Friday, July 25, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- FieldReport True Life Stories: Update

In a previous post, I discussed author-unfriendly submission and contest terms at FieldReport.com, a site that encourages writers to submit true stories from their own lives for others to read, review, and rate. Among other things, FieldReport required contest winners to give up their copyrights, and also claimed rights in any derivative works based on winners' entries.

Update: FieldReport is sending contest winners agreements to sign, with an email that claims that changes have been made to the Submission Agreement "in favor of our authors. Instead of assigning all rights you just do a license."

In fact, however, little has changed. The agreement requires writers to "license on an exclusive basis all rights, title and interest, including copyrights, in and to the FieldReport to Publisher" (my emphasis). To be honest, I'm not clear on whether one can license copyright--copyright itself, that is, as opposed to assigning it, or licensing specific rights from the bundle of rights that comprises copyright (any IP lawyers, please feel free to weigh in). But it seems clear to me that FieldReport's intent hasn't changed: they still want possession of winners' copyrights. What's more, winners must agree to indemnify and defend FieldReport against claims of copyright violation or libel.

Do the FieldReport folks really believe that they have changed the bottom line for contest winners? Or are they, perhaps, hoping that winners who read the email won't carefully read the agreement? Interestingly, although the original contest rules on FieldReport's website clearly stated that a surrender of copyright was required, the rules have been revised since my previous post--and the copyright transfer is no longer mentioned.

The Submission Agreement has also been revised, and while I wouldn't go as far as saying that it now favors authors, some provisions have been made less sweeping. Most notably, the licensing terms have loosened a bit. FieldReport now claims exclusive rights to submitted articles and stories, plus exclusive rights to any modified or derivative works, for 18 months or 6.5 years from the date of submission, depending how much money a work earns in prizes and compensation. Thereafter, exclusivity expires and FieldReport claims no rights to derivative or modified works (as it did before). However, FieldReport still permanently retains nonexclusive rights to the original content, and writers must still pay a 25% commission to FieldReport if they sell or license the work elsewhere.

In other changes, FieldReport has added a Grand Prize category, for which all winners of its Qualifying Contests (like the one that just concluded) are eligible. Prize: $250,000 (yes, all those zeroes are in the right place).

So where will the money come from? There are Google ads on the site, but that hardly seems adequate to fund so much prize money. There must be investors...and oh yes, there's this: FRBooks. "Choose your favorite FieldReports from the site, the top Fieldreports, or create a book of your own FieldReports for you, your friends or your family. Choose a special interest and make a collection. You write the introduction. You choose the book cover. FRBooks will publish it for you and send it." Per the Submission Agreement, writers are compensated for such use of their material.

I have to say that this is a pretty cool concept. It also puts the licensing requirements into better perspective. The fact remains, however, that contest winners must, to all intents and purposes, surrender copyright--something they now won't discover until after they have won a prize. And there's the claim on derivative works, and that 25% commission.

I just hope that writers who are drawn to the site by the big money prize possibilities are taking a little extra time to read the fine print.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- Rating Publishers (and Agents)

In a comment left on my last post (which is not quite the hot topic it was, but is still simmering), Deb said,

I wonder whether the "research" web sites might reconsider their dichotomous listings of publishers. I.e., a house is either listed as "not recommended" or no warning of any kind is listed. Example: "a publisher".

Perhaps a rating system would be more apropos. Pubs who have had legitimate, verifiable complaints against them, in a certain narrow range such as: breach of contract, nonpayment of royalties, failure to distribute, etc., might result in a "D" grade, whereas a publisher without complaints would merit an "A".

A system such as this would certainly be more work. However, it would warn authors off from the well-intentioned non-scam pubs who haven't performed as they've promised.

Scams, of course, would merit a big fat razzberry "F."


Although Writer Beware doesn't list or recommend publishers, the issue of a rating system is an interesting one that has come up before, so I thought I'd address it in a blog post.

I have a number of problems with the idea of grading or rating publishers (or agents), and I think it would be difficult, if not impossible, to come up with a reasonably objective rating system that would be helpful to writers--and wouldn't become an insupportable headache for the rater.

- Documentation is straightforward, but complaints can be hard to assess. One might possibly be able to come up with an objective system of grading based on documented problems--nonpayment, poor contract terms, breach of contract. But coming up with a system to grade authors' complaints would be a lot harder.

"My publisher owed me X and didn't pay" is reasonably straightforward, but "My publisher sent me a nasty email when I asked a question on an email loop" is more subjective, even if many authors say the same thing. As we've seen again and again, nastiness and harassment are all too frequently the last refuge of a failing micropress publisher. But what if the publisher is nasty in private, but otherwise does a good job of getting its books out? I have some examples of this in my files. Would the publisher get a "D" for author relations, a "B-plus" for publishing, or some complicated grade in between? (My head is already starting to hurt.)

