Sunday, December 28, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- Jones Harvest Publishing Redux

Okay, I know I said I wouldn't be posting again until after New Year's--but I'm sure you'll forgive me if I break that promise.

I've blogged before about vanity publisher Jones Harvest Publishing, whose business model's similarity to that of disgraced vanity publisher Airleaf is no accident, since Brien Jones, Jones Harvest's owner, is also one of Airleaf's founders (under its previous name, Bookman Marketing). I've blogged a number of times about Airleaf, too.

Well, Brien Jones is currently not a happy camper. He's furious with Bonnie Kaye, whose efforts on behalf of Airleaf victims were instrumental in enabling the Indiana Attorney General to bring suit against Airleaf, and who has also begun collecting complaints about Jones Harvest. He has excoriated her in posts like this one on the Jones Harvest blog, accusing her of lying about the complaints she has received. He even persuaded a lawyer to send her a cease and desist letter (though the impact of this missive is somewhat diminished by the fact that the lawyer doesn't appear to understand the difference between slander and libel, as evidenced by this, from the letter's third paragraph: "The elements of slander are a false and unprivileged written publication..." Bzzt. Wrong. No biscuit).

Brien is not a man to be stingy with his ire. As much as he has lavished on Bonnie, there's enough left over for me, Lee Goldberg (who has blogged about Jones Harvest ), and Julie Neidlinger (who hasn't blogged about Jones Harvest, as far as I can tell, but who did once blog about Airleaf). See for yourself, in this excerpt from his latest anti-Bonnie post:

I also understand cowardly women like Victoria Strauss, Julie Neidlinger and Lee Goldberg and their lies. After all they’re not saying anything bad — just repeating what they were told. And what do you know! They all have their own publishing companies too! I won’t say which publishing companies...but you can figure it out in less than 30 seconds yourself.

Unfortunately, a few of Brien's facts are, well, not exactly factual. Writer/producer Lee Goldberg was understandably quite surprised to discover that he has been transformed not just into a publishing CEO, but a woman. I imagine that writer/artist Julie Neidlinger might be equally bewildered by her sudden elevation to publisher. As for me, I'm certain I'm not just having a senior moment when I completely fail to recall ever owning, heading, or even working for a publishing company.

Hmmm. I guess there's a reason why Brien dare not speak these publishing companies' names. Kind of puts a different spin on the whole lying thing, eh?

Here's Bonnie's response to Brien on the Jones Harvest Fraud Victims blog.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Happy Holidays

To all our wonderful readers, subscribers, and followers--thanks for visiting us this year, and we look forward to seeing you next year as well. Have a happy and peaceful holiday season, and we'll be back with new blog posts in January 2009!

- The Writer Beware Team

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- Letter to a Desperate Author

Dear Desperate Author,

Once again, you sent me an email solicitation to buy your recently self- or small press-published novel. Perhaps you used Media Eblast or a similar spam generator, or hired one of those fake marketing services that prey on desperate authors just like you. Perhaps you crafted the email all on your own. Because it's the holidays and the world is spiraling ever farther into economic crisis, you may have suggested that books make good gifts, so I should buy yours.

What I want to know is, what made you think that the email address for a website called "Writer Beware" was appropriate to solicit? I mean, for one thing, there's that word, "Beware." Why would you imagine that the folks at a website that's all about Bewares, especially writing-related Bewares, would be receptive to a buy-my-book spam? (Of course, scammers also solicit Writer Beware, so I guess it's not that much of a deterrent.)

Another thing. If you aren't just spamming blindly, and actually know something about me or Writer Beware, you may also be aware of my opinion of bulk email as a promotional strategy. You may even know that I have a particular loathing for Media Eblast. Which would make your buy-my-book spam even less appropriate and even more annoying than it would otherwise be. (And if this is news to you, I guess you are spamming blindly. Naughty, naughty.)

