Thursday, August 30, 2012

Fake Jared And His Friends: Author Solutions' Misleading PR Strategies

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

In my recent blog post on Pearson's acquisition of self-publishing giant Author Solutions Inc., I posed several questions that I hope Pearson will consider as it integrates ASI with Penguin Group. One of these was whether ASI will start being more transparent in its advertising and PR. I'd like to go a little bit more into detail on what I mean.

Take ASI's affiliate programs, which pay a $100 referral fee for each individual the affiliate sends ASI's way. There are innumerable such programs online (some of them amounting to little more than pyramid schemes) so ASI is not unique in this regard. Still, these programs are an open invitation to deceptive use by others (as, for instance, may have happened in this case).

Then there are the two so-called whitepapers ASI has issued to further its misleading claim that it is an "independent publisher" at the forefront of a publishing revolution. These documents are filled with inaccuracies about the publishing industry, and paint an unrealistically rosy picture of the benefits of ASI's business model. I won't debunk them here because I've already done so, in previous blog posts.

Far more misleading are the websites ASI maintains to steer writers toward its services without realizing they're being steered. ChooseYourPublisher.com (Your Book is Your Passion ), FindYourPublisher.com (Your Search is Over), and FindYourPublisher.co.uk (a duplicate) look like independent websites, but the questions they ask (Is your book ready for publication? How much are you willing to spend?) all lead to recommendations for ASI brands. If you scroll down to the bottom of these websites, you'll see "Powered by Author Solutions Inc." in tiny print--but who scrolls down to the bottom to check the tiny print? I've heard from numerous writers who believed these websites were objective resources, and assumed that the "recommendations" they received were genuine.

Then there's Poetry-Publishers.com (Enjoy a 100% Hassle-Free Poetry Publishing Experience You'll Love), Childrens-Book-Publishing.com (Your FREE Children's Book Publishing Consultation), and E-BooksPublishing.com (E-book Publication is a Right Not a Privilege), all of which appear to offer independent consultations, but all of which will result in a call or email from Author Solutions. Again, you can find "Powered by Author Solutions" or "Powered by Xlibris" somewhere on these websites, but it's pretty inconspicuous and most people will likely miss it.

Most fake of all, though, has to be the scheme just exposed by Emily Suess, a relentless critic of ASI. Checking new followers on Google+, she noticed that one of them, a Jared Silverstone, hailed from Bloomington, Indiana, home of ASI. Clicking through to his profile, she discovered that he did indeed work for ASI, as one of their "Publishing Consultants" (the people who give you the hard sell over the phone). But then she noticed something else.
the real jared
Aside from the fact that he’s posted only a handful of ASI-centric posts since March 2012, Jared looks just a little too hipster to be hipster, doesn’t he?

That’s because—surprise!—Jared Silverstone isn’t real. Click through a few pages of istockphoto.com  search results for “mustache,” and you’ll find our precious Jared, sans the green filter makeover and the slightly off center crop job. Before Author Solutions paid for his likeness, Jared looked a little something like (okay, maybe EXACTLY like) the watermarked guy on the right.
That's right. "Jared"--who also has Twitter and Facebook accounts--is fake person created to promote ASI. Or--and I think this may be more likely--ASI just doesn't want us to know that his accounts are being maintained by some staffer in the Philippines.

(I'm sure it's a coincidence, but Fake Jared Silverstone is eerily reminiscent of the trolls that have been stalking Writer Beware and other anti-scam activists for the past year and a half. Remember Fake Miriam Silverstein of The Write Agenda--she of the faux Facebook account and stock photo? And her sidekick, Fake Jared Goldstein? And their pal, Fake Jonna Silverman? Even the names are similar. Weird.)

In closing, I can't say it better than Emily:
This is shitty, hack PR. And not only does this kind of sideways promotion not sit right with real consumers who demand honesty and transparency in business and in social media, but it makes all Author Solutions employees look bad (again). It also makes the company’s new parents, Pearson and Penguin, look bad (again).
GalleyCat has also picked up the Fake Jared story, and added some info of its own.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Vanity, Vanity: Turning The Label Around

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

In the war of words that rages between advocates of self-publishing and proponents of traditional publishing, one of the long-standing weapons is the term "vanity publishing." It's often leveled, dismissively and contemptuously, at self-published authors, especially if they've paid for one of the POD-centric self-publishing services such as those provided by Author Solutions.

