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.

December 18, 2015

Almond Press Redux: Revenge-Rating a Critic

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Last week I wrote about Neoglyphic Entertainment, which responded to criticism of the rules of its Neoverse writing competition by engaging in productive dialogue and ultimately making the rules more author-friendly.

Not everyone in the small press world is so open to change. In my experience, and that of the countless authors who've contacted me about their publisher troubles, small presses are at least as likely to react to critiques of their contracts or business practices with defensiveness and anger. Or even, sometimes, attempts at retaliation.

Case in point: Almond Press, whose short story competition I featured here last July. Essentially, the competition was a way for Almond to gather free material for an anthology--the competition winner received a cash prize but none of the other entrants received any payment other than "exposure." (The anthology lineup can be seen here.) I wrote,
Even if Almond isn't reaping a secret profit from free stories, though, this is yet another example of the increasingly prevalent writing culture that urges authors to work for exposure, rather than for fair monetary compensation. Sometimes, exposure may be indeed be worth it--if Tor were to run a similar competition (not that it would), it might be worth entering. But where exposure is the main or only compensation for publication, you really need to parse its meaning. Does publication in an anthology from an obscure small press with Amazon sales rankings in the hundred thousands constitute "exposure?" If so, is it an equitable tradeoff for being paid for the exploitation of your intellectual property?
Well, Almond Press was not happy with that assessment, which is understandable. But did they change the competition rules? Did they decide to compensate all their authors? Did they contact me to discuss my post or even to threaten me with legal action?

No. Nothing that mature.

Last week I was checking my books on Goodreads, which I do sometimes to see if there've been any new reviews (yes, yes. I know). I noticed a brand-new one-star rating on one of them, from...could it be? Almond Press!

Interesting, I thought. So I clicked on Almond's profile...and what should I discover but this:

That's right. Almond Press had revenge-rated every single one of my books. Clearly, a small press staffed by grownups.

I contacted Goodreads, which told me that everyone is entitled to an opinion--which is certainly true, if it's actually an opinion and not a childish attempt at retaliation. So it would appear that Almond's revenge-ratings are there to stay. Not that big of a deal, really--unless, of course, you think that publishers should respond to criticism in a forthright and professional manner.

Hmm. Maybe I should check Amazon.

December 9, 2015

Neoverse Writing Competition Makes Its Rules More Author-Friendly

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

This is the kind of post I wish I got to write more often.

For the past couple of weeks I've been getting inquiries about the Neoverse Short Story Writing Competition, sponsored by Neoglyphic Entertainment.

The competition is free to enter--always a good thing--and offers cash prizes as well as anthology publication for the winners. But there was a problem: the Official Rules, which included a number of author-unfriendly provisions. All entrants were required to grant exclusive publishing rights, even though only the best 20 would be included in the anthology. While the top 10 entrants received cash prizes, entrants 11-20 got no payment at all. And Neoglyphic retained a right of first refusal for entered stories that received other publishing offers--not just an overly sweeping claim, but a conflict with the exclusive grant of rights.

I've devoted a lot of blog space to bad contest terms, but given the lure of writing contests, it's a subject that never goes out of style. I was preparing a post on the Neoverse competition when I received an email from Neoglyphic's co-founder and COO, David Ramadge, introducing himself and his company and asking for feedback. I sent back a list of questions...and to make a long story short, David and his colleagues--who were already working to change things based on advice from other experts--have re-written the rules.

The new rules can be seen here. (For comparison, the old rules have been left online.) The grant of rights is now non-exclusive, and only the 20 winners grant publishing rights; other entrants grant only the right for their stories to be distributed for the purpose of judging. All 20 winners now receive cash prizes, making the anthology a paying market.* The right of first refusal is gone, and the license terms overall have been simplified and clarified. And all these changes are retroactive. If you've already entered, you are now covered by the new rules.

I have to say that I'm very impressed with Neoglyphic's openness to change. So often, small presses respond to criticism and suggestion with anger and intransigence. Neoglyphic says it wants to be "a positive contributor to the writing community"; in my opinion, it has made a good start.

So should you enter? That's up to you. In addition to the cash prizes, the competition promises "Visibility, Recognition, Reward" for the authors published in the anthology--a promise that may or may not be deliverable, even for an established publisher.

And Neoglyphic is not an established publisher. It is a new company, and the anthology will be only its second publication (the first will be Sunborn Rising, an "immersive novel"). When I asked David Ramadge why authors should consider an as-yet untested publisher--especially given the volatility of the small press world, where new publishers are as likely to fail as to survive--he told me: "[W]e are a company aimed at building tools for storytellers and creators....In regards to the readership of this anthology, we obviously do not know with certainty what kind of distribution we will achieve but are confident in the relationships and marketing abilities of our team to provide a meaningful result for our winners. This is also why we made the entry free and the prizes generous, because we are new....[F]or us this contest is about building goodwill and a name for ourselves, and so it is in our interest to make this as successful as possible."

The submission deadline for the Neoverse Short Story Writing Competiion is December 20, 2015.


* Authors do not receive royalties from the Neoverse competition anthology; the prize money is their only compensation. Some people feel that a royalty structure is a more equitable form of payment, because it allows authors a share of profit--but especially for small press anthologies, where distribution may be limited and sales may be small, my feeling is that a flat fee is preferable to a percentage of income split among a big pool of contributors.

In any case, David Ramadge tells me that Neoglyphic plans to reinvest any profits the anthology may realize: "From a financial perspective, never has it been our goal to generate a direct profit with this contest; if we do happen to sell anthology copies to cover the costs of prizes, production and marketing then those funds will go directly back into the Neoverse contest."

November 18, 2015

Signing Away Your Rights: Arbitration Clauses in Book Contracts

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Recently, the New York Times published a fascinating three-part series of articles on arbitration clauses, and how such clauses "buried in tens of millions of contracts have deprived Americans of one of their most fundamental constitutional rights: their day in court." (You can also listen to an interview with the articles' author on NPR.)

The articles deal mainly with consumer and employment contracts, in which, according to the Times, arbitration clauses have created "an alternate system of justice" where "rules tend to favor businesses, and judges and juries have been replaced by arbitrators who commonly consider the companies their clients." But arbitration clauses are increasingly common in publishing contracts, too--as well as in the Terms of Use of some major self-publishing platforms. And most authors don't understand their implications.

What's an Arbitration Clause?

Here's one example, drawn from a contract I saw recently:
If any dispute shall arise between the Author and the Publisher regarding this Agreement, the Publisher and Author will first attempt to resolve such dispute through mediation, and, if that fails, such dispute shall be referred to binding arbitration in accordance with the Rules of the American Arbitration Association, and any arbitration award shall be fully enforceable as a judgment in any court of competent jurisdiction. Notwithstanding the foregoing, the parties shall have the right to conduct reasonable discovery as permitted by the arbitrator(s) and the right to seek temporary, preliminary, and permanent injunctive relief in any court of competent jurisdiction during the pendency of the arbitration or to enforce the terms of an arbitration award.
They don't all include such dense legalese:
Recognizing the expense, distraction, and uncertainty resulting from litigation of disputes which may arise under this Agreement, AUTHOR and PUBLISHER agree that AUTHOR and PUBLISHER shall submit any and all disputes arising in any way under this Agreement to the American Arbitration Association for final disposition in accordance with its rules.
Where will you find an arbitration clause in your publishing contract? Anywhere. It may appear under a separate caption (for instance, "Arbitration and Dispute Resolution") but more often is buried under other headings, such as "Reversion and Termination" or "Miscellaneous", where it can easily be glossed over.