There's also the question of context. Two serious complaints may indicate a problem publisher--or they may be a fluke. Certainly there are publishers in my files that I wouldn't hesitate slap an "F" rating on--but there are many more about which I have enough complaints and/or documentation to suggest that caution may be in order, but not enough information to feel confident about giving the publisher a rating or a grade.

Another issue--how do you rate author unhappiness, which may be a sign of real problems with the publisher, but also may reflect unrealistic expectations on the part of the author? Does the mere fact that complaints exist dictate a lower rating, or are there complaints that one can safely ignore? For instance, I regularly get emails from writers who are indignant that AuthorHouse or a similar self-publishing service did nothing to market their book. That's not a problem with the self-pub service; it's a problem with the author's expectations. I've also heard from authors who are angry with otherwise problem-free micropresses for similar reasons. You all know my personal opinion of most micropresses--but is this really complaint-worthy? If you choose to publish with a micropress, you have to accept that it isn't going to do what a commercial publisher will. Shouldn't the author have done enough research at the outset to know what he or she was getting into?

In applying a rating system (if you did it right), you'd have to compare and contrast and weigh all these factors. Not only would this be difficult and time-consuming (and subjective--see below), it might not be especially helpful for writers, unless you explained the factors that went into each grade. Again, that's time-consuming. I'm not going to whine about watchdogs being volunteers who do the work in their spare time--but I just can't see this as the best use of limited volunteer hours.

- Complaint collection is serendipitous. The watchdog groups have to depend on authors who are having problems to come to us. We can't be sure they will, even where there's a really bad situation. (For instance, yet another micropress is currently in the process of imploding, but not one of its authors has contacted Writer Beware. My knowledge of the problems is second-hand, from blogs and message boards.)

So no complaints about a publisher might mean the publisher is great--or it might just mean we haven't heard anything bad. A mere absence of complaints, therefore, doesn't mean the publisher deserves a good grade.

Nor would a rating system eliminate the problem of publishers without notations. Even if we rate the publishers we do have information and documentation about, there will always be a large number of publishers about which we have no information or documentation at all, and thus can't give a grade to.

One size does not fit all. Different publishers have different specialties and focuses. They also have different cultures and different expectations of their authors. An "A" publisher for one author will not be an "A" publisher for another, even if both authors write in the same genre.

I'm also concerned that writers, who are always eager for a shortcut, might use ratings as an excuse not to do proper research. (I know, I know. Many are going to do that anyway. But why encourage it?)

No matter how objective in their intent, ratings systems are created and applied by human beings, and are thus, in the end, subjective. Nonpayment of royalties or contract breaches, when documented, are obviously problems deserving of a poor grade. But if I created the system and did the rating, I might give a publisher a "D" because it had no distribution beyond the Internet and its owner had no previous publishing experience--even if there were no author complaints and the publisher had a decent contract. Someone else doing the rating, however, might feel that inexperience and POD distribution only pushed the publisher down to a "B," especially if the publisher demonstrated good intent and was trying hard. I disagree--but hey, that's my bias. I know a lot of people feel differently.

Remember the currently imploding micropress that I mentioned above? (Don't worry, I'll blog about it soon). I'd have given it an "F" to from Day One, due to a combination of factors: the owner's total lack of any relevant professional background, a seriously nonstandard contract, no distribution, horrid amateurish book covers, and various other evidences of nonprofessionalism. Nonetheless, other observers were willing to give this publisher a chance, based on its expressed willingness to learn and change, and its reported intent to develop distribution, make its books returnable, etc. These observers might have given the publisher a "C" or even a "B."

Could the publisher have wised up, made changes, and succeeded? Sure, in which case my "F" would have been mistaken. I've definitely been wrong about these things before. But in this case, I wasn't--which means that someone else's "C" would have been less than helpful to writers. (Which, of course, raises the issue of competing rating systems. I don't even want to think about how confusing that might be.)

Bottom line: a rating system is only as reliable as the biases of the rater.

A rating system would be in constant dispute. Look at the shitstorm that has been stirred by my previous post about something indisputably factual: Light Sword Publishing's recent loss of an author lawsuit. Imagine the shitstorm that would result from publisher ratings. Raters would be bombarded not just by publishers that didn't like their "Fs", but by publishers wanting to argue that their "Cs" really ought to be a "B-pluses." I can imagine a situation in which a rater had to spend as much time defending his or her ratings as collecting information or disseminating warnings. Again, not a good use of volunteer time.

All other issues aside, a rating or grading system would just be too much of a headache to sustain.

