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.

March 30, 2010

Hardball, Amazon Style

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Amazon has been paying hardball lately.

In February, Amazon and major publisher Macmillan went head-to-head over ebook pricing, with Amazon wanting to keep the wholesale pricing model that has till now been the norm for both ebooks and print books, under which retailers can discount book prices as much they like; and Macmillan insisting on the newer agency model, under which pricing is controlled by the publisher (a system that does not allow for discounting). When Macmillan refused to give in, Amazon turned off the buy buttons for Macmillan's books--all books, not just ebooks. Ultimately, Amazon capitulated, admitting that it wanted to carry ebooks from Macmillan, even at higher prices.

But who really won that face-off? Though Amazon bowed to Macmillan on the matter of pricing, the dispute allowed it to demonstrate the power of the buy button shutoff--and it now appears to be using this as a negotiating tool. Last week, the New York Times reported that, while agreeing that other major publishers will be able to control prices for their ebooks, Amazon is threatening to shut off buy buttons for those that don't offer concessions in return, including a guarantee that no competitor (i.e., Apple and its iBooks ebookstore) would receive lower prices or better terms.

Now the European Amazons (,, and, are leaning on Marketplace sellers in much the same way. The Bookseller reports that Amazon is demanding price parity beginning March 31:
In order to offer customers the best possible experience on, beginning 31st March, Amazon will require price parity for all sellers selling under the marketplace Participation Agreement. Price parity for these sellers means that the item price and total price (total amount payable, excluding taxes) of each product a seller offers on must generally be the same or lower than on the seller's other non-physical sales channels.
What happens if sellers don't comply? Like the publishers, they can be shut down:
Sellers who are not willing to offer parity should remove their listings, as Sellers that do not comply with our terms and conditions will lose their selling privileges.
Amazon's Marketplace is used not just by individuals, but by bookshops, and for many shops, Amazon represents a major chunk of their online business. Because of the commissions Amazon charges Marketplace sellers, the shops often offer books on their own websites for less than they charge at Amazon--but Amazon's new price parity policy would make that impossible. Infuriated at what they call Amazon's "bullying," up to a dozen Scottish booksellers have complained to the UK's Office of Fair Trading that Amazon's new policy unfairly restricts their ability to sell at the prices they choose (pretty ironic, given that this was basically Amazon's beef with Macmillan). The OFT is considering the complaint.

This latest round of disputes is far from the first time that Amazon has used its dominant position in the market to pressure its suppliers. In 2008, it sparked widespread criticism, and also a lawsuit, when it decreed that it would direct-sell no POD books that hadn't been printed by its own POD subsidiary, BookSurge (now CreateSpace). That same year, it locked horns with several UK publishers, trying to force them to offer deeper discounts, and to penalize them for selling discounted books on their own websites. (The buy button turn-off tactic was briefly used in one of those disputes.)

Amazon's major concern right now has to be competition from Apple, and it's clearly taking action to protect its giant share (some would say monopoly) of the online bookselling business. It obviously doesn't care what its critics think--as with the BookSurge firestorm, all it has to do is sit tight, and hold fast, and people will soon move on to the next crisis. But how long can it throw its weight around (or not throw its weight around; it appears to be doing nothing about the lynch mobs that are smearing authors with 1-star reviews to protest publishers' ebook policies) without a backlash? Dennis Johnson of MobyLives believes that may already be happening. Surveying recent press coverage and commentary about Amazon's hardball tactics, he observes: "[W]hat’s gaining, it seems, is a consensus that the company is, well, out of control."

March 26, 2010

First Novel Sales: The Data

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Requests for data on first novel sales frequently turn up in Writer Beware's email. What's the average advance for a first novel? How long does it take the typical first novel to sell? Do most first novelists sell their books on their own, or through an agent? Will publishers and agents consider first novelists who don't have any short fiction publication credits?

The quick response to all these questions is that "average" and "typical" are hard to quantify. From advances to time spans, individual experiences are all over the map. But that's not really a helpful answer to writers wondering about what they can expect from a first novel sale. Concrete information is much more useful.

Hard data on first novel sales is difficult to come by--but it does exist, if only in limited and fragmentary form. There's SF author Tobias Buckell's survey of first-novel advances in the speculative fiction field. Romance author Brenda Hiatt's Show Me the Money lists advances paid by major US romance publishers for first novels and others. YA author Justine Larbalestier's essay on first novel advances provides interesting information, as does this article from the Guardian on first novel advances in the UK (which also touches on how receiving a very large advance may harm a writer's career if his or her book fails to perform). And another first novel survey, by YA author Megan Crewe, shows, among other things, that authors don't need special contacts or connections to land a reputable agent or publisher.