How Arbitration Clauses Limit Your Rights

Arbitration is often portrayed as an easier, more friendly method of dispute settlement, allowing the parties to avoid the hassle and expense of litigation. But as the Times points out, this reasonable-sounding explanation leaves out some darker truths.
  • Arbitration clauses are binding, and supersede your right to go to court to settle a dispute. If you sign a contract with an arbitration clause, you are waiving your right to legal action. Many people don't realize this.
  • People often assume that arbitration is similar to appearing before a judge. But, says the Times, "arbitration...often bears little resemblance to court....Winners and losers are decided by a single arbitrator who is largely at liberty to determine how much evidence a plaintiff can present and how much the defense can withhold."
  • Arbitrators--many of whom are retired judges--are supposed to be impartial, but often they're not. Plaintiff and defendant choose an arbitrator from a list supplied by the arbitration company; for obvious reasons, defendants prefer to choose arbitrators with a history of defendant-friendly rulings, and plaintiffs, who may not have that inside knowledge, may not know enough to object. In turn, arbitrators feel pressure to favor defendants, since this makes it more likely they'll be chosen--and paid.
  • Arbitrators' decisions are hard to challenge. Courts have proved reluctant to reverse them, even where they are obviously unfair.
  • Arbitration can cost you, even beyond any judgment that may go against you. In addition to travel and filing fees, you may have to pay the arbitrator.
  • Christian organizations sometimes require Christian arbitration, such as that provided by Peacemaker Ministries. Prayer and scripture may be given preference over law and evidence. (I've seen publishing contracts with Christian arbitration clauses.)
  • Increasingly, arbitration clauses include bans on class actions. "By banning class actions," says the Times, "companies have essentially disabled consumer challenges to practices like predatory lending, wage theft and discrimination....Corporations said that class actions were not needed because arbitration enabled individuals to resolve their grievances easily. But court and arbitration records show the opposite has happened: Once blocked from going to court as a group, most people dropped their claims entirely."

    You don't see class action bans (or at least I haven't, yet) in contracts from publishers. But some self-publishing platforms' arbitration clauses do include them. That Author Solutions' Terms of Use would ban class actions (see Clause 13.3, Mandatory Arbitration/Class Action Waiver) is hardly surprising, since they've been a target (and changed their TOU as a direct result--compare their 2012 agreement to their current one)--but I'll bet that few KDP authors are aware that the same ban appears in Amazon's TOU (bolding is Amazon's):
    10.1 Disputes. Any dispute or claim relating in any way to this Agreement or KDP will be resolved by binding arbitration, rather than in court, except that you may assert claims in small claims court if your claims qualify. The United States Federal Arbitration Act and federal arbitration law apply to this Agreement. There is no judge or jury in arbitration, and court review of an arbitration award is limited. However, an arbitrator can award on an individual basis the same damages and relief as a court (including injunctive and declaratory relief or statutory damages), and must follow the terms of this Agreement as a court would. ... You and we each agree that any dispute resolution proceedings will be conducted only on an individual basis and not in a class, consolidated or representative action. If for any reason a claim proceeds in court rather than in arbitration you and we each waive any right to a jury trial. You or we may bring suit in court on an individual basis only, and not in a class, consolidated or representative action, to apply for injunctive remedies. You may bring any such suit for injunctive remedies only in the courts of the State of Washington, USA.
    Lulu's TOU also includes an arbitration clause with a class action ban. By contrast, Kobo Writing Life, Smashwords, Draft2Digital, Bookbaby, and IngramSpark don't have arbitration clauses at all (though some do qualify authors' ability to seek legal redress, such as requiring them to waive the right to a jury trial or restricting the amount of damages they can claim).
How to Protect Yourself?
Unfortunately, you don't have many options. It's a rare publisher that will be willing to amend its arbitration clause--let alone agree to delete it. As for Terms of Use, they are not negotiable; it's take it or leave it.

Things to look for in an arbitration clause: language that ensures you can go to small claims court for qualifying amounts; that the chosen arbitrator must have publishing expertise; and that if the parties can't agree on an arbitrator within a reasonable period of time, either party can proceed to court. Be sure, also, that arbitration will be conducted by an established group, such as the American Arbitration Association. A nonprofit like the AAA is preferable to a for-profit, such as JAMS, another major arbitration firm.

If your contract includes a Christian arbitration clause, see if you can get the publisher to substitute non-religious arbitration. If they refuse, seriously consider walking away.

How likely is it that you'll have a legal dispute with your publisher or self-publishing service, much less cause to unite with other authors in a class action? In the general run of things, not very. But as regular readers of this blog know, you can never say never. You owe it to yourself to understand how your publishing contract, or your self-pub platform's Terms of Use, does or does not restrict your right to legal redress.

UPDATE: Passive Guy (of the Passive Voice blog) has responded to this post, acknowledging that arbitration can be abused but suggesting that it offers some advantages:
Cost. In civil litigation, the panoply of procedural roadblocks and discovery tools are available to the wealthiest party to the lawsuit. Common defense practice is to delay, delay, delay. In some cases, an individual may simply be unable to afford the attorneys fees necessary to make it through the preliminaries to trial. In a complex case, arbitration can take time and cost money, but arbitration is intended to be a faster and less-expensive alternative to litigation. The arbitrator is able to cut through the preliminaries and move to a hearing on the merits in ways a judge can’t.

Expertise. The judges that hear contract disputes of the type that are likely to occur between authors and publishers or authors and etailers are generalists. Your judge may handle a hearing on a drug case in the morning and your contract dispute in the afternoon. There are no judges that only handle contract disputes involving books. Very few Intellectual Property attorneys ever become judges (PG doesn’t know any who have). One of the reasons for the rise and continued success of AAA and JAMS is that they offer arbitrators with substantial knowledge and expertise in a variety of specialized areas. In an author/publisher dispute, it would be reasonable to expect that the arbitrator might be a practicing or retired IP attorney who comes to the case knowing 95% of what an attorney would have to explain about copyright and publishing practices to a judge in a civil trial.

Time. Big Publishing contracts always specify New York state or federal courts as the place where an author must go to pursue his/her legal claims. PG is not familiar with detailed backlog statistics for New York courts, but he feels confident in saying if you file a suit against a publisher today and the publisher wants to delay, it will be several years before you actually get to trial. Federal judges are overwhelmed with criminal cases, primarily drug cases. Because of constitutional requirements for speedy trial, etc., in criminal matters, etc., the drug cases will bump civil cases down the calendar over and over. 99% of arbitration hearings are completed months or years before the same matter would be resolved by the courts.

Privacy. Unlike courts, which are open to the public, arbitration hearings and files are private. During the recent litigation between Ellora’s Cave and Jane Litte of Dear Author, several different blogs followed the court filings and commented about what they said. Indeed, for many, the Ellora’s Cave suit revealed Jane’s identity as the person behind Dear Author. In some cases, PG has used publicity or the threat of publicity to the advantage of his clients, but a great many authors don’t necessarily want to see their names and faces associated with a court case and spread all over the internet.
I would point out, though, that while these advantages may exist in ideal situations, one of the points the Times articles make most strongly is that situations are often not ideal. Also, Big Publishers may specify NY or federal courts, but of the many, many small press contracts I've seen, I've yet to encounter one that requires a federal court filing, or is not governed by the laws of whatever state the press is located in.

