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.

April 30, 2010

Guest Blog Post: Self-Promotion--Starting Too Soon?

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware 

Self-promotion: a subject much on many writers' minds. All across the Internet, new authors are urged to be proactive in publicizing themselves and their books--to build a "brand." But what to do? And how much? I blogged about that a few months back, focusing on the uncertainties involved, and the fact that, ultimately, no one truly knows what works.

But there's also the question of when to start. The day after you make your first sale? When you start submitting? Even earlier? Is it possible to begin your campaign of self-promotion too soon? In this week's guest blog post, author Alyx Dellamonica takes a look at this issue.


by Alyx Dellamonica

What would happen if you spent a day reckoning the price of everything you purchased in terms of the time you spent earning the money?

If you earned a dollar an hour, a 99-cent music download would represent an hour of your life. A movie would come to a day or two of solid work. Whatever you're earning, groceries, rent and luxuries all have a cost. This can be counted not only in dollars but--unless you're extremely wealthy--in their impact on your store of time, that precious thing you can't get back. This is why it hurts when someone cons us, and why Writer Beware offers such a valuable service: a fraud artist doesn't just make off with some abstract chunk of your material wealth. They've stolen, in a sense, an irretrievable piece of your life.

As writers, we tend to place a premium on the time we get to spend working on our fiction. This is as it should be--we write because we love it, so writing is one of the highest and best uses of our precious time. Those hours can be hard to find and jealously guarded. And yes, we all fritter them away sometimes, and lament them later.

But are beginning writers being encouraged to toss them down the drain?

Recently I've seen a growing number of my writing students pouring time into branding and marketing themselves... in many cases, before they've sold a single word of fiction. This activity is a reaction to wisdom percolating across the Internet, to the effect that you have to get your name out early, start your Twitter feed, set up your Myspace page, and market-market-market. I've seen people make web sites and even trailers for unfinished manuscripts. On the less extreme end of the spectrum, writers whose careers haven't properly begun are nevertheless counting followers, evaluating possible pseudonyms and working--hard--on their public profiles as authors.

As with any activity, the rate of success varies. Some join the thronging electronic masses, jumping up and down yelling "Look at me!" into the void. Others--Lia Keyes, for example, with her popular weekly writing discussion, Scribechat--have built themselves solid followings. Have they been encouraged to waste their time? Keyes freely admits to having devoted herself to promoting Scribechat using a carefully researched 1-2-3 punch of Twitter, Facebook and a blog... until she had to rein herself in, and put her writing time first. Does she regret those lost hours? No, because she fully expects the effort to pay off.

The idea of establishing a brand isn't coming from people who are naive about publishing. In a recent online interview, Maggie Stiefvater, bestselling author of Shiver, states that while she would have sold her novel without a web presence, she believes she would have gotten a smaller advance. Agent Laura Rennert says much the same thing on E.I. Johnson's blog, A View from the Top: marketing is important, even for writers who haven't broken in yet.

Let me be clear. None of these people is saying "Don't Write." They're just saying "Do this, too." Ultimately this question is part of the greater river of debate over marketing in book publishing. Does it work, how much energy does it deserve, and how hard should one chase that brass-ring dream of going viral? We all grapple with this. Kelley McCullough, author of the WebMage series, has blogged about the costs and benefits of keeping self-promotion to a minimum. Even if you accept the idea that building a profile is the way to go, when do you start? Before your book is written? Instead of writing a second book as an editor ponders buying the first? These are the questions that make me uneasy.

I see the allure of having a web presence at the top of your writing career. What a tremendous thing to exploit! Imagine having a solid core of fans, ready and waiting to buy your first novel before it so much as hits bookstores. And I'm no Internet hermit. I have the usual cluster of online spaces--web site, a blog, a separate blog for my book Indigo Springs. I have the Facebook page and a Twitter feed. But the lion's share of work on these sites came when I not only had a contract but a publishing date for my first book. Why? Mostly it was because I was busy with what I loved most: writing a bunch of other books. I was also following a contrary bit of advice, one I'm not seeing as widely bandied about teh Intrawebs: my editor told me flat-out that building buzz too early might be as bad as not building it at all.

