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 17, 2013

Thoughts on the Great Erotica Panic of 2013

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware  

If you're a self-published erotica author, you're probably aware of the crazy events of the past few days, including the wholesale deletion of erotica ebooks and the shutdown of entire retail operations. If you're not, here's how things went down.

An expose in The Kernel that found numerous self-published rape and incest porn ebooks for sale at major ebook retailers precipitated a media frenzy in the UK. Amazon and Barnes & Noble began pulling titles from their stores. Other ebook retailers went farther: WH Smith shut down its entire website, and Kobo, which initially just deleted selected titles, suspended the sale of all self-published ebooks on its UK website--a shutdown that has since spread to Australia and New Zealand--in order to inventory its catalog and purge ebooks that violate its content guidelines.

As the story unfolded, authors who don't write erotica saw their titles removed, as did authors whose erotica books don't appear to violate retailers' content guidelines. In response, readers and others have launched a petition asking retailers to "leave our self-published and/or indie authors alone."

Beyond all the other issues raised by this incident--free speech, censorship (though IMO this isn't censorship; these are businesses, which have the right to sell what they choose), where the lines for objectionable content should be drawn, the slippery slope of book banning--there's one that I'm not seeing much discussed: the degree to which the apparently free market of self-publishing is vulnerable to Big Brother control.

I've gotten some shit for my dislike of the term "independent author" (as a substitute for "self-publisher"). I get that it's supposed to denote an author's independence from the traditional publishing establishment--an entrepreneurial new world in which authors aren't subject to restrictive rights grants and can control both the process and the proceeds of publication.

But I think the term also encourages the inaccurate notion that today's DIY self-publishing empowers authors to become fully independent operators, in complete control of their own destinies. As the Great Erotica Panic of 2013 demonstrates, that's not entirely true.

Like it or not, your access to the tools of self-publishing--and, more crucially, to your published books--are controlled by your publishing platform's Terms and Conditions. These typically allow the platform to yank books, close accounts, and enforce content policies at will, often without notification or explanation. When the platforms choose to exercise this power--appropriately or inappropriately--authors often have little recourse. A common theme of such situations is the difficulty of getting removed books restored, or of penetrating the bureaucracy and finding someone who can provide real answers and/or real help.

Fortunately events like this are rare. But if you're going to self-publish, it's absolutely vital that you read and understand the Terms and Conditions of any platform you decide to use (a step that authors often gloss over), so you'll know right from the start the degree to which you're subject to your platform's power to make you disappear. It's also a good reason to avoid exclusivity and publish to as many platforms as possible, so that if one decides to torpedo your account, your books won't completely disappear.

Some have speculated that increased screening and enforcement of content guidelines mark a sea-change for the self-publishing industry and will exert a chilling effect that could end self-publishing as we know it today. I don't think so. This incident should, however, be a reality check for self-publishers who think they're launching their work into a sphere of unlimited freedom. You're only as independent as your publishing platform will let you be.

October 15, 2013

Early Termination Fees in Publishing Contracts: A Cautionary Tale

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware 

A few years ago, I blogged about early termination fees, a.k.a. kill fees, in publishing contracts, and why they are not a good thing.
For obvious reasons, kill fee clauses are onerous for authors, who in some circumstances might have good reason to want to end a contract early, and can't do so without opening up their wallets. Plus, many publishers employ kill fee clauses abusively, holding them over the heads of unhappy authors, or attempting to use them as an income source by offering to jettison dissatisfied writers at the slightest provocation, or terminating the contracts of writers who've pissed them off and demanding the fee even though termination wasn't the writer's decision.
Here's an actual example of this kind of abuse.

Problem publisher No Boundaries Press, which apparently stopped paying its authors sometime in 2012, closed its doors at the end of this summer. According to reports received by Writer Beware, NBP's owner--who allegedly goes by several aliases, including Kharisma Rhayne, Denise Caroline, Mystee Blackwood, and Denise Blackwood--has absconded to Indiana, leaving sizeable debts and many angry authors behind. Some didn't even know about the closing until they read about it online.

Author Erica Pike has blogged about the whole ugly experience (what she reports is very similar to the reports I've received). As the problems at NBP mounted, she became more and more frustrated--and here's where early termination fees come in:
By now, you're probably wondering why the hell I didn't just send a "breach of contract - give me my shit back" message. The problem was that I couldn't. All the contracts had an early termination clause stating that I'd have to pay NBP money to get my rights back (all the authors were chained by this clause). The new contracts I'd signed had an increased early termination amount, so I was looking at impossible penalty fees if I pulled my books.
Then, abruptly, NBP announced that it was closing.
On June 5th..."Heather" (who had been assigned to handle everything because Kharisma could no longer work due to poor health) sent a message saying that NBP was closing. We would all get our rights back (yay!), but had to pay her for covers and edits if we wanted to continue using them.
So not only did NBP hold its unhappy authors hostage with the threat of huge termination fees if they pulled their books early, it attempted to use the termination clause to make a quick buck on the back end--even though the clause was meant to cover early termination by authors, not premature termination by the publisher. (And notwithstanding the fact that it owed its authors substantial amounts of money.)

