Saturday, July 29, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- New Alert on Writer Beware

An alert on The Robins Agency (Cris Robins) has been added to the Alerts for Writers page of Writer Beware.

On May 15, 2006, a default judgment against Cris Robins of The Robins Agency was entered in Washington Superior Court for King County (case no. 06-2-16530-6SEA) for breach of contract, fraudulent business practice, and consumer protection violations in regard to the promised provision of paid editing services and promised representation of the plaintiff's manuscript to publishers. Ms. Robins has been ordered to pay $8,320 (treble damages) plus interest and attorney fees.

According to a recent post on Absolute Write by plaintiff Christopher Dahl (which he has given me permission to quote here), "This judgment will affect her credit and may lead to garnishment of her bank account, as well as a visit from the sheriff to collect on the judgment with cash or personal property, if Robins fails to pay or settle the judgment. I have also submitted complaints with the Better Business Bureau and the Missouri Attorney General's Office which both show up as Unresolved/Disputed."

Remember back in March, when Robins claimed that the validity of her agency was based on the fact that she had never lost a court case? Whoops.

(Hurry and take a look at that link, because it may be gone soon. My response is here.)

Christopher Dahl's experience echoes the many documented complaints and reports Writer Beware has received about Cris Robins and The Robins Agency over the years. (All details and quotes that follow are from the complaint filed by Dahl with Washington Superior Court.)

Dahl submitted a proposal and manuscript to Robins in 2003. Robins contacted him to offer representation--however, she told him that the work would have to be edited. Dahl, who didn't want to do any more editing himself, was willing, as long as the edits would be fully completed by Robins and there would be no costs beyond the quoted editing fee. In December 2003, she agreed to both provisions, and promised to complete editing within three (3) months.

Fast forward eleven (11) months, to November 2004. Dahl's ms. was finally returned to him, marked up with "sparse and sporadic" pen editing and general suggestions (described in the complaint as "cursory and often confusing"), plus a short memo with "primarily generic comments with some detail from the work slipped in, indicating the Work had been only cursorily reviewed." When Dahl contacted Robins, she told him that he would have to perform the rest of the editing himself based on her comments. Attempts to get her to finish the editing, or to provide feedback on the editing Dahl eventually attempted on his own, proved futile.

At last, in November 2005, Robins finally emailed Dahl that his edits "looked fine to her." She also sent him a representation agreement requiring an upfront payment of $3,250 (her standard "retainer")--despite her previous claim that there were to be no more fees.

That was the point at which Dahl decided to file his complaint.

This is an example of what can happen when a scam victim refuses to be intimidated or discouraged. Dahl is willing to help other Robins victims. From his AW post, mentioned above: "I will happily provide my complaint filings or lawsuit documentation as sample drafting to make it easier for others to proceed against Robins...Feel free to contact me for more information."

Christopher Dahl, Esq.
cdahl@wkg.com
206-233-2997

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- It's NOT a Jungle Out There (or an Ocean, or Whatever)

Like many bloggers, Ann and I have a site tracking tool that tells us where the people reading our blog are coming from. The other day, checking out links, I came across the blog of a writer who'd just visited us and was feeling very discouraged by our gleeful scam stories. "It seems," this author wrote, "like the only way to get your story out to the largest amount of people is to jump in the shark tank and swim like a crazy person."

Well, yes. You do have to get in the tank. The thing is, with the right knowledge and some common sense, you can build yourself a boat. Or, to continue the jungle analogy, a zip line.

The first thing to recall, if you're feeling overwhelmed by warnings of scammers and incompetents, is that there are plenty of excellent, reputable literary agents and publishers. They may be outnumbered by the questionable folks (I'm not sure that questionable publishers outnumber reputable ones, but I know for a fact that there are way more bad than good agents), but that doesn't mean they aren't out there in substantial numbers.

Remember also that the world of scam and incompetent agents, of dishonest vanity presses and clueless hobby publishers, has no connection with the real publishing industry apart from you, the writer. Strictly speaking, the literary world is not full of sharks, because the sharks are part of an entirely different realm. The denizens of this realm are a distorted reflection of their counterparts on the other side of the mirror.

