Friday, August 29, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- A Couple of Things

AIRLEAF UPDATE

I've posted previously about Airleaf, a fraudulent vanity publisher that's currently the focus of a civil suit by the Indiana Attorney General. Recently, on her Airleaf Victims Blog, anti-scam crusader Bonnie Kaye reported that former Airleaf CEO Carl Lau is still out there looking for other people's money.

Lau's profile at GoBig Network (which, according to its FAQ, "allows professionals to connect with small businesses, entrepreneurs, investors, customers, vendors, employees and advisors") reveals that he is seeking investors for 2nd Century Films, which he describes as "A startup company with lots of projects to put into movies, Hollywood likes the screenplays and we have the right actors and directors to produce. Great investment for the long term or short term investor."

Hopefully none of those projects belong to Airleaf authors.

I'm reminded of vanity press scammer and fake literary agent Martha Ivery (currently doing time for fraud), who, after the FBI seized her records and she was forced to declare bankruptcy, attempted to keep going by dabbling in real estate scammery and in a scheme involving racehorses. Easier than getting a job, I guess.

AGENTS: LOCAL OR DISTANT?

Most of the questions Writer Beware receives focus on specific agents and publishers. But we also get a lot of general questions, and these tend to fall into certain patterns. One of the more common involves literary agent location. "I'm looking for an agent in my home town (or county, or state)," these questions begin, or "I live in Atlanta (or Phoenix or Des Moines), and I'm having trouble finding any agents located there. Can you help me?"

I suppose it's not unreasonable to assume that your literary agent, like your lawyer or your accountant, should be local to you. After all, this person will be handling your business. It would be good to be able to meet face to face, to be able to drop things off at the office, to have regular business lunches. Right?

Not exactly. In the often counterintuitive world of publishing, what's important is not that your agent be local to you, but that he or she be local to publishing (or to Hollywood, if you're a script writer). That way, s/he can have the business lunches that really count: with editors and producers. Your agent needs either to be in or near New York or Los Angeles, or to make regular business trips there. (Time was when a far-from-New-York-or-LA location was a warning sign, but that's no longer true; your agent can be anywhere, as long as s/he makes those business trips.)

Many--probably most--authors maintain long-distance relationships with their agents. This was true even in the antediluvian days of snail mail, before the Internet and email and faxes revolutionized the way we communicate. In your agent search, therefore, don't limit yourself by worrying about where your agent's office is. A competent literary agent can represent you effectively from any location.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- AbandonedNovel.com

I've been getting some questions about a new publisher called AbandonedNovel.com.

At AbandonedNovel.com, we're seeking the greatest stories never finished. We want the best beginnings to your unfinished novels to publish in a new book with other stories that never found their conclusion.

The book will be called Beginnings - A Novel, and will feature "ten selections of the best opening chapters of abandoned novels." Most genres are acceptable (though erotica, romance, and children's books are excluded). The deadline for submission is November 30, 2008.

AbandonedNovel's parent company is Teton River Productions, whose press release about the venture can be seen here.

Tempted? I can understand why you might be. Most writers have manuscripts they've given up on--books they had great hopes for but never finished, books they finished and submitted without success, books that didn't work out as planned or that had insoluble plot or character problems. (My abandoned novel is a historical that my agent refused to represent unless I completely re-worked the concept and characters; I didn't feel I was capable of doing what she wanted, so I set it aside. I was devastated, of course--but several years and four books on, I can see that her assessment was 100% correct--and I can also, as I couldn't then, see how to fix the problems.) If the manuscript is just sitting on your hard drive, going nowhere and doing nothing, why not jump at the chance to (maybe) let it see the light of day?

Not so fast. As you might suspect from the fact that I'm blogging about it, AbandonedNovel has problems.

Problem Number One: Teton River Productions, AbandonedNovel's parent company, does not appear to have an iota of publishing experience. The press release linked in above describes AbandonedNovel as "Teton River's first foray into print media." Teton River's business, according to its website, is providing web design, hosting, and content services, as well as producing "original video, audio and print materials"--all very far from publishing (and even in those areas, its track record to date seems scanty). As I've said so many times before, querying new publishers is risky, and the risk is even greater when those publishers have no experience.

