Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Agencies Becoming Publishers--a Trend and a Problem

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Yesterday, Dystel & Goderich Literary Management, a major US agency, announced that it will be facilitating self-publishing for some of its clients.
Over the past months and years we’ve come to the realization that e-publishing is yet another area in which we can be of service to our clients as literary agents. From authors who want to have their work available once the physical edition has gone out of print and the rights have reverted, to those whose books we believe in and feel passionately about but couldn’t sell—oftentimes, after approaching 20 or more houses—we realized that part of our job as agents in this new publishing milieu is to facilitate these works being made available as e-books and through POD and other editions.
D&G is not alone. Laura Rennert at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency is also experimenting with self-publishing for agency clients. The agency's first release, P.J. Hoover's YA novel Solstice, came out in April.

Literary agencies as publishers is a fast-growing trend (I blogged about it last month, in connection with the publishing initiatives announced by UK agencies Ed Victor and Sheil Land). To date, however, agency publishing ventures have primarily focused on backlist publishing--bringing already-published clients' out-of-print works back into circulation.There are some conflicts of interest inherent in such arrangements--for instance, your agent is supposed to be your advocate in publishing contract negotiations, but who advocates for you when it's your agent who's offering the contract? As agent Peter Cox has pointed out, "Once you become your client’s publisher, you then become a principal in the transaction [which] means you can no longer function as the client’s agent."

However, to my mind at least, the conflicts that arise when agencies begin publishing clients' previously unpublished works are even more concerning. If an agency can publish a client's book itself, will it try as hard to market the book to traditional publishers? Will it give up sooner on a book that doesn't sell right away? Where and how will the line be drawn between "this book still has potential markets" and "this book is tapped out?" How much--unconsciously or otherwise--will the agency influence clients' decisions on which publishing route to take? According to Dystel & Goderich's announcement, "what we are going to do is to facilitate e-publishing for those of our clients who decide that they want to go this route, after consultation and strategizing about whether they should try traditional publishing first or perhaps simply set aside the current book and move on to the next." (My bolding.) Does this mean that the agency may take on clients whose manuscripts are never marketed to other publishers at all?

Also a question: what's the money situation? Does the agency provide all consultation and publishing services and in return take a cut of the book's sales proceeds? Or might there be some sort of "partnership" arrangement, where the author pays the agent for publishing services? D&G says that they will "charge a 15% commission for our services in helping [authors] project manage everything from choosing a cover artist to working with a copyeditor to uploading their work." What exactly will that commission be charged on? (D&G has responded to some of the concerns generated by their announcement, but the payment arrangements are still unclear.)

I can certainly see the agency perspective here. Keeping up with the rapid pace of change in the publishing industry, maximizing income potential, providing the widest range of services to clients--all of that makes good business sense. And I don't for a moment doubt that these ventures are genuinely intended to be helpful (as well as to make money).

But while I think a good argument can be made for backlist publishing as a lateral expansion of an agency's role (yes, there are conflicts, but these are books that have already had their day), becoming publishers for clients' not-yet-published manuscripts seems like a fundamental violation of the author-agent relationship, which is founded on the premise that the agent's job is to sell the client's work for the best possible advance to the best possible publisher. Being able to publish the work yourself undermines that premise in a really profound way. And even if you begin your publishing venture with the best possible motives, and a firm intention never to capitalize on your clients' deepest vulnerability--which is, precisely, the desire to be published--what's to prevent you, over time, from slipping away from that resolve, especially if the traditional publishing market continues to contract and your own publishing venture proves to be lucrative?

We're in really murky territory here, and I don't think it's realistic to expect agencies to police themselves. Agents' associations need to take the lead in looking seriously at this issue and amending their conduct codes to address it--rather than, as seems to be happening now, adopting a wait-and-see attitude or just going with the flow (the UK's Association of Authors' Agents recently decided that agency publishing ventures do not violate its code of conduct). Agencies are going to become publishers, whether we like it or not--and a pro-active approach needs to be taken now, in order to prevent abuses down the road.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Getting Out of Your Book Contract (Maybe)

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Writer Beware often hears from authors who've signed up with bad or inexperienced or dishonest publishers, and are desperate to get free. They write to us wanting to know how they can break their contracts and regain their rights. Unfortunately, there's usually no easy answer to this question, even where the publisher has clearly breached its contractual obligations. Too often, I have to tell people that they are probably stuck.

