Sunday, March 29, 2009

Victoria Strauss -- Making Lemonade Out of Self-Publishing Lemons

Although many authors who decide on self-publishing (whether they choose true self-publishing, in which the author handles editing, design, printing, etc. him/herself, or one of the print-on-demand self-publishing services) don't know it, it is extremely difficult to sell self-published books. Despite the periodic news stories about self-publishing successes, the average book from a self-publishing service sells fewer than 200 copies (see the Sales Statistics section of the Print on Demand page of the Writer Beware website). This is why success makes news if it happens: it's rare.

Here's a unique take on this problem. "Is Sara, the Pineapple Cat the most unsuccessful book series in publishing history?" asks this press release.

Have you ever heard of Sara, the Pineapple Cat? No? Well, that does not come as a big surprise to the publisher...Because sales have been so non-existent, the publisher is considering contacting the Guiness [sic] World Records people to see if there is a "Most Unsuccessful Book Series in Publishing History" category. But that would probably make Sara just famous enough not to qualify for Guiness [sic] World Records...Sara cannot be found lying around the shelves of your local bookstores, but go to Amazon.com and search for Sara, the Pineapple Cat and you will find her.

The Sara series consists of five books, each created by a different author-illustrator team, all printed by self-pub service CreateSpace. The series' owner, David Olin Tullis, has trademarked Sara--a gesture of hope that, it appears, has not borne fruit.

Mr. Tullis definitely gets props for an original publicity angle. But given that press releases are among the least effective of all book marketing strategies, I don't see a change in Sara's future. Poor Sara.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Retaliatory Lawsuit Against Writer Beware Staff Dismissed

The following press release was posted today at the SFWA website and Livejournal. Naturally, we're all extremely pleased with this result.

CHESTERTOWN, Md. -- A Massachusetts Superior Court judge has dismissed a lawsuit against Ann Crispin and Victoria Strauss, the principal operators of the Writer Beware website, filed by a purported literary agent.

Writer Beware is a publishing industry watchdog group sponsored by Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America which “shines a light into the dark corners of the shadow-world of literary scams, schemes and pitfalls.”

The suit, initiated by Robert Fletcher and his company, the Literary Agency Group, alleged defamation, loss of business and emotional distress while making claims Fletcher had lost $25,000 per month due to warnings about his business practices posted by Crispin and Strauss.

The suit was dismissed with prejudice March 18 by the Massachusetts Superior Court due to Fletcher’s failure to respond to discovery or otherwise prosecute the lawsuit. Crispin and Strauss, through counsel, intend to file a motion against Fletcher and the Literary Agency Group, Inc., seeking recovery of their legal fees incurred in defending what they believe to be a frivolous lawsuit.

The case dates to Feb. 2008, when Fletcher and his company filed for a temporary restraining order pending a preliminary injunction against Crispin and Strauss in Suffolk County Superior Court in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. During a subsequent hearing Feb. 19, the temporary restraining order was dismissed for improper service (Strauss wasn't served until 42 minutes after the time of the hearing, and Crispin was not served at all), but the supporting complaint was allowed to proceed.

Currently, Fletcher and his companies remain the subjects of an active investigation by the Florida Attorney General's Office.

“I’m very pleased that the case was dismissed. Knowing how hard those involved with Writer Beware work – and how important the work they do is to writers, both within SFWA and outside of it – it’s very good news, indeed,” said SFWA President Russell Davis. “Writer Beware is one of the most important and valuable services SFWA provides, and knowing that this frivolous case was dismissed, and that Mr. Fletcher is now the subject of an investigation in Florida only validates the work done by Ann Crispin and Victoria Strauss.”

Crispin and Strauss have volunteered countless hours of their time to advising, educating and warning aspiring and established authors about dubious, questionable and outright criminal business practices on the fringes of the publishing industry. They maintain the Writer Beware website and are major contributors to Writer Beware Blogs!

About SFWA

Founded in 1965 by the late Damon Knight, Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America brings together the most successful and daring writers of speculative fiction throughout the world.

