Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- Wake Up and Pay: Yet Another Vanity Scheme

Most of us are familiar with inspirational series like Chicken Soup for the Soul, A Cup of Comfort, and Chocolate. Along with articles by celebrities and established writers, many of these series actively solicit articles and stories by unknowns.

Take, for instance, the Wake Up...Live the Life You Love series, compiled by Steven E. and Lee Beard. According to Amazon, there are currently eleven books in the series, the most recent of which came out this summer. They cover subjects like Giving Gratitude, Finding Personal Freedom, and A Search for Purpose, and include contributions from such luminaries as Dr. Wayne Dyer, Tony Robbins, and Deepak Chopra. Unknown writers are also encouraged to submit and become "co-authors." Proclaims the website: "You have a story to tell and here is your chance to get your message to the world!"

There are a few jarring notes, however.

For one thing, many of the Wake Up books have Amazon sales rankings of 1 million and higher...not really what you'd expect for a series touted on its covers as "Best-Selling." For another, there's a peculiar proliferation of websites for the series. In addition to the one I've already mentioned, there's this one, this one, this one, and this one, all with similar URLs, and also this one, which appears to be an earlier version. These websites seem less oriented to finding readers than to soliciting writers, in language distressingly reminiscent of late-night infomercials. "For the first time ever you can get the Insider Secrets of How to Get Fame and Fortune as a Published Author!" one of the websites exclaims. According to another, "With Wake Up Live's Team Publishing Concept, you can achieve the ultimate credential that will propel your life and business to new heights by being a best selling co-author in this amazing program!" Enthuses yet another, "Wouldn’t it be great to get Instant Credibility™ with your clients and customers as a co-author?"

So what's the deal?

As most of our readers will have figured out, it involves money. You send in your 1,000-1,200 word story or article (don't worry if you can't write--"expert editors" are on hand to help you, for a fee, of course). Once your story is complete and submitted, the Wake Up Live team "does the publishing in record time" and "promotes your book to the best seller list making you a best-selling co-author." All you have to do is agree to buy 200 books for $2,697 ("When you sell your books," the website assures you, "you will receive $2,990.00 in sales, not to mention the benefit to your business or career"). That's the Gold Program. If you're feeling flush, you can spring for the VIP Platinum Program, and buy 500 books for $5,497 ($7,475.00 in sales). For the extra bucks, you get your name on the cover.

(This makes me think of those vanity anthology schemes where the anthology is customized for each purchaser by binding his or her poem or story into the front--often in different type or on different paper from the rest of the volume. For the amount the Wake Up people are getting, one hopes they do things a bit more professionally.)

The Wake Up folks don't just take writers' money--they also give them the chance to earn, via an Ambassador Affiliate Program. Affiliates invite their friends and acquaintances to submit to the series. For successful referrals, they get a commission--and it's a fat commission, too. Persuade up to four people to buy into the scheme, and you'll receive $250 or $500 per person (I'm guessing the amount depends on which plan the person chooses). Talk five or more people into laying down their cash, and you'll get $500 or $1,000 apiece.

This surely explains why the writer who alerted me to the Wake Up scheme got this out of the blue solicitation to submit to the series. He can probably expect to receive two more solicitations in short order. Affiliates are given three different email templates, which, "for best results," they're advised to send within a one-week period.

Oh, and the emails don't mention the commissions.

So now I guess we know how the Wake Up books became bestsellers. (Check out the weasel wording here, "Over 12 million stories in print," which overeager writers might misread or misremember as "Over 12 million books in print.") We've also learned a new euphemism for vanity publishing (as if we needed one): Team Publishing.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- A New Agent Blog (Not)

Blogs by and about literary agents are legion. Another one seems to pop up every week. Take, for example, the brand-new Literary Agent News, which launched in October.

According to its little self-description, Literary Agent News provides "Literary Agent profiles, industry news, top agents for every fiction and non-fiction category." The blogger is anonymous--his or her profile reveals only that s/he is in the publishing industry and located in New York--but that's not terribly unusual. The agent "profiles" featured on the blog provide names and addresses, but little other useful information--but hey, bloggers come in all shapes and sizes, including those who pad their blogs with puffery as a method of self-promotion.

And some self-promotion can be pretty sneaky.

In Literary Agent News's October archive, there's a series of Top Agent lists. Young adult novels, business books, memoirs, mysteries, romance--there's a Top Agent list for them all. While these lists do (mostly) include reputable agents, they are not particularly accurate. To take just one example, the list for science fiction agents omits most of the people who arguably are top SF agents, and includes others who don't appear ever to have sold any SF--such as Randi Murray, an established agent whose submission guidelines specifically exclude science fiction.

