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.

May 28, 2009

Victoria Strauss -- BEA Bewares

If you're a writer, you've probably heard of BookExpo America. Although it describes itself as "the premier event for the North American publishing industry," in recent years it has shrunk considerably, both in exhibitors and attendance. There are those who question its relevance, not to mention its survival (see Mike Shatzkin's interesting essay on the dwindling of BEA, and the changes in publishing and book retailing that have driven this).

Nevertheless, for many writers BEA retains its gloss as a kind of book industry Mecca, a place to make pilgrimage in hope of establishing contacts, promoting a recently-published book, or even attracting the interest of a publisher or agent. And wherever there's something writers want, there are people waiting to take their money.

I touched on this issue last week, with a post about vanity publisher SterlingHouse Publishing, which sells its authors face time at BEA for astronomical prices. I would not be at all surprised to learn that another vanity publisher loudly touting its BEA attendance is doing something similar.

(Yes, questionable agents and publishers do exhibit at BEA. I've looked at about half the exhibitor list so far, and have identified five companies about which Writer Beware has received significant complaints. At BEA, as elsewhere, don't take everything at face value.)

Vanity publishers aren't the only ones looking to make a profit from BEA. Writer Beware knows of several fee-charging agents who give clients the "opportunity" to pay extra to have their manuscripts carried to BEA, supposedly in hopes of making publisher contacts. (A good agent shouldn't need a book fair to make publisher contacts, but never mind.) Last year, I heard from a writer who paid his agent $250 for this privilege; all he got for his money was a few business cards, which the agent could easily have acquired just by spending half an hour walking around the floor.

Other questionable agents solicit writers (not just their clients, but writers whose addresses they've bought or harvested from the Internet) for inclusion in a catalog that they promise to bring to BEA for publishers to peruse. We know of one agent who charges $300 per catalog page, which includes an author photo, bio, and brief synopsis. Cut-rate book publicists and print-on-demand self-publishing services also sometimes offer BEA catalog listings--for instance, this one for $499 from POD self-pub service Llumina Press (scroll down the page). Or from Trafford, last year, this one for $669.

Do BEA attendees really look at these catalogs? ...What do you think? The catalog owners, on the other hand, make a stack of cash.

There are also consultants, writing coaches, and the like who offer BEA "representation" to aspiring and self-published authors. They promise to develop a pitch or press kit to promote writers' proposals or self-pubbed books to appropriate agents and editors at the fair, and report back once it's all over. Fees can be hefty: $1,500, $2,000, or even more. Sometimes only a certain number of hours of effort are guaranteed; beyond that, further charges accrue.

While many such consultants have questionable or marginal resumes, and are rarely able to point to successes, others have genuine credentials, and present convincing-sounded testimonials--for instance, AuthorOneStop, which offers several BEA representation packages. Ask yourself, though--do you really want to pay $2,000 for a service like this, which basically is an expensive gamble that offers no guarantees, either that any contacts will result or, if they do result, that representation or publication will follow? Why not just query in the ordinary way? If your ms. is marketable, you stand just as good a chance, if not better, of being picked up. If your ms. is not marketable, the best BEA representation pitch in the world won't get you closer to publication.

Apart from any considerations of cost or honesty, the fact is that while BEA is a great place to meet, greet, schmooze, and learn, it's not really an optimal venue to try and sell unpublished manuscripts, or to promote self-published books. Even for a BEA service that's offered by competent people in good faith, writers' dollars are probably best spent elsewhere. As it is, most of the services are ripoffs--just another way for unscrupulous people to leverage writers' desperate desire for publication.

Just a reminder: Writer Beware will be at BEA on Saturday and Sunday, in Booth 3828 (courtesy of Mystery Writers of America). Stop by and see us, and pick up one of our brand-new brochures.

May 25, 2009

Writer Beware at BEA

Writer Beware will be attending BookExpo America this year!

Mystery Writers of America has generously offered to host us in its booth (Booth 3828). We'll be handing out literature and talking about Writer Beware all day Saturday and Sunday, so please stop by and visit us.

Look forward to seeing you there!

- Ann C. Crispin
- Victoria Strauss
- Rich White

May 18, 2009

Victoria Strauss -- SterlingHouse Publisher's Cover Gambit (Or, How Some Publishers Make Money)

One of two covers for this week's edition of Publishers Weekly features SterlingHouse Publisher and a number of its writers--just in time for Book Expo America. Over the SterlingHouse logo and seven author photos floats the cover caption "Hot New Authors."

