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

June 27, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- Can Free Ebooks Boost Print Sales?

Can giving away electronic versions of print titles boost print sales? For years, a handful of authors, notably Cory Doctorow and Eric Flint, have been arguing that it can.

With the exception of SF/fantasy publisher Baen, which pioneered the Baen Free Library in 2000, and romance publisher Harlequin, which has been using free ebooks as a sales incentive since 2006, commercial publishers have been cautious about this approach to book promotion. Recently, however, a spate of ebook giveaways suggests things may be changing.

- In February, as a promotion for a new website, Tor began offering free electronic versions of its frontlist print titles via its newsletter. (As with most of the giveaways, each free ebook is available only for a limited time.)

- Also in February, HarperCollins began providing free e-versions of selected titles on its website.

- Again in February, Random House provided a free download of Charles Bock's Beautiful Children, and allowed Oprah Winfrey to offer Suze Orman's Women and Money as a free download on her website.

- In June, St. Martin's Press gave away e-versions of Julia Spencer-Fleming's first two books in order to promote her third. It is currently doing something similar for Sherrilyn Kenyon.

- Even Yale University Press has gotten into the act, with electronic versions of two of its books available for free on an ongoing basis.

As results of the giveaways come in, all indications are that print sales can benefit.

According to PW, Harper's giveaways have boosted print sales of frontlist and backlist titles, and/or increased pre-orders, for at least some authors (in some cases by a substantial margin). GalleyCat reports that "informal" word from St. Martin's is that first-week sales of Ms. Spencer-Fleming's new book are double those of her previous hardcover. And Tor authors John Scalzi and Tobias Buckell have both blogged about the print sales increases that followed electronic giveaways of their novels.

As difficult as it is to prognosticate about anything pertaining to the future of publishing, I'm betting that in the next few years the free download will become a standard promotional tool for publishers.

What about as a self-promotional tool for authors? That's more iffy. Commercial publishers have the ability to support free downloads with publicity and advertising, and well-known authors or media figures already have a fan base. Joe Writer, however, especially if he is self- or small-press published, may not have either. Who is going to download your free ebook, much less rush out to buy your print book, if they don't know it exists? That's the Catch-22 of all self-promotion: it's intended to make you visible, but for much of it, you have to be visible already in order to reap the benefits.

June 18, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- Another Contest Alert: FieldReport True Life Stories

This week I got a question about a contest advertised by FieldReport, "a community of readers and writers devoted to sharing — and rewarding — great true-life stories." The contest has been widely advertised on blogs, jobs boards, and writing forums. Here's a sample announcement:

FieldReport Award for True-Life Stories

$40,000 in total prizes awarded July 1

FieldReport is a new web site that awards huge cash prizes for the best in personal writing. This call for submissions is for FieldReport’s pre-launch beta period. The reading period for the contest is May 1, 2008 through June 30, 2008, but you should submit by mid June to have the best chance of winning. Prizes are awarded July 1, 2008. To enter, go to and type in the password “truelife” (the word, not the quotes). To submit, each participant must create an account and rank other pieces on the site. All submissions must be true (nonfiction) stories that actually happened to the author.

First prize: $20,000 for the top-rated story of true-life experience, as determined by quality rankings of the FieldReport community of reviewers.

Category prizes: $1,000 for the top-rated story in each of 17 story categories and $2,000 for the winning story in two categories: Brush With Fame, and Travel + Nature.

Here's a more detailed description of contest categories and procedures.

In my world, if something sounds too good to be true, it usually is. So I decided to do a bit of checking. What follows is long and technical, so I'll give you the short version up front: contest winners must surrender copyright, and merely by submitting to FieldReport, you grant a sweeping menu of rights which may encumber not just the submitted work, but future work derived from or related to it.

