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 21, 2009

Drewlie & Julia: Or, The Case of the Alias'd Literary Agent

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Last August, I received several emails from writers who’d had a very strange experience.

They’d submitted to a literary agent in Boston called Sara Levine, only to be informed by Levine's assistant, a few weeks later, that Levine had died suddenly of a heart attack. The regretful assistant suggested they contact Levine’s colleague, Julia Levin of the Florida-based Julia Levin Literary Agency, who was taking over Levine's business. Other writers who'd submitted to Sara Levine were approached by Julia Levin herself, with much the same story.

No one had ever heard of Julia Levin before. Her profiles on MySpace, LinkedIn, and Facebook (the only info that could be found on her, online or off) indicated that she'd been in business since 2005, both on her own and as a co-agent with Sara Levine. In emails to prospective clients, as well as in a September Open House on Facebook, through which she hoped to add to her agency roster, she reported a number of recent book sales to major publishers.

However, there were some discrepancies. According to Sara Levine's LinkedIn profile, Sara had been an agent only since March 2009--which made Julia's claim that the two of them had been co-agents since 2005 a bit puzzling. On investigation, none of Julia’s listed clients turned out to be published. Her sales claims didn't check out either--not just because no trace of either book titles or authors could be found, but because she reported selling to imprints that didn't exist, or that didn't accept the kind of book she said she'd sold. And the physical address she gave for her agency turned out to be bogus.

Writers began to smell a rat, and to say so in public. Complaints appeared on LinkedIn. One fed-up writer posted on her blog about her experience with Sara and then with Julia. Questions erupted on Julia's Facebook forum. Why the inconsistencies in Julia's professional info? Why the fake address? The weirdness of Sara dropping dead and Julia emerging out of thin air began to look even weirder--could Sara and Julia, with only an “e” of difference between their last names, possibly be the same person?

Apparently it all got to be too much for poor Julia. By mid-September, she'd deleted all her profiles, and vanished from the Internet.

Then, toward the end of September, I started getting questions about another Florida-based agent called Drew Montgomery, of Drew Montgomery Literary Associates. I'd never heard of Drew before, but a bit of Googling turned up profiles on MySpace, LinkedIn, and Facebook. According to the info there, Drew had been in business since 2000, had trained at the Glen Cravits Agency, and had recently made a number of sales to major publishing houses.

Ah, but those pesky inconsistencies. Drew didn’t provide authors or titles, so her sales claims couldn't be verified--plus, some of the publishers' names were mis-spelled or not quite correct, something you'd think an experienced literary agent would not get wrong. There was no trace of publication for any of Drew's named clients. Attempting to research the Glen Cravits Agency produced no evidence that it had ever existed. Drew's West Palm Beach snail mail address turned out to be a Barnes & Noble store elsewhere in Florida. And, oh yes--Drew had just announced an Open House event on Facebook, in order to recruit new clients.

This all seemed eerily familiar, and within a few days, I found out why. The owner of an agent tracking website emailed me to say that he'd been recently contacted by the now-vanished Julia Levin about a listing, which he refused because she couldn't prove she'd made any sales. About a week later, Drew Montgomery approached him with the same request. Since she couldn't prove any sales either (in contradiction to her various profiles, she claimed to be a brand-new agent), he gave her the same response. He happened to notice something odd, however: Drew's IP address was identical to Julia's.

So it seemed that Julia was attempting to rise again, under an (another?) assumed name.

Through October, I got a trickle of email inquiries about Drew, to which I responded with the info above (in condensed form). Then in November, I posted a warning to an Absolute Write discussion thread about Drew and her agency. A few days later, someone claiming to be one of Drew's clients showed up to defend her wonderful, terrific, fabulous agent against AW's cowardly attacks.

Now, this isn't an uncommon occurrence on AW, where discussion of marginal agents and publishers often spurs the emergence of sockpuppets, who not infrequently turn out to be the agents or publishers themselves, posting under aliases. But this sockpuppet event was especially amusing, because not only was the sockpuppet posting from Drew’s IP address, she was using Drew’s previous name. That's right: To defend herself against criticism, fake agent Drew Montgomery chose to present herself as fake client Julia Levin--despite the fact that, six posts up, I'd provided a complete account of her exploits under that name.

Called on this inept bit of attempted subterfuge, Drew/Julia did not back down (the caps are all hers).



You can imagine what happened next. Julia-Levin-the-client vanished in a puff of smoke, just like Julia-Levin-the-agent. Within a few days, Drew Montgomery was gone as well, all her social media profiles deleted.

Since then, I've been keeping my eye out for recurrences. There’ve been none so far...or have there? Doing research for this post today, I discovered something ominous: a LinkedIn listing for Drew Montgomery at The Montgomery Literary Agency. A sensible person might think it wise not to use that name again (even though she has changed the name of the agency)--but Drew, or whoever she is, has not proven herself to be very sensible. Or perhaps she’s just thrifty with her aliases.

What is it that cops say? It's a good thing so many criminals are so dumb.

UPDATE: Drew/Julia just can't quit it. She's now calling herself Julia Sarah Levin, and has established the Jane Dowary Agency. She still hasn't made any sales. See my blog post for more.

December 17, 2009

The UK's Society of Authors Issues Guidance on Ebooks

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Given Random House's recent claim on electronic rights in older contracts, Macmillan's recent announcement that it will be issuing "enhanced ebooks" simultaneously with some of its hardcover releases (and charging even more than for the hardcovers), and the thorny rights and payment issues raised by the rapid expansion of the ebook market, this seems an especially relevant piece of news: the UK's Society of Authors has issued guidelines on ebook licensing and royalties for authors and agents.

The full text of the statement (which I found via the excellent TeleRead blog) can be seen here. The guidelines are below, and seem to me to make a great deal of sense.

1. Consider granting publishers a licence for 10 or 20 years, rather than for the full duration of copyright;

2. Limit any grant of ebook rights to the verbatim text. Wider electronic rights (e.g. for enhanced ebooks) should be negotiated separately and only if there is a definite intention to exploit the rights.

3. Royalties on ebooks should be much higher than they are. Until the economics and scale of the market become clearer, we consider that publishers should share ebook income equally with their authors. In any event we particularly encourage authors to try to negotiate steep increases to their royalties at agreed sales thresholds (as publishers recoup their set up costs). When a book has become well-established, it may be reasonable for the author's share to rise to as much as 75%. On other forms of electronic access – e.g. rental and pay-per-view - authors should receive at least 50%, preferably nearer 85%, of the publisher's receipts.

In suggesting these royalties we have taken into account that:

(a) publishers need to cover their overheads and make a profit; but

(b) the direct costs of originating, producing and keeping an ebook ‘in print’ are low (e.g. no printing costs); and

(c) the cost of making an ebook available through a third party distributor such as Amazon is minimal. Publishers’ warehousing and distribution costs are eliminated, as are losses from dealing with returns and unsold stock.

4. Authors should have the right to initiate a review of ebook royalty rates every 2 years and have the right to insist that royalties be increased to match those then prevailing in the trade.

5. When enhanced ebooks are developed, authors should have the right to approve - and be involved in - adaptations, abridgements, and dramatizations, as well as decisions on musical, interactive or other embellishments.

6. Contracts must allow authors to regain rights, if they so choose, once sales have all but ceased. When the work is POD and / or ebook only authors should be able to terminate their publishing contract on one month’s notice if sales in the home market in traditional and/or electronic form fall below an agreed level (or if the author’s income falls below an agreed amount) over 12 months, once the advance has been earned or more than, say, three years have passed since publication, whichever is the sooner.

December 15, 2009

Authors Guild Statement on Random House's Rights Grab

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

I received the statement below this morning from the Authors Guild. I'm not happy with the Authors Guild these days, because of the debacle of the Google Book Search Settlement. But I agree with their position on Random House's recent attempt to claim electronic rights on backlist titles whose contracts do not include a grant of those rights.


On Friday, Random House CEO Markus Dohle sent a two-page letter to many literary agents regarding e-books. Much of the letter is devoted to Random House's efforts and investments to market traditional and electronic books.