Since its inception, SFWA® has grown in numbers and influence until it is now widely recognized as one of the most effective non-profit writers' organizations in existence, boasting a membership of approximately 1,500 science fiction and fantasy writers as well as artists, editors and allied professionals. Each year the organization presents the prestigious Nebula Awards® for the year’s best literary and dramatic works of speculative fiction.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Victoria Strauss -- Listen Up, Trolls

Given the rash of haters who've been attempting to hijack my comment threads lately, I thought this post from Grammar Girl was especially apt: How to Write a Great Blog Comment. Here's a sample:

Rule #3 -- Be Respectful

I shouldn't have to tell you this, but comments that start out "You're an idiot," are laced with profanity, or are just plain disrespectful, undermine the authority of your argument. Nobody gives much credence to an obnoxious troll. So aside from the pleasure you get from annoying people, you're wasting your time writing such comments.


Oh yeah.

Check out the video, too. It's a hoot.

P.S. This is not aimed at the 95% of you who make funny, informative, relevant, and/or just plain great comments. I love 'em--please keep them coming! I'm talking about people like The Ternisher or this twit, who just want to rant or make trouble.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Victoria Strauss -- Possible Scam Alert: Asian Cybersquatting

In February, I was contacted by a writer who got the following email, which I reproduce exactly as it was received, redacting only names and email addresses:

From: treey [email address redacted]
Sent: Wednesday, February 11, 2009 2:22 AM
To: [email address redacted]
Subject: Notice of Intellectual Property Protection

Dear Sir or Madam:

We are a domain name registration service company in China. Yesterday we received a formal application submited by Mr. Steven who wanted to use the keyword "[name redacted]" to register the Internet Brand and with suffix such as .cn /.com.cn /.net.cn/.hk/ .asia/ domain names.

After our initial examination, we found that these domain names to be applied for registration are same as your domain name and trademark. We don’t know whether you have any relation with Mr.Steven. Because these domain names would produce possible dispute, now we have hold down the registration of Mr.Steven, but if we do not get your company’s any reply in the next 5 working days, we will approve this application soon. In order to handle this issue better, Please contact us by fax or email as soon as possible.

treey
Attorney at law of Legal Department
Tel: 86 0513 8011 8536
Fax: 86 0513 8011 8539
Web: www.ntwifinetwork.com


The writer, who had long ago registered her own .com domain name, wanted to know if this was legit. I wasn't sure what to make of it, but it definitely seemed suspicious, not least because of the bad English and the many errors. I told her I suspected it was a scam, and suggested that she not respond.

Now, from the very informative Shelf Awareness newsletter, comes an item that seems to confirm my hunch. Rainy Day Books, a bookstore located in Kansas, recently received a similar email from an outfit calling itself Shanghai Chooke Network Information Technology Co., Ltd. When the bookstore co-owner, Geoffrey Jennings, responded that his company would litigate any infringement of its trademark, Shanghai Chooke "threatened that if the owners of Rainy Day Books ever wanted to do business in Asia, they should consider acting to protect their company and would be given 'priority to register these domain names.'"

Jennings believes that this is an attempt by cybersquatters to extract money from existing website owners. He says,

"It would appear that this company wants to generate revenue by registering and 'protecting' domains for U.S. businesses. This may or may not be legitimate, but their tactics suggest extreme caution in communicating with them. In all likelihood, any payment to them would be the tip of a nightmare. If anyone wants to register foreign variations on their web address, there are far more legitimate companies to do business with. My suggestion is to ignore any such inquiry entirely."

As the inquiry I received in February shows, businesses are not the only target of this scheme. Writers, beware.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Victoria Strauss -- The Ultimate Queryfail

If you haven't encountered Queryfail (the brainchild of literary agent Colleen Lindsay, it's an initiative in which agents and editors post to Twitter about How Not To Query), it's definitely worth checking out. Jane Smith gives a good summary on her blog, including some of the negative reactions to the project.