The FieldReport website is set up so that it looks as if it's only accessible via password. If you've seen the contest announcement, you know what the password is--but the password is really just a marketing gimmick, because if you Google FieldReport, you can easily access most pages of the site, password-free. That includes the official contest rules. These reveal the following:

- The entry period is not really the entry period. Although Clause 3 states that the official contest period extends from noon on March 31 to noon on July 1 (Pacific time), "Entries must be received by June 15 at 12:00 noon (the 'Submission Deadline') to be guaranteed the reviews and scoring required to be eligible for prizes." (Like some other content sites, FieldReport has a proprietary ranking system that determines the top stories based on reviews). Entries received after that may be eligible for review and scoring, but only at FieldReport's discretion.

To be fair, this is stated, more or less, in many of the contest announcements I've seen. But many of those announcements were posted in early June, and the non-deadline deadline is something that could easily be overlooked. So why not just end the entry period June 15, instead of letting it extend an additional 15 days that probably don't count? My guess: increased membership. FieldReport wants as many members as it can get, and the contest, with its huge prizes, is a terrific enticement.

- The prizes may not be the prizes. According to Clause 4a, prize money will be paid "in the form of a credit to the winner's account," and "Amounts in accounts may be paid out according to the Sponsor's Terms of Use." (Note the use of the word "may.") Turning to the Terms of Use, we information whatever on how the money is paid out. (I couldn't find anything on the FieldReport website that explained where the money is coming from, either. Investors? A stake put up by the founders? It would be nice to know.) Prizes not claimed within 15 days are forfeited. And Clause 4b includes a common contest "gotcha": for any announced prize, FieldReport can substitute "a prize of equal or greater value."

- You win, you lose...copyright, that is. Clause 11 explains that prizewinners may be required to execute an affidavit attesting to their eligibility and their acceptance of of the contest rules. No biggie, right? However, if the prize is $1,000 or more, the affidavit must include "an assignment of all rights in the winning FieldReport to Sponsor." That's right: winners must surrender their copyrights.

And there's more.

Not just contestants, but anyone submitting content to FieldReport must agree to be bound by FieldReport's Submission Agreement--a document replete with author-unfriendly terms, many of which could easily be missed by an impatient writer skimming the agreement prior to submitting.

- The grant of rights is sweeping--and I do mean sweeping. Submitters do retain their copyrights--only contest winners are required to give that up. However, the license you grant to FieldReport when you submit content is extremely broad, and includes not only the range of rights necessary to enable FieldReport to display your content on its website, but also the right to use the submitted content "in any manner and form, including electronic and book form, on the Site or in other media, whether now or hereafter created; to use the Content for internal business purposes; to reproduce and distribute the Content for marketing and publicity purposes, and to sublicense the Content to third parties for any reason." The license is perpetual and irrevocable--and though it appears to apply to all submitted material, "FieldReport shall have no obligation to publish, use or retain any Content you submit or to return any such Content to you." Merely by submitting, you are granting these rights, whether or not your content is ever published.

FieldReport does pay for any rights it licenses or exploits. If it publishes a book "or other publication" that includes your content, you get 15% of net revenues. If it licenses your content to third parties, you get 75% of net revenues. For compilations, there's a complicated pro-rata system.

- FieldReport wants a cut of other income generated by your content. The license in Clause 1 is nonexclusive, which means you could sell your content elsewhere. If you do, however, you will have to give FieldReport a cut. According to Clause 4, you will owe a "commission" of 25% if you sell your article or "or otherwise exploit the Content in any manner" (by incorporating it into a memoir, perhaps?).

- Not just the submitted article, but other works may be encumbered by the terms of the submission agreement. According to Clause 5, if your article generates income (including prizes and licensing fees) in excess of $2,000 during the 18 months following its publication on FieldReport, you will be bound by the terms of the submission agreement for "aNY modified or derivative version of the CONTENT" (FieldReport's caps). "Modified or derivative" isn't defined. But what if, as noted above, you wrote a memoir that incorporated a version of the true life story you submitted to FieldReport? Would the memoir be bound by the submission agreement--i.e., would FieldReport have claim to most of the rights? What if you wrote a novel that incorporated a fictionalized version of the story? Would FieldReport own that?

- Contest participation is required. According to Clause 8, anything you submit to FieldReport can be entered in a FieldReport contest, at FieldReport's discretion. This means you may win prizes. But if you do, you will have to give up copyright--and remember that $2,000 income threshold that triggers additional rights claims. (I could find no provision in either the submission agreement or the contest rules to allow a prizewinner to decline the prize.)

