Walking the Tightrope Between Innocent and Cynical

The writer’s journey from the passion and vulnerability of innocence to the wisdom of experience can be a dark and twisted road. In fact, if you are a writer of any merit, I guarantee you that yours will be too. Think Dante in the forest…

Let me tell you a story … It starts in the early 1990s. I was an eager young sprite entering the novel publishing world with my newly finished science fiction novel: “Escape from Utopia”. I’d published a few short stories and many articles by then. In addition, I’d published many scientific papers and reports. Confident and cocky, I was proud of my novel and eager to share it with the world. And I thought I knew my way through that dark forest…

I zealously sent the manuscript to a bazillion agents and editors. I was rewarded for my zealous efforts with a tidal wave of rejection letters. Mostly form letters (see my amusing account of the evolution of rejection letters in my fiction writing guidebook, The Fiction Writer) and an excerpt in a previous post here: “Rejection, Part 2: the Evolution of Rejection

Then it came: an enthusiastic letter from an agent (I can’t remember the name: Literary Bridge or something); they said my work had great promise and that with some help from an editing firm they would consider representing me if I had it edited and resubmitted.

They recommended Edit Ink.

Those of you in the know and with some history in the industry may recall the Edit Ink scandal of the 90s. In short, it was a bait-and-switch scam that Bill Appel and Denise Sterrs (of Edit Ink) and their associated literary agents ran for close to a decade. Edit Ink was a “book doctor” firm near Buffalo, New York. The State of New York eventually convicted Appel and Sterrs and associates for defrauding prospective writers of several million dollars.

I remember my heart swelling with gratitude and optimism. Finally, someone liked my book! I naively considered their recommendation. Soon after—within days—I got an invitational letter from the pro-active Edit Ink. I can’t remember the exact content, except that they assured me that only the most promising writers were recommended to them by this particular agent. I remember seriously considering their offer. Then I got two more letters, one from another agent who recommended Edit Ink and another invitational letter from Edit Ink. Alarm bells went off. I went from naively hopeful to cynically suspicious. I did some investigating (something I should have done initially); by then the buzz was already on the Internet on their questionable practices. The lawsuit by New York State had yet to happen.

The Science Fiction Writers Association (SFWA) runs a “writer Beware” page, where memorable cases are reviewed. It’s worthwhile perusing just for your general knowledge and edification.

Here’s what they said about Edit Ink:

Founded by the husband and wife team of Bill Appel and Denise Sterrs, Edit Ink was a New York State-based editing service that engaged in a kickback referral scheme with a wide network of literary agents. Here’s how the scheme worked.

  • Participating agents sent letters to writers who’d submitted manuscripts the agents didn’t want to represent, saying that the writer’s work showed “promise” but “wasn’t quite ready for publication.” A useful service was recommended: Edit Ink, which for a fee would polish the ms. to make it more salable. Once the ms. had been edited, the agent would then be glad to reconsider it.
  • The agent forwarded the writer’s name to Edit Ink, which sent off a solicitation letter claiming, among other things, that Edit Ink received referrals for only a “select few” manuscripts (false), and that most publishing houses insisted on receiving “professionally edited” work (falser).
  • If the writer took the bait and paid for an edit, the referring agent received a kickback of 15%.
  • Writers who resubmitted their edited manuscripts to referring agents, per the referring agents’ suggestions, were given the brushoff. Either the market had “changed in the interim”, or the agency was “no longer representing that genre.”

Edit Ink charged $5 per page–exorbitant at the time even for a qualified editorial service, which Edit Ink very definitely was not. Its staff mostly consisted of recent college graduates with no publishing experience, working long hours for minimum wage. The typical Edit Ink edit was slipshod and superficial, consisting mainly of basic copy editing suggestions, and omitting the kind of in-depth analysis of plot, theme, character, and structure that might make a professional edit worthwhile.

At its height, dozens of literary agencies participated in the scheme. Edit Ink even set up its own bogus agencies and publishers to funnel more manuscripts its way. It’s estimated that the company made in excess of $5 million.

Mounting complaints from writers, and efforts by writers’ advocacy groups, at last spurred New York State to take action. In January 1998 the NYS Attorney General announced a lawsuit against Edit Ink for deceptive business practices, false advertising, and fraud.

