Posts Tagged ‘Writer Beware’

Victoria Strauss — The Perils of Searching For Publishers on the Internet

Imagine you’re a new writer. You’ve just completed your first manuscript, and are on fire to get it published. You don’t know a lot about the publishing world, or how to identify a good publisher for your book–but that’s okay. You have the Internet. So you open a search engine–Google, let’s say–and type “publishers” into […]

Victoria Strauss — Google Book Search Settlement Fairness Hearing Adjourned

Last week, the U.S. Justice Department’s anti-trust division urged the court to reject the Google Book Search Settlement, citing “concerns of the United States regarding class action, copyright and antitrust law.” (The full text of the DOJ’s brief can be seen here.) However, it urged the parties to continue discussion, since “a properly structured settlement agreement in this case offers the potential for important societal benefits, [and] the United States does not want the opportunity or momentum to be lost.”

Victoria Strauss — VDM Verlag Dr. Mueller

For some time, I’ve been receiving questions about VDM Verlag Dr Mueller, a German academic publisher. VDM describes its business thus: VDM publishes academic research worldwide – at no cost to our authors. Annually, we publish more than 10,000 new titles and are thus one of the leading publishing houses of academic research. We specialize […]

Victoria Strauss — Google Book Search Settlement: Opting Out

This morning, I opted out of the Google Book Search Settlement.

For several months, I’ve had no question that I did NOT want my books included in Google’s database. It’s not the display of bibliographic information, or even snippets, that I object to–it’s the possible uses the settlement empowers Google to make of my work down the road (including selling my books in electronic and POD form). If those uses were limited and clearly defined, I might not have a problem–but they aren’t, and I just can’t see allowing such a sweeping license to my work, where the implications of granting that license are so unclear.

My only question was whether my desire not to participate in the Settlement would be best accomplished by opting out–in which case Google would “voluntarily” honor my request not to digitize or display my books, but not be barred from changing its mind at some point in the future; the advantage is that I would retain my right to sue Google for infringement–or by opting in and directing Google to remove my books from its database, in which case I would waive forever my right to legal action against Google for any use of my work. Either option presents the risk that Google might at some future point renege, and I might find my work used anyway.

Two things convinced me that opting out was not only the best, but also the most morally acceptable, decision. The first was reading Scott E. Gant’s objection to the Settlement, which provides a blistering analysis of the Settlement’s raid upon the very ground of copyright, and also of the inadequacy of Google’s efforts to notify copyright holders. It convinced me that I couldn’t accept the Settlement, even to the degree of opting in solely to prevent Google from using my work.

The second was my conviction that the Settlement will not be approved at the Fairness Hearing on October 7. The flaws are just too glaring, the objections are just too persuasive–and then there’s the Dept. of Justice’s antitrust investigation. There could be years of litigation ahead. For writers who’ve opted into the Settlement–or who’ve done nothing and have been opted in by default–what will the rights implications be? I don’t want to be a party to that either.

In an article from the Guardian that I read this morning, an advocate of the Settlement is quoted:

“The obvious social justice and social utility impact that the book project is going to have … are getting lost in the discussion,” said Professor Lateef Mtima, director of the Institute of Intellectual Property & Social Justice at Howard University, a pioneering black college in Washington.

He suggested it would help “so many segments of our society today who for decades have been left out of the communication exchange, who have been on the wrong side of the digital divide”.

I don’t disagree. In fact, I think it’s a compelling argument. The article continues:

However, critics of the deal said that this does not address their concerns with the settlement – which are not about whether digitising books is useful, but whether the specific terms of the deal will hamper innovation and damage authors.

For me, this is exactly the issue. As alluring as is the prospect of a universal, digital world library, I don’t believe that the Settlement, fatally flawed as it is, is the way to establish that.

If you decide you want to opt out, there’s still time–you have till the end of today. See my previous post on opting out for links and information.

Victoria Strauss — Postage Promotion

Whenever I think I’ve seen it all, something new comes along.

The explosive growth of self-publishing options over the past decade or so has spawned a mini-industry catering to writers trying to get notice for their books. From publicity companies (some competent, many not) to the marketing packages hawked by self-publishing providers such as AuthorHouse (typically overpriced and largely ineffective) to completely worthless pseudo-services (email blasts, online catalogs, book fair “representation”), self-published authors these days have near-unlimited opportunities to spend money on self-promotion.

Such as this one, from self-publishing service Outskirts Press: put your book cover on a postage stamp.

No, I am not making this up. From an Outskirts’ press release, dated today:

Outskirts Press, the fastest growing full-service self-publishing and book marketing company, recently announced it is making available to its family of over 4500 published authors an opportunity to feature their book cover on customized first-class US postage stamps.

Every envelope they send out can then promote their own books with these new eye catching stamps. These are legitimate, custom First Class U.S. Postal stamps, and they come in quantities of 120, each with a color image of the author’s book cover.

This clever book marketing tool is just one more marketing device within an already expansive repertoire of promotional aids provided by Outskirts Press to its authors. Unlike many self-publishing firms, Outskirts Press understands the key role marketing plays in their authors’ success, and they continually develop new promotional and marketing services for their authors to use well beyond the initial publication of their work.

Of course, Outskirts’ “new promotional and marketing services” are also designed to snag their authors’ dollars. Prices aren’t mentioned in the press release, but per this list of add-ons to Outskirts’ basic publishing packages, 120 custom stamps will set an author back $149.

When was the last time you took a careful look at a postage stamp?