The lists also recycle names. A lot. Anne Hawkins appears on the Mystery, Horror, and Young Adult lists. Victoria Gould Pryor appears on the True Crime, Literary Fiction, Travel, and Romance lists. Jennifer Dechiara appears on the Horror, Mystery, Literary Fiction, Memoirs, and Romance lists (but not the Young Adult list, despite the fact that she specializes in children's and YA books). Michele Glance Rooney appears on the Mystery, Fantasy, Young Adult, Business, and Romance lists.

Hold on a sec. Michele Glance Rooney?

Writer Beware readers will recognize Michele as a fee-charging agent featured on our Thumbs Down Agency List. She's notorious for direct-soliciting writers, and also for name changes--since 2002, she has done business as Creative Literary Agency, Creative Concepts Literary Agency, Simply Nonfiction, Michele Glance Rooney Literary Agency, and most recently, before being exposed, as May Writers' Group. To our knowledge, she has never sold a book to a commercial publisher. Not one. Ever.

So what's a fee-charger with no track record doing in the august company of agents like Theresa Park, Noah Lukeman, and Daniel Lazar? The same thing your face might be doing on Mount Rushmore if you had a yen for a gag photo and a knack with Photoshop--except you wouldn't be expecting anyone to seriously believe you'd been memorialized on the side of a mountain. Michele must be hoping that people doing websearches on the agents on her lists will find the lists, see her name there, and assume she has been designated a "top" agent by some independent authority. In fact, this is exactly how the blog was found by the Writer Beware reader who alerted me to it.

Michele is no stranger to fake blogging, by the way--she has tried it before. She is also currently blogging using her own name (and an interesting description of her business background).

There's a larger moral to this story than exposing the inept attempts of one questionable literary agent to boost her reputation by fake blogging. Never take Internet-based literary agent listings at face value. They may have been put together by someone without the proper expertise--or, as in this case, they may conceal a nefarious agenda. Even if you are absolutely certain of the credentials of the person who has compiled the list, do some extra research, because bad agents can slip in despite the best efforts even of knowledgeable people. And if the list is anonymous, forget it. Like Literary Agent News, it's probably not there to help you.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Ann Crispin -- Writer Beware Welcomes New Team Member

Hi, Friends:

Well, it's been a difficult year for me, but I have one thing to be very thankful for--we have a new Writer Beware team member! His name is Richard White, and he's a SFWA member. He's spent the last six months or so "apprenticing" and getting up to speed on Writer Beware matters, and he's now ready to fly solo, I assure you. Rich will be helping out when Victoria and I are unavailable, and we're still trying to think of ways to transfer some of the email volume to him. In addition, he'll be available to answer questions from folks here on the blog, and on message boards. He'll be taking on projects of his own as they crop up.

And, no doubt, he'll soon win the ultimate "accolade" for a Writer Beware team member--having some agent get foaming at the mouth mad at him, and bluster online. Fun and games!

Seriously, it's great to have another team member. Rich will also be helping us by serving on panels at s.f. and fantasy conventions. So many aspiring writers have first encountered Writer Beware via panels at conventions.

So please join me in welcoming Rich!

-Ann C. Crispin
Chair, Writer Beware

I asked Rich to give you a little background on himself, and here's what he sent me.

*****************

Hi, I'm Rich White, the newest member of Writer Beware. I'm a fairly new novelist but I've been following the workings of Writer Beware for a while now. I joined SFWA two years ago and offered my services to Writer Beware earlier this spring.

One of the things I think I bring to WB besides a lot of enthusiasm and tenacity (both of which are definitely needed for this job) is 15+ years training as an Analyst in the Military. I hope to be able to help Victoria and Ann spot trends that we see in the database as well as noting when things are "a little too quiet". I'm also a tech writer at my day job, so doing formal papers and reports is definitely up my alley.

As I said, I'm fairly new at the writing gig, but I do have one novel (Gauntlet Dark Legacy: Paths of Evil), a novella (Star Trek: Starfleet Corps of Engineers #63 "Echoes of Coventry"), and a few short stories under my belt. I do not currently have an agent, but I'm certainly taking advantage of the information at Writer Beware as well as other sites like Preditors and Editors before I send out my queries.

As I joked with Ann at Capclave, right now, I see myself as the gofer for the team right now, but I expect to take on more responsibilities as I get more comfortable with the mission. I look forward to working with some of you and for all of you in the future.