Understandably, self-published authors resent this. Some have come up with their own equally contemptuous epithet for traditional publishing: "legacy publishing," a term that's intended to convey the uselessness of a ponderous, outdated system that clings blindly to its established rut even in the face of rapid and overwhelming change.

But now, it appears, some self-published authors and self-publishing advocates are taking possession of the term "vanity publishing"--one of the best revenges when you're called a nasty name--and turning it around. It's really traditional publishing, they say, that's all about authors' oversized egos. Traditional publishing is, in fact, the new vanity publishing.

I became aware of this via a recent article by author and professor Bernard Starr.
Commentators on the current upheaval in publishing have observed that many authors desperately seek a traditional publisher when self-publishing would serve them far better...These writers are willing to forego the benefits of self-publishing for the unshakable belief in the "prestige" of signing on with a "real publisher."
Not only is the ego-driven pursuit of traditional publishing an exercise in vanity, Starr writes, it's also an illusion, for it yields few benefits:
Fact is that authors no longer need a publisher. And more and more writers are awakening to the realization that if you are not a high-profile author who can command large sales, a traditional publisher will do little for you beyond editing and printing your book....

A prominent literary agent recently told me that unless an author receives a hefty advance of $100,000 or more most publishers will do virtually no promotion, leaving it to authors to create and exploit their own platforms via social media and networking connections, workshops and webcasts. So when you go the traditional-publishing route, you may well find yourself self-publishing without the benefits of self-publishing.
If you follow publishing news at all, you're probably familiar with this kind of anti-traditional publishing rhetoric, a mix of myth and selectively-cited truth that reduces publishers to little more than printers in order to paint a propagandistic picture of the shortfalls of traditional publishing.

Starr goes on to mention some iconic self-publishing stories (that on closer examination don't quite support his point): Barry Eisler, who turned down a six-figure advance from a traditional publisher in order to self-publish (but later signed a trade deal for his book, complete with hefty advance, with Amazon Publishing), and Amanda Hocking, one of the new self-publishing's first phenomenons (who lucratively transitioned to traditional publishing and seems to be quite happy with the results). Starr concludes by counseling first-time authors to "seriously consider self-publishing," citing, as one of the advantages of this route...guess what? The possibility of parlaying self-publishing success into a traditional publishing contract.

So, vanity is okay after all? A mixed message, to say the least.

Similar trad-is-the-new-vanity arguments--complete with myths about evil editors and peculiar ideas about why publishers warehouse printed books--can be found here and here.

In my last blog post, I wrote about polarization. This gleeful label-appropriation is yet another example of how polarized the discussion of publishing is becoming. Why does it have to be one thing or another with no possibility of middle ground? Why must traditional publishing be evil and self-publishing awful and never the twain shall meet? Why is it so difficult for commentators--on both sides of the issue--to acknowledge that self-publishing and traditional publishing are not mutually exclusive--that both offer benefits and pitfalls and what's important isn't name-calling and ideology, but making informed choices based on one's own individual books and goals?

The digital revolution that has transformed self-publishing has gone a long way towards eliminating the stigma that has accompanied it for so long. Still, self-publishers remain conscious of the stigma, and understandably resentful of it. Conversely, the growing viability of self-publishing as a choice for both first-time and established authors--and the rhetoric that accompanies this change--has put traditionally published writers on the defensive in a way they've never been before. The result is this destructive, pointless war of words, in which extreme views--all self-published books are crap written by losers, self-publishing is the One True Path For All Writerkind--too frequently stand in for intelligent discussion.

Ask yourself, the next time you're tempted to tempted to aim the term "legacy" at a traditionally published author, or toss the "v" word at an enthusiastic self-publisher, how this kind of polarizing argument is helpful to new writers seeking direction in the contentious, complicated, and confusing world of publishing--far more contentious, complicated, and confusing than it has ever been before. Wouldn't it be better if we could all just talk to each other?

Friday, August 17, 2012

LendInk, Author Activism, and the Need for Critical Thinking

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

The Dark Side of Author Activism

If you've been living under a social media rock and haven't heard of the LendInk incident, here's a brief rundown.