If you're a Writer Beware regular, you may know that SterlingHouse is one of a number of publishers included on our Thumbs Down Publisher List. Why? Because SterlingHouse's contracts require writers to buy bulk quantities of their own finished books (550 books is a typical number, for a total cost of just under $7,000)--a fact that is not revealed anywhere on SterlingHouse's several websites. Recently, SterlingHouse added an interesting twist to its vanity-style contracts by offering some writers a small advance ($250 to $500, in contracts Writer Beware has seen). The buyback clause is still included, so writers still wind up considerably out of pocket--but now they can in honesty (well, half-honesty) say that they signed with an "advance-paying publisher."

What's a vanity publisher doing on the cover of PW? Well, PW's cover is advertising, and anyone who's willing to incur the fee can buy it. A more relevant question might be why a vanity publisher is willing to cut into its profit by paying premium advertising rates.

Oh, but SterlingHouse isn't paying. Its authors are.

It's all part of SterlingHouse's annual attendance at BEA. SterlingHouse will have a booth at the fair, with its own staff, video crew, podcasts, and other special events, and authors are eligible to participate at several different levels (Writer Beware has seen a copy of the participation offers, which were sent to SterlingHouse authors last fall).

At $9,500, the "Premier" package is the richest. It includes not just the PW cover spot, but (among other items) passes to BEA, an author signing in the SterlingHouse booth, 150 copies of the author's book, a poster and tabletop display, a podcast, sitting/storage space in SterlingHouse's booth, and an invitation to SterlingHouse's Annual Beer and Pretzel Celebration. (For $9,500, I'd expect champagne and cake, but that's just me.) Nine Premier slots are available.

Can't afford $9,500? Authors interested in a somewhat lower-priced package can spring for the "Spotlight"--just $8,250, including a spot on PW's inside cover ("no less than 1/8 page"), BEA passes, free books, a signing in the SterlingHouse booth, assorted extras, and, of course, the beer and pretzel party. The Spotlight has just six slots.

But there's more. Authors really looking to economize can choose "Special Level One" or "Special Level Two" ($4,650 and $2,995, respectively), which don't involve PW but do include a signing, a BEA pass, and free books (and, yes, beer and pretzels). Up to 40 spots are available for Levels One and Two; however, since signings are in the BEA autographing booth, rather than the SterlingHouse booth, not all those slots are guaranteed.

So how much money will SterlingHouse make on author BEA attendance? There are seven authors on PW's cover, so that's a cool $66,500 from the Premier package. I haven't seen PW's inside cover, so I don't know how many authors opted for the Spotlight package--but assuming a similar level of participation (4 slots out of 6), that's another $33,000. As for Special Levels One and Two, a search of the BEA Autographing Area schedule turns up 12 SterlingHouse authors. Let's assume the lower level of participation. That's at least another $35,940.

Gross total: $135,440. Granted, there are costs associated with all of this--the PW cover, the SterlingHouse booth, the autographing slots, the BEA passes, etc. But I don't think it's much of a stretch to surmise that SterlingHouse is realizing a tidy profit. And don't forget that all these authors have already paid several thousand dollars each for publication.

Of course, SterlingHouse authors don't have to pony up for any of these BEA packages if they don't want to. If they have a ticket to the show, they can even stop by and visit SterlingHouse's booth. But if they do, they shouldn't count on sitting down ("...we will not have any author storage room or sitting space for authors who are not participating at the Premier or Spotlight level"), or on being included in any of the video footage SterlingHouse is organizing ("...footage will be used to promote SterlingHouse and authors participating in [sic] at the level of Premier, Spotlight and Special levels"), or on making contact with any of the "regional sales force, foreign and domestic reps and distributors" with whom SterlingHouse staff will be meeting (that's for participating authors only). As for face time with their publisher...sorry. "Due to the amount of appointments scheduled for Cynthia Sterling, she will be unable to meet personally with authors who are not participating at the Premier, Spotlight or Special levels."

The beer and pretzel celebration is right out, as well.

May 15, 2009

Victoria Strauss --Free Ebooks and Sales

A little less than a year ago, I blogged on ebook giveaway experiments by major publishers (including Tor, Random House, and St. Martin's Press), and the question of whether such giveaways could boost print sales. At the time of my blog post, what reports there were (from both industry sources and individual authors) indicated that sales could indeed benefit.

Now someone is trying to quantify that information. Bloggasm reports that a doctoral student, John Hilton, is collecting data on the sales impact of ebook giveaways. He has identified approximately 40 titles for which a free e-version was released after the p-version was published, and tracked Bookscan numbers for eight weeks on both sides of the e-release.

Results so far are interesting. While four of the five Random House books Hilton identified showed an uptick in sales post-e-version, 20 of 24 Tor titles showed a decrease. Why the difference? "One possible explanation is that by making the free books available for only one week a different dynamic was present [for Tor] than when the books were made permanently available [by Random House]," Hilton says. "The opportunity for word-of-mouth to spread about the free book may have been significantly diminished in the model used by Tor."