Problem Number Two: the fine print. In this case, AbandonedNovel's Terms and Conditions, to which writers submitting material must agree in full. Slide on down to Clause 4:

You agree that by submitting the work to us, you grant us a three year option to enter into an agreement with you to publish the work. During that time, you will not submit the work to any other publisher, nor will you self-publish or display the work in any public forum.

In other words, AbandonedNovel is demanding a three year exclusive submission period, in order to preserve its option to (maybe) publish your work at some future date, even if it doesn't accept you into the currently-planned anthology. This is completely unreasonable, in my opinion. It's fine to demand exclusive submission--many publishers do--but exclusivity should endure only until a work is rejected or accepted, and if the submission is for for an anthology project, the rejection or acceptance should be for that work only. A publisher should not keep writers on a string for years at a time just in case it might decide to someday use their work in some future volume as yet unplanned.

What's the big deal? you may ask. These are abandoned novels, after all--if all they're doing is gathering dust, where's the harm, even if the publisher is an amateur and the submission requirements aren't so great? But amateur publishers and bad submission requirements may well add up to crappy contract terms, if publication is offered--not to mention minimal sales and tiny exposure. I'd rather leave my work sitting on my computer forever than consign it to such a fate. Also, do you really want to have your work tied up for three whole years? (AbandonedNovel only wants your first chapter, but if your first chapter is tied up, so is the rest of the book.) Like me, you might figure out how to fix your abandoned novel, and decide to finish it. Even if you never do, there is a principle involved (yeah, I know I'm boring with all this ethical crap). Publishers--and writers--often try to rationalize bad contract or submission terms by saying "Well, it's only 500 words," or "Well, it's not like it'll be published anywhere else" or "Well, it's a way to get your name out there." But bad terms are bad terms. Rationalize as you wish, but there is never a good excuse to offer them--or a good reason to accept them.

Besides, if your trunk novel is complete and you're dying to get it out into the world, there's a better (and way cooler) alternative: Trunk Novels, a publishing service that specializes in bringing abandoned books to life. Trunk Novels charges no fees, takes only the rights necessary to e- and POD-publish, and makes books available for free download. No muss, no fuss, no lousy submission or contract terms--plus, you can publish the whole thing, not just the first chapter. (Disclaimer: I'm acquainted with some of the people involved with this site.)

Monday, August 11, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- Tales of the Big Advance

If you're a writer and have a pulse, you probably have seen this news story (or this one or this one) about Lorna Page, the 93-year-old British author who hit it big with her debut novel, and with the proceeds bought a large house in Devon so that her elderly friends could live with her rather than in a nursing home.

Despite some discrepancies (some of the news stories report that Ms. Page received "a significant advance" for her novel; others just mention sales proceeds) this heartwarming tale is getting huge press coverage. If you type "Lorna Page" into Google News, you'll see articles in half a dozen languages from news sources all over the world.

However, there's something odd about this story. Ms. Page's book, A Dangerous Weakness, is published by AuthorHouse.

As I'm sure all Writer Beware's readers--unlike, apparently, much of the press--are aware, AuthorHouse is a self-publishing service, which not only doesn't pay advances, but charges a fee to publish. Average sales figures for AuthorHouse books, based on AuthorHouse's own statistics, are around 150 copies.

So what is going on here? Has AuthorHouse made an exception to its no-advance policy? Has Ms. Page's book, against all the odds, sold well enough to enable her to buy a house that reportedly cost more than 300,000 pounds? Or is this (as some people have theorized) a clever publicity stunt designed to drive sales?

My hunch: none of the above. I think it's just sloppy journalism.

Have a look at this press release about Ms. Page and her book, dated June 26, 2008, which says: "A 93-year-old woman is having her first novel published and with the book's proceeds plans to buy a large house in Devon so she can give a real home to some of her friends who are currently in nursing homes."

Take a look also at this article from BBC News, dated August 11, 2008 (and listen to the video clip that accompanies it). Nothing at all is said about Ms. Page using the proceeds from her book to buy the house in Devon. The article simply reports that "A 93-year-old woman who has had her first novel published has bought a house in Devon so she can help friends stay out of nursing homes...She hopes the book's royalties will pay enough so her friends do not have to move into nursing homes, something she dreads."