Of all the conflicting advice I could have gone with, why was this the piece I took? Obviously, it was coming from someone I know and trust, someone I have met face-to-face, someone who has far more experience in the industry than I. But this concern about starting the hype well before I had a book to put in readers' hands also made intuitive sense to me. It may be hard to gain the fleeting attention of the Internets, but it takes energy to keep it, too... and you're only shiny and new once. Having someone ask "When can I buy your book?" and having to reply "In two years, I hope" ...well, that's a bucket of cold water on their hopes and yours. Unless it's your Dad, they may eventually stop asking.

So is the answer to write, write, write and ignore the internet entirely? No. If you're getting fiction written and you're enjoying the blogging and networking, I'm guessing you've achieved a good mix. But if you've got a well-built web presence and you're frantic about finding writing time, or you have nothing to put in front of your eager fans and well-wishers, then it's maybe worth stepping back to evaluate where your energy is going.

Alyx Dellamonica is a graduate of Clarion West. She writes novels and short fiction, mostly in the science fiction and fantasy genres, and also teaches writing online.Her first novel, Indigo Springs, is available now. Alyx lives and works in Vancouver, Canada.

April 23, 2010

A Quote is Nice, But Context is Better

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Like many writers (whether they admit it or not), I have Google Alerts set to email me a link whenever my name is mentioned online. Today, it brought me a link to a blog post by Peter Cox of the Redhammer Agency.

The post concerns the question of whether an agent who competes against another agent for business (i.e., solicits the other agent's clients) is, well, questionable. "What is it about this business that makes us so allergic to the idea of competitive selling?" Peter asks, and then, to illustrate what he identifies as the general perception that competitive selling is Not A Good Thing, quotes me.
Even now, any agent who overtly prospects for business is widely considered to be, well, wide. “Be wary of an agent who solicits you,” cautions the queen of literary scam-busters Victoria Strauss. “Good agents don’t need to advertise—or to solicit. Questionable agents, on the other hand, often derive much of their clientele from solicitation.” No wonder poor old Andrew Wylie is called the Jackal. Clearly the likes of Roth, Bellow, Mailer and Rushdie didn’t realize that Andrew was “questionable” when he enthusiastically chased after their business.
Yeah, that's me--good old black-and-white Victoria. Soliciting clients is bad. Good agents don't do that. No shades of gray, no in-betweens. Period.

Problem is, that quote has been taken out of context. It's only part of what I said; Peter has cherry-picked my words to yield the emphasis he wanted. If you look at my statement in its entirety, the effect is somewhat different. (You can find the statement here, on the Literary Agents page of Writer Beware.)
Be wary of an agent who solicits you.

Reputable agents do sometimes contact writers whose work they’ve seen and liked. This used to be extremely rare, and based only on published work–-but the popularity of blogs and social media have made it somewhat more common. However, it is still unusual. As noted above, good agents don’t need to advertise–-or to solicit. Questionable agents, on the other hand, often derive much of their clientele from solicitation. If you subscribe to writers’ magazines or register your copyright, you may be a target. Fee-charging agents often purchase lists of names and addresses from these sources.
So, in fact, I do acknowledge the possibility that it may not be questionable at all for an agent to approach a writer, and I go on to explain exactly why, even so, writers need to be wary.

More important, in the context of the page on which my statement appears, I think it's pretty clear that I'm discussing writers who are actively seeking literary agents, rather than the poaching of agented writers by rival agents. It's not the magazine-mailing-list and copyright-registration soliciters whom agented writers need to fear; their concern, in any attempted poaching, is the poaching agent's motives. Things may not be all roses for the poachers, either. Like cheating spouses, if a client will jump ship once, they may do it again.