Such discussion can be bruising, especially if it's your query being Queryfailed. But in my opinion, the information provided--direct from the source--is extraordinary helpful, and writers should make an effort to take heed. Also, given the incredibly unrealistic expectations many writers have about how agents should respond to queries, and the horrible things that so many writers routinely say about agents, in public and in private, distress over the supposed negativity of agents' Queryfail comments is a bit ironic.

So, joining in the spirit of the thing, here's the ultimate Queryfail: querying someone who is not an agent or an editor. Whose email address, moreover, has "beware" in it. And attaching your entire manuscript to your query.

Yes, I just got that very query. This may seem strange or absurd, but I get queried on a semi-regular basis, despite the lack of anything at all, anywhere on the Internet, to suggest that I am an agent or a publisher. Believe it or not, I have regulars: the guy who sends me another query every now and then in hopes I've changed my mind and become an agent, the guy who snail mails me his horrifying screenplays every six months or so. There was also the guy who, angry at my refusal to critique his manuscript, put me on his spam/chain letter list. I had to report him to his ISP for abuse.

I used to respond individually, but I no longer do, since I feel very strongly that writers need to take responsibility for doing proper research. Instead, I've added a disclaimer to Writer Beware's contact info, and also to my autoresponder. By then it's too late, of course, but at least the queryer will know why their query failed.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Victoria Strauss -- Eber & Wein: Another Vanity Anthology Scheme

Last November, readers of, among others, Parade Magazine and Cardmaker Magazine saw an announcement for a free "open amateur poetry contest". Poems of "24 lines or less" could be sent to a New York City address, and would then be eligible for $100,000 in prizes. A perk of entering: all poets would receive a "personal critique" of their poem.

There were warning signs. For one thing, the organization or company conducting the contest was not identified. Entering contests when you can't verify who's behind them is a major no-no, not just because you have no way to judge the contest's prestige, but because you can't assess its honesty. (Many people, unfortunately, seem to have assumed that because the publication where they found the contest announcement was reputable, the contest was reputable too.)

For another, short poems and big-money prizes are a hallmark of vanity anthology schemes. These schemes, which are legion, all work pretty much the same way: Ads announce a free poetry contest. Everyone who enters is "selected" as a semi-finalist, which qualifies them to be published in an anthology--and also to buy various of the company's products. Sometimes publication is contingent upon purchase, sometimes it's "optional"--but either way, author purchases are the main, if not the only, source of sales for these anthologies, which are neither marketed nor publicized, and never cast a shadow on a bookstore shelf. Because there's no editorial screening, publication in a vanity anthology is not a real writing credit--in fact, it can be a negative writing credit, since these schemes are widely known. If you list one on your writing resume, many people will conclude that you are, at best, gullible.

Last week, poets who entered the contest began hearing back, and surprise, surprise: it's definitely a vanity anthology scheme. Their responses came from Eber & Wein Publishing, located not in Manhattan, but in Shrewsbury, PA. I reproduce the letter in full, because it is such a classic piece of scheme-speak, complete with appeals to God:

Dear [name redacted],

Thank-you for sharing your poem with us. You've penned a wonderful verse, and I am excited to inform you that your poem has advanced to the semi-final round of the National Amateur Poetry Competition. Please take a few minutes to fill in the Official Contest Entry Form and return it in the enclosed self-addressed envelope. Within the next few months, we will award 126 cash and gift prizes; a list of prizes is included in the contest rules. We're looking forward to announcing the grand prize winner of $2,500.00 and feel there is a good chance it could be you.

As a semi-finalist, you've earned the honor of being published in a volume of contemporary poetry called Verses and Visions, and in a few weeks you will receive an Author's Proof. Please proofread it, make any corrections your poem, and return it to us if you wish to have your poem included in this collection. At this time, you will receive a brief critique of your poem from the editor who has been assigned to you.

