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.

March 28, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- Use BookSurge or Die?

A flurry of reports since yesterday (originating with Angela Hoy at WritersWeekly, picked up by numerous blogs and several newspapers, including the Wall Street Journal) have broken the news that Amazon is apparently seeking to force independent POD-based publishers to use its BookSurge POD service.

According to Hoy,

Reports have been trickling in from the POD underground that Amazon/BookSurge representatives have been approaching some Lightning Source customers, first by email introduction and then by phone (nobody at BookSurge seems to want to put anything in writing). When Lightning Source customers speak with the BookSurge representative, the reports say, they are basically told they can either have BookSurge start printing their books or the "buy" button on their book pages will be "turned off."

Hoy found this so hard to believe that she called a BookSurge representative who'd recently been trying to contact her. She says that he confirmed it. As an alternative, he suggested that authors of POD books could use the Amazon Advantage program (where you offer your own books for sale, and Amazon takes a 55% cut plus an annual registration fee).

On hearing this news, I immediately checked my calendar, wondering if perhaps I'd lost a few days and it was actually April 1. I mean, can you say "restraint of trade?" Not only would this enable Amazon to profit twice by basically disallowing the competition, it would be a huge burden for Lightning Source customers, who'd have to transfer their digital files to BookSurge. And since BookSurge doesn't have an arrangement with Ingram, they couldn't simply switch--if they wanted to keep their Ingram distribution, they'd still have to maintain files with Lightning Source. If indeed Amazon intends to implement this policy, it would seem to be inviting a lawsuit--not to mention, an enormous backlash of anger and ill will that could turn into a PR disaster.

The whole thing seems so bizarre to me that I'm reserving judgment until there's some response from Amazon. It's always possible that there has been a misunderstanding of some kind, or that this is a BookSurge initiative rather than an Amazon company policy. Hopefully, Amazon will have the sense to back away from it. It will be interesting to see what happens over the next few days.

March 26, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- Kissed Publications: Hidden Costs

If you've recently seen a call for submissions from Kissed Publications for its three-part After You've Done All You Can anthology of Christian short stories--such as this one, or this one--you may have been tempted to try your luck.

You might want to think again. There's a $100 (that's right, two zeros) submission fee per story, which you don't find out about until you've sent away for the guidelines. According to the guidelines, the fee will be refunded if your work is chosen for the anthology (though see below). If not...sayonara, one hundred bucks.

While legitimate contests often charge small reading fees to fund prizes and cover administrative costs, reputable publishers don't. A reading fee that's not associated with a contest is a strong warning sign of a publisher that, at best, is not terribly professional.

Author compensation for the anthology is equally peculiar. Contributing authors receive 100 copies of the finished book (customized with their name and photo on the back cover), which they can then sell at the list price of $14.95. All sales proceeds are theirs to keep--a potential profit, the guidelines helpfully point out, of $1,495. This is the only "payment" they get: there are no royalties, in other words. Still, the books are free, except for shipping costs. Or are they? The way the guidelines are written makes it sound as if they are, but remember that submission fee refund promised to contributing authors? There's enough ambiguity to the wording that I'm guessing that the books are the refund.

So we know how authors will make money (or not, as the case may be). How does the publisher make money? Well, there are the $100 submission fees from the writers who don't make it into the anthology. Writers can buy additional books at a discount if they feel they can sell more than 100 (pre-orders are encouraged). And for any books sold via regular channels, the publisher gets it all.

To be fair, there's some real expense associated with this project. The anthology will consist of three volumes of 12-15 stories each, so assuming that all three volumes appear, the publisher will have to pay, at minimum, for 3,600 books. Still, like so many noncommercial publishing "opportunities" these days, much of the financial onus is on the authors. And for authors who pay that outrageous reading fee and don't get chosen, it really is a losing game.

Kimberly T. Matthews, Kissed Publications' owner, also bills herself as a literary agent.

March 23, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- Copyright Scam: US Copyright Registry

If you're a writer, you probably have a website. If you have a website, you may recently have been emailed an official-looking WEBSITE COPYRIGHT LICENSING NOTICE from the US Copyright Registry, informing you that your website "has not been protected and is now available for copyright registration."

