Monday, January 29, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- You Were Looking for WHAT??

Like most bloggers, Ann and I have a statistics counter that tracks our blog traffic--how many visitors we get, how long they stick around, where they come from, what URL referred them. As you'd imagine, many of our visitors come to us via websearches on one of the companies or issues we talk about here. For instance, we get a lot of hits from people searching on "Bookblaster," or "agent contracts", or "contest scams", or just "Writer Beware" (or often, sadly, "Writers Beware").

We also get a good number of hits from searches that are completely unrelated to us--some of them pretty odd. Here are a few of the more amusing.

- Is your writing strange? If so, you might want to check out manuscript publishers of strange writing. We show up on page 9 of this search.

- Speaking of strange...Writer Beware has investigated a lot of weird stuff, but we're pretty sure we've never looked into strange places to make whoopee. Nevertheless, we're on page 1.

- We debunk a lotta myths, but as far as we know, no lotto myths. This searcher was persistent; I gave up on page 30, and still hadn't found us.

- Ann! Calling Ann! Who wrote the book Crispin? Turns out there are a lot of Crispins, which maybe explains why we don't make an appearance until page 2.

- This person is really barking up the wrong tree, Writer Beware-wise. If you're looking for the ten top writers on how to become a millionaire, we aren't them. Even so, we show up on page 13 (because of our post on the Book Millionaire reality TV show.)

- This person wants to know how to do an AC scam. Sorry, dude, can't help you--even if we are the second of 94,300 results.

- This person needs some help at work: scamming urinalysis. This time, there are only 301 results, of which we are #4. It's fun to be reminded that I actually used the word "urinalysis" in a post.

- Who are the last scammer girls? Not us, even though we're #4 of 101,000 results. We rule!

- What every scammer needs to know: how to engage in psychological manipulation of clients. We lurk evilly on page 1.

- OK, boys and girls, here's a quiz. When a scammer gets mad at Writer Beware, what kind of demand do they send us? That's right: cyst and desist. That way, we not only have to shut up, we can't sit down for a week. (We're on page 1 of this search.)

- This person is really looking in the wrong place: what do i have to beware of when i am in the desert. Can't help you there, even if we are the first result of more than 1 million. (On second thought, this gives me the opportunity to use the word "urine" again, as in "beware of running out of water in the desert and being forced to drink your own urine.")

- Here's something else we can't help with: why has my laptop computer screen gone blank? That's why you got to page 50 and still hadn't found us.

- We all know that the Internet is for porn. Lots of people are looking for nude pix. Sometimes, they visit us (even though, unlike the Naked Novelist, both Ann and I write fully clothed). For instance, rita skeeter nude (inexplicably, we are the very first listing). And harry potter hermione nude pictures (again, we're on page 1. Sheesh). Or, for the truly perverse, martha ivery nude (I'm not making that up, I swear).

- And speaking of porn, here's someone who's looking for amateur labia. Not professional, mind: these labia must be strictly non-pro. Why does Writer Beware show up in a search for labia of any kind? (If you really want to know, it's because of this post.) Even more mysterious, why did our labia lover take a break from listings like Fetish Bank and HAIRY TEEN to visit us? (Maybe s/he was tired. We're on page 22.)

Friday, January 26, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- Privila: Privilege or Punishment?

Recently I received a question about a company called Privila, which has been advertising for journalism interns on Craigslist and other freelance job sites.

The small print on the index page of Privila's website reveals that it's a subsidiary of a company called Domain Holdings Inc., which specializes in "monetizing" URLs with popular names (for instance, Christmasandnannukkahgifts.com), turning them into directories that list retailers and items for sale. The verbiage on Privila's About Us page is pretty opaque, but by inference, it will provide content for websites managed by Domain Holdings.

So far, so good. According to Privila, the benefits of internship include:

# Gain REAL writing EXPERIENCE; Resume builder
# Be a PUBLISHED author across a variety of topics and websites
# Work with seasoned EDITORS to IMPROVE your writing
# CHALLENGE and EDUCATE yourself by meeting deadlines and researching a multitude of topics including: jewelry, sports, fashion, outdoors, automobiles, finances, arts and much more!
# ESTABLISH a sense of what it would be like to FREELANCE for a publication.
# LEARN about INTERNET JOURNALISM, the future of the writing field!!!