Verses and Visions is a multi-volume collection of new and notable poets from around the world that will be available for sale on Amazon.com and the Barnes and Noble web site. This is a unique opportunity for you to receive a world-wide audience for your poetry. We've also included a form for you to tell us a little bit about yourself and your poetry; it is important to take this opportunity to tell the reader what inspired your writing. The statement will be printed directly below your poem. There is a small fee for this service; however, it is not necessary to have a statement included.

If you wish to purchase a copy of Verses and Visions now, we've included a pre-publication discount order form. By placing your order now you'll receive a $10.00 contributor's pre-publication discount. Please note we've selected your poem for publication because we feel it makes an important contribution to this volume. There is no need to make a purchase, and your poem may still be published even if you do not purchase a book. If you choose to own a copy of Verses and Visions and are not completely satisfied upon its arrival, then we will refund your purchase immediately.

Once again, congratulations, and may God bless your home and family. We hope you'll continue writing and reading poetry. Today there are many option for publishing your poetry, and we appreciate that your considering Eber & Wein.

Sincerely,
John T. Eber Sr.
Managing Editor


Cost for Verses and Visions: $49.95.

At least with the established vanity anthology companies, such as the gigantic Poetry.com, the prizes really are paid out, and you can be certain of receiving the anthology (or other products, such as a plaque with your poem mounted on it) if you order it. Poetry.com, Iliad Press, Sparrowgrass Poetry Forum, The Amherst Society, and many others have been around for decades, in part because they grasp the principle that so many purveyors of literary schemes fail to comprehend: you can sucker people out of their money, but if you want to stay in business, you've got to give them something in return.

Eber & Wein, on the other hand, does not appear to have been around for more than a millisecond in schemer time. This cached version (the original listing has expired) of its incorporation announcement reveals that it filed incorporation articles on January 20, 2009--nearly two months after the contest ad ran.

Of course, Eber & Wein may not be as new-minted as it seems. Existing vanity anthologizers sometimes expand or branch out out under new names, a la the endlessly-replicating Who's Who operations. Right now, though, there's no way to tell--and thus no way to judge Eber & Wein's track record of product delivery. Of the many reasons to avoid sending money to this company, that's one of the biggies, in my opinion.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Victoria Strauss -- Possible Scam Alert

From today's edition of the Shelf Awareness newsletter:

Scam alert: Rhoda Wolff, general manager at Schuler Books & Music, Lansing, Mich., reported that an order she received via e-mail had the earmarks of a potential scam. The letter, to the attention of store owner/store manager from Paul Jackson, begins, "WE ARE PAUL JACKSON INSTITUTE WE DO WANT TO PLACE AN ORDER FOR 50 COPIES OF EACH OF THE TWO BOOKS LISTED BELOW." The two books were Barack Obama's Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope.

According to Wolff, "When I attempted to get a phone number, address, or any further information, the e-mail said he was in meetings all day and would only communicate via e-mail. When I googled Paul Jackson Institute, there were no exact matches. This closely resembles another scam we dealt with a few years ago in which our stores were contacted by phone through an operator that was speaking on behalf of someone who was hearing impaired. I just thought it would be great if you could let other bookstores know that we suspect that this is some sort of scam, and to be aware."


This also reminds me of the infamous Author Identity ordering scam that targeted booksellers in 2007.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Victoria Strauss -- Excuses, Excuses

Questionable and incompetent literary agents, publishers, and others (scammers or not) are often unable to fulfill their promises. Non-performance is among the most common complaints that Writer Beware receives: unpaid royalty checks, publication delays, no followup on manuscript submissions, editing projects late by months or even years.

Excuses for these problems (where excuses are made--many dodgy operators simply resort to silence, leaving emails and phone calls unanswered, closing down message boards and guestbooks) range from the mundane (scheduling conflicts, website and email glitches, that old whipping boy the US mail) to the personal (individual or family crises, health problems for key staff) to the downright bizarre. We know of several less-than-honest agents who have announced their own deaths--via an alias, of course (one of them got her aliases mixed up, surprising grieving clients with her apparent resurrection). Another questionable agent explained that he couldn't do his job properly because his house was haunted. And one dubious operator repeatedly claims he must rush overseas to deal with the kidnapping of his child--though his real motive is to put himself out of reach of the people to whom he has made empty promises.