That said, here are some general suggestions, which may or may not be applicable to your situation, and may or may not work for you (obligatory disclaimer: I'm not a lawyer, so what follows should not be construed as legal advice).

1. First and most obvious, check your contract for a termination clause. If there is one, invoke it per the instructions. Beware, though, of termination fees, which some publishers use as a way to make a quick buck off the back end.

2. If there's no termination clause, try approaching the publisher and simply asking to be released. A publisher may refuse or ignore such a request--but sometimes it will recognize that an unhappy author isn't an asset, and may be willing to let him or her go.

If you take this approach, don't dwell on the problems you've had with the publisher. Try to keep your explanations as neutral as possible--such as saying that you don't feel you have the time or resources to help promote your book, or pointing to falling sales. If you feel you must mention problems, do so in a factual, businesslike manner, without recriminations or accusations. Especially, don't mention any negative information you may have found online or heard from other authors. As large a part as this may play in your desire to be free, your request is about you and your book, not other authors and their books. Bringing others' complaints into the picture is likely to alienate or anger the publisher, in which case it may be much less disposed to pay attention to your request. (In some cases, it may become twice as determined to hold on to you.)

Another thing not to do: informing the publisher that it's in breach, and that you're terminating the contract yourself. This doesn't work for two reasons. First, even if you're correct and the publisher has breached its obligations--and even if the contract includes a provision for termination due to the publisher's breach, which not all contracts do--you, personally, have no way to enforce a termination. The publisher can simply deny your allegations, or stick its metaphorical fingers in its metaphorical ears and go right on producing and selling your book.

Second, you may consider the contract to be null and void, and your current publisher may not have the resources to sue you if it disagrees--but if you want to re-publish, you'll have problems. Another publisher won't be interested in a book whose rights aren't unambiguously free and clear. Even self-publishing services require you to warrant that you have the right to publish.You must be able to show some kind of formal rights reversion document--which you won't be able to do unless your publisher actually consents to let you go.

Once again, watch out for demands for money. I've heard from some writers whose publishers attempted to blackmail them into paying a fee when they requested release, and from others whose publishers required a sizeable termination fee even though no fee was mentioned in the contract.

3. If you're a member of a writers' group, they may be able to help. For instance, SFWA has Griefcom, which will directly intercede in an attempt to resolve the situation for you. Similar services are provided by the National Writers Union's Grievance Assistance program. Novelists Inc. has a legal fund, which entitles members to up to two billable hours of legal consultation per year.

4. If there's no termination clause and the publisher refuses to consider a release request, you can resign yourself to waiting things out, either to the end of the contract term, if the contract is time-limited, or until the publisher declares your book out of print. Obviously this is more feasible for relatively brief terms of one to three years, and less so for longer terms, or for life-of-copyright contracts--especially since so much publishing now is digitally-based, and with digital publishing there's little incentive for publishers to take works out of print. Depending on your situation and your finances, however, it may still be preferable to the final option....

5. Consult legal counsel about your situation, and your options for taking legal action. This is where the issue of breach becomes relevant. A publisher may ignore an author's personal claims of breach, but may pay more attention if an attorney is involved.

If you choose this option, not just any lawyer will do. You want someone who practices publishing law. Publishing is a complicated business, with practices and conventions that are not well-understood by people in other fields; and publishing contracts are unique documents with terms and conditions that aren't found elsewhere. In order to provide effective representation, your lawyer needs the appropriate skill- and knowledge-set.

(This same caution, by the way, applies to hiring a lawyer to vet a publishing contract prior to signing it. I hear from any number of writers whose non-publishing-specialist lawyers gave the green light to a contract that would never have passed muster with a publishing law specialist, or a competent literary agent.)

There are a number of options for low-cost legal services, some of them specifically for people in the creative arts. For instance, many US states have Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts organizations, which provide services geared to helping people who work in the arts. The Arts Law Centre of Australia provides free- or low-cost legal advice and referrals for Australian creators and arts organizations. Artists’ Legal Advice Service helps creators who are residents of Ontario, Canada. Artists’ Legal Outreach does the same for residents of British Columbia, and similar assistance is provided in Montreal by the Montreal Artists’ Legal Clinic. There are also general referral services, such as the American Bar Association Lawyer Referral Network.