Ultimately, as Bloggasm notes, "These are all unknowns, and these unknowns leave enough wiggle room so that proponents of both sides of the argument have plenty of leeway to argue why releasing a book for free — whether it’s through a Creative Commons license or Google Books — has a net benefit or detriment to sales."

Hilton's study is continuing, and presumably more information will be forthcoming.

May 12, 2009

Victoria Strauss -- Agent for a Day

On the heels of Queryfail and Agentfail and all the anti-agent feeling generated thereby, agent Nathan Bransford hosted a Be An Agent For a Day contest. The goal of the contest: to see whether people could pick the three published authors from a group of fifty query letters (all posted on Nathan's blog).

Nathan posted the results a couple of weeks ago. None of the published books were among the most-picked queries (the one that became a NYT bestseller had a pick rate of just 15%) and only two of the more than 300 people who participated in the contest picked all three.

What to take from this contest? First off, it demonstrates how subjective these choices are. Agents' decisions are informed by their experience and their knowledge of the market, but the bottom line is that one person's "Gotta have it" is another's "not for me." Most queries get multiply rejected, even for manuscripts that go on to become extremely successful books.

Nathan's other conclusion, though, is one I find most interesting:

I think this contest goes to show how people may have overemphasized the query itself when they were playing agents. The queries that generated the highest response rate were the most technically precise. They were tidy, they were well-organized, they followed the rules. They were good queries (and some of them may go on to have success stories of their own). But this wasn't a contest to spot the best queries.

When an agent is reading a query we're trying to look past the query to get a sense of the underlying book. We're evaluating the concept and the writing, not ticking off a box of requirements. I don't reject people solely because they start with rhetorical questions or their word count isn't quite right or they break one of the query "rules". I can't afford to do that. Nor do I request pages for a book that has a perfect query but whose underlying concept is flawed.

A good concept and strong writing are more important than good query form.

Interesting, yes? And, I imagine, frustrating. Writers are exhorted to follow the "rules" of querying, yet the truth is that marketability trumps the rules (at least to some extent). So why follow the rules at all? Because you can never know. The strength of your concept might shine through your non-conforming query letter--but then again, it might not. Statistically speaking, it's safer to let the rules be your guide.

Nathan concludes, "I hope everyone will remember this contest the next time a poor agent or editor is mocked for passing on [insert bestseller here]. Because getting it right is incredibly hard."


May 7, 2009

Victoria Strauss -- Why You Are Probably Not an Independent Author (or, Another Post for Which I Expect I Will Get Some Flack)

In my last post, I discussed the misleading appropriation by self-publishing conglomerate Author Solutions (parent company of AuthorHouse, iUniverse, Xlibris, and Trafford) of the term "independent publisher."

The flip side of this is the growing tendency among self-published authors to call themselves "independent authors" or "indie authors." I don't know where this term came from, or who originated it; but I'm seeing it a lot these days (Google it to see what I mean), and, stickler for precision that I am, it bugs the crap out of me.

If you are a true self-publisher--if you've handled every aspect of publication on your own--then yes, you can accurately call yourself an independent author, in at least one of the senses below. If, however, you've used a POD self-publishing service, here are three reasons why the term won't fly.

1. It's inaccurate. You didn't publish on your own. You hired a service to publish for you. If you've used a print-on-demand self-publishing company, you've granted it a limited license to your work, you've chosen from a pre-determined package of services, you're dependent on whatever distribution the company provides, and you probably don't own your ISBN number. Also, since most self-pub companies reserve the right to discontinue publication for any reason, you don't fully control your work's availability, and since most pay a royalty, you don't control its income, either. In other words, you are not independent.

2. It's redundant. In the larger sense of being independent contractors rather than employees, all authors are independent, unless they're doing work-for-hire. This is true whether they've scored a contract with a large commercial publisher, have gotten an offer from a non-advance-paying small press, have fallen into the clutches of a dishonest vanity publisher, or have bought a publishing package from a self-publishing service.

3. It's a euphemism. Giving something a different name doesn't change what it is. What's wrong with "self-published," anyway? (Whoops, don't answer that--you might have to admit that self-publishing actually does still carry a stigma.) If you're proud of having self-published, why not call it what it is? If you're ashamed, why do it to begin with? Euphemisms are of help to no one. All they do is make things more confusing.

I do realize that I'm fighting a losing battle in pointing out these contradictions, and I fully expect that, like "traditional publisher" a decade earlier, "indie author" and "indie publisher" will become the terminology of choice among those who don't know better, who wish to pretend, or who fear to offend. None of which, clearly, are me.

Bah humbug.

