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.

October 26, 2012

Alert: America's Next Author Contest

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

On Wednesday, I blogged about high entry fee awards schemes. Today, I'm going to discuss another potential awards trap: non-optimal entry rules.

eBookMall is a veteran ebook retailer, one of the very first (it was founded before the turn of the century). Now it's hosting an awards program called America's Next Author, which it is promoting heavily via email and advertising.

ANA, for English-language short stories of between 2,500 and 5,000 words, bills itself as "the first real social writing contest." Winners are selected "based on a unique combination of votes from readers and publishing industry experts" (cue vote lobbying). There are eight nomination rounds; three finalists are chosen based on their Author Ranking (cue more vote lobbying, although, per the official contest rules, entrants are prohibited from offering "inducements to members of the public").

The finalists then battle to the death (well, figuratively):
[T]he authors of these stories will compete head-to-head during two special writing assignments. These authors will battle against each other in a brief but intense bout of writing competition for the Grand Prize of $5000, worldwide press coverage, and the chance to be published.
In fact, not just the chance to be published. Actual publication. Per Clause 5 of the contest rules, simply  entering the contest constitutes a grant of publishing rights to ANA. ANA addresses this in its FAQ:
Why do I have to grant America's Next Author the publication rights to my story?

Entering a story in America's Next Author means that your story will be published. The unique nature of this contest is that all stories can be read on the contest website, and they will also be made available as PDF ebooks. This allows visitors to read the stories and vote for their favorite. Without publication, there wouldn't be a contest!

We'd like to stress that this is a non-exclusive agreement, so you can still publish your story elsewhere. And we do not have any intention of using your story in ways that are not connected to this contest.
Ah, but it's not quite so simple. Here is the actual wording of Clause 5:
By submitting an Entry you grant eBookMall the publication rights to your Entry during the contest and 12 months after the completion of the contest.
Note that while the FAQ claims that the grant of rights is non-exclusive, the actual wording of the rules doesn't stipulate this. Grant language ought to be precise.

Note also that most publishers want exclusive publication rights--so for as long as your story is online at ANA, you won't be able to try and re-sell it. Plus, your prospects for re-publication will be limited, since you'll only be able to sell the story as a reprint, and most publishers want first-time rights. If you enter this contest, be sure it's something you want to give up your first rights for.

Note, finally, that you aren't granting rights just for the duration of the contest, but for a whole year beyond the contest's end (something the FAQ doesn't mention, and that eager authors, skimming the dense paragraphs of the rules--or maybe not bothering to read them at all--may miss).

I'm guessing this provision is there because eBookMall wants to leave the contest website up for a year. But what if it decides to use the grant of rights in some other way? Publishing an anthology of contest stories, for instance--which would fit just fine with the FAQ's assurance that eBookMall "has no intention of using your story in ways that are not connected to this contest." However, because of the rights you've granted, you'd have no control over whether or how your story was included. Nor is there any mention in the contest rules of compensation--so eBookMall would have no obligation to compensate you for this additional use of your intellectual property.

There's also this, also in Clause 5:
In addition, to the extent that any moral rights (for example, the right to attribution and the right to integrity) apply, you waive (and to the extent that these rights may not be waived, agree irrevocably not to assert) your moral rights in your Entry for purposes of this Contest, including, without limitation, our use of excerpts from your Entry in connection with this Contest.
So pieces of your story, or even your whole story, could be disseminated without your name. And that dissemination could be wide:
Your Story and Excerpts, along with your name, city, and state of residence, and portions of your Entry which relate to the submitted Story, may be posted on any website owned or operated by us or any of our affiliates (“Our Site”), any other website or other online point of presence on any platform through which any products or services available on or through Our Site are described, syndicated, offered, merchandised, or advertised.
I am never enthused by contests that force entrants to to go vote-begging (Google ["America's Next Author" + vote] to see what I mean). $5,000 is certainly a tempting prize, though. If you do decide to enter this contest, be sure you understand the rights you're giving up, and are comfortable with the ambiguity of that 12-month post-contest publication window.