Victoria Strauss — Publishers’ Kill Fees, and Why They’re Bad For Everyone

Traditionally, in the magazine and newspaper industry, a kill fee is “a negotiated payment on a magazine or newspaper article that is given to the freelancer if their assigned article is ‘killed’ or cancelled.” (Read the full definition here.) The contracts for the magazine articles I and Ann Crispin wrote for Writer’s Digest included kill fees–but that was a few years back, and I suspect they are less common now.

In the world of small publishers, however, “kill fee” means something quite different: a fee–usually a few hundred dollars–paid by an author to her publisher for getting out of a contract early. I’ve seen a lot of small press contracts that include kill fees, and it’s my impression that such clauses are becoming more common.

For obvious reasons, kill fee clauses are onerous for authors, who in some circumstances might have good reason to want to end a contract early, and can’t do so without opening up their wallets. Plus, many publishers employ kill fee clauses abusively, holding them over the heads of unhappy authors, or attempting to use them as an income source by offering to jettison dissatisfied writers at the slightest provocation, or terminating the contracts of writers who’ve pissed them off and demanding the fee even though termination wasn’t the writer’s decision. EPIC, an association for epublished authors, identifies kill fees as a red flag contract clause–one that authors should absolutely avoid. I agree.

From an honest small publisher’s perspective, on the other hand–a publisher that isn’t planning on browbeating its authors with kill fees, or using the fees to try and make an extra buck–a kill fee may seem to make good business sense. “We don’t want to hold onto an unhappy author,” the publisher might reason. “But we invest a lot of work in editing, designing, marketing, etc. So if we can’t maximize our investment by selling the author’s book for the full contract term, it’s only fair that we should get some reimbursement if she decides to leave early.”

Problem is, if the unhappy author can’t afford the kill fee, the publisher will wind up stuck with her anyway–along with the extra resentment produced by the author’s knowledge that she could have gotten free if only she’d had the cash. (I recently heard from an author and publisher in exactly this situation.) Alternatively, if the author can afford the kill fee, she may see it as an easy exit, and jump ship without giving the publisher the chance to address whatever problems she thinks she’s having–thus losing the publisher a book it might have retained if it had had more time to work things out.

So kill fees are a definite writer beware–but they’re a publisher beware too, because while they may sound good in theory, in reality they can backfire. For publishers willing to let their unhappy authors go, it’s far simpler–and far more author-friendly–just to allow authors to terminate the contract at will, without the potential complications and and bad feelings of a kill fee. Or, if the publisher prefers to try to resolve the problems, not to include a termination provision at all, and make termination decisions on a case-by-case basis.

Victoria Strauss — Bad Impressions for Good Impressions Audio Books

To fee-charging services looking for more customers, what could be more lucrative than a referral from a literary agency or publisher? To a literary agency or publisher, what could be more tempting than to make money not just from its clients, but from the thousands of authors it rejects?

This is the logic behind referral fee schemes, in which a fee-charging company or service offers a percentage or finder’s fee to agents and/or publishers willing to send authors its way. Unscrupulous scams such as crooked editing service Edit Ink and dishonest vanity publisher Commonwealth Publications have done very well from such schemes, paying kickbacks to agents who placed writers with them. A number of “stealth” vanity publishers (publishers that charge a fee but publicly present themselves as “traditional”) have also experimented with referral incentives, targeting both literary agents and non-vanity publishers. And some straightforward POD self-publishing services offer referral programs–AuthorHouse, for instance, pays $100 for successful referrals.

Occasionally, referral plans backfire. In 2001, self-pub service Xlibris contacted a large number of reputable agents, inviting them to recommend their “not quite ready for prime-time writers” to the company, for which they would be rewarded with a percentage of whatever writers who chose to publish with Xlibris wound up paying. A storm of criticism ensued, and Xlibris canceled the plan, admitting that it “goofed.”

Note to referral plan offerers: Stick to questionable agents and publishers. Not only will they probably have fewer scruples about embracing such arrangements, they’ll be more likely to need the easy money. And they’ll be less likely to contact Writer Beware.

The latest outfit to ignore this basic bit of common sense is fee-for-service audiobook “publisher” Good Impressions Audio Books, which appears to be actively contacting reputable literary agents with the following pitch:

A new ongoing revenue stream for your agency.

FACT: The vast majority of manuscripts don’t get published.

FACT: You receive many submissions you don’t accept.

FACT: You don’t make money from those.

FACT: can change that.

We developed an innovative concept for writers to record professional sounding audio books with our recording equipment as we guide them every step of the way and our professional audio team then edits, improves and enhances the audio book.

You can become an “audio book agent” for your authors and for authors with manuscripts you might not normally accept. One phone call or email to us and we handle the rest.

We’ll pay you 15% of the audio book recording fee for authors you refer to us.

Per its contract, Good Impressions Audio Books charges a minimum fee of $499. If authors choose to use its voice talent, rather than their own, they can wind up paying much more.

Ashley Grayson, the literary agent who shared this solicitation with me, wasn’t tempted. “I’m all for entrepreneurship in publishing and applaud authors with innovative platforms,” he says, “but our agency declines all offers to be slipped a portion of the money an author pays to anyone. We earn our commissions from the deals we negotiate for authors.”

On its website, Good Impressions seems to be reasonably straightforward about its services, but its Why an Audio Book fact sheet includes a number of mis-statements, such as the claim that “few authors get advances from publishers anymore” (false) and that “audio book sales are coming close to overtaking printed book sales” (the Audio Publishers’ Association estimates the total US audio book market at $1 billion, but this is a fraction of the multi-billion-dollar US book market. Not to mention, sales statistics are meaningless to self- and vanity-published authors, whose main problem isn’t what consumers are or are not buying, but how to let consumers know their books exist).