You can find more information and links on the Legal Recourse page of Writer Beware.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Internet and Procrastination

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

I spend too much time online.

There, I've said it.

Much of my Internet time is work-related--research for my writing, stuff for Writer Beware. As for the personal stuff--Facebook, YouTube, reading the news, emailing friends, following interesting links--there's nothing wrong with that, as long as it doesn't completely take over your life, or interfere with other activities.

Where the problem arises, for me, is in the procrastination factor. It's much too easy to use the Internet as a way of putting off difficult tasks (that chapter where I've gotten stuck), or things I don't feel like doing (that trip to the gym), or even things I do feel like doing but can't somehow drag myself out of my chair to undertake (walking in my garden on a sunny spring day).

I'm also much too prone to succumb to the urge to do online research while I'm writing, rather than just making a note and moving on--which as often as not leads to a protracted Web session and a lower word count for the day. And even when I'm not procrastinating, I fear that the multi-tasking behavior I tend to fall into online--composing a Writer Beware email, checking personal email, looking at my Twitterfeed, surfing Facebook, all at more or less the same time--is not good for my brain. The split-second focus, the grashopperlike jumping from item to item, and the intolerance of slowness encouraged by the Web is detrimental, I think, to the sustained, intense, singleminded concentration that's so important for writing.

I've tried a variety of strategies to keep myself on track (simple willpower, unfortunately, isn't enough). I concentrate on email, blogging, etc. in the morning, and reserve the afternoon and evening for working on my fiction. I keep email and nonfiction writing on my desktop, and use my laptop just for fiction writing. To make even more of a mental and physical break, I move to a different location to work on a book--I usually sit downstairs in the dining room.

These strategies help. But they can be circumvented, so they don't always help enough. I've often wished there was a way simply to turn off my web access for several hours at a stretch, and eliminate all temptation (although I'm well aware that a procrastinator can always find a way to procrastinate--the moments just before I sit down for my daily writing session are the only ones where housework seems appealing).

I also know I'm not alone in struggling with this problem--which is why I was doubly pleased to discover this blog post by ShelfTalker's Elizabeth Bluemle. She spoke with a number of writers about their distraction-circumventing techniques, and got some fascinating responses (it's really interesting how many writers move to a different spot, or use a different computer). She also links to a program called Freedom, which lets you block the Internet for up to eight hours at a time. You can disable it once you've set it--but you have to re-boot, and, theoretically at least, "the hassle of rebooting means you're less likely to cheat."

We'll see. I've downloaded Freedom to my laptop, and intend to give it a try.

Do you struggle with distraction and/or procrastination? How do you cope with it? Please share!

--------------------------

EDITED TO ADD: Some great suggestions have been made in the comments for other programs to block various aspects of the Internet:

RescueTime is a time management tool that includes a Focus Mode "to voluntarily block the distracting parts of the internet for a period of time you specify."

LeechBlock is a Firefox add-on "designed to block those time-wasting sites that can suck the life out of your working day. All you need to do is specify which sites to block and when to block them."

For Mac users, there's SelfControl, which "blocks access to incoming and/or outgoing mail servers and websites for a predetermined period of time." You can't get round it by re-booting or re-setting the system clock--you have to wait for the timer to run out.

I'll add to this list as additional resources are suggested.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Book Marketing Methods That Don't Work

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

For any author, whether self-, small press-, or big house-published, getting noticed is one of the primary challenges. Larger publishers provide marketing support for their authors (yes, they really do, despite popular wisdom to the contrary), but with smaller publishers, and if you've self-published, you may be mostly or entirely on your own.

It's no wonder that the Internet is bursting with promotional services, marketing companies, publicity gurus, and book promotion self-help advice from authors who've been there, done that. Options range from staggeringly expensive (a good publicist can run you five figures) and rapaciously overpriced (AuthorHouse's Trifecta Review Service charges $3,000 for a set of reviews that would cost you around $1,200 if you purchased them separately yourself), to free (social media); and from helpful (the growing army of book bloggers), to dubiously effective (press releases, to which no one paid much attention even before the book market became so crowded, and vanity radio, which is likely to reach only a tiny audience), to simply absurd (such as Outskirts Press's Celebrity Endorsement Option, where you pay $109 to obtain contact information for 5 celebrities of your choosing, who will then ignore you).