On the second page, Mr. Dohle gets to the point. After noting that most of Random House's backlist titles grant the publisher electronic book rights (we agree, since most backlist titles are from the past ten years, a period in which authors have generally licensed electronic rights in tandem with their print rights), he writes that "there have been some misunderstandings concerning ebook rights in older backlist titles." He then proceeds to argue that older contracts granting rights to publish "in book form" or "in all editions" grant electronic rights to Random House.

The misunderstandings reside entirely with Random House. Random House quite famously changed its standard contract to include e-book rights in 1994. (We remember it well -- Random House tried to secure these rights for royalties of 5% of net proceeds, a pittance. We called it a "Land Grab on the Electronic Frontier" in our press release headline.) Random House felt the need to change its contract, quite plainly, because its authors did not grant those rights to it under Random House's standard contracts prior to 1994.

A fundamental principle of book contracts is that the grant of rights is limited. Publishers acquire only the rights that they bargain for; authors retain rights they have not expressly granted to publishers. E-book rights, under older book contracts, were retained by the authors.

There's no need to take our word for this, however. A federal court in 2001 examined this precise matter in Random House v. Rosetta Books. Judge Stein of the Southern District of New York was unequivocal in his 10-page decision: authors did not grant publishers the e-book rights in the old book contracts at issue. Judge Stein specifically dismissed notions, raised by Mr. Dohle in his letter to agents, that the non-compete clauses of these old contracts in some manner acted to grant Random House electronic rights to the works, saying that this "reasoning turns the analysis on its head." The court pointed out that the license of rights comes solely from the contract's grant language, not from the non-compete clause, and that non-competition clauses, to be enforceable, have to be narrowly construed. Using the non-compete clause to secure future rights is unsustainable. An appellate court affirmed Judge Stein's decision.

We are sympathetic with the difficult position the publishing industry is in at the moment. The recession has been tough on book publishing, as it has been on many industries. And everyone with knowledge of the dynamics of the industry properly fears that Amazon's dominance of the online markets for traditional and especially e-books will give it a chokehold on industry profits. Difficult times, however, do not justify this attempt at a retroactive rights grab.

It's regrettable and unhelpful that Random House has chosen to try to intimidate authors and agents over these old book contracts. With such a weak legal hand, it would be well advised to stick to its strength -- the advantages that its marketing muscle can provide owners of e-book rights. It should also start offering a fair royalty for those rights. Authors and publishers have traditionally split the proceeds from book sales. Most sublicenses, for example, provide for a 50/50 split of proceeds, and the standard trade book royalty of 15% of the hardcover retail price, back in the days that industry standard was established, represented about 50% of the net proceeds of the sale of the book. We're confident that the current practice of paying 25% of net on e-books will not, in the long run, prevail. Savvy agents are well aware of this. The only reason e-book royalty rates are so low right now is that so little attention has been paid to them: sales were simply too low to scrap over. That's beginning to change.

If you have an old book contract in which you haven't granted e-book rights, patience is likely to pay off. The e-book industry is still young -- there's no need to jump in. And we strongly suspect e-royalty rates are at a low-water mark.

December 14, 2009

One Week, Two Big Pieces of Ebook News

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Last week, the publishing world was abuzz with news that Simon & Schuster, Hachette, and HarperCollins intend to delay the release of ebook versions of most of their hardcover titles by three or four months, rather than releasing the ebooks simultaneously with hardcovers (this delaying process is known as "windowing," and publishers have historically used it to separate hardcover and paperback editions, allowing the more expensive and therefore more profitable hardcover to build sales before issuing the cheaper paperback). According to Carolyn Reidy of S&S, "The right place for the e-book is after the hardcover but before the paperback."

Predictable outcry ensued from ebook enthusiasts, and just about anyone with a beef against large commercial publishers. S&S, Hachette, and Harper were accused of being dinosaurs, of shooting themselves in the foot by alienating readers, of trying to delay ebook adoption out of fear or greed, of clinging to processes and categories that the digital age, young as it is, has rendered obsolete.

There were also more nuanced responses. Jane Litte at Dear Author provided a fact-filled survey of windowing arguments. Ron Hogan at GalleyCat also looked at the arguments, observing that "if you want to create an enduring hardcover-digital-paperback cycle, you need to convince readers, especially digital-embracing readers, that this cycle offers them genuine value". Very interesting was Mike Shatzkin's speculation that, rather than wallowing in the dustbin of publishing history, the publishers are actually attempting to curb the might of Amazon, and take back control of ebook pricing. And I agree with this comment from Craig Morgan Teicher at eBook Newser:

Underlying these questions is the deeper question of what exactly an eBook is relative to a hardcover: is an eBook, like a paperback, a cheaper version of a hardcover? Or is it something entirely different, a new format for which there is no precident in previous publishing models?

Which segues nicely into the second big piece of ebook news that broke last week. As reported by PW and the New York Times, Markus Dohle of Random House sent a letter on Friday to dozens of literary agents, claiming that the company’s older contracts give it the exclusive right to publish in ebook form, even where the contracts pre-date the existence of digital formats and/or their language does not mention electronic rights. From the letter:

Our older agreements often give the exclusive right to "publish in book form" or "in any and all editions"...Such grants are usually not limited to any specific format, and indeed the "form" of the book has evolved over the years to include variations of hardcover, paperback, and other written formats, all of which have been understood to be included in the grant of book publishing rights...Whether physical or digital, the product is used and experienced in the same manner, serves the same function, and satisfies the same fundamental urge...Accordingly, Random House considers contracts that grant exclusive rights to publish "in book form" or "in any and all editions" to include the exclusive right to publish in electronic book formats.

The claim appears to have been spurred by RH's efforts to digitize its backlist (and also, no doubt, by the accumulating evidence that electronic rights are on track to become extremely valuable--something that, pre-Kindle, was not at all apparent). The Times also speculates that RH is concerned about competition from startups like Open Road Integrated Media, which has signed agreements to produce ebook versions of the work of RH's William Styron, among others.

RH's use of the terms "in book form" and "in any and all editions" suggests that it considers e-rights to be part of the primary grant of rights (since that's typically where these terms occur). An argument can be made against this, since many publishing contracts treat them as a subsidiary right, possibly to be negotiated separately (for instance, my most recent contract with Harper required the publisher to come back to the negotiating table if it decided to license or exercise e-rights). Also of concern: there's no wording in pre-digital contracts to address the rights reversion problems posed by always-in-print electronic editions. Unless that's dealt with in whatever addendum or amendments RH plans to offer to authors with older contracts, those authors may find it extremely difficult ever to regain their rights.

This is actually the second time RH has attempted to lay claim to electronic rights in pre-digital contracts. In 2001, a number of authors (including Mr. Styron) signed ebook contracts with epublishing startup Rosetta Books, reasoning that, since their contracts pre-dated the existence of ebooks, they could dispose of e-rights as they chose. RH filed suit, with the same claim it's making now: that the right to publish "in book form" includes not just print, but digital, and Rosetta was therefore committing copyright infringement.

The courts did not agree. RH's request for a preliminary injunction was denied by a federal judge, who ruled, on the basis of RH's own contract language, that "the right 'to print, publish, and sell the work[s] in book form'...does not include the right to publish in the format that has come to be known as the 'ebook.'" (An analysis of that decision can be found here.) An appellate court, to which the decision was appealed, agreed. The parties eventually settled, with Rosetta agreeing to pay licensing fees to RH.

So what does it all mean? Are ebook delays, and RH's electronic rights grab, part of the painful but necessary experiments that accompany all paradigm shifts, or the death throes of dinosaurs? In the discussion of ebooks, ebook readers, and digital issues in general, there's much that's murky--but the one thing that is very clear, at least to me, is that no one knows exactly where any of it is going. Plenty of people think they do--especially those who daily declare the imminent death of publishing as we know it. But prognostication only serves itself, since in the end, most of it turns out to be bunk.

Personally, I think it's more interesting just to watch what happens.

December 10, 2009

Hudson Audio Publishing

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Lately I've been getting a lot of questions from writers who've been solicited by Hudson Audio Publishing (which appears to be engaging in a major spam campaign).