Erica Pike offers some sensible advice:
If your contract has an early termination clause, challenge it. Speaking of, when signing contracts that have early termination clauses and there's no way the publisher will remove them, make sure you negotiate into the clause that if the publisher is in breach of contract you don't have to pay the fee to get your rights back.
I'd go farther. If your contract includes an early termination clause that imposes a fee and the publisher won't remove it, consider walking away. It's not just that early termination clauses have the potential for abuse--it's what the clause says about the publisher's attitude toward its authors, and its willingness (or lack of willingness) to shoulder the risks of publishing in exchange for the privilege of making money from its authors' intellectual property.

If you do choose to go forward with a contract that includes an early termination clause, be aware that the clause may come back to bite you, in ways you may not expect.

October 11, 2013

Writers' & Artists New Self-Publishing Comparison Service Leaves Much to be Desired

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware 

Writers & Artists--the Bloomsbury Publishing-owned writers' handbook that's the UK equivalent to the USA's Writers Market--has just launched a free self-publishing provider comparison service.

Here's how it works. Detailed questionnaires cover a variety of areas: editing, ebooks, design and formatting, marketing, and printing. Writers can fill out any or all of these. At the end of the process, they're presented with a list of self-publishing service providers selected from W&A's database, ranked in order of relevance. From this list, they can request up to a maximum of five "personalized quotes."

To test the service, I filled out the questionnaire for ebooks. My assumptions: I wanted ebook conversion and distribution to multiple platforms in Europe and North America, in ePUB and Mobi formats, for a manuscript of 100,000 words. I was willing to accept a distributor cut of up to 45%, and wanted control of pricing and regular sales reports. My budget was $500 (to my surprise, the questionnaire did not ask me how much I was willing to pay).

I was presented with 88 self-publishing companies, each with a little writeup about its services (according to W&A's FAQ, this data is provided by the companies themselves). Some of the companies I'd heard of--many of the Author Solutions imprints were represented, for instance, including the jaw-droppingly expensive Archway Publishing--but other names were unfamiliar.

Bewilderingly, top-rated for relevance was New Generation Publishing, which offers ebook publishing only as an add-on to its print self-publishing packages (a fact not mentioned in the company's writeup--you have to visit New Generation's website to discover this). Also, while New Generation's services include a menu of price-fixed publishing packages and marketing services, it doesn't seem to offer anything resembling the personalized quote promised by W&A.

Next in line: Memoirs Publishing and Matador. Neither company appears to provide ebook publication as a stand-alone option, and Memoirs doesn't show costs on its website, suggesting that it's pricey. Not until number four on the list did a stand-alone ebook option appear: Bookbaby, which also has the virtue of being relatively inexpensive.

I also filled out the questionnaires for Editing and Marketing, with similarly confusing results. For instance, Palibrio was included in my editing list, with no mention of the fact that it specializes in Spanish-language books; but the only dedicated editing company in W&A's database, Bear and Black Dog Books, was not. Marketing gave me AuthorHive, a company spun off from Author Solutions in order to hawk AS's huge collection of overpriced and dubiously useful "marketing" services; it also gave me Schiel & Denver and Llumina Press, about both of which Writer Beware has gotten serious complaints of unprofessional business practice.

Certainly it's helpful for authors to be able to access a big list of self-publishing service providers. There are scores of these, and the smaller or more specialized ones don't always rank high in search engine results. But Writers & Artists is billing their new service as a comparison service, designed to help authors make better choices. And based on what I've seen, that's not what authors are getting here.

I'm not the only one who is voicing concerns. Writes Mick Rooney of The Independent Publishing Magazine,
Yes, authors want some kind of guidance on reputable self-publishing services, and a way to avoid any pitfalls. I just don't see that here. This is a case of matching ticked boxes against a database. The information is as good as you indicate you want, without the proviso of any guarantee of quality or reputation of a company. Is it better than surfing Google looking for an editorial service, printer or self-publishing service? -- maybe. Is it a complete solution? No.
Members of the Alliance for Independent Authors (which worked with Writers & Artists on compiling a list of service providers and establishing a ratings system, but ultimately withdrew from the project due to disagreements over methodology) are also critical. Here's Ben Galley on why he's not happy with the new service. And ALLi founder Orna Ross provides this warning:
- The suppliers on this comparison site pay to have the author's contact details passed onto them as a "lead". ALLi asked that this would be made clear to authors using this service. As far as we can see, this key information does not appear anywhere on the W&A website.