Also, do you really think that spamming--even targeted spamming--is an effective way to drum up sales for your book? I mean, really? I've got news for you--it's not. No one buys a book because they got an email solicitation from someone they never heard of. Most people will respond as I did, and hit the delete button. (For your sake, I hope you didn't pay someone a lot of money to irritate me in this way.)

One last suggestion. Proofread your damn spams. A thriller is not a "triller." It's "heart-rending," not "heart-rendering." Apostrophes should not randomly adorn plurals and possessives, but should decorate only contractions. Yes, I'm a stickler for this stuff, and I'm not alone. You don't enhance your credibility with typos, grammatical errors, or malapropisms. (Again, I really hope you did not pay anyone to make these mistakes on your behalf.)

Desperate Author, I don't mean to be unsympathetic. I understand your desperation--heck, all authors are fairly desperate these days, no matter who their publishers are. I know you may be spamming me not because you really think I'll buy your book and give it to my Great-Aunt Edna for Christmas, but because it distracts you from your desperation by giving you the illusion of being pro-active. But trust me--you need to stop. Seriously. Because it's not doing you any good, and no one loves a spammer. Not even at the holidays.

Sincerely,

- Victoria

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- Subscriptions and Solicitations

I'm often asked whether it's worth an aspiring writer's money to subscribe to Writer's Digest. The answer I usually give is "maybe."

The features can be helpful (disclosure: Ann and I have written for Writer's Digest)--though principally for beginners--and the interviews can be interesting. However, the articles and filler pieces often seem superficial, the advertising is heavily oriented toward paid "services" including self-publishing services, and the Classifieds section is rife with ads for vanity anthology contests and scam literary agents (a number of whom are on Writer Beware's Thumbs Down Agency List). Not exactly helpful for writers are looking to break into the commercial publishing market.

Simply filling its pages with self-publishing advertisements is not enough for Writer's Digest. Its subscriber base, after all, provides a perfect captive audience for direct solicitation. The following was recently received by a WD subscriber who'd signed up for email "updates" from WD (my bolding):

As part of Writer's Digest's commitment to presenting our subscribers with useful information on new products, services, and educational programs for aspiring and professional writers, we want to share the following paid message from one of our advertisers.

It's been an exciting year for Trafford Publishing and 2009 is shaping up to be even better for authors who wish to publish their books independently. Never before have the advantages of Trafford Publishing's print-on-demand publishing service been more obvious: no inventory fees, no costly return credits, and the ability to order and ship just as many copies as are needed are just three of the ways POD is changing the way books are being published now and in the future. Trafford authors own 100% of their copyright and set their own book prices, giving them the freedom they need to target their specific markets. Interested in learning more?

Call us today at 1-888-232-4444 and ask to speak to one of our friendly publishing consultants.


There's more, but you get the picture.

Now, Trafford is a perfectly reliable, if somewhat expensive, print-on-demand self-publishing service. Writer Beware has gotten no recent complaints about it. However, it has in the past used questionable methods to promote its services, such as offering a 15% referral fee to literary agents who sent writers its way. So that it would direct-solicit the WD subscription base isn't really a surprise--nor, given the percentage of WD's advertising that's represented by self-publishing services, is it really surprising that WD would be OK with this. What crosses the line, for me, is WD's introduction, which reads a lot like an endorsement. It's one thing to sell your subscriber list. It's another to lend your name to the resulting solicitation.

Solicitation of writers by scam agents and vanity publishers is nothing new, of course. Long before the Internet and email, they were using not just magazine subscription lists, but information from the US Copyright Office, to lure writers into their clutches. They still are. If you register copyright for your book manuscript, be prepared to be solicited by Dorrance, a hugely expensive vanity publisher that wants to charge you five figures to print a few hundred copies of your book. (This is just one of several reasons not to register copyright for unpublished work.)

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- Why You Shouldn't Write for Essay Mills

I get a fair number of questions from writers wondering whether essay mills are legitimate freelance markets. My response: Caveat writer. Big time.

