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.

February 24, 2012

Why Poets Should Not Seek Literary Agents

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Writer Beware hears from a fair number poets.

Much of the time, they're contacting us to ask about self-publishing, or to check the reputation of a journal or a contest. Sometimes, unfortunately, they've gotten mixed up with one of the vanity anthology companies, such as Eber and Wein.

Quite often, though, they want to know about literary agents. Is the brand-new agency with an interest in poets a good one to query? Is the agent who just asked for the entire manuscript of their poetry collection reputable? Can Writer Beware recommend good literary agents for poets?

I've never yet been able to answer yes--and not just because Writer Beware has a policy of not making agent (or publisher) recommendations.

Apart from celebrity projects and writers who are already well-known, successful literary agents rarely represent poets. Even in the best of circumstances, poetry collections are a tough sell, and the poetry market, which is dominated by small presses, simply isn’t lucrative enough to make it worth most agents’ while.

Poets generally get their start by selling individual poems to reputable markets. Entering reputable contests can also be helpful, if you win (for instance, there are a number of reputable first-book contests, such as the Walt Whitman Award). Once you've built up a track record, you can submit your collection to small publishers on your own.

Beware, therefore, of literary agents whose guidelines indicate that they are looking to represent poets, or who put out calls for poetry collections. Be especially wary if a literary agency claims to specialize in poets. Nearly always, they’re either unscrupulous operators looking to charge a fee, or amateurs who know nothing about the realities of publishing. Even if they don't want to drain your bank account, it's likely that they have no track record of sales to paying publishers of any kind.

Here are some helpful links for poets looking to get their work into the hands of readers:

- A comprehensive FAQ from the UK's Poetry Society.

- Writing and Publishing FAQ from the Academy of American Poets. 

- Thorough, commonsense advice on how to submit and publish poetry from published poet Neile Graham.

- Poet Beware is my own article detailing some of the schemes and pitfalls poets may encounter.

- Poets and Writers has an extensive Grants and Awards section, which includes chapbook contests.

- More poetry contests, from the Poetry Society of America.

February 17, 2012


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

The Taleist 2012 Self-Publishing Survey

The recent mega-success of self-epublishing authors such as Amanda Hocking, John Locke, Darcie Chan, and Kerry Wilkinson has generated a lot of media attention over the past year or so. But the mega-successes aren't the only ones who are doing well: all over the Internet (notably at Joe Konrath's blog) you can find testimony from authors who cite substantial sales and earnings from self-published books. It's clear that something extraordinary is happening around electronic self-publishing (print self-publishing, by contrast, seems to be unaffected by the boom).

But how common is that kind of success, really? How representative are these authors of all self-publishers? The traditional dynamic of self-publishing is that success is the exception; has electronic self-publishing really changed that, or does it just look that way? What techniques or traits do successful self-publishers share?

The truth is that we just don't know--not only because most of the data is self-reported, but because no one has really correlated it, or surveyed the self-pub industry as a whole.

That's something that writer Steven Lewis aims to address. Via his blog, Taleist, he's conducting a survey of self-publishers:
How are you doing as a self-publisher? It’s a hard question to answer isn’t it? What are you measuring against?

There are self-publishing authors like JA Konrath, Amanda Hocking,  John Locke and (on a smaller but perfectly formed scale) Joanna Penn who are generous with their figures but they’re selling books from the tens of thousands to the millions. So does that mean you’re a failure if your figures are more modest? Or are you actually doing better than most? What is the average royalty earning for self-publishing authors? How long does it take for a self-published book to reach peak sales? What are the most successful authors doing to market their books?

The Taleist 2012 Self-Publishing Survey will have the answers. We're taking a professional snapshot of the self-publishing industry.
Lewis's goal is to reach 1,000 authors. As of this past Wednesday, over 800 authors had responded.

If you're a self-publisher, please take the time to fill out the survey. It's very detailed--there are 61 questions--and will take some time, but it's well worth it to generate a really solid database that will hopefully educate us all about the new face of self-publishing.