LendInk was a website that facilitated Kindle ebook lending, matching would-be ebook borrowers with ebook owners. All of this was perfectly legal, involving legitimately purchased ebooks, lending options provided by Amazon, and lending terms set by publishers (whether the book was self- or traditionally published). Unfortunately, some authors, finding their books listed on LendInk, jumped to the conclusion that it was a pirate site. They mounted an anti-LendInk social media campaign and deluged LendInk's hosting service with DMCA notices. The result: a legitimate website was shut down.

There's been a lot of coverage of this mess, some of it pretty hyperbolic (such as this blogger, who urges revenge on the presumed instigators, apparently blithely unaware of the irony of drumming up a lynch mob in judgment on another lynch mob). One of the more objective overviews that I've seen comes from Porter Anderson, in his Writing on the Ether column; his article also includes links to several interesting analyses of the incident and its implications.

Two things really stand out for me here. First, the ignorance of some of the authors involved, who'd used Amazon to publish their books but apparently didn't realize that Amazon allows ebook lending. Second, the lack of careful investigation, which caused some people to assume that a legitimate service was a pirate site, and others to perpetuate the meme without bothering to verify it.

Ignorance and lack of investigation are also what lead writers into the arms of scammers. I encounter this every day in my Writer Beware correspondence: writers who don't take the time to learn anything about publishing before trying to get published, who neglect to research agents and publishers before approaching them, who swallow various Internet-promulgated myths about publishing and self-publishing and as a result have completely unrealistic views of either or both. Usually it's only themselves these writers harm and disappoint--but in the case of LendInk, this ignorance and carelessness, amplified by the lightning speed and viral nature of the Internet, did harm to others.

Author activism can also, of course, be a force for good. Recently, author activism exposed and marshaled action against a real pirate site, The Ultimate Ebook Library (which unfortunately is proving a good deal harder to kill than LendInk was). But the line between a righteous mob and a lynch mob is a thin one--not a new insight, but in the wake of LendInk it bothers me a lot more than it did before.

A friend of mine feels that piracy is such a threat, and author activism is so important in combating it, that incidents like LendInk aren't an unreasonable price to pay. He also points out that it's symptomatic of the bias of the Internet that the taking down of LendInk created outrage, while many people simply throw up their hands in the face of real piracy, figuring that there's no way of stopping it and that they just have to learn to deal. 

I understand my friend's position. But I also agree with Porter Anderson, who points out the danger of wielding powerful weapons without adequate knowledge. "[D]igital empowerment," he says, "can require new efforts in training, and new obligations of learning on the parts of all players."

Which brings me to...

"The virus of mediocre and received ideas coursing through the collective brains of the book world."

That's a direct quote from Jeff Vandermeer's fantastic blog post entitled Dreaming Well: Does the Future of Publishing Need More Imagination? In it, he takes issue with the pundits and self-proclaimed trailblazers who want us to believe they can predict the future of publishing, and/or define the new nature of authorship in a radically changing environment. What value, he asks, does any of this prognostication actually have?
I feel passionately that some of the information we are getting is increasingly wrong and motivated by selfishness and, yes, to some degree, a form of hyperbolic illogic. We are so hung up on predicting the next big thing, on getting in on the next gold rush when it comes to ways for authors to promote themselves and market their work that we often seem to be active participants in our own destruction....

The problem right now really isn’t the “tyranny” of big NYC commercial publishers or an Amazon monopoly. The problem is the virus of mediocre and received ideas coursing through the collective brains of the book world, infecting too many of its writers, commentators, reviewers. It’s a kind of fundamentalism at its heart, and we want to believe in it because it’s easy to do so.
We want to believe in it also, I think, because it represents a form of wish-fulfillment, on both sides of the issue. Many pundits, commentators, and evangelists' predictions reflect not just the future they think may happen, but the future they want to happen.

What are some of these "mediocre and received ideas?" Paraphrasing Jeff: copyright is (or should be) dead and no one should have to pay for content. Agents are evil monsters who will suck you dry and stomp on your drained corpse. Publishing house editors don't edit, so who needs publishers? (Jeff didn't mention this, but a related meme is "publishing houses don't market, so who needs publishers?"). Traditional publishing is [pick one] dead/evil/going to kill your career, so self-publishing is the One True Path. Get out there RIGHT THIS MINUTE and establish a social media presence, because every author needs a platform, even if they're not actually an author yet.

