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 29, 2010

Fake Writing Jobs:

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

One of many reasons I enjoy Twitter is that it's relatively free of the spam that clogs other modes of online discourse. Oh, there's the occasional author Twitspam (writers: Twitspamming is not, I repeat, NOT, the way to promote your new book), and the random pr0n Twitspam, but by and large--at least for me--Twitter is a fairly spam-free environment.

Which is why the Twitspams I've been receiving for the past couple of weeks really stand out like a sore whatever (here's an example). They're all the same: an obviously fake sender name, the words "Writers Needed," a link, and a list of recipients. I've been reporting and blocking them, but when I checked my Twitterfeed today and found six of them, all sent within a few minutes of one another, I got curious, and clicked the link.

I found myself at, I was unsurprised to discover, promises that writers can earn lots of cash by writing articles, stories, blog posts, etc.. "Thousands of people online are discovering how doing simple writing jobs from home can be so profitable! See how they're doing it by signing up now!" No experience necessary! Work at home! Make fat money (never mind that pesky earnings disclaimer)! All this for a mere monthly membership fee of $47 (although if you don't read the Terms and Conditions, you won't know that). Don't want to opt in without seeing what's on offer? Good news--you can try before you buy. In fact, you have to try before you buy. Would-be members must agree to a 10-day "risk-free trial," for the oh-so-negligible cost of $2.95 (credit cards only). Naturally, this is a "limited time offering." If you aren't happy, just cancel within the trial period and you owe nothing further.

If this sounds tempting, it shouldn't. For one thing, there are many freelance writing job-listing websites that charge absolutely nothing--zip, nada, zilch (here's just one example). With such resources easily available, why pay? For another, reputable jobs sites don't spam random writers on Twitter (or anywhere else). For yet another, you have no way of knowing whether the promise of lucrative writing gigs is anything more than a marketing ploy. What if most or all of the writing jobs turn out to be the financial and professional equivalent of pay-per-click content mills?

Ah, you may be thinking, but isn't that what the trial period is for? If the jobs suck, you can cancel before the trial period is up, and only be out $2.95.

Maybe not. It's more than probable that RealWritingJobs is running a recurring billing scheme. In this common online ploy, a company uses a trial period to induce consumers to provide their credit card numbers. Once the trial period ends, cards are automatically billed for membership and other fees on a recurring basis (like RealWritingJobs, companies typically bury this info in their Terms and Conditions, where eager or careless consumers can easily miss it). Although consumers are promised they can cancel during the trial period, they discover that they can't get through to the toll-free number provided--or, if they do get through, they can't speak to a live person, but can only leave voicemail messages that are never responded to. (Here's a sample complaint.) Once the recurring billings commence (which, if the consumer didn't read the Terms and Conditions, may be a complete surprise), it is extremely difficult to stop them. Many people wind up canceling their credit cards.

Another risk, when you sign up for an offer or trial that requires you to provide credit card information: third party billing scams, in which the company with the offer or trial turns your credit information over to an Internet marketer, which then signs you up for memberships you didn't ask for, resulting in surprise charges on your credit card. (If you're a cell phone user--and who isn't--you may be familiar with this as "cramming.") And indeed, according to RealWritingJobs' Privacy Policy (which I'm betting that few people who sign up with it bother to check), "We may use the personal information that you supply to us and we may work with other third party businesses to bring selected retail opportunities to our members via email. These businesses may include providers of direct marketing services and applications, including lookup and reference, data enhancement, suppression and validation and email marketing." (My bolding.) At the very least, signing up with RealWritingJobs is likely to bring you an explosion of spam.

Writers: always be cautious of a business that spams you (and always suspect spam if you receive a solicitation out of the blue). Never trust an offer that sounds too good to be true. Always research any offer you're thinking of accepting (and be aware that dodgy companies are anticipating this; RealWritingJobs has seeded the Internet with fake reviews that cleverly incorporate the word "scam"), and never fail to read the fine print (all of it. Even the boring parts). And don't pay for a service you can get somewhere else for free!