As to privacy--the Ellora's Cave lawsuit was filed in federal court. For lawsuits filed in state courts, court documents are not nearly as easy to get hold of.

November 13, 2015

Why Writer Beware Doesn't Make Agent or Publisher Recommendations

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Since Writer Beware was founded in 1998, we've run a free email advice service to help writers who are looking for info on an agent's or publisher's reputation, or have questions about publishing in general (you can reach us at beware [at]

Two of the most frequent questions we receive: Can you recommend a good agent/publisher? and You publish "Thumbs Down" lists--can't you also publish "Thumbs Up" lists?

For obvious reasons, Writer Beware avoids recommending fee-based services (this is why, if you ask us to suggest a reputable freelance editor, we will say no). But we don't feel comfortable providing other recommendations, either. There are several reasons why.

- A bad agent or publisher is bad for every writer, but a good agent or publisher is only good for some writers. Just as every writer has their own subject, genre, style, and tone, every agent, publisher, and editor has their own focus, specialty, and strength. For the best results, there needs to be a match.

It's just common sense that if you're a fantasy author, you won't submit to someone who doesn't agent or publish books in your genre. But other issues also need careful consideration. How active a role do you want your agent to take in steering your career? In editing your manuscript before submission? Is your goal one of the big publishers, or would a smaller publisher be preferable? Is a print edition important, or would you be satisfied with digital-first? It's a complex web of factors, and they all need to be taken into account when choosing agents or publishers to approach.

It really is best, therefore, for you to do the choosing, since you know your work and your goals best. That's why, rather than providing recommendations or Thumbs Up lists, Writer Beware prefers to offer information and suggest research techniques to help you make up your mind (and, just as important, to avoid the deadbeats),.

- "Good" is subjective. How do you define a good agency? A premier New York City firm that represents famous names and deals mainly with the Big 5? A boutique agency with a small client list and sales to solid independent publishers? If your idea of good doesn't tally with mine, any recommendations I give you might not be helpful. That subjectivity is another reason why you should do the choosing.

- Change happens. Agencies and publishers get sold, come under new management, switch specialties, or just, sometimes, fall into decline. The change isn't always public knowledge, or doesn't become apparent until well after the fact. Recommendations and Thumbs Up lists--even where based on best knowledge--have the potential to unintentionally mislead people, and Writer Beware doesn't want to risk that. (By contrast, bad agents and publishers don't change: once bad, always bad. Which is why we feel comfortable pointing our thumbs down).

- We don't have the resources. Writer Beware's mission is to provide warnings and collect documentation to help writers avoid questionable agents, publishers, and others. We don't have the staff to also function as an agent- or publisher-matching service--something that, to be done right, would require careful, time-consuming research (we are all volunteers). Also, while there's only one other organization we know of that provides warnings about schemes and scams (Preditors and Editors), there are many, many resources to help writers find and identify reputable agents and publishers.

- Writer Beware strives to be impartial; we don't endorse people, companies, or services. This is another reason not to provide recommendations or Thumbs Up lists, which could be taken as such.

I hope this clarifies things. As always, comments are welcome!

October 22, 2015

Guest Post: Imitation is Much More Than Flattery

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

I've been scarce around here over the past few months. As I mentioned in my blog post of July 26, I've been coping with a family medical emergency that has gobbled up much of my time and strength. But I'm glad to say that my mother is doing better, and things are less frantic for me and my family. At least for now.

I don't know what the future will bring--there is only one direction in which the situation can go, and there are certainly more emergencies to come. So I may disappear again for a while. But for the moment, I'm back, on social media (mostly Twitter, and to a lesser degree on Facebook) and this blog.

This week I've got another great guest post from author and writing teacher Barbara Baig, who explains why imitating the styles and techniques of writers you love can be a terrific learning tool.


Imitation is Much More Than Flattery

The word imitation makes many aspiring writers nervous. If they have spent any time in the academic world, then the word imitation will probably remind them of plagiarism, a crime punishable (when discovered) by lowered grades or even expulsion. Everywhere in the writing world—especially on blogs—beginning writers are advised that their work, their story, their writing voice must be unique, entirely their own. For some, this message reverberates so loudly that they refuse even to read other writers, for fear of being denounced as “imitative.”

But fear of imitation keeps writers from making use of a fabulous learning tool, one that humans have depended on probably forever. How do we learn to speak? By imitating the sounds the people around us make. How do we learn to walk? By imitating the way these people move. How do artists learn to paint, baseball players to hit? By imitating the professionals who already know how to do these things. Many professional writers have begun their careers with “imitative” work.

Imitation comes into its own as a learning tool when we use it, not to produce a finished piece of work, but to learn and develop skills. The writers we love give us models of the kind of writing we’d like to be able to do. Many aspiring writers read their favorites, sigh, and say to themselves, I wish I could write like that!

Well, you can—if you’re willing to put your work-in-progress aside and instead devote yourself to practicing skills. Say, for instance, that you love the kinds of words your favorite writer uses. You can pull some of those words out into a notebook and examine them. Are they concrete, sensory words? What sense or senses are they speaking to? Do you like some combination of sounds in a word or group of words? Take note of what you think is good about these words; then practice collecting some just like them.

Now select some of these words and put them into sentences. These sentences will be somewhat imitative of the originals, true, but it doesn’t matter because they are just practice sentences. The practice is training your mind to choose certain kinds of words, to tune it to particular qualities or sounds that please you. The more you practice, the more easily words like these will come to you when you return to your work-in-progress. The sentences you write then will not be imitative, but they will be of higher quality than those you might have written previously, because practice has educated your writer’s mind and ear to new possibilities.

The same thing is true with sentences. Most beginning writers use the same kinds of sentence structures over and over, without even realizing they’re doing so. But skilled professional writers know that to master all the sentence structures available to us in English is to gain a power that enables us to captivate our readers’ attention, to seize and control their emotions. Take sentence variety, for instance. If your sentences are all the same length, your readers will soon be bored. But mix up long and short sentences, using the long ones to lull readers, perhaps, and the short ones to jolt them awake, or create emphasis, and your readers’ experience will be completely different.

Here, again, you can use your favorite writer as a model. Copy out a paragraph or two from his or her work and study the sentences. How many long ones are there? Short ones? Fragments? What kind of effect is this particular combination of sentences creating? Now write a paragraph of your own, imitating as closely as you can the sentence structures from your model. Try to create some kind of effect with this technique of sentence variation. Read over what you’ve written. If you’re not satisfied, try again.

Learning through imitation is not something that can happen in a day. If you really want to improve, you’ve got to devote yourself to practice long-term, just as aspiring professional athletes and musicians do. With this kind of regular practice, though, you’ll learn all the techniques you need to become a skilled writer.

In fact, if you practice enough, perhaps some day a young aspiring writer will be learning his or her skills by imitating your published work.


