 "publishing" service). There are no details on what would constitute "an insufficient number."

- By its own admission, Zimbo is not a publisher. "Zimbo just allows you to sell your books. We are not publishers." (While it's nice of them to clarify, alert writers may already have inferred this from the number of typos and other errors on the Zimbo website). A literary contest conducted by an organization unrelated to publishing or book selling is not likely to provide a step up in your writing career, even if you win.

So what is Zimbo, if it's not a publisher? An ecommerce website "where products and members interact." If this reminds you a bit of eBay, that may not be an accident: Zimbo's parent company, Technocash Pty Ltd., is "a licensed financial institution providing payment solutions" that "presently provides Australian collection services for hundreds of non-Australian eBay sellers." In addition to selling other products, you can sell your book by paying Zimbo $45, for which it will turn your ms. into a pdf file and list it for sale.

- Speaking of which, just by entering the contest, you agree to let Zimbo list and sell your manuscript from its site for one year. Here's Zimbo's explanation of why this is peachy super-keen:

How does Zimbo Books compare to having a book published?

Zimbo Books is much better. For a start you don’t need a publisher to start selling If you are one of the very few lucky authors to get your book published, the time taken to get the book to market is often more than a year. No waiting with Zimbo Books. Plus you get much more money with Zimbo Books for each sale. Many authors get a royalty of 10% paid by the publishers. But it is 10% of the wholesale price not the retail price. For example, if the book has a retail price of $30, it could have a wholesale price of $15 and the 10% royalty is $1.50 – compared to Zimbo with a net sale amount of $7.

Oy. If this inaccuracy-laden rationale doesn't turn you off, consider whether you really want an uncorrected pdf file of your book out there on the Internet. Consider whether you want to possibly put your first publication rights in jeopardy by agreeing to what will almost certainly be perceived by agents and editors as cut-rate self-publishing. Consider that, if you do manage to place your book with an agent or publisher before the year is up, they will probably want you off the Zimbo site--but there's no provision that I could find to allow you to cancel your Zimbo listing before the year is up. Oh, and the listing is automatically renewable. So unless you do cancel, it won't expire.

- So far, a full list of who will be judging the contest is not available. A contest's prestige rests in part on the qualifications of its judges--which you can't assess if you don't know who they are. A short bio of one judge has recently been posted, but while this gentleman is admirably accomplished in his own field, it's unclear how he is qualified judge a literary contest.

- Contest entrants must agree to parent company Technocash's privacy policy, which allows Technocash to disclose personal information to third parties., "Sometimes we provide personal information about customers to organisations outside of Technocash. Generally this will only occur when the organisation or other entity helps us with our business. For example: outsourced service providers including mailing houses or telemarketing agencies; authorised representatives of Technocash; other financial institutions; credit reporting agencies; and our accountants, auditors or lawyers." Since the contest entry form requires contestants to provide not just their email addresses, but their phone numbers and street addresses, I suspect that entrants should be prepared for an increase in spam, junk phone calls, and/or junk snail mail.

Bottom line, in my opinion: Zimbo's competition is not a real literary contest, but a moneymaking venture (the $85 entry fee) in support of another moneymaking venture (I'm guessing that the contest is intended both to bulk up Zimbo's inventory of electronic books, and to promote its $45 "publishing" service). Even if that weren't the case, the enforced publication provision should be enough to make careful writers think twice.

Oh, and that fat prize money? It's listed in US dollars, but according to the fine print, "As Zimbo Books is based in Australia all credit/debit card transaction [sic] are processed in the AUD equivalent."

November 4, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- Ding Dong, BookWise is Dead

Via Lee Goldberg--multi-level marketing scheme Bookwise, which I blogged about in 2006, is no more. BookWise applied the Amway principle to bookselling, encouraging its Associates not just to sell the books they bought from the company, but to sign up other Associates and receive a percentage of their income.

An announcement on the BookWise website says only that "BookWise & Company has merged with iLearningGlobal and is no longer in business." iLearningGlobal, according to its website (which doesn't mention BookWise or the merger), is a "mentoring community" that "has brought together the top trainers and speakers in all areas of self development, personal improvement, business training, life skills, tax and financial strategies, and much more."