November 23, 2010

How Not to Launch a Career in Publishing

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

I semi-frequently get questions from people who want to know how to break into the publishing industry--not as writers, but as agents, editors, copy editors, publicists, designers, and so on. There are a number of possible methods--get a job with a (reputable) literary agency, intern at a (commercial) publisher, take a (credible) college course. You might, however, want to avoid the approach used by the author of the letter I've reproduced below.

(A websearch indicates that the author is a real person. Neither I nor the independent publisher who shared this with me are sure if it's a scam, or just a monumental demonstration of cluelessness or chutzpah. Presumably it went to more than one publisher; I'd be curious to know of any others who received it.)


[Publisher's name and address redacted]

Dear Sir or Madam:

Hello, my name is [name redacted], and I have just been accepted as a graduate student at [university name redacted] to study publishing this upcoming spring semester 2011. I am writing to you to simply ask for your help with my educational and possibly career path.

Now, you may be wondering to yourself, why am I coming to you for assistance. Well, it is for two reasons: graduate school is expensive and the job market is tough to break into right now. Publishing is something I am passionate about. I am very fortunate to be accepted into such a prestigious program that it would be so heartbreaking to back out now.

I realize how this request may sound, however let me reassure you that I am not simply asking you for monetary assistance. I am proposing to you to invest in a potential future employee. As of right now, I do not yet have many skills in the publishing world; but after I finish my degree, I know I will be able to contribute all of what I have learned and experience to your company as a potential employee.

Don't get me wrong; I have looked into alternative ways to pay for graduate school. Scholarships, loans and my current job as a substitute teacher are other ways but not enough. Although applying for scholarships has not been an issue, I find that I am not always eligible for many out there. I enter contests, fill out surveys for points and look into loans I know will take years to pay off, but it's all in vain. While I am working to earn enough money before the semester starts, it is only a part-time position. Also, because of many teachers were laid off by the school board this year, they have priority over substitute jobs.

As you can see, I have quite a dilemma on my hands. Thus, I am turning to you and your company. I am suggesting to you what may seem like an outrageous idea but take a second to think about it. I am going to get my Master's degree in publishing, which is what your company is based on. I will learn the latest techniques and skills at [university name redacted], which takes into account today's changing technology, making me a potential employee. Lastly, by donating to my educational fund, I can be considered your charity, which will gain your company recognition for helping me succeed and stay in school. It is a win-win situation.

I really do hope you consider investing in my educational and perhaps employment future. If you do have any questions or would like to respond back to me, please contact me at [email address redacted]. Thank you for taking the time to read this letter and I do look forward to hearing from you soon.

Sincerely yours,

[name redacted]

November 19, 2010


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

A selection of articles and news items that caught my eye this week.

It's not about the tweeting.

Years ago, when I first broke in to publishing, self-promotion by authors was not only optional, it was considered rather tacky. Fewer books were being published back then, and there was less competition for reader eyeballs. Plus, the merger mania that has transformed the face of publishing hadn't yet begun; there were no big corporate owners to demand corporate-style profits from a traditionally low-profit business.

All that has changed, of course. Self-promotion can still be tacky, but it's no longer optional (although no publisher should ever contractually enforce it; if you see self-promo requirements in a contract, it's a signal that the publisher is trying to shift a big part of its job onto you). As a result, it seems that everywhere you turn you find discussions of self-promotion, tips for self-promotion, and articles on successful self-promoters. Many of these are of dubious usefulness (press releases, for instance, are a completely ineffective way to sell books), or present the same old suggestions (yes, we know we have to adopt social media), or assume that one promotional size fits all (when in fact, as for publishers, what sells one book won't necessarily sell another).

So I rarely recommend self-promo articles. This one's an exception, though: "Should I Tweet?" by literary agent Betsy Lerner. She makes the point that it's not so much about what kind of promo you should do, but about cultivating the mindset you need to market yourself.
Whether you should tweet is a little beside the point. The task at hand is to decipher what is most powerful in your work and connect it to every person, institution or media outlet who will listen. It’s not the form, it’s the content. What do you have? Why does it matter?

The down side of small press.

Canada's prestigious Giller prize is known to spur book sales, which has resulted in an unexpected snag for this year's winner: her tiny publisher isn't able to keep up with consumer demand.