Barbara Baig is a writer and veteran writing teacher, who is passionate about showing writers what can be done with the English language. She is the author of two books from Writer’s Digest: How to Be a Writer: Building Your Creative Skills Through Practice and Play and Spellbinding Sentences: A Writer’s Guide to Achieving Excellence and Captivating Readers. She offers free writing lessons at

August 25, 2015

Author Solutions Class Action Lawsuit Settled

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

This post has been updated.

A class action lawsuit against Author Solutions Inc. has been settled and discontinued.

Filed in April 2013 by law firm Giskan Solotaroff Anderson & Stewart, LLP against ASI and its parent company, Penguin Group, the suit alleged breach of contract, unjust enrichment, various violations of the California Business and Professional Code, and violation of New York General Business Law. Penguin was later dismissed from the case, along with some--but not all--of the claims against ASI.

The case proceeded to discovery, and in February of this year Giskan Solotaroff filed for class certification. On July 1, Judge Denise Cote denied certification. The parties then proceeded to settlement, which apparently has been reached, because on August 12, Judge Cote ordered the case to be discontinued.
It having been reported to the Court that this case has been settled, it is hereby ORDERED that the above-captioned action is hereby discontinued without costs to any party and without prejudice to restoring the action to this Court's calendar if the application to restore the action is made within forty-five days.
The terms of the settlement have not been released. PW has more.

ASI is not clear of legal actions, however. Another lawsuit was filed in Indiana in March of this year, also by Giskan Solotaroff, with similar claims of fraud and unjust enrichment. According to Sarah Weinman, writing in Publishers Lunch (subscription required), this suit has been consolidated with another into a single case. Weinman notes:
Back in April, after the second suit was filed in Indiana, Oren Giskan told us the Indiana cases were filed "because we came to understand that all of the claims we wished to have resolved could only be done in the State of Indiana," where ASI has their headquarters.
UPDATE 9/15: The Indiana lawsuit has also been dismissed. From PW:
A brief notice filed September 14 showed the case against Author Solutions in Indiana was voluntarily dismissed, with prejudice, with the parties agreeing to end litigation and to pay their own costs and attorney fees.

August 20, 2015

Beware Social Media Snake Oil

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

This week I've got another great guest post for you, from marketing expert Chris Syme.

We writers have all heard that we "have" to be on social media, which is presented to us--both by experts and the not-so-expert--as the Holy Grail of marketing and self-promotion. But apart from the thorny questions of which platforms to use (Twitter? Facebook? Pinterest? Some of them? All of them?), and how to use them (How often should we post? What's the proper mix of friendly interaction and self-promotion?), there's the problem of "services" that want to exploit our confusion to rip us off.

Read on for solid advice on how to separate the worthwhile from the worthless, and warnings about some common social media scams.


Social Media Snake Oil Comes In All Shapes And Sizes
Chris Syme

Authors want to sell books. But most indie authors know very little about how to promote their books. And when it comes to social media, authors everywhere are throwing up their hands. Is it a waste of time? Do I need to be on Twitter? How often should I post on Facebook?

I get email from authors who are frustrated. They see social media as a minefield and don’t want to step in for fear they will never come out. Sometimes the easiest thing to do is just buy that package of hundreds of tweets for twenty dollars and cross your fingers hoping that somebody will buy your book. After all, everybody says you have to be on Twitter, right? We hear words like platform, brand, discoverability. How can an author break through the firehose of noise on the Internet and decide what, if anything, to do?

Separate The Wheat From The Chaff

My husband is a grain farmer. Every year we pull out the massive combine and dust it off, getting ready for the magic of harvest. Gone are the days when workers had to beat the grain shocks by hand to separate the wheat from the chaff. These days, those big expensive machines cut the wheat and feed it through a mechanism that separates the grain from its stalk The stalks are chewed up into chaff and spewed out the back of the combine to be absorbed back into the soil.

In marketing, we need to do the same. We have to learn how to separate the snake oil from the good stuff. Authors should want to learn how to spot a worthless marketing scheme. But there’s a learning curve. And sometimes that Facebook ad that worked for your friend isn’t going to work for you. This is where education comes in. The book marketing sector, more than any I have ever worked in, is full of bad marketing advice. My objective here is to help you separate the wheat from the chaff -- to be able to spot snake oil when you see it.

It’s The Principle Of The Thing

Every business sector has best practices. It’s possible to circumvent those and get a modicum of success, but that is an anomaly. Social media marketing has basic principles of success. They aren’t rocket science, they are based on data. Take this example on hashtags.

In early 2014, Dan Zarella, a social media data researcher for HubSpot, found that if hashtags are used in a tweet (# -- a pound sign -- followed by a phrase of reference that is followed by many people), that tweet is 55 percent more likely to be retweeted than one with no hashtags. His results were based on mining data from over one million tweets. So, people jumped on the hashtag band wagon. The more, the better, or so people thought.

In 2014 Buffer, another reliable social media research company, published data that showed that after two hashtags, engagement of a post actually goes down (graphic courtesy of Buffer).

This is a principle that most savvy marketers take for granted now. But there are some unethical snake oil salespeople out there telling authors that the more hashtags the merrier. They didn’t get the memo on too many hashtags tanking engagement. And, for a mere $19, you can buy a day’s worth of tweets loaded with hashtags from beginning to end that promise to hike your books sales. Here is a sample ad:

Not a day goes by that I don’t see this scam retweeted by several authors, maybe because they promised to help promote the service for more free tweets that will “reach millions of people generating a truly astonishing amount of traffic.” All these hashtag-laden tweets do is annoy people. To the savvy social media user, they reek of stupidity. The outlier may sell a few books, but I wonder how many more books that person could have sold if they had used their money wisely.

Another popular Twitter scam offered by more than one company offers authors hundreds of thousands of followers worth of exposure for your tweet for a fee. I experimented with one of these snake oil outfits recently just to test it. I knew I was blowing my money, but it was a mere twenty bucks to prove my thesis.

This company boasts three different Twitter accounts with 375,000 followers. I want to add that it is fairly easy to amass Twitter followers if you know what you are doing. For instance, this particular company is supposedly followed by LeBron James, according to the report I ran on their followers on Simply Measured. But the real LeBron James only follows 184 people. So, on a whim I looked through them all. This company was not there. And, their fake LeBron James has only three million followers while the real King James has 23 million. This LeBron James page is a fake account built to fool people into following. It has been followed by millions of people who think it’s the real thing. These fake accounts automatically follow back so other unscrupulous people can amass large follower counts. It’s a well-known racket in marketing circles. Fake follower companies search diligently for these auto-following accounts to increase their fake reach. (Did you notice I use the word fake a lot?)

Also, an analysis of this company’s top 20 influencers did not produce one account that would be in the market for my books. My $19 produced zero sales and zero new Twitter followers. Maybe I should have spent more money. But alas, here’s a review of their service from an author who purchased five days worth of tweets. Also no sales.

Scam artists know what they are doing. They are playing on peoples’ pain points and ignorance. They can build fake followings completely on accounts that follow back automatically. Keep in mind that all you need to start a Twitter account is an email address. It’s an ugly, dark business. There is no verification to make sure that real people are setting up accounts. These companies abound on the internet. Hint: if the website looks rinky-dink and boasts of millions of daily impressions from loyal fans, beware.