If you're puzzled by exactly how iLearningGlobal, with its focus on audio, video, e-books, webcasts, and other aural and visual media, dovetails with BookWise, a MLM scheme focusing on printed books, don't fret--you just need to look a little deeper. Like BookWise, iLearningGlobal is an MLM scheme, founded by MLM guru Brian Tracy. Over August and September 2008, BookWise Associates have been transforming themselves into iLearningGlobal Marketers. For instance, this happy former BookWise Associate. And this one. And here's an example of the iLearningGlobal sales pitch from yet another one.

In my original post on BookWise, I got some flack from BookWise loyalists for saying this:

"Despite BookWise's noble mission statement (The Mission of BookWise & Company is to increase literacy, reading and access to great books through neighbor-to-neighbor book selling. We champion the spirit of the corner bookstore and embrace the values of the independent bookseller with a passion for great literature and the personal connection with friends who love to read), it's not hard to see that the main incentive for those who join the club won't be books, but the promise of cash. That's the lure of multilevel marketing schemes: not the product, but the scheme itself, and the opportunity to sell it to others."

Gee. Ya think?

Not all of BookWise is gone. In early 2008, it branched out into vanity publishing with WriteWise, an expensive ($6,995) publishing and "mentoring" program that paid fat commissions to BookWise Associates who got writers to sign up. WriteWise appears to have survived the merger.

Just for kicks, I took advantage of the free download offered on the WriteWise website: 5 Secrets Every Author Needs to Know. I mean, I've published a few books, right? But being an author is a lifetime learning experience, and I could always use a few pointers. There are indeed five secrets, each one of which includes the words "make millions" or "make money." (For instance, Secret #5: "Hire Someone to Write Your Information Product, so You Make Millions." Gosh, I wish I'd thought of that.) The article, authored by Richard G. Allen (a former BookWise board member) finishes with a pitch for WriteWise:

If YES is your final answer to these three simple questions, then you have pre-qualified yourself for accepting my offer and joining WriteWise--destined to be rewarded with:

- A bestselling book.
- Millions of dollars.
- Many friends and followers (those with whom you share your information).
- A life you love each and every day.
- A world made better because of you.

I am giving you the most effective way from just wanting to be an Information Millionaire to Being One!

Ugh. I've got to go take a shower now.

October 31, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- Contest Alert: Mirage Books

India-based Mirage Books, which describes itself as "a publishing house dedicated to promote writers across the globe," has been advertising a short story contest on its website.

Red flags abound. The website is poorly written, suggesting to me that English is not the writer's first language. Paid editing services are offered--a clear conflict of interest for a publisher. There's much verbiage about how the horrid old hidebound big publishing world hates new authors and won't give them a chance (completely false, and often a marker for an amateur publisher). To date, the company appears to have published just two books--one by Nikhil Khanna, to whom Mirage's URL is registered, the other by Huned Contractor (here's his profile on Writers Net), whose name appears on Mirage's correspondence under the title of "Editor."

I suspect a self-publishing endeavor that is trying to expand.

From the perspective of this post, the biggest red flag is the fact that the contest has no official rules or guidelines. Entrants thus have no way to know what they're getting into--not even what they will win. Writers savvy enough to Google Mirage Books may happen on a press release like this one, in which it's revealed that winners will be published in an "experimental" anthology called Break the Rules--but if you're thinking of entering a contest, you shouldn't have to go searching the Internet in order to figure out what the prize is.

Unfortunately, the contest has already closed, so it's too late to advise writers to be cautious about entering. Mirage is currently sending out notifications to the winners, however--and in my opinion there's good reason to be cautious about accepting the prize.

For one thing, it's something of a booby prize. If you're a winner, your story will be published along with a bio and photo, but according to the notifications, "Apart from this recognition, there are no other prizes or any monetary remuneration whatsoever because the entire objective has been to promote writing talent." So Mirage gets to sell the book (largely, I would guess, to you and your friends), but you don't get squat. You do keep your copyright. Lucky you.