These ideas aren't just mistaken, according to Jeff; they're actually dangerous. He concludes (I'm quoting so much because what he says resonates so strongly with me):
Taken together, advocates for the wholesale dismantling of the current system and, to a lesser extent (lesser because it’s not as prevalent) other advocates who too frequently defend the inadequacies of the current system represent the biggest threat to the majority of writers. By spreading a more-or-less ideological virus that is then repeated by ever-growing numbers of people who do not stop to analyze what they then put out there as gospel, a self-fulfilling prophecy occurs that may do long-term damage to the ability of writers to survive in this new age of publishing.
Just as with author mobs on Twitter, the unthinking, uncritical propagation of myths, half-truths, and ideological bombast about publishing has the potential to do tremendous damage.

We live in highly polarized times. That's as true in publishing as it is in politics--and, I think, as reflective of the fear of a future that, as much as we would like it to be clear and certain, offers no assurances but the certainty of upheaval. In such a situation, it's more essential than ever to think critically, investigate carefully, and act deliberately. And to be wary of received wisdom, or anything masquerading as such.

Edited to add: As of Friday, August 24, LendInk is back online.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Guest Blog Post: The Red Flags of Writing Contests

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Among the most frequent questions Writer Beware receives are those involving writing contests. Is it legit? Is it prestigious? Is it worth it? How can I tell?

Today's guest blog post from author and editor C. Hope Clark--who evaluates contests regularly for inclusion in her FundsForWriters newsletter--provides a helpful overview of some of the warning signs of a contest you might not want to enter.

_________________________________

The Red Flags of Writing Contests


Writers have a love-hate relationship with contests. Some people adore them, eager to submit regularly, and others back away, fearful of potential scams.

Don't be so leery about writing competitions. Once you learn the red flags of trouble and understand the remarkable opportunities they offer, you'll rank contests up there with the best magazine markets and publishers and look forward to their calls for submissions. You can learn how to maneuver amongst the good and the bad.

So what are the signs of a questionable competition?

First timer.

While every contest has to start somewhere, still keep your eyes open with an inaugural launch. Even with the best of intentions, they may not have ironed out the wrinkles of managing such an event. Contests are time consuming, and if not handled properly, can be expensive nightmares for the sponsors.

If the organization or person running the award is reputable, then give it a go, but if you've never heard of them, move on. Yes, you might have a better chance of winning since fewer people will submit, but think twice before you do, ensuring that all else seems proper.

No humans.

I immediately seek a contact person for contests before posting the calls in my FundsforWriters newsletters. If the email is generic, like info@contestABC.com, or the mailing address is only a PO Box, study harder. Read the About Us material on the website. No website? That's reason enough to move on right there. You're looking for a name, a recognized organization, a nonprofit, a reputable publisher, a solid piece of grounded reality to show that the backer is legitimate.

Still have questions? Email them. Their response, or lack of, can speak volumes.

High entry fee.

Entry fees can be relative. A $5 fee might sound fine, unless the first prize is a T-shirt or a $10 gift certificate. A $10 fee could be reasonable, unless the first prize is $25. Fees in themselves are not a negative--but the ratio of entry fee to prize money is the tell-tale sign.

FundsforWriters.com has listed contests for thirteen years, and we've reached a point where many sponsors send us contests. If the entry fee is over five percent of the first prize, I scrutinize the contest harder. If it's over ten percent, I decline the request.

Some prizes consist of publication, a hard item to pin down to a dollar amount. In those cases, the publishing venue must have a proven reputation, one that empowers your own reputation if you win or place. But many young, obscure, small presses and indie publishing houses use contest entry fees to finance their operations. To be safe, seek financial compensation AND publication. FundsforWriters doesn't list any contest offering publication only.

Past winners.

Pay attention to previous winners. If something niggles at you about the contest, you may even Google the winners' names. Where have they published? Read their blogs. Study their careers. You can tell a lot about the quality of the contest by the quality of the winners. I once exposed a contest by researching the winners . . . of whom only one existed, and that lone writer had never received her winnings.

