Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Victoria Strauss -- Thoughts on the S-word

Scam, that is.

Lately in the comments section of this blog, there's been an outbreak of the s-word. In some cases, people have falsely accused me of labeling the companies/individuals I discuss as scams. In others, people have jumped to the mistaken conclusion that a company or individual is a scam because of one or another of the questionable or nonstandard practices I've written about.

Let's look at the word itself. From Merriam-Webster:

Scam

1. Function: noun
Etymology: origin unknown
Date: 1963
i: a fraudulent or deceptive act or operation (an insurance scam)

2. Function: transitive verb
Inflected Form(s): scammed; scam·ming
Date: 1963
i: deceive , defraud
ii : to obtain (as money) by a scam


Based on these definitions, a literary scam can be defined as an operation that's deliberately designed to enrich its perpetrator by deceiving and defrauding writers.

Anyone who carefully reads what I and Ann write--here, on the Writer Beware website, in private correspondence, and at the several writers' message boards we frequent--will see that, outside of a general discussion such as this one, we are extremely judicious in applying the label "scam" or "scammer" to any company or individual. We do so only where there's solid justification, such as an indictment, a conviction, a lawsuit, or an official investigation (see, for instance, the Case Studies page of the Writer Beware website). Do we slip up sometimes? Sure. We're human. But those who know us know that "scam" is not a word we use lightly.

Why are we so careful? Well, there are legal considerations, of course. Applied inaccurately, such labels can be actionable. Just as important, however, is the fact that lousy business practices and stupid concepts and rank amateurism--as damaging as they may be to writers--don't necessarily add up to deliberate dishonesty. I'll say it again, with emphasis: Bad business practices do not a scammer make. By the same token, warning about such practices, or criticizing them, is not the same as calling them a scam.

The 700+ companies and individuals on which/whom Writer Beware has collected documentation fall into several categories.

- Clueless, amateur, and/or unqualified. Amateur agents, publishers, and editors represent the bulk of the complaints, advisories, and questions we receive. These people or companies are often very well-intentioned, but they have neither the professional experience nor the knowledge to qualify them to do what they're doing--and as a result, they often do it extremely badly. Many have business practices that are very similar to the scammers' (upfront fees, adjunct paid services that are hawked to clients), sometimes because they can't keep their businesses afloat without them, but often simply because they don't realize that these things aren't standard, or that they damage writers. Such companies or people are definitely worth steering clear of. But they are not scams or scammers.

- Not worth the money. Query blasting services, for instance. Or obscure literary contests with high entry fees. Or paid review services. Or vanity radio. Again, these things aren't scams. You get something for your money (such as it is). But they're not very effective, and thus not a good use of writers' cash.

- In the gray zone. Some agents or publishers are clearly racking up a tidy profit from the fees they charge or the things they require authors to pay for. But they provide sufficient delivery on their promises to make it hard to conclude whether they are deliberately deceptive money-making schemes, or in the gray area right next door--i.e., exploitive, but with a genuine intent to provide a service (with true fraud, there's no intent to provide service). We have a lot of these "gray" files, and we don't generally identify them as scams. Of course, you don't need to be sure something is a scam in order to know that it's better avoided. Unless you've chosen to work with a self-publishing company, the money should be flowing to you, not away.

- True scams. Agents who levy a fee for submissions, but don't send anything out. Publishers that present themselves as "traditional," but actually charge a fee. Editing services that maintain a literary agency or a contest as a front. Agencies that are fronts for vanity publishers. Such operations, which exist for the sole purpose of making money through deception, comprise the smallest percentage of complaints and reports we receive.

These are fine distinctions, and many people might argue that I'm splitting hairs. After all, none of the businesses that fall into the categories above are likely to be good for writers, and most of them deserve strong warnings, cautions, or criticism. Also, if you're exploiting writers with half-bad intent, how is that different, bottom line-wise, from exploiting them with 100% bad intent? But "scam" is a serious word, with a very specific meaning--and its application can have serious consequences. In my opinion, everyone--not just us at Writer Beware--should think very carefully before using it, either as an accusation or a label.

So before you accuse me of dubbing someone a scammer, take a look at what I've actually written. Before you leap to the conclusion that an agency or publisher is a scam because of the presence of a few bad business practices, take a look at the bigger picture. You may be right--but you could be wrong. Better, altogether, to be cautious.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Victoria Strauss -- Cacoethes Publishing to Some of its Authors: See Ya!