Mirage's notifications offer no information about such important issues as what rights you'll have to grant and for how long, though they do promise "a short writer's agreement to ensure that the story is original and not plagiarized from any source." However, there's a catch.

[B]efore we get on to the next step, we would like you to furnish some details which will enable us to release your story for publishing. Therefore, kindly email us your:

1. Full Name
2. Residential Address
3. Date Of Birth
4. Age
5. A Short Bio Of Not More Than 50 Words
6. A High Resolution Photograph
7. A Scanned Copy Of Your Driving License Or Passport Or Voter's Card As Identity Proof

I don't think I need to point out the inadvisability of providing item #7.

The book will be published in India. I'm not familiar with the laws there, but even so, I can't think of any reason why Mirage would need "Identity Proof" of any kind from its authors, especially given that it won't be paying anyone. Some of the writers who've contacted me fear the potential for identity theft, but frankly, I think it's more likely that this is just another sign of Mirage's lack of cluefulness.

Nevertheless, good sense would seem to indicate that the winners (there are 50 of them) should decline to share this information. If refusal puts them out of the running for publication...well, given all the other red flags that are present here, that might not be such a bad thing.

October 28, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- Authors Guild Settles With Google

The Authors Guild, the AAP, and several large publishers have reached a $125 million settlement with Google regarding library participation in Google's Book Search project. The settlement will allow Google to continue to expand its ambitious program of digitizing millions of books and making them searchable online, while preserving the rights of copyright holders.

From an email I received today:

The Guild had sued Google in September 2005, after Google struck deals with major university libraries to scan and copy millions of books in their collections. Many of these were older books in the public domain, but millions of others were still under copyright protection. Nick Taylor, then the president of the Guild, saw Google’s scanning as “a plain and brazen violation of copyright law.” Google countered that its digitizing of these books represented a “fair use” of the material.

Our proposal to Google back in May 2006 was simple: while we don’t approve of your unauthorized scanning of our books and displaying snippets for profit, if you’re willing to do something far more ambitious and useful, and you’re willing to cut authors in for their fair share, then it would be our pleasure to work with you.

We’re happy to report that our proposal found a receptive audience at Google and at Association of American Publishers and the several publishing houses that had filed a separate lawsuit in October 2005 against Google. Reaching final agreement turned out to be not so simple, but today, after nearly two and a half years of negotiations, we’re joining with Google and the AAP and those publishers to announce the settlement of Authors Guild v. Google.

The settlement, which must be approved by a federal judge before it takes effect, includes money for now and the prospect of money for later. There’ll be at least $45 million for authors and publishers whose in-copyright books and other copyrighted texts have been scanned without permission. If your book was scanned and you own all the rights, you’ll get a small share of this, at least $60, depending on how many rightsholders file claims.

Far more interesting for most of us –- and the ambitious part of our proposal -- is the prospect for future revenues. Rightsholders will receive a share of revenues from institutional subscriptions to the collection of books made available through Google Book Search under the settlement, as well as from sales of online consumer access to the books. They will also be paid for printouts at public libraries, as well as for other uses.

Payments will flow through a new entity called the Book Rights Registry, controlled by a board of writers and publishers. The settlement must be approved by the US District Court before it becomes final.

Authors Guild v. Google Settlement Resources Page

Official Press Release

October 26, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- Writers' Myths: Giving Back Your Advance

Like any alternate universe, the writing community has spawned its own mythology. Ann and I have covered a few of these myths in this blog and on the Writer Beware website: the notion that you have to know someone in order to get published, the fear that agents and editors can blacklist writers, the conviction that "just getting it out there" (via self-publishing, for instance) is enough to jump-start a career, the idea that getting published is some kind of crapshoot, the many fallacies about copyright.

Such myths are not only incredibly persistent, resisting both logic and rebuttal, they can also be pernicious, causing writers to behave in ways contrary to their own best interest. For instance, the myth that "any agent is better than no agent" throws thousands of writers into the arms of amateur literary agents, who can damage careers as much as or even more than scam agents can.