October 24, 2012

Character Building Counts and Wise Bear Digital: Two More High-Entry Fee Book Awards

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

It's Awards Week at Writer Beware! No, I'm not handing out prizes--I'm dispensing cautions. I've got two posts this week, both focusing on literary awards you may want to think twice about before entering.

Today's post features two awards of a type that seems to be becoming more and more common: aimed at small press and self-published writers, their principal purpose is to make money for their sponsors. I've written before about these kinds of programs, which share a general M.O.: a high entry fee, dozens or scores or even hundreds of entry categories, anonymous judges, minimal prizes, and, often, the sale of additional merchandise to winners and honorees.

Character Building Counts Book Awards

I became aware of the Character Building Counts Book Awards partly because I received some questions about them, but also because they spammed me at least three times.

CBC describes its program thus:
We pay tribute to books and essays that teach character-building lessons through fiction or nonfiction writing categories. We are looking for books and essays that will generate ripples of goodness and decency in a communal pond that is thirsty for safety, security, and peace of mind.
All the hallmarks of a profitmaking enterprise are here: an entry fee of $95 ("early birds" got to pay just $75); 31 entry categories (relatively modest for a profit-making award); nameless judges (with typical vague claims about their competence); and non-prize prizes: an Internet radio interview with would-be impresario Cyrus Webb, sticky seals, a printed certificate, a spam press release, and some self-referential pseudo-promo via the Awards' own outlets). There's no mention of merchandise for sale, but I'm betting that the winners will have the opportunity to buy more of those "beautifully designed" seals.

The Character Building Counts Book Awards website is registered to Grassroots Publishing Group, a small publisher located in California, which appears to have published just three books since 2008.

Wise Bear Digital Book Awards

Again, I became aware of these awards because they spammed me.  

The Wise Bear Digital Book Awards aim to "honor the best in digital publishing in the independent writing community." Registration starts at $50, rising to $70 if you enter after March 1, 2013. There are (count 'em) 95 entry categories. Judges are anonymous, though their expertise is touted in the usual terms. Prizes include an "online medal award ceremony" (that's a new one), a "digital medal," a "personalized certificate" you can print out, and the familiar self-referential promo stuff (mostly, presence on Wise Bear's own website and social media accounts). Winners are also "eligible" to win a DIY video trailer package and a Kindle Fire. All entrants receive "a book review and critique."

There's no mention of additional purchase opportunities. But since Wise Bear also sells podcast interviews, book reviews, and epublishing packages...what do you think?

Writers: While a sticker on your book cover (or your website, if it's a "digital medal") may look cool, and it's nice to be able to say you're an award-winning author, awards like this carry no prestige, and have zero name recognition with readers, booksellers, and critics. Whatever they may claim, the primary benefit of these programs is to the sponsor--not to you.

There are much better uses of your marketing dollar.

EDITED TO ADD: Wise Bear's owner has contacted me to let me know that she believes my use of one of her graphic images in this post is a copyright violation. I believe it's fair use, but I also acknowledge that this is a gray area, so I've honored her request and removed the image.

October 17, 2012

Guest Post: Dear Agent -- Write the Letter That Sells Your Book

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Query letters. Except for the synopsis, there's no more dreaded task a writer has to undertake.

How to boil an entire book down to a short pitch that not only provides an accurate snapshot of the work, but makes a literary agent (or a publisher) want to see more? This is incredibly difficult--not just because crafting good pitches is a hard thing to do in general, but because in many ways, writers are the worst judges of their own work. They're just too close to it.

Fortunately, author Nicola Morgan is here to help. In this week's guest blog post, she offers clear, practical, and just plain terrific advice on how to craft that all-important "hook."

Dear Agent -- Write the Letter That Sells Your Book
A guest post from Nicola Morgan, aka the Crabbit* Old Bat
(*Crabbit = “grumpy, prone to being irritable”)

Dear Writers,

Call me weird, but I love writing one-paragraph pitches and always do it before I start writing a book. It helps me focus on the core and stay on track.