Which leads me to my third and most important point: common scams, bad business practices, and incompetence are actually very easy to recognize, once you know what to look for. There's no subtle masquerade or clever camouflage; scammers and incompetents do not operate like real agents and publishers, and if you know how real agents and publishers do operate, the scammers and incompetents will stick out like sore thumbs. That's what the Writer Beware website, and this blog, are intended to do--not overwhelm you with scam tales, but arm you with the knowledge you need to identify the bad actors.

Here are two simple rules. Commit them to memory. Write them out and tape them to your computer. Repeat them like a mantra every time you consider sending out a query letter.

  • Confine your queries to agents who have verifiable track records of book sales to commercial publishers (this is not as hard to determine as you might think; this article of mine provides some tips).

  • Limit your submissions to publishers that are able to get their books into bookstores and libraries (this is easy: just check the shelves).

If you are religious in these practices, you'll eliminate 90% of the pitfalls.

For the remaining 10%--such as judging which new agents are worth querying, or the subtle art of recognizing a marginal agent--knowledge is your first line of defense, and research is your friend. Read books on publishing. Get in the habit of paying attention to industry publications such as Publishers Weekly and the Publishers Lunch electronic newsletter. Check out the links in the sidebar here: there are some great resources, including the blogs of agents and editors. In other words: don't plunge into the submission process blind, hoping you'll figure it out as you go along. First educate yourself about the publishing industry; then start submitting. I am constantly amazed by the number of writers who don't do this. Simple ignorance of the publishing process accounts for better than 50% of the questions and complaints Writer Beware receives.

And don't yield to desperation. I've blogged about this before. As tempting as it may seem, after scores of rejections, to settle for that nice agent with no industry background and zero sales, I urge you to resist. It will not do you one bit of good. "Everyone has to start somewhere" are the five worst words you can ever say to yourself.

Finally, to my anonymous blogger, who wonders how many great books never see the light of day because they fall prey to bad agents or publishers: the answer is, not many. There aren't all that many great books out there (harsh, perhaps, but true). More important, as I've outlined above--it's not difficult to stay out of the scammers' clutches. Really.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- 20 Worst List Updated

When Ann and I put the 20 Worst Agencies list online at Writer Beware, we didn't think we'd have to be tinkering with it very much. Most of the agencies on the list have been around at least since 1998, when Writer Beware was founded.

But in the world of questionable agents, a leopard can change his or her spots anytime it feels the need, and it isn't uncommon for bad agencies to re-name themselves or to spin off a clone or two, in order to rake in more clients or escape a bad reputation on the Internet. Since the Worst Agencies went live on Absolute Write on March 13 of this year, we've discovered three name changes.

- American Literary Agents of Washington, Inc. is now doing business as Capital Literary Agency. (How do we know? They're using the same URL and mailing address.)

- Finesse Literary Agency is now doing business as Elite Finesse Literary Agency. (How do we know? The owner, Karen Carr, didn't change her name--or her fee-charging M.O.)

- And Sherwood Broome, Inc. is now doing business as Stillwater Literary Agency. (How do we know? Same agent--Mark Black. Different mailing address, but same location: Stillwater County, Montana. Same verbiage on website and publicity materials.)

We don't flatter ourselves that the first two name changes had anything to do with the Worst Agencies List. But we have a hunch that the third one did. A check of the Whois data for Stillwater's URL reveals that it was registered on March 31, 2006--just a couple of weeks after the 20 Worst List was published.

It's nice to know we have an impact.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- Hard Truths

Once upon a time, when reading and evaluation fees were the commonest form of upfront fee, the amateur and disreputable agents who charged them justified them by claiming that it takes time to read a manuscript, and an agent shouldn't be expected to do that for free.

Where this argument falls apart: if a manuscript isn't publishable (and most aren't), you don't necessarily have to read it all the way through to know. Much of the time, you don't have to read beyond the first fifty pages. Sometimes, you don't even need to read beyond the first paragraph.