Andrew Wylie, by the way, is far from the only client-poacher, though he's probably the most famous. I've heard any number of poaching stories over the years, some of which worked out well, some of which didn't. But Peter is correct: this is usually something that happens on the QT, because it does seem generally to be regarded as somewhat sleazy.

Peter finishes his post with a provocative statement:
I can think of no end of talented authors who are today poorly or even negligently represented. Is it fair to deny them the possibility of better representation simply because the more atherosclerotic parts of our industry consider competition to be ungentlemanly?
Leaving aside the question of whether prevailing opinion constitutes "denial," what do you think?

I do appreciate my promotion to royalty, though.

April 16, 2010

PublishAmerica Strikes Again

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

There's been a bit of attention paid lately in the blogosphere to the "promotional" antics of everyone's favorite author mill, PublishAmerica.

As with other author mills, PA endeavors to turn its authors into customers. While it doesn't contractually require authors to buy their own books, it's relentless--and creative--in its efforts to persuade them to do so voluntarily. Among the latest of these efforts is the "buy one, get one" ploy that's a standard sales tactic for businesses that want to entice customers to spend more money than they might otherwise have planned to part with.

For months now, PA authors have been receiving email solicitations promising that if they buy X number of copies of their own books (at an AMAZING discount!!), PA will donate (FREE!!) X number of copies to (pick one) their local bookstore / their workplace / DreamWorks / Starbucks / Tom Hanks / Oprah / Random House / the New York Times Book Review / Borders (there's an additional "incentive" here of a $1 donation per book to help Haiti earthquake victims--talk about cynical marketing tactics). That's just the tip of the iceberg with these offers--author P.N. Elrod identifies several others, and breaks down the financial benefit to PA.

I don't need to detail what will happen to these books (assuming they are actually sent). At best, they will be dumped where all the other unsolicited books/merchandise/gifts go, and never seen by the intended recipient. At worst, they will be thrown into the garbage or the recycling bin. If you find it hard to imagine that anyone would be naive enough to fall for PA's pitch, the proof that it works is that the solicitations keep on coming.

But if you think the solicitations are outrageous, you ain't seen nothin' yet. Yesterday, PA authors received the following email:
From: PublishAmerica Auctions
To: [name redacted]
Sent: Thursday, April 15, 2010 9:56 AM
Subject: Now Auctioning: Your Own Seat At Book Expo

Dear Author:

Having your book visible at the Book Expo America in New York is good news. Hundreds of PublishAmerica authors have secured a spot for their book.

Having your own seat at our table is even better news! Who can better represent your own book than you?

We are now auctioning a ticket that allows you not only entrance to the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, but a place in the two PublishAmerica booths as well, for all three days if you want: May 25, 26, and 27.

You can now have your own seat, and you can bring your own promotional material. And for three days you can spend quality time with PublishAmerica staff.

Just return this message with your amount. Everyone receives a response. Winners receive a phone call.

Auction ends Sunday night.

Enjoy the bidding!

PublishAmerica Author Support

PS: for details about the BEA, go to
Words fail me. Seriously, they do.

Makes you wonder how those "hundreds" of PA authors "secured" their spot.

(PA authors, be aware that a 3-day pass to BEA costs $140. Beyond that, I guess you have to decide what "quality time with PublishAmerica staff" is worth to you.)

April 14, 2010

Guest Blog Post: How Libraries Choose Books to Purchase

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

A frequent question, especially among self- and small press-published authors, is how books get into libraries, and what authors can do to help. Today, guest blogger and public librarian Abigail Goben explains how libraries choose the books they purchase--and what authors should (and shouldn't) do to play a part in that process.


by Abigail Goben

One of the many hats of your public librarian is book purchasing. We are allocated a budget and spend a fair amount of time trying to build a collection that is well rounded, appeals to a wide variety of people, mixes great literature with popular novels, and will meet the needs of our community.

In this day and age of budget cuts and calls for fiscal responsibility, it is not only harder to get published, but harder to get published books into libraries. As we're trimming ever shrinking budgets, we librarians need to be able to justify the materials that tax dollars are being spent on. Libraries don't have the resources to buy mediocre books, where there is not the demand of a big author or a classroom's worth of little girls asking for it.