For all these reasons, I think it's more helpful for watchdog groups and research sites simply to collect and disseminate information, without attempting to rate it. Writers can then factor the information into their research, as part of the process of making up their own minds.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- More Small Publisher Storm Warnings: Port Town Publishing and Light Sword Publishing

PORT TOWN PUBLISHING

For some time now, there have been rumors about the alleged bankruptcy of Port Town Publishing, a small publisher located in Wisconsin, run by Jean Louise Hackensmith (who, it turns out, has a 1996 conviction for theft in a business setting, a class C felony--she started Port Town while still on probation for that conviction).

Writer Beware has seen documents that confirm that Jean Louise Hackensmith and her husband, Ronald Lee Hackensmith, filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in January of 2008. (Chapter 7 provides for liquidation, with the debtor's non-exempt property sold off to pay creditors.) Creditors included several Port Town authors, a phone company, a printer, the Wisconsin Department of Revenue, and a number of collection agencies. The case was closed on April 22, 2008.

This was the second time around for the Hackensmiths: they'd previously filed for bankruptcy in 1995.

Over the years, Writer Beware received a number of complaints about Port Town, including publication delays, poor physical quality, nonpayment of royalties, continued sale of books whose contracts had terminated, and general unprofessional behavior. At one point, if authors wanted distribution through Ingram, they had to pay a $50 processing fee. Later, Port Town required authors to agree to buy 250 of their own books.

Port Town's website has been gone for some time, but its books still show as in print and available on Amazon.

LIGHT SWORD PUBLISHING, a.k.a. LSP DIGITAL

Since its establishment in 2006, we've been getting a similar range of complaints about Light Sword Publishing: delays, nonpayment of royalties, unprofessional behavior. We've also gotten reports that Light Sword's current owner, Linda Daly, and its former co-owner, Bonny Kirby (who is no longer associated with the company), misrepresented the company's expertise and capabilities in order to encourage authors to sign contracts.

We weren't entirely surprised, therefore, to discover that in late 2007, Linda Daly, Bonny Kirby, and Light Sword Publishing were sued by one of their authors for breach of contract, fraud in the inducement, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. (Writer Beware has seen the complaint, as well as numerous other documents involved in the lawsuit).

Although the defendants filed a counterclaim, alleging that it was really the plaintiff who provided misrepresentations and breached contract, the plaintiff was ultimately successful. On April 15, 2008, a default judgment in the amount of $15,342.64 was entered against Bonny Kirby, and on July 8, 2008, a default judgment in the amount of $16,558.63 was entered against Linda Daly and Light Sword Publishing.

Although we've gotten reports that Ms. Daly may be intending to file for bankruptcy within the next month or so, Light Sword Publishing appears to be alive--if not, perhaps, well. It's now calling itself LSP Digital--according to the announcement on its website, "with the industry shifting due to the economy and the amazing technical advancements in the printing industry, LSP Digital was formed so that our authors can compete in todays [sic] competitive market through digital manufacturing, while holding steadfast in our commitment to our readers and authors."

In a way, what's happened with these two publishers is unusual. Though troubled publishers often threaten to file for bankruptcy, they rarely do--a bankruptcy filing costs money and obligates you to your creditors, and it's really much cheaper and easier to claim to be filing, and then disappear. That's what happened with Creative Arts Book Company, a vanity publisher that took money from authors and never published their books. (I still sometimes hear from CAB authors who are convinced that CAB's former owner is illegally producing and selling their books; I've seen some evidence to suggest that this is indeed happening, but no conclusive proof.)

Also, unhappy authors are rarely willing to incur the expense and emotional stress of a lawsuit--which carries with it, of course, the risk of losing. Over the years, Writer Beware has heard from thousands of authors who have had dreadful publisher experiences--but we know of only a handful of lawsuits.

In all other ways, however, the sagas of Port Town and Light Sword are depressingly typical. If you're a regular at the Bewares & Background Check forum at the Absolute Write Water Cooler, or a reader of any of the blogs that keep an eye on the world of electronic and small publishers--such as Dear Author, EREC, or Karen Knows Best--you'll know how common it is for small publishers started by inexperienced people to fall into a predictable pattern of bad behavior--failing to perform, failing to pay, attempting to harass or intimidate authors who speak out or ask uncomfortable questions--and to go out of business within a couple of years (or less) of starting up.

Wouldn't it be easy if we could dismiss publishers like this by calling them "scams?" It would remove all ambiguity, and place them in their own special category apart from all other publishers. Problem is, most of them are not scams (or not entirely). Amateur publishers aren't generally out to deliberately defraud their authors. It's just that they don't have a clue what they're doing, and often get scared and mean when things start heading south.

For the author, of course, this is a meaningless distinction. Whether you're scammed or amateur'd, the bottom line is pretty much the same: few sales, no professional cred, a book tied up in contract, and possibly a lighter bank account (because so many amateur publishers encourage authors to buy their own books).