Per Hudson's website,

Hudson Audio Publishing is a boutique service company that specializes in assisting:
- Self published authors
- Unpublished authors
- Seminar speakers
- Owners of quality audio material
to get their works converted into audio books and sold through the three largest audio book distribution platforms in the world - Amazon, Audible and iTunes.

How does it work? You can record your book yourself, using free or low-cost software, in which case there's no upfront fee due to Hudson (verbiage on the website suggests that this fee-freeness is temporary). Or you can pay Hudson to do it for you, using (they say) professional voice talent, which on average (they say) will cost between $1,500 and $2,500. Royalties aren't overly generous (if you grant Hudson a 5-year exclusive license, you get 20% of net; for a non-exclusive license for a similar term, you get 12% of net) but Hudson takes only digital download audio rights, leaving other rights free.

(This is a limited claim on rights, but it's still a claim. Despite that, and despite the fact that it calls itself Hudson Audio Publishing, Hudson alleges that it is not, in fact, a publisher.)

Basically, Hudson is self-publishing for audiobooks. I would imagine it carries about the same chances of success as print and electronic self-publishing (i.e., small sales and exposure for the average writer--depending, of course, on any individual writer's definition of "success"). Another consideration: people who buy audiobooks don't want to hear a bad reader droning on. They expect the books to be engagingly and expressively read. Can you do this yourself? Do you even want to? If you're pondering using Hudson's voice talent, however, there's a concern beyond the substantial expense: is the talent really professional? It would be a good idea to obtain a couple of Hudson's non-author-read audiobooks, just to make sure.

Something else to take into account: the audiobook market is small, a fact not noted by the hype-ish coverage on Hudson's website. According to the Audio Publishers Association, revenue reported by member companies in 2008 was $331 million, with total estimated revenue for the audiobook industry of close to $1 billion--around 4%, my calculator informs me, of $24.3 billion in total book sales for the same period. And just as audio books are a fraction of the book market, digital downloads are a fraction of audio sales: just 21%, according to the APA. Digital downloads increased their market share in 2008 (up from 17% in 2007), but APA members' total revenue slipped 6.7%.

If you are willing and able to read your book yourself, you probably don't have much to lose by using Hudson (though be aware that there are other free or low-cost options for turning your book into, for instance). If you're considering paying for voice talent, however, do shop around--there are a number of companies that offer audio self-publishing for a fee, such as Spoken Books Publishing (a division of self-publishing service, or, if you're enterprising, you may be able to create your script, hire the voice talent, and book the studio yourself.

Most important: be sure to evaluate whether it's really worthwhile to spend a lot of money to launch yourself into such a limited market.

December 7, 2009

Author Solutions CEO Responds to Harlequin/Nelson Flap

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Kevin Weiss, President and CEO of Author Solutions Inc., has issued a video statement addressing the responses by RWA, SFWA, MWA, and NINC to ASI's recent partnerships with commercial publishers in launching pay-to-publish divisions.

According to ASI's press release about the video statement,

Weiss takes exception to these guilds' position that only traditionally-published books can succeed. "There are plenty of books in traditional publishing today that just don't make it; it's a hits business," Weiss said. "It's why the publishing industry is going through a transformation today and the consumer has everything to say about what is good content and what isn't good content. To say that in order for a book to make it in the marketplace it has to blessed by a traditional publisher doesn't make any sense in 2009."

Which of course is not at all what the various "guilds'" statements said, but oh well. Weiss also scolds the "guilds" for being backward-looking, but does not address the conflict-of-interest and deceptive advertising concerns raised by several of the statements.

(Both Harlequin and Thomas Nelson are mentioned in the video, but the press release names only Harlequin--likely because Nelson has not, to date, been the target of the same level of criticism. This is unfair, in my view--I see no reason why, since Harlequin has been pilloried for DellArte Press, Nelson should be getting practically a free pass with West Bow Press.)

December 4, 2009

Mystery Writers of America Delists Harlequin

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Today, Mystery Writers of America announced its Board's unanimous decision to remove Harlequin and all its imprints from MWA's list of Approved Publishers, effective immediately, as a result of Harlequin's recent rollout of DellArte Press, a pay-to-publish division.

The official announcement is below.

MWA Board member Lee Goldberg's blog includes the announcement, as well as the text of MWA's official decision, and a letter from Donna Hayes, Harlequin's CEO, in response to MWA's expressions of concern.


The Board of Mystery Writers of America voted unanimously on Wednesday to remove Harlequin and all of its imprints from our list of Approved Publishers, effective immediately. We did not take this action lightly. We did it because Harlequin remains in violation of our rules regarding the relationship between a traditional publisher and its various for-pay services.

What does this mean for current and future MWA members?

Any author who signs with Harlequin or any of its imprints from this date onward may not use their Harlequin books as the basis for active status membership nor will such books be eligible for Edgar® Award consideration. However books published by Harlequin under contracts signed before December 2, 2009 may still be the basis for Active Status membership and will still be eligible for Edgar® Award consideration (you may find the full text of the decision at the end of this bulletin).

Although Harlequin no longer offers its eHarlequin Critique Service and has changed the name of its pay-to-publish service, Harlequin still remains in violation of MWA rules regarding the relationship between a traditional publisher and its various for-pay services.

MWA does not object to Harlequin operating a pay-to-publish program or other for-pay services. The problem is HOW those pay-to-publish programs and other for-pay services are integrated into Harlequin's traditional publishing business. MWA’s rules for publishers state:

"The publisher, within the past five years, may not have charged a fee to consider, read, submit, or comment on manuscripts; nor may the publisher, or any of the executives or editors under its employ, have offered authors self-publishing services, literary representation, paid editorial services, or paid promotional services.

If the publisher is affiliated with an entity that provides self-publishing, for-pay editorial services, or for-pay promotional services, the entities must be wholly separate and isolated from the publishing entity. They must not share employees, manuscripts, or authors or interact in any way. For example, the publishing entity must not refer authors to any of the for-pay entities nor give preferential treatment to manuscripts submitted that were edited, published, or promoted by the for-pay entity.

To avoid misleading authors, mentions and/or advertisements for the for-pay entities shall not be included with information on manuscript submission to the publishing company. Advertising by the publisher's for-pay editorial, self-publishing or promotional services, whether affiliated with the publisher or not, must include a disclaimer that it is advertising and that use of those services offered by an affiliate of the publisher will not affect consideration of manuscripts submitted for publication."

Harlequin's Publisher and CEO Donna Hayes responded to our November 9 letter, and a follow up that we sent on November 30. In her response, which we have posted on the MWA website, Ms. Hayes states that Harlequin intends as standard practice to steer the authors that it rejects from its traditional publishing imprints to DellArte and its other affiliated, for-pay services. In addition, Harlequin mentions on the DellArte site that editors from its traditional publishing imprints will be monitoring DellArte titles for possible acquisition. It is this sort of integration that violates MWA rules.

MWA has a long-standing regard for the Harlequin publishing house and hopes that our continuing conversations will result in a change in their policies and the reinstatement of the Harlequin imprints to our approved list of publishers.

Frankie Y. Bailey,
Executive Vice President, MWA

December 2, 2009

Blurred Distinctions: Vanity Publishing vs. Self-Publishing

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Of the many issues highlighted by the recent launch of pay-to-publish divisions by two major commercial publishers (Harlequin Enterprises' DellArte Press--nee Harlequin Horizons--and Thomas Nelson's West Bow Press), one of the most interesting, to me, is how blurred the distinction between self-publishing and vanity publishing has become.

Like many other changes in and around the publishing world, we owe it all digital technology. Pre-digital, self-publishing meant that you became your own publisher, undertaking or contracting out every aspect of the job yourself--from editing to design to printing/binding to warehousing to sales (famous example: What Color Is Your Parachute?). Vanity publishing meant that you paid a company to do it all for you (examples: Vantage Press, Dorrance Publishing). Although the end result was similar (since either way, you paid the full cost of production and had to store and sell the books yourself), self-publishing provided greater control over quality and cost.