I suspect the newspapers used both these sources and made a leap of logic, assuming that, since the house had been bought, the hoped-for proceeds were already in hand. In some cases, they further assumed that "book proceeds" equaled "advance." That, and the human interest angle, spurred the current rash of what I believe is inaccurate reportage.

Why am I so sure it's inaccurate? It's possible that under some circumstances AuthorHouse might make an exception to its usual policy, and pay an advance--but I'm not aware of a single instance in which that has ever happened. Also, even if Ms. Page's book has sold extraordinarily well--and to generate more than 300,000 pounds in royalties, it would have to have sold like hotcakes on steroids; it's hard to imagine a POD service being able to keep up with that kind of demand--it has a publication date of July 12, 2008. According to its Author Agreement, AuthorHouse remits royalties quarterly. Brisk sales or no, Ms. Page hasn't gotten a royalty check yet.

By making this post, I mean no disrespect to Lorna Page and her family, or to their worthy and warmhearted dream of helping elderly people avoid nursing homes. They are not responsible for journalists' cock-ups, and if any of my guesses are wrong, I will humbly apologize. But I can already imagine the self-publishing booster mill ramping up to trumpet yet another tale of Self-Publishing Success. Because of the hype, myths, and misconceptions that surround self-publishing, I think it's important to present an alternative view.

Ms. Page's book currently has a very low ranking on Amazon UK and is temporarily out of stock, suggesting that the news stories have spurred sales. I hope Ms. Page makes a lot of money.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- Tidbits

Items that piqued my interest over the past few weeks:

Contract changes for Random House UK

UK authors, agents, and authors' groups are up in arms about a pair of recent changes to Random House UK's contract boilerplate.

The Bookseller reports that Random House is attempting to re-work its out of print clause in much the same way that Simon & Schuster did a year ago. Apparently, the new language allows rights reversion "only if the publisher cannot supply a physical or electronic copy of a book within a month, or if there have been no royalty earnings for a year." So as long as your book sells just one copy a year, Random House can refuse to declare the book out of print, and you cannot get your rights back.

As I noted in a previous post on the importance of rights reversion, "in print forever" is not a good thing. Why should publishers have control over books they aren't marketing and selling? If your book's availability is limited (for instance, if there are no physical copies that can be ordered by stores and the book exists only in an electronic edition), or if it's still available but few copies are selling, you're better off if the publisher takes it out of print, allowing you to revert the rights and regain control of them. This is why, if you're signing a life-of-copyright contract, it's important to make sure that you can demand rights reversion once sales fall below a minimum level--for instance, fewer than 250 copies sold over two consecutive royalty periods.

The other contract change affects children's writers. The Guardian's Book Blog reports that Random House has decided to include the following clause in its standard children's book contracts: "If you act or behave in a way which damages your reputation as a person suitable to work with or be associated with children, and consequently the market for or value of the work is seriously diminished, and we may (at our option) take any of the following actions: Delay publication / Renegotiate advance / Terminate the agreement."

Children's writers being such a debauched group and all. Who knew?

How literary agents get their start

"Everyone has to start somewhere." This is one of the most frustrating phrases I hear on a regular basis, applied to agents without publishing experience. Yes, everyone has to start somewhere, but as with other skilled professions, "starting somewhere" does not mean "starting from zero." To effectively perform a difficult and complicated job, you need a matching base of knowledge and experience. What does this mean for agents? They need to start their careers in some aspect of publishing, or by apprenticing at a reputable literary agency.

This dialog between two established literary agents (from Open Book Magazine) is interesting for many reasons, not least because the agents provide detailed descriptions of how they got their got their start.

Sam Hiyate, president of The Rights Factory, was an editor and publisher before he became an agent. "When I became an agent," he says, "I took the things I love most about my old job – finding and working with new writers, and promoting their talent and work – and took it to the bigger publishers to do the rest of the work...I had to learn how to sell to publishers and how to negotiate the best possible deals. I’d say those things are both so difficult and impossible to master overall that I am still learning."