Throughout the appeals process, Edit Ink continued to operate. Many questionable agents continued to refer manuscripts, and Aardvark Literary Agents (one of Edit Ink’s original bogus agencies) was taken over by co-defendant Kelley Culmer so it could go on functioning as a conduit for Edit Ink referrals. Business was dwindling, however–in part as a result of media attention, but largely because of spreading word in the then relatively new environment of the Internet. Once the appeal was denied, the thrill was gone. In August 1999, Appel and Sterrs closed Edit Ink’s doors for good.

Shades of Edit Ink

Edit Ink is by no means unique in the publishing industry. “Book doctors”, associated kick-back agents and subsidy publishers are, in fact, on the rise. This is not surprising, in view of the current rise in self-publishing and associated models. The industry is currently inundated with a range of publishing models from straight printing-only firms to full service publishing houses and anything in-between.

Author Victoria Strauss on her blog “Writer Beware” shares this story:

Over the past couple of days, I’ve heard from several writers who queried agents at Objective Entertainment, a relatively new literary agency with a strong track record and experienced staff, and received the following response:

Dear [name retracted], 

Thank you so much for contacting us at Objective Entertainment. We have reviewed your material and we would like to refer you to one of our Publishers who we trust and believe will be able to serve you best. In order to do this I need your permission and the following information so they can either contact you via Phone or Email. The following information we need is if you would like to receive their newsletter and special offers. I think this is an amazing opportunity for you. 

Please reply with the information we asked so that we can get you that one step closer to getting your work published! 

Best 

Tracey Ravenelle
Objective Entertainment

When the writers, eager to know the name of the publisher, requested more information, they received this response from Ms. Ravenelle:

We work with Iuniverse and AuthorHouse. Iuniverse has the number 5 book this week on the NY Times Best Seller List!

The writers then asked why Objective was recommending a self-publishing service. As of this writing, only one has received a response, which Ms. Strauss reproduced below exactly as it was sent to her:

Because we believe they would be the most beneficial for you at this point in time. Then you would come back to us after the sales starting racking up and we go major! This is the best way for an author to get their work out their. One of their books is number 5 on this weeks upcoming NY Times Best Seller list. So we believe they can help our potential future clients immensely.

EEK… aside from their atrocious grammar, Objective made some questionable recommendations. The major one being that of referring rejected clients to a self-publishing service (of course, they got a fee for referring clients to the house).

Vanity and Subsidy Publishers

SFWA shares another story:

Thousands of writers worldwide entered into contracts with Commonwealth Publications of Canada, a vanity publisher founded in 1995 by fee-charging literary agent Donald Phelan. Phelan worked with a number of other fee-charging agents who, in exchange for a kickback, recommended Commonwealth’s vanity contracts to their clients. Phelan also advertised for manuscripts in magazines such as Writer’s Digest and Writer’s Journal. (Writers take note: this is just one example of why you shouldn’t trust the classified ads in writers’ magazines.)

Commonwealth, which identified itself as a “subsidy” publisher (the implication being that the writer was contributing only a portion of the cost) typically charged $4,500 for publication, with a promised print run of 10,000. Its glossy promotional material promised all kinds of support to its authors: editing, proofreading, marketing, international distribution. But few of these services were actually delivered–and there were many other problems. Publication dates were delayed. Authors didn’t receive the number of books they were promised. The quality of finished books was poor. Books never showed up in bookstores. Royalties from books supposedly sold were never paid.

Fee-Charging Agents

SWFA shares this recent story:

On January 7, 2010, UK literary agent/film producer Robin Price appeared in court, accused of stealing more than half a million pounds from clients.

Price is alleged to have encouraged authors to pay exaggerated literary fees and invest in non-existent film deals, and has been charged with six counts of theft, most committed over the course of several years.

Even successful established writers were taken in by this one.

Writer Brian Knight, who suffered a book doctor agent scam, shares this advice: “New writers need to know that these people are still out there, spewing false promises … patting us on the back with one hand and picking our pockets with the other.” He advises new writers to research every individual and business with which they intend to do business.

Reign in your excitement and enthusiasm. Breathe. Then do the research. “Google.com is your friend,” says Knight. “There are other online resources available to writers. In this era of the information super-highway, it has never been easier to arm yourself against the scumbags and swindlers who make their living off the trusting and naive.” Knight also suggests, www.duotrope.com.