In the late 1990's, a different kind of vanity publisher began appearing: one that took advantage of the then-new print-on-demand technology. Because the books were produced on demand on glorified photocopiers, rather than in quantity on offset presses, these new digitally-based vanity publishers could charge much lower prices, as well as eliminate the problems of storage and unsold stock. There was even some degree of distribution, via Internet booksellers such as Amazon. Writers paid an initial setup fee, and the company recouped production costs at the point of sale, keeping the lion's share of profits and paying the author a "royalty." (Among the first digital vanities: AuthorHouse and iUniverse, both now owned by Author Solutions).

Looking for a way to set themselves apart from the expensive offset vanities of old, and also for a stigma-free term they could use in advertising, these new companies dubbed themselves "self-publishing services." This has been the accepted term for fee-based digital publishing ever since--even as the costs have skyrocketed to old-fashioned offset vanity press levels, even as the old offset vanities have gone digital, even as major commercial publishers have begun experimenting with fee-based publishing, even as ambitious publishing service conglomerates like Author Solutions attempt to confuse the issue even further by re-christening themselves "independent publishers."

This is the answer to one of the questions I've seen asked over the past couple of weeks: how Harlequin could have failed to understand that DellArte Press was not self-publishing, but vanity publishing. The kind of service offered by DellArte has been called "self-publishing" since the late 1990's, with little criticism or protest. For many if not most people, AuthorHouse, iUniverse, and their kin have become the standard definition of self-publishing. (Example: when Lisa Genova's iUniverse-published book, Still Alice, got picked up by a commercial publisher, the extensive news coverage described her as a "self-published author," and no one disputed that designation.) For a sizeable group of writers, this method of publishing has even become an ideological position, with iUniverse, Lulu and others supposedly leveling the field by allowing writers to bypass slow, exclusionary, and behemothic "traditional" publishers, while avoiding the DIY hassle of true self-publishing.

There's been a lot of effort, in the discussion over DellArte (and, to a much lesser extent, West Bow), to establish an unambiguous dividing line between "self-publishing" and "vanity publishing." Is self-publishing keeping 100% of the profit from sales? Is it owning your ISBN number? If the company that produces your book takes a cut, or if you use its ISBN, are you by definition vanity published, even if you didn't pay an upfront fee? Is any print-on-demand publishing service vanity publishing, or are there meaningful differences between them? There's also been discussion of how the pejorative connotations of "vanity" distort the discourse. Some feel that the term should be retired--but coming up with a new term is difficult.

These are all relevant questions. But I think that the lines between self-publishing and vanity publishing have become so hopelessly blurred, both by custom and ideology, that crafting an authoritative set of definitions is impossible (not to mention, no matter what one comes up with, someone is always bound to disagree). I think it makes more sense to see fee-based publishing as a continuum, with true self-publishing and full-on vanity publishing as the extremes, and many variations in between.

Moreover, beyond matters of terminology, or the ethical concerns that arise when commercial publishers attempt to monetize their slush piles by setting up their own pay-to-play publishing divisions, there's a much more fundamental question: no matter who offers it or what it's called, is paying to publish a good choice for authors? In some cases, the answer will be yes (in which case the writer must then decide which kind of fee-based publishing best suits his or her needs). In many others, it will be no.

In the end, what's important is that writers know their goals, do their research, understand the challenges, ignore the hype, and do their best to make an informed decision. Wishful thinking, I know. Still, I live in hope.


Having said all of the above, I'm going to add to the confusion by offering my own set of definitions.

When the DellArte discussion began, I felt it was fair to make a distinction between vanity publishers (fee-based publishers that presented themselves as publishers, rather than as publishing services) and digital publishing services like AuthorHouse, which were perhaps not entirely forthright in their presentation of the issues surrounding fee-based publishing, but at least didn't try to pretend to be something they weren't. On reflection, however, I feel that in terms of hype, expense, and value, there's not a hair's worth of difference in most cases. There is, however, a subset of digital publishing services that do provide something different (IMO, anyway), as you'll see below.

So here goes: My attempt to define the major points on the continuum of fee-based publishing.

Self-publishing. I described this above: you handle or contract out all aspects of production and marketing yourself, from editing, to design, to printing/binding, to warehousing, to selling. In true self-publishing, you own your ISBN number (it has also been pointed out to me that some self-publishers don't use ISBNs), and keep all sales proceeds. You do not grant or encumber your publishing rights in any way.

Assisted self-publishing. Assisted self-publishing companies charge no setup or other fees (although most sell a variety of add-ons, some quite expensive), recoup production costs at the point of sale, and make their money by keeping a cut of profits (you can usually determine what the profit is by setting your own price). They'll provide their own ISBN, or let you use or buy yours. To enable the company to produce your book, you may be required to grant nonexclusive publishing rights (terminable at will), and to indemnify it against legal action. Examples: Lulu, Cafe Press, Blurb, CreateSpace (although with CreateSpace and BookSurge merging, that may change).

Vanity publishing. Any kind of publishing or publishing service that requires you to pay an upfront or setup fee. This would include print-on-demand publishing services like the Author Solutions brands, former offset vanities like Dorrance Publishing that now use a digital model, and book manufacturers like Brown Books that offer a more elaborate (and more expensive) service, but also the option of short-run printing. Such companies handle the entire publishing process for you, and may or may not exercise some degree of selectivity. In return, you grant publishing rights (usually nonexclusive and terminable at will), accept the company's ISBN and pricing structure, and are paid a pre-set "royalty." While not attempting to conceal the fact that they charge fees, or pretending to match your resources with their own, these companies can be quite misleading in their presentation of the benefits of fee-based publishing.

Deceptive vanity publishing. Fee-based publishers that pretend to be something else--whether by failing to reveal their fees on their websites or in their promotional materials (SterlingHouse Publisher, Strategic Book Publishing), charging fees for something other than printing and binding (such as requiring or pressuring authors to buy their own books--American Book Publishing, Anomalous Press, VMI Publishers), claiming to match authors' fees with their own money or resources (Commonwealth Publications, Northwest Publishing), or denying that they are vanity or subsidy publishers despite charging a fee (Tate Publishing).

November 24, 2009

New Name for Harlequin Horizons: DellArte Press

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

True to its promise, Harlequin has ditched the Harlequin Horizons name. It's now DellArte Press.

And Speaking of Vanity Publishing...

...heeeeere's Tweetbookz!

Tweetbookz will turn your tweets--those 140-character electronic messages about what you had for breakfast this morning or maybe something more interesting or important, but either way, quickly written and just as quickly forgotten--into Real Paper Books. That's right. Your evanescent 140-character pearls of prose (or not) can be enshrined for the ages in softcover or hardcover.

You can include up to 200 tweets (though you can't add new ones or alter old ones to make yourself look smarter or more witty), and choose from four different designs. The cost: nothing upfront. But if you want to buy the books--as gifts, maybe, 'cause, yanno, all your friends who are already following you would love to have a permanent version of the tweets they missed because they were tweeting too, and maybe an actual physical book o' tweets might convince your parents or your spouse that "twittering" isn't a waste of time (oh wait, maybe not)--it's $30 for the hardcover and $20 for the softcover.

Curiously, you cannot buy others' tweetbookz. But you can buy gift certificates, to encourage your friends to create their own.

Really. I mean, really. Does anyone need this silly service (apart from its founders, who hope to make money from it, and no doubt will)? Could vanity publishing get any more vain? On the other hand, I do find it kind of interesting, in that we're daily bombarded by paeans to the brave new digital world--yet here it is, defaulting back to print.

Please, if anyone is thinking of gifting me with their tweetbook(z), or with a gift certificate for one of my own...don't. Just...don't.

Because of the lack of reader eyeballs over the holidays, I won't be blogging again till next week. Happy holidays, everyone, and safe travels!

November 23, 2009

From Novelists Inc. Issues Position Statement on Vanity Publishing

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Last week, RWA, MWA, and SFWA all issued official statements condemning Harlequin Enterprises' new self-publishing division, Harlequin Horizons.