Hilary McMahon, vice-president of Westwood Creative Artists, had various jobs before landing a front desk position with Westwood. "I worked on the front desk for a few years, which was tremendous training - seeing how the different agents worked and experiencing all facets of the company. Then I became Bruce [Westwood's] assistant, which was also an amazing experience; working with writers like Rohinton Mistry and Timothy Findley was a pretty great way to learn the ropes! When Jennifer Barclay left the agency to travel the world...I inherited her client list and have been adding to it steadily ever since."

When you're evaluating a new agent or agency, this is the kind of background you want to see--not "I'm a retired teacher/professor who loves books," or "I've worked in advertising/PR/real estate for 20 years and I really know how to sell," or (worst of all) "I'm a self-published/vanity-published/unpublished writer who has suffered the slings and arrows of the cruel publishing industry, and I swear I'll be nicer to you than they were to me."

For a longer discussion of why literary agents need relevant professional experience, see this blog post.

Is this the future of publishing?

A little while back, I wrote a Tidbit on HarperStudio, the new HarperCollins imprint that has generated quite a bit of discussion for its stated intention of sharing profit with authors and doing away with returns.

Recently, HarperStudio head Bob Miller hosted a breakfast to present more information about the imprint. Reports from literary agent Nathan Bransford and media blogger Jeff Bercovici reveal that, in Bransford's words, "HarperStudio will pay authors no more than $100,000 advances, and instead of royalties, utilizes a profit sharing model that incorporates expenses on one side of the ledger (expenses will include publicity and unit production, but not editorial and overhead), and income on the other side. Profits are split 50/50, and accounting reports four times a year, translating to a break-even point at around 25,000 copies sold."

HarperStudio will publish 25 books a year (17 are already signed for its launch list). Miller is still working on ways to incorporate a no-returns policy into the mix.

It's an intriguing experiment, and it will be interesting to see where it goes. (Nathan Bransford has blogged about two other "imprints of the future" that, like HarperStudio, are attempting to address some of the perceived problems of the publishing industry by making changes to the basic publishing model: Vanguard Press, an imprint of Perseus, and Twelve, an imprint of Hachette.)

Or is this the future of publishing?

From the Guardian UK, an article by Emma Johns on how focus groups are pushing their way into the arts, including publishing.

Johns describes Hothouse, "a London-based business that aims to give children what they say they want from stories, rather than what adults think they want." Hothouse employs a market research company to present kids with story ideas: "Using dummy covers, short excerpts and blurbs to prompt conversation, researchers ask the children their opinions on which characters, plots and ideas they enjoy most. Each child is also visited at home by a researcher, who finds out what kind of books they already own and read. Drawing on this research, Hothouse commissions a team of writers accordingly."

So far, Hothouse has launched two focus group-generated children's series: Darkside, published by Scholastic, and Fright Night, published by Puffin.

"You could ask whether Hothouse is publishing books that will endure, or merely pushing products," Johns remarks. But children's books are already pretty product-oriented, with the many packaged series that crank out installment after installment, and the growing trend toward actual product placement in YA books and children's learning books. Still, creating books by focus group does seem to take it quite a bit farther. One can certainly see why this appeals to publishers--but as a sometime YA author, I don't find it an encouraging trend.

Calling Guy Noir

Last but not least, from the UK's Telegraph comes one of the odder bits of book-related news I've seen lately: the Norfolk County Council has admitted that it spent more than £80,000 over the past three years on private detectives to hunt down debtors--including paying detectives £9,190 to recover overdue library books, CDs, and DVDs.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- Blurbings.com: Another Pointless Author "Service"

Book blurbs--those pithy statements on book covers extolling the wonderfulness of the book--are ubiquitous in the publishing biz. The hope is that a quote from your favorite author, or from a respected expert or pundit, will make you more interested in picking up a book, and possibly actually purchasing it.

Book blurbs are generally acquired well prior to a book's publication date, as part of the pre-publication marketing process. Manuscripts or galleys are sent by the publisher to a list of people whose complimentary words would be desirable. Often, the author has input into the list; sometimes the publisher or the author's agent calls in a favor or two. Many of the people approached for blurbs never do provide one, but usually at least a few blurbs result. Blurbs are used not just on book covers, but in the publisher's catalogs and other marketing materials. And of course, you, the author, can proudly display them on your website, Facebook page, etc.