(Of course, some of these excuses--the less fantastical ones, at any rate--are real. But that just points up a different issue. Since marginal agents and inexperienced publishers are so often one-person shows, or are run part-time out of a back room, a single problem can sideline the entire business.)

There are only so many times you can claim to have had a heart attack, or that your house burned down, or that you or your [pick one: spouse, child, best friend] have been diagnosed with some dread disease. Many questionables are delighted, therefore, when a natural event opens the door for legitimate blame. In 2004, Hurricane Ivan provided some much-needed breathing room for questionables in the Southeast (one agency, claiming flooded offices, took the opportunity to rename itself and "discontinue" the old, complaint-ridden business). Ditto for Hurricane Katrina, a year later.

9/11 was an excuse bonanza. I heard from writers whose deadbeat agents informed them that publishers had stopped buying books, or that editors were too afraid to go to work, or that communications disruptions made it impossible to reach anyone in New York by phone or email. I heard from authors whose sleazy publishers told them that fees had to be increased because publishing had "completely changed" in the wake of 9/11, or that publication schedules were being put on indefinite hold because "people weren’t buying books anymore." But the prize for Most Creative Use of a Disaster goes to convicted literary scammer Martha Ivery. At various times, she claimed that her delinquency was due to having been "seriously burned" in the fall of the towers, to caring for friends or relatives who'd been dreadfully injured, and to being in mourning for relatives who'd been killed. To explain why the books writers had paid her to publish weren't appearing, she swore that "dozens" of manuscripts had gone down with Flight 93. (No, I am not making this up. It's all right there in the court documents.)

I'm starting to see signs that the tanking economy is shaping up to be the next big excuseapalooza. Over the past few months, I’ve heard from several writers whose incompetent agents--who don't have the skill or contacts to sell manuscripts at the best of times--are blaming the cutbacks in publishing for their failure to place clients' books, or are advance-rationalizing failure with dire tales of publishing carnage and the "near impossibility" of selling first novels under such conditions. I’ve also heard about a questionable publisher that’s using the economy as an excuse to ditch a bunch of its writers (the unhappy ones, perhaps?? This publisher is the focus of numerous author complaints), and another that is pressuring authors to buy their own books, telling them it's their responsibility to keep the publisher afloat during tough economic times.

What makes these excuses compelling is that they are rooted in truth. The current economic woes affect us all, and without doubt there are scores of small and marginal agencies and publishers that are genuinely affected by the global downturn. But there's also no doubt that there are many that will cynically exploit real problems to their own advantage--and to authors' detriment. Because after all, exploitation is what they're all about.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Victoria Strauss -- Small Press or Vanity Press?

Last week, a lengthy article in Publishers Weekly profiled a number of "fast-growing" small presses. Unfortunately, PW didn't mention the fact that two of those publishers charge hefty fees.

Greenleaf Book Group is both a distributor and a publisher. It's very selective in the projects it chooses to take on, provides a full range of services including design and editing, and puts real marketing behind the books it distributes (10 of the 85 titles it published in 2008, according to PW).

Greenleaf has had some successful books; according to PW, its net sales doubled between 2006 and 2008. It seems to be well-regarded both as a distributor and a publisher. However, authors must pay their way, and Greenleaf is pricey. Based on documented reports Writer Beware has received, costs for a full publishing package can top $20,000, depending on the number of books printed.

On its website, Morgan James Publishing describes itself as "The Entrepreneurial Publisher" (tm). PW notes that the company initially "required its authors to pay for book design, and did some custom publishing as well. 'But we've since moved from that,' says [founder David] Hancock."