(In response to criticism, Harlequin has pledged to "chang[e] the name of the self-publishing company from Harlequin Horizons to a designation that will not refer to Harlequin in any way," but as of this writing, both the name and the Harlequin Horizons website appear to be unchanged.)

Now Novelists Inc. has weighed in, with a position statement on vanity publishing and the risks that arise when brand name publishers add vanity publishing divisions.


Novelists, Inc. Responds to Disturbing Developments in Publishing:

Vanity publishing is not new, although the Internet has become a lucrative feeding ground for vanity publishers. Presented with enough enthusiastic jargon and color graphics, a hopeful author might well be convinced that he has stumbled upon a fantastic new way of bringing his stories, his voice, to the reading public.

Alas, the truth is that vanity publishing is still the same old opportunistic hag dressed up in new clothing, with the added flash and dash of savvy marketing. It still exists to part dreamers from their money, with very little hope of return. The dangled bait never changes, the creatively couched language suggesting that all these good things "could, may, might possibly, perhaps" happen for you if you choose one from column A and two from Column B on their à la carte menu of pricey services.

There is now a new, deeply disturbing twist being applied to this age-old money grab. Publishers with brand names, currently enjoying respectable reputations within the industry and with the reading public, are putting both on the chopping block in order to get a share of the vanity publishing market.

It takes years to build a respected name and reputation in this industry. Losing that respect happens much more quickly, sometimes overnight.

No authors' organization can prevent a publisher from setting up a vanity publishing division. Writers' organizations can, however, speak firmly and clearly about the sort of egregious business practices that reflect badly on our entire industry.

Ninc strongly advocates that any and all publishing houses that now operate or are in the planning stages of creating vanity publishing arms do so ethically and responsibly, while adhering to accepted standards of full disclosure. This includes not using the same or a similar name for the vanity division of their royalty-paying publishing house.

Ninc further strongly advocates that these houses either cease and desist or do not institute the practice of steering hopeful writers who are rejected by the royalty-paying divisions of their companies into the open arms of their vanity publishing offshoot.

To do otherwise demeans the publisher's brand and robs credibility from every one of its conventional, contracted authors.

For Those Considering Vanity Publishing

Novelists, Inc. (Ninc) is an international organization devoted to the needs of multi-published authors of novel-length popular fiction. Ninc has no unpublished members; all are experienced, savvy, and educated in the various perils and pitfalls that await the unwary writer in search of an audience.

So why is Ninc addressing the subject of vanity publishing? That's simple. We care about writers. All writers. And we care equally for their audiences, the book buying public.

Vanity publishing, by definition, involves bringing together a writer eager to have his work in print and a company eager to charge that writer for printing the copies. Vanity publishers don't care if the book is good or bad. Vanity publishers will print anything the writer will pay them to print. Quality and sales potential of the work are not priorities; in fact, they aren't considered at all.

Ninc's advice to hopeful authors remains what it has always been: work hard, learn your craft, and network with other writers to share knowledge and information. And remember, if an offer to publish your previously rejected novel and thus become a "real author" by handing over a check sounds too good to be true, that's because it is.


As long as there are people desperate to be published, vanity publishers will exist, and profit-motive companies, no matter the size or prior reputation, may at some point decide that if a starry-eyed dreamer and his money are soon to be parted, why not hold out a hand for their share. All Ninc and other professional writers' organizations and consumer advocates can do, and thankfully are doing, is to educate people on the subject of vanity publishing.

Please, before you open your wallet, take some time to open your eyes. Here are some places to begin educating yourself:

Writer Beware's page on vanity publishing

Preditors and Editors

Bewares and Background Check forum at the Absolute Write Water Cooler

The Price of Vanity, an article by author Moira Allen

An Easy Way to Lose Money, an article by Pan Macmillan's Barry Turner

Is the Publisher Just the Middleman? An article by author Lucy Snyder

Publishing Scams: Six Red Flags That Scream Ripoff, an article by author Karen Bledsoe

November 19, 2009

SFWA on Harlequin Horizons

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

SFWA has joined RWA and MWA in issuing a statement about Harlequin Horizons.


In November, 2009, Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd. announced the launch of a new imprint, Harlequin Horizons, for aspiring romance authors. Under normal circumstances, the addition of a new imprint by a major house would be cause for celebration in the professional writing community. Unfortunately, these are not normal circumstances. Harlequin Horizons is a joint venture with Author Solutions, and it is a vanity/subsidy press that relies upon payments and income from aspiring writers to earn profit, rather than sales of books to actual readers.

The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Inc. (SFWA) finds it extremely disappointing that Harlequin has chosen to launch an imprint whose sole purpose appears to be the enrichment of the corporate coffers at the expense of aspiring writers. According to their website, “Now with Harlequin Horizons, more writers have the opportunity to enter the market, hone their skills and achieve the goals that burn in their hearts.”

SFWA calls on Harlequin to openly acknowledge that Harlequin Horizon titles will not be distributed to brick-and-mortar bookstores, thus ensuring that the titles will not be breaking into the real fiction market. SFWA also asks that Harlequin acknowledge that the imprint does not represent a genuine opportunity for aspiring authors to hone their skills, as no editor will be vetting or working on the manuscripts. Further, SFWA believes that work published with Harlequin Horizons may injure writing careers by associating authors’ names with small sales levels reflected by the imprint’s lack of distribution, as well as its emphasis upon income received from writers and not readers. SFWA supports the fundamental principle that writers should be paid for their work, and even those who aspire to professional status and payment ought not to be charged for the privilege of having those aspirations.

Until such time as Harlequin changes course, and returns to a model of legitimately working with authors instead of charging authors for publishing services, SFWA has no choice but to be absolutely clear that NO titles from ANY Harlequin imprint will be counted as qualifying for membership in SFWA. Further, Harlequin should be on notice that while the rules of our annual Nebula Award do not expressly prohibit self-published titles from winning, it is highly unlikely that our membership would ever nominate or vote for a work that was published in this manner.

Already the world’s largest romance publisher, Harlequin should know better than anyone else in the industry the importance of treating authors professionally and with the respect due the craft; Harlequin should have the internal fortitude to resist the lure of easy money taken from aspiring authors who want only to see their work professionally published and may be tempted to believe that this is a legitimate avenue towards those goals.

SFWA does not believe that changing the name of the imprint, or in some other way attempting to disguise the relationship to Harlequin, changes the intention, and calls on Harlequin to do the right thing by immediately discontinuing this imprint and returning to doing business as an advance and royalty paying publisher.

For the Board of Directors,
Russell Davis
SFWA, Inc.

MWA Weighs In On Harlequin Horizons

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Today, Mystery Writers of America (a sponsor of Writer Beware, along with the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) issued this announcement to its members:


Dear MWA Members:

Recently, Harlequin Enterprises launched two new business ventures aimed at aspiring writers, the Harlequin Horizons self-publishing program and the eHarlequin Manuscript Critique service (aka "Learn to Write"), both of which are widely promoted on its website and embedded in the manuscript submission guidelines for all of its imprints.

Mystery Writers of America (MWA) is deeply concerned about the troubling conflict-of-interest issues created by these ventures, particularly the potentially misleading way they are marketed to aspiring writers on the Harlequin website.

It is common for disreputable publishers to try to profit from aspiring writers by steering them to their own for-pay editorial, marketing, and publishing services. The implication is that by paying for those services, the writer is more likely to sell his manuscript to the publisher. Harlequin recommends the "eHarlequin Manuscript Critique Service" in the text of its manuscript submission guidelines for all of its imprints and include a link to "Harlequin Horizons," its new self-publishing arm, without any indication that these are advertisements.

That, coupled with the fact that these businesses share the Harlequin name, may mislead writers into believing they can enhance their chances of being published by Harlequin by paying for these services. Offering these services violates long-standing MWA rules for inclusion on our Approved Publishers List.

On November 9, Mystery Writers of America sent a letter to Harlequin about the "eHarlequin Manuscript Critique Service," notifying Harlequin that it is in violation of our rules and suggesting steps that Harlequin could take to remain on our Approved Publishers list. The steps outlined at that time included removing mention of this for-pay service entirely from its manuscript submission guidelines, clearly identifying any mention of this program as paid advertisement, and, adding prominent disclaimers that this venture was totally unaffiliated with the editorial side of Harlequin, and that paying for this service is not a factor in the consideration of manuscripts. Since that letter went out, Harlequin has launched "Harlequin Horizons," a self-publishing program.