The most recent addition to this slim store of data comes from fantasy author Jim C. Hines, who just posted the final results of his own first novel survey. Since Jim wanted data on breaking in with the larger publishers, he limited his survey to authors who had received advances of at least $2,000 for their first novels. He received 247 responses from writers in a variety of genres, most of whom had broken in within the past five years.

Jim acknowledges that the survey has some flaws (including sample bias--the majority of respondents are spec fic authors--and the survey's small size). Even so, his information is fascinating, not least because it punctures several writing myths and goes against some conventional wisdom.

- "You can't get published without an agent, but you can't find an agent unless you're published," goes a common lament among new writers. And indeed, writing pundits and how-to-write books often advise writers to sell short stories before attempting to market a novel. Not only does this help writers hone their craft, the theory goes, but agents and editors will look on aspiring authors more favorably if they're already published. But of the 247 respondents in Jim's survey, 116 sold their first novels with zero short fiction publication credits. (I, too, had no short fiction credits when I sold my first novel. In fact, I had no publication credits at all.)

Can short fiction credits help? Jim believes they can, and I agree (as long as the credits are in reputable venues). But as this survey shows, they are by no means essential. So if you're like me and just don't find short fiction writing congenial, you don't have to torture yourself.

- Just over half of the respondents sold their first novels through agents. (Me too.) That means just under 50% sold directly to their publishers. Does this contradict the idea that an agent is essential for a first novel sale to an advance-paying publisher?

Not really. The results look different if you consider the decade in which the books were sold. Author Steven Saus's more detailed analysis of Jim's data reveals that, while direct-to-publisher sales outnumbered agented sales 55% to 45% in the 1980's, by the 2000's direct-to-publisher sales had dropped to 27%, and agented sales had jumped to 67%. This reflects the one of the major shifts in publishing that has occurred over the past 30 years, with agents taking on the gatekeeping function that was formerly carried out by editors.

- All over the internet, self-publishing advocates are telling writers that self-publishing is the right way to start their careers. If you can drive your self-published novel to success, a bigger publisher may take notice and pick it up. And indeed this does happen, with Christopher Paolini being an oft-cited example. The truth, however, is that self-publishing success is rare. Jim's survey confirms that--only one respondent self-published a book and later sold it to a larger publisher.

- What about small presses as a way to break in? The data here isn't great either--approximately 10 respondents published first with a small press, and later sold the book to a larger house. However, Steven Saus's breakdown of sales by genre reveals the growing market presence of small presses over the past ten years, and I wonder whether a survey of second novel sales might paint a more encouraging picture of small press publication as a stepping stone to bigger publishers.

- Writers dreaming of overnight success should get set for a long haul. The time it took respondents to sell their first novels ranged from 0 to 41 (!) years, but the average was just over 11 years. (It took me 8).

- "You've got to know someone." The notion that you have to be connected to find a reputable agent or publisher is a particularly common writer's myth. But, as in Megan Crewe's survey, more than half of Jim's respondents sold their first novels without having any connections to either their agents or their publishers. (Ditto for me.)

If you're aware of any other surveys or data covering first novel sales, please post them here.

March 23, 2010

Guest Blog Post: Grants for Writers--As Diverse As You Are

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Being paid for writing is the ultimate author's dream. Today, guest blogger C. Hope Clark sheds light on an area of support that many writers don't think of: Grants. There are plenty of them out there, if you know where to look--though, as Hope points out, you must be sure you meet their eligibility requirements, and are willing to conform to their conditions.

For much more grant information, as well as market info and contest listings, visit Hope's website,


By C. Hope Clark

When I speak at writing conferences, I'm inundated with requests about grants. I prefer to talk about funding streams - how to incorporate contests, publishing, freelance markets, jobs AND grants into a successful career that turns a real dollar. But the word "grant" stirs excitement in a room, in some cases making people tune out all else. Like winning the lottery, who doesn't crave free money?

Grants do not have to be repaid, but that doesn't mean they aren't conditional. Grants come from nonprofits, government agencies, schools and foundations. These funders have responsibilities of their own, to insure that the funds are used per established guidelines. Handing money over to writers, with no strings attached, is rare indeed.