The myth that's the subject of this post is extremely common, and it goes like this: Writers who receive advances from their publishers are required to pay them back if their books don't generate enough sales to earn out.* In some versions of this myth, the author only has to pay back the difference between the advance and actual royalties earned; in others, the entire advance is forfeit, no matter how much has been recouped. Either way, this is completely false.

An advance is a good-faith payment from a publisher to an author. Not only does it express the publisher's sales expectations for the book (since advances are often based on what the publisher projects the book will earn over the first year of publication, when most books make the bulk of their sales), it's a signal that the publisher is willing to put its money where its mouth is--to assume the financial risk of publication, and put cash and effort behind the production, distribution, and marketing of the book. This is why so many writers consider an advance to be a minimum standard of publisher professionalism.

Of course, an advance is also a gamble by the publisher that the book will sell to expectations. If the gamble doesn't pay off, the author won’t receive any additional royalty payments--but he or she will not have to return any portion of the advance. (The publisher won’t necessarily lose any money, either; it’s possible for a book to make a profit even if it doesn't earn out). In other words, no matter how poorly your book sells, you will not have to give back your advance.

Are there any circumstances in which a writer does have to return an advance? Yes. But these are very specific, and they don't occur very often.

Circumstance #1: If the publisher decides a manuscript is unacceptable or unpublishable after it has been turned in. Usually the author is given a chance to revise the manuscript. If the author can't or won't, or if s/he does revise and the publisher still feels the manuscript is unacceptable, the author will be liable for any advance amounts that have been received (usually not the entire advance, since advances are paid in installments). Sometimes the money will be due immediately. But often it will be due only if the author sells the manuscript to another publisher.

Here's sample language, from one of my publishing contracts:

If the Author has made delivery of a complete manuscript on the subject matter and within the word length as agreed and within the time limits defined above, but the Publisher determines that the manuscript is unsatisfactory as submitted or as revised pursuant to the Publisher's request for changes...the Publisher may terminate this Agreement and the Author shall thereafter be free to arrange for publication by another publisher. In such event, the Author or the Author's duly authorized representative agrees to make every effort to sell the Work elsewhere and to pay the Publisher any sums advanced or earned...The Author's obligation to make payment under this paragraph shall be limited to the amounts paid to the Author under this Agreement.

In another of my contracts, there's similar wording, qualified by the following:

If within five years from the date of the Publisher's notice [that the manuscript is unacceptable] the Author has not made arrangements for the publication of such Work by another publisher...the Author shall have no further obligation to the Publisher with respect to such Work.

So if I don't re-sell within five years, I don't have to pay anything back at all.

Circumstance #2: If the author fails to deliver the manuscript. There is often quite a bit of wiggle room here. If you can't make your deadline, it's possible to get an extension(s), and there are plenty of examples of late author deliveries where the publisher chose to wait for an extremely overdue book rather than cut the author loose and demand reimbursement. Of course, sometimes the publisher loses patience, and a lawsuit may ensue--though unless you're a celebrity, you probably don't have to worry about this.

Sample language, from one of my contracts:

If the author fails to deliver a complete and final manuscript...on or before the date and within the word length as agreed, the Publisher...will have the option, exercisable at its sole demand delivery...If by the end of ninety (90) days of the Publisher's written demand for delivery the Author has failed to deliver a complete manuscript...the Publisher will thenceforth, despite any subsequent delivery, have the right to recover from the Author any amounts which the Publisher may have advanced.

There you have it: the only two circumstances you are likely to encounter in which you will ever have to return an advance. Assuming, of course, that you sign up with a reputable publisher.

So why is the advance giveback such a widespread writers' myth? One reason, of course, is ignorance--many writers don't take time to learn about the publishing industry before starting to submit, so they don't recognize the myth's falsity when they encounter it, and perpetuate it by passing it on. Ditto for a pair of closely-related falsehoods: that advances are uncommon, and that new authors don’t typically get advances.