Last year, e/print publisher New Concepts Publishing stirred up some discussion by posting a Public Notice listing the names of authors whose contracts it was terminating. Previously, New Concepts had been the focus of a variety of complaints, including late payments, failure to fulfill publicity promises, failure to edit, and releasing material without authorization. There was some speculation that New Concepts was booting authors who had been vocal in their dissatisfaction.

Now it appears that e/print publisher Cacoethes Publishing--also the focus of author complaints (including complaints to Writer Beware about nonstandard contract terms)--has followed in New Concept's footsteps. Cacoethes authors recently received this press release:

Ms. Denise Mosley has officially disclosed the names of the authors whose contracts are being terminated by Cacoethes Publishing House. In a closed interview she stated

“I think this move is beneficial for both parties. As a small company, we are unable to meet some of the unrealistic expectations of many of these people. We wish them luck with their future endeavors. However, at this time we are uninterested in continuing a working relationship with them.”

The current list consists of the following authors:

[five authors' names and book titles redacted]

This is the start of many changed [sic] for the company, which officially opened its doors November 15, 2007. Ms. Mosley plans to make another round of cuts during the spring.

“I think it’s good to evaluate our working relationships and effect the necessary changes.”

When questioned regarding the Blogs / Statements posted online regarding the stability of the company and other issues Ms. Mosley stated,

“I do not feed into idle gossip or slander. Nothing on those sites is accurate except for my phone number…the parties who participated in those vicious, libelous chats will be dealt with via our legal representatives. If I place my focus on those issues instead of the tasks ahead of our company, then I’m not doing my job.”


Not much comfort, perhaps, for the authors who've found themselves so summarily and publicly booted. Ms. Mosley also seems to be ignoring the fact that one of the "blogs" on which the statements appear is the guestbook of her own website.

This story has also been covered by EREC.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Victoria Strauss -- Facebook TOS Controversy

The blogosphere and the Twitterverse have been abuzz over the past few days with news of a change in the Terms of Service at Facebook. The old TOS ensured that the limited license that Facebook users grant to the company expired when user content was removed from the site. The new TOS eliminated that provision, making the license, in effect, perpetual.

The ensuing uproar (including some semi-hysterical misinterpretation, such as the notion that Facebook was claiming copyright on content), has been such that Facebook has now reversed its position, returning to the old TOS and inviting users to contribute ideas for a new revision.

The issues that caused the uproar are presented in detail in this post from the excellent Plagiarism Today blog. The author also notes something that I think is important:

I’ve noticed over the years that sites have become more and more aggressive about giving themselves rights in their TOS. Users, for the most part, haven’t noticed as the TOSs have grown in length and given the various sites new rights. This is especially true of all “user-generated content” sites.

Facebook’s license may be worrisome but it is far from alone and, in general, there has been little public interest in doing anything about it.


Below is Facebook's license language.

When you post User Content to the Site, you authorize and direct us to make such copies thereof as we deem necessary in order to facilitate the posting and storage of the User Content on the Site. By posting User Content to any part of the Site, you automatically grant, and you represent and warrant that you have the right to grant, to the Company an irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license (with the right to sublicense) to use, copy, publicly perform, publicly display, reformat, translate, excerpt (in whole or in part) and distribute such User Content for any purpose, commercial, advertising, or otherwise, on or in connection with the Site or the promotion thereof, to prepare derivative works of, or incorporate into other works, such User Content, and to grant and authorize sublicenses of the foregoing. You may remove your User Content from the Site at any time. If you choose to remove your User Content, the license granted above will automatically expire, however you acknowledge that the Company may retain archived copies of your User Content. Facebook does not assert any ownership over your User Content; rather, as between us and you, subject to the rights granted to us in these Terms, you retain full ownership of all of your User Content and any intellectual property rights or other proprietary rights associated with your User Content.

As pointed out above, as sweeping as this seems, it's not unusual. Compare it, for instance, with the license in the Terms of Use for Associated Content (see Clause 4A). In fact, Facebook's license is better than some I've seen, in that it's restricted to the performance and promotion of the Facebook service itself ("on or in connection with the Site or the promotion thereof"), rather than extended to any purpose whatsoever. When assessing TOS, this kind of restriction is something to look for.

The moral of this story: always, always read the fine print. Know what you're getting into, and if language like that quoted above disturbs you, don't use the site.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Victoria Strauss -- Writing Oddities: Shortstoryofthemonth.com

As readers of this blog probably know, I'm always on the lookout for writing oddities (and by the way, I always appreciate it when people bring strange or wacky writing-related things to my attention). My latest find: Shortstoryofthemonth.com.

