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Interview with Victoria
Interview by Tina Morgan
Fiction Factor - What prompted you to create Writer Beware?
Victoria Strauss - When I first went online about five years ago, I didn't have much idea of how common literary fraud really is. My own path to publication was pretty smooth--I never ran across any questionable practices at all, and I'm afraid I thought my experience was typical. I was shocked to discover, through my participation in various online writers' forums, how many writers have been defrauded by disreputable agents, publishers, book doctors, and others. I became fascinated enough, and then angry enough, to do quite a bit of research on the subject.
Around this time I was checking out the "call for volunteers" section of the website of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (of which I'm a member), and saw a request for a volunteer to create a section of the website that would warn about literary scams. It seemed a perfect match between my interest and SFWA's need. That's how Writer Beware came about.
FF - Can you tell us a little more about the site and about the SFWA Writing Scam Committee?
VS - About the same time that I was creating Writer Beware, Ann Crispin, a SFWA member who is also very concerned about literary fraud, was putting together the Writing Scams Committee. Neither of us had any idea what the other was doing until a mutual acquaintance put us in touch. Again, it was a perfect match, and we decided to join forces.
Writer Beware's goal is to provide comprehensive, up-to-date information on as wide a variety of literary frauds as possible. We try not just to give warnings, but to educate writers about how to protect themselves. Though it's run by a speculative fiction organization, Writer Beware is definitely not limited to science fiction and fantasy--it's aimed at writers of all genres and all levels of expertise, from a detailed discussion of literary agent pitfalls for the beginning writer, to a section on electronic rights issues for the experienced writer facing the new challenges of the electronic marketplace.
There are also sections on book doctors (a.k.a. freelance editors), contests, subsidy and vanity publishers, electronic publishers, print-on-demand services, copyright, and a Case Studies page that discusses how a number of literary frauds actually worked. There's an
overview section that provides information for authors who are thinking of seeking legal recourse, and a page of general writers' alerts.
Writer Beware is basically the online face of the Writing Scams Committee, whose activities include tracking questionable literary agents and publishers, assisting law enforcement officials with investigations, and generally trying to get the word out in any way we
can. We maintain a large database of information, complaints, and documentation--we currently have files on over 200 agents, close to 100 publishers, and a number of freelance editors and other writers' services. We also run a research service--writers can send us questions about specific agents, publishers, and others, and we'll see if we have information in our files (our e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org). We get between 30 and 50 letters a week.
Right now, SFWA is the only professional writers' group that is actively working to warn writers about the dangers of literary fraud.
FF - The internet provides writers with resources that aren't readily available in all parts of the country: support groups, quick access to information, valid warnings, cautions and much more. It also provides authors with a new access to publishing. With this comes the risk of more writers being duped out of their money. What red-flags should a writer watch out for when querying publishers or agents?
VS - First of all, I agree about the tremendous usefulness of the Internet. It must be used carefully (there's much misinformation floating around), but overall the Web is an incredible resource for writers. Much more of my career is pre- than post-Web, but it's very hard for me to imagine my writing life without the Internet.
On to warning signs. The first and most reliable warning sign, for both agents and publishers, is money requested upfront. A reputable agent will not generally ask an author to pay out-of-pocket for anything, including submission expenses, before a book sale is made. And while not all reputable publishers can afford to pay advances, they will not require a setup or submission or maintenance fee.
For agents, a second warning sign is a lack of commercial book sales, or claims of sales that can't be verified. You want an agent who is successful at what s/he does. This means a verifiable track record of sales to commercial (advance-paying) publishers; or, if the agent is new, a background in publishing or agenting that makes it a good bet s/he'll soon acquire one. A new agent with a non-publishing background, or an agent who has been in business for a number of years and has not yet made a sale, or an agent who claims sales of titles you can't prove exist, or an agent who has not placed any titles with commercial publishers, is not a good choice.
Many writers are hesitant to ask agents about their track records (and many disreputable agents take advantage of that by browbeating them if they do). But good agents have no objection to revealing sales information--in fact, they expect this question. Reputable agents include sample titles with their listings in market guides, and if they have websites there's always a section that lists clients and/or recent sales. An agent who refuses to give you specifics about past sales, or tells you the information is confidential, usually has something to hide.
For non-electronic or print-on-demand-based publishers, a second warning sign is books that are only available online, and have not been reviewed in industry review journals such as Booklist and Publishers Weekly. These two things together are signs that the publisher isn't marketing its books to the book trade--i.e., bricks-and-mortar bookstores--which is still where the vast majority of book sales occur.