So what grants are available to writers? Are they impossible to receive? Your eligibility can depend on who you are, what you are writing, where you live, how long you've written, what you've published, where you were born, your financial need and even mobility. What you won't find is a one-stop shop where mysterious people hand out money to new writers. What you will discover is that a writer with a clear-cut plan and serious motivation has the best chance at finding funds for a project. The following examples should open your eyes.

- Grants for writers to get away and write. Applications usually require proof of publication, but some just want samples of work and a writer's narrative on plans for the future.

Example: Grand Canyon National Park Residency (, Writers occupy a place in the park where they create their project, but they may be called upon to speak to park visitors.

Grants for artists/writers to participate in an educational setting. An artist may teach elementary school or instruct college creative writing, but s/he is paid for guiding others in the craft of writing. His/her fee or salary is paid via grant. Almost every state in the US has an AIE program through the state arts commission, often requiring the artist to qualify for a roster.

Two private grant examples for AIE grants are the Charles Lafitte Foundation  ( and The Elizabeth George Foundation (P.O. Box 1429, Langley, WA 98260), which offer grants to unpublished fiction writers, published or unpublished poets, emerging playwrights, and organizations benefiting disadvantaged youth.

These grants enable writers to attend a seminar, conference, workshop or teaching event. State arts commissions sometimes issue professional development grants to enable conference attendance. However, nothing beats contacting a conference organizer directly with a request for financial assistance. Even local conferences, like the South Carolina Writers Workshop Conference, offer financial aid.

Two well-known conferences with grants:

Taos Summer Writers' Conference -

Wesleyan Writers Conference -

These grants allow writers to complete research. Museums and libraries frequently give grants to those wishing to study their archives. The range of funds can vary from a small fixed figure or full room, board, stipend and transportation.

The Camargo Foundation ( assists scholars who pursue projects in the humanities and social sciences related to French and francophone cultures. The Ezra Jack Keats Memorial Fellowship ( offers funds to writers and/or illustrators of children's books who wish to use the Kerlan Collection for the furtherance of artistic development.

Fellows are grants/stipends for internships, teaching while writing, or participating in an exchange program.

The Arthur F. Burns Fellowship ( offers ten young print and broadcast journalists from the US and Germany the opportunity to share professional expertise. The Gilman School ( selects an annual fellow to assist in the education of the K-12 students through creative writing and a literary magazine.

Grants for established writers with financial or medical difficulties. FundsforWriters posts a long list of such grants at its website (

One example is the John Anson Kittredge Educational Fund, which has no website but can be reached at P.O. Box 2883, Cambridge, MA 02138. Its grants are awarded to artists in very special needy circumstances.

These grants usually incorporate a group and/or community project that features some aspect of the humanities.

Each US state has a humanities council, with one example being Oklahoma Humanities Grants ( A private entity embracing the humanities is Honoring Our Ancestors (, which endorses web sites, family newsletters, reunions, research or genealogical clubs and groups.

For journalists pursuing specific projects, attending events, or receiving training.

Two strong examples are Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellowships (, which are open to journalists with two years' experience in mental health journalism, and Casey Journalism Center on Children and Families (, which recognizes journalists covering social issues of children and families.

Helen McCloy/Mystery Writers of America Scholarship for Mystery Writing ( This organization seeks to nurture talent and professional development in mystery fiction, nonfiction, playwriting, and screenwriting.

The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators ( sponsors several grants for completion of children's by published and unpublished authors.

Grants for specific ethnic groups can be found not just through writing venues.

The Foundation for Jewish Culture ( is quite generous in its grants for those of or writing about Jewish culture. The Cintas Foundation ( supports creative artists of Cuban lineage who are currently residing outside of Cuba.

Probably the most misunderstood grant opportunity of all, fiscal sponsorships require collaboration between writer and a nonprofit entity. Many more grants go to nonprofit entities than individuals, mainly due to income tax regulations. Fiscal sponsorship enables a nonprofit organization to apply for a grant on a writer's behalf, subtracting an administrative fee in exchange for its services.

New York Foundation for the Arts ( remarkable arts foundation is one of the most adept at sponsoring writers and artists through a fiscal sponsorship program.

The Witter Bynner Foundation for Poetry ( endorses grants through nonprofit organizations, particularly as seed money, in support of individual poets, poetry translation and the process of translation, developing poetry audiences, and the uses of poetry.

Furthermore Grants by the JM Kaplan Fund ( considers nonfiction book publishing grants.

