Friday, July 27, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- Should Writers Worry About Blacklisting?

Among the more persistent items of writer mythology--agents are likely to steal your work, publishers aren't interested in first-time authors, you can't get an agent unless you're already published--is the notion of blacklisting. Many people fear that there's some sort of master reference list that agents and editors use to identify troublesome writers, or that agents or editors can turn a writer into an untouchable by passing his or her name around among their colleagues.

This idea is actively encouraged by scammers and other disreputables. Writer Beware has documented many instances in which an agent or publisher has responded to complaints, questions, or demands with a threat of blacklisting. "You'd better back off," the writer is told, "or I'll see that you're blacklisted throughout the industry." Or, "You know about the blacklist, don't you? If you get on it, no one in publishing will ever deal with you again."

Don't believe it. It's nothing more than an intimidation tactic intended to frighten you or shut you up. There's no such thing as a "master blacklist." Period. Nor can an agent or editor singlehandedly blacken a writer's name throughout the industry--nor is it likely that they'd care enough to bother. Keep in mind also that the people who typically threaten blacklisting--the fee-chargers, the amateurs--are not actually part of the publishing industry, and haven't the connections or the credibility to blacklist anyone, even if they wanted to.

The ease of searching on the Internet has also sparked fears of blacklisting. Suppose you ask a question about an agent's background on a writers' message board. Suppose the agent does a websearch and finds your comment. Will the agent be pissed off--especially if you have something critical to say? Will she tell her colleagues? Will your name become mud?

Frankly, I doubt it. Certainly there are agents who do websearches on potential clients, and are influenced by what they find. But it seems unlikely that they'd bother to circulate someone's name, even if they learned something that displeased them. Why would they care that much? Why would anyone else? Also, for every agent who has the time and interest to do that kind of research, there've got to be as many, if not more, who don't. Obviously you need to use your common sense. If you post something snarky about the agent who just requested an exclusive on your first three chapters, it may come back to bite you. If you behave in an obnoxious way--sending nasty emails to agents who reject you, for instance--you may become an item of gossip. But systematic blacklisting is not something that should be high on your worry list.

There's a larger issue here, of course, and that's the fact that nothing is really private on the Internet. Just as job-hunting college students have found themselves embarrassed when potential employers discover their MySpace pages, writers need to remember that blog entries, message board posts, and Usenet participation are public discourse. If you take responsibility for your words, and say nothing online that you aren't willing for everyone in the world to see--including the agent you queried last week--you won't need to worry about who's doing a websearch on you, or what they might learn.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- Again, First Chapters Competition: This Time With Love

Last January, Simon & Schuster and Gather.com sponsored the First Chapters Competition, with not one but two winners announced in May.

Evidently things went well enough that the parties involved are eager to do it again.

Introducing the First Chapters Romance Writing Competition, kicking off August 1, 2007. Entries must be "original, previously unpublished (excluding self-published and vanity press), completed book-length manuscripts in the Romance genre from authors who have not previously published a full-length book." According to the competition FAQ, manuscripts cannot exceed 100,000 words. Romance is defined as "A story, focusing on the relationship between a man and a woman, which captures the joy of falling in love." Erotica is specifically excluded.

Contest procedure has been streamlined a bit this time around. There will be only two preliminary rounds (the previous contest had three), and all submissions will be posted online before comments and ratings are allowed (the previous contest allowed comments and ratings from the start, which reportedly produced some problems, with late entries falling victim to contest overload). Possibly due to widely-rumored issues of vote-cheating, Gather will "work with an independent party to certify the results of the community voting."

Another interesting difference: S&S is planning more lead time for publication. The winners of the first contest were announced at the end of May, with publication scheduled for the following September--barely time for design and editing, never mind pre-publication publicity. The Romance contest winner will be announced on October 30, and publication (in mass market format) will be "no later than July 31, 2008." That's still pretty fast, as the publishing industry grinds, but more realistic than the scant three months allowed by the first contest.

Otherwise, the official rules appear pretty much the same. Entrants must grant S&S exclusive first publication rights until they're eliminated, and the Grand Prize winner will receive an advance of $5,000 as long as s/he signs S&S's standard publishing agreement within five days of receipt. (Note to entrants: There've been some recent concerns about S&S's standard contract.) Once again, semi-finalists and finalists will be chosen both by reader voting and a nameless Gather.com Editorial Committee. The Grand Prize Winner will be selected by a different committee, consisting of editors from Pocket Books, the romance buyer for Borders, and Gather.com's CEO, Tom Gerace.