The perks of internship look pretty cool too--in fact, with a coffee shop atmosphere, nerf gear "to exercise a minor case of writers block or coding confusion," a fully stocked fridge, and made-to-order lunches, it sounds less like a job than a vacation (the faux-hip description of all this falls a little flat, but never mind). To apply, all you have to do is fill out this simple form.

So what's the catch? (Because you knew there'd be one, didn't you?) Well, the catch is lurking, as it often does, in the fine print--in this case, the Terms and Conditions to which you must agree if you become an intern.

From Section One, "Trade Secrets:"

At all times during and after the term of the internship, PARTICIPANT is prohibited from and shall refrain from disclosing to other persons or entities any confidential information or trade secrets of PRIVILA (including those developed by PARTICIPANT) or of which PARTICIPANT becomes aware.

No disclosure of trade secrets. Check. Now this, from Section Two, "Assignment of Rights to Articles/Projects:"

During the term of the internship, PARTICIPANT agrees that any articles/ projects authored, created, or otherwise worked on by PARTICIPANT during the internship and/or involving direct or indirect use of PRIVILA's facilities, equipment, supplies, trade secrets, or that relate to PRIVILA's current or anticipated work or research, or that result from work done for PRIVILA, shall belong to PRIVILA. PARTICIPANT waives any proprietary right to said work, and assigns such articles/ projects to PRIVILA...PARTICIPANT further agrees that PRIVILA designates such articles/ projects as trade secrets.

Uh oh. According to this clause, interns must relinquish ownership--presumably, this means copyright--of the writing they do during their internship. Now, I understand that websites often use writers on a work-for-hire basis--but surely this should relate only to the work produced for that website. The language above suggests that Privila is claiming ownership of ANY writing its interns do, whether or not that writing relates to Privila.

Moreover, such writing is designated a trade secret, and interns are prohibited from disclosing trade secrets to others (remember Section One?). Would "others" include potential employers? So much for Benefits 1 and 2. It will be difficult to claim "real" writing experience or "published author" status if you can't back up your claim and demonstrate your writing ability by providing clips of your articles.

On to Section Three, "Disclosure of Articles/Projects to PRIVILA:"

To facilitate compliance with this agreement, PARTICIPANT agrees to disclose to PRIVILA all articles/ projects made by PARTICIPANT during the course of the internship. PARTICIPANT agrees that any copyright application filed within one year after the end or termination of PARTICIPANT's is presumed to relate to an article/ project developed during the term of PARTICIPANT's internship with PRIVILA...An article/ project is made by PARTICIPANT during the course of the internship if PARTICIPANT conceived of, or put into practice, the article/ project during the term of PARTICIPANT's internship.

So...having claimed ownership of ANY work produced or "conceived of" by interns during their internships, Privila also claims ownership of work produced afterward, by means of the astounding "presumption" that anything the intern produces in the year following her internship will "relate" to her internship.

Of course, since this provision is triggered by copyright registration, you could simply avoid registering any copyrights for a year (a policy you should be following anyway for unpublished work). But suppose you sell an article to a magazine, and the magazine registers a collective copyright. Would that trigger Privila's ownership claim? Suppose you want to register copyright to that published article yourself, as professional writers' organizations suggest you do (since a publisher's collective copyright may not give you standing to sue for infringement of your individual work). You can register even after infringement and still take the infringer to court--but you can only sue for the full range of damages if registration predates the infringement or is made within three months of publication. Might the possibility of an ownership claim by Privila prevent you from doing that?

So...no money, no clips, and the possibility that your work may be hijacked for up to a year after your internship is over. For this, you must commit to a minimum of 10 hours per week for 15 weeks, research and write a minimum of 5 articles per week, and meet daily deadlines. All in all, a journalism internship for Privila looks to me a lot like indentured servitude.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- A Night to Remember

Some time ago, I blogged about Airleaf Publishing & Bookselling, POD-based vanity publisher, provider of spam-based "marketing" services, and an energetic spammer in its own right.