Don't believe it? You're not alone. Plenty of writers refuse to accept that it's possible to evaluate, let alone reject, an entire book-length manuscript (i.e., their manuscript) on the basis of just a few pages (somehow you never hear that argument if the same few pages result in a request to submit, but never mind). It's not that most manuscripts are so bad, they think, it's that agents are lazy. Or prejudiced against new writers. Or cantankerous curmudgeons just looking for excuses to reject, cackling with glee every time they send out a form rejection letter (while hoarding your paper clips and steaming the stamps off your SASEs). This is a common subject of discussion in writers' forums, and the cause of a considerable amount of bitterness.

(There's a similar level of denial about query letters, which many writers resent because they feel that a one-page business letter can't tell an agent or editor anything about the quality of their writing. Not so. I get up to 100 emails a week from writers asking questions or making complaints, and it's often clear to me from reading these letters--ungrammatical, mis-spelled, poorly punctuated, sometimes with malapropisms and homophone errors--that the writer isn't ready to be submitting. Do I mention this? No. That's not my job. But it gives me a lot of insight into the quality of the slush pile.)

If you want to see just how easy it really is to reject some manuscripts, pay a visit to POD-dy Mouth, whose most recent post addresses the issue of how bad a (POD-pubbed) book must be to only read one sentence or paragraph before tossing it aside. There are examples (don't be drinking anything while you're reading them). My favorite one-sentence toss-out: "They called her Labia."

Obviously, not everything that's out there is this bad. Still, the hard truth is that most manuscripts aren't publishable. Should you be depressed? Look at it this way. If your work is publishable, you aren't competing with every other hungry writer with a manuscript to sell--just with the five percent or so (the estimate varies depending on who you ask) who've also written publishable books.

Unfortunately, the only way to know for sure that you're publishable is actually to be published (by a legitimate publisher). And the only way to discover that is to submit. On that basis, we're all in the same boat.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- News of the Weird

Our continuing series of dispatches from the fringes of the writing world.

An alert reader pointed me to ANovelMillion.com, a website punningly described by its owner, an Australian named Aditya Kesarcodi-Watson, as "A Novel Concept in Advertising." Here's the idea, according to the website's FAQ: "People buy words which I will host on my website. The words written by any given purchaser will be easy to differentiate by color blocks, and can also provide a direct link to that persons [sic] own website if desired. The words will also contribute to an ever growing story, not to mention a one-off fingerprint of color signifying the way this story has evolved."

No, I am not making this up. Mr. Kesarcodi-Watson wants people to pay for the privilege of putting words on his website. Cost: $1 per word, with the aim of creating a million-word story; or $1 per character, with the goal of constructing a million-character story.

No wonder the guy on the Index page looks like he just got whapped upside the head.

It's obvious what Mr. Kesarcodi-Watson gets out of this wacky scheme, or hopes to: easy money. ANovelMillion.com is the website equivalent of a chain letter. (Apparently the idea is borrowed from The Million Dollar Homepage, whose owner claims to have sold a million pixels for $1 apiece.) What word-purchasers get out of it is less apparent. What possible incentive might there be to pay to create a collaborative story, since anyone can do the exact same thing for free?

Mr. Kesarcodi-Watson is glad to 'splain. First, there's the advertising angle, since you can link your word block to your own website (here's how Mr. Kesarcodi-Watson suggests you maximize this opportunity). Second, you get to participate in a historic experiment--the first website ever to sell words! "Who knows," Mr. Kesarcodi-Watson enthuses, "the site may well become an icon of the web, another original idea that grabbed the internet." Last but certainly not least, there may be profit in it. "[T]hings going well and the books getting published, people who have written words in each story will also hold a proportional stake in future royalties. I reckon," he adds, "this is a fairly interesting aspect."

Uh, yeah. Let's say you've got $500 burning a hole in your pocket, and you buy 500 words. That works out to, let's see, .0005% of the million-word total. We're talking fractions of a cent here. You'd have to sell hundreds, if not thousands, of books just to make it up to one penny.

Oh, and even assuming that the end product isn't the equivalent of a million monkeys trying to type Shakespeare (Mr. Kesarcodi-Watson, not entirely rationally, is hopeful that it won't be), good luck trying to interest a publisher in a novel with that word count.

Depressingly, some people appear to have fallen for the scheme. As of this writing, if Mr. Kesarcodi-Watson is to be believed, he has already taken in more than $1,000.

As for the stories...well. Judge for yourself.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

A.C. Crispin - 58 Writers -- Trust Your Instincts!

