Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Tidbits

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

A short post, as I'm on vacation at the moment. (Why am I posting to the blog while I'm on vacation? Because I'm obsessive. There, I said it.)

Interview with Ann Crispin

Check out this interview with Ann Crispin, Pitfalls in the Writing Road. It highlights her work with Writer Beware--and also her upcoming book, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Price of Freedom (pub date: May 2011). It's the first Pirates book for an adult audience, and tells the story of how Jack Sparrow became Captain Jack Sparrow. It's a fabulous book (I've read it) so do stop by Ann's website and check out the exciting excerpts.

How Moral Are You?

Agent Richard Curtis reports that HarperCollins has added a morals clause to the termination provisions of its contract.
New language in the termination provision of the Harper’s boilerplate gives them the right to cancel a contract if “Author’s conduct evidences a lack of due regard for public conventions and morals, or if Author commits a crime or any other act that will tend to bring Author into serious contempt, and such behavior would materially damage the Work’s reputation or sales.” The consequences? Harper can terminate your book deal. Not only that, you’ll have to repay your advance. Harper may also avail itself of “other legal remedies” against you.
What was that about there being no such thing as bad publicity?

Curtis says he isn't aware of any other publisher with a morals clause, but a couple of years ago, Random House UK added similar language to its children's book contracts.

Ursula Le Guin has posted a seriously tongue-in-cheek response.

New Publishing Service Collaboration: Abbott Press

I said it would happen again, and it has. Another major group has partnered with Author Solutions to create a pay-to-play division.

Writer's Digest is rolling out Abbott Press, which will provide publishing services starting at $999 and ranging all the way up to $8,299. A typical ASI-style roster of "marketing" services is available a la carte.

Books in two highest-priced packages will be eligible to receive an editorial review, which may lead to the granting of the Writer's Digest Mark of Quality, described as "a prestigious mark to convey the book’s excellence."

I haven't examined the website in detail yet, but it looks very similar to those of the other ASI collaborations--Cross Books (LifeWay), West Bow Press (Thomas Nelson), DellArte Press (Harlequin), and Balboa Press (Hay House)--complete, unfortunately, with the standard ASI propaganda about "indie" publishing.

In light of the new frenzy for electronic self-publishing, I wonder if costly print-centric publishing services like ASI aren't starting to feel faintly antiquated, and whether they can really, long term, be the cash engines that ASI's collaborators are obviously hoping for.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Best Solution Author Agency (or, Beware of Agent Solicitations)

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

I don't often write posts like this, because it's really like shooting fish in a barrel. And there are so many red flags here that savvy writers may wonder why I bother. But there are a lot of new writers searching for agents, many of whom are probably new to Writer Beware, and may not yet be clear on what to watch out for. I also think it's important, every now and then, to emphasize the basics of author self-protection--because as cataclysmically as the publishing landscape is changing, the basic warning signs remain the same.

Currently doing the rounds (at least, judging by the number of reports I've received) is this spam...er, solicitation from a new literary agency called Best Solution Author Agency (I've reproduced it exactly as written).
[Author's Name Redacted]:

I found your profile on Writers.net and I would like to take a moment and introduce myself and my company My name is Dan Grogan and I am a Literary agent and co-owner of Best Solution Author Agency. At Best Solution we relieve authors of all the business worries, so that writers have the time to do what writers do best - WRITE.

We are interested in our authors long-term success. We provide the guidance for a writers career. Our authors benefit from our editorial experience in shaping their manuscripts/proposals before submitting them to publishers.

As public relation representatives, we concentrate on personal client attention. We have a persuasive team of consultants who will create the strategic media needed to get you exposure. Such as interviews, articles, book signings , reviews and many others.

Because our agents have long term relationships with particular publishers and editors we can sell a proposal faster than a writer can. Our familiarity with publishing companies enable us to target proposals to the most appropriate companies.

Our agents have experience as author consultants for major publishing and promotional companies. We know the path to take to promote and sell an authors work. We have connections in the film industry, publishing companies, and multi-media marketing companies, Our agents are well traveled and have attended many book shows and Hollywood pitch fests in the past. We are a growing company and take pride in promoting works of every genre.

We have no reading fee. When you are ready for us to take a look at your manuscript send us a one or two page summery and up to three chapters not exceeding 50 pages. We also offer a Critiquing Service for a small fee. Please see our website at http://best-solution.webs.com/ for submission details for either the manuscript or the Critiquing Service.

I have only a few openings on my client list and I am looking to fill those openings.
So let's count the red flags, in ascending order of alarm.