Oh, and don’t worry: I have no intention of being “crabbit” with you. After all, I’m a guest here, and it would be very rude. Besides, you are all sensible writers, looking for the best way through the publishing jungle, so there’ll be nothing for me to be crabbit about, will there?

Let’s talk about how to pitch your book.

First, there’s one difference between the UK and the US when it comes to querying agents: in the UK, it’s easier because the initial letter accompanies a longer synopsis and sample chapters; in the US, your query letter is on its own. But how we actually pitch the book in the letter is the same, because it’s all about making someone want to read it. A lot.

And, wow, do writers sometimes mess this up! (I bet I made many of the same mistakes in my 21 rejection years.) So simple in theory, the query is full of traps which can make you appear arrogant or ignorant and make your wonderful book seem dull, derivative, confusing or in some other way utterly lacking in “must-read” factor. I have seen some ouch-making faux pas in the letters agents show me.

In your letter, you’ll also need to sell yourself, show that you’re up to this task of being a modern published author, that you’re professional, informed, ready to engage with your public rather than scaring them off, confident without being arrogant, and about as far from a nutcase as it’s possible to be.

But today I’m not going to talk about selling yourself. I am focusing on the crucial paragraph that sells your book. The hook. I want to show you how to hone it into a thing of such sharpness that it will be even sharper than the toes on my purple boots. That’s sharp, believe me.

I admit it’s not easy. I think the difficulty comes because we are too close to our own work. You know when someone asks what your book is about and you take a deep breath and start to say what it’s about; but you can’t stop because you think of more and more and more things that it’s about and all of them seem so fantastically important that you just can’t stop? And so you say more. Because how can your beautiful, rich, multi-layered book be reduced to a paragraph? Butchery!

Trust me on this: no one wants to listen to a rambling explanation or outline. They want to know one thing: does this book sound like something I want to read? An agent wants to know that plus two other things: a) is this the sort of book I can sell and b) does the pitch make it sound as though this is not just a good idea but also a satisfying whole? For that, the best pitch is short, sharply-focused and recognizes what makes a book sound compelling.

I’ll suggest a method and then some guidelines.

My method: start with something even shorter than a paragraph. A maximum twenty-five word pitch.

How to create that 25-word pitch: 

(Note: these steps are a framework not a strait-jacket. Adapt if necessary. For non-fiction omit 1 and 2 and decide what your book is about and who it’s for.)

1. Take your main character (MC) and give him/her an epithet – eg vengeful divorcee, desperate aspiring author…
2. Identify the MC’s central mission/problem/fear and what he stands to lose if he fails.
3. Brainstorm words and phrases that your book conjures up, including themes, moods, actions.
4. Pick the 25-30 that sound most compelling.
5. Pick the 5-8 of those that sound even more compelling then the others.
6. Fashion those ingredients into a tight, heart-tugging 25-word pitch.
7. Include wolves.

OK, I’m joking about wolves. Well, I’m not completely joking: if there are wolves in your story, they must be in your pitch. Why? Because wolves are exciting, heart-tugging, mysterious and emotional things that we want to read about.

But what if your book has no wolves? Well, there are dozens of other things that tug heart-strings: sex, power, fear, obsession, madness, lust, love, pain, loss, grief, tigers, magic, witches, horses, corpses, poison, murder, torture, betrayal, struggle, disability, terrorism, war… You get the picture? Focus on the must-read factors of your book. Make up for the absence of wolves.

Here are a couple of examples of 25-word pitches that I hope work:

Lizzy Invisible (middle-grade WIP): Overshadowed by her seriously-ill brother and super-talented sister, Lizzy feels invisible. Imagine her shock when she discovers that she’s literally vanishing…

Mondays are Red (YA): After a coma, a talented runner finds his world terrifyingly altered. Synesthesia brings him corrupting power; he must resist, to save someone he loves.

Of course, they are not enough, and they omit much that is important, but the point is: they are the place to start.

So, you’ve got your 25-word pitch. Next, swell it to a paragraph by elaborating on that “must-read” core.