Shortstoryofthemonth.com, as its name implies, is a monthly ezine consisting of 3 stories per issue. According to the FAQ, stories are chosen by an unnamed "forum of executives", and "selected" writers who make the cut get a flat $100 per story (the FAQ says that writers keep copyright, but no other information about rights or contracts is provided). An annual "Best of" edition will be issued in print, with the chosen writers getting extra payment "depending on the success of the program and other factors."

But that's not all. Shortstoryofthemonth.com isn't just a chance for writers, it's an opportunity for readers too! "AN INSTANT AND PAINLESS SOURCE OF MONTHLY INCOME!" the website trumpets. "Are you looking for interesting, short stories by some of the best, [sic] new writers out there?? Are you looking for a justifiable source of monthly income?? We combine them into something never before seen!"

Well, I think we might have seen it a time or three. Basically, it's a simplified pyramid scheme. You sign up for a monthly ezine subscription (only $7.95!!! Per month!!!). Your subscription gives you the right to set up your own Customized Affiliate Website through which you (yes, YOU!!!) can sign other people up for subscriptions. For this, you get $4.00 (yes, $4.00!!!) of the subscription fee, paid directly to you. "If you do the math, all you need is to sign up 2 people to enjoy a FREE MONTHLY COPY OF SHORTSTORYOFTHEMONTH.COM!!" the website shrieks. "Anything after that is pure profit ON A MONTHLY BASIS!!"

So, faithful readers, are you ready to rush out and take advantage of this irresistible offer? What's that I hear--you're not convinced? You can't understand why anyone would want to pay $7.95 per month for a slim ezine featuring unknown writers? You fear your affiliate page would languish, lonely and unclicked, on the Internet? Well, Shortstoryofthemonth.com has anticipated your concerns. From its FAQ:

Why are you charging $7.95 for an Ezine of short stories? There are several Ezines online that are free. Why should we pay for yours?

While it is true that there are many free online Ezines, how many of those actually benefit you, directly, as a writer or as a reader? Most of these Ezines have no traffic so your work goes undiscovered. Most of these Ezines publish stories that are marginal and not very good. Short Story of the Month pays its writers for excellent, interesting stories that are thoroughly scrutinized by four totally different individuals, with different backgrounds. In other words, we are normal people who like to read. The majority of any writer's fans are normal people, with diverse backgrounds. The free Ezines online are usually a collection of writers "beating the hell" out of each other. This is not an insult, just an observation. Short Story of the Month strives to create a comfortable, enjoyable experience for all involved. Plus that $7.95 is spread among the readers and writers. What free Ezine offers you the ability to enhance your income?


Oh dear. That was confusing, wasn't it? Plus, it didn't really answer the question of why it costs way more to subscribe to Shortstoryofthemonth.com than to most print magazines. Wait, I know! How about an example of the kind of story that might land in your inbox every month? Yeah, that should do the trick. Here it is, kindly provided by Shortstoryofthemonth.com's blog. Er, just one caveat: don't read it on a full stomach.

Shortstoryofthemonth.com is the brainchild of Dr. Ron Kaiser, a Texas optometrist who "started this website to give new writers more exposure and readers a source of income. Times are tough and this is a simple way to supplement one’s income." Uh huh. A websearch shows a lot of press-release-type announcements for the scheme, but I wasn't able to find any affiliate websites.

It's not the only writing-related pyramid scheme I've discovered, but it's definitely one of the oddest.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Victoria Strauss -- Authors Guild Alert on "Text to Speech" Function of Kindle 2

Just got this alert from the Authors Guild:

On Monday, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos unveiled Amazon's Kindle 2 e-book reading device at the Morgan Library in New York. Most of the changes from the first version of the Kindle are incremental improvements: the new Kindle is lighter and thinner, for example, and Amazon eliminated the scroll wheel. One update, however, is wholly new: Amazon has added a "Text to Speech" function that reads the e-book aloud through the use of special software.

This presents a significant challenge to the publishing industry. Audiobooks surpassed $1 billion in sales in 2007; e-book sales are just a small fraction of that. While the audio quality of the Kindle 2, judging from Amazon's promotional materials, is best described as serviceable, it's far better than the text-to-speech audio of just a few years ago. We expect this software to improve rapidly.