- Good services like Silverwood books, Matador, Ingram, Amazon, Kobo, Mill City Press, ebook Partnership and many others -- including a number of our partner members -- appear beside some companies who are the worst in the business, without any way for an author to differentiate between those who serve writers well, and those who exploit.
Self-publishing expert David Gaughran also provides a blistering critique, calling W&A's plan to sell leads "unconscionable," and especially flagging the inclusion of Author Solutions imprints. "Author Solutions companies," he says, "have no place on a website which claims to provide authors with good advice."

W&A has responded to some of the criticism, admitting that companies that have agreed to "receive data" (i.e., authors' contact information) are charged "a flat fee" (this information does appear on W&A's website, though it's notably absent from this blog post from one of W&A's providers), and promising that a user review function will eventually be added so that authors will have "the opportunity to filter results by both ‘Best Match’ and ‘User Reviews’."

In my opinion, however, much more is needed to make this a truly useful service. Some suggestions:

- Refine the comparison engine so that it produces reliably appropriate results.

- Winnow the list of providers to remove dubious companies--or at least amend their writeups to note known issues and/or serious complaints (as with Author Solutions). Writer Beware stands ready to help, if requested.

- Provide real writeups on the companies--not just the companies' own not-necessarily-complete-or-transparent PR.

- For convenience, add links to the companies' websites.

- Include prices in the comparison chart. Cost is often one of the main considerations in choosing a self-pub service, and it's impossible to meaningfully evaluate any company without knowing how much it charges.

- Last, and vitally important: the questionnaires need to be amended to take writers' finances into account, so that comparison engine will select for how much authors are willing to pay. If I'm looking for low-cost self-publishing, for instance, I shouldn't see Archway Publishing on my comparison list.

October 4, 2013

New Publisher House and the State of Independence 2014 Report: Grain of Salt Required

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

So a week ago, I stumbled on this news item in a generally reliable venue:
The [growth of ] self-publishing has created a new publishing market that totals $52 billion in revenues, according to a new report from media technology firm New Publisher House. According to the report, this is twice as much money as the traditional book publishing industry in the U.S. brings in in its current total annual sales revenue.

The State of Independence 2014 report looked at insights gathered from publishing executives, Amazon, Google and industry data to come up with its conclusions. The report also revealed that the number of aspiring self-published authors that have completed manuscripts is more than 100x the number of actual published authors. In addition, according to the report, self-published titles are 8x the number of mainstream published new titles.
Wow, I thought, interesting news! There's so little solid data on self-publishing--how great to have an authoritative industry report to shed more light on this exploding new market! So of course I tweeted it.

But then I got to thinking. $52 billion? Seems like an awfully big figure, even if you assume that the lion's share of it is money made from self-publishers by service providers, rather than money made by self-publishers from book sales. Plus, Amazon and Google aren't known for freely sharing numbers.

So I did what I should have done to begin with: I took a look at the actual report. Except that this isn't the report at all, only an "Executive Summary," without any description of research methodology or any source material references to support the big numbers quoted above. Nor, when I accessed the Executive Summary last week, was there any indication of who authored the report or who was commissioned to create it--or even where the report itself could be found.

There's no contact information on New Publisher House's website, and to email CEO James O'Toole via his LinkedIn profile I'd have to pay to upgrade my LinkedIn membership (not gonna happen). So I tracked down New Publisher House's Twitterfeed and sent a tweet asking if I could pose some questions. After a few days and some link confusion, I was directed to this article on New Publisher House's website (the article, which wasn't present the first time I visited the website, is now included in the Executive Summary, where it also wasn't present the first time I visited).

In addition to my questions, I'm guessing that O'Toole saw some of the skeptical coverage of State of Independence 2014 (the exception in the largely unquestioning dissemination of the report's claims) and decided to address it--with, unfortunately, less than illuminating results.
[The report] took a great deal of work. Unlike other industries, reliable data is scarce and a company like Amazon doesn’t provide detailed breakdowns in its financial filings or even earnings calls. So how was I able to do it? I’ve produced business cases and market reports for major corporations across a range of industries. I also co-managed the Rich 200 list for Australia’s leading business magazine, BRW – Australia’s equivalent to the Forbes 400. This required establishing valuations on assets for which there was little public data and required lateral approaches (I had wondered about those valuations until one of Australia’s richest people asked me how I was able to so accurately calculate their net worth).