My guidelines follow. It’s hard to create guidelines that apply to every type of story, so do adapt at least 1 and 2. Again, for non-fiction, use common sense and omit points that don’t apply.

1. Focus on main plot only. (Obviously, if you have a dual story, or similar, you might need to mention both but aim for the minimum.)
2. Show MC’s central mission/problem/fear and what he stands to lose if he fails – and indicate (some) obstacles and journey.
3. Be concrete, not abstract. For example, avoid statements such as, “This is a book about survival” – show us who survives what and how.
4. Give a sense of the tone. For example, for a humorous book, convey this.
5. Do not praise your writing. It is not for you to describe your prose as “poignantly lyrical with flashes of genius”.
6. Stay true to your genre. For example, what might sound compelling in a crime novel may not sound compelling in a romance.
7. Do include a sense of the ending when pitching to agents and publishers. This doesn’t mean you must say exactly what happens, but we need to know something of the resolution.
8. Avoid unanswered questions such as “Does Larry save the world?” “Will Ella ever find love?”
9. Comparisons with other books can work but require great care. They must add something to our understanding of what sort of book it is. “My book is a cross between Twilight and Where the Wild Things Are” is not going to work.
10. Hone, hone, hone – imagine each word costs you $10.
11. Get others to read your pitch – it’s amazing how helpful an outside view can be.

Does that help? There are more tips, actual examples and questions answered in Dear Agent. It’s written from a UK perspective but most of the advice holds anywhere, especially the parts about writing the best pitch for your book.

Thank you so much for letting me pitch up here. (See what I did there?) I hope my British accent hasn’t made you laugh too much! Good luck to you all and I wish you a very fulfilling writing career and lots of happy readers.

Best wishes,
The Crabbit Old Bat

Links for further reading:

Main website:
Writing and publishing advice blog: Help! I Need a Publisher!
Ebook taking fear out of writing a synopsis: Write a Great Synopsis – An Expert Guide
Ebook: Dear Agent – Write the Letter That Sells Your Book.
Mondays are Red – Nicola’s original debut YA novel

Nicola Morgan August 2012


Nicola Morgan is an award-winning and best-selling UK author of around 90 books across the ages, fiction and non-fiction. She blogs about writing, publishing, and everything about being a modern author, at Help! I Need a Publisher! The blog got her a book deal – Write to be Published. She is in touch with many agents and publishers, who regularly recommend her advice to new writers and show her some of their worst submissions. Nicola lives in Edinburgh and is a little bit obsessed by gorgeous boots. And chocolate.

October 12, 2012

Judge Rules Against Authors Guild in HathiTrust Lawsuit

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

On the heels of several publishers' secret settlement deal with Google in the long-running Google Books lawsuit, a judge has made a major ruling in another lawsuit over book scanning.

In September 2011, the Authors Guild, two international writers' groups, and several individual authors filed suit against a number of major US universities, challenging their aggregation of scans of in-copyright books into a repository called HathiTrust. The plaintiffs claimed that the scans--obtained from Google as part of the Google Books project--were unauthorized, because permission to scan had not first been sought from copyright holders. The universities argued that such digitization is fair use under US copyright law.

This week, Judge Harold Baer granted HathiTrust's motion for summary judgment, finding that the universities' digitization project was indeed fair use.

The full opinion is here. See also this analysis by law professor James Grimmelmann.

This is a major decision that has direct bearing on the Google Books lawsuit (although the publishers involved in the lawsuit settled, the Authors Guild is proceeding with litigation), since Google has always argued that its scanning is fair use. One major difference between Google and HathiTrust is that Google is a commercial enterprise, which wants to make money from the books it digitizes, and HathiTrust is not. But Grimmelmann, quoted in PW, feels that may not make a difference.
This is a pretty serious blow to the Authors Guild....The fair use ruling is substantially applicable to Google: yes, Google is commercial, but the transformative use and market harm points stand, and that's enough for a solid fair use victory. This seems like an appropriate time for the Authors Guild to take stock of the litigation, ask what it's accomplished for authors, and consider what the consequences of pressing on would be.
For its part, the Authors Guild disagreed "nearly every aspect of the court's ruling." In a statement to members, it said:
We're especially disappointed that the court refused to address the universities' "orphan works" program, which defendants have repeatedly promised to revive. A year ago, the University of Michigan and other defendants were poised to release their first wave of copyright-protected, digitized books to hundreds of thousands of students and faculty members in several states. The universities had deemed the authors of these books to be unfindable.