More Fine Print Stuff

If you're considering contributing to a website or blog that requests submissions from the public, be on the lookout for disclaimers like this:
By submitting information to [website or blog], you grant [website or blog] a perpetual, royalty-free license to use, reproduce, modify, publish, distribute, and otherwise exercise all copyright and publicity rights with respect to that information at its sole discretion, including storing it on [website or blog] servers and incorporating it in other works in any media now known or later developed including without limitation published books.
What this means: the website or blog can not only host your entry, but can use it to create derivative works, such as anthologies, books, presentations, films, etc., without compensation or credit to you. For short personal testimonials or essays, you may not object to these provisions--or you may. What's important is that you read the fine print (even if it's hard to find) and understand what rights you're giving away.

Here's another example of this kind of rights claim: a call last year for poetry submissions for O, Oprah Winfrey's magazine.

February 15, 2012

BookTango: Author Solutions Rolls Out Ebook Distribution Services

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Just introduced from self-publishing conglomerate Author Solutions (owner of the iUniverse, Xlibris, AuthorHouse, and Trafford brands, and the power behind the outsourced self-publishing divisions of Harlequin and Thomas Nelson, among others): BookTango, an ebook aggregator for self-published authors.

BookTango, which is still in beta, offers DIY ebook conversion via its online ebook editor (your file needs to be formatted to BookTango's specifications), and distribution to a variety of platforms, including Apple, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, BooksOnBoard, Google, and Kobo. There's also a cover design function, ISBN assignment, and of course, payment processing.

This basic service package is free. For the $49 package, you get the basics plus conversion services (if you don't want to DIY), the ability to include images, fancier cover design options, and a free download of your ebook. There's also a $189 package; the only difference between it and the $49 package seems to be that BookTango will "handle the paperwork and get your e-book properly protected under U.S. copyright regulations." Since copyright registration is not only very easy to accomplish yourself, but costs just $35 if you do it online, there doesn't appear to be a single reason to spring for this.

BookTango says it pays "100% of net" on books sold through its own bookstore, and "90% of net" on books sold via other retailers, and claims its royalties are "the biggest in the industry" (hmmm...not so much; see below). Before you get stars in your eyes, what those numbers actually add up to is that for BookTango bookstore sales, "net" is what's left after BookTango takes a 30% transaction fee (so "100% of net" really means 70% of list); while for retailer sales, "net" is wholesale less a 10% BookTango commission. Retailer discounts can be as much as 60%, so in some cases authors may be making as little as 30% of list.

How does BookTango stack up against other aggregators, such as BookBabyEbookIt, and of course the grandaddy of them all, Smashwords? You can certainly get better financial terms. Smashwords, for instance, charges no fees, and pays 85% of list for sales from its website and 60% of list for sales through outside retailers (so much for "the biggest royalties in the industry")--but it's truly a no-frills service, and not everyone loves its Meatgrinder conversion engine. BookBaby has no free option, and both its packages cost more than BookTango's--but it doesn't take a commission on what it receives from retailers, so authors get the full wholesale price. EbookIt, on the other hand, is more expensive than BookTango on two fronts--its upfront fee is higher, and while it pays a bit more for sales through its website (75% of list), it keeps a bigger commission (15%) on sales through outside retailers.

There are many issues to consider besides fees and payment, including the Terms of Use (BookTango's TOU doesn't seem to contain any nasty surprises), the ease and reliability of the conversion/formatting utility (BookTango's looks pretty user-friendly; anyone who is familiar with Blogger or WordPress shouldn't have any trouble), the value of package add-ons (Author Solutions marketing services--ugh), royalty payment schedules (BookTango pays quarterly, but you have to earn $75 before they'll cut a check), and the author's degree of control over the process. Right now, for instance, BookTango's default price for an ebook is $4.99, and you have to make a special request if you want a different price, or if you want to change the price periodically (BookTango says it's working on a solution for this, which should roll out in a few weeks). So price pulsing won't be easy.