Often I receive Airleaf's spams at one or another of my email addresses (I'm especially tickled when they come to Writer Beware's address). So I felt sadly neglected when I learned that I'd been left off the list for the latest (all typos/errors courtesy of Airleaf):
I hope the New Year finds you well. We've just booked the rooms for our Author Cruise to the Bahamas and I wanted to get the early bird price of $850 to you.

The Ship, (Carnival Sensation) leaves Port Canaveral, Florida on September 27th headed for Nassau in the Bahamas. We return September 30th.

This three day cruise includes all the food and drinks plus world-class speakers and author workshops. The cost will only be $995--The same as Las Vegas! However, until February 1, 2007 it is just $850. Also, the first 25 authors to sign up receive a larger cabin with a window!

Authors have to get themselves to the port (airfare and ground travel are not included.)
Airleaf has also announced the cruise on its website. How many proofreading errors can you spot?

I can't help but be reminded of another authors' cruise--this one conducted by our good friend, recently-jailed literary scammer Martha Ivery. In 2000, her vanity publishing business in serious disarray and angry authors demanding satisfaction, Martha attempted to raise a bit of money--and also, possibly, to present an appearance of prosperity in order to distract her victims--by offering a cruise package, which she claimed was worth over $15,000 in free vacation benefits, for the "bargain" price of $1,295. A number of authors did send her the money (among them, unbelievably, several whose books she had failed to publish despite generous infusions of cash). Guess what? The cruise was "unexpectedly" canceled. Authors were promised refunds, but these somehow failed to materialize. Martha blamed it all on the travel agency she was dealing with, which she swore she was taking to small claims court. Needless to say, no one ever saw a dime. (See item #9 of Martha Ivery's indictment.)

Airleaf wouldn't have survived this long if it weren't smart enough to give its customers something for their money, so I don't anticipate another vanishing cruise situation. However, before pulling out your credit card, you might want to do a bit of research. According to the person who alerted me to the cruise:

"We're somewhat frequent cruisers so we know a thing or two about this. Ye gads: the ship is a crummy old one (basically decomissioned from "real" week+ cruises down to these cheapo 3-day party sailings because people would complain too much if they were on it for longer!). It's during the peak of hurricane season (meaning you may not make port or could have very rough waters if there's a tropical storm of any size within a few hundred miles, and being a smaller, older ship you really feel anything but calm water). They jam people in, as many passengers on it as on the ships twice the size. For which Airleaf is charging $1000, when the list price for the cabin itself is around $200."

Here's the pricing, from the Carnival website. For September, it's between $219 and $249 per person. A travel agent might offer an even lower rate.

Will the "author workshops" or the "world-class speakers" be worth the $700+ extra? Hard to say. Airleaf doesn't provide any details on the nature of the workshops, or reveal which famous people will be speaking. (They don't discuss this after the fact, either. Apart from the online announcement, the only mention of the September 2006 Las Vegas conference is a few photos.)

What doesn't seem in doubt is that, even if those who sign up for the cruise don't profit from the experience, Airleaf certainly will.

Popular author and blogger Lee Goldberg has also had some choice things to say about Airleaf recently.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

A.C. Crispin - 71 - Update to Martha Ivery Case

Hi folks:

Just thought I'd remind everyone concerned that this morning I woke up in my nice snug bed in Maryland, and Victoria woke up in her nice snug bed in Massachusetts.

Inmate # 14062-052 woke up in her bunk in Danbury Federal Correctional Institution for Women.

Are you listening, Bobby, Cris, Barbara, and Leanne?

Nuff said.