Reading on, alarmed website owners discover the following (all grammatical and other errors faithfully reproduced):

IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE UNITED STATES COPYRIGHT LAW, TITLE 92, Sec. 106 to 122, the owner of copyright under this title has the exclusive rights to do and to authorize any of the following: Rights of attribution and integrity: the author shall have the right to claim authorship of that work, and prevent the use of his or her name as the author of any work which he or she did not create.

Be advised: Protecting a website is the responsibility of the owner of the website and must be registered through the United States Patent and Trademark office to legally prevent others from infringing on the owners rights and copying a website. It is the responsibility of the website owner to complete registration to protect their intellectual property and bring suit in federal court for infringement and obtain statutory damages up to $150,000.

Say what? The US Patent and Trademark office? What's that got to do with registering copyright? Also, the US Copyright Law is known as Circular 92, not Title 92, and the "rights and attribution" language quoted above applies to the visual arts, not written text--such as that on a website.

The email concludes, ominously:

You are required to advise the US Copyright Registry of your intent to license this website if registration is administered through the UCR as this is your final notice.

Note: you may disregard this notice. If you disregard this notice or fail to reply: UCR and the United States Patent and Trademark office will NOT be liable for infringement of your website, interruption of business activity or business losses.

To avoid this dreadful fate, all you have to do is call an 800 number and mention the official-looking tracking number provided in the email.

All of the above was enough to get my scam sense tingling. A visit to the Registry's website--which offers misinformation such as "Copyright Registration is required to legally prevent others from copying your website" and touts the use of its seal, which "helps prevent potential infringers from copying your work"--confirmed my hunch, as did a quick bit of Googling. I was curious, however, about costs.

So I called.

The phone menu offers several options, some of which have nothing to do with sales but all of which lead to a salesperson. I dealt with a pleasant young man, who immediately asked for my tracking number. As it happens, I didn't have one, since I'd heard about the Registry from someone else. No problem; all I had to do was provide my URL.

A few minutes on hold, and then he returned to tell me the good news--US Copyright Registry could indeed register copyright on my website! If I signed up today, I'd receive my certificate of registration from the Library of Congress within 6 to 8 weeks.

"Wait a sec," I said. "Library of Congress? Your email said the US Patent and Trademark Office."

"Oh," he said, flustered, "well, you know, it's both of them."

"Both of them? You mean they both issue a certificate?"

"Uh, no, it's just one certificate. But it comes from both offices."

I decided not to torture him further. "So how much will registration cost me?"

"Based on your website's size"--which he had no way of assessing, considering that all he'd done was access my Whois information--"it'll be a total of $350."

"Is that a one-time fee? What if I add new material?"

"Well, then you'll need to re-register. Most of our customers re-register once a year."

"And what would the cost be for that?"

"$350, or maybe a bit more if the website got a lot bigger."

"The same $350? So I don't get a customer discount?"

"Uh, no. We don't do that. So...can I sign you up?"

I told him I needed to mull it over and would call back. Somewhat to my surprise, he didn't try to pressure me with limited time offers or horror stories about infringed websites.

Not once did he ask me if I was the copyright holder, or if I had the right to register copyright for my website--despite an entire section of the US Copyright Registry's website describing the circumstances under which website owners may not be copyright holders. I would love to know if the registration certificate the Registry sends out is bogus--or indeed, if they send any certificate at all. Sadly, I don't have $350 to burn.

There's no way to know how many people will fall for this. Given the general level of ignorance regarding copyright, however, as well as people's entirely unfounded terror of intellectual property theft, I'd guess that the money is rolling in.

For the real scoop on copyright, check out Writer Beware's Copyright page.

March 18, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- Ways Not to Publicize Your Book: Spam Campaigns

Today I got yet another email promoting a book whose author or publisher has signed up with mass email marketer (read spammer) Media E-blast. I get these on a semi-regular basis, probably because I'm a book reviewer.