- Articles published on FieldReport are there forever. The only way you can remove submitted content from FieldReport is to ask FieldReport's permission--"AND FIELDREPORT DOES NOT HAVE TO GRANT THIS PERMISSION." Interesting that they put it in caps.

So simply by submitting an article to FieldReport, you grant FieldReport a nonexclusive license to use that article in any way it chooses, including selling the article to others--and possibly grant it the very same license for future work based on or incorporating the article. You'll also owe it 25% of any re-sale of the article, and you can never remove your article from the site.

How do those big-money prizes sound now?

Who's behind FieldReport? Here's the team. As often seems to be the case with content sites, which live or die on the backs of writers, most of these folks come from non-writing-related backgrounds--including the music industry, which could explain the draconian rights provisions.

Once again, writers--ALWAYS READ THE FINE PRINT!

June 15, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- Fake Contest Alert

This week, a call for submissions in a SFWA-sponsored contest was posted on Craigslist and FLiXER, promising large cash prizes and publication.

Writers take warning: this contest is a fake.

Here's the pitch:

The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Inc. is currently accepting science fiction story submissions of no more than 3000 words. All genres of science fiction accepted. Winners will get published in a Random House book titled "Asimovs of the Future." The cash prizes for winners are as follows:

1st Place: $10,000
2nd Place: $5,000
3rd Place: $2,000
10 Honorary Mentions: $1000

All winners and honorary mentions will get published. A percentage of the royalties for the book will also be included as part of the prize. The exact percentage has yet to be determined.

A check for $10 must accompany each entry, made out to "Science Fiction Writers of America." The mailing address is a "submissions center" in San Diego.

I can only imagine the number of hopeful writers who will be enticed by the SFWA name, not to mention the promise of enormous prizes plus a commercial publishing credit. Once again, however: this contest is a fake. I've confirmed this with SFWA's president, Michael Capobianco, but to anyone who's familiar with SFWA, the bogusness is obvious. SFWA does not conduct writing contests (and if it did, why would it advertise them on Craigslist, rather than on its own website?). It has no San Diego address. Its publisher is Penguin, not Random House.

Presumably, the contest is an entry fee scam--though for a scam, $10 seems a little unambitious. One also wonders how whoever is behind the scam plans to cash checks made out to SFWA.

SFWA is investigating. In the meantime, if you've entered this contest, please contact Writer Beware immediately.

June 11, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- Airleaf Deja Vu: Jones Harvest Publishing

In my last post about Airleaf (a now-defunct vanity publisher and "marketing" service currently being sued by the Indiana Attorney General for nonperformance, among other things), I noted that Airleaf has spawned several additional publishing enterprises, including Jones Harvest Publishing, an Airleaf lookalike started last year by Airleaf founder and former staffer Brien Jones.

In her latest Airleaf Victims Update (current victim tally: 450), tireless anti-Airleaf crusader Bonnie Kaye highlights the complaints she has been receiving about Jones Harvest:

In the past six months, I personally have received nine different horror stories about Jones Harvest Publishing primarily from senior citizens who invested thousands of dollars into an Airleaf-type dream and in all but one case, after they invested and lost thousands of dollars at Airleaf...The authors who have become Jones Harvest victims all have the same story about broken promises including time delays, failure to see galleys, numerous errors in the proofs, virtually no sales, lack of coordination of promises, and disrespect by some of the staff.

A few of these authors have also contacted Writer Beware to tell their stories. Bonnie reports that some have had their money fully refunded after sending a complaint letter to Jones Harvest...but says that more recently, she's hearing from writers whose refund requests haven't been granted.