-Ann C. Crispin
Chair, Writer Beware
www.writerbeware.com

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- In the Wake of Sobol

Simon & Schuster, which was to have partnered with the Sobol Award to publish winners' books, obviously likes the idea of a writing competition. Today, it was announced that S&S has partered with social networking site Gather.com to create the First Chapters Writing Competition. The grand prize winner's novel will receive a $5,000 prize from Gather.com, publication by S&S's Touchstone imprint with a $5,000 advance (the announcement doesn't mention the advance, but it's described in the official contest rules), and promotion and distribution through Borders. Four runners-up will receive $500 apiece from Gather.com. Deadline for entries is March 15, 2007, with the winner announced at the end of May and the book published "no later than" February 2008.

Sound good? Sure, even though publication is contingent on the winner accepting S&S's standard contract (no negotiation, in other words) and signing it within 5 days of receipt (this is odd, but I imagine it's intended to reduce the likelihood of disputes and waffling). I'm also curious about what exactly is meant by "promotion and distribution through Borders" (surely the book won't be distributed only through Borders), but I'm guessing it involves some sort of special newsletter or display promotion in Borders stores.

Still, there are some things about this contest that make me shake my head.

First, from the official contest rules: "In the event that less than 200 Submissions meeting the minimum standard criteria of the Competition are timely received by Gather, Simon & Schuster reserves the right to not award the publishing prize." This is a far cry from the 2,000 minimum that was imposed on Sobol. I'm sure the contest will have no trouble getting entries, but suppose only 201 people send in their manuscripts. How competitive is that?

Second, most entrants will advance through the rounds of the contest on the basis of votes/ratings from Gather.com members, with a small number of additional entrants selected by an entity described only as "the Gather editorial team." The prestigious judging panel--two high-level S&S staffers, the CEO of Borders, and the CEO of Gather.com--will enter the picture only at the very end, to pick the grand prize winner. In other words, we're talking a competition whose intermediate stages will be judged by non-professionals. This is a nicely democratic idea, but it may not result in selection of high-quality, commercially viable writing. The risk here, of course, isn't to contestants, but to S&S, which may discover at Grand Prize selection time that the selection ain't so great.

(The rationale behind the member voting is suggested by a New York Times article on the contest, which quotes Mark Gompertz, executive vice president and publisher of Touchstone Fireside: "[The manuscript] will have a seal of approval by the time it gets to the fourth round...There’s something intriguing about a community of readers out there preselecting it by voting for it. You know that many more eyes have read the thing than if it had been seen by a single agent.” In other words, the winning novel will come with a built-in fan base. Hmmm, isn't that similar to the rationale employed by some manuscript display sites that purport to use member ratings as an incentive to get agents and editors to look at the "best" entries? There are a hundred things you can say about this--a few hundred voters does not an audience make, voting for chapters doesn't necessarily translate into buying books, there'll be at least 6-8 months between the end of the contest and publication for the voters to forget about the whole thing...In other words, good luck with that.)

Third, when they say it's the First Chapters Writing Contest, they aren't kidding. Though full manuscripts are submitted, and I am assuming that the Grand Prize judging round involves reading fulls (the wording of the rules doesn't make it entirely clear), the first three rounds of the competition will be based solely on the entered manuscripts' first three chapters. Do I need to say that a good beginning doesn't guarantee a good ending? That the first three chapters may be polished to a fare-thee-well but the last chapters may be a mess? That even though the contest guidelines specifically state that manuscripts must be complete to be eligible, people are probably going to enter incomplete manuscripts anyway? Even if there are plenty of entrants, even if Gather.com members and the Gather editorial team select semi-finalists with exemplary professionalism, unpublishable manuscripts may still make it to the final round.

The contest rules do allow for some wiggle room: "If the Panel determines that there are no Submissions of publishable quality from the Round 4 finalists, Simon & Schuster reserves the right to review all Submissions from Round 3 (i.e. the 10 semifinalists) to determine the Grand Prize winner." Even so, S&S may find itself making the best of a not-so-great situation, with a Grand Prize Winner it wouldn't have taken on if the ms. had come to it in the usual way.