- Cold-call solicitation. Reputable agents will sometimes directly approach an author whose work they've seen and liked (and if so, will reference that work). But they don't rely on mass email solicitation to build their client lists.

- Multiple punctuation and spelling errors, both in the email and on the agency's website (missing apostrophes, "summery" for "summary," etc.). A literary agent should be able to write error-free English--and to proofread it once it's written.

- Claims of experience that can't be verified. There are more of these on the agency's website. Alleging "long term relationships with particular publishers and editors" or "connections in the film industry, publishing companies, and multi-media marketing companies" are meaningless without specifics. A real agent with real experience who wants to tout that experience will say exactly what it is (see, for instance, the staff bios at the Nelson Literary Agency, or those at the Waxman Agency).

- Promotion of services irrelevant to literary representation. Reputable agents help guide their clients' careers, but they don't typically double as "public relation [sic] representatives." And see this page of the agency's website, where they claim, among other things, to be able to provide an ISBN, list clients' books on Amazon, and "Copyright your work with the Nation [sic] Library of Congress." These are services important for self-publishers, but not relevant to authors expecting their agents to sell their books to reputable trade publishers. (And wouldn't you hope your agent would know that your work is copyrighted from the moment you write it down, and that what you do with the US Copyright Office--not with the Library of Congress--is register it?)

- A critiquing service for a fee. The publishing world is changing, and reputable agents are more and more branching out into other areas--including the provision of various paid services (I'm planning a post on that in the near future). However, offering a paid service to a potential client is a conflict of interest--never a good thing--and if you're cold-call soliciting that client, it suggests that maybe shilling the paid service is your main objective.

- Possible fees for representation. From the FAQ on the agency's website (my bolding): 
Q. What will I have to pay for?
A. Each Author will have a package set up specifically for them. Fees vary based on what the author agrees to have us do to promote their work.
Do I need to say why this is a no-no? The only fee you should pay your agent is his or her commission when your book is sold.

- Agents with no verifiable professional background. Literary agenting is a skilled profession, and it's very much dependent on connections. To be successful, agents need expertise in a variety of areas (such as a detailed knowledge of publishing contract language) and contacts within the publishing industry. Since there's no formal training for literary agents, these skills and contacts are best acquired by actually working within publishing, or training at another (reputable) literary agency. Agents who set themselves up in business without that kind of background are at a really serious disadvantage. This is why, when you're considering a new agent, you really, really want to make sure they have relevant professional experience.

Who are Best Solution's staff? The agency's website provides links to the Facebook pages of Dan Grogan and Karri Hilland, but there are no staff bios on the website (most reputable agents' websites will not only name the agents, but provide some biographical information). Facebook is no help, since you can't read Mr. Grogan's or Ms. Hilland's personal info unless you friend them. Googling doesn't provide any joy, either. There's absolutely no way to ascertain whether these two agents have any qualifications to run a literary agency (more about that below).

- No sales. There is no sign, on the agency's website or anywhere else, of any book or script sales. For a new agency, that's not surprising--it takes time to get up and running, and if the agent(s) have previous publishing or agenting experience, they've a reasonable chance of success. If the agents have no qualifications, however, success is much less likely, and sale-less now probably means sale-less later. (As a general rule of thumb, a new agency that's going to be successful should start making sales within a year or so of starting up.)

There you have it. Red flags galore, from start to finish.

For the record, I don't suspect that there's bad intent behind Best Solution Author Agency. As with so many amateur agencies, its owners are probably sincere. Problem is, they just don't have the knowledge or the expertise. In a completely unregulated, unlicensed industry, where there's absolutely nothing preventing a totally unskilled person from advertising him- or herself as a literary agent, scams aren't the only thing you need to watch out for.

(One last tidbit. Dan Grogan's Facebook page lists his location as Bloomington, Indiana. Alert writers will recognize Bloomington as the home town of publishing services juggernaut Author Solutions, and also the birthplace of disgraced publishing service Airleaf (sued in 2008 by the Indiana Attorney General for violating Indiana's Deceptive Consumer Sales Act) and its spawn, Jones Harvest Publishing (the subject of multiple author complaints).

Coincidence? It appears not. According to author advocate Bonnie Kaye (who was instrumental in making the Airleaf lawsuit happen), Dan Grogan is a former Jones Harvest employee who quit recently in distress over the company's business practices. Kudos to Mr. Grogan for following his conscience--but working for a pay-to-play publishing service is not exactly the best preparation for a career as a literary agent [it may also explain the inappropriate self-publishing-style "services" the agency advertises]. Yet another sign that Best Solution Author Agency will probably not live up to its name.)