But a larger reason, I think, is that the myth is so often embraced by companies or individuals seeking to further an agenda: vanity publishers attempting to justify their fees by portraying commercial publishing in a negative light, or less-than-professional small presses trying to put a positive spin on their no-advance policies. Ignorantly perpetuated writer-to-writer, the myth is merely harmful; cynically put forward in order to mislead or deceive, it is downright immoral.


* I probably don't need to explain this, but just in case: A publisher's advance is an advance on the royalties a book is projected to earn. No additional royalty payments are due until book sales have generated enough royalties to recoup the advance. This is known as "earning out."

October 17, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- Literary Agent Directories

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a writer in possession of an unpublished manuscript, must be in want of an agent.

This is not news, I know. But because it is a universal truth, there's never any shortage of Wonderful New Ideas or Nifty Innovative Tools designed (supposedly) to make the process of agent-hunting easier, or at least a bit less frustrating. Manuscript display sites and query and submission services have both held out the promise of bypassing the tedious research-and-submission process, the former by enticing agents to come to you rather than the other way around, the latter by letting you farm out the work to someone else, rather than doing it yourself. To date, neither has managed to become a viable alternative.

The latest agent-hunting "innovation" is the literary agent directory--an online compilation of literary agent listings with contact information, submission guidelines, what the agency is looking for, and often some info on clients and sales. The idea is somewhat similar to a print market guide--all the info in one place--with the added Internet benefits of searchability (many databases allow you to plug in your market or genre, and generate a list of agents who are interested in receiving submissions like yours) and linkage (to agency websites, for instance).

Some directories are just listings; some include extras, such as articles about writing and publishing, utilities to track your queries, editing or critique services, or even a submission service. A few allow you to post comments about your experience with an agency. Many directories are free, but some are fee-based, and others are a combination (the basic info is available for free, but if you pay for membership you get expanded listings).

Agent directories I'm aware of (there may well be others I haven't found) include, in alphabetical order:

1000 Literary Agents

Agent directories can be a helpful and handy resource in your search for a reputable literary agent. But there are a number of things to take into account.

- Not all directories are equally careful about how they vet the agents they list. Most do a decent job of excluding the more notorious scammers, but nearly all include at least a few marginal or amateur agents, and some (FirstWriter and WritersNet) include many. Don't, therefore, assume that simply because an agent has a listing, he or she is reputable and/or successful.

- The directories can be a good starting point, but don't use them as your only source of information. Even the most comprehensive directory won't include all possible appropriate agents, and some may be missing a large number of them. There's also a surprising amount of variation from directory to directory. I did a number of sample searches, and for the same search, all the directories listed many of the same agents, but every directory listed agents another didn't, or listed different agents at the same agencies. Expand your agent search by using a print market guide, and identifying books similar to yours in subject, genre, tone, theme, etc., and trying to find out who agents them.

- Search results tend to reflect agents' expressed interests, not necessarily clients or sales. Just because an agent has an interest in receiving a particular genre doesn't mean that he or she can sell it. The ideal agent is one who has an actual track record of selling books like yours. Always do some extra research on agents you find in the directories (the best source is the agent's website, if s/he has one) to be sure the agent's track record is a good match for your manuscript.

- Did I mention that search results reflect agents' expressed interests? Unfortunately, the directories don't always list those interests correctly, or list them too broadly (for instance, failing to distinguish between agents who specialize in children's fantasy and those who specialize in fantasy for the adult market)--which means that your search results may include agents who aren't appropriate for you. Another good reason to do some extra research on any agent you find at an agent directory.

- Some agent directories provide extra services for a fee, such as critiquing or query tracking. But there's no reason ever to pay a fee to access the agent listings themselves (as at FirstWriter). The information provided by the directories is available elsewhere for free; the directories do you a favor by aggregating it in one place, but none of it is secret or proprietary.

So which databases do I recommend? For accuracy, depth of information, flexibility in searching, and general up-to-datenesss, you can't beat AgentQuery, in my opinion. I also think QueryTracker is also a solid information source.