One reason for the problem is the publisher's unusually high production standards. But this story points up an issue that can potentially handicap any small press author: small publishers often have very limited production and distribution capacity, and may not be able to meet strong demand. If you're thinking of signing a small press contract, and especially if you have ambitious promotion plans, this is something you should consider.

A digital underclass?

In all the prognostication about the digital revolution, there are a couple of issues I wish the pundits would pay more attention to. The first is the threat of obsolescence. Technology and software progress incredibly swiftly; will the ebooks of today be readable in ten years? What does that portend for the long-term survival of written work? The second is the assumption that seems to be implicit in so much discussion of electronic media--that everyone is on an equal digital footing. In fact, this isn't so. Will that change, or will the world's rush to digital create a digital underclass?

From ZDNet, here are interesting posts on both sides of this question. One writer fears that the shift to digital will eventually kill the public library, and as a result "the 'Have Nots' of society may find themselves denied access to an entire range of content they enjoyed previously with the printed book, newspaper or magazine." A second writer is more optimistic. Libraries will survive, and together with "the Internet, copyright holders, and public institutions can...bridge the digital divide and prevent the disparities."

What do you think?

Find where your passion meets the market.

Should you write to the market? Or should you write what you want, market trends be damned? Agent Rachelle Gardner argues that it's not about choosing one or the other, but about finding a balance.

The real reason publishing is in trouble.

Unless you've been living under a rock, you know that things aren't good in publishing these days. Corporate conglomeration, economic meltdown, reader apathy, the digital revolution--all are drastically changing a venerable industry.

But that's not the worst of it. Oh, no, my friends. The real culprit behind the troubles in publishing is...Writer Beware. At least, according to an anonymous (hi, Michele!) comment left on one of my older posts (scroll down to the bottom).
You have destroyed an otherwise thriving industry since you started your witch hunts. Wake up people, in 2006 when the Worst LIsts were published there was an average of 200 books being published by each publishing department in NY. Each year the list of books published went down, and this year, most publishing departments, if they haven't yet closed their doors, are doing 0 to 10 books per year. Down from 200 to 0 to 10! Writer Beware is the biggest trash maker in publishing history. Lost a job in publishing? Blame it on Writer beware. They are destroying traditional publishing because they secretly work for Pay to Publish companies.
GAAAAH! We are exposed! How will we work our evil now?

November 16, 2010

Notes From the Underbelly

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Exposed last week in New York magazine: Full Fathom Five, a book packager* founded by author/entrepreneur James Frey (yes, that James Frey)--a kind of sweat shop for writers with an outlandishly awful contract.

The article has spurred quite a bit of outraged discussion, particularly of the contract. Book packaging is not generally known as an industry that is kind to writers, but according to people with experience, Full Fathom Five is in a class by itself.

Who would sign such an awful contract? Who'd give away all their rights (including copyright and the right to put their name on their book) in exchange for a measly $250 plus a royalty that sounds generous--40%--but isn't--since it's paid on net and the company can deduct unspecified expenses at its discretion? Who would be so ignorant? So desperate? So stupid?

Unfortunately, if there's one thing that twelve years with Writer Beware has taught me, it's that writers will sign just about anything, with just about anyone, in order to be published. I'm not talking about trade publishing, either. Say what you will about Full Fathom Five, it at least functions within the commercial publishing world, where sales, visibility, and film and foreign rights deals are possible, if not necessarily probable. I'm talking about trade publishing's underbelly, a dark realm of author mills, amateur micropresses, unprofessional epublishers, and pay-to-play outfits. In that alternate publishing universe, hideous contracts and author exploitation aren't the shocking exception, they're the norm. Every day, desperate and/or inexperienced writers willingly sign those contracts and accept those terms, often over the prompting of their own better instincts, or sound advice from experts.