We Will Promote Your Book…For A Price

There are more bad promotion sites out there than you can shake a stick at. How can you tell the difference between the good, the bad, and the ugly? Many of them have slick websites, Facebook pages, and multiple Twitter feeds boasting of thousands, maybe millions of followers. Here are a couple pointers to help you make up your mind.

1. Good sites: There are many sites out there that are based on good marketing principles and have a large audience of both authors and readers. They validate their expertise with blog pieces, authentic peer recommendations, podcasts, books they write, webinars, speaking engagements, and they can prove success by numbers over a long period of time. Not everyone in this category is spot on when it comes to social media strategy, but most are trying. The resource may be membership-gated such as Jim Kukral’s Author Marketing Club (I am a member), Where Writers Win, and others. They usually offer a subscription at a reasonable yearly price and offer a large variety of tools to help authors succeed. The large variety of marketing tools is a key.

There are also many knowledgeable marketers that cater strictly to authors such as Penny Sansevieri’s Author Marketing Experts, Joel Friedlander’s The Book Designer, and Book Marketing Tools.

In the good category are also author forums like Writers Café (KBoards) and The Alliance Of Independent Authors (I am a member). Forums like these are populated by authors and are a good place to get recommendations and reviews for everything from editors to marketing services.

There are also a number of authors out there that share their validated expertise with other authors through a combination of free resources and pay-per webinars and classes. Joanna Penn and Jane Friedman come to mind.

2. Questionable sites (the bad and the ugly): It is impossible to list all the suspect author marketing services out there but I do write about them often on my agency’s blog for authors. These sites ask for money for their suspect services. There is no information on their “about” pages that validates their expertise or existence, just blabbing about the reach of their audience. They are not published authors or even legitimate marketing services. They are product-only.

Beware of offers like this one from Contentmo. Besides the fact that their website design is a red flag, their claim that they have 23 million impressions a month on social media is irrelevant. There is no explanation or proof of who or where those impressions come from other than a list of their interconnected Twitter feeds and low-volume Facebook pages. Another red flag here is the absence of real people’s names in the About section of their site, a Gmail address as a contact, no address or location information, and their testimonials are suspect. I am also wondering why a company that brags 23 million impressions a month has only 167 likes on their Facebook page.

Many sites in this category have some free services. If you want to give them a try, keep track of your results. I recommend recording results with every marketing strategy you try. If they are free, give them more than one try so you can make sure your initials results were correct. Free is okay but you often get what you pay for…nothing.

The world of social media marketing is a quagmire for many authors. If you’re just not sure what to do, I would recommend starting with self-education. I have a list of resources (mostly blogs) on my website that I personally recommend. The more educated you become, the easier it will be for you to spot snake oil when you see it.


Chris Syme has over 25 years experience in the communications industry and is principal at CKSyme Media Group. Her agency specializes in social media marketing, virtual assistant services, and digital communication services for self-published authors and higher education. She is a former university media relations professional. Chris is a frequent speaker on the national stage and the author of two books on social media: Listen, Engage, Respond and Practice Safe Social 2.0. Her agency won the 2014 SoMe Award for Social Media Agency Of The Year. Her new book, SMART Social Media For Authors, will be released in fall 2015.

Contact: Chris Syme | email | phone 406.599.6079 | website:

August 6, 2015

Guest Post: Want to Become a Better Writer? Stop Writing.

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

As I explained in my last post, I'm still mostly M.I.A., but I've lined up some terrific guest posts that will appear over the next few weeks.

Today's guest post comes from author and writing teacher Barbara Baig, who reveals how the path to productive writing may sometimes be, paradoxically, to put your writing on hold for a while.


Want to Become a Better Writer? Stop Writing.

These days, aspiring writers are told constantly that, to attract the attention of agents and editors, they must develop a platform and learn to promote themselves. But just about every article or post offering such advice also includes this reminder: First, you must write an excellent book.

But how do writers achieve this excellence?

Certainly not by following another piece of writing advice, very prevalent these days: Just keep writing, you’ll get better. Really? Can you imagine a hitting coach saying to a kid who wants to be a professional baseball player, Just keep swinging the bat, you’ll get better?

Aspiring writers can’t walk a path to excellence by repeatedly doing what they already know how to do; like aspiring major-leaguers, if they want to become professionals, they have to learn and develop professional-level skills.

This isn’t easy: there are a large number of skills to learn. For instance, can you reliably come up with and develop ideas and materials for pieces of writing? Do you have a writing process that works for you? Do you know how to establish and maintain a natural relationship with readers? These are some of what I call “content skills,” the ones writers must have to come up with material for stories or poems or nonfiction pieces.

Then there are the “craft skills” we must also have. Everyone knows about the importance of mastering genre—being able to shape a mystery or a romance or a memoir. But what about the “small craft”--the craft of choosing words and arranging them into powerful sentences that take hold of a reader’s mind and won’t let go? When you’re working on a draft or a revision, does your mind give you the words, the sentence structures, you need to accomplish this? And, if not, why not?

The default answer to this last question is “talent”: Some people have it; others, less fortunate, do not.

But the default answer, happily, is not true. Researchers in the scientific field of expertise studies have for years been studying experts in various fields, to answer the question, “What makes certain people really good at what they do?” They’ve discovered that innate talent has very little, if anything, to do with expertise. Instead, they’ve learned that what creates experts is a particular approach to learning: They call it “deliberate practice.”

This approach requires (among other things) breaking down a complex skill--like writing--into its component sub-skills, then practicing each skill separately until it’s mastered, then putting them all together. This is the approach professional athletes and musicians have been using for decades; they spend much more time practicing and training their skills than they do in performance. Writers can--and, I believe, should--do the same thing. Oh, sure, you can struggle through the writing of five novels, learning things about the craft each time, and finally make the sixth one work; lots of successful writers have taken that path.

But you can also learn your skills much more efficiently: by identifying the ones you need to learn, and practicing them. This is especially true in the realm of craft. Many aspiring writers have good ideas for stories, but they don’t know how to use the English language with precision and power. Many of them have been told this doesn’t matter: ”Just write. Some editor will fix your writing later.” This, too, is bad advice. Excellent writers are people who have mastered the power of language, who know how to use words and sentences to communicate, to move their readers, to keep them turning pages. You may not believe that you can ever get to their level; but you can.

Through practice, you can train the part of your mind that comes up with words to work more effectively, so that, as you’re writing, it gives you exactly the words you need. Through learning and practice you can acquire a large repertoire of sentence constructions, so that, as you write, you can choose the ones that will give your prose energy, focus, phrasing, rhythm, and other qualities that hold and keep the attention of readers.

Naturally, you need time to learn these things, time to practice them. Many aspiring writers have been advised that, if they just get those five hundred (or two thousand) words on the page every day, they can call themselves real writers. But what if their daily words have no power? How is this kind of unproductive writing helping them move towards excellence?

So, consider this approach instead. Stop writing. Figure out what skills you need to learn, and develop a routine for practicing them. If you don’t know where to begin, try this little experiment: Take a sheet of paper and fold it in half. On one half, write down all the things you can do well as a writer (for example, “I can come up with great ideas for stories”); on the other half, write down all the things you don’t do so well, or can’t do at all (for example, “My sentences are clunky.”) If you have a hard time thinking of things you can’t do, consider your favorite writer: What can he do on the page that makes you love his work? Can you do those things? Can you do them as well? Add those items to your list. (Do not include on your list any skills you have in promoting your work; we’re talking about writing here.)