Rich
Website: www.nightwolfgraphics.com/
Blog: nightwolfwriter.livejournal.com/

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- Lessons for Self-Publishers

The media loves self-publishing success stories. They make excellent human interest articles, feeding as they do into the American dream of entrepreneurial achievement, the rags-to-riches certainty that you can come from nothing and yet attain everything. A recent example: the $2.5 million sale of Brunonia Barry's self-pubbed debut novel to William Morrow, which has garnered a lot of press and spawned a flurry of blog posts. (Scratch a self-publishing success story, though, and you usually find a special circumstance of some sort--this article enumerates some of the advantages Barry had that most self-pubbed authors don't.)

Self-publishing advocates love self-publishing success stories too, because they appear to support the advocates' view that self-publishing is a viable alternative to "traditional" publishing. There's a long list of such stories at John Kremer's Self-Publishing Hall of Fame. However, some of the stories are apocryphal--like the myth that John Grisham self-published his first book (Kremer acknowledges that this is false, but includes Grisham anyway, on the grounds that Grisham was "actively involved in promoting his first novel")--while others are misleading--starting out with an established epublisher, as Mary Janice Davidson did, is not exactly equivalent to self-publishing--and still others are irrelevant--you can't really compare a pamphlet printed by Thomas Paine in 1776 to the activities of modern self-publishers such as Richard Paul Evans. (For more debunking, see this blog entry by writer Jim C. Hines.)

And of course, there are the shills trying to make a buck on the writerly pipe dreams that inevitably result from this kind of hype. Buy a marketing package from Fred Gleeck Productions for $97, for instance, and you can learn How To Self-Publish Your Own Book, Get Famous, and Make Well Over $250,000 per Year. Or if you don't want to spend that much, you can order Self-Publishing Success Secrets 101 from Bob Baker for just $11.95 ("Ideal for Newcomers and First-Time Authors"). The Internet is crammed with stuff like this.

I have nothing against self-publishing. In certain very specific circumstances, it can make a lot of sense, and for writers who have direct access to their audiences, it can be more profitable than commercial publishing. However, the people for whom self-publishing is right, and the people who parlay self-publishing into major success, are vastly outnumbered by everyone else.

You don't often see coverage of this in the media. Here's an exception, from the Wall Street Journal: "Writing the Book on Self-Help: A Publisher's Cautionary Tale." It's the story of C. Ben Bosah, who was certain his wife's nonfiction book about women's health was a bestseller in the making, and, unwilling to share the profits, decided to publish it himself. Unfortunately, his ignorance of the publishing industry led him to make a number of basic mistakes, from failing to line up a distributor, to neglecting to solicit pre-publication reviews, to disregarding the advice of experts and ordering too many books. Over the course of a year and a half, he has managed to recoup his $40,000 investment--but to do so has required more than 2,500 hours of his time.

Despite the problems and the errors, the book has done pretty well for a self-published title. Less than half the original order of 15,000 books has been sold, but that still means sales of several thousand, figures that might well interest a literary agent or a commercial publisher. Perhaps, ultimately, the book will find a commercial home. But for would-be self-publishers, there are a couple of lessons to take away from Mr. Bosah's experience. First, the importance of knowing something about publishing before deciding to become a publisher, even if your only client is yourself; and second, the incredible amount of time and energy self-publishers must expend in order to have even a hope of breaking even. These are things the self-publishing boosters and the Internet shills often forget to mention, as they're encouraging your starry-eyed dreams of publishing entrepreneurship.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Agents and Publishing in Film and Television...Ahem

Hi, Folks:

I went to see the film made from David Gerrold's story "The Martian Child" last week. As I'm a diehard John Cusack fan, I enjoyed it. I also have known David for years, so I was curious about how his story would translate to film.

The story itself translated pretty well, I thought. But Hollyweird did its usual number in presenting the main character's life as a writer, and his relationship with his agent and publisher. (In a word: unrealistic.)

As Michael and I left the theater, it suddenly occurred to me that Hollywood is at least partially to blame for the inordinate numbers of aspiring writers that are scammed by literary agents and publishers these days. The agents and publishers shown on the silver screen bear little to no resemblance to the way it really is, and that helps create a lot of confusion in the public perception.

In "The Martian Child," the writer, "David Gordon," has a close personal relationship with his literary agent. The agent comes over to his house frequently, they play golf together, they go out to dinner every few weeks, etc. And, of course, this high-powered agent lives in the same town where David the writer lives. The agent continually begs David the writer to let him read a bit of what he's working on, giving the impression that if David handed him manuscript, he'd plop down on the curb without moving another step and read it then and there.

Ahem.