We're studying this matter closely and will report back to you. In the meantime, we recommend that if you haven't yet granted your e-book rights to backlist or other titles, this isn't the time to start. If you have a new book contract and are negotiating your e-book rights, make sure Amazon's use of those rights is part of the dialog. Publishers certainly could contractually prohibit Amazon from adding audio functionality to its e-books without authorization, and Amazon could comply by adding a software tag that would prohibit its machine from creating an audio version of a book unless Amazon has acquired the appropriate rights. Until this issue is worked out, Amazon may be undermining your audio market as it exploits your e-books.


Read the full Alert here.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Victoria Strauss -- Opening Paragraphs for Sale

Check it out: Opening Paragraphs for Sale.

Writing is hard. Stringing letters together to make words? Hard. Grouping those into meaningful sentences? Harder. But the hardest part? Ask any successful novelist: the hardest part is writing the opening paragraph.

Uh, okay. First paragraphs are tough. First sentences are tough. So?

The good news is that you don't have to be the one to write that first paragraph, because professionally crafted, ready-made ones are for sale by The Avocado Papers right here on this page, at the very reasonable rate of US$1.75 per word. You will not find a better deal anywhere on the internet. Not so sure? Go ahead: find a better deal.

Hmmm. Intriguing idea! What's on offer? Let's see--

The President was in a pensive mood as he wondered what sort of arc his second term would follow, and idly surveyed what he believed to be the Washington Monument (but which was, in fact, the Capitol) through the tinted, bullet-proof windows. It had been a tough day, but as his motorcade sped along the edge of the Mall some minutes later, his body tensed as he thought about how lucky he was to have a Secretary of Defense who was so good at sucking cock.

With an opening paragraph that good, imagine the novel that might follow!

The focus of The Avocado Papers website is humorous/satirical, so it seems safe to assume that the paragraphs are also satire, and the "service" is not intended to be taken seriously (the fact that various commenters have taken it seriously is all part of the joke). Nevertheless, the shopping links do lead to Paypal, where gullible individuals and their money might easily be parted. I wouldn't be in the least surprised to discover that a naive writer or three have shelled out cash for one of these (no doubt) intentionally dreadful paragraphs.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Victoria Strauss -- YouWriteOn...Again

Last September, I blogged about peer critique website YouWriteOn and its ill-advised print-on-demand publishing endeavor. In collaboration with Legend Press, YWO promised to publish a maximum of 5,000 writers for free (or, if they wanted an ISBN number, for £39.99) by Christmas 2008, as long as they submitted their manuscripts by October 31.

Among other criticisms, I questioned how it would be possible to crank out that many books in a mere two or three months, and whether the cramped timeframe would allow for any sort of quality control in the production process. I pointed out that the promised 60% royalty, touted by YWO owner Ted Smith as "four times higher than mainstream publishing," was nothing of the sort, since royalties were paid on net, with net defined as "after printing costs." Last but not least, I questioned the wisdom of sacrificing first publication rights for a quickie, bare-bones book production service all but guaranteed to have substantial logistical problems.

It really doesn't give me any pleasure at all to report that YWO's publishing program has experienced all the problems identified above...and then some.

The YouWriteOn story has been covered in detail by Jane Smith at her blog, HowPublishingReallyWorks, with a series of skeptical posts around the time of the publishing program's inception, and two updates so far this month. In the updates, she discusses the delays experienced by many writers who submitted their books to YWO in expectation of Christmas publication (as yet, fewer than 300 YWO books show up at online booksellers' websites), the deceptiveness of describing the purchase of an ISBN number as a "distribution service," the accusation by some writers that priority was given to those who were willing to buy ISBNs or commit to bulk book purchases, the poor production quality (unprofessional-looking cover templates, unreadable titles, typos in titles and/or author names, inconsistencies between book listings and cover information), the increasingly angry discussion of these and other problems on the YWO message board (there's been some energetic discussion at the Absolute Write Water Cooler also, with several authors indicating that they canceled their contracts because of problems), and the abrupt closure of said message board, which has not yet re-opened, despite promises from Ted Smith.

Does this sound like a successful project? Not for many of the authors, maybe. For YWO, though...Based on the book listings at Amazon.com (288 books, as of this writing) and Barnesandnoble.com (268 books, as of this writing), Jane calculates that YWO has received at least £10,900 in income to date just from the sale of ISBN numbers, a figure that's almost certainly higher if there are books still in the pipeline. Obviously, that's not all profit; there's cost associated with buying the ISBNs, as well as with file conversion and setup. But let's not forget the big bonanza: author purchases, which are a major source of sales for most print-on-demand publishing programs. This page of Author News, posted by YWO, confirms that authors are indeed buying their own books.