Rights.

If a contest wants all rights for entering, run away. If a contest wants one-time or first rights to publish and publicize your award, then fine. Sometimes a contest is proud of its selections, and understandably, they don't want to see them popping up across the Web on the heels of their announcement. However, if a publication wants all rights of the winners, make sure that all the other red flag issues are in order.

Identify from the outset what rights you sacrifice for entering or placing. I made semi-finalist in the 2009 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards, just as I signed with an agent for the manuscript. Unfortunately, we had to wait a couple of months before we could seriously shop the work because Amazon and Penguin had first rights to select it for publication. I'd have been happy if they did, but my agent had her hands temporarily tied.

Judges.

Not all judges are identified, and the lack of identity doesn't necessarily rule out a competition. You may not care, but prestige can come from being judged by someone known in his field. If you want to know the judges, email and ask. If the contest sponsors dodge you, reconsider.

After you become accustomed to contests, the red flags clearly reveal themselves. In a matter of seconds, I can judge a contest as good, iffy, or downright bad. A novice contest sponsor sooner or later flashes his unprofessionalism or naivete. If you study a contest and still aren't sure, email them for explanation, then run your own search. Disgruntled writers are known for airing their unhappiness, and a decent contest will promptly email you back, eager to please.

Good luck!

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

C. Hope Clark is editor of FundsforWriters.com, a website and family of newsletters that reach 45,000 readers each week with calls for submissions from grants, contests, markets, publishers, agents and employers. FundsforWriter.com was chosen by Writer's Digest Magazine for its annual 101 Best Websites for Writers from 2001 through 2012. Hope used her knowledge of contests to gain recognition for her manuscript and find an agent. Lowcountry Bribe was released by Bell Bridge Books in February 2012, the first in the Carolina Slade Mystery Series. 

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Ebooks Outsell Print! Putting Headlines in Context

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Widely-discussed book news this week: Amazon UK's report that ebook sales have outstripped the sales of all print formats combined.
According to unaudited figures released by [Amazon UK] on Monday, since the start of 2012, for every 100 hardback and paperback book sold on its site, customers downloaded 114 ebooks.
This generated many headlines announcing that Ebooks Beat Print!, along with the usual "Print is dead!" commentary (regretful or jubilant, according to bias). However, Amazon is famous for reporting statistics without providing the details necessary to fully evaluate them--just as the media is famous for disseminating a juicy sound bite even if it doesn't really represent the actual news story. Herewith, a bit of context.

- The figures are unaudited. According to The Guardian, "Amazon has refused to release audited figures for its digital book sales, something it does for printed books. It told the Guardian that the company would not discuss future policy on the matter."

- Lost in many of the headlines: the report comes from Amazon UK, not Amazon overall. I admit this is kind of a bagatelle, especially since Amazon US reported similar news back in 2011--but still, accuracy is important. Call me a pedant.

- I can't help wondering how much of a sales bump was provided by the phenomenal popularity of the tiresomely over-hyped 50 Shades trilogy.

- Free ebooks were excluded from Amazon's calculations, which is good...but how many of the ebooks were Kindle exclusives, available only at Amazon? Even if it's only a small percentage of the whole, the inclusion of books that can be bought nowhere else would tend to skew the figures.

- Amazon has the most popular single ebook reading device (Kindle owned about 40% of the market as of the end of 2011) and an even more commanding chunk of the ebook market (around 60% right now, according to most sources). Beyond the still-rapidly-growing enthusiasm for ebooks, these factors certainly contributed to ebook sales dominance at Amazon.

- Amazon is the world's major vendor of ebooks...but it's just one of many vendors of print books. In the USA, for instance, ebooks had become "the single dominant format in adult fiction sales" by the end of 2011--but as of January 2012, the sale of print formats was still more than triple that of ebooks across all trade categories.