What you’ve done is the first step towards becoming a better writer: You’ve assessed your skills. Perhaps you’re happy with where you are now; perhaps you’re appalled at how feeble your skills appear. Or perhaps, if you are just getting started as a writer, you are like beginners in any field: You don’t know what you don’t know. In any case, you now have, however tentatively, a starting point for your learning. You’re ready to embark on what I like to call The Mastery Path for Writers Seeking Excellence, a path whose focus is practice.

Now choose some skills to practice--let’s say, for example, the “small craft” skills ofwriting short, simple sentences, then elaborating them with bound and free modifiers,appositives, nominative absolutes and other techniques. Practice one technique everyday until you feel you have mastered it, then try another; in the process you will betraining your brain to use these various techniques without thinking about them.

When you’ve mastered a repertoire of skills, return to your work-in-progress or to one of your story ideas. Now your “small craft” skills, well-honed through weeks or months of practice, will give you a solid foundation from which to produce work that approaches the excellence agents and editors in the book business yearn for.


Barbara Baig is a writer and veteran writing teacher, who is passionate about showing writers what can be done with the English language. She is the author of two books from Writer’s Digest: How to Be a Writer: Building Your Creative Skills Through Practice and Play and Spellbinding Sentences: A Writer’s Guide to Achieving Excellence and Captivating Readers. She offers free writing lessons at

July 26, 2015

Writer Beware Blog on Temporary Hiatus

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Last Sunday, my elderly mother, who's fighting cancer, fell in her apartment and broke three ribs. Cue nightmare scenario: 911 call...12 hours in the emergency room...confusion over hospital admission...fighting the massive hospital bureaucracy that wanted to discharge her ASAP despite the fact that she couldn't even get out of bed was the week from hell.

Stubbornly independent, my mom still lives alone, with a ton of assistance from me and my husband, my brother, and family friends. But as much help as she's needed over the past two years, now she's going to need even more. So the Writer Beware blog has to take a back seat. You may see a guest post or two (I have a great one scheduled for the first week in August), and Michael Capobianco may stop by with a post. But I'm going to be scarce around here for a while, and you won't see me much on Twitter or Facebook, either. 

I will still be answering email, so please don't hesitate to write to me: beware [at]

Thanks, and see you (hopefully) soon.

July 15, 2015

Pay-to-Play Alert: #WORLDCLASS Magazine

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Authors: have you received an unsolicited email from a "talent scout" at #WORLDCLASS Magazine pitching an interview and/or cover feature? Here's what you need to know in case you do: it's pay-to-play.

Here's a sample pitch, sent to me by a wisely wary author (emphasis added, and all errors courtesy of the original):
Dear [name redacted],

You were selected by our talent scout to be featured in #WORLDCLASS magazine as an author of [book title redacted].

We interview and feature top achievers in all areas of lives: entrepreneurs, world-class athletes, bestselling authors, top doctors, celebrity plastic surgeons and dentists, life coaches and icon experts in other areas.

Just a few names: Dr. Bill Dorman (ABS “Extreme Makeover”), Bill Walsh, David E. Stanley (Elvis Presley’s step brother), Dr. Raj Kanodia (World’s Leading Plastic Surgeon), Michael Irvin – NFL, Matthew Hatchette – NFL, Bryon Russel-- NBA, John Assaraf (Featured in movie Secret), Loren Ridinger ( just to name a few. You can view them here:

We are so passionate about inspiring and empowering people to get empowered and live the lives they deserve: from an outstanding energy and health, to passionate relationship and financial success.

Here are just some examples of the interview we have conducted:

We would love to interview you and feature on a COVER of #WORLDCLASS magazine. Our guest features had great success working with us. The exposure and credibility brought hundreds new leads as well as other media sources picked up and featured our guests in major media sources which led to thousands in sales on a front end and high ticket sales in a back end.

You can check our testimonials here:

We do charge to produce each interview and magazine feature to cover some of our crew and editor expenses. Investment is only $950 for the whole feature. You will get 4-page article with full color pictures of yourself and your featured services in addition to a COVER feature. This exposure will add tremendous value to your credibility and authority. (Just to compare our 2 page ad-spread runs between $5-$7 K)

Currently we have 2 more prospective experts interested in next month issue. Let me know if you want to take on this opportunity.

And if you have any questions, please ask away.

All best, and thank you for all that you do,

[name redacted]
Senior Talent Scout
E-mail: [email redacted]
Office: 888-580-5532
Note the semi-illiterate writing (whoever created the email is allergic to plurals and pronouns), the "What a deal!" price comparison, the "act now or someone else will get your spot" pressure tactic. And while for pay-to-play interviews, $950 doesn't seem all that bad--at least, not compared with some of the other interview schemes I've featured here (Close-up TV News, for instance, which charges between $3,000 and $5,000, or The Balancing Act, which charges $5,900)--there's an associated YouTube talk show. What do you bet that it's pitched to anyone who takes the email bait, at the cost of some serious extra zeroes?

Either way, interviewees will wind up more than $950 out of pocket. You might assume that those "full color pictures" will be courtesy of the magazine, but you would be wrong: you will have to provide the photos yourself.

#WORLDCLASS Magazine is owned by Katrina Starzhynskaya, a.k.a. "Katrina Starz," a self-described bestselling author and "serial entrepreneur" who "is known as an ambitious woman building businesses, creating high-end brands and getting celebrity endorsements all while saving the environment on 6-inch Louboutin stilettos." #WORLDCLASS is only the tip of the Starzhynskaya iceberg: she also offers health retreats, book launches, "publicity and branding", Amazon bestseller campaigns, and more.

If you're going to spend money on promotion, don't waste it on pay-to-play interviews (or reviews, for that matter). There are better ways to get a bang for your buck.

July 10, 2015

Alert: Don Semora, "Professional Designer and Author"

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Making money from authors can be good business, which probably explains why so many of those who exploit them return again and again to the trough. Case in point: Don Semora, whose brand-new website styles him a professional designer of book covers, games, websites, and more.  

Semora offers a smorgasbord of services for authors, from book layout to map design to a "self-marketing pack." His fees start at $60, with rates varying depending on the project. As you can see, the man's got mad skillz, at least in his own opinion:

Of course, mentioned nowhere on Semora's website is the fact that he's the former owner of Michigan-based pay-to-play publisher 2 Moon Press (now defunct), which was the focus of a police investigation based on dozens of author complaints of unpaid royalties, unfulfilled book orders, and breaches of contract (examples can be seen at the Better Business Bureau website, where 2 Moon Press has an F rating).

While Semora denies being the source of 2 Moon's problems (blaming them on Melinda Lundy, to whom he sold the publisher shortly before its 2013 demise), he has a prior history of fraudulent activity (including a 2004 conviction for Conspiracy to Commit Larceny by Conversion and Fraud), and has admitted to using 2 Moon Press funds for personal expenses, including vacations for himself and his wife.

Semora is being sued by 2 Moon author Bernard Zeitler for breach of contract, unjust enrichment, conversion, and fraudulent misrepresentation, among other charges. Semora's attorney recently petitioned to withdraw representation, citing as one of several causes Semora's failure to pay his bill.