Writers, you MUST take the time and make the effort to educate yourself about your chosen field BEFORE you try to enter it. Frey and Full Fathom Five are concentrating on MFA writing programs in their search for authors--a smart move for a company with a bad contract, since MFA programs are not exactly known for focusing on the business of publishing. But MFA candidates are not alone in attempting to enter an industry about which they are largely ignorant. Better than 75% of the thousands of writers who contact Writer Beware each year know little or nothing about publishing. For many of them, this is a recipe for disaster. The best defense against the scam agents, the bad publishers, the crap contracts, and the greedy packagers is knowledge. I know I've said this about a thousand times, here and elsewhere. But it can't be repeated too often.

If you don't understand the terms of a contract you're offered, seek knowledgeable advice (that's advice from someone who's qualified to give it, such as a lawyer or a professional writers' organization, not the kind of advice you'll get by posting a question on, for instance, LinkedIn). Don't just assume you understand, unless you're already an expert (and even then; I have a lot of experience with contract terms, and I don't trust myself to fully comprehend some of the twisted language in the Full Fathom Five contract). Don't try to logic your way into a confusing clause--you run the risk of being wrong. And never, ever rely on extra-contractual assurances (for instance, if your contract says something scary, but your publisher promises you that they never actually invoke that clause). If it's not in the contract, it doesn't exist. Conversely, if it is in the contract, expect to be bound by it. I hear all the time from writers who thought they wouldn't have to worry about this or that contract provision (such as a termination fee), only to discover that--whoops!--it was actually a big problem.

Most important: you must, you absolutely must be ready to walk away. This is the tough part, because your emotions are involved, which can make it incredibly difficult to exercise good business sense. But if the contract's bad, or the publisher is unprofessional, or if something you can't quite put your finger on is triggering a bad feeling in your gut, closing your eyes and telling yourself it will all work out is not the way to go. As painful as it may be to say no, in the long term you won't regret it.

Writing is an art. Publishing is a business. The two are uneasy bedfellows. But to survive in a competitive and often harsh industry, the wise writer must strive to master--and balance--both.


* If you're not familiar with what a book packager does, Jessica Faust of BookEnds Literary Agency offers a helpful explanation.

November 9, 2010

Swinging the Other Way: Vanity Publisher Goes Non-Vanity

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

As I've discussed before on this blog, one of the many changes currently rocking the publishing industry is a general blurring of lines, a mixing and melding of formerly sharply separate categories and functions.

Literary agents, squeezed by a tough publishing market and a growing number of competitors (thanks to the epidemic of mergers and layoffs that has caused large numbers of former publishing house staffers to transition into agenting), are branching out into other fields--consulting, editing, even publishing.

Trade publishers, looking for ways to raise more income to support their core publishing functions, are establishing pay-to-publish divisions: Thomas Nelson with West Bow Press, Harlequin with DellArte Press (nee Harlequin Horizons), Hay House with Balboa Press. (Specialist publisher Osprey Publishing also announced plans to offer pay-to-publish options through AuthorHouse UK--but a search of both Osprey's and AuthorHouses sites turns up no mention of these options, so I wonder if they've been discontinued.)

So is it really so surprising that venerable vanity publisher Vantage Press, which came under new ownership last year, is establishing a trade imprint?

Now, plenty of vanity publishers claim to operate trade or "traditional" imprints, or to provide both fee- and non-fee publishing. Most often, this is a marketing ploy to draw in potential customers, who submit to the publisher in hopes of a traditional publishing contract, and instead are offered publishing for a fee. Or the vanity publisher may present itself to the world as "traditional," inviting submissions from authors who then are told that the budget for non-fee publishing ran out earlier that year, or that the author's book is not quite commercial enough for non-fee publishing. Again, pay-to-play is the only option; the promise of "traditional" publishing is merely bait to set the trap.

This does not appear to be the case with Vantage. From all outward signs, the new imprint, which will be called Vantage Point, will function as a genuine trade publisher. According to information seen by Writer Beware, Vantage Point will work with agents as well as acquiring "selected" Vantage Press titles, will pay small advances ("comparable to small presses"), will provide editing and marketing, and has just inked a distribution agreement with Ingram Publisher Services. Its staff includes a number of industry veterans, including Editorial Director Joseph Pittman, who has held editorial positions at a several publishers, including Berkley and Bantam. Vantage Point will launch with eight titles in Spring 2011.