- Last but not least, for those who fear that print is dead, or wish it had died some time ago, I came across an interesting article this week about the Book Industry Study Group's ongoing survey of consumers' attitudes toward ebooks. The latest figures from this survey reveal that print is seeing gains as ebook consumers diversify their buying habits.
The percentage of e-book consumers who "exclusively or mostly" purchased book content in e-book format decreased from nearly 70% in August 2011 to 60% in May 2012...During the same period, the percentage of survey respondents who had no preference for either e-book or print formats, or who bought some genres in e-book format and others in print, rose from 25% to 34%.
This suggests that, for the moment, we're heading toward a hybrid market in which ebooks are just one more book format for consumers to choose from--not the doom of print, nor a cause célèbre, but simply another container for text. Of course, we're still on the cusp of a paradigm shift, so no one can say what may happen in the far future. But with that caveat, I think print books and ebooks will co-exist relatively peaceably for some time to come...Amazon statistics notwithstanding.

Friday, August 03, 2012

Literary Agent Scams: Still Around, But On the Wane

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

As many of you know, Writer Beware maintains a Thumbs Down Agency List, which represents the agencies about which Writer Beware has received the largest number of complaints over the years, or which, based on documentation we’ve collected, we consider to pose the most significant hazard for writers.

The other day, on one of the online writers' discussion groups I frequent, someone asked a couple of questions about the list that I thought it would be instructive to answer here: why do we include agencies on the list if they're not currently active? And why don't we regularly add new agencies to the list?

We leave non-active agencies on the list because they often start up again, or start up under different names. Cris Robins of The Robins Agency, for instance, isn't operating just now as far as we know, but she has closed and re-started her business several times over the years, and we wouldn't be surprised to learn that she's back at it.

The numerous name changes and aliases of many of the agencies on the list also attest to their survival instinct. For instance, the agency currently calling itself Best Selling Book Rights Agency has been in continuous operation since 2001, but has had more than six name changes during that time.

We do occasionally take agencies off the list, if there's a really unequivocal reason for their demise--such as a grand jury indictment or jail time. That's why the list no longer includes George and Janet Titsworth, proprietors of Helping Hand Literary Services, or Martha Ivery, who ran literary agencies under several names and aliases. However, even jail time doesn't always deter the really determined scammers. American Literary Agents of Washington--a.k.a. Capital Literary Agency, a.k.a. Washington Literary Agency--vanished from the face of the earth when its owner went to prison on an unrelated charge. When he got out, he immediately began operating again as Clark, Mendelson, and Scott (a.k.a. Franklin-Madison Literary Agency.)

As to why new names don't regularly appear on the list--that's an interesting question, and the answer reflects the changes in publishing over the past decade.

When Writer Beware started up, before the turn of the century, literary agent scams were by far the most prevalent kind of fraud writers could expect to encounter. On average, we heard about a new scam agency every couple of weeks. But the advent of easy, inexpensive self-publishing services, as well as the rapid growth of the small press world, has given writers alternatives to the traditional literary-agent-brokered route to publication. As a result, many writers no longer see literary agents as the be-all and end-all of their publishing journey, and never bother with the agent search that used to be perceived as absolutely essential.

Which, as you can imagine, makes it much harder for a scam agent to make a living. Many formerly highly profitable agency scams have disappeared, or have dwindled to a shadow of their former selves (for instance, Arthur Fleming Associates, about which I used to get a question or complaint every few weeks, and now get only an occasional query). Others have shifted their operations to keep pace with change--such as Best Selling Book Rights Agency, which began as a fee-charging agency but has diversified into a variety of other predatory activities, or SterlingHouse Publisher (which recently changed its name to International Book Management Corporation), which axed its fee-charging Lee Shore Literary Agency in 2008 and currently focuses exclusively on vanity publishing and selling various services.

Now, in 2012, Writer Beware only rarely hears about brand-new agent scams; even inquiries about well-intentioned amateur agents--which once made up a large percentage of our correspondence--have dwindled to a trickle. By far the most frequent questions and complaints we receive involve small publishers, various flavors of vanity presses, self-publishing services, and marketing or other so-called services aimed at small press and self-published authors.

As a result, while the Thumbs Down Agency List is updated as we receive new information about name changes, spinoffs, etc., we haven't actually added an agency since we first put the list online.

So if you're feeling thankful for the wild new world of publishing options, here's another reason for gratitude: it has seriously reduced the prevalence of literary agent scams. However, scam agencies are still out there--plus, the reduction in their numbers has been more than offset by the proliferation of other scams aimed at writers. You still need to be careful out there.