All in all, the First Chapters Competition appears to be on its way to becoming an institution. The appeal for Gather.com is obvious--it's great publicity, and since you have to join in order to enter or vote, Gather's membership roster must receive a major bump with each contest. S&S is clearly happy also--according to Louise Burke, Executive Vice President and Publisher of Pocket Books, "There is always a need for smart, informed, sexy romance writing...Judging by the success of the initial First Chapters competition, we believe Gather.com will provide us with an ideal platform to discover new talent." (Quoted in the competition's official press release.) I can't help thinking, however, that "success" for S&S doesn't really hinge on how well the contest runs, but on how robustly the contest winners' books sell. It always comes down to numbers.

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you'll know my general opinion of writing contests. I remain concerned about S&S's contract terms and the implied non-negotiability of the contract that is offered to winners, and I still feel that the contest's methodology is flawed. Still, as contests go, this one is pretty solid.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- May Writers' Group Exposed

The first person to add a comment to my post on the May Writers' Group pointed out the similarity between the fulsome solicitations writers have been receiving from this supposedly brand-new agency, and the equally smarmy solicitations sent out by Michele Glance Rooney, a fee-charging, track recordless literary agent featured on Writer Beware's Thumbs Down Agency List and in several entries on this blog.

Given the name of the mysterious agency's equally mysterious owner, Shelly May (Michele Rooney has used the nickname Shelly in some of her solicitations), and the agency's Michigan address, which isn't present on its website or in its solicitations, but is revealed to writers who respond to its email (Michele Rooney is a Michigan resident), it seemed like a reasonable guess.

Turns out it's more than that.

On a tip from a helpful Writer Beware reader, I visited the Business Name Search page of the Oakland County, Michigan government website, and plugged "May Writers Group" into the Business Name box. I clicked on the resulting link, and here's what came up:

Business Name/Address:
MAY WRITERS GROUP, 32667 HAVERFORD, FRANKLIN, MI 48025

File Date: 06/15/2007

Expires On: 06/14/2012

Oakland County File Number: 200704543

Type: Assumed Name

Owners:
First Name: ROONEY
Last Name: MICHELE


There you have it.

This is the first time we know of that Ms. Rooney has used an actual alias. It's not, however, the first time she has changed the name of her business. If you plug her name into the Owner Name box on the search page, a whole slew of registered businesses comes up:

- CREATIVE CONCEPTS LITERARY AGE (File Date: 02/02/1998. End Date: 02/02/2003)
- CREATIVE EDITING SVC (File Date: 07/02/1998. End Date: 07/01/2003)
- CREATIVE LITERARY AGENCY (File Date: 12/03/1998. End Date: 12/02/2003)
- MAY WRITERS GROUP (File Date: 06/15/2007. End Date: 06/14/2012)
- SIMPLY NONFICTION (File Date: 11/12/2004. End Date: 11/11/2009)


Missing from this roster is the Michele Glance Rooney Literary Agency, which is the name most often associated with the complaints we've received over the past couple of years, and, interestingly, the only one apart from May Writers' Group to have a website.

If anyone is wondering how agents make it onto WB's Thumbs Down list...well, this is a good demonstration. I'm off to update the list. Again.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- Agent Spam: May Writers' Group

Over the past couple of weeks, Writer Beware has heard from a number of writers who've received out-of-the-blue email solicitations from a literary agency called May Writers' Group. The emails aren't all identical, but here's a typical one:

Hi [writer's name],

Hope you're having a wonderful day!

You impress us as a very talented, imaginative and ambitious writer -- just the kind of writer we love to represent. May Writers' Group is a world-class literary agency. We're currently looking for new talent.

Please e-mail us at maywritersgroup@aol.com and tell us what writing projects you currently have available for literary representation.

We're looking forward to hearing from you. Have a lovely day!

Sincerely,

The Submissons Department
May Writers' Group


So is this a legitimate solicitation?

Contrary to what many people believe, reputable literary agencies do sometimes approach writers directly (rather than the other way around). However, this is pretty rare, and usually happens as a result of published work, or, occasionally, writing posted on a blog or at a website. The contact will also be individual and specific. No reputable agency engages in a mass email campaign to drum up clientele.

Another red flag: beyond the several online discussions by writers who've gotten solicitations, no information on May Writers' Group can be found. Not all agencies court the publicity limelight, but a reputable literary agency will have a research footprint, and a "world class" literary agency will have a large research footprint. Try doing a websearch on Trident Media Group, for instance. There's no such thing as a stealth literary agency.

There's no way to tell whether May Writers' Group is a clueless startup with the wrong idea about building a client list, or an unscrupulous fee-charger looking for paying customers--but one thing is for sure: this is not a solicitation you should answer.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- Literary Agents for Poets?