What's an essay mill? A website where customers can buy term papers, research papers, and/or dissertations, and writers can (theoretically) be paid for writing them. There are scores of these sites online--EssayWriters.net, Eduwriters.com, BigPapers.com, Buyaresearchpaper.com, 4termpapers.com, Custom-Writing.org, to name just a few. Sometimes, a single company will own multiple URLs.

Essay mills advertise for writers online or in venues like Craigslist, promising easy work and good pay. Some, such as Essaywriters.net, even claim to offer bonuses. Especially if you're an aspiring writer looking to build credits, you might be tempted. But there are reasons to think twice--and then to think again.

- It can be a pain in the ass. Many essay mills, such as Academia-Research.com, promise writers flexible schedules and the ability to pick and choose which orders they take. The flip side of this is that they typically allow purchasers to demand almost unlimited editing and revision. For instance, Customwrittenpapers.net promises "free unlimited revisions." And StandOutEssay.com, in its pitch to customers, describes its process thus: "Normally, the process starts with regular research, continues with planning, crafting a rough draft and then writing, re-writing, and editing until the customized paper meets your expectations."

What this means for writers: anything you write may come back to you multiple times for changes and revision (and remember, your customer will be a student too lazy to write his or her own research paper, who very likely knows way less than you do about the subject of the essay). This is time for which you get no extra money, because you're usually being paid on a per-page or flat fee basis. Hour by hour, what looks like attractive pay can work out to a pittance.

- You could lose copyright. Some essay mills claim copyright on all papers written for them--essentially, it's work-for-hire. Given that you're writing for others and may never want to use the work yourself, this may not be a big concern for you--still, it's something to be aware of.

- Payment is not guaranteed. Complaints about essay mills abound, most centering on money. Writers report slow payment, non-payment, and non-communication when they question or complain. Here's a typical nonpayment complaint involving Essaywriters.net. These nonpayment complaints focus on Academia-Research.com.

(Customers also report bad dealings--Scamessays.com and Essayscam.org are just two of several websites devoted to discussing customer problems with essay mills. I have no sympathy. As cheaters, it's only cosmic justice if they get cheated themselves.)

- It won't count as a pro writing credit. Many sites claim to customers that their writers are BA's and PhD's, but in practice, they are likely to be much less selective. You yourself may turn out an impeccable research paper, but you'll be working alongside a lot of people whose writing isn't up to professional standards, or who aren't above borrowing their source material from someone else (many of the complaints at Essayscam.org involve papers written by people whose first language clearly wasn't English, or papers later discovered to be partially or wholly plagiarized). More than that--although they aren't illegal, essay mills are widely recognized as disreputable. Which brings me to my final--and most important--point:

- It's ultra-sleazy. Your customers will be college and high school students too lazy to write their own papers. Essay mills don't want you to believe this, of course, and try to dodge such criticism by claiming that the papers they provide are only templates on which the students can model their own work, or that they're providing academic resources the students can cite in footnotes, or that they don't condone cheating and instruct their customers not to use the essays dishonestly.

Here's a typical disclaimer, from Bigpapers.com's terms of sale: "Custom written papers by BigPapers.com are to be used for research purposes only...BigPapers.com does not endorse nor tolerates any form of whole or partial plagiarism or any activity that will facilitate cheating." Or from Custom-Writing.org's Terms and Conditions: "Custom-Writing.org presents a prototype work that is intended to be used for further research." OxbridgeEssays.com, which claims to hire only students or graduates of Oxford and Cambridge, explains itself thus: "Our service is dedicated to supplying model answers to client’s academic questions, and in this we consider our work no different at all from private tutors who guide students to the model way of answering a question, often by writing-out such an answer just as we do." They also claim to "strictly require of our clients that they never submit our work as their own." I'm sure their customers treat that stricture with the respect it deserves.