I decided to put the research into a report I’ve called State of Independence 2014 and share it because of the startling information I uncovered. Unlike most industry reports, I’ve actually gone into detail about the methodology so people understand the data and can assess for themselves their validity. This is the Executive Summary. It gives the key findings and table of contents. For those interested, the full report (which has sources and methodology) will be released with our crowdfunding campaign.
We now know that the author of the report is O'Toole himself, but we still have no idea of how he compiled his figures and findings, or why we should trust them. (Nor do most of those "key findings" seem so very startling--for instance, from the Conclusion: "The very technologies which are driving the eBook revolution have the potential to disintermediate and undermine established publishers." No kidding.) Being able to look at the actual report might put such concerns to rest--but we can't look at it, because its release has been delayed to some unspecified date.

I suspect it's no coincidence that New Publisher House is just about to launch "a revolutionary new indie publishing platform connecting authors, publishing professionals, designers & readers". Maybe when that happens, we'll be able to get our hands on the corroborating data. Until then, I at least am taking State of Independence 2014 with a massive grain of salt.


October 1, 2013

Swoon Reads: New "Crowdsourced" Teen Romance Imprint

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

As reported by a number of sources, including USA Today, Macmillan is launching Swoon Reads, a new teen romance imprint, under its existing Feiwel and Friends imprint. It's looking for submissions of previously unpublished manuscripts.

The twist: Swoon Reads is a "crowdsourced" imprint, with readers commenting on and rating the posted manuscripts. Highly-ranked manuscripts will be considered by Swoon Reads' publishing board, and those selected for publication will be offered a standard Macmillan publishing contract plus a $15,000 advance. Books will be published in both print and electronic format.

Here's what Swoon Reads is looking for.

I don't find any major pitfalls on the website or in the Terms and Conditions (the Terms and Conditions for manuscript submission are separate from the general Terms and Conditions, and are available only to those who sign up for Swoon Reads). But there are some things that writers should carefully consider.

- You'll be making your FULL manuscript available online. Will this create difficulties if Swoon Reads doesn't select it and you want to submit it elsewhere? Personally, I think that's unlikely. The mss. are not publicly available (only members can access them), and they're not for sale. Still, it's something to be aware of.

As for copyright concerns, Swoon Reads addresses those in its FAQ:
Is my work protected?
We are doing our best to protect your work from theft and plagiarism. We will not allow cutting, pasting, or copying from any Swoon Reads submission. We also require all members of the Swoon Reads community to agree to a set of Terms and Conditions that legally prohibit anyone from stealing and reposting any content from Swoon Reads. And you must be a member of Swoon Reads to access any of the submissions.
- Your submission is exclusive for six months. This means that you can't submit it, or publish it, anywhere else during the six months following submission (with the exception of making excerpts available on your own website or blog). It also can't already be under consideration for sale by anyone else. Per the FAQ, you can be agented (though if you have a savvy agent, I doubt they'd be enthusiastic about tying your ms. up with a six-month exclusive submission).

- Swoon Reads may take user comments and ratings into account in considering submitted manuscripts for publication, but it doesn't have to. So the crowdsourcing aspect of Swoon Reads isn't the be-all and end-all. Lots of positive reviews and ratings won't necessarily make you a shoo-in.

- The contract, if offered, includes a grant of exclusive, worldwide rights in all languages, plus an option on your next work, and is likely not negotiable. According to the submission Terms and Conditions, "reasonable" changes in contract terms "may be requested," though Swoon Reads "shall not be obligated to agree to any such changes". The FAQ indicates even less flexibility: "the Swoon Reads contract terms are standard and not up for negotiation."

I'm presuming, since this is described as Macmillan's standard contract, that the grant is life-of-copyright, in which case all the cautions about reversion clauses apply. But I haven't seen a Macmillan contract recently, so I can't comment on the specific terms.

Last but not least, the problem (well, one of the problems) with crowdsourcing is people trying to game the system (i.e., creating multiple accounts to pad the rankings). I contacted Swoon Reads to ask what steps they're taking to keep this from happening. They told me,
It's very important to us that no one takes advantage of the ratings system and that all manuscripts uploaded to Swoon Reads are rated according to the quality of the manuscript. Every story should have a fair shot! We built provisions into the site usage rules and the site technology itself so that we're able to track if one person has opened multiple accounts or is in any way violating the terms of use. We also encourage any users who notice suspicious activity to use the 'Report this Manuscript' function to call attention to any strange ratings or other activity.
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