Use the same diligence you channel into your writing when seeking a grant. The best reward for landing one of these jewels is that one award perpetuates another. Funders put heavy stock in a previous grant win. But like finding the right publisher and nailing a great magazine feature, you must match your needs with theirs. Both of you have a desire to succeed--and when you connect, it's a match made all the way to the bank.

C. Hope Clark is editor of, a ten-year-old website and newsletter family that reaches 32,000 readers. FundsforWriters has been recognized by Writer's Digest Magazine for the past nine years in the publication's 101 Best Websites for Writers.

March 19, 2010


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Here are several publishing-related items that caught my eye over the past week.

Paying for Shelf Space

The Boulder Bookstore, in Boulder, CO, is selling shelf space to self-published authors, the Nieman Journalism Lab reports.
The store charges its consignment authors according to a tiered fee structure: $25 simply to stock a book (five copies at a time, replenished as needed by the author for no additional fee); $75 to feature a book for at least two weeks in the “Recommended” section; and $125 to, in addition to everything else, mention the book in the store’s email newsletter, feature it on the Local Favorites page of the store’s website for at least 60 days, and enable people to buy it online for the time it’s stocked in the store.

And for $255 — essentially, the platinum package — the store will throw in an in-store reading and book-signing event.
In addition, the store takes a 40% cut of sales.

The Nieman article puts a positive spin on this, dubbing it "microdistribution," pointing out the benefits for the store's financial bottom line and for raising the store's profile in the community. (Though I do wonder about paying for recommendations--does the store vet the books it recommends, and if not, what kind of fallout might there be if a really bad book is featured?)

But what about the authors--most of whom, apparently, pony up for the highest-price packages? Do they get their money's worth? Apparently, the readings/signings have proven popular, and in the fist week of March, 75 consignment books were sold. However, without knowing how many authors are involved in the program, and which of the books were tied to readings/signings, it's hard to assess that figure.

Given how difficult it is for self-published authors to get their books into physical bookstores, I'm prepared to keep an open mind on this. But it also seems to me to skirt the borders of exploitation. (Apparently the store hit upon the fee structure as a defensive measure, after it was "inundated" with requests from self-pubbed authors.) Do self-pubbed authors need more ways to spend money on their books? Plus, many stores are willing to shelve local self-pubbed authors, and even to host events for them, on a straightforward consignment basis.

I'm also reminded of IndieReader, which offers a somewhat similar Internet-based service, and which was strongly criticized by some self-published authors for its fees. I blogged about IndieReader last year.

Amazon Using Buy Button Shutoff as Negotiating Tool

We can now better understand Amazon's actions in last month's face-off with Macmillan over ebook pricing.

Having proved to the world the power of the buy button shutoff, Amazon is reportedly using it as a negotiating tool in its talks with major publishers about sales terms for ebooks. The New York Times reports that, among other concessions, Amazon is demanding a three-year contract, and a guarantee that no competitor (think Apple) will get lower prices or better terms.

Amazon is apparently also reaching out to smaller publishers, with which it hopes to retain its wholesale model. But some small publishers are already in talks with Apple, which requires that any publisher that wants to sell via the iPad "must offer the same terms to all booksellers. In other words, to do business with Apple, publishers must export Apple’s business model to all retailers."

Many industry observers feel that Amazon will damage its reputation, not to say its business (since people will simply go elsewhere to buy), if it pulls another buy button shutoff move. Stay tuned.

What Publishers Do/Don't Know

With all the enthusiasm/uncertainty/outright terror surrounding ebooks and epublishing, there's a huge amount (actually, as far as I'm concerned, way too much) prognosticating about the digital future. For the most part, I avoid posting or tweeting any of this--the bottom line is that no one really knows what's going to happen, and what will be will be, regardless of what we say about it now.

However, two articles by Michael Bhaskar for the UK industry newsletter BookBrunch recently caught my eye. Bhaskar avoids the kind of crystal ball blather that is so common right now, driving down instead to deeper issues.

Three things publishers don't know about the digital future (which platform will win? How many people will actually read ebooks? What impact will piracy have?)

Four things publishers do know about the digital future (yes, people will read from screens. Yes, change will happen; the race is on, even if we can't know how it will turn out. Yes, other content industries have been "knocked sideways" by the Internet, so there's no reason to assume publishing will manage better. Yes, digital is the future of book marketing.)

The End of Publishing--or Maybe Not

If you haven't already seen this clever and inspiring "End of Publishing" video from UK publisher Dorling Kindersley, go watch it right now.