My favorite is the evocatively-named EssayCheat.net's delightfully weaselly rationale for why using its service is not, in fact, cheating:

Take, for example, a lecturer who sets a nice easy essay question: ‘Who was John F Kennedy?’. Most students will use Google to search for initial information on this topic and they will find some 7.6 million answers to their question. The process of reading through these answers is not cheating. However - if the student takes one of the answers and hands it in, passing it off as their own work, then without doubt, they are cheating. In fact, there are many more subtle ways they could use their material to cheat - rewording a website they found, rearranging words, citing the source but relying too heavily on the material - and so on. But they could also use the material as a guide and write their own, original answer to the question set. In the same way, a student who orders a custom essay can use the essay as a guide and can write their own original answer to the question that has been set for them. They can even do their own research.

Uh huh. But if they could do their own research, they wouldn't need to buy a paper, now would they?

Disclaimers are all very well. But the bottom line is that people who buy from these services are not looking for templates or footnote material or guidance--they are paying others to do work they should be doing themselves, and passing that work off as their own. Essay mills are almost universally condemned--and not just by colleges and universities whose harried instructors fight ongoing battles against plagiarism and cheating (see, for instance, Plagiarized.com). In 2007, Google banned ads from paper-writing services, adding essay mills to its blacklist of unacceptable ad content, which includes, among others, ads for anabolic steroids, ads for escort services, and ads for illegal drugs and drug paraphenalia.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- Publishing's Week of Gloom

Last week was not a good one along Publishers' Row.

- Random House USA announced a major reorganization, laying off staff, consolidating imprints, and axing the heads of two of its largest groups.

- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which previously suffered firings, staff departures, and a temporary freeze on acquisitions (though there are indications that the freeze may be more of a slushy than an ice cube), announced massive staff layoffs (probably in the hundreds) as part of sweeping reorganization plans aimed at streamlining its K-12 publishing divisions.

- Simon & Schuster eliminated 35 positions. PW reports that "the cuts came in all areas of the company, including S&S’s publishing divisions, operations and sales departments and international division."

- Thomas Nelson initiated the second round of job cuts this year, laying off 54 workers--approximately 10% of its workforce.

- Penguin Group announced that it would freeze pay raises for staff earning $50,000 or £30,000 or more.

- HarperCollins will defer all raises until after July 1, 2009.

One major exception: the Hachette Group, home of the Stephanie Meyers juggernaut, not only doesn't appear to be laying anyone off, but plans to give bonuses to every employee in the company.

All of this is certainly grim news. No doubt the coming weeks will bring more. Still, given the atmosphere of dread bred by daily reports of economic chaos, I can't help wondering how much of the rush to slash staff and expense is driven by actual planning for the future, and how much by simple fear. In an article about the staff cuts, the New York Times notes that according to Nielsen Book Scan, book sales are actually up slightly through the third quarter of 2008. Will they fall precipitously enough in October, November, and December to make the retrenchment frenzy look timely rather than panicked? The fourth quarter figures will tell the tale.

I also wonder whether all the downsizing and cost-cutting will have any impact on advance bloat. I've seen discussion over the past few months to suggest that midlisters have been feeling advance contraction for some time--but that's not where it needs to happen. It's the over-hyped debut novels, the celebrity children's books, the fad-of-the-moment projects where there needs to be some scaling back. And how about cutting lists? While it seems crazy to put a hold on acquisitions altogether, as at HMH, there are far too many books being published. The publishing industry has been shedding jobs since the 1980's, when the conglomeration trend began, yet the number of books published has continued to rise. This logic-defying trend damages authors--who must struggle for visiblity in an overcrowded marketplace--and publishers, which toss out books like spaghetti, hoping that at least some will stick to the wall.

The news isn't bad for all segments of publishing. TeleRead reports that US wholesale ebook sales soared in the third quarter of 2008. Even with steady increases over the past few years, ebook sales numbers are still a tiny fraction of p-book sales numbers--but it's an interesting trend.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

I Had a Dream...