Just a short blog post today to let you know a bit about how things have been going since I posted posts 54, 55 and 56, regarding getting scammed and asking people who have had problems with Robert Fletcher or any of his agencies to get in touch with me.

I've gotten some very promising results from people who are unhappy, and sent them out the information I promised.

But there's been an unsuspected beneficial side effect, which has had the result of keeping me pretty busy. It seems that many people are now writing to me BEFORE signing on with Bouncin' Bobby. Yay!

At this rate I'm receiving something on the order of 5-8 emails per day asking me what's the deal with the LAG, and Mr. Fletcher, or with Children's, New York Literary, etc. I send them back the straight dope, as usual, and I'm pretty sure that, after reading it, the vast majority of recipients don't sign on that dotted line or pay that money.

I wonder how many victims Mr. Fletcher gets per day? I wonder if the 5-8 I'm hearing from is enough to put a dent in the money flowing into his pockets?

At any rate, one of the things I've noticed from the folks who write to me is, that all too often, they say something to the effect of: "I wanted to write to you before signing this contract (or sending this money) because, although I don't know anything about the publishing field, or agents, something just doesn't feel right about the way these people are coming on to me."

Writers, TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS. If one of those little alarm bells goes off when you're reading an ad or a website, PAY ATTENTION. Your subconscious has had a lot of experience in this world, and it may well be able to spot a rotten apple in the bunch before your fingers sink into the bad spots.

Trust your instincts!

If something seems WRONG about an agency, or a publisher, pay attention to your gut instinct. You can always write to us (for free!) and see if we have anything on record regarding the agency or publisher in question.

Okay, that's our storm warning advisory for today. We now return you to your regularly scheduled program.

Write on!

-Ann C. Crispin

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- Track Records: Another Cautionary Tale

For a number of years I've been getting questions about freelance editor Carol Givner. (If you open that link, be warned: Ms. Givner's website is full of flashy, popup-y stuff.) Ms. Givner is a successful ebook author, though she doesn't appear to have had much, if any, commercial publishing experience. Nevertheless, she charges professional rates for her editing services (clients and potential clients report being asked for as much as $5,000).

Recently, it seems that Ms. Givner has branched out into literary agenting. The coexistence of an editing service with a literary agency, or vice versa, is always at least a potential conflict of interest. I've also seen a copy of Ms. Givner's contract, which includes this interesting clause:

"Agent and Agency does not offer updates or reports to the Client on submissions or correspondence with publishers, agents, or anybody else. All submissions and correspondence, all contact names, and every detail involved concerning submissions is the sole confidential information of the Agent and Agency. The list of contacts is the sole and exclusive property of the Agency. Client and/or past, present, or future client representatives, have no rights during or after this contract to have access to this list."

FYI, if you're ever offered a contract with a clause like this, run fast in the opposite direction.

At any rate, the Carol Givner Literary Agency has a website. Let's forget for the moment about editing conflicts of interest and peculiar contract clauses, and take the site at face value.

OK, it's pretty ugly--but as I've previously noted, not all reputable agents have attractive websites. More troubling is the lack of any information about the agent and her professional background. On the plus side, a number of recent sales are listed. That might deal with the info problem--what you really want to know about an agent is that she's making sales, right? However, we've also learned that track records can be faked. It makes sense, therefore, to do some extra checking.

The first two "recent sales" (My Way to Heaven by Christine Ferley, and Daughter of the Moon by S.C. Viola) mention a 2006 release, but don't mention the publisher. A quick search on the authors and titles leads us to Studio E Bookshelf. It's not totally clear from the website what kind of publisher Studio E is, but a trip to its blog reveals that it's an "eBook publisher of quality fiction and nonfiction." Since most ebook publishers don't pay advances, established agents have no incentive to place books with them--which is why epublishers don't typically work with agents. In other words, these aren't exactly the kind of book placements you want to see from an established or up-and-coming agent.

But wait--there's more. On the Editorial Services page of Ms. Givner's personal website, we find the following: "In addition, I'm the Executive Producer of STUDIO E Entertainment, the first multimedia studio on the web, at www.studio---e.com." And according to the Whois record for Studio E, the publisher's URL is registered to Ms. Givner. That's right, folks: the publisher to which Ms. Givner has supposedly sold books is...herself. Huge, huge conflict of interest here. Not to mention the lack of disclosure.