Within two days of filing our lawsuit last September, Authors Guild members and staff found that the "orphans" included books that were still in print, books by living authors, books whose rights had been left to educational and charitable institutions in the U.S. and abroad, books represented by literary agents, and books by recently deceased authors whose heirs were easily locatable.

"The so-called orphan works program was quickly shown to be a haphazard mess, prompting Michigan to suspend it," said Paul Aiken, the Guild's executive director. "But the temptation to find reasons to release these digitized books clearly remains strong, and the university has consistently pledged to reinstate the orphan works program. The court's decision leaves authors around the world at risk of having their literary works distributed without legal authority or oversight."
The Guild says it is discussing its options, and will soon announce what further steps it intends to take.


An observation: My posts on these kinds of subjects get fewer views and comments than almost anything else I write. I know that many of you prefer my funny posts or my scam exposes. But I continue to cover the wonky subjects--because if you're a writer, they directly affect you. Copyright law and practice is being sweepingly re-shaped by the digital revolution, and by litigation such as the lawsuits discussed above. It's wise to keep up with the challenges and the changes, so you don't find yourself blindsided by them.

October 9, 2012

Writers Slam Secrecy of Book Publishers' Deal With Google

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

American Society of Journalists and Authors (
National Writers Union (
Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (

Contacts: Minda Zetlin, President, American Society of Journalists and Authors, 845-481-0252,

Larry Goldbetter: President, National Writers Union, 212-254-0279 x14, 773-551-7021 (cell),

Michael Capobianco, past President, Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, 301-274-9489,

For Immediate Release:
October 9, 2012

Writers Slam Secrecy of Book Publishers' Deal with Google; Call on Dept. of Justice to Investigate Antitrust Implications

National writers’ organizations representing authors of books in a variety of genres believe a secret deal between Google and major book publishers may encourage Google to digitize, use, and sell copyrighted books illegally. The writers' groups ask the Department of Justice to review whether the terms of the secret deal may violate Federal antitrust law.

Google and the Association of American Publishers (AAP) announced October 4 that they had signed a settlement agreement that means the publishers no longer are litigants in an ongoing suit against Google for copyright violations. Since early 2005, Google has been scanning library books for use in its Google Book Search project. Some 20 million books have been scanned, all without permission.

The American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA), the National Writers Union (NWU), and Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) all opposed two attempts to settle the suit -- as did the Department of Justice, myriad individual authors, organizations, Attorneys General of many states, and even foreign governments. We now stand with the Authors Guild in believing Google violated authors’ copyrights. This new, secret settlement with Google may do writers further damage.

We call on publishers to make the settlement terms public: which books are included, and how much money is changing hands?

“Writers are partners with publishers in the joint venture of royalty publishing. We are contractually entitled to full disclosure of a deal that affects our books, rights, royalties, and livelihoods,” said ASJA President Minda Zetlin.

We have written to the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice today to ask that they re-open their investigation of this case, and review the terms of the settlement for possible violations of federal law.

“Settlement negotiations should not be allowed to serve as a cover for otherwise-impermissible collusion by parties to litigation against the interests of other stakeholders, such as the writers of these books, who were excluded from those negotiations,” said NWU President Larry Goldbetter.

Copyright law declares the creator of a work retains all rights not spelled out in the publishing contract. Until very recently, book contracts had no language whatever about e-books or digital rights. So when a publisher agrees to give Google access to its backlist of books, it’s very likely that the publisher is taking money for rights it doesn’t own. The authors own them.

Our organizations believe many publishers, including some of those who settled, have been engaged in the systematic theft of writers' electronic rights and e-book revenues where digital rights were never assigned by authors to publishers. They have been licensing e-book editions of works to which they hold only print rights. The industry needs an open process whereby authors can challenge  ownership of any rights in question.