A great site to check out anyone in the writing and publishing industry is “Preditors and Editors” (intentionally misspelled). A site I have come to rely on for excellent market advice is www.ralan.com.

The writer’s journey is a hero’s journey, fraught with obstacles, dangerous distractions, and great disappointments (see Christopher Vogel’s excellent book The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers for more). But it is a path illuminated by a beacon of passionate expression, great sharing and exquisite victory. Choose your hero archetype carefully: choose magician.

We are the shamans, the myth-makers of our community and society. The artist / writer carries her archetypal message through story to her tribe, her community, her society and her world. It is both fulfilling and a great responsibility.

After the Edit Ink debacle, I picked myself up—a little wiser and a little moreswimming on pavement careful—and went on to find a traditional publishing house who published my first and second novels. Escape from Utopia became Angel of Chaos published by Dragon Moon Press (Part 1 of the Darwin’s Paradox duology), and I went on to publish seven more novels through traditional, indie, and self-publishing models: a historical fantasy, an SF adventure trilogy, two romantic SF novels, a short story collection (Natural Selection) and two text books on writing.

I haven’t looked back since… except to write this article, that is.

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

What Indie Authors Should Know…

morning mist mountainsAs we enter a new year in writing and publishing, I thought I’d review some interesting statistics and observed trends over 2014 made by those poised well in the industry.

In July 2014, Publishers Weekly revealed some interesting statistics from various surveys and studies worth considering.

The article was based on two recent surveys: one by best selling indie author Hugh Howey; and the other by Mark Coker, founder of e-book distributor Smashwords.

Publishers Weekly cited Hugh Howey’s Author Earnings Report, in which he claimed that “the report comes to the conclusion that the indie movement in literature is not a blip and not a gold rush.” It is definitely here to stay, said Publishers Weekly. Here’s what they summarized:

  • The Big Five traditional publishers now account for only 16% of the e-books on Amazon’s bestseller lists.
  • Self-published books now represent 31% of e-book sales on Amazon’s Kindle Store.
  • Indie authors are earning nearly 40% of the e-book dollars going to authors.
  • Self-published authors are “dominating traditionally published authors” in sci-fi/fantasy, mystery/thriller, and romance genres but — and here is the surprise — they are also taking “significant market share in all genres.

Publishers Weekly contended that “what is clear is that strong indie sales will continue and indie books are now a significant and permanent part of the book publishing landscape.”

Coker’s survey revealed that the 99¢ ebook was no longer “the sweet spot” for e-book pricing. In his 2014 survey, Coker determined from aggregated retail and library sales data of Smashwords books, that:

  • $2.99 and $3.99 are currently the pricing sweet spots for most e-book bestsellers. In general, authors who price their books modestly earn more than those whose average price is higher, but 99¢ is “no longer the path to riches.”
  • Readers prefer longer e-books. In fact, bestselling books tend to be over 100,000 words.
  • Series books outsell stand alone books — but series books under 50,000 words are at a sales disadvantage.
  • “Free” still works as a marketing tool, especially when an author offers the first book in a series for free, but it is much less effective than before — primarily because so many authors are taking advantage of it.
  • Pre-orders give authors a sales advantage. “I think pre-orders today are where free was five years ago,” says Coker. “The first authors to effectively utilize pre-orders will gain the most advantage, just as the first authors to enter new distribution channels gain the most advantage,” he says.
  • Non-fiction earns more at higher prices. “Non-fiction buyers are less price sensitive,” says Coker. “It appears as if most non-fiction authors are underpricing their works, and they should experiment with higher prices,” he says.

Coker is quick to point out that this analysis is based on his own interpretation of the findings, and should only be used to provide authors with possible clues to help them make informed decisions about how to market their own unique books.

In an excellent article, summarizing 2014, award-winning author Kristine Kathryn Rusch summarizes what indie writers learned in 2014. She prefers to use the terms indie-writer and indie-publishing over self-publishing, “because so many writers who are not with traditional publishers have started their own presses. It’s not accurate to lump all writers who are not following the traditional route into the self-publishing basket any longer, if it ever was.” This is an interesting acknowledgement and considers a movement by established authors toward a different publishing model, including hybrid publishing.