Moving right along...Ms. Givner claims a third "recent sale:" Scandalous, by ReChella, this time to a commercial publisher, Kensington. According to Amazon, however, the publisher is Urban Books. An imprint of Kensington? A quick Google search turns up this press release, which reveals that Urban Books, an independent publisher specializing in urban lit, is distributed by Kensington. Ms. Givner may indeed have placed this book (though I'd guess that like most independents, Urban Books is more than happy to work with unagented authors), but if so, she's exaggerating just a bit.

The final listing is One Wizard Place by D.M. Paul, placed with BooksUnbound, another epublisher. As far as I know, BooksUnbound is perfectly reputable--but, for the reasons noted above, established agents don't generally work with epublishers.

So Ms. Givner's "track record" isn't really a track record at all. Put that together with the multiple conflicts of interest and the nonstandard contract language, and it's not a pretty picture.

Just another example of why research is an agent-hunter's best friend.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- Top Ten Signs Your Agent is a Scammer

Because we can't be serious all the time.

10. Your offer of representation comes via form letter (somehow, you never do get his phone number).

9. Whoever typed his contract didn’t use spel chek and can’t rite real gud neither.

8. You first heard of him when [pick one: you found his ad in the back of Writer’s Digest/you saw his ad on Google/he solicited you].

7. When you asked if he’d worked for another agency before establishing his own, he said yes--a real estate agency.

6. When you asked for a list of recent sales, he told you the information was confidential, because he didn’t want you pestering his clients. And by the way, only a bad, ungrateful writer would ask that kind of question.

5. When you asked what publishers were looking at your manuscript, he told you the information was confidential, because he didn’t want you pestering the editors. What is he, anyway, your secretary?

4. When you got his contract, you discovered you had to pay [pick one: $150/$250/$450/more] for [pick one: submission/administration/marketing/circulation/other].

3. He told you your ms. was great, but when you got your contract you discovered you had to [pick one: pay for a critique/pay for line editing/pay for a marketability assessment].

2. He got you an offer from a publisher--but you have to [pick one: pay for publication/pay for editing/pay for publicity/buy 1,000 copies of your book].

And the number one sign your agent is a scammer: You got an email from his assistant telling you he’d been killed in a car crash, but when you called to ask where to send the sympathy card, he answered the phone.

(And in case you're wondering, I didn't make that up.)

(This list was first published as part of an interview at Writer Unboxed.)

Monday, July 03, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- Rebuttal Scuttlebutt

Many moons ago, a certain stealth vanity publisher--let's call it PublishAmerica--decided to take a swipe at the various watchdog groups and anti-scam activists who were telling the truth about its deceptive business practices. So it slapped up a rebuttal website designed to provide misinformation about the real publishing industry and the watchdogs, under the guise of correcting various misconceptions about the publishing process. Since the science fiction/fantasy community has been especially active in exposing PA, one entire page was devoted to denigrating writers of speculative fiction in general ("literary parasites and plagiarists"), and the watchdogs in particular, in veiled terms that were still specific enough that anyone familiar with our activities could identify me, Ann, and Dave Kuzminski of Preditors & Editors.

Now another vanity publisher has entered the rebuttal business.

Airleaf Publishing & Book Selling started out as a provider of junk-mail-style marketing services for authors. Later, it added POD-based publishing services (a polite term for vanity publishing or a long-winded one for self-publishing, depending on your bias). It has garnered criticism both for its extremely energetic spamming of potential clients, and for the equally spammish nature of most of its marketing services.

Take the Premium Bookselling Package (please), available for just $850. "Contact 5000 bookstore owners! This package has all the benefits of the Introductory Package, plus we contact 3000 more bookstore owners for a total of 5000. In addition to contacting bookstore owners, we send an AP (Associated Press) style press release about your book directly to 700 book reviewers and critics at newspapers and magazines across the country."