October 10, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- BookRix: Another Brand New Idea That Isn't

A few days ago, I got a spam--er, a targeted media announcement from a company called BookRix. Founded in Germany and launched last week in the USA, BookRix joins a growing number of writing-related social media websites--EditRed, ABCTales, Booksie, GoodReads, and HarperCollins's slush pile experiment, Authonomy, to name just a few.

Using a proprietary platform called ViewRix, BookRix lets aspiring authors upload their stories or manuscripts, format them into "web books" (these look more or less like scans of printed books, and mimic the turning of pages), share them with the BookRix community, and get feedback from other members. Books can also be shared with friends and family, or embedded on blogs or other social networking websites. In addition to members' writing, BookRix's library includes public domain works (Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, Louisa May Alcott), presumably in a bid to attract readers as well as authors. If you hover your cursor over a book, you can see how many times it has been "read" (i.e., how many times someone has clicked on the cover image).

BookRix claims that it's "the first book community where anyone can place their own books, short stories, poems etc. to be promoted on the web," which makes me wonder how much time its staff have spent on the Internet lately. It is also, either naively or deceptively, promoting itself as a way for aspiring writers to launch their careers in a viral manner, a la YouTube. According to its press release, "The traditional publishing world can be challenging to break into and offers aspiring authors a platform to promote themselves and help them begin a career in gives writers the same possibilities that musicians found on MySpace photographers discovered on Flickr and online video creators found on YouTube."

Writers, do I need to elaborate--again--on why posting your writing online at a manuscript display or peer critique website is unlikely to help you build a platform? Sites like BookRix are very attractive to writers--but not so much to readers, who don't particularly want to wade through a mass of unvetted manuscripts in search of something good to read. The likelihood that you'll be "discovered" as a result of uploading your book to BookRix is miniscule. A few hundred clicks on your "web book" does not an audience make. Agents and editors will not be impressed.

BookRix's Terms and Conditions, which appear to have been poorly translated from the original German, are somewhat challenging to decipher. For instance, this--

"Contents which are uploaded, revised and/or published by Users on BookRix are not and do not become Contents of the Provider. Moreover, the Provider does not adopt Contents as its own which have been uploaded, revised and/or published by Users. The preceding sentences also apply in case Contents are formatted as an electronic book by means of the web-application which is available on BookRix. The preceding sentences also apply with respect to communication between Users and comments which Users make with respect to Contents."

--which I take to mean that BookRix does not claim users' copyrights, either for content uploaded to the site or for comments made on the site. Overall, though, the Terms and Conditions don't look too bad. Users do need to be aware of Clause 23, which obliges them to pay $500 (I'm assuming it's $500; the amount is given but the currency isn't defined) "for any conduct constituting a wilful or negligent breach of any of the prohibitions set out in section 22 of these GTC above" and of Clause 25, which entitles BookRix to place targeted ads based on users' personal data on their profile and book pages. But there don't seem to be any major "gotchas" lurking in the fine print.

BookRix is free. As with other writing-related social media sites, writers might enjoy the community and benefit from the comments they receive. But if you choose to use a site like this, do it for fun or for feedback. Don't do it in the expectation that it will give you a toehold on a writing career.

October 3, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- Blu Phier Publishing: Another Contract "Gotcha"

Some of you may be aware of the issues surrounding yet another troubled small publisher, Blu Phier Publishing.

It's a familiar story: A light bulb goes off over the head of someone with an interest in writing/publishing, but no professional experience in either. He starts a publishing company. Because he doesn't have the proper knowledge base, and can't be bothered to spend time acquiring it, he crafts a nonstandard contract (here's a brief analysis by me), provides inadequate editing and copy editing, cannot maintain professional design or production standards, and, unable to distribute or market in any meaningful fashion, puts the onus of making sales on his authors. The upshot: The publisher gets into logistical and financial trouble. Delays occur. Monies due aren't paid. Excuses, recriminations, and abrupt changes in policy ensue. The publisher limps on for a while. Eventually it goes belly up, with or without returning its authors' rights.