"E-marketing has been a long term goal for many companies, whether it be a religious organization, record companies, artists, national and independent, and small, medium or large businesses in the world today," says Media E-blast's About Us page. "Media E-blast LLC E-MARKETING solutions will not only help you make money but it will also get your name out there to a specific target market." Costs aren't listed on the site--presumably, they are tailored to the campaign--but perhaps the author on whose behalf I was blasted today took advantage of the "March Madness" sale--Reach 500,000 subscribers! Only $125 per blast!! Limit 3 per customer!!!

If I'm any indication (and I can't be unique), many of those subscribers are involuntary. Some target market, huh? Authors and small publishers--spam campaigns are not a good use of your publicity dollar.

Here's why you should not E-blast me (or use any other kind of mass email campaign, such as those offered by some self-publishing services).

- It pisses me off. I'm always happy to consider a request to review--but I want you to approach me personally. I want you to be at least somewhat familiar with my reviews, and to have a credible reason to think I might be interested in your book. I do NOT want to get an email that says "Dear Reviewer," or an E-blast that has no content other than a link I have to click, or a request for a review that's obviously inappropriate for the magazines I write for.

- I'm not your target market. I'm not any spammer's target market. My spam filters are pretty efficient--your E-blast will go straight into my Junk file. Unlike some people, I actually look at my Junk file, because sometimes Writer Beware documentation gets caught in there--but very probably, that's only reason I will ever know about your E-blast.

- I didn't give anyone permission to E-blast me. If you think that services like Eblast are subscription-based, think again--these services build their lists by harvesting email addresses off the Internet, just as other spammers do. As far as I'm concerned, there's no difference between your book E-blast and a penis enhancement spam.

- Did your E-blast campaign include me? Shit. Now I'm on a dozen other lists, and I'm getting E-blasts for beach rentals and consumer goods. Before, I was only irritated with you. Now, I hate you.

The E-blast ad that precipitated today's rant: Son of Hope by David Berkowitz. Yes--that David Berkowitz.

March 14, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- Of Online Book Sales (and Pies)

There's no question that online retailing has radically changed the way books are bought and sold. A recent Neilsen Online survey, quoted by BBC News, reveals that more books are sold on the Internet than any other product. As of early 2008, a full 41% of Internet users had bought books online--and those numbers are expected to continue to rise.

That sounds impressive. But what does it mean in terms of actual sales? When you slice the bookselling pie into its component parts--chain stores, independent stores, book clubs, the Internet--how big a slice belongs to the Internet?

This is an important question, because "the power of the Internet" is something that is often invoked in discussions of bookselling, without the nature of that power ever really being defined. Micropresses with limited distribution, for instance, may encourage writers to believe that their books' lack of brick-and-mortar bookstore presence isn't a significant handicap, because "so many books are bought online these days." Ditto for self-publishing services that sell mainly via the Internet, and self-publishing boosters working to convert others to their point of view.

Let's look at the numbers.

In 1999, according to data compiled by NPD Marketing Group (quoted in Wired), the Internet accounted for 5.45% of all books sold in the USA.

In 2001, Ipsos (quoted in the New York Times) found that the market share for online book sales had grown to 7%.

In 2004, the Internet slice of the bookselling pie had "stabilized" at 10-12% of the total market, according to analysts at research firm CL King & Associates (again quoted in the New York Times).

In 2007, that share appears nearly to have doubled. Bowker's PubTrack Consumer (quoted in PW) estimates that 20% of all US book purchases are made on the Internet. In the UK, according to Bookmarketing Limited's Books and the Consumer survey (quoted in Publishing News Online), 17% of all book revenue comes from online purchases.

Clearly, Internet book sales have become substantial (if not as substantial as some people would like to believe), and the trend is toward growth. To get the most out of this information, however, you need to turn it around. If 20% of books are sold online, 80% are sold elsewhere. To achieve volume sales, therefore, your book must be in as many "elsewheres" as possible--including brick-and-mortar outlets, which still substantially outpace the Internet. Chain stores alone account for 33% of the US book market, according to PW, and in the UK, according to Publishing News Online, chain store sales are "greater than through supermarkets and the Internet combined."