I don't mean to turn anyone away from this contest. I think its methodology is flawed, but most of the risk is for the publisher. There aren't any fees, there don't seem to be any hidden pitfalls, and if you don't mind signing S&S's non-negotiable boilerplate, it's a good opportunity for the winner, with a reasonable advance and most likely a nice publicity boost from Borders and Gather.com. It's just that I get weary of seeing stuff like this touted as a new way in to a tough industry (this is hardly the first contest with publication as a prize), or presented with the implication that it's somehow adressing the problems in publishing (trust me--for writers, the problems in publishing do not primarily reside at the gateway).

Thanks to Dave Kuzminski and Mur Lafferty for drawing my attention to this.

Edited to add: Gathers has posted a FAQ that answers common questions about the contest (including one of mine).

Monday, January 08, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- Sobol Contest Closes

Thanks to an anonymous comment in my previous post for the information that the Sobol Contest has closed According to the Sobol website, all entries will be destroyed, and entrants will get their money back.

I'm sure that many theories will be offered for the contest's failure: the entry fees were too high, the contest's ill-advised presentation and publicity made it look suspicious, writers didn't want to potentially tie themselves to a currently nonexistent literary agency. But I don't think there's any doubt that a major part of what scuttled Sobol was the unprecedented storm of criticism and negative publicity that swept the blogosphere after the award was announced.

I was part of the storm. I thought, and still think, that my criticism was justified, but in light of this new development, I have very mixed feelings.

Food for thought.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- Evaluating Literary Contests

I seem to be getting lot of inquiries about literary contests lately--and also to be running across a good number of suspect ones. So I thought it might be helpful to post some general guidelines for evaluating any contests you may be thinking of entering--some questions you may want to ask before filling out the entry form and sending off the check.

Who's conducting the contest? If it's an organization, magazine, or publisher you don't recognize, be sure to verify its legitimacy. If you can't confirm this to your satisfaction, don't enter. Ditto for a contest that doesn't name its staff or sponsors, and for any contest where you see any of the warning signs listed below. Be especially wary of contests that are conducted by individuals, or are nothing but a webpage with an entry form (like this one), or are announced on Usenet with only a mailing address, or appear in the form of an ad in the back pages of writers' magazines (these are usually vanity anthology companies).

Is the contest free? If so, you probably have nothing to lose by entering (though if you're a poet, be aware that a "free" contest is one of the major warning signs of a poetry contest scam--and be sure to read the fine print).

Is there an entry fee? Contrary to popular belief, an entry fee is not an automatic indication of a questionable contest. Many legitimate contests charge a fee to cover processing expenses (which sometimes include an honorarium to readers) and to fund the prize.

However, entry fees should be appropriate. Excessive entry fees can be a sign of a profitmaking scheme. For book manuscripts, stories, or poems, between $5 and $15 is average for smaller or amateur contests. Larger ones may charge a bit more, but anything over $25 should prompt you to do some checking. Screenwriting contests can quite a bit more expensive; a few prestigious ones have entry fees as high as $75. More than that should make you wary, though, especially if you aren't familiar with the contest organizer.

By entering, do you get the "opportunity" to spend more money? If you're encouraged to buy additional services when you enter--critiques, marketability analyses, tickets for an awards banquet--it may be a sign that the contest is a moneymaking venture, rather than a real competition. Some contests are no more than fronts for critique and/or editing services. (Unfortunately, you sometimes have to enter before you find this out--as with the contest run by Eaton Literary Agency, in which entry results in an offer of a paid critique.)

How frequently does the organization conduct contests? Running a contest every month (like this writer's magazine, for instance), or bunches of contests every quarter, can also be a sign of a moneymaking scheme.

How many categories are there? Reputable contests usually have a specific focus, and limit the number of categories under which you can submit. For instance, a contest may be for screenplays only or for book manuscripts only. A contest for fiction may have separate categories for books, poetry, and short fiction, or be broken down by genre. The point is that a reputable contest shouldn't feel like the kitchen sink. Be careful of contests that call for any and all talent, especially if everything is lumped together under a single prize (how can a novel manuscript compete with a short story or a screenplay?). Watch out for contests that have dozens of separate categories (like this one). Again, the contest sponsor may be trying to make a profit from entry fees.