Well, that last bit, the belly up part, hasn't happened yet with Blu Phier. But the rest of it has. The saga has been followed at Absolute Write, and on a number of blogs, including The Rusty Nail, ButterFludget, and Cussedness. If you don't want to take the time to peruse the considerable amount of material at those links, a glance at the Publisher's Corner page of Blu Phier's website will give you a sense of how it does business. A sample:

Q: Why does your company get the rights to an author's books and never release those rights?

Answer: When an author writes a book he/she creates something very precious to him/her and they become protective and possessive of it. In a larger publishing company they generate books by the thousands and all they see is numbers and marketability. In my company however I am as attached to the books as the authors. I often get excited at the release of a new book because my money and my efforts helped bring it to the public. Once I publish a book it becomes a part of Blu Phi'er family and I get very possessive over it.

All righty, then.

The most recent controversy involves royalty statements. Per The Rusty Nail, Blu Phier recently sent a mass royalty report email to its authors, in lieu of more conventional individual royalty statements (I'll just note the huge unprofessionalism of this, and move on). Sales figures for many of the books were followed by this statement: "No royalties paid until publisher is reimbursed for expenditures."

This apparently has been a surprise to at least some authors. It shouldn't have been.

Here's the Royalties clause in an early version of BPP's contract:

[Blu Phier Publishing] agrees to pay client a royalty of 30% of the cover price per book sold, 15% of the cover price for all books sold by a wholesale distributor who [sic] has been granted a 45% or more discount by BPP (after all funds expended by B.P.P. in the production of the book have been reimbursed).

It's not what you'd call crisp wording, but it does make clear that BPP intends to recoup its production costs from sales before paying royalties. In other words, the publisher keeps what should be authors' income. Plain and simple, this is back-end vanity publishing.

A few months later, in part as a result of criticism at Absolute Write, the contract was revamped, and the Royalties clause became much more murky (all errors courtesy of the original):

B.P.P. will pay The Author royalties based upon profits obtained from net sales as reported by the B.P.P's distributors as follows: 15% of all profits. B.P.P. will pay The Author royalties based upon profits obtained from net sales from B.P.P.'s own website as follows: 30% of all profits.

The word "profits" in a royalty clause is ALWAYS a warning sign. Too often, writers assume it's just another way of saying "net income." It's not. When a publisher pays you based on net income, it's paying you based on the actual money it receives for your book (usually, cover price less any discounts to wholesalers or retailers). When a publisher pays you based on profits, it's paying you based on the actual money it receives, less costs involved in publishing and marketing your book (often not detailed in the contract, so you have no idea of what will actually be deducted). At best, this lowers the amount of money on which your royalties are calculated. At worst, it allows the publisher to manipulate your royalty payments in whatever way it wishes--conceivably, down to zero.

The Royalties clause of BPP's amended contract doesn't define what "profits" means. However, moving down to the Statements and Payments clause, we find the following:

B.P.P. shall forward to The Author via email detailed monthly statements concerning all book sales made by B.P.P. B.P.P. shall also deliver to The Author via email a statement of the total cost connected with the publication of The Work, the total profit B.P.P. will obtain for the sale of each book, and the projected number of books needed to be sold for B.P.P. to recover all publication costs.

In other words, exactly as in the original contract, BPP intends to recoup publication costs before paying royalties. Either through craftiness or ignorance, BPP never actually says so straight out. But putting this clause together with the Royalties clause, it’s pretty clear what BPP means by “profit.”

The moral of this tale? Aside from the obvious (avoid amateur publishers), there are several.

First, royalties paid on profit is never a good thing to see in a publishing contract. Second, if your publisher wants to recoup its production costs out of what should be your royalty income, it's nothing more than back-end vanity publishing. Third, read your publishing contract carefully, and consider the meaning of every word. Fourth, contract clauses don't exist in separate vacuums: They have bearing on one another. Wording in one clause can substantially change the impact of wording in another, or clarify a previous clause whose wording is vague or ambiguous.

And finally, as always: Caveat writer. It is your responsibility to understand the contracts you sign--or, if you don't, to obtain advice from someone who does.
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