Still, we're trying to make as much as we can available. Here's how I do it:

Where I find books:

* Professional Reviews: I spend time diligently going through Library Journal, Kirkus, Publisher's Weekly, and other professional review journals. The majority of my selections come from there, and that's probably what you'll catch me perusing at the reference desk.

* Librarian Blogs: We're a chatty bunch and love recommending things to each other. There are certainly better or worse blogs, but when it's a review coming from someone whose blog I respect, I'm more inclined to consider a purchase. Librarians working with patrons every day know what goes well with their audience and what might go well with mine.

* Patron Requests: I'm fortunate enough to have a big enough budget that if a patron requests it, we can usually get it. I do verify that the requester belongs to my library system.

What sinks a book:

* A bad review followed by only ho hum reviews. If there is one bad review in four and the others are pretty positive, it stays on my list. If there is only one review and it's bad, or the other reviews don't make me believe--I'm not buying it.

* Bad cover art: Cover appeal is huge both with both children and adults. There is an extremely decorated and celebrated children's author who prefers very stylized art on his covers. The majority of the kids I've attempted to booktalk/handsell it to didn't like it, and so whether they were interested in the story or not, they didn't take the book. You may not have a lot of input into your cover, but keep in mind that abstract doesn't tend to go over well with the 12-and-under crowd, and that I, as a librarian, do consider cover art.

* Proclamations of the book being the next whatever--HP, Twilight, Grisham, Patterson, name it, we've seen it.

What to do if you're writing or have written a book:

* Ask for research help. Be clear that you're writing a book and looking for sources. We're here to help in person, by email or IM or phone, and increasingly by text message.

* Consider asking about a time where you could come in and meet with a librarian one-on-one. Your local public library may not have the staffing to do this, but it won't hurt to ask, and it can provide an opportunity to work with a librarian without the pressure of someone breathing over your shoulder waiting for immediate assistance.

* Ask for suggestions of other things in your proposed genre to read. We are involved with these books on a daily basis, and chances are good we'll have some ideas.

* Find out how you can partner with your library to make your book more available and sell copies. This could be a local author fair--with 5-10 local authors coming in to have their books on hand to discuss--or a book signing one afternoon in the lobby, or pairing for a program on your topic with books at the end. Libraries may or may not be able to pay you for your time and expenses.

What not to do:

* Don't ask your librarian to edit your book. I might be willing to review a published book or an ARC for free on my own time, but I charge by the hour for editing.

* Don't demand that we stock your book, give you a chance to do a lecture, host a program in your honor, buy fifteen copies, etc. You may suggest. We reserve the right to say no.

* Don't treat us like your personal assistant. We're here to help, but we have many other duties on our plates.

* Don't offer a copy contingent on a positive review on the library blog or any bribery of that nature. We do like thank-you cookies, though.

* Don't call repeatedly. I'd say "don't call ever" but some people still take phone calls. I don't. Mailed brochures get a cursory review. Email is probably the best way to reach me, but you should have a website in place before you reach out, and I shouldn't be immediately able to tell that your family or students wrote the Amazon reviews. Don't email everyone on the library staff--that just annoys us.

* Do not abuse the Patron Request. We're sneaky and smart and networked. We'll know and we'll tell everyone we know. If you don't believe me, you can find out about the efforts of one author here.

Let's be realistic:

* It is extremely rare that I will purchase anything from a vanity press. It's not impossible, but the items purchased tend to be of the local history, local celebrity nature rather than a pedantic children's chapter book, poorly self-illustrated picture book, or a church collection of recipes.

* Everyone writes WWII books. Please, if you're interested in writing historical fiction, choose another time period. I see an average of 4 "escaping the Nazis" books a month and while we certainly don't discount Holocaust literature, there is so much more out there that would also benefit from time in the limelight, and it's more likely to catch my eye for not being WWII.