Monday, January 17, 2011

Contest Alert: First One Publishing's Writing Contest

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

I'm behind the eight ball with this post, because home renovation insanity has kept me more or less offline for the past few days. Many other bloggers have beaten me to the punch with commentary on this contest, so there's already quite a bit of information out there. Apologies if what follows is repetitive of stuff you've already seen.

First One Publishing, a new digital publishing venture, has announced a contest to promote its launch. Entries must be novels of up to 65,000 words, and prizes include publication.

There are a number of reasons to be wary of this contest. First, the prizes. Publication is an attractive prize--but First One is new, and not all new publishers make it. First One does have more behind it than many startups--it's an offshoot of Karen Hunter Publishing, which looks like a fairly well-established independent, and the CEO, Karen Hunter, has a wide and varied background in writing, publishing, and marketing. But it's a very good idea to adopt a wait-and-see approach with any new publisher until it has been in business, and issuing books, for at least a year--and that includes entering its contests. Plus, First One's mission statement doesn't inspire confidence. It is hardly "the first major publisher to put the ebook first" (in fact, it's hardly a major publisher), or "the first publisher to truly put the focus on the author" (a statement that's depressingly reminiscent of clueless publishing ventures started by bitter writers who think they can do better than the evil publishers that rejected them)--and how many times have we seen that "welcome to the future of publishing" line from a digital startup? Digital isn't the future--it's what's happening now.

Second, the entry fee. At $149, it can best be described as ridiculous. Even the various "indie" book contests, which will set you back a fair chunk of change, don't charge that much.

Third and most egregious, this clause from the contest guidelines:
All submissions become sole property of Sponsor and will not be acknowledged or returned. By submitting an entry, all entrants grant Sponsor the absolute and unconditional right and authority to copy, edit, publish, promote, broadcast, or otherwise use, in whole or in part, their entries, in perpetuity, in any manner without further permission, notice or compensation. Entries that contain copyrighted material must include a release from the copyright holder.
I'm not as concerned as other commentators about the first sentence of these guidelines. It's a fairly common contest provision, and it just means that the contest sponsor takes physical possession of entries, and doesn't have to return them to the authors. It doesn't really belong in a contest where submissions are digital, rather than on paper--but it's not intended to refer to intellectual property.

I'm not overly concerned about the last sentence of the guidelines, either. The language is vaguer than it should be, but I'm pretty sure that by "copyrighted material," what's meant is not the contest entry itself, but any material included in the contest entry that's written by others. In other words, the intent of this sentence is similar to that of the clauses in publishing contracts that require authors to obtain releases for any copyrighted material they may include in their manuscripts.

But the middle sentence...that's a big problem. Simply by entering this contest, entrants are granting First One Publishing the right to use their entry in any manner whatsoever--including publishing it--for the life of copyright and without compensation or notice. It's not quite a surrender of copyright, but it's pretty close.

In other words: if you enter this contest, kiss your work goodbye. Yet another reason to always read the fine print--and to read it all the way through. The offending clause is included at the very end of the guidelines, under the heading "Legal Information," which many people might be tempted to skip.

A discussion thread about the contest at Absolute Write triggered indignant responses--though no apparent changes in policy--from the publisher, Karen Hunter. If you don't want to wade through the whole thread, Smart Bitches, Trashy Books provides a handy summary.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Mail I Get

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Received in email this morning via Google Alerts: this press release from an outfit called 3L Publishing, announcing publication of a book called Vanity Circus: A Smart Girl's Guide to Avoid Publishing Crap.

A manual on how to avoid bad writing? Not exactly. "Vanity Circus is an entertaining, funny and insightful book that guides readers through the complex, sometimes frustrating but always interesting world of publishing."

As it happens, the book's authors are co-owners of 3L Publishing, and 3L publishing is a book producer--or, if you want to be less polite about it, a vanity publisher. I don't whether to laugh at the press release's opening line ("Business owners and individuals who have lost their jobs or seek new ways to supplement their income are turning to book publishing as a way to make money"), or cry at the fact that anyone would advocate paying a lot of dough to a book producer as a way of beating one's economic woes ("People are out of work and reinventing their lives. Many people just have stories to tell yet need help from a ghostwriter or editor. They don't know anything about the business. We wanted to help these people through the process").

Think I'm being too mean? Check out 3L's "Publishing Service Sheet," which promotes their "New Hybrid - Pay for Play" business model by contrasting it with fake facts about "traditional" publishing.

Friday, January 07, 2011

The Importance of Context (Part 1)

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

A couple of recent news items have me thinking about the importance of looking at information in context.