Comparison shopping is essential to find the service that best fits your needs and finances. Overall, though, BookTango looks like a reasonably competitive service--as long as you read the fine print, ignore the ridiculously overpriced $189 package, and are prepared to resist the expensive marketing services BookTango's parent company wants to sell you (these are prominently featured on BookTango's website). Authors who choose BookTango should be aware that Author Solutions is a relentless marketer, and should expect to be solicited for other Author Solutions services--including, very likely, a premium membership in AS's Author Learning Center (cost: $149 per year; trial subscriptions are included in all BookTango packages).

February 9, 2012

Publishers' Desk: Display or Misplay?

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Over the past few months, I've gotten a number of questions from writers who've received spam--excuse me, invitations from a website called Publishers' Desk. Its motto is "Bringing Authors and Publishers Together," and it describes itself thus (I'm reproducing this at length because the style and syntax should tell you something):
PUBLISHERS' DESK IS A TOOL FOR AUTHORS, AGENTS AND PUBLISHERS. Its function is to bring together those who write and those who publish, empowering their performance for the modern era.

The AUTHOR, after writing their book, spends considerable resources making copies and sending them to agents and publishers. This effort is usually lost, because the refusal from them is much more frequent than the parties would like.

AGENTS and PUBLISHERS, receiving hundreds of manuscripts each month for analysis, are to assume the costs of a laborious selection process. This process, in turn, is always subject to pressures represented by tight deadlines and stringent internal guidelines that reflect market demands. All this makes it too frequent to refuse a work that would otherwise be welcomed, if not then, possibly some months later.

Using PUBLISHERS' DESK, the author manages to offer their works at a fraction of the cost normally spent and they remain available to the searches of agents and publishers - from many countries - 24 hours a day. These professionals, in turn, gain a FREE search tool that excels the quality and improves the speed of a costly procedure that they were once required to perform.
So there we have it: a pretty classic manuscript display site/electronic slush pile. Historically, such websites--which have been around since the late 1990's--have never managed to establish themselves as a genuine alternative to the conventional submission process, even where they're sponsored by major publishers (such as HarperCollins' Authonomy). They can be useful if they also function as peer critique communities; some also make professional critiques available. But as a path to publication, they don't offer improved odds.

There's also the question of what kinds of publishers and agents use the site--if they use it at all. The more professional and high-profile sites may draw at least some reputable people--but display sites can also be a magnet for bottom feeders.

If a display site is free, you lose nothing by signing up (as long as you're careful about any contacts you receive). But if you have to pay a fee, you might want to think twice before pulling out your wallet.

Publishers' Desk offers two subscription plans--$49.99 for six months, $59.99 for a full year (according to the FAQ, you get a discount if you refer others), with an additional $19.95 due if you want to be evaluated for a possible Gold Star Award (according to Publishers' Desk, the Gold Star is "a way to acknowledge the quality of a well written work"). There's also a free option, but if you sign up for that your work will only be viewable by agents and publishers once a month on "Desk Day."

So what do you get for your Publishers' Desk subscription? No networking opportunities--there's no peer critique functionality, no writers' forum or discussion board, no way to connect with other authors. All the site allows you to do is upload a 350-character (yes, character) excerpt, a query letter, and a synopsis of your work, which becomes part of a database that can be (theoretically) searched by publishers and agents.

Do they search? A display site worth using should highlight at least a few success stories. But though Publishers' Desk claims "1,300+ works published by publishers," it doesn't name the works or the publishers, so it's impossible to verify the claim. The testimonials published on the site are similarly uninformative, since the authors who report inking exciting publishing deals conveniently fail to name their publishers.

Publishers' Desk boasts huge lists of publishers and agents--but these aren't especially helpful, either (the implication, of course, is that these publishers and agents actually use Publishers' Desk, but the lists look to me more like a gigantic pile of names harvested from the Internet). For one thing, there are fee-chargers. In the list of publishers, I spotted three vanity publishers--A Better Be Write Publishing, Aberdeen Bay, and American Book Publishing--before I even got out of the A's (Publishers' Desk's FAQ acknowledges the probability that "subsidy" publishers will use the site--always a risk with display sites). Ditto for the agency list, where I found names such as Charlotte Gusay (a $35 reading fee) and the delightfully professional Eddie Kritzer, who charges a $600 upfront marketing fee.