MWA's November 9 letter asks that Harlequin respond to our concerns and recommendations by December 15. We look forward to receiving their response and working with them to protect the interests of aspiring writers. If MWA and Harlequin are unable to reach an agreement, MWA will take appropriate action which may include removing Harlequin from the list of MWA approved publishers, declining future membership applications from authors published by Harlequin and declaring that books published by Harlequin will not be eligible for the Edgar Awards.

We are taking this action because we believe it is vitally important to alert our members of unethical and predatory publishing practices that take advantage of their desire to be published. We respect Harlequin and its authors and hope the company will take the appropriate corrective measures.

Two Deep Questions

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Deep question number one: Why has the launch of Harlequin Horizons provoked such a gigantic firestorm of indignation, when the launch of West Bow Press (which is exactly the same sort of venture, except way more expensive and with a referral fee scheme thrown in) not only didn't cause a big outcry, but received some fairly positive mentions from industry professionals?

I have my own theories, but I'm interested in what others think.

Deep question number two: Is Thomas Nelson RWA-eligible? If so, why hasn't RWA repudiated it as well?

November 18, 2009

Harlequin Horizons: Another Major Publisher Adds A Self-Publishing Division

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Hot on the heels of the launch of West Bow Press, Thomas Nelson's new self-publishing division, Harlequin Enterprises has unveiled Harlequin Horizons, a company that "that offers aspiring romance writers the opportunity to self-publish their work and achieve their goals."

The official press release is here.

Like West Bow Press, Harlequin Horizons is powered by self-publishing conglomerate Author Solutions, though its standard packages are considerably cheaper--from $599 to $1,599, as opposed to West Bow's $999 to $6,499. You can also spend up to $3,499 for a specialty package (West Bow's specialty packages top out at an eye-popping $19,999--are Christian writers richer, or is it just easier to persuade them to part with the big bucks?)

Both West Bow and Harlequin Horizons also give authors the chance to expend sizeable additional sums, such as $11,999 for a premium Christian publicist (West Bow) or a just plain premium publicist (Harlequin Horizons). Interestingly, while several of West Bow's standard packages and all of its specialty packages include a bookseller return program, with Harlequin Horizons that's available only as an extra.

Like West Bow, Harlequin Horizons wreaths self-publishing in nebulous, glowing verbiage, extolling benefits and ignoring downsides. With West Bow Press, you can Begin Your Legacy. With Harlequin Horizons, you can Reach the Stars. And just like West Bow, Harlequin Horizons cordially extends the carrot of commercial publication: "While there is no guarantee that if you publish with Harlequin Horizons you will picked up for traditional publishing, Harlequin will monitor sales of books published through Harlequin Horizons for possible pick-up by its traditional imprints."

Unlike West Bow, Harlequin Horizons bears its parent's name. And that is making some Harlequin authors quite unhappy.

On the Dear Author blog, a lively discussion of the new venture is summarized here. Authors' concerns include dilution of the house brand (if low-quality self-published books carry the Harlequin name, the overall reputation of Harlequin may suffer), a loss of prestige for non-self-published Harlequin authors (the perception that "anyone" can get published by Harlequin), new authors spending money on self-publishing in the belief that it's a path to getting noticed by Harlequin (well, of course; this is one of the new service's major marketing pitches--no surprise, since Harlequin Horizons is a money-making enterprise), and the choice of Author Solutions as a partner (given the complaints about several Author Solutions brands--one of my blog posts is referenced).

In a followup post, some of these concerns are addressed by Malle Valik, Harlequin's Digital Director, who reveals that while "Harlequin put its name on the Harlequin Horizons site to clearly indicate this is a romance self-publishing site," Harlequin Horizons books will be branded HH (not Harlequin), and that "[t]he copyright is not associated with Harlequin." As to why Harlequin is establishing a self-publishing division, Ms. Valik says,

Bowker reported in 2008 that more titles were published through self-publishing than traditional publishers. Self-publishing is a fast growing and vibrant part of the publishing industry today. Harlequin has decided to provide a romance focused self-publishing business for those that choose to go down the self-publishing road.

In other words--self-publishing is a big business, and Harlequin wants a piece of the pie. As I noted in my post on West Bow Press, the potential for new revenue is large indeed:

In 2008, according to PW, the number of on-demand and short-run titles (the bulk of which represent offerings by self-publishing companies) jumped by 132% (total growth since 2002: 774%), outstripping books produced by "traditional production methods". Not only does adding a self-publishing line allow a publisher to cash in this trend, it presents the possibility of monetizing rejections. By the same token, the self-publishing service's connection with a major publisher will be a major attraction for authors--especially if the publisher suggests that it may take the better-performing books commercial.

For the record, I don't for one teeny tiny second believe that discovering new writers, or giving them a chance to "begin their legacies" or "reach the stars," plays a major part here. That's just a marketing pitch. This is about money. Now more than ever, commercial publishers need to shore up their bottom lines--and adding self-publishing divisions is an easy and profitable way to do so.

Harlequin Horizons offers more confirmation of this fact. But what it confirms even more is the ambition of Author Solutions. Over the past few years, Author Solutions has been absorbing its largest competitors. Now it seems to have come up with a lucrative new business strategy that offers even more possibilities for expansion. For that reason alone, I think we'll be seeing more self-publishing divisions in the coming months or years.

(Something I didn't know: Although only West Bow Press and Harlequin Horizons have received wide attention, they are actually the second and third such Author Solutions partnerships. According to this article in the Indianapolis Star, Author Solutions is also partnered with another Christian publisher, LifeWay. LifeWay's website makes no mention of self-publishing, but a tiny link at the very bottom leads to Cross Books, "a Christian publishing company that blends the best attributes of self-publishing and traditional publishing." Author Solutions isn't named on Cross Books' website, or at least nowhere that I could find, but the Terms of Use confirms the connection.)

November 16, 2009

Revised Google Book Search Settlement Filed

On Friday, Google, the Association of American Publishers, and the Authors Guild filed a revised version of the Google Book Search Settlement. It's now up to Judge Denny Chin to set dates for a notice period, an objection hearing, and the final Fairness Hearing.

A brief overview of the issues that led to the revision, and a summary of some of the changes, is provided by the New York Times.

One of the major concerns of Settlement critics, and also of the Department of Justice, which has urged the courts to reject the Settlement because of anti-trust concerns, was the issue of orphan works (in-copyright works whose authors can't be found), and the fear that Google would gain a de facto digital monopoly over those works. The revision establishes the position of an "Unclaimed Works Fiduciary," or trustee, who will be responsible for all decisions about orphan works, including whether to license rights in those works to third parties. Another potential monopolizing provision, which according to the Times "was widely interpreted as ensuring that no other company could get a better deal with authors and publishers than the one Google had struck," has been dropped.

The concerns of European publishers, which have been distressed by Google's digitization of thousands of European-published books included in US libraries (despite the fact that the Book Search Settlement was supposed to pertain only to US copyright holders), have been addressed by restricting Google's database to books published in the US, Canada, UK, and Australia.

Another major change (per the Authors Guild's upbeat overview of the revision): Google's ability to monetize the database--which in the original Settlement was essentially unlimited--has been curtailed. "Future business models have been pared down to three: individual subscriptions, print-on-demand, and digital downloads. None of these business models can be implemented by Google without approval of the Registry's board, and none can be implemented without notice to all claiming rightsholders, who will have the absolute right not to participate."

Many commenters feel that substantial concerns remain.

According to Settlement critic James Grimmelman, a Google monopoly still looms. His argument is too subtle to summarize here, but he sums it up this way: "Settlement 2.0 confirms that Google will have the only game in town for the unclaimed works...The DOJ all but invited Google and the plaintiffs to empower the Registry to license Google’s competitors; they declined that all-but-invitation."