As important as the Internet is for book sales, it's just one piece of a complicated puzzle. Remember that the next time someone tries to tell you that bookstore presence doesn't matter because Internet sales are so huge, or that Internet availability is all you need because it exposes your book to an audience of millions. An audience of millions means nothing if no one knows your book exists. And that will be true even if the Internet eventually gobbles up the entire bookselling pie.

March 8, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- Creative Byline: Great Write Hope or Great Write Hype?

There's been some online chatter recently about Creative Byline, a manuscript submission service that promises to streamline the process for writers seeking to approach publishers.

With Creative Byline, now in beta, writers can easily and affordably get their work in front of the editors who are interested. Editors can bypass manuscript overload to spend more time on those that match what they’re looking for.

A new method is long overdue. We think we have a revolutionary idea; we hope you’ll agree.

A shortcut past the slushpile? Even better, a shortcut past the "agented submissions only" policy that's so common nowadays with the big publishing houses? As someone who has seen manuscript display websites--most of which made similar promises to transform an outdated submissions system--come and go since the late 1990's, it doesn't seem so revolutionary to me. But let's take a closer look at how it works.

For a fee of $19 per adult book manuscript, and $9 per children's book manuscript, writers can upload a query package (for adult books, cover letter, synopsis, chapter-by-chapter outline, and the first three chapters; for children's books, cover letter, synopsis, and the full manuscript) to the site. The package is then vetted by first readers (who according to the FAQ, "have subject-matter expertise, advanced degrees in creative writing, and/or experience in trade book publishing"), and the writer receives feedback as to whether or not the package is submission-ready. If it's ready, the writer can choose an editor to receive the package, or send the package to the Manuscript Library, where it's available to all editors. If it's not ready, the writer receives suggestions for improvement; once these are implemented, the query package gets a second read (though not necessarily approval). Creative Byline guarantees that approved submissions will be seen and responded to by their chosen editors within three weeks. If they aren't, writers can submit to another editor at no additional cost.

That's what's in it for writers. What's in it for editors? Basically, the same promises made by any display website or submission service--manuscript pre-screening, submissions targeted to the editor's interests, and relief from "manuscript overload." Creative Byline's blog provides a more detailed exposition of what it considers to be the advantages it offers editors.

So far, Creative Byline has lined up only three participating publishers--but they are impressive names: Dutton Children's Books, St. Martin's Press, and Tor/Forge (publishers must pay an annual fee to use the service). The first readers have some degree of relevant expertise (according to Creative Byline's blog, most are graduate students pursuing MFA's in writing) and receive training in assessing and responding to query packages. The software available to both writers and editors (there are screenshots on the site) looks professional, well-designed, and easy to use. The submission fees are relatively modest, as is the membership fee of $8 per month (while the site is in beta, new members get 3 months free)--and though not all query packages will be judged submission-ready, all writers who use the site will at least get feedback on their packages. As the blog entry linked above points out, this is more than most writers can expect when submitting in the ordinary way to publishers (or agents).

As always, though, it's important to read the fine print--in this case, Creative Byline's Terms and Conditions.

According to Clause 3.2.2., First-Reader Reviews, "The first review does not constitute a full Query Package critique, but instead abbreviated feedback on areas of the Query Package that need improvement by the User prior to submission to publishers." So the feedback writers receive may not be as comprehensive as the website might encourage them to hope.

According to Clause 3.2.3., Publisher Criteria, "User acknowledges a publisher is under no obligation to view or read any portion of the Query Package even if User meets the submission criteria of that publisher, the User’s Query Package meets the Query Package submission criteria of that publisher, and Creative Byline submits the Query Package to the publisher selected by User." So though a query package may be approved and submitted, the chosen editor may not actually look at it.

But wait--doesn't Creative Byline guarantee timely feedback on submissions? Well...according to Clause 3.2.4., Credits, "If a User submits a Query Package to a publisher and the publisher does not view any portion of the Query Package within the specified time period, Creative Byline will provide a credit to the account of the User to submit the same Query Package to a different publisher. This credit must redeemed within one year of when the Query Package was submitted to the first publisher, and may not be redeemed for cash, or a cash refund, unless there are no other editors or publishers to whom the Query Package may be submitted." So it isn't really timely feedback that's being guaranteed--just that if there is no timely feedback, you get another shot. In other words, it is quite possible that writers who submit via Creative Byline will get no feedback at all.