Then there's the old standby, the email campaign. There's any number of email blast companies online, and many self-publishing companies also sell email services--for instance, Xlibris's email marketing campaigns, which range from $349 for a multi-author campaign and 200,000 addresses, to a jaw-dropping $9,996 for a "personalized" campaign and 10,000,000 addresses.

Targeted email blasts can be a useful publicity tool--as long as they really are targeted. For example, see author Michelle Dunn's tips for a successful email blast, which involves a list of addresses she built herself.

But most of the email campaign services you're likely to encounter are not targeted, despite what they may promise. (Common sense should tell you this in some cases--if the service promises to blast an email to 1,000 book reviewers, it's highly unlikely that there are anywhere near that many who'll be appropriate for any given book, since most reviewers specialize in particular genres or areas of interest.) Chances are that the addresses have simply been harvested from the internet--perhaps with some rudimentary filter, like "book reviewers," perhaps at random. And don't believe a claim that a service's mailing list is "opt in" (like this one from notorious "marketing" spammer BookWhirl) and therefore recipients are more likely to pay attention to the service's promotions. It probably just means that people have been added and haven't bothered to opt out.

Most email campaign services, in other words, are the equivalent of dropping your book announcement off the top of a building, and hoping it lands in front of someone who might be interested.

Case in point: the promotional email I received this week for a book titled JIHAD’S NEW HEARTLANDS - Why The West Has Failed To Contain Islamic Fundamentalism, published by AuthorHouse (the email was signed by an AuthorHouse "Marketing Advisor"). Even assuming that I paid attention to spammed book announcements (which I don't), I am a completely inappropriate recipient for this email. There's nothing whatever in any of my various online profiles or my Internet activity to suggest I have a particular interest in Islamic fundamentalism, or even the Middle East--and if I was being approached as a reviewer, rather than a reader, not only have I not reviewed in several years, but when I did review, I specialized in speculative fiction. Nor have I ever opted in to any commercial email lists--so if AuthorHouse sold this service to the author as an opt-in email campaign, they exaggerated just a tad.

So, writer beware: if you buy an email campaign, it's very likely that the emails will be going not to a selective list of individuals who are willing to receive commercial messages, but mainly to people like me, who have absolutely no interest in your book, and even less in being spammed (that is, if we even see the email before our spam filters dispatch it to oblivion). In other words, not a very good use of your marketing dollar.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Police Investigate Historical Pages Publishing Company

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

From yesterday's Burlington Free Press:
Behnah Ghobadi, president of Print Tech, a Burlington publishing firm has been printing books for customers across the United States for 34 years, but he says it was somebody in his own backyard that has given him his harshest business lesson.

Ghobadi said Monday he began printing books about 18 months ago for Peter Campbell-Copp of Manchester and his company Historical Pages. After some preliminary payments by Campbell-Copp, the checks stopped coming and the half-dozen titles sat mostly on the floor of Print Tech on Pine Street.

Now Hinesburg Community Police say more than a dozen people and businesses are out of at least $170,000 through unfulfilled contracts, including Ghobadi for about $100,000.

Campbell-Copp, 62, has been ordered to appear in Vermont Superior Court in Burlington on June 27 to face three felony counts of false pretenses and two misdemeanor counts of receiving value upon false statements, Hinesburg police said.

He also is facing single counts of false advertising and false statements as to financial ability, said Officer Chris Bataille, the lead investigator in the criminal case.
Another article, from the Manchester Journal, details some of the allegedly defrauded author's stories. Reportedly, Campbell-Copp's average publishing fee was $5,000, although some authors apparently paid more, and one allegedly paid $16,000.

Writer Beware never received any complaints about Campbell-Copp or Historical Pages, but the story, as detailed in the article, is a familiar one from dozens of other questionable publishers in our files: unfulfilled promises to authors, nonpayment to vendors (including printers and editors), unreturned phone calls and emails, and, when complainants managed to get through, a raft of excuses for nonperformance, ranging from health problems to claims of meetings with celebrities (including Ron Howard and the producers of Star Wars). Also familiar: the alleged Ponzi scheme aspect of the case, with Campbell-Copp signing on new authors in order to fund the work he'd promised to do on previous contracts.

A couple of sample complaints, along with a response from Campbell-Copp, can be seen in the comments thread of this blog post.