In other posts, I've suggested ways for writers to guard against being amateur'd--researching thoroughly, avoiding unproven publishers, and just being careful, which includes being aware of problem contract clauses that may make it tougher to get free of the publisher if it gets into trouble. But the best way to protect yourself is simply to avoid amateur publishers from the get-go, and start your querying process at the top rather than the bottom.

Of course, many writers wind up with the amateurs not because they didn't look higher, but in frustration after striking out with reputable agents or larger commercial publishers. But rather than submitting to the Port Towns of the world, I'd suggest you pick a POD service such as Lulu.com. Your contract will be better, your stress level will be lower, you'll be better treated--and your sales and professional credibility will be about the same.

Better POD'd than amateur'd, in my opinion.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- Tidbits

Items that piqued my interest over the past few weeks...

Your name up in lights (well, headlights)

This is the kind of thing that makes me shake my head, because it's nearly indistinguishable from satire.

Per a recent article in the UK's Daily Mail, successful British crime writer Peter James and his publisher, Pan Macmillan, have agreed to sponsor a police patrol car. The car has all the usual police markings, but is also painted with the author's name and slogans like "Peter James - No 1 For Crime Writing."

According to the Chief Superintendent, "The car will not be used to respond to emergency calls but is solely for use in the local community, to provide visibility and reassurance, and to provide a quick way for officers to get to their local neighbourhood areas."

I wonder how the officers feel about this.

Paper books not doomed after all (maybe)

According to a recent survey by Scholastic, "75% of kids age 5-17 agree with the statement, 'No matter what I can do online, I’ll always want to read books printed on paper,' and 62% of kids surveyed say they prefer to read books printed on paper rather than on a computer or a handheld device."

Contradicting this slightly, two out of three children believe that "within the next 10 years, most books which are read for fun will be read digitally – either on a computer or on another kind of electronic device."

The survey included 1,002 individuals--501 children plus one parent or primary guardian per child.

The ultimate online novel (or maybe not)

At the other end of the spectrum, we have Quillr, a "multimedia storytelling" concept invented by Canadian author Nicola Furlong. Furlong, quoted in ReadWriteWeb, describes the concept thus: "The text is punctuated throughout with video clips and photographs of actors recreating the characters and scenes. Music and sound effects further enhance this novel experience." The hope, apparently, is to appeal to the YouTube generation, with its taste for visuals and its Internet-nurtured inability to focus on any one thing for more than seconds at a time.

Ms. Furlong's novel, Here Ends the Beginning, is the first to be released in Quillr format. A video on Ms. Furlong's website provides an introduction ("an evolutionary chapter in publishing"), and the first five chapters are available for free.

As promised, the chapters combine text, music, still photos, and video--although, as with a regular book, most of it is text. I wasn't drawn in by the story, however, and I found the audiovisual elements distracting rather than intriguing. Halfway through the second chapter, my attention had begun to flag. I skimmed Chapter 3, and abandoned all hope at Chapter 4.

Perhaps, with a more compellingly written narrative (here's a plain HTML sample) and a better produced product (the little videos feature cheesy f/x and obvious amateur acting, and the music doesn't always seem to match the text), I might not have had this reaction. But I am also pondering the question: does catering to a short attention span actually exacerbate it?

The latest small press implosions

On the invaluable Dear Author blog, there's a lively discussion of New Concepts Publishing, which has been accused by one of its authors, Sydney Somers, of publishing unauthorized material.

More on this from Ellen Ashe, who reported problems at NCP last March, and Emily Veinglory at the EREC blog. Emily has also written about the long list of authors NCP has recently decided to ditch, possibly as a result of similar disputes. NCP has posted a "public notice" on its website listing the writers, and accusing Sydney Somers of "breach of contract."

Professional much?

Also via Dear Author, and a bit dated at this point, but if you haven't heard about this it's worth checking out for the sheer WTF of it all...complaints have been mounting about Highland Press, which not only chastises its authors for speaking out about their problems, but has a "secret" co-publisher (also a Highland Press author) who has attempted to game the Amazon review system by encouraging other Highland authors to vote down negative reviews of her own books.

Dear Author's Jane Litte provides an appropriate final word in her post, Heeding the Warning Signals in Epublishing:

But I also think part of my frustration with the epublishing industry is with the authors themselves. Blogs often publish warning signs...but frequently those warning posts will come with authors from that house chastising the blogger for spreading false and malicious rumors. Authors often ignore the warning signs, both before submitting and after. I was reading AbsoluteWrite Forum’s Bewares and Background Check the other day and I consistently marvel at the authors and wannabe authors who constantly oppose the good warnings that are doled out by those with experience...I wish that authors would heed these warnings more so we would have less of them.

Amen.