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.

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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