The lists are also larded with defunct publishers--including the notorious Aspen Mountain Press--and moribund agencies--including dead fee-chargers, such as A Picture of You and Authentic Creations. Amateur agencies get space as well (B.R. Fleury, Barron's Literary Management, Chamein Canton Agency). And though many reputable companies are included alongside the duds, there is nothing you can learn from these listings. Other than the company's name, no details are provided--no address, no website link, no submission guidelines, no nothing--and the little popup window that supposedly shows the company's "editorial line" appears to be exactly the same for every single company, making it not just useless but actively misleading.

Writers--save your money. If you want to use a display site, you'll get the most benefit if you choose one that includes a writers' community and is sponsored by a group you recognize--and that doesn't make you pay to participate.

February 2, 2012

The Authors Guild on Amazon: Publishing's Ecosystem on the Brink

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

This article from the Authors Guild was posted Tuesday on the Authors Guild blog. It's a must-read for anyone interested in the ways in which the book business is changing, and how we reached the point where a single retailer has the power to dictate terms to publishers, and thus, indirectly, to authors and readers.


Publishing's Ecosystem on the Brink: The Backstory

Subtlety is out. Bloomberg Businessweek’s January 25th cover shows a book engulfed in flames. The book’s title? “Amazon Wants to Burn the Book Business.” A towering pile of books dominates the front page of Sunday’s NYT Business Section. The pile starts well below the fold (print edition), breaks through the section header at the top of the page, and leans precariously. Books are starting to tumble off. “The Bookstore’s Last Stand,” reads the headline.

These stories capture pretty well the state of book publishing: this appears to be no ordinary, cyclical crisis that future authors and publishers will shrug off. To understand how the book industry got into this predicament, however, a broader perspective may be needed. The cover story of February’s Harper’s Magazine provides that, discussing a fundamental shift in the federal approach to antitrust law that’s affected bookselling and countless other industries. It’s a story that hasn’t previously been told in a major periodical, to our knowledge.

We’ll get to that in a moment. First, let’s set the stage with the other two stories.

Burning Down the Houses

Brad Stone’s Businessweek story discusses Amazon’s campaign to prevent other booksellers from securing a foothold in the booming e-book market and the company’s furious reaction to Random House’s decision last March to adopt agency pricing for e-books, just as five of the other “Big Six” trade publishers had the previous year. (Before agency pricing, Amazon could sell e-books from Big Six publishers at deep discounts, taking losses at a rate that Barnes & Noble could never afford to match. See How Apple Saved Barnes & Noble, Probably for more.)

Mr. Stone writes that after Random House’s March 2011 agency-pricing announcement,
Amazon could no longer run the best play out of its playbook – slash prices and sustain losses in the short term to gain market share over the long term. … “For the first time, a level playing field was going to get forced on Amazon,” says James Gray [of UK bookseller John Smith & Son and formerly of Ingram Content Group]. Amazon execs “were basically spitting blood and nails.”
Amazon’s response to Random House’s move was stunning and swift:
The next month, an Amazon recruiter sent an e-mail to several editors at big publishing houses, looking for someone to launch a new New York-based publishing imprint. “The imprint will be supported with a large budget, and its success will directly impact the success of Amazon’s overall business,” read the e-mail, which was obtained by Bloomberg Businessweek.
Even with a large budget, directly affecting the success of Amazon’s overall business is a tall order for a new publishing imprint. Amazon pulled in well north of $40 billion in revenue last year (final numbers aren’t yet in), dwarfing the combined revenues of the Big Six publishers.

Luring a substantial contingent of bestselling authors away from the Big Six seems the only plausible route for an imprint to affect Amazon’s overall business. Amazon needed someone with a substantial industry pedigree to pull this off. Amazon quickly – in time for last spring’s Book Expo America -- landed just the man for the job: Larry Kirshbaum, formerly of Warner Books.

Just three months after Random House’s announcement, Amazon had all but declared war on the six unruly members of its book supply chain. Jeff Bezos had $6 billion in cash, the patience to absorb losses for years, and a former Big Six chief to lead the fight. The long-running behind-the-scenes battle for control of the publishing industry had finally broken into full public view.