Whether Google Can Legally Copy Millions of Books Is Still in Question

With 20 million books already scanned, Google continues scanning books daily. In The Authors Guild, Inc. et al. v. Google, now before the U.S. Court of Appeals, Second Circuit, writers say this is illegal, since those who hold the rights to the books haven’t given permission. Whether the publishers’ settlement with Google will affect the lawsuit is unclear.

We are concerned that this new, secret agreement will give Google erstwhile permission to ramp up its illegal scanning. Even for those books to which publishers can legitimately license e-book rights, many questions remain. The secrecy of the deal lends itself to abuses.

ASJA, NWU, and SFWA urge Google, the AAP, and the publisher litigants to do the right thing: disclose the complete terms of this settlement immediately. If the parties won't do so voluntarily, the Department of Justice needs to use its authority to investigate this agreement.

October 5, 2012

Publishers Settle With Google--But What About Authors?

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Seven years ago, the Authors Guild and several major publishers (including McGraw Hill, Penguin, and John Wiley) filed suit against Google for its unauthorized scanning of in-copyright books. The AG and publishers claimed that the scanning was a violation of copyright, since permission from the rightsholders to create a new book format hadn't been sought. Google argued that the scanning wasn't a new format at all, but fair use of an existing format.

A controversial settlement to the suit was crafted by the AG and Google in 2009--and rejected by the court in early 2011. Since then, the parties have been dancing around each other, with motions and counter-motions as the litigation drags on.

While the AG has stood firm in its commitment to the suit, it's long been rumored that the publishers were considering a separate settlement. Now rumor has become fact. On behalf of the litigating publishers, the Association of American Publishers announced yesterday that a settlement had been reached.

In its statement, the AAP says that
The settlement acknowledges the rights and interests of copyright-holders. US publishers can choose to make available or choose to remove their books and journals digitized by Google for its Library Project. Those deciding not to remove their works will have the option to receive a digital copy for their use.

Apart from the settlement, US publishers can continue to make individual agreements with Google for use of their other digitally-scanned works.
Other terms of the settlement are confidential. Since this is a private settlement between the parties, the terms don't have to be disclosed or approved by the court.

This, of course, leaves a raft of questions unanswered. The publishers can remove the Google-digitized books if they don't want them included--but what options do authors have? What about orphan works? Will Google be able to sell the digitized books--and if so, what share will publishers receive, and will authors benefit? The contracts for many of the books are pre-digital, and don't incorporate electronic rights--so should publishers have any control over the digitized books at all, much less receive a digital copy "for their own use"?

In a blog post at PW, Peter Brantley notes that these digital copies may be of limited utility due to the nature of Google's scanning. Even so, the settlement gives the settling publishers--and non-settling publishers, if they follow this same model in negotiating with Google--control of something they arguably shouldn't be able to possess, and appears to leave authors out of the equation. James Grimmelmann, a copyright expert and one of the most objective commenters on the Google litigation, worries that "Google is going to increasingly use the consent of the publishers as an argument that the authors don't even speak for copyright owners."

As many commenters have noted, this is a fizzle of an ending for such a lengthy litigation. It leaves Google's status unchanged, and doesn't seem to give the publishers anything they didn't already have (since Google always allowed rightsholders to opt out). The publishers have basically walked away from the legal issues involved--which may reflect litigation fatigue, but also is an acknowledgment of how much the digital marketplace has changed over the past seven years. When the suit was filed, the value of digital rights was still a subject of debate. That's no longer the case. As Andrew Albanese points out in PW's coverage of the settlement,
At the time of the lawsuit, while there was a Google partner program, there was no Google “bookstore.” Now, under the settlement agreement, millions of long out-of-print books scanned by Google via its Library Project can be included in Google Play, turning what may have looked like a potential threat at the time, into a potential moneymaker.
A moneymaker for publishers. But what about authors?

The settlement doesn't affect the Authors Guild's class action litigation against Google, which is proceeding.
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