UPDATE, 6/20/13: Campbell-Copp pleaded guilty in April to 15 felony counts of  false pretenses and theft of services, as well as four misdemeanor counts of bad checks. He was sentenced to six months of jail time followed by six months of house arrest, and will be on indefinite probation. A fund for restitution of Campbell-Copp's victims has been established, but there are a number of conditions that must be satisfied before payments can be made. There's more information here.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Clark, Mendelson, and Scott: New Name for a Fee-Charging Agency

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Every time I bemoan Writer Beware's overpacked file drawers, and wonder whether I should get rid of files for agents and publishers that have gone out of business (or at least consign them to the basement), I'm reminded of why it's important to keep that old information handy. When literary scammers vanish, there's a pretty good chance that they'll return in a different guise.

(Everything that follows is supported by extensive documentation in Writer Beware's possession.)

Once upon a time, there was a fee-charging literary agency called American Literary Agents of Washington, Inc. It was among the first agencies Writer Beware received complaints about when we started up in 1998. Writers reported being asked for a $200 fee (later increased to $250) to "defray submission expenses." The contract was for six months; once it terminated, you had to pay another $250 to re-up.

Needless to say, ALA never made any sales that Writer Beware could discover. As warnings about it started to spread, it did what disreputable literary enterprises so often do: it began conducting business under other names, including Capital Literary Agency and Washington Literary Agency. We got scores of complaints about these companies; when Writer Beware's Thumbs Down Agency List was created in 2006, ALA/Capital/etc. was on it.

In 2001, I started getting reports of pay-to-publish offers to clients of the various agencies, from a company called Washington House. This, it turned out, was no coincidence: the Washington House URL was registered to ALA, though the writers who received the offers weren't informed of the connection. Washington House, a.k.a. Trident Media Company and Mandrill Publishing, charged as much as $3,500 for editing, and provided the level of marketing and distribution you'd expect from a less-than-reputable fee-charging publisher. Judging by the complaints Writer Beware received (similar to this one and this one), it was also somewhat unreliable in the production and payment department.

Again, as information spread, the names changed. Sometime in 2006, Washington House/Trident Media/Mandrill became New World Media/American Bookpress.

All these companies were owned by a man named Samuel C. Asinugo. In 2008, Asinugo was found guilty of forgery (a conviction that was recently upheld on appeal). It's likely not an accident--though I didn't know it till I began doing research for this post--that 2008 was the year in which Writer Beware stopped getting questions and complaints about ALA, New World Media, etc. Since then, I've heard nothing about any of these enterprises.

Until this week, that is, when a writer contacted me with a question about the reputation of a literary agency with the distinguished name of Clark, Mendelson, and Scott, which offers a six-month contract and charges $150 upfront for US submissions ($250 if you want your book sent to overseas publishers as well). The agency's website claims that it's staffed by "Scott Maxwell, Richard Mendleson [note the difference between that spelling and the spelling on the masthead], and Cindy Clark, all former publishing executives with diverse experience in the literary market." No information about that diverse experience is provided, but the website boasts that "we have over 650 titles in print"--which sounds pretty implausible for an agency that does not appear to have existed prior to May of this year, especially one with a badly-written intro page and typos on its submission page.

So, already pretty smelly. But it gets better. When I followed the book links on the agency's website to Amazon, I discovered that every single one was published by Washington House or Mandrill. This spurred me to check the agency's domain registration information, where I learned that the registrant is Peace Asinugo. It'd be amazing if those two things were coincidence, wouldn't it? Samuel Asinugo's name doesn't appear anywhere in the agency's correspondence or contracts, but the (error-ridden) welcome letter is signed by Project Director "Simon Aragon"--S.A.--a perfectly lovely alias that Asinugo apparently forgot to employ when setting up business listings on Angie's List and Manta.

I'm guessing that Peace is Asinugo's daughter. I wonder if she knows how her name is being used.

Asinugo's publishing contracts were for life of copyright, and left the decision to take books out of print entirely to the publisher--so it's quite possible that he still holds the rights to many, if not most, of the books he published (a number of Washington House and Mandrill books show up on Amazon as "temporarily out of stock," but others are "in stock and available," or orderable with a 1-3 week lead time). This, sadly, could explain the "650 titles in print" claim.

Writer Beware's Thumbs Down Agency List has been updated to reflect this latest name change.

Edited 11/4/11 to add: Samuel Asinugo is also doing business as Franklin-Madison Literary Agency (with a similar M.O.). Details are here.