This is hardly an isolated instance of Hollywood's skewed portrayal of the publishing industry. Remember Romancing the Stone with Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas? At the end of the movie, we see Kathleen Turner's romance writer character sitting in her editor's office, having just brought in the ms. for her new book. The editor is reading the last page of the ms., and crying like a wee infant. The editor looks up, eyes brimming with tears, and tells her writer that she's wonderful, the story is wonderful, it's the best thing she's ever read, etc., etc.

Ahem. Ahem.

Need I tell you sophisticated folks who read this blog that these kinds of things are completely unrealistic? My agent and I have certainly shared meals on many occasions (I've been with her since 1984). We even went horseback riding at my house together on one notable occasion. But I'm a longtime client, and we get along well together, and always have. Still I suspect I could count on the fingers of one hand the social (not business) interactions we've shared in the 23 years of our association.

I believe that Hollywood's distorted portrayal of agents and publishers inadvertently softens up aspiring writers, making them vulnerable to the blandishments of scammers. Imagine a writer who knows nothing about how things work in publishing (and hasn't done a speck of research, of course). This writer may have submitted her book to a real agent or two, almost by acccident, only to receive cold form-letter rejections. Then our writer queries Bouncin' Bobby or Cris Robins or Leanne Murphy or any experienced fee-charging bottom-feeder. And voila! The writer is suddenly told, in the warmest, friendliest possible terms that her book has "promise," that the agent wants to "represent" it. Even if the scuzzball doesn't say it right out, the implications are clear: "I like you, I like your book, we're going to be good buddies and you're going to have a career, just like those writers you see on television and in the movies!!!"

No wonder they fall willingly into those fee-charging arms.

There's an old joke told among professional writers, one that aspiring writer types never "get." Seems there is a writer who has (typically) missed his important deadline for turning in his latest book. This writer comes home from yet another session of procrastinating, rather than writing, to find chaos surrounding his house. Police cars are slewed all over the road, fire trucks are pouring water on his burning roof, his wife has a black eye, his children are sobbing hysterically. The writer leaps from his car and races over to the nearest cop. "What happened?" he yells.

"Well, sir," says the officer, "it seems that your literary agent was here to talk to you about your missed deadline, and when you weren't home, he went ballistic. Punched out your wife, terrified your children, and then set fire to your house. He's still at large."

The writer stares at the officer, his mouth agape in incredulous shock. For a moment he can't even speak, then he whispers, "My agent...came...to MY HOUSE?"

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

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- Airleaf Update

I've blogged several times about vanity publisher/author "marketing" service/uber-spammer Airleaf Publishing and Book Selling (formerly Bookman Marketing): in July 2006, about its silly and factually inaccurate response to criticism by watchdog groups such as Writer Beware and Preditors & Editors; in January 2007 about its overpriced author cruise; and in August 2007 about its American Author Contest, an amateurish attempt to cash in on the current fad for American Idol-style writing contests. This post also takes a look at Airleaf's filmmaking "partner," Lite Stone Entertainment, all of whose supposed movie projects trace back to Airleaf's book-to-film program.

Over the years, Writer Beware has received complaints and advisories about Airleaf from writers annoyed by its relentless spamming, dissatisfied with its "marketing" services (I put "marketing" in quotes, because most of the services Airleaf offers are ineffective or downright useless--see my July 2006 post for a more detailed discussion), and unhappy with its publishing services. So we weren't entirely surprised to learn that a large group of angry Airleaf authors has gone public.

Airleaf Victims Fightback is a website organized by writer and relationship counselor Bonnie Kaye, who paid Airleaf $1,850 to publish her book. She tells her own story on the site, along with the stories of many other Airleaf authors who feel they've been ill-used by the company. Problems include the usual menu of questionable-publisher issues: non-payment of royalties, non-provision of paid-for services, substandard services, long publication delays, non-production of books, and nonresponsiveness to authors' questions and concerns.

Currently, there are more than 90 authors in Ms. Kaye's network.

Other Airleaf victims have taken independent action. This past May, the Indiana Attorney General's Office issued an Assurance of Voluntary Compliance requiring Airleaf to return nearly $7,000 to two authors, pay $1,000 in costs to the AG's office, and refrain from promising services, benefits, and timeframes it knows it can't provide or doesn't actually intend to sell.

The above is just the tip of the iceberg. There is much, much more to this story, which I hope I'll be able to tell in the coming weeks and months.

Also worth noting: former Airleaf CEO Brien Jones (who started his pay-to-publish career with AuthorHouse) left Airleaf earlier this year to form Jones Harvest Publishing, a virtual clone of Airleaf.

Bonnie Kaye's efforts have also been covered by Lee Goldberg at A Writer's Life and Angela Hoy at Writers Weekly.

Edited to add: Bonnie Kay also maintains an Airleaf Victims Blog, where regular updates are posted.