This, by the way, is perfectly reasonable. Whether or not a service like Creative Byline can change the submission process, it can't change the balance of power, which still resides with editors--and editors are not going to be enthusiastic about using a system that compels them to respond to every submission they receive. Creative Byline, therefore, must leave its participating editors the freedom to respond or not, as they choose. But the belief that editorial response is guaranteed is what will attract many (if not most) writers to Creative Byline. So right away, we have a gap between expectation and reality.

Also a concern: not having seen a sample, I have no idea how thorough the first-reader feedback will be. But if it's not thorough enough to truly screen out substandard or inappropriate manuscripts, editors are going to stop bothering with Creative Byline. This is the bottom line that every manuscript display site or submission service runs up against: if they can't guarantee good material, all the bells and whistles don't mean a thing.

According to this article in the Grand Rapids Press, Creative Byline's founder, Brad MacLean, created the service because of the submission frustration experienced by his wife, commercially-published children's author Christine MacLean. Creative Byline definitely has the edge on software, and has already shown success in attracting reputable publishers. Depending on the quality of first-reader reviews, it may offer writers a useful and inexpensive critique service. But will it actually revolutionize the submission process, or change the way publishers acquire manuscripts? I'm not holding my breath.

March 4, 2008

Writing What's HOT...Or Not?

I go to a fair amount of writing conferences, science fiction conventions, and teach writing workshops. When aspiring authors ask me "what kinds of novels are editors looking for now?" or "what kinds of fiction are the hottest sellers on today's market?" I respond that there's not much point in trying to jump on the bandwagon of what is selling like hotcakes RIGHT NOW.

That's because trends can come and go quickly.

Let's suppose I decided to try and get in on the "paranormal romance" boom. (I think it's still booming...?)

I sit down and come up with an idea. Young divorcee with a child meets sexy werewolf, discovers she has the ability to tell who will die within the next 24 hours. Mix that up with an evil cabal of sorcerers who are kidnapping elderly folks out of nursing homes to use as human sacrifices. Then one morning she wakes up to find the "death aura" surrounding her little girl.

I get busy thinking, plotting, and scribbling notes. I outline it, research it, and then write three chapters and a synopsis. All of this has taken me maybe three months, maybe four, from first nibble of the idea to sending it to my agent.

(And I HAVE an agent. I don't then have to start an exhausting, frustrating agent search!)

Let's say it takes my agent three months to find a buyer. (I'm talking from the day I turn it in to the day the deal is finalized.)

Then I sit down and write the thing. Takes me five or six more months. I turn it in, and then it takes the publisher a year to publish it, which is not at all unusual.

That's two years. Will paranormal romance still be selling well? Or will it by then be a glut on the market?

What I tell my workshop students is that, as aspiring authors, they should write what's in THEM to write, and not try to write "to a market."

Usually I'm very hard-headed and practical about such things. My workshops are not about finding your muse, or how to inspire yourself, or any of that kind of thing. They're about practical skills and techniques in producing saleable genre fiction. How to create believeable characters that readers will care passionately about, how to stay productive, how to determine which POV to use within a given scene, etc.

But writing has also got to be its own reward in these highly competitive days. While it's fine to analyze what's selling and deliberately include elements that are proven favorites in your stories -- ELEMENTS THAT YOU, AS A READER, ENJOY READING -- it's a mistake for you, the aspiring author, to sit down and decide to write a hard-boiled police procedural type mystery, because those books are selling well, rather than writing a "cozy" which is what you really enjoy reading.

Or, worse, to decide to write a romance novel because that's what's selling well, rather than a high fantasy novel, which is the kind of story that you build in your head while you're scrubbing the bathroom, and devour eagerly every time a new one appears on the market.

So...even though it sounds kinda sappy, typing it out in black and white, you need to WRITE WHAT'S IN YOUR HEART.

Otherwise, it's just typing.

-Ann C. Crispin
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