This is at least the third business venture that Semora has established since his departure from 2 Moon Press. Others include an LLC called Fall River Publishing and Graphics, and another called Lightning Forge Games.

It's my understanding that an investigation of Semora, Lundy, and 2 Moon Press by the Calhoun County prosecutor remains open.

July 8, 2015

Amazon's "Personal Connection" Review Policies Are Nothing New

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

One of today's most popular pastimes, in the writing world at least, is demonizing Amazon (or sanctifying it, but that's not the subject of this post). Latest flashpoint: Amazon's review policies.

The flap seems to have begun with blogger Imy Santiago, who wrote about her attempt to post a review of a self-published book she'd just read. She received an automated response from Amazon indicating that she was "not eligible to review this product," and when she contacted Amazon to ask why, she was told:
We cannot post your Customer Review for (book title deleted) by (author name deleted) to the Amazon website because your account activity indicates that you know the author.
According to Santiago, she does not know the author; she's simply a reader and a fan. She contacted Amazon again, and was refused again; Amazon also refused to disclose "how we determine that accounts are related" because that information is "proprietary". Santiago was outraged.
I pay for my eBooks. I take the time to read and review books I love. The Big Brother mentality Amazon is employing is appalling, and crosses an ethical line of unfathomable proportions. They are not God, and are censoring my passion for the written word....This is wrong, and it has to stop. It is censorship at its finest.
Santiago's post was quickly picked up by other bloggers and news outlets, which echoed the Big Brother theme with ominous titles like Is Amazon Using False Information to Censor Book Reviews? and Amazon's Review Policy is Creepy and Bad for Authors and Amazon is Data Mining Reviewers' Personal Relationships.

Well, yeah. Amazon is data mining everything (including your reading activity, if you use a Kindle). This is not news. Nor is the fact that Amazon has long engaged in a policy of deleting or refusing reviews where it deems that the reviewer and the author are related in some way. A similar flap erupted in 2012, when Amazon began denying or getting rid of reviews "on behalf of a person or company with a financial interest in the product or a directly competing product." For Amazon, this included not just friends and fans and third-party merchants, but authors, who suddenly found themselves barred from posting reviews of fellow authors' books.

It's not as if there are legions of Amazon minions in cubicles poring over every customer review. Amazon uses automated systems--and while its secrecy about exactly how it makes determinations is frustrating, it's not surprising that it considers that information proprietary (plus, as TeleRead's Chris Meadows points out, providing individual explanations in response to every question would involve massive amounts of paperwork). Also, automated systems often get it wrong--as in the Great Erotica Panic of 2013, where books that did not violate Amazon's anti-smut guidelines were removed along with books that did. This is a problem of Amazon's enormous scale. But the ongoing culling of reviews exists in the larger context of Amazon's battle to quell rampant review sockpuppetry (against which it recently took action outside its own ecosystem, launching a lawsuit against three alleged fake review websites). It's hardly censorship, as in a practice of systematic, deliberate suppression.

Chris Meadows also wonders what Imy Santiago isn't revealing
I just want to re-emphasize we have no way of knowing how close Santiago and this other person she tried to review are. They could be almost complete strangers, or they could be on each others’ Christmas card lists. Santiago isn’t saying. She’s just objecting to the whole premise on principle. This seems a little suspicious to me, because as far as I’m concerned, the premise does make sense. If Amazon determines that you and the author of the book you’re reviewing do know each other, honestly, it should be keeping you from reviewing their book.
I tend to agree. Yet it's also true that Amazon's focus on review abuse is one-sided: while it makes active war on false positives, it largely ignores the problem of false negatives (for instance, one-star review campaigns). And its policies may sometimes hit some groups harder than others. In a long blog post, author Lori Otto makes a case for why, in a networked world where authors and readers are more connected than they've ever been, self-published authors are disproportionately affected by a ban on reviews from personal contacts:
As an Indie author, I can’t NOT become friends with many of these readers. Through these friendships, I reach more people… not because I ask them to share my books, but because they genuinely want to share them! It’s an organic process that isn’t motivated by greed or by threats or by anything negative.
A petition to "Change the 'You Know This Author' Policy" makes similar points. As of this writing, it has gathered over 9,000 supporters; I don't think any of them should be holding their breath, though.

July 3, 2015

Author Solutions Lawsuit Update: Class Certification Denied

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

This post has been updated.

In April 2013, the law firm of Giskan Solotaroff Anderston & Stewart filed a lawsuit against Author Solutions Inc. and its parent company, Penguin, alleging fraud, unjust enrichment, and violation of various statutes and consumer protection acts. Penguin was later dismissed from the suit.

In February 2015, having completed discovery, Giskan Solotaroff filed for class certification with a lengthy Memorandum of Law that unpacked a lot of information about ASI's business model and internal operations.

That certification has now been denied, in a decision handed down by Judge Denise Cote on July 1.
From what I can tell on an initial reading, the decision seems to boil down to the fact that in one of the subclasses they were seeking to certify, plaintiffs weren't able to meet certification requirements; and in the other, weren't able to demonstrate a clear pattern of deception on the part of AS that could apply to everyone in the proposed class.

Judge Cote's decision can be read in full here

I'm guessing that Giskan Solotaroff will appeal. In the meantime, their second lawsuit against AS is ongoing, and has been consolidated with another lawsuit brought by two individual plaintiffs, Everette et al. v. Author Solutions LLC.

UPDATE 10/27/15: The second lawsuit has been settled, according to Giskan Solotaroff:
Following the July 1, 2015 ruling by Judge Denise Cote denying plaintiffs’ motion for class certification in Simmons v. Author Solutions LLC, the parties have resolved both the New York and Indiana actions without any finding or admission of wrongdoing on the part of Author Solutions or its affiliates. By mutual agreement of the parties, the terms of the settlement are strictly confidential.
Giskan Solotaroff is no longer pursuing any claims against Author Solutions on a class-wide basis. However, they still wish to hear from authors with any of the AS imprints who've spent more than $10,000 in marketing services. A contact form is here.

June 24, 2015

Almond Press Short Story Competition: Writing for "Exposure"

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

In my last blog post, I discussed how to recognize and avoid profitmaking writing awards--fake awards that exist not to honor writers, but to enrich sponsors. If you're looking to win writing awards and enter writing competitions, though, the profiteering fakers aren't the only risk you face.

For instance...the short story competitions run by Scotland's Almond Press.* Almond's output is tiny--founded in 2012, it has published just three anthologies of stories collected from its annual competitions--but it boasts some impressive sponsors, including Booktrust UK and the University of Stirling, as well as a nice website and attractively-designed book covers. Its contests have no entry fees, and there's a 100 GBP prize for the winner, who is also promised "Exposure and publicity via our online presence".

Its Terms and Conditions, however, stink.

Simply by submitting a story to the competition, writers grant "the following licences free of charge and irrevocably":
  • The right to translate an excerpt from the work submitted (no more than 15% of its total length)
  • The non-exclusive right to reproduce and publish the work submitted on the websites and platforms controlled or authorized by Almond Press, both in the original language and in translation
  • The non-exclusive right to reproduce and publish the work submitted in trade paperback format, both in the original language and in translation
  • The non-exclusive right to record by means of any existing or not-yet-invented technology, to distribute and broadcast readings of excerpts from the work in the original language or in translation, on Almond Press networks and websites/platforms controlled or authorized by Almond Press
For the winner, these licenses become exclusive for a year and non-exclusive thereafter. In addition, winners must grant Almond the right "to edit, abridge or excerpt the work for the purposes of publication or broadcast. The author will be consulted if significant edits are necessary." (My bolding. "Significant" is a pretty flexible standard.)