Will Vantage Point succeed? The quality of its list is still unknown, of course, but it certainly seems to have many of the other pieces in place--including, presumably, the financial cushion provided by the profitability of the pay-to-publish business (Vantage Press's fees range from $5,000 to $25,000). This is an advantage (pardon the pun) not possessed by a small publisher starting from scratch, or even by a larger publisher looking to expand.

Ironic, no? Especially as a parallel to trade publishers' efforts to bulk up their bottom lines by venturing into fee-based publishing. It's definitely a mixed-up world.

November 3, 2010

The Peter Lampack Agency Loses Suit Against Former Client

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Publishers Weekly reports that a New York Supreme Court judge has dismissed most claims in The Peter Lampack Agency's suit against a former client, best selling mystery author Martha Grimes.

At the heart of the suit is the question of what commission rights an agency retains after a client leaves. Most author-agent agreements include language ensuring that the agency will continue to receive commissions on any contracts it brokers, for as long as those contracts are in force--even if the client leaves the agency before the contracts terminate--and on any sales resulting from its efforts prior to the client's departure, even if those sales post-date that departure. (So, for instance, if the agency pitches the client's manuscript to a publisher, and the publisher makes an offer after the client has left the agency, the agency is entitled to commissions if the client accepts the offer.)

So far, so standard. But some agencies go farther, claiming the right to commissions on any sale deriving from the original sale, whether or not the agency is responsible for the sale--for example, if the publisher retains and licenses book club rights or foreign rights. The agency may also claim commission rights on the sale of successor works--sequels, spinoffs, and the like. And some agencies claim perpetual representation rights--and therefore commissions--on any works they sell for the first time. This kind of provision, known as an interminable agency clause, in effect makes the agency the work's representative for the duration of copyright, and is strongly advised against by authors' groups.

In the case of the Lampack suit, the claim involves future works covered by a publishing contract's option clause. Says PW (with numerous typos that I've corrected),
The crux of the case revolves around the interpretation of the “option clause,” which is the de facto option agents often give to publishers who buy an author’s work—they grant the house the option to get first crack at the author’s next work. In this case, Penguin exercised its option from a 2005 contract in 2009...when Grimes’s next manuscript was ready—at that point Grimes had a new agent who sent the work, The Black Cat, to Penguin, which acquired the novel.

Lampack claimed that, since he was Grimes’s agent in 2005 when the option clause was initially issued on the work that was to become The Black Cat, he retained financial rights to proceeds from that book. As the court document notes: “PLA alleges the agreement for The Black Cat arose out of the Option on Next Work clause and that Grimes violated the terms of the 2005 Penguin/Viking-Penguin Agreement by pay PLA the sums due for The Black Cat.”
The court didn't agree, holding that Lampack was entitled
only to proceeds from the sale of [Grimes's] literary works, and didn't have an interest in the literary works themselves, making it possible for Grimes to revoke Lampack's "agency" which she did in May 2007, thereby removing any obligation for Grimes to pay Lampack for future works. In addition, the court...[noted] that claims made by Lampack that the contract placed a fiduciary duty on Grimes "{are} unsupported by case law and the general principles of agency law that the obligations that a principal owes an agent are not fiduciary."
Now, I'm not a lawyer, and hopefully one will come along to correct me if I'm mistaken, but it seems pretty clear to me that this decision (if it stands--Lampack has made a motion to re-argue) has the potential to be precedent-setting. By ruling that Lampack had an interest only in the proceeds from sales of literary works, and not in those works themselves, the decision would seem not just to weaken agencies' claim to commission rights on successor sales (where those sales occur after the client leaves the agency), but to invalidate interminable agency clauses. There would also seem to be implications for the language of the agency clauses inserted into publishing contracts, where many agents claim an agency coupled with an interest (which presumes that the agent has some legal right to the property covered by the contract, rather than just to the income from the sale of that property).

It'll be interesting to see what impact this may have going forward. In the meantime, read your agency agreements carefully, be sure you understand exactly what commission rights your agent is claiming and how that affects you if you leave the agency, and beware interminable agency clauses.

Remember, also, that agency agreements are usually negotiable. If there's language that troubles you, your agent may be willing to soften or remove it.
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