They've moved on, all right--to different pay-to-publish models. Through mid-2008, Morgan James's contracts required authors to pay $4,995 to participate in an "Entrepreneurial Author University," supposedly in order to train them to market their books. This policy has been discontinued (the current Comparison page of Morgan James's website, where a table compares Morgan James's services to those of "traditional" publishers and self-publishers, indicates that one of the benefits of publishing with Morgan James is "Enrollment into The Entrepreneurial Author University at no cost to the authors")--but that doesn't mean that the author gets a free ride. Morgan James now requires authors to buy 2,500 copies of their books "at cost plus a percentage."

Buyback clauses are a particularly sneaky mode of vanity publishing, because they allow the publisher to claim that it is not charging for services, and thus is not a vanity publisher. Depending on the per-book cost fixed by the publisher, buyback clauses can also be very expensive. For instance, let's assume a paperback book priced at $13.99, and an author discount of 60%. That would work out to a cost of nearly $14,000--substantially more than the $5,000 MJ used to charge.

As was pointed out to me by several self-publishing advocates when I broke this news on Twitter, Morgan James has had some bestsellers. (Though it seems likely that this is largely the result of authors' own efforts. MJ founder David Hancock, quoted in PW, says that "advertising and marketing are generally the authors' responsibility." PW also notes that "if authors use a public relations firm that Morgan James approves of, the publisher will pay a percentage of the cost," but doesn't mention MJ's connection, through publisher Rick Frishman, with PR firm Planned Television Arts.) For many of the company's books, however, I suspect that the new 2,500 purchase requirement represents the bulk of sales (could that help to explain why, according to PW, MJ's sales "are up 52% over last year"?), providing the company with a comfortable per-book profit margin even for books that don't take off. As I've said many times here and elsewhere, a company that turns its authors into customers has little incentive to make an effort to get the books into the hands of readers.

PW also notes that MJ "operates under a model that's becoming increasingly common: no advances and high royalties." No advances is not in doubt, but high royalties...not so much. MJ pays 20% of net, which for books sold at discount averages out to around 10% of cover price--more or less what those bad old "traditional" publishers pay.

While I would rarely suggest that an author pay to publish, I understand that different authors have different priorities and make different choices. However, the pay-to-publish model is very different from the commercial model, and has very different consequences. Authors need to go into it with their eyes open. In my opinion, PW does its audience no favors by featuring Greenleaf and Morgan James while failing to reveal their fees.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Victoria Strauss -- Hearst Partners With Helium

It's not news that the newspaper industry is in trouble. Hardly a week seems to pass without word of layoffs, shrinkages, mergers, or closures. It's a scary time for print journalism.

Now newspaper giant Hearst has hit on an interesting way to save money. According to this article in the Boston Business Journal, Hearst will partner with content site Helium, using Helium's "citizen journalists" to contribute local and lifestyle stories to the Hearst Newspapers chain. "Hearst executives say the deal will enable its newspapers to provide local content at a lower cost than using staff resources...Hearst is proud to be a pioneer in leveraging new models that will transform the newspaper industry."

How it will work, apparently, is that Hearst will put stories on specific topics out to bid. Writers can then submit stories through Helium, and Hearst will choose those its likes best and compensate the writers. No word on what the compensation will be, but given the typical article fees paid by publishers soliciting articles through Helium, I think it's safe to assume that "lower cost" in the quote above means "way less than we'd pay a professional journalist."

This is a win-win for Helium, which gets, at the very least, publicity and credibility, and possibly also a bump in membership, drawn by the lure of writing for Hearst. It's a win for Hearst too, which gets to acquire content at bargain prices. For readers of Hearst newspapers...if the arrangement generates high-quality content, it's a win, but a lot of the content on Helium and similar sites is very poor, and I suspect the Hearst people will have to sift through a lot of dross to find the pearls.

And for writers...well, those few who are chosen may regard it as a win, although being grossly underpaid by old media as it attempts to transition to a new business model doesn't strike me as a dream gig. Most, though, will be stuck with a spec story and no compensation. And that's not a win in anyone's book.