Barnes & Noble’s New Role: The Contender

While Amazon directly threatens traditional publishers with its new imprint, it continues to undermine the ecosystem on which book publishers, and most new authors, depend. Julie Bosman describes this well in her NYT article, focusing on the last remaining brick-and-mortar bookseller with nationwide clout:
Without Barnes & Noble, the publishers’ marketing proposition crumbles. The idea that publishers can spot, mold and publicize new talent, then get someone to buy books at prices that actually makes economic sense suddenly seems a reach. …

What publishers count on from bookstores is the browsing effect. Surveys indicate that only a third of the people who step into a bookstore and walk out with a book actually arrived with the specific desire to buy one.

“That display space they have in the store is really one of the most valuable places that exists in this country for communicating to the consumer that a book is a big deal,” said Madeline McIntosh, president of sales, operations and digital for Random House.
Established authors, for the most part, do fine selling through online bookstores. It’s new authors who lose out if browsing in bookstores becomes a thing of the past. Advances for unproven and non-bestselling authors have already plummeted, by all accounts. Literary diversity is at risk.

To understand just how precarious things are, realize that last year’s Borders’ bankruptcy represented an enormous reduction in browsing space, shuttering 650 stores. (B&N has about 700 stores.) One benefit of the loss of Borders should have been a short-term lift to B&N’s 700 stores and the 1,500 or so remaining independent bookstores. B&N’s sales were indeed up in the nine weeks before Christmas, Ms. Bosman reports. How much? Borders’ collapse led to a bounce of just four percent, compared to the prior Christmas. That’s what’s passing for good news in brick-and-mortar bookselling at the moment.

There is a bright spot, however. Barnes & Noble, led by William Lynch, has exceeded all expectations in the past two years with its launch of the Nook. B&N’s 300-member Silicon Valley office, after giving Amazon’s Kindle developers a two-year head start, beat Amazon to the tablet market by fully twelve months, and introduced what’s generally seen as the state-of-the-art e-ink reader, the Nook Simple Touch, eight months ago.

B&N, in other words, has been out-engineering Amazon, and Ms. Bosman’s story is the best account we’ve had of B&N’s efforts. In the process, B&N has seen its e-book market share climb from zero, two Christmases ago, to roughly 27% today.

B&N remains vulnerable, however. The engineering race against Amazon continues, and Amazon has leverage for acquiring content for its Kindle (see Contracts on Fire: Amazon’s Lending Library Mess) that B&N can’t match. And, critically, one tool that should help B&N, our antitrust laws, is instead poised to undo it.

This brings us to an unlikely tale of books, chickens, beer, and a Silicon Valley gentlemen’s agreement.

The Backstory: Amazon, Chicken Processors & Silicon Valley

Harper’s cover art rivals Businessweek’s: an enormous businessman wearing a gray pinstriped suit is preparing to literally eat the competition, a jumbo handful of gray-suited men and women. In the article, “Killing the Competition: How the New Monopolies Are Destroying Open Markets,” (key excerpts at link, full article by subscription) Barry Lynn views the state of book publishing through a different lens.

Mr. Lynn makes the case that Amazon’s dominance isn’t just a story of an industry disrupted by online commerce and digital upheaval, it’s about the abandoning of New Deal era protections of retailers in 1975 (promoted by backers as a means to fight inflation, says Mr. Lynn) and what he portrays as a shift in 1981 in the Justice Department’s interpretation of antitrust law based on “Chicago School” theories of efficiency and consumer welfare. The upshot appears to be that non-consumer markets (business-to-business markets and labor markets) are often insufficiently protected from monopolies.

To a chicken grower, for example, the relevant market isn’t restaurants or household consumers of chicken, it’s the market of chicken processors. Through a variety of machinations, including long-term contracts and the physical placement of processing plants (think baseball, before free agency), chicken growers now routinely have a market of only one processor to sell to.