FF - There is a lot of talk about monthly fees for agents, covering everything from mailing expenses, long distance phone calls, manuscript copying fees, and internet research fees. Should a writer ever pay a monthly fee to an agent? Are these charges supposed to be taken out of an author's royalties or are they above and beyond the normal agent commission?
VS - Many reputable agents do charge back some of the expense of submission to their clients (generally expenses not encountered in the normal run of business, such as photocopying, postage, courier fees, and overseas phone calls). However, accepted practice is to allow these expenses to accrue to an author account, and take them out of the author's income
(along with commission) once a book sale is made. Submission expenses should not be charged up-front on contract signing, or asked for as a regular out-of-pocket reimbursement or monthly fee.
Some reputable agents reserve the right to ask that the author reimburse expenses out-of-pocket if the book won't sell or if the writer decides to move on before it does. Writers should protect themselves against being blindsided by unexpected costs by making sure the agent-author contract clearly defines what's chargeable, and requires author approval for larger expenditures, say anything over $50.
FF - For an inexperienced writer, what rights should they allow a publisher/agent to take? When does a writer approach the point of signing away too many rights?
VS - An agent should not take any rights at all. A writer hires an agent to be his/her exclusive representative in the *sale* of rights; the agent is paid a commission on those sales, but doesn't have any claim on therights themselves. Any agent who tries to claim rights should be regarded with extreme suspicion. This does happen: I've heard of agents who try to take a share of copyright, or who want to be listed as a book's co-author, or who want a 50% share in the sale of subsidiary rights. Needless to say, these agents are not reputable.
Publishers, of course, do take rights--that's what gives them the ability to exploit an author's work for profit. When you sell rights, you're generally selling primary rights (producing, selling, and distributing the work in book form, whether by print or electronic
means) plus an array of subsidiary rights (non-book rights such as first and second serial, audio, and dramatic; and licensing rights, by which the publisher licenses third parties, such as book clubs, to produce the work).
By default, a publisher wants to take all the rights it can, and a writer wants to keep as many rights as possible. An equitable balance between these two opposing interests is achievable only by means of negotiation. A reputable publisher should be willing to negotiate its contract at least to some degree. A publisher that refuses negotiation should be treated with caution: this can be a sign of nonstandard contract terms.
When negotiating, common sense is in order. Research the publisher first, so you have an idea of what it does and how successful it is. If you can, keep rights the publisher can't make use of. For instance, an electronic publisher probably isn't in a position to exploit print rights; if so, don't agree to hand them over. A print publisher may not have the ability to exploit electronic rights; if so, keep these if you can. A small publisher may not be capable of exploiting foreign or dramatic or licensing rights; if so, try not to relinquish them. A fee-based self-publishing service isn't in a position to exploit any
rights at all, so the contract should be non-exclusive.
Contract negotiation is an area in which a good literary agent can be invaluable. Publishing contracts are complicated documents, and unless you have a legal or a publishing background, the odds are you won't adequately understand them, or know what to negotiate. If you don't have an agent, get legal advice before you sign a contract--but be sure the lawyer has intellectual property experience, and understands publishing law. A general purpose attorney will not know how to interpret a publishing contract, or be knowledgeable about the issues involved.
Getting back for a moment to the potential pitfalls of the Internet--the ease of the Internet combined with the accessibility of print-on-demand technology has resulted in an explosion of small Web-based publishers. Some are reputable, but a good number are marginal (run by people who have no publishing or marketing experience, and for some reason imagine
that publishing is an easy home business), and some are even outright fraudulent. The contracts offered by these publishers can be incrediblynonstandard and abusive. Any contract received from an online publisher should be *very* carefully scrutinized.
FF - How do you envision the future of electronic publishing?
VS - This answer won't make me popular, but here goes.
I think that the only thing we can say for certain about e-publishing right now is that all the current predictions will turn out to be wrong. This is such a fast-developing field, and so little is known about its utility, its commercial viability, or the directions in which it might develop that long-term prognostication is like reading a crystal ball.
E-publishing appears to be making substantial inroads in academic, reference, and textbook publishing. And there are many independent e-publishers of fiction and nonfiction that have established themselves online. But as an alternative to print-published trade fiction and nonfiction, I think e-books have a way to go. The audience just isn't there at this point. Dedicated e-book readers are still too expensive for the average person, and most people don't enjoy reading from their computer screen or from a handheld. There's an enthusiastic core audience for e-books, but it hasn't yet spilled over into the wider reading public, which still, overwhelmingly, prefers printed books.