Most public libraries will happily consider the donation of a copy of your book if it meets the criteria of their collection development policies. However, we are under no obligation to accept even a free copy just because you live down the street and got a vanity press to typeset it for you. We will also weed it if it doesn't circulate. Public libraries are not, generally speaking, material repositories, and everything has to earn its shelf space.

Abigail Goben is a public librarian and freelance medical writer and editor and MS Access designer in La Crosse, Wisconsin. She blogs about her adventures with libraries and books at Hedgehog Librarian and about knitting and her extremely spoiled cat at Hedgehog Knitting. She's an active member of the Library Society of the World.

April 9, 2010

Nurmal Resources PUBLISH ME! Contest

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

I've gotten a number of questions recently about the Nurmal Resources PUBLISH ME! contest, from authors who've been solicited via email to enter it.

(What's Nurmal Resources, you may ask? A new publisher. According to its website, "Nurmal is passionate about developing resources that inspire a new normal in everyday life. We cultivate emerging authors who have a clear life-impacting message, are actively engaged in community life, and are committed to spreading their ideas locally & globally.")
Do you want a 1 in 50 chance of getting published?

Enter the PUBLISH ME! Contest sponsored by Nurmal Resources, and you could be published within a few months. We are focused on cultivating emerging authors, and you could be one of them.

The winning author will have his or her book published by Nurmal Resources and receive 500 copies of the book plus $1,000 cash toward marketing!
The contest is limited to the first 50 entrants. In addition to the prizes mentioned above, winners will receive "professional editing" and distribution on Amazon. All you have to do to enter is to submit a book proposal, a completed contest agreement...and a $250 entry fee.

For any contest, even the screenwriting contests with three-figure entry fees, that's way steep. Think about it: do you really want to shell out $250 just for the chance of publication? With a brand-new company? That hasn't actually issued any books yet? (The first of Nurmal's three announced books--all by the same author--won't be published until May.) Since Nurmal is seeking manuscript submissions, and at the moment the only way to submit is via the contest (the submission link leads directly to the contest page), that contest fee looks a whole lot like a reading fee.

Perusal of the contest application and agreement form reveals that publication will be done through CreateSpace (something that any author could do him/herself for free). As for the $1,000 for marketing, many entrants might hope that the cash would actually land in their hot little hands, but the wording of the agreement suggests it'll be the publisher doing the spending, not the winner: "We will spend up to $1,000 to market your book based on your recommendations and in a way that we agree upon."

Of more concern, the agreement includes a transfer of publishing rights. Although only three finalists will be asked to submit complete manuscripts, simply by entering the contest entrants are giving Nurmal an exclusive, life-of-copyright, all-rights publication grant, with the only provision for termination being the cancellation of the contest (which happens if fewer than 50 entries are received by May 31, 2010). This is yet another example of why it's so important to read the fine print of any contest you're thinking of entering. (It also makes the $250 contest entrance fee look more than ever like a reading fee.)

So with this contest, it looks as if Nurmal will gain a pool of potential authors, plus a pool of money for publishing them (50 entrants at $250 apiece adds up to $12,500; deduct the $1,000 for marketing, the $2-3,000 CreateSpace charges for an order of 500 books, and possibly a few hundred dollars for editing, and you're still left with several thousand dollars). Not a bad way to stock and fund a publishing startup.

EDITED 4/11 TO ADD: In response to this post, Nurmal has revised its contest agreement form to make it clear that the grant of publishing rights applies only to the winner. The wording of the agreement still makes no provision for termination of the grant of rights, but hopefully that's something that will be clarified in the publishing contract the winner will presumably sign.

April 5, 2010

Questionable Ethics?

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

In the Ethicist column last week in the New York Times, Randy Cohen addressed the following question:

I bought an e-reader for travel and was eager to begin "Under the Dome," the new Stephen King novel. Unfortunately, the electronic version was not yet available. The publisher apparently withheld it to encourage people to buy the more expensive hardcover. So I did, all 1,074 pages, more than three and a half pounds. Then I found a pirated version online, downloaded it to my e-reader and took it on my trip. I generally disapprove of illegal downloads, but wasn’t this O.K.?