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, for which privacy was a significant issue, feels that the revision leaves those concerns unaddressed. The ACLU agrees.

The Open Book Alliance, which has formally objected to the Settlement, calls the revision "a sleight of hand." (What the OBA would have liked to see in an amended Settlement is described here.)

And as blogger Danny Sullivan points out in his coverage of the Settlement revision press conference, the copyright concerns that sparked the original lawsuit--that Google has turned copyright law on its head by requiring rightsholders to opt out of its database rather than in--remain entirely unaddressed (though it's my impression that this issue is falling ever more steadily into the background as the Settlement grinds its way toward approval).

Google's own summary of the revisions can be seen here.

Much more information, including discussions, objections, and documents, is available at The Public Index.

The deadline for claiming payment for books that were digitized without permission has been extended from January to March 31, 2010. However, given the changes, it would seem that consideration should also be given to those of us who, like me, opted out of the original Settlement, and now might want to reconsider. None of the many articles I've read address this issue.

November 13, 2009

Agent Inbox

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Yesterday, PW reported on the launch of AgentInbox, a new service from collaborative writing website WEbook (I've blogged about WEbook before).

"AgentInbox is a service that connects publication-ready authors with reputable, vetted literary agents," says the service's FAQ for writers. Writers enter their book's "vital stats," including title, genre, query letter, and all or part of the manuscript (there are several tutorials to help with the polishing process). They can then check AgentInbox's roster of participating agents and choose which ones they'd like their submission to go to. WEbook staff pre-screens submissions, then forwards them on to the agents chosen.

According to PW,

AgentInbox will focus in particular on query letters while also ensuring the manuscripts adhere to basic editorial standards and readiness, said Ardy Khazaei, president of WEbook.

WEbook’s team of in-house and freelance publishing professionals will review pitch letters, make sure that the letters match the actual manuscript and that the manuscript is properly formatted, but the company will not make any recommendations about the quality of the content.

How does it work for agents? According to AgentInbox's FAQ for agents, agents create a profile listing their interests and submission preferences. They can then check their submissions online, sort them by various categories including genre, and "[r]eject unsuitable submissions with a single click, and contact the gems directly."

At present, AgentInbox is free for writers, though in future, premium services may be subject to a fee.

AgentInbox reminds me a lot of Creative Byline (about which I have also blogged), an automated submission service targeted to publishers. Creative Byline provides not just screening, but actual editorial feedback on writers' materials--but otherwise the setup seems quite similar.

Both AgentInbox and Creative Byline are a riff on the manuscript display site, or electronic slush pile, which aims to attract agents and publishers by moving the acquisition process online, and to serve writers by promoting their work direct to publishing professionals, without the need for sending multiple queries. There are many iterations of this basic idea, from the static display site where writers' submissions hang like banners in hopes someone will come along and view them (example:, to supposedly more selective display sites where submissions are pre-screened for quality before being made available to registered agents and publishers (example: OnlyOneChapter), to crowd-sourced display sites where reader rankings drive submissions to the top for consideration by participating agents and editors (example: Authonomy).

The display site idea first surfaced in the late 1990's. Despite innovations in concept and advances in technology, electronic slush piles have so far failed to establish themselves as a genuine alternative path to representation or publication (for writers), or as an alternative method of manuscript acquisition (for agents and publishers).

Will AgentInbox--which already has signed up an impressive roster of participating agents, one of whom, according to PW, has already found a client via the service--be the tipping point? Only time will tell. Worth noting, however: Creative Byline, which has been in business for more than a year and a half, continues to have difficulty expanding its publisher list (currently, only six publishers are signed up), and has reported no sales as a result of writers' use of the service. Simply because agents can be more flexible in their acquisition guidelines than publishers, I'd expect a greater success rate for AgentInbox, at least initially. But I would also guess that unless AgentInbox staff do a bit more than just make sure that manuscripts are properly formatted, agents will lose enthusiasm for the service.

(Writers take note: whether or not it improves access to agents, AgentInbox won't help with those most common of writerly gripes, form rejection letters and nonresponse. For agents, one of the advertised perks of the system is that they can "delete [submissions] or send automated rejections with a few clicks.")

November 11, 2009

Blog Post/Article Roundup

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Some blog posts and articles that piqued my interest over the past few weeks.

Inspired by a silly piece by writer Jeff Rivera on GalleyCat, in which he, the owner of a self-publishing service, and an anonymous author question the usefulness of literary agents, agent Miriam Goderich of Dystel & Goderich provides an eloquent rebuttal: Who Needs an Agent? You Do.

From agent Holly Root: why not to sweat the small stuff. "There’s a ton of ink spilled online over do’s and don’ts for writers, and while I am a firm believer that knowledge is power and all, too much information can be paralyzing, and some of us on this side of the desk are guilty of making it seem much harder than it already is. If you really read and adhered to every.single.thing. every agent said online you would never finish a book or a query letter and if you did it would probably be a bland groupthinked mess, which actually will get you rejections."

Agent Jennifer Jackson provides some helpful advice on query letters, including this explanation of what your query letter may say about you and your book (query-hating writers, pay heed): "Now, I'm not going to say that it's not hard to sum up the book that the writer has spent months, or even years, producing in a way that will make someone want to read it. I think it's a challenge. And you should definitely give it your best shot. Because, yes, the query is an important part of the initial submission. It sets the stage for reading the synopsis and sample pages. It can reveal things such as the writer's background, whether their approach is professional, how they see their novel, and other intangible gut feeling responses."

A pair of really informative posts from agent Rachelle Gardner: How Book Royalties Work and Is Your Book Worth It? (covers what commercial publishers spend on book production).

For writers who, like me, are not enamored of the relentless pressure to self-promote, this New Yorker parody of a marketing plan may make you laugh--or cry.

From writer Caroline Hagood, a short essay on writer's block that I totally relate to. (For me, actually, what Ms. Hagood describes isn't true block--it's more the getting stuckness that I think all writers experience from time to time [and I experience a lot]. True block--the absolute dearth not just of ideas, but of words--is something else again.)

Speaking of being stuck: from Colson Whitehead and the New York Times, some not-exactly-serious ideas for what to write next.

November 3, 2009

Wanna Be a Virtual Author's Assistant?...Maybe Not

posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

As readers of this blog know, I'm fascinated by the strange phenomena that flourish at the fringes of the publishing world. So I was thrilled recently to discover yet another example: an online course that teaches people how to become Virtual Author's Assistants.

What's a Virtual Author's Assistant, you may ask? The course website offers this explanation:

Author's Assistants are people who work behind the scenes to create, organize and coordinate all the different pieces necessary to get a book published. To writers, they are miracle workers.

The world of publishing can be frightening, overwhelming and frustrating. An author's assistant is the expert the writer turns to guide them step by step through the process.

From their homes, Virtual Author's Assistants organize the publishing process for authors around the country and around the world.

Expert? As it turns out, potential Virtual Author’s Assistants need know nothing about the publishing industry. "[D]on’t worry. We'll teach you. All you need is a love of books, a few basic business skills and a desire for fun and interesting work." (Wow. Who knew this publishing stuff was so easy and entertaining? I must have missed that nugget of wisdom in my 25+ years as a writer and writers’ advocate. And gosh, I must be awfully dense, because after all that time, I’m still learning.)

VAA course content includes such important items as how to prepare and proof a manuscript, how to get an ISBN and bar code, how to register copyright, how to put together a media kit, and how to launch an Amazon Bestseller Campaign. Aspiring VAAs will also be tutored in how to create a business website to attract author clients, and ways to identify and solicit authors as business prospects (this article offers a glimpse of how that might be done, encouraging VAAs “to know where authors and aspiring authors hide” and to “[s]ell the author on the amount of money and time you can save them over doing this work themselves”). Those who complete the course will be "a certified graduate of the only course of its kind in the country," and will receive the suitable-for-framing certificate to prove it. They’ll also be eligible to place the "Virtual Author’s Assistant Professional insignia" on their websites and business materials.

Best of all: this expertise can be yours in just 30 days, for a cost of only $597! You can also, optionally, buy a website. For $85 more, you can earn a Master Virtual Author's Assistant certification. And if you’re really enterprising, you can recoup some of your expense by becoming an Affiliate, earning 10% every time you successfully refer someone to the VAA program.