Hi, folks!

Hope everyone had a nice Thanksgiving.

Last week I had a dream that made Victoria laugh out loud when I told her about it, so I thought I'd share it with you. I've never before had a Writer Beware dream...this was a first.

I dreamed that I read an announcement in my local paper saying that Agent X, whom I recognized as a notorious scammer, would be teaching a "how to write fiction and get it published" class at my local college. I was furious, and nobody at the college would believe me that this guy was a scam agent and publisher. You know how dreams are...I seemed to spend hours hunting for people who could help, with my feet encased in lead, only to be told that no, the class would go on, and did I want to sign up for it?

So I decided to go underground, and sign up for the class. I appeared in class the first day, and it was exactly what I had expected...Agent X gave some very generalized comments about writing, then began pitching his bogus "literary agency" at the attendees, who were, in typical desperate newbie fashion, only too eager to sign up and pay him money for worthless services.

As the hapless class members queued up, checkbooks and credit cards in hand, I slowly rose to my feet. In true superhero fashion, I metaphorically ripped open my blouse and ID'd myself as the Chair of Writer Beware. As I did so, Agent X's face twisted with hatred into a gargoyle mask. The students shrank back. I told the students to go to Writer Beware and read how to avoid scuzzy fake agents. I climbed atop my desk and waved my copy of Writer Beware's impressive printout of our "questionables" list (which contains over 300 questionable agencies, both living and now out of business -- because fake agencies, like vampires, do tend to Rise from the Grave) and told my fellow students that their so-called instructor was on it. Gasps of consternation ran around the classroom. (This is where you can tell it was MY dream. In real life, newbie writers would have reacted with expressions of "Huh?")

Raging, the instructor strode out. My fellow students cheered me.

But wait! There's more!

I left the classroom and headed for my vehicle. The parking lot was deserted and dark. Suddenly I heard a squeal of wheels, and I saw Agent X, still with his gargoyle mask of fury, behind the wheel of a white pickup truck. He gunned the truck towards me. I tried to jump aside, but he hit me, and I rolled to the pavement.

I "lost time" then, in true dream fashion. When things resumed, I had casts on both arms and legs. I was hobbling on crutches. But I was determinedly heading back for Round Two, the second class.

When I got back into class (I was late because of my crutches) I found the instructor happily collecting money from the students who were signing up to "publish" their books with his vanity press. I went ballistic. I did another rant, pointing out that X Publishing could not get their books onto the shelves in bookstores, that they were being charged not only for publishing, but for all kinds of "extras" like editing, etc. I rose to heights of eloquence never before seen, waving my crutches in the air for emphasis.

Agent X's face underwent its gargoyle transformation again! This time, instead of hurling himself out the door, he hurled himself straight at me, and bore my plaster-encased self to the floor. He locked his hands around my throat and began strangling me, raving aloud about how he thought he'd killed me when he hit me with his pickup.

Fortunately my fellow students rallied, and pulled him off me. THIS time I had witnesses to the attack! They called the police, and he was led away in handcuffs, charged with two counts of attempted murder (because my fellow students had overheard his confession of trying to run me down). I stood there, ruffled and plastered, but grinning exultantly, because I knew he was going to go to the hoosegow for a good long time.

Just before the cops dragged him out the door, he shouted, "And I would have got away with it, too, if it wasn't for Writer Beware!" in true Scooby-Doo fashion.

But this was actually a weirdly REALISTIC Writer Beware dream. Because the next image in the dream was of me staring glumly at the letter from the college to the students of the writing class. Since "Agent X" had become "unavailable" the letter said, they had hired "Agent Z" to teach the remainder of the class.

You guessed it. Agent Z was ALSO on Writer Beware's Thumbs Down List of Questionables.

The name of the game is "Whackamole," my friends.

Happy holidays, everyone!

-Ann C. Crispin
Chair, Writer Beware