Originally produced for DK's marketing staff, the video--which literally reverses itself halfway through, turning the conventional doom and gloom about the future of books on its head in the most ingenious way--has since gone viral.

The Penguin blog has a rundown on how (and why) the video was created. Very interesting.

March 16, 2010

Writer Beware is on Facebook

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Because I don't already have enough to do (ha!), I've just set up a Facebook page for Writer Beware.

It'll aggregate the content I'm posting around the Web--the blog posts here, my Twitterfeed, and info from various writers' groups and discussion boards. Your comments, responses, and thoughts are welcome!

There's also a discussion board, where everyone will be able to post comments, complaints, alerts, thoughts about writing and the writing life, etc...but NOT flames, libel, or inappropriate personal information. I've moderated discussion boards before, and know how much work they can be--so this is an experiment that may or may not continue, depending on how much time it turns out to involve.

Please check us out, and become a fan!

March 12, 2010

Guest Blog Post: Content Mills--Just A Stepping Stone in Your Career

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Today: the second of two guest posts on content mills.

In this article originally published at The WM Freelance Writers Connection, writer Angela Atkinson takes a more positive view of content mills, arguing that they can be a good way for new writers to sharpen skills and build experience. The down side: you probably won't make much money. And if you're focused on establishing a career, you need to treat them as a stepping stone, rather than an end in themselves.


by Angela Atkinson

I always knew I wanted to be a writer, and though I studied journalism in college, circumstances in my life pushed me toward a corporate job early into adulthood. I wrote every day back then--but it was either some corporate communication or publication, or something just for myself that I always pretended I'd work on getting published, but never did.

After leaving the corporate world, I knew that I wanted to focus on my writing career, and even though I understood how to get started the "old-fashioned" way (sending clips, queries, etc. via snail mail, mostly), I was kind of clueless when it came to the "new world" of online journalism.

Since I was lucky enough to have my husband's income backing me up, I was free to take things as slowly as I wanted to--and since I had small kids at home, I definitely took baby steps along the way.

My Experience With Content Mills

I found Ezine Articles online and published a couple of old pieces with them (and later, some reprints.) They paid me nothing, but the byline felt great. I wanted more, so I started doing some research.

That was about the time I ran into my first content mill, Associated Content. AC paid me next to nothing for the 50 or so articles I wrote for them, although I still, to this day, get a little bit of cash from them each month for page views on those articles. I even used AC as a format to promote a couple of clients through articles which linked to their sites. And, though I don't use AC on my resume or website, I can honestly tell you that AC helped me to start my writing career.

You see, with the samples I generated working for AC, I was able to direct other, higher paying companies to view my work. I also sharpened my writing chops working for AC--got my flow going again after years of only writing corporate stuff and fiction on the side.

After I worked for AC, I worked for a few other content mills here and there. I did a stint with Bright Hub as a contributing editor--and while payments were slightly higher than AC, it was just another babystep for me, building my writing portfolio a little more. When Bright Hub decided to ask its writers to do more work than I thought was fair for the amount they were paying, I dropped the account.

Using my AC portfolio, I got accepted as a Demand Studios writer, and later a DS title editor. DS fuels several well-known websites, including Answerbag, eHow, Livestrong and several others. Demand pays more than most "content mills" and even offers health insurance to writers, editors and filmmakers who contract with them. Contractors are paid twice weekly.

They have high editorial standards and their editors even fact check each article they produce. And, unlike some "content mills," Demand doesn't accept every writer who applies. That's probably why they don't consider themselves a content mill.

Along the way, I wrote for a few other "content mill" type places, but those were the most notable. I still maintain a relationship with Demand Studios as a writer and title editor, but only part time. The benefit for me is that when I'm working with a client or on a big project, I can step back from DS at any time--but when I need a little extra income or am between projects, DS is there. There are no minimum requirements. And, there's always work available. I'm not the only one who feels this way--DS contracts with many professionals who agree wholeheartedly.

So, ultimately, my take on content mills is this: if you're going to write for them, do it. Build up an online portfolio, and move on. Use content mills as a stepping stone, and don't get stuck there forever. Like me, you might even want to keep a decent one in your back pocket to fill in the gaps between accounts once you build your business.

What's the alternative? You can write articles free and submit them to sites like Ezine Articles--or publish them on your own blog or website. Or, you can go the old fashioned route and submit blindly to various publications via snail mail. All of these are effective ways to get started, if you're willing to work hard and be persistent.