Are the contest guidelines clearly stated? A legitimate contest will provide clear rules, including information about contest categories, deadlines, eligibility, format, fees, prizes and the circumstances in which they will or will not be awarded, judging, and any rights you may be surrendering. If you can't find these (as with this short story contest), don't enter.

Who'll be doing the judging? It's in a contest's interest to name its judges, since this speaks directly to the contest's legitimacy. This is important information for you as well, since the prestige of a contest has a lot to do with the caliber of the judges, and a contest with a judging panel of successful writers and/or industry professionals is much more likely to be a good addition to your writing resume if you win.

Some contests prefer to protect judges' privacy, so a contest that doesn't name its judges isn't necessarily illegitimate--as long as you're confident of the reputability of the contest sponsor. If you aren't, be wary. No-name judges may be underqualified, or the contest's staff may be doing the judging (a la the contests at Writer's Digest)--or, in the case of a contest that's a moneymaking scheme, there may not be any judges at all.

Are there fringe benefits? Critiques or meetings with industry professionals are often a worthwhile feature of the more high-profile contests. However, you should never be asked to pay extra for this perk. Also, be sure that the professionals really are professionals. A legitimate contest should clearly state their names and credentials.

What's the prize? There are many possibilities--money, goods, services, even publication. The prizes should be clearly described (watch out for contests that allow the contest sponsors to substitute prizes--you may not get what you expect), and they should be appropriate to the contest sponsor. Unless you're certain of the sponsor's legitimacy, contests with large prize amounts--$5,000 and up--should be treated with suspicion, since they may be moneymaking schemes. (Such contests, which tend to have higher-than-average entry fees, often have fine print that pro-rate the prize amount according to the number of entrants--i.e., as the entrants fall the prize amounts do too, with the downsteps carefully calculated to preserve a profit for the contest sponsor. Legitimate contests may pro-rate prizes if the entry fee is the sole funding for the prizes, but in that case there won't be a profit margin. Always do the math.)

Contests that offer representation, publication, or production as prizes are very appealing. Winning can be a genuine springboard for a writer's career. Be careful, though, because these contests aren't always what they seem. For instance, the National Writing Competition from UndiscoveredAuthors.com offers publication as one of the prizes--but the contest sponsor is vanity publisher BookforceUK. Even if winners don't have to pay for publication, this prize is no bargain.

Always research the agency, publisher, magazine, or production company to make sure it's reputable and successful, and don't enter a contest whose rules make it impossible for you to refuse the prize if you win. If publication is involved, be sure that you know exactly where and how you'll be published--magazine contest prizewinners are sometimes published in a separate booklet available only by special order. If you're looking for exposure, that sort of publication isn't the way to get it.

There should never be an extra cost associated with a publication prize. If there is, it's almost certain the contest is a fake.

Have you read the fine print? Always read the contest rules and guidelines carefully before you submit, so you can be sure exactly what you're getting into. Odd and unpleasant things are sometimes buried deep in the fine print.

For instance, you may have to agree to give up various rights even if you don't win, such as first publication or the right to sell your entry elsewhere. Or winning may impose obligations--for instance, you may be required to use the contest sponsor as your publisher or agent. Giving up copyright may be a condition of the contest, which means the organization holding the contest can use your entry for any purpose it wishes (even without your name). The sponsor may reserve the right to substitute prizes, or to reduce or eliminate prizes if certain conditions aren't met. Watch out for language suggesting that the contest sponsor can use your entry for purposes other than publicity for the contest. And if you enter a contest online, be aware that you may be giving permission for your entry to be published at the company's website, whether you win or not (a frequent complaint about vanity anthology company Poetry.com).

Last but not least--is it worth it? Many writers see contests as a possible springboard to success--a way to add to their writing resumes, or get a toehold in the industry. However, for novelists, poets, and short fiction writers, few of the hundreds of contests out there have that kind of prestige. A contest will impress an agent or editor only if s/he recognizes it, and a string of obscure contest wins will not strengthen your query letter. Screenwriters have more options, but even so, the reputable contests are outnumbered by the pointless, useless, or deceptive ones. Remember also that submitting to a contest takes the work off the market, at least temporarily, since most contests don't want simultaneous submissions. And even your best efforts at due diligence may not keep you out of trouble. The problems with the contests run by small-press publisher Zoo Press provide a cautionary example.