Like Airleaf, Jones Harvest appears to be a prolific spammer, offering writers "promotional" packages on one or another of its proprietary genre-themed websites (names include Author Celebrity Associates, AuthorSoldier, Perfect Heart Publishing, Great Concept Books, Bookwheat, Bargain Book Basement, The Chosen Few, and Authorgifts). Here, in part, is a sample pitch:

THE CHOSEN FEW is a limited collection of Christian titles that we believe deserve special attention. We discovered you and [book title redacted] only because we are seeking books with powerful messages that we believe will sell. We want you to be part of a powerful national book selling and promotional campaign. In our unique program, The Chosen Few, we guarantee:

- We will sell your book as one of an elite group of titles.
- We will feature a color image of your cover on the home page of
- We will feature a picture of you, the author, on
- When a reader clicks on your cover or picture they will see your book(s) and information.
- We will sell your book on 10 more websites including and Ebay.
- We will call every book store, newspaper, magazine and radio station in your hometown.
- We will guarantee an interview on a Christian AM/FM radio show.
- We will guarantee an interview on a nationally syndicated AM/FM radio show.
- We will include your book in a national mailing to bookstores! (Not e-mail, US mail.)
- We will place your book in 10 real book stores. (Brick and mortar stores, not websites!)
- In addition, to maximize the number of bookstore owners, literary agents and readers that will see your work, we will take your book shows...

We don't stop there either; our plan is to spread the word and [book title redacted] far and wide. We will continue promoting your book, until [author name redacted] is known by all...

The cost for all this? Just $2,700.

Here's a blog post from author William Severini Kowinski, who received this very pitch--though the subject of his book suggests that Chosen Few's research skills may be a little, well...lacking.

June 6, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- Amazon Flexes UK Muscle

Over the past few months, the blogosphere has been abuzz over Amazon's recent policy change requiring POD-based publishers and self-publishing services to either use its BookSurge subsidiary for printing if they want their books to be orderable from Amazon's US website, or, as a less convenient alternative, to sell their books via Amazon's Advantage program. I blogged about the policy change in March.

To date, the change affects only Amazon USA. BookSurge isn't available in the UK, and Amazon UK hasn't implemented any similar policy. Amazon UK has, however, been flexing its muscle in other ways--and in the preoccupation with BookSurge, these have so far gotten little blogger attention.

In late March and early April, Publishing News and the Times reported a possible Amazon UK move against UK publishers selling books directly on their websites. Apparently angry over the fact that some of the publishers were attempting to undercut Amazon by offering discounts, Amazon threatened to retaliate by deeming the discounted price to be the actual retail price, and applying its trading terms to that. As explained by Publishing News, "...if Amazon receives a 50% discount from Penguin, for example, but Penguin is selling a £20 book for £15 on its website, Amazon will only give Penguin £7.50, rather than £10."

An Amazon spokesman, quoted in the Times, dismissed these reports as "speculation." But a number of publishers confirmed the threats, and several publishers' and writers' groups weighed in. (While this story was correctly reported on a few blogs, among them O'Reilly Media's TOC and Richard Curtis's Ereads, much of the very minimal blog coverage it received inaccurately suggested that US as well as UK publishers were affected.)

Then, in late May, came news that the Hachette Group, the UK's largest publisher, was locked in battle with Amazon over a different discount issue. According to the Bookseller, the "Buy New" buttons on a selection of Hachette's frontlist and backlist books had been disabled, in apparent retaliation for Hachette's refusal to agree to Amazon's demand for deeper discounts. (A similar dispute with Bloomsbury in January apparently was resolved, though I could find no details as to how.) Amazon, once again, refused to confirm the dispute. Hachette would only say that "there is a negotiation that needs to take place."

This week, Hachette took a more aggressive stance. Both the Bookseller and Richard Curtis report that they have seen letters sent to major Hachette authors from Hachette CEO Tim Hely Hutchinson. The letter describes Amazon's recent pressure tactics, and affirms Hachette's determination not to yield to the demand for deeper discounts.

Meanwhile, concern about Amazon's retail dominance is growing, as evidenced by recent spate of articles and reports. Among fears cited by publishers: that Amazon will use the popularity of the Kindle to force further reductions in retail prices, and that its growing involvement with original content makes it inevitable that it will eventually bypass publishers entirely, and sign major authors directly. Publishers may have good reason to be nervous: according to PW, "in Amazon's 10-k filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the company lists among its many competitors not just bookstores but also publishers."
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