May 3, 2009

Victoria Strauss -- Vanity is the New Indie: Weasel Words from Author Solutions

Back around the turn of the century, a certain author mill headquartered in Frederick, Maryland decided it wanted to distance itself from the business model of the then-new print-on-demand self-publishing services--because even though it followed most of the same practices (little editorial gatekeeping, minimal distribution, no marketing, and reliance on digital technology), it didn't charge an upfront fee, and even paid a miniscule "advance." So it invented the term "traditional publisher"--intended specifically to denote a publisher that did not require its authors to pay upfront, and thus was not a vanity publisher.

"Traditional publisher" has come into wide usage over the past ten years. This is unfortunate, for it's a meaningless term. Commercial or trade publishing, in which authors are not required to pay for publication, is neither more nor less traditional than vanity publishing or self-publishing, both of which have been around for just as long. Also, the simple fact that a publisher doesn't charge an upfront fee may not mean much. Plenty of amateur publishers charge no upfront fees. Plenty of stealth vanities shift their fees to the back end. The fact that a publisher calls itself "traditional" tells you nothing whatever about its business model.

Into the publishing-related euphemism game now comes POD self-publishing juggernaut Author Solutions. In a recent widely-promoted "white paper," The Next Indie Revolution, it attempts to re-brand itself, and services like it, as "indie book publishers."

The term "independent book publisher" has a long-established and well-understood meaning: a publisher that is not owned by a larger company. Knopf, for instance, is an imprint of Random House, which is owned by Bertlesmann; although it has an independent identity within the company, it's part of a conglomerate and thus not an independent publisher (any longer. Like many large-house imprints, it used to be). Macadam/Cage, on the other hand, is not owned by a larger company. It is an independent publisher.

Sensibly, Author Solutions doesn't try to pretend that it offers independence in that sense. (Author Solutions is, in fact, a conglomerate: starting originally with AuthorHouse, it recently acquired rival services iUniverse, Xlibris, and Trafford, turning these formerly independent companies into "brands" in a process reminiscent of the way that large trade publishing houses have acquired formerly independent publishers and turned them into imprints). Instead, it attempts to attach a new meaning to "independent publisher," or rather the hipper "indie publisher": not a publisher independent of larger corporate control, but a publisher of "independent" writers. Invoking the example of indie films and indie music, in which artists bypassed big studios and big music labels to finance the creation of their own works and market them directly to the public, AS announces that "Now it's publishing's turn."

Over the last decade, as new technologies have emerged, the obstacles that once loomed in front of prospective authors have all but vanished. Since the introduction of print-on-demand technology and the Internet bookstore, the process of getting a book to market is following the pattern previously established in film and music. It's not longer necessary for authors to wait years for someone else to put their book on the market. Now, through indie book publishing companies like AuthorHouse and iUniverse, authors can let the reader decide if their book is any good or not.

This analogy doesn't hold up, however. Those independent filmmakers and musicians didn't pay a company to package and market their work, they did it themselves. They're equivalent to the true self-publishing author, who coordinates the entire publishing process on his or her own--not to writers who buy publishing packages from self-publishing services. If you sign a contract with a self-publishing company, you are not an independent writer, no matter how emphatically the self-pub company says you are.

AS is eager also to establish that these new "indie book publishing companies," which provide a service that it dubs "supported self-publishing," are not the same as vanity publishers. Unlike vanity publishers, AS claims, supported self-publishing services make books available through major retail and online channels, offer additional editing and marketing services, and don't require authors to buy their own books. But this argument doesn't hold up either. Today's vanity publishers, most of which have switched to digital technology and use the exact same printers as the self-publishing services, do or don't do all those things as well.

The irony of all this indie-ing, of course, is that it offers indirect proof of something that AS, and many of its clients, would no doubt hotly deny: like the stigma attached to vanity publishing, the stigma attached to self-publishing is still alive and well. Otherwise, why be so eager to adopt a euphemism?

Having declared that the commercial book trade is in crisis ("According to Nielsen BookScan, fewer than 10 percent of new titles published in the US in 2007 sold more than 1,000 copies in their first year"--a percentage that's seriously skewed by the fact that it applies to all new titles, including vast numbers of self-published books, for which sales average fewer than 200 copies), and implied that reality for a self-published author isn't really all that different than for a commercially published author ("[T]today, even if your name is Clancy or Rowling, you will do your own marketing"--a glib claim that ignores the fact that post-publication promotion is not the same as pre-publication marketing), AS draws to a grand conclusion, envisioning a brave new world in which all is vanity:

There's no argument that the independent publishing model is changing the book-publishing industry; the only question left is how soon it will become the standard, and how quickly traditional publishing houses will adapt to this model to remain profitable and continue to discover new talent. That's the next chapter.

So all you would-be "traditional" authors, start saving, because that book your agent just submitted to Doubleday? Next year, you just might have to pay to publish it.

Sadly, I'm not entirely joking. See this post from Jane Smith's How Publishing Really Works blog on what may be a new trend: commercial publishers making referrals to self-publishing services, or establishing their own pay-to-publish divisions.
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