Leaving aside any questions of information quality (the course is offered by Jan B. King, a publishing and business consultant who does appear to have professional writing and publishing experience), this all sounds highly dubious to me. I don't know about you, but if I were hiring an assistant, I'd be looking for someone with real-life experience, not a made-up certification from an online coursepack. Not to mention, I'm not exactly rolling in disposable income--and I'm a commercially-published author who is getting paid for my work. From the verbiage on the Virtual Author's Assistant website (see "The 24 Services Authors Ask For Most"), it's apparent that the main consumers of VAA services are expected to be self-published writers. But what are the odds that such writers, who will have to shell out possibly substantial sums to printers or self-publishing companies, could (or should) afford to pay for an assistant, virtual or otherwise? And if they can, would it not make sense to seek out a specialist--a qualified book shepherd, for example--rather than someone with just 30 days of online training?

So how likely is it really, if you spring for VAA training, that someone will hire you? The VAA website dodges that question, citing only the "thriving" Virtual Assistant industry and alleging that more books would be published "if they had the help of an author's assistant." Another VAA website provides even more circular reasoning in its FAQ: "How competitive is the market for author's assistants? Let me answer this way: About 500,000 new trade books were published last year. At present there are fewer than 300 fully-trained professional virtual author's assistants. The demand is very high for qualified author's assistants and will be for a long time in the future."

The same website hosts a VAA Directory that lists 58 members. A spot check of their websites suggests that most primarily focus on general Virtual Assistant services, so I’m guessing that VAA certification is something most Virtual Assistants add, rather than specialize in. However, that makes it impossible to get a sense of how "high" the "demand" might actually be for VAA services. I did find the website of the International Association of Virtual Author's Assistants, but it appears to be a vehicle for selling marketing and other services to authors, rather than a professional group for VAAs.

Bottom line: this seems to me to be a program that offers little advantage either to people looking for work they can do at home--since I find it extremely unlikely that there really is a "very high," or even a "high," demand for VAAs--or to authors, who may be solicited to pay for services they can ill afford, may not need, and could likely get from more qualified providers. However, I try to keep an open mind--so I’d love it if any successful VAAs or authors who’ve happily used them would comment here.

In the meantime--caveat scriptor, and caveat emptor!

October 29, 2009

Rights and Copyright

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Copyright, literally, is "the right to copy." It guarantees the authors of creative works--including books, artworks, films, recordings, photographs--the exclusive right for a set period of time to allow other people to copy and distribute the work, by whatever means and in whatever media currently exist. It also prohibits copying and distributing without the author's permission. You own copyright by law, automatically, as soon your work is fixed in tangible form--i.e., the minute you write down the words.

Contained within copyright is the entire bundle of rights that an author can grant to others or utilize him/herself. For book authors, this includes the right to publish in book or other form, to make translations and audio recordings and films, to create serializations or abridgements or derivative works...the list goes on, and continues to expand as technology makes different forms of publication and distribution possible.

When you sign a publishing contract, you are granting the publisher permission to exploit (i.e., to publish and distribute for profit) some or all of your rights for a defined period of time. Because you own the copyright, granting rights doesn't mean you lose or abandon those rights--merely that you authorize someone else to use them for a while, either exclusively (no one else can use them at the same time) or nonexclusively (you can also grant them to others).

Eventually, once the contract term has expired or the book has ceased to sell in significant numbers, the publisher should cease publication and relinquish its claim on your rights. This is known as rights reversion. Sometimes reversion is automatic (as in a fixed-term contract); sometimes you must request reversion after the book has been declared "out of print" or off the market (as in a life-of-copyright contract). Once your rights have reverted, you are free to re-sell them or use them yourself, as you choose.

For many readers of this blog, the above will seem pretty elementary. But confusion between rights and copyright is not unusual--not just among authors (one common misplaced fear is that granting rights to a publisher means you lose them forever), but among inexperienced publishers. If I had a dollar for every small press contract I've seen that hopelessly conflates rights and copyright (for instance, requiring writers to transfer copyright, but then reserving a variety of subrights to the author), I could take my husband out to a very fancy dinner.

Some suggestions to untangle the confusion and protect yourself:

- First and foremost, understand copyright and the rights it gives you. The US Copyright Office, the UK Intellectual Property Office, and the Australian Copyright Council all offer information. The more you know, the more likely it is that you'll recognize bad contract clauses when you run across them.

- Except in specific circumstances, such as doing work-for-hire, don't give away your copyright, not even temporarily. Inexperienced publishers sometimes ask for this, believing they need it to properly exploit authors' rights. They don't--and if things go wrong, it can work out very badly for you.

- You don't necessarily need to be afraid of life-of-copyright contracts. In a fixed-term contract, you grant rights for a defined amount of time--say, three years. In a life-of-copyright contract, you grant rights for the duration of copyright (currently, in the USA and most of Europe, your lifetime plus 70 years). New authors often find life-of-copyright contracts very scary--but they're standard for the big trade houses and for larger independents, and many small presses use them also. They are not intended to allow the publisher to hold your rights until 70 years after your death, but rather to create an open-ended situation in which the publisher can keep your book in print for as long as it continues to sell in good numbers.

Of course, you need to evaluate the situation. For digitally-based publishers, a fixed term is preferable; the digital marketplace is changing rapidly, and it's best not to tie up your rights for too long. Ditto for a new small publisher. The failure rate for new publishers is very high, and a fixed-term contract will at least ensure that you get your rights back eventually, even if the publisher doesn't bother to return them before disappearing.

Also, and this is very important: a life-of-copyright grant term must be balanced by a precise rights reversion clause (see below).

- Speaking of grant terms, make sure there is one. Whether it's three years or life-of-copyright, your contract should state the term for which rights are being granted. I've seen small publishers' contracts that lack this important detail.

- Make sure your contract includes provision for rights reversion. While you want to grant rights to a publisher that will properly exploit them, you also want eventually to get your rights back. When and how this happens should be clearly spelled out in your contract.

A time-limited contract is one way to ensure reversion--but beware of automatic renewal clauses that make it difficult for you to terminate, or that rely on you remembering to send the publisher notice before the renewal date and thus can easily be forgotten. Beware also of excessive grant terms--for instance, the contract of one well-known author mill extends for seven years, which is longer than many commercially-published books remain in print. For a smaller publisher, three to five years, with the possibility of renewal if both parties agree, is probably the most you want to consider.

For life-of-copyright contracts, there should be a rights reversion clause detailing when the work will go "out of print" or off the market (this should be tied to minimum sales or royalty levels--for instance, fewer than 100 books sold within the previous 12 monts--rather than to mere availability for sale, so that the publisher can't hang on to your rights if your book is selling just a couple of copies a year) and what steps you must take to request that the publisher return your rights (usually, a letter asking the publisher either to republish or return rights, with a timeframe for the publisher to respond). Best of all is a reversion clause that makes rights reversion automatic on request once sales or royalties fall below the stated minimum.

Never sign a life-of-copyright contract that does not include such a clause. Yes, they exist; I've seen them.

Also look for a clause requiring the publisher to publish within a specific period of time (say, 12-24 months), or else return rights. This will prevent the publisher from sitting on your book without ever publishing it, or from pushing the publishing date back indefinitely due to incompetence or malice.

- Last but very definitely not least, never rely on a publisher's verbal assurances. A confused or devious publisher may assure you that, even though its contract requires you to give up copyright, "you aren't really losing your copyright, because we'll give it back later on." Or, even though its life-of-copyright contract doesn't include a reversion clause, "you don't need to worry, because we never hold on to rights forever."

Maybe the publisher means it, maybe it doesn't--but do you really want to risk signing with a publisher whose contract doesn't match its promises? Along with Yog's Law, a principle by which authors should always abide is this: If it's not in writing, it doesn't exist.

For more on copyright, including the reasons why you don't need to register copyright for unpublished work and a discussion of several common copyright myths, see the Copyright page of the Writer Beware website.
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