The content isn't there either. There are plenty of offerings from public domain projects like the Gutenberg Project and from independent e-publishers (though the quality of the latter is very variable). But only a small selection of what's put out by commercial publishers is available electronically. The existence of multiple formats causes confusion, and the commercial publishers' efforts at digital rights management can be awfully cumbersome. And prices are often much too high. Most people, when surveyed, seem to feel an e-book shouldn't cost more than a mass-market paperback--but even the independents often price above that, and as for the commercial publishers, which want readers to pay the same for an e-book as they do for a hardcover, the pricing is absurd.
I also think that in their current state, e-books don't offer any significant advantage over print books. Sure, they're new-tech nifty; they're also more portable and more quickly available by download, and you can do cool things like search and annotate them. But in my view these are added features, not qualitative improvements--and anyway, the disadvantages cited above do a lot to cancel them out.
The print book isn't broken--it doesn't need to be fixed. One industry analyst recently said "E-books are solving a problem that consumers don't have", and many consumer studies confirm this attitude. The real potential of e-books, I think, lies in such things as multi-media features and Web interactivity (and also in the ability to constantly update electronic content, which is not especially relevant to most trade publishing, but is one of the things that's given e-publishing a foothold in the reference and academic markets). But these aren't really being exploited by e-publishers, which so far seem to be limiting their efforts to attempting to duplicate the print book experience as closely as possible in electronic form (this goes for the much-heralded development of electronic ink, which--awesome technology though it is--will essentially make an e-book *even more* like a print book). As long as publishers are stuck in the duplicate-a-print-book mode, I don't believe that e-books will ever become more than a somewhat less appealing alternative to print.
FF - Has having a presence on the internet helped or hindered your writing career?
VS - I believe it's helped me a great deal. For a writer who's not a bestseller, and doesn't get significant promotion from the publisher, a website is really invaluable--it increases public presence, and puts you in touch with readers and potential readers. I've also been able to do many online interviews and chats, which are terrific opportunities for promotion. And I've benefited from online journals, which have gotten me into freelance writing and book reviewing, and have taken me from Web-based venues into higher-paying print markets.
I also benefit tremendously--not in a career sense, but in a personal sense--from the various writers' communities online. Due to accidents of geographic location, I've never been in a situation where I could join a writers' group, or even meet socially with other writers. But in the five years or so I've been online, I've had more contact with other writers than in the whole of my previous career. It's a great thing to be able to share the ups and downs of this strange profession with others who are engaged in it, or aspire to it. And I really value the opportunity it gives me to pay forward a little bit, by sharing what I've learned.
FF - Can you tell us a little about your current project and when you think it will be released?
VS - Right now I'm working on a standalone fantasy (first in a 2-book contract with Eos). It's set in an eastern-themed fantasy world, and deals with the conflict that results when the leaders of a powerful religious tradition (just recovering from a period of terrible persecution) discover that the central apocalyptic prophecy of their faith may have been fulfilled. Do they accept the apparent miracle, which means not just the end of the world but the end of their own authority? Or do they reject the miracle, because they can't deal with the idea of change? In the end, the decision they make brings about the exact result they want to avoid. The story is told through two viewpoint characters: the priest who discovers the miracle, and a young woman of the lost city that guards the miracle. (I am terrible at describing my own books. It's not nearly as dry as this makes it sound. Honest!)
As to the release date...gulp. I'm already late on my deadline. My best guess is sometime in 2003.
FF - Do you have any parting advice for aspiring writers?
VS - Talent is important. So, to a certain extent, is luck: your ms. landing on the right person's desk at the right time. But as important as either of these is perseverance. Given the first, perseverance will more than likely eventually bring you the second. If your first book doesn't sell, write another. If your hundredth query letter is rejected, send out the hundred-and-first. Keep writing, keep trying, no matter what the setbacks and frustrations--and remember, every single successful writer at one point went through what you're going through.
FF - Thank you very much for your time. It is a tremendous benefit to our readers.
VS - Anytime. I enjoyed it! And apologies again for being tardy (you can see why I missed my book deadline).
THE GARDEN OF THE STONE (HarperCollins Eos)
Writer Beware: http://www.sfwa.org/beware
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