The first is an article from the Los Angeles Times entitled "Book Publishers See Their Role as Gatekeepers Shrink." The article covers a number of writers who are bypassing trade publishers to publish their work themselves--such as Joe Konrath, who has had a great deal of success self-publishing his backlist on the Kindle; Seth Godin, who last year decided to become his own (and apparently other people's) publisher; and Greg Bear and Neal Stephenson, who are serializing a collaborative novel online.

The second is a cluster of information about ebook sales. According to USA Today's latest Best-Selling Books list, ebook sales for the week after Christmas were higher than print sales for 19 of the top 50 sellers. Amazon reported similar news in October, when it revealed that for top-selling books, Kindle ebooks were outselling both hardcovers and paperbacks; and in December, Barnes & Noble announced that ebook sales had surpassed print sales on the B & N website.

Everyone loves a juicy news bite. But before you decide that ebooks rule and print is dead and it's time to self-publish your magnum opus online, there's a bit more to be said about all these stories.

The "Gatekeepers" article does something that many discussions of the seismic changes that are rocking the publishing world too often seem to do: it takes several non-typical examples, and, either by implication or omission, makes it seem as if they can apply to anyone. The authors discussed in the article are successful, established writers--in some cases, best selling writers--who possessed substantial platforms and self-promotional savvy before deciding to bypass their commercial publishers and self-publish. These are advantages that your average debut author, who must begin from scratch, or your long-time midlister, whose small audience is mainly characterized by the fact that it never gets much bigger, don't possess. What Seth Godin can do, in other words, probably isn't what you can do.

Are there platformless authors who've achieved self-publishing success? Absolutely. Right now, this seems especially to be a phenomenon of the Kindle, where self-publishing authors are tapping into the growing enthusiasm for ebooks (and for the Kindle itself). In a recent blog post, Joe Konrath provides a list of self-pubbed Kindle authors who he says are selling at least 1,000 ebooks a month. Even here, however (and assuming these are documented figures, rather than anecdotal reports), things need to be put in context. Many of these authors have multiple books on offer (i.e., they may be selling 250 copies each of four books, not 1,000 copies of one book), and/or are pricing them well below what larger publishers charge (which makes them extra-attractive to ebook enthusiasts, many of whom are very hostile toward trade publishers' ebook pricing strategies). And even if, as Konrath claims, the list is only a small sampling of high-selling Kindle self-publishers, these success stories have to be considered in the context of the thousands of self-pubbed authors whose ebooks aren't selling in large quantities. Konrath seems to assume that just about anyone, with some effort, can move a substantial number of ebooks, but I'm betting there are a lot of writers out there who know it's not that easy.

I'm not saying you shouldn't self-publish if you want to (though I would urge you to do so on the basis of knowledge rather than hype), or that self-publishers can't become successful (clearly, they can--something that has always been true, for every possible value of success). I'm just saying that it's risky to assume that others' success stories will apply to you. "Anyone can do it" are dangerous words. Look for the story behind the story--it may be as instructive as the story itself.

What about ebooks outselling print, though? Doesn't that say something about the potential for self-publishing success in a digital world? Doesn't it prove we've reached a tipping point, beyond which the dominance of digital is assured?

Well, there's some context here, too. As USA Today notes, the surge in e-sales is a post-Christmas boom, spurred by all the people who got Nooks and Kindles and iPads for Christmas and spent the holidays busily filling them up with ebooks. A better test of the trend, if it is a trend, will be to take a look at the situation a few months down the road. It's also good to remember that the ecology of best-sellers is rather different from that of other books, and trends displayed by high-selling books may not apply across the board.

As for Amazon's and Barnes & Noble's ebook figures, they say something important about the huge popularity of those retailers' ebook devices. But while ebooks can only be bought online, print books are bought both online and off. In other words, Amazon's and Barnes & Noble's figures represent the totality of Kindle and Nook sales--but only a fraction of print sales.

Per current estimates, ebooks account for about 9% of all trade book sales (a figure that's probably a good deal higher for some genres and some books). Ebooks are rapidly gaining market share, and this time next year they'll undoubtedly hold a bigger chunk of the market. How much bigger, though, is anyone's guess. Beware of prognosticators--nobody owns a crystal ball, no matter how much they may want you to think they do.

Be forward-thinking in your quest for publication. Embrace trends; take risks. Just be sure to research everything, investigate everything, and remember that facts and statistics don't emerge from a vacuum. They may look very different when considered in context. Whatever decisions you make about your publishing future, you'll be most assured of achieving your goals if you proceed on the basis of knowledge, rather than headlines and hype.

Oh, and happy 2011, everyone!