Chicken growers own their land, buildings, and equipment, and all of the debt and risk that go with them, but these entrepreneurs have no real control over their economic lives. Growers buy their chicks and feed from their poultry processor, for example, and processors often require growers to make new investments in buildings and equipment. The processors, Mr. Lynn seems to suggest, have something much better than mere capital: the economic power to dictate how others use theirs.

It’s not just chicken growers who face constrained markets, Mr. Lynn writes. In free-wheeling Silicon Valley, computer engineers and digital animation workers employed by Apple, Google, Intel, and Pixar, among others, were subject to a secret agreement not to bid on each others’ employees, according to a Justice Department lawsuit filed, and settled, in 2010. (On Friday, former employees of some of the companies filed an antitrust lawsuit in federal court in San Jose based on the Justice Department investigation.)

It’s even hit beer. The 1,750 U.S. microbrewers may appear to operate in a competitive environment, but they nearly all sell through two distributors: ABI and MillerCoors control 90% of the distribution market.

For book publishers, the relevant market isn’t readers (direct sales are few), but booksellers, and Amazon has firm control of bookselling’s online future as it works to undermine bookselling’s remaining brick-and-mortar infrastructure. Amazon controls every growing segment of the industry: online physical books, downloadable audio books, online used books, and e-books. Amazon commands about 75% of the online market for print books, and 60% of the e-book market (a percentage that decreased from Amazon’s reported 90% two years ago, as a result of agency pricing).

Mr. Lynn reports on a conversation with the head of one of the largest publishing houses in the U.S.:
He explained that Amazon was once a “wonderful customer with whom to do business.” As Jeff Bezos’s company became more powerful, however, it changed. “The question is, do you wear your power lightly? … Mr. Bezos has not. He is reckless. He is dangerous.”
The head of a small publishing house in Manhattan, Mr. Lynn reports, was even more blunt:
“Amazon is a bully,” he said, his voice rising, his cheeks flushing. “Anyone who gets that powerful can push people around, and Amazon pushes people around. They do not exercise their power responsibly.”

Neither man allowed me to use his name. Amazon, they made clear, had long since accumulated sufficient influence over their business to ensure that even these most dedicated defenders of the book – and of the First Amendment – dare not speak openly of the company’s predations.
Mr. Lynn then turns to Amazon’s blackout of Macmillan’s buy buttons, two years ago this week:
At the time, Amazon and Macmillan were scrapping over which firm would set the price for Macmillan’s e-books. Amazon wanted to price every Macmillan e-book, and indeed every e-book of every publisher, at $9.99 or less. This scorched-earth tactic, which guaranteed that Amazon lost money on many of the e-books it sold, was designed to cement the online retailer’s dominance in the nascent market. It also had the effect of persuading customers that this deeply discounted price, which publishers considered ruinously low, was the “natural” one for an e-book.

In January 2010, Macmillan at last claimed the right to set the price for each of its own products as it alone saw fit. Amazon resisted this arrangement, known in publishing as the “agency model.” When the two companies deadlocked, Amazon simply turned off the buttons that allowed customers to order Macmillan titles, in both their print and their e-book versions. The reasoning was obvious: the sudden loss of sales, which could amount to a sizable fraction of Macmillan’s total revenue, would soon bring the publisher to heel.

This was not the first time Amazon had used this stratagem. The retailer’s executives had previously cut off small firms such as Ten Speed Press and Melville House Publishing for bucking their will. But the fight with Macmillan was by far the most public of these showdowns.

In the late 1970s, when a single book retailer first captured a 10 percent share of the U.S. market, Congress and the regulatory agencies were swift to react. As the head of the Federal Trade Commission put it: “The First Amendment protects us from the chilling shadow of government interference with the media. But are there comparable dangers if other powerful economic or political institutions assume control...?”


Today, … a single private company has captured the ability to dictate terms to the people who publish our books, and hence to the people who write and read our books. It does so by employing the most blatant forms of predatory pricing to destroy its retail competitors. … [It] justifies its exercise of raw power in the same way our economic autocrats always do: it claims that the resulting “efficiencies” will serve the interests of the consumer.
The book industry is in play, and has been for a while. The good news is that people are finally starting to pay attention.
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