The Lure of Community

A lot of times, writers find themselves so entrenched in the online communities that often come along with content mills that they don't want to leave. AC and DS, for example, both have really active and helpful writing communities in which writers can discuss anything related to writing, including but not limited to the content mill itself. As writers become familiar with their colleagues in these communities, it can almost become addictive. They stick around and keep writing $5 and $10 articles just to maintain their status in the community.

Here's my advice on that--make connections with people who seem to be on a similar path and take those relationships outside of the content mill community. Email or chat via messenger. Networking is an important component of a successful writing career, and there's nothing saying you can't find decent writers in content mill communities.

Join other online writing communities too. Or, just check in once or twice a week for awhile as you work on growing your career. Don't let yourself be held back under any circumstances.

Bottom Line

Though I am well aware that some of my colleagues will disagree with me, I don't think content mills are all bad. I think they're an ideal place to get one's feet wet in the industry--a jumping off point. Sharpen your skills, get used to working with editors, that sort of thing.

Beyond that, I think you're wasting your time and talent if you don't try to branch out and move forward.

The bottom line is that most content mills don't promise you the world. They tell you, up front, that the work is "write for hire" and in most cases, you know up front what you'll make. If you make the choice to write under those terms, then you know what you're getting yourself into.

Don't quit your day job, though--because you won't make much without working 16 nonstop hours a day (though a determined writer could easily make $300 to $500 a week writing for DS working about 6-8 hours a day, five days a week.) Still, if you can write on the side, or if you're lucky enough to have a working spouse who can afford to support you as you start your career, content mills present one option to help you get moving in the right direction.

I don't believe that content mills are the only way to get started--just that they're one way. You have to choose the path that's right for you. And, if you've got the time, inclination and determination to start with content mills, it just might work for you too.

Angela Atkinson is a freelance writer, editor and researcher. In addition to writing and editing for websites and corporate clients, she is the co-founder of the WM Network, which currently includes The WM Freelance Connection and The WM Parenting Connection. She's also the author of an award-winning inspirational blog called In Pursuit of Fulfillment. Angela is happily married and has three beautiful children.

March 9, 2010

Guest Blog Post: Content Mills--Why Aspiring Writers Should Avoid Them

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

A content mill, if you aren't familiar with the term, is a website that aggregates huge numbers of articles on a constantly-updated basis, written by freelancers who are paid by page views or ad clicks rather than wages or fees. A few examples: Examiner, Suite101, eHow, Triond, Associated Content, Helium.

I've written on this blog about a number of content mills, focusing mainly on their Terms and Conditions and the implications for writers of the legal language contained therein. But are content mills worth writing for? Can you make money? Will they help you start or build a freelance writing career?

This week I'm hosting two guest posts that address these questions (both originally posted at The WM Freelance Writers Connection). The first is by journalist Carol Tice, who argues that content mills are not a good way for aspiring writers to establish a sustainable writing career.

by Carol Tice

As many WM readers and readers of my Make a Living Writing Blog may already know, I am not a fan of content mills. I advise the writers I mentor to avoid them, and many of my mentees approach me with the specific goal of kicking their mill-writing habit.

I think there are many types of people for whom these sites are a superb option -- but in my opinion, those types don't include writers who're serious about building a good-paying, sustainable writing career. To clarify, I mean people who want to earn $50,000 a year and up from their writing. People who ultimately want to have unlimited earning capability from writing.

Let me explain why I'm down on content mills. In my experience, here are the career problems writers may experience who rely mostly on content-site assignments:

1. It does not teach you to report. Most of the stories on content sites are written with light Internet research or off the top of your head. They don't help you develop newsgathering abilities, which are a bedrock skill needed for most good-paying byline reporting and corporate writing work. You don't develop interviewing skills since you generally aren't conducting interviews. If you dream of earning $800-$1500 for a single article, mill writing is not helping you get there.

2. It does not teach you to research. A lot of good-paying writing assignments call for extensive research. I recently wrote a $650 article for a regional magazine about all the stimulus money our state got and how it was spent. I wrote a $1,500 article about where Seattle's trash goes and what happens to it. I'm doubtful that anyone cutting their teeth on mill stories will ever be able to write stories like these. Writing for mills does not teach you how to do investigative reporting, how to dig deep into documents, understand them, interpret them, or synthesize complex information. Copywriting as well can demand a decent amount of research and ability to dive in-depth into a topic.