What this boils down to is a publisher that is obtaining nearly all of the material for its anthologies for free. The only possibility of compensation is the one-time fee paid to the single winner--and even that is not guaranteed, since "If a prize cannot be awarded as described in these rules Almond Press reserves the right to substitute one or more prizes or prize components with another of approximately equivalent value."

Almond does say that all anthology proceeds go toward running its competitions--presumably to fund the prize and possibly to pay honorariums to the judges (who aren't identified--according to the Terms and Conditions, this is "to ensure the judging process remains blind", even though a blind judging process usually involves keeping entries anonymous, not judges).

Even if Almond isn't reaping a secret profit from free stories, though, this is yet another example of the increasingly prevalent writing culture that urges authors to work for exposure, rather than for fair monetary compensation. Sometimes, exposure may be indeed be worth it--if Tor were to run a similar competition (not that it would), it might be worth entering. But where exposure is the main or only compensation for publication, you really need to parse its meaning. Does publication in an anthology from an obscure small press with Amazon sales rankings in the hundred thousands constitute "exposure?" If so, is it an equitable tradeoff for being paid for the exploitation of your intellectual property?

The writing world needs its own Taylor Swift. Until she comes along, think twice before buying into the promise of "exposure." (And be sure to read--and fully understand the implications of--the fine print of any writing competition you may be tempted to enter.)

* Thanks to the reader of this blog who contacted me about Almond Press.

June 9, 2015

Awards Profiteers: How Writers Can Recognize and Avoid Them

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

If you've been reading this blog for any length of time, you may have guessed that I'm not a big fan of writing contests and awards.

Partly this is because so many are a waste of time, with minimal prizes, negligible prestige, and zero cachet on your writing resume. Why not spend your energy on something that can get you closer to building a readership--submitting for publication, or publishing on your own?

There's also the risk of bad things in the entry guidelines--for instance, the Emerging Writer Awards, where simply submitting constituted a grant of publishing rights. Writers who don't read the fine print carefully enough may find themselves trapped by such provisions.

And then there are the contests/awards with a hidden agenda: making money for the sponsor. Such awards aren't really about honoring writers at all.

There's a complex of red flags that identifies profiteering contest and awards programs.

- Solicitation. To maximize entries, profiteering awards and contests solicit entries. An out-of-the-blue email urging you to enter a contest or awards program should always be treated with caution.

- High entry fees. Profiteers charge $50, $60, $75, or even more. There may be "early bird specials" and multiple-entry discounts to tempt authors with the illusion of a bargain.

- Dozens or scores of entry categories. To maximize income, profiteers create as many entry categories as possible, and encourage multiple entries.

- Anonymous judging. Profiteers promise expert judging by people with standing in the publishing field, but don't reveal who those experts are. In fact, the judging may be done by the profiteer's staff, who may simply pick winners out of a hat.

- Non-prize prizes. To avoid cutting into their profits, profiteers offer prizes that cost them little or nothing: press releases, media announcements, database and website listings, features on satellite websites or in self-owned publications. Some offer little more than the supposed honor of winning the award.

- Opportunities to spend more money. Profiteers' profits don't just come from entry fees. They also hawk stickers, certificates, critiques, and more.

Profiteers may deviate from this template to some degree: some do provide money prizes, for instance, and not all solicit. But if more than four of these red flags are present in a contest or awards program--especially if there's a big entry fee--you should think very carefully about entering.

What about prestige? Profiteer awards and contests don't typically command a lot of name recognition, but if you win or place, you'll be able to tag your book as an "award-winning book" and yourself as an "award-winning author." How much readers care about such designations, though, is an open question. With all the fake review scandals, as well as readers' increasing disillusion with authorial self-promotion, I think book buyers have become more cynical in general about what authors say about themselves.

Profiteer awards and contests, which overwhelmingly target and ensnare small press and self-published authors, are a cynical play on authors' hunger for recognition and exposure in an increasingly crowded marketplace. In my opinion, they are never a worthwhile use of writers' money.


The Alliance of Independent Authors provides ratings for dozens of awards and contests, with Caution notices for those that profiteer or are otherwise suspect. It's a good list to check if you're thinking of entering something.

Some examples of awards/contest profiteers:

JM Northern Media runs more than 20 literary "festivals" and conventions. JM Northern is a ferocious spammer; if you're a writer, you've probably been solicited for one or another of its festivals.

Unlike many other profiteers, JM Northern offers actual money prizes. But it can afford to. According to an article in that's no longer accessible, its Hollywood Book Festival received 2,740 entries in 2012. At $75 per entry, that's a gross of $205,500. Let's assume that the other 20 festivals, most of which have a lower fee of $50, also get a lower number of entries--say, 1,500 (I'm lowballing to demonstrate how insanely lucrative this scheme is). Altogether, that's over $1.5 million just in entry fees. A year. When you add in revenue from the critiques and merchandise (likely provided by JM Northern's own Modern Media Publicity), it wouldn't surprise me to learn that JM Northern's annual festival gross is well over $2 million.

- i310 Media Group sponsors the Best Book Awards, the International Book Awards, the American Book Fest and the Bookvana Awards. Entry fees are $69-79, and each program has scores of categories (more than 100 for the International Book Awards), fancifully-described prizes that boil down to website features and press releases, and the "opportunity" to purchase award stickers and certificates.

The Jenkins Group, a costly self-publishing services provider, runs at least five awards programs: Moonbeam Awards, Axiom Awards, eLit Awards, Living Now Awards, and the IPPY Awards. Entry fees range from $60 to $95, and there's the usual raft of entry categories and non-prize prizes. Even among profiteers, however, Jenkins is unusual in the amount of extra merchandise it hawks to winners. Check out the options for Moonbeam Award winners--no fewer than 29 items, ranging in price from $7.50 (for a Moonbeam Certificate) to $130 (for a Moonbeam Gold Medal--not even a real medal, just an image).

- WILDsound, another prolific spammer, runs continuous monthly contests and "festival events" for screenplays, books, poetry, short stories, and more. Fees range from $20 ("$15 OFF regular submission") for a first scene to $170 for a full novel, but average around $45. Judging is done by the usual cadre of unnamed "Professional Writers and Writing Consultants"; prizes are readings by--it's claimed--professional actors. You can sample these poor-quality videos here.

- Other profiteers include Readers Favorite ($89 to $109, depending on when you register; over 70 categories; plenty of adjunct merchandise and services for sale); the Pinnacle Book Achievement Awards ($90, over 50 categories, stickers and certificates for sale); Literary Classics (two awards, one of which is relatively inexpensive at $48, but the other costs $90 and both feature the usual unnamed "experts" and hawking of adjunct merchandise); eLit Book Awards ($70-90, 65 categories, prizes consisting of website listings and spam--excuse me, newsletter mentions); and the Global Ebook Awards ($79, over 100 categories, with winners"eligible to purchase Global Ebook Award certificates attesting to their honor").
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