Rusch’s rather pithy article suggests that writing and publishing “is hard”, no matter what model you use. She adds that if you don’t learn to love the business side of the industry, “self-publishing can be a soul-sucking experience.” Rusch is quick to add that business destroys the dreams of many writers. “If you don’t learn to love business, you’ll get destroyed in traditional publishing. It’ll just take ten years, where in self-publishing, it’ll take less time.”

Read her section entitled “Achieving Real Success is Hard” for an insightful and candid study of “success” in writing and publishing.

“We all measure success differently, and we should know what it is before we start publishing. But most writers don’t. Success is finishing a novel (check). Success is getting that novel published (check). Success is getting good reviews (check). Success is getting paid for that novel. (check) Success is making a living. (um, what?)”

Read Rusch’s section entitled “The Gold Rush is Over” for an excellent reality-check of the indie publishing industry.

“The days of slapping something up and making a lot of sales were gone by the end of 2010. But the rumors persisted and a lot of people got into indie publishing expecting to get rich…You are not entitled to fame and riches just because you published a book.”

In his blog post of November 2014, Mark Coker said:

“The gravy train of exponential sales growth is over. Indies have hit a brick wall and are scrambling to make sense of it. … Some authors are considering quitting. It’s heartbreaking to hear this, but I’m not surprised either. When authors hit hard times, sometimes the reasons to quit seem to outnumber the reasons to power on. Often these voices come from friends and family who admire our authorship but question the financial sensibility of it all.”

To Coker’s comment Rusch adds, “I’m pretty sure more writers quit than survived publishing in 2014, but that’s because more writers always quit than survive. As I said above, the entire profession is hard, and for those people who want to get by without working hard, this profession is not for them.”

Rusch sums up, again rather pithily, eight things indie writers learned (or should have learned) in 2014:

  1. Gaming the system is impossible: e.g., “every time we figure out how Amazon’s algorithm works, Amazon changes it”; “free doesn’t help me sell my books any more”; 99cents doesn’t help me sell my books any more”; “the tags are gone”; I can’t seem to get enough reviews”; “now when I post on social media, no one responds”—trying to milk the system doesn’t work for the writer because the system is geared for the customer, not the writer—and it’s always a step ahead of you…
  2. Amazon doesn’t love you: Kindle Unlimited? It isn’t about helping its writers; it is about helping its customers.
  3. No one loves you: writers are not entitled to have their books on a shelf, virtual or real.
  4. Your readers don’t even love you (all the time): “you don’t collect and hoard readers; readers can collect and hoard books. It doesn’t work the other way around,” says Rusch.
  5. Sales based on price no longer work: “even the most denial-filled indie writers are starting to figure out that just because their books are cheap, it doesn’t mean readers will pick up that book,” says Rusch.
  6. Running with the big dogs is hard: “Now that the last thing that differentiated traditional publishing from indie—price— has leveled out, indies discovered in 2014 that they’re no longer competing with each other. They’re competing with traditionally published books, including long-term bestsellers,” says Rusch. As Blake says, “Pro basketball players don’t tell themselves that they don’t have to be all that great because there are plenty of mediocre players.”
  7. There is no status quo: “Working in the arts means accepting constant change. Constant change… One of the stupidest gambits I’ve heard from writers in recent years comes from the indie world. Apparently, writers are now searching key words on Amazon bestseller lists—and writing books based on those key words. Oh, heavens, folks. The Amazon bestseller lists are a fraction of the market in the first place, and in the second, they only reflect what sells well now. What will sell well next Christmas is anyone’s guess—and generally speaking, anyone will be wrong… All these gamings and gambits and strategies are based on status-quo thinking,” says Rusch.
  8. There is such a thing as an Indie Midlist Career: many indie writers are finding that they can earn a living writing, essentially earning out what they earned working for someone else. Indie authors are indeed quitting their day jobs, understanding the financial value of the artistic freedom that indie writing gives us. This, Rusch shares, “is what the self-publishing revolution has brought us.” Not some get rich-quick thing; but the means to do what we love.

So, what’s the take home message here for established and particularly new budding indie authors and publishers?

Writing and publishing is a collaborative effort. Take pride in your work. Embrace your passion for writing. Treat everyone in the industry with professionalism and respect, and above all else, enjoy the journey. It’s worth it.morning mist mountains

Oh, and last but not least: ensure you get your work edited by a professional!

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.