Writer Beware hears from a lot of poets. Much of the time, they've either gotten mixed up with, or are inquiring about the legitimacy of, vanity anthology companies such as Poetry.com. Often, though, they have questions about agents. Is the brand-new agency with an interest in poets a good one to query? Is the agent who just asked for the entire manuscript of their poetry collection reputable? Is the representation offer they just received legit?

I've never yet been able to answer yes.

Listen up, poets. Apart from celebrity projects and writers who are already well-known, successful literary agents rarely represent poets. Even in the best of circumstances, poetry collections are a tough sell, and the poetry market, which is dominated by small presses, simply isn’t lucrative enough to make it worth most agents’ while. Poets generally get their start by selling individual poems to reputable markets. Once they've built up a track record, they can submit their collections to small publishers on their own.

Beware, therefore, of literary agents whose guidelines say they represent poets or that they're seeking poetry collections. Nearly always, they’re unscrupulous operators looking to charge a fee, or amateurs who know nothing about the realities of the business. Most have no track record of sales to paying publishers of any kind.

To many of you who read this blog, the above will be old news. Judging by the number of questions I get from poets seeking literary agents, however, for many writers it will be a news flash. I'm hoping that websearches will bring them here before they pay that $80 critique fee, or hand over that $250 submission fee, or are steered into a deal with an expensive vanity publisher.

For poets who have read this far, here are some helpful links:

- The top ten questions poets ask, from Poets & Writers.

- A comprehensive FAQ from the UK's Poetry Society.

- Poet Beware is my own article detailing some of the schemes and pitfalls poets may encounter.

- Thorough, commonsense advice on how to sell poetry, from published poet Neile Graham. This is one of the best resources I've ever found on this subject.

- Solid tips on writing and publishing poetry, from the Academy of American Poets.

- An article on how to submit poetry to literary magazines, from author and editor Charlie Hughes.

- A large list of poetry journals and presses, from the Poetry Society of America.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- News of the Weird: American Book Factory

Unbelievably, yet another author reality show has hung out an online shingle.

"A New Reality Show for Authors is Under Way!" announces American Book Factory. Taking inspiration from four titles--Coy Masters and The Earth Daughters of Zeus, Lethal Dose, Naseema's Secret, and A Tick on Shanana's Wedding Day! (a deer tick? Tick tock? Ticked off?)--four entire books will be co-written by teams of authors "competing for what could turn into a major book deal." Competitors must be "prepared to leave work, home, family...basically your life, for at least two months. Authors will have to reside at the American Book Factory studios in order to work together. Each author chosen for Season One will be paid a minimum of $10,000 for their input into the book."

Tempted by that $10,000, or perhaps the Big Brother scenario? Just dream up a one-page synopsis for any of the titles, paste it into the online entry form, and send it off into cyberspace for the chance to become a competitor. Unfortunately, if you'd like to know more before taking the plunge--who's judging, what the procedures and rules are, whether there are sponsors, whose brainchild this is--you're out of luck, because that information does not appear on American Book Factory's website. In fact, apart from the titles, there are no specifics at all.

Even Google is stumped. A search on the show's name turns up nothing but a cached version of the website that's slightly different from the current version. Domain registration information reveals that the site is registered to Fayeshawn Peavy of Dothan, AL. Of Ms. Peavy, all that can be discovered is that at one point she was looking for donations to help her write a book, and that she appears to sell vitamins on the Internet.

All in all, color me skeptical about the likelihood of seeing this latest author reality show on TV any time soon. In fact, it occurs to me that something like this might be a good way to get other people to give you book ideas.

Am I alone in being fascinated (and boggled) by the way this author reality show thing keeps popping up? Maybe so. At any rate, here's a rundown on the other author reality shows Writer Beware has learned about:

In the spring of 2005, the Book Millionaire author reality show sent out a call for competitors, inviting writers to submit video auditions. By March 2006, fifty finalist videos had been chosen, which, according to the show's guidelines, were to be reduced by viewer voting to ten or twelve (the videos are still archived online). Since then...silence. Clearly, this reality show is a no-show. (Writer Beware's take on Book Millionaire.)

Announced in the press in February 2007: the impending launch of a UK author reality show called "Bestsellers," hosted by industry insider Tony Cowell. According to the latest info I can find, the show, which was originally slated to air this summer, has been pushed back. No definite air date has been set. (Writer Beware's take on Bestsellers.)

The Ultimate Author issued a casting call for June 16th, 2007. June 16th has come and gone, and the show's website dubs the casting call "a big success"--but according to the website's Casting Call page, the date has been pushed back, or else a new casting call has been scheduled, for November 2007. Hmmm. Like Book Millionaire, which originally aspired to network TV, The Ultimate Author appears to have resigned itself to the Internet; it now describes the show as "the first reality show specifically programmed for online viewing."(Writer Beware's take on The Ultimate Author.)