Or the Editors at Traditional Publishers package, yours for $450. "Every authors [sic] dream come true! Selling a book to a royalty paying, traditional publisher is always a long shot for unknown authors. However, Airleaf Publishing has developed a unique list of Senior Editors at the biggest publishing houses, and we also know how each publisher accepts new submissions. [Yeah. Through agents.] This puts you at least two steps ahead of the thousands of authors submitting books every week."

Or the Book Reviewers and Critics package, just $350. "Introduce your book to national book critics and reviewers! We write a customized AP style press release about your book and send it directly to 750 Book Reviewers and Critics. These are the premiere critics at the nation’s largest newspapers and magazines."

Now, I'm not a critic at a large newspaper or magazine, but I do review books, and as a reviewer I can tell you that I know when I'm being mass-targeted--especially since much of the time, the book being pitched isn't in my area of interest (this is just one of the problems with bulk mail-style marketing: it's as likely to reach people who aren't interested as people who are). While I'll always pay attention to a personal approach, no matter who the publisher is, I routinely ignore mass solicitations. I'm not alone. Bulk mail--whether electronic, faxed, or snail--is probably the least effective of all book marketing strategies. Not coincidentally, it's also one of the cheapest--which means that any bulk mail promotional service you're offered is likely to be overpriced.

(For a much more detailed discussion of these issues, see the Writers' Services page of Writer Beware.) *

At any rate, it seems that Airleaf is aware of the criticism that's been directed at it by Writer Beware, Preditors & Editors, and others. Today I discovered its Authors Speak Out! website (thanks, Dave), which is devoted to responding to the critics. Unlike PA's rebuttal website, there are no personal attacks--instead, there's a conspiracy theory. According to Airleaf CEO Brien Jones, "Airleaf Publishing and Book Selling Services has been under a constant barrage of vicious attacks for nearly four years. The attacks do not come from our clients...They come from Print on Demand Publishers and a very small number of authors they’ve duped." Why are those mean PODs so hostile to poor little Airleaf? From Mr. Jones's In Conclusion page: "Print on Demand Publishers don’t like Airleaf. That is because Print on Demand Publishers make money selling Author's [sic] their own books. We sell books to bookstores. Therefore, Print on Demand publishers don’t like us." (This doesn't really make a lot of sense--like, why should iUniverse give a rat's ass where other PODs sell their books?--but never mind.)

Nefariously, the POD companies don't attack under their own names. They use shills. "All the...major [author] forums," Mr. Jones informs us, "are owned and operated by print on demand publishers. No, they don’t say that, of course, but they all are. WRITERS WEEKLY, SFWA, and BRADY MAGAZINE are all owned and operated by Print on Demand Publishers!"

Ahem.

SFWA?

Owned by a print on demand publisher?

[Pause for hysterical laughter. Okay. Deep breath. Calm now.]

Obviously I can't speak for WritersWeekly or Brady Magazine. But I think the Board of Directors of SFWA (a not-for-profit organization for professional writers of speculative fiction founded in 1965) might be a tad surprised to learn that SFWA is actually a "store front forum" for a POD publishing company. As for Writer Beware...all I can say is that if Ann and I are really employed by AuthorHouse, we want a raise.

Does Mr. Jones actually believe that SFWA is owned and operated by a POD company? I mean, seriously? It's not hard to do the research, so honestly, I doubt it. I'm more inclined to suspect that his rebuttal, despite the absence of personal attacks, is really exactly like PA's--an attempt to distract attention from his company's problems by spreading misinformation about those who criticize it.

You decide.

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* To be fair, I have to acknowledge that Airleaf offers a couple of potentially (note the stress on that word) less useless services, such as a telemarketing service that directly contacts booksellers to arrange signings; and its more expensive promotional package claims to include a staff of sales reps. Nevertheless, the bulk of its marketing packages are based on spam--a technique in which it's undeniably expert.

** Writer Beware is a volunteer organization. No one associated with it makes a cent, nor do we accept donations.

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Edited to add: After I posted this, a tart missive from SFWA's President was dispatched to Mr. Jones, resulting in the abrupt removal of the SFWA reference from Airleaf's website. Due to the magic of Google cacheing, however, the original page is still viewable, at the link given above. The altered page looks like this.

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Edited again to add: Bummer. The Google cache expired already, and the SFWA reference is no longer visible. Oh well. You trust me, don't you?