3. It does not give you nurturing editor relationships. I would be nowhere today without two or three amazing editors I worked with earlier in my career. Editing at mills is usually cursory at best, and not the kind of close, one-on-one relationship you want where someone will really take you under their wing and take the time to show you exactly what you need to do to improve.

4. It does not teach you to market. Many mill writers have spoken in ecstatic terms of how much they love never having to market their writing. But marketing your writing is a key skill for those who want to earn big. Generally, you go out and find the really lucrative magazine connections and corporate clients yourself...they do not fall in your lap. Every week you write for mills is a week you don't learn this critical skill.

5. It does not enhance your reputation. While some mill writers have reported they were able to parlay their clips into better-paying assignments...I usually find when I nail them down that their definition of "better paying" and mine are very different. They often mean something like they've worked their way to $50 an article. Know that many editors at quality publications discard outright the queries of anyone who offers clips from mill sites, so this work can slam a lot of doors for you.

6. It's a model that may disappear. There's been much discussion online of the possibility that Google may soon find a way to screen out mill sites in its search results. If that happens, the entire article-aggregator industry, which sprung up to serve Google's ranking analytics, will disappear overnight. As it is, mill sites go out of business on a regular basis, taking any promised "lifetime" residuals they owe writers along with them.

If you write for mills, ask yourself how you would replace that income if this model goes away? What other client types could you find work with?

There's already signs that even if it survives, the content-site model is changing -- check out ProVoices, the new site that wants professionally reported articles for up to $250. The trend is toward rates going up, and more work being demanded of mill writers as these sites seek to differentiate themselves in the marketplace.

Carol Tice is a business journalist, copywriter, blogger and Web-content author. A contributor to the WM Freelance Writers Connection, she also blogs about small business for Entrepreneur magazine's Daily Dose, and about the business of freelance writing at her Make a Living Writing blog. In addition, she mentors writers on how to find better-paying markets and increase their earnings. She has three children ages 7, 8 and 17.

March 5, 2010

Guest Blog Post: The Scam of Private Label Rights Articles

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Today, Smashwords founder Mark Coker guest blogs about "private label rights" services, which make it possible for anyone to "author" their own ebooks or to populate blogs by putting together chunks of content from the service's database. The result: scads of badly-formatted, poor-quality ebooks and blogs, which are often used by SEO scammers to confuse Google Search results.

I'd never heard of these services before, and I'll bet a lot of my readers haven't either--which is exactly why I've been wanting to host more guest blog posts. Many thanks to Mark for illuminating yet another shady corner of the Internet.


Did you know for only $24.95 a month, you can subscribe to a service that gives you access to a database of thousands of articles you can turn into ebooks?

If you're too lazy or too clueless to write a real book, now you slap your name on another person's work and get rich in the process. Or, so parasitic "Private Label Rights" services are leading an ever-growing number of suckers to believe.

Back on January 14, while reviewing recently uploaded titles at Smashwords (my company), I ran across an ebook about childhood autism. My first thought was that this was an important topic for our customers. But on second glance, something about the book seemed fishy. The cover image was a cheesy stock photograph of a parent and a child. No title or author name on the cover image. It was poorly formatted. The author obviously hadn't bothered to read our formatting guidelines.

I suspected I had encountered this breed of vermin before. A quick cut and paste of a random string of text into Google gave me another clue. The exact text string appeared word-for-word in multiple other places on the Internet in articles and blog posts under the names of different authors and publications.

Did this author plagiarize the content? I suspected not. Another quick check and I confirmed the author learned about Smashwords from a Private Label Rights company called Micro Niche Finder.

I clicked to their web site, which cheerfully greeted me with the heading, "Imagine Having a Library of 29,768 Niche Market Articles at Your Fingertips!” The service offers a deviously ingenious software application they license for $24.95/month that allows any dunce with a mouse to point and click and assemble random chunks of content into a custom ebook in seconds. And it's legal.

I've seen these ebooks and so-called authors try to sneak their way in to Smashwords before. They usually arrive with 3-D covers and sloppy cut and paste formatting. Our Terms of Service strictly prohibits such drivel.

I zapped the offender's account like I would any unwelcome spam. Ordinarily, that would be the end of it and I'd move on to the next task. But the incident bugged me. I wondered if the company was deliberately sending its customers to Smashwords. I soon had my answer.

