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.

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!
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