Do book blurbs work? That's a complicated question to which there are no clear answers. I doubt that many people buy a book just because a writer they respect said something nice about it. But the presence on a book cover of several blurbs from recognizable, reputable individuals suggests to the potential buyer that the book has been seen and approved by people who know their stuff, and thus is a worthy purchase. (To those of us in the industry, it also says that the book is being actively marketed by its publisher, while books with few or no blurbs sadly reveal their place at the bottom of the publisher's priority list.) Like much book marketing, blurbs are done in hope rather than in certainty--because they might work, not because it’s definite that they do.

The above applies to larger commercial publishing houses. What if you are small press-published? Your publisher may make efforts to obtain blurbs, but may have difficulty getting attention from the kinds of people whose blurbs are worthwhile. What if you use a self-publishing company or a vanity publisher? Blurb-finding will be entirely up to you. As an unknown author, and especially as an author associated with a pay-to-publish company, you likely will have even more trouble than a small press.

What's a writer or micropress to do? Enter Blurbings.com. "Put a spotlight on your book!" its website declares. "We offer an inexpensive and accelerated service for long time promotion to authors and publishers through writing and receiving blurbs." In other words, Blurbings makes it possible for you to solve your lack-of-blurbs problem by buying some.

According to the FAQ page, "Blurbings Seekers" post digital galleys of their books for blurb writers to download and read. Writers can then submit a blurb to the book's profile page, if they choose. Seeker packages are priced at $19.95 (10 blurbs) or $29.95 (30 blurbs). If 30 blurbs are not enough, you can add more for just $1.49 apiece. (Blurbings claims that blurbs are guaranteed.) Blurbings will also create your digital galley for $29.95. For blurb writers, a digital book download costs $0.99.

Why is this a good deal? According to Blurbings' About Us page: "Normally, a blurb will cost an author and/or publisher $14 - $23, which includes printing of the galleys, packaging and mailing fees. The standard 30 – 50 blurbs expected per book can range from $420 to $1,150. It is also very time consuming researching and contacting prospective authors as well as conducting follow-ups during the duration of the process."

Uh...okay.

More important--who will the blurbs come from? "Other authors usually write Blurbs," Blurbings' FAQ page explains. "[H]owever, professionals in the field can also write them; for example, a psychologist can write a blurb for a book on stress or disorders. Professors who teach the subject of the book can also blurb books, for example, a professor in sociology can blurb a book on society or a professor in politics can blurb a book on politics. In addition, Owners of websites that deal with the topic of the book can submit blurbs."

And there’s the rub. Not all blurbs are equal. The whole point of a blurb is that the blurber be recognizable to the general public, or else be someone whose credentials suggest that his or her opinion is worth taking seriously. But how likely is it that someone like that will find his or her way to Blurbings and happen upon your digital galley? (And if you contact them yourself, what do you need Blurbings for?) It's far more likely that the blurbs you'll get will come from other site users--i.e., other self- or small-press-published authors--or, possibly, from random web surfers. No offense to Joe Micropress Author or Jane Random Web Surfer...but blurbwise, who cares what they think?

And Joe Micropress Author will be eager to blurb. As Blurbings helpfully points out, "[W]riting blurbs also puts a spotlight on the blurb writer. If you choose to write one blurb per week for a year, you can generate continuous exposure on over 50 different books, websites and profiles. It is a great promotional tool for authors seeking long-term promotion. Putting a spotlight on your name will increase your visibility to readers. Sustaining exposure over a long period of time for one work will lead prospective readers to all future works. "

The idea that you should pay for a bunch of blurbs from people no one has heard of as a promotional strategy for your book is bad enough--but the idea that blurbing itself is a promotional strategy, because you can stick your book title on other authors' books, is even worse.

Blurbings.com is the brainchild of Emily Maroutian and Jenna Peak of The Writers Mafia, a writers' organization/website that engages in a number of different projects, including publishing.