Comments? Have I missed something? Please let me know.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- Breakthrough Script Showcase: Another Iffy Contest

Today I got a question about the reputability of yet another contest: the Breakthrough Script Showcase for TV and film writers, conducted by Studio Readers, Inc. According to the website, the contest was "...created for screenplay and teleplay writers seeking to have their scripts professionally packaged with the additional elements required to attract interest from major distributors, studio executives, production companies and top screenplay agencies."

Ignoring for the moment the issue of a contest for writers that describes itself as "very" unique (and I can't help pointing out that, word usage aside, the uniqueness of the concept is, well, not very), there are a number of red flags.

- Other than a couple of names on the Contact Us page (which are common enough that they're difficult to research), there's no info on who is behind the company or what their credentials are. So there's really no way to verify whether these people have the industry experience and connections they claim. They say they've been around since 1990, but Whois data indicates that their domain name was registered in October 2004 (the cached version of their website goes back a little farther, with a copyright date of 2000-2006), and there's no sign of them before that. If indeed they're such well-established behind-the-scenes players (according to the blurb on the opening page of the website, "SR clients include leading film & television producers, studios, networks and distributors"), shouldn't they have a bit more of a footprint?

- There's no info on who will be judging the contest. Sure, the website claims that entries will be judged "by a panel of 5 leading Union Story Editors", but who are these editors? The prestige of a contest has a lot to do with the qualifications of the judges, which is why you want to see their names. If there are no names, you have no way to know whether the judges have any industry standing. Plus, it's in a contest's interest to name the judges, since their caliber speaks to the contest's reputability--so when judges aren't named, you have to wonder why. Are they underqualified? Do they not exist? A contest that's really a moneymaking venture doesn't need judges--or even a judging process. Or maybe the (unknown) staff of Studio Readers will be doing the judging, a la the contests at Writer's Digest.

- The website provides advice "Just For Writers" (for example, here's what it has to say about finding a literary agent) and "Just for Producers." Apart from the fact that much of this information seems to be directed toward convincing writers that entering the Breakthrough contest is better than submitting scripts directly to agents or production companies, it's shallow and generic--less like the product of real expertise than something whipped up with the help of a little Internet surfing.

- The prizes look seriously overvalued. With the exception of the Apple laptop that's part of the Grand Prize (priced, according to the Apple website, at $1,299), I don't see any component of the prizes that couldn't be created in-house by whoever is running the contest, with the aid of a computer program or two. And there's another question. Even if provided by professionals, would this kind of "development package"--a coverage report, a budget, and, for the grand prize winner, casting analysis and a "sell sheet"--really make a script more attractive to an agent or production company? I'm by no means an expert on screenplay submissions, but this strikes me as awfully similar to the promises of phony "book packagers" who charge an outrageous fee for gussying up book manuscripts with pointless extras that agents and publishers don't want to see.

All in all, this contest looks suspiciously like a moneymaking venture to me. It's conducted quarterly; with entry fees of $50 (not high by Hollywood standards), a tidy sum could be earned from just a few hundred entrants in each round. Probably more important, it also creates a pool of potential clients for offers of fee-based services such as editing. Studio Readers' current website, which claims that the company accepts clients only by referral from "A list" agencies, production companies, etc., and doesn't offer services to "non-represented writers, producers or artists," provides no detail on what those services are or what they cost. But here's a cache of the Services page from the company's old website, which gives an idea of Studio Readers' fees.

Of course, it's entirely possible that I'm wrong. Perhaps the Breakthrough contest isn't a moneymaking venture; perhaps it's completely virtuous and well-intentioned. But even if that's so (and I'm not holding my breath), there's nothing to suggest that winning will be a worthwhile addition to anyone's writing resume.