Shining a bright light into the dark corners of the shadow-world of literary scams, schemes, and pitfalls. Also providing advice for writers and industry news and commentary. Writer Beware is sponsored by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Inc.

August 25, 2015

Author Solutions Class Action Lawsuit Settled

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

This post has been updated.

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

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

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

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

August 20, 2015

Beware Social Media Snake Oil

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

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

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

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

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

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

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

Separate The Wheat From The Chaff

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

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

It’s The Principle Of The Thing

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

We Will Promote Your Book…For A Price

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contact: Chris Syme | email chris@cksyme.com | phone 406.599.6079 | website: www.cksyme.com

August 6, 2015

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

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

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

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

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Want to Become a Better Writer? Stop Writing.
 by

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

But how do writers achieve this excellence?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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