And some may be buying in very large quantity. According to The Bookseller, Legend Press's Tom Chalmers says that he and YWO hope to have all the remaining books "cleared" by the end of February (the number of titles has been reduced from 5,000 to 1,000), and plan "a second run of the initiative" this spring. Though some of the problems detailed above are mentioned, "Chalmers said the project had largely been a success, with books generating a handful of reviews in the national press and one title selling more than 1,000 copies."

That sounds impressive. But check out this email (quoted at Absolute Write), which was received by YWO authors in January (my bolding):

Dear Writer,

As an addition to previous email with an update on your book's production, and for your information, I just wanted to provide details of the ordering system for once your book is complete. As it stands, for those without the distribution service, it will only be available for purchase by the author from us (info on how to order is sent once your book is available) – although we are currently working with YWO to introduce an automated service allowing orders for all via the site. Details in due course.

Therefore, you have the option of purchasing and selling yourself, if you wish, (one author so far has already bought up to 1,000 to sell using this approach) or alternatively you can sign up to the distribution service through Lightning Source, which will mean your book being available via the online sites of all the major booksellers – Amazon, WHSmith, Waterstone's, Barnes and Noble etc.


So the 1,000 copies cited by Chalmers may in fact have been purchased by the author. Did I say "bonanza?"

A final note: Jane Smith's research has uncovered the fact that since 2005, YWO has received more than £84,000 from the UK Arts Council--including, four months ago, £11,000 for a competition "in association with Random House" that has yet to be announced. According to a disclaimer that appears only on the index page of the YWO website, Arts Council funding covers the critique portion of YWO, with the publishing arm funded by YWO itself. The disclaimer was added to the site as a result of a request from the Arts Council (see comment #5 following this blog post).

Monday, February 02, 2009

Victoria Strauss -- University Press of the South

University Press of the South (UNPS), (warning: hideous website alert) is a primarily academic publisher that also accepts adult and children's fiction. Over the years, I've gotten a trickle of advisories from non-academic authors who were asked for substantial fees in order to publish--$2,500 due on contract signing for "administrative costs," plus the entire cost of printing.

UNPS does not disclose these fees on its website.

Academic vanity presses can serve as a fallback option for scholars who cannot find a more reputable academic publisher for their manuscripts. Academic vanity publishing isn't prestigious--but it doesn't carry the same stigma that we're familiar with in the trade publishing world. Libraries do acquire books from academic vanity presses, and scholars cite them on their CVs.

UNPS is an old-style vanity press. Manuscripts must be delivered camera-ready; UNPS then prints whatever quantity of books the author desires, and the author is responsible for storing and distributing them (unless the author wants to use UNPS's own distribution service, which costs extra). By contrast, the newer, digitally-based vanity presses offer design and formatting services, don't produce inventory unless it's ordered, and automatically offer some level of online distribution through the catalogs of wholesalers. While new-style vanity publishing may never earn back the author's investment, it's far cheaper and thus far less risky than old-style vanity publishing, which can involve truly enormous expenditures--and, in some cases, false promises and poor service.

In May 2007, one of UNPS's authors, Christian Augustin von Hassell, filed suit against UNPS and its Director, Alain Saint-Saens, alleging breach of contract, breach of the duty of good faith and fair dealing, and fraud. According to the complaint, the plaintiff incurred costs in excess of $100,000 in connection with his book (a contract signing fee of $500, an additional signing fee of $2,000, $42,000 to print 6,000 copies, $4,500 to ship copies of the book to UNPS for distribution, more than $34,000 in costs associated with UPNS's development, distribution, marketing, and promotional services, and thousands of dollars for his promotional and marketing activities). The complaint also alleges that not only did UNPS not provide promised marketing, promotion, and distribution services, it misrepresented its ability to provide them, as well as the scope and functionality of its ordering and distribution system. The plaintiff also alleged that UNPS did not pay royalties due, and refused to allow him to inspect sales records for his book, even though he was contractually entitled to do so.

Alain Saint-Saens and UNPS failed to answer the complaint or otherwise appear. On October 14, 2008, a judgment in favor of the plaintiff was entered in the US District Court of the Southern District of New York, in the amount of $148,449.39: $141,933.07, plus $350 in costs, plus $7,348.49 in interest.