Their web site offers a video narrated by a man who identifies himself as James Jones. In the video, Mr. Jones demonstrates how simple it is to generate an ebook about dog food (yes, dog food). Mr. Jones then confidently explains to the viewer how they can make money on their dog food ebook by publishing it in the Amazon Kindle store and... no it can't be... Smashwords (!!). So not only are they deceiving gullible suckers with false information (neither Amazon nor Smashwords allow such content), they're also sending these suckers my way, only to have their visions of sugarplums turned to vinegar when we zap them.

I contacted Mr. Jones and informed him of his video's false claims, and asked him to immediately remove the video and stop telling his customers they can publish with Smashwords. Nearly two months later, I haven’t heard back. The same video is still up, making the same erroneous claims.

Micro Niche Finder isn’t the only operation promoting these shady private label rights articles. There are dozens of others. Their insipid content is popular with SEO scammers who use multi-level marketing schemes and affiliate programs to confuse Google’s search results by polluting the web with vapid ebooks, blogs and websites featuring this content.

If you’re a real author, this content makes it more difficult for your readers to find you on Google.

A quick search on Twitter for PLR, Private Label Rights and Private Label Ebooks yields a frenzy of activity.

While it’s fair to criticize these companies and their affiliates for pushing such trash, the people who utilize these services to manufacture and market their ebooks deserve ample blame as well.

The real victims of these services are ebook customers who accidentally purchase this content, and real authors who must compete against them for search engine visibility.

Mark Coker is the founder of Smashwords, an ebook publisher and distributor of over 8,000 original ebooks. This updated post first appeared at the Smashwords blog. Mark also blogs for the Huffington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @markcoker

March 2, 2010

Supreme Court Reinstates Major Freelancer Copyright Settlement

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware 

Today, by unanimous decision, the US Supreme Court overturned a lower court ruling that tossed out a settlement reached in a landmark case involving electronic rights and copyright.

In 1999, the National Writers' Union filed suit against the New York Times and LexisNexis, among others, alleging copyright infringement due to the companies' re-use of printed articles and photographs in electronic databases (New York Times Co. v Tasini et al). The Times and other publishers argued that the right of reproduction and distribution included in collective copyrights gave them the right to digitize content without permission or payment to the authors. The NWU argued that electronic rights were separate and distinct, and that, since their contracts had not included a grant of e-rights, the Times and other publishers had violated their copyrights.

In a 2001 decision, the Supreme Court sided with the NWU. In 2005, the parties (which now included nearly 40 publishers and consolidated several similar suits) reached an $18 million settlement that provided for compensation to the plaintiffs, in exchange for which the plaintiffs agreed to waive any future claims of infringement for works already in the databases. For the purposes of payment, plaintiffs were separated into three groups: Groups A and B, where individual copyrights had been registered (either timely or post-infringement), and Group C--by far the largest--where copyrights had not been registered.

A District Court upheld the settlement. However, ten freelancers appealed the decision to the Second Circuit, on the grounds that compensation for Group C (which was potentially much less than for Groups A and B) was unfair. Ultimately, the settlement was overturned--though not on the basis of the objectors' arguments. Instead, the Second Circuit ruled that, since US copyright law makes copyright registration a pre-requisite to filing infringement actions, federal courts don't have jurisdictional authority over claims involving unregistered copyrights. So the settlement should never have been approved in the first place.

Not wanting to return to the drawing board, the publishers took the case back to the Supreme Court. Today, the Supremes overturned the Second Circuit's decision, ruling that courts do indeed have authority in cases involving unregistered copyrights. According to Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the majority, "[The] registration requirement is a precondition to filing a claim [of infringement] that does not restrict a federal court's subject-matter jurisdiction."

This is a significant ruling, it seems to me, not only because it allows a gigantic settlement (one of the first ever to address e-rights questions, pre-figuring some of the issues involved in the Google Book Settlement) to go forward, but because of the possible implications for authors and publishers. Although Justice Thomas declined "to address whether [the] registration requirement is a mandatory precondition...that...district courts may or should dismissing copyright infringement claims involving unregistered works," it seems possible that there will be implications for the registration provision of copyright law.

US writers are more or less conditioned to believe that copyright registration is universal--but in fact most countries have no official registration process. The Berne Convention, the international source for copyright law, ensures full copyright protection without without requiring any formalities (such as registration) as a prerequisite for bringing an infringement suit. Countries may impose formalities if they wish, but most choose not to.

There's a detailed account of the legal historyof the case at the SCOTUS blog.
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