Cohen's response: "An illegal download is — to use an ugly word — illegal. But in this case, it is not unethical." Although the questioner violated copyright law, s/he is in the moral clear because s/he paid for the book, and "[b]uying a book or a piece of music should be regarded as a license to enjoy it on any platform."

Oh, really? Says who? Aren't we a little closer to ideology than to ethics here? Indeed, Cohen makes it fairly clear that his conclusion is not bias-free:

Sadly, the anachronistic conventions of bookselling and copyright law lag the technology...It’s true that you might have thwarted the publisher’s intent — perhaps he or she has a violent antipathy to trees, maybe a wish to slaughter acres of them and grind them into Stephen King novels. Or to clog the highways with trucks crammed with Stephen King novels. Or perhaps King himself wishes to improve America’s physique by having readers lug massive volumes.

With a little stretching, Cohen's you-bought-it-you-can-steal-it argument can cover anyone. A friend of mine who rips copies of the CDs he gets out of the library and borrows from friends uses the same rationalization: No, he didn't buy the CDs himself, but someone did. And what about the people who download illegal copies of books without buying them first or intending to later? Couldn't they argue the same--that to post the book online, someone had to buy it (well, probably), so where's the harm?

Cohen acknowledges that illegal downloads aren't morally pristine. "Downloading a bootleg copy [of a book] could be said to encourage piracy, although only in the abstract: no potential pirate will actually realize you’ve done it." Say what? Because a potential pirate won't turn piratical because you, personally, illegally downloaded a book, your action is "only" bad in abstract, and therefore, by implication, not actually so bad after all? What about all the other yous out there, busily acquiring bootleg books? How abstract are they? What about the pirate whose site you used? How abstract is he?

The impact of piracy on the book business is not yet clear. Plenty of people are offering data showing that it harms, but others are arguing that it can help. Help or harm, however, there is nothing "abstract" about downloading a bootleg book, whether or not you bought it first--and I have to say I'm pretty amazed at Cohen's finessing of this issue.

For a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a book pirate (who acknowledges that "morally, the act of pirating a product is, in fact, the moral equivalent of stealing"), see this post from Richard Curtis's E-Reads blog.

April 1, 2010

Amazon Surprise

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

In an unprecedented series of overnight corporate acquisitions, purchased Google, Barnes & Noble, Borders, Author Solutions,, Bertelsmann, Inc., Macmillan, the New York Times Corporation, and 574 other publishing and newspaper related companies.

Google co-founder Sergei Brin is reported as saying "For a while, it looked like Google would be buying Amazon, but they made us an offer we dared not refuse."

The publishing world is bracing for a exceptional period of transition, in which virtually all books, both paper and e-, will be under the thumb of this corporate giant. Industry analysts say that the resulting company, Amgoolubemacorp, will be able to take advantage of economies of scale, especially in the licensing of book rights from authors. "It'll be the only game in town," said Gene Gardner, former VP of Kensington, one of the companies that disappeared last night, taking his job with it. "Authors should get used to the idea that Amgool will adopt the 'you pay us, we don't pay you' school of publishing."

Also anticipated is the rapid transition to an advertising-based financial model, in which customers don't pay for content but are forced to sit through endless commercials at short intervals while they read. "Ideally," said a company spokeperson who wished to remain anonymous, "we'll be able to set up a system in which the whole process, from content acquisition to customer purchase to ad generation, is totally automated, and we can do it without direct human intervention. We'll all be able to go on permanent vacations. Those of us that survive the transition, that is."

Contacted for a reaction to this surprise move by its former digital rival, Apple said it had no comment. But according to a source who asked to be kept anonymous, Apple representatives are currently in top-secret meetings with Random House, the lone holdout on the agency pricing model changeover that kicks in today, and the only major publisher to resist the Amazon takover.
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