Writer Beware: the watchdog of the publishing world

Massachusetts author Victoria Strauss talks about both the fraud and the opportunity available in today's book world.

"It used to be most of the questions I got were about agents," author Victoria Strauss says. "Now they're mostly about small presses with horrible contracts, or the owner is running them out of their bedroom... the small press world is a real minefield, a big risk area for these writers."

Massachusetts author Victoria Strauss made a career out of creating fantasy novels, but she spends her spare hours urging would-be writers to keep their aspirations on solid ground.

In her role as a leading watchdog of the publishing industry, Strauss exposes fraudulent publishers, thieving literary agents, and bogus award contests at the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America's Writer Beware blog.

She also acts as a sobering reality check as authors try to bypass publishing houses and go directly to readers through print-on-demand and electronic self-publishing services.

Strauss is more than a righteous buzzkill. While she's full of warnings, she realizes the potential of the new era of self-publishing, which allows anyone with a credit card to go up against Random House or Simon & Schuster.

In an interview this week, Strauss talked about rip-offs, bad raps, and publishing pitfalls.
 Q: What scams should people be aware of in the publishing world?
 A: The rip-offs abound. There are dishonest agents and scam publishers.
You shouldn't pay a reading fee to an agent. There are also agents who charge for editing and publishers who claim to be traditional but want you to buy 1,000 copies of your book.
In addition to the outright scams, amateurism is a huge problem. Anyone can claim to be an agent, whether or not they have any expertise in actually being an agent. Print-on-demand and electronic self-publishing options have made it easy for anyone to set up a business as a publisher whether they know what they’re doing or not.
And there are so many amateur small publishers. It used to be most of the questions I got were about agents. Now they're mostly about small presses with horrible contracts, or the owner is running them out of their bedroom and when they get sick everything stops, or they close down the business and don't communicate with anyone. The small press world is a real minefield, a big risk area for these writers.
 Q: What should writers watch out for when they try to become self-published?
A: There aren't too many absolute deliberate scams, but there are self-publishing services that are more expensive or misleading in the way they portray the chances of success.
Writers get into trouble when they buy into the hype, or they come to self-publishing out of some misconception about traditional publishing and what they can accomplish.
I often hear from people who assume that by self-publishing they could generate retirement income and sell hundreds and hundreds of copies of their books. They’re disappointed because that hasn’t happened. They think they’ve been ripped off, but the problem is that they’ve had unrealistic expectations.
Another problem is when writers don’t read their contracts or don’t read their agreements carefully. There are hidden fees and sometimes things in contracts that you can't terminate as easily as you think you can. It's really important to read the fine print and understand what you’re getting into.
Q: What do writers fail to understand about self-publishing?
A: One of the things I see most often is that writers don’t have an understanding of all the options available to them.
Writers sometimes decide that they have no option but to self-publish because they read somewhere on the Internet that publishers or literary agents aren’t interested in new writers.
Q: I've heard that before too, the idea that publishers won't actually publish any books by non-famous writers, so you might as well not even bother with them. That seems a bit odd since bookstores are full of new books by new writers.
A: It makes no sense. Every famous writer was once an unknown writer. If publishers never published new writers, they wouldn’t be publishing anyone at all after a while.
Q: What should a writer do if he or she wants to become published?
A: The most important thing for a writer to do is educate themselves ahead of time. In order to make an informed decision, you really need to have an understanding of the publishing industry as a whole. There’s a whole host of misunderstandings and myths about these publishing options.
There’s a range of options, from getting an agent and submitting to a big publisher to going to small publishers where you don’t need an agent to self-publishing. Depending on your goals, any one of these may be appropriate, or one may be more appropriate than another.
If you're going to self-publish, you need to know why you’re doing it, what you want to accomplish, and how you plan to implement that.
You’ll have to do a lot of work to have success. A lot of people think they’ll get tons of sales just because a book is listed on 500 websites. That's not the way it works.
Q: How does the quality of work fit into the world of self publishing?
A: It's certainly true that the self publishing field is full of bad work simply because there are no filters involved, no gate-keeping.
That doesn't mean that good work is not available. For the reader, the challenge is finding it.
Q: How many copies do self-published books typically sell?
The research suggests that they average fewer than 200 copies for print-on-demand publishing. Of course, there are people who do much better, but also those who do worse.
For electronic self publishing, there seems to be a much bigger window, partly due to enthusiasm for reading devices such as the Kindle. Lots of people have Kindles and want to fill them up with content.
Q: What do you say to writers who don't want to go through a traditional publisher because they don't think the publisher will spend any time helping their book sell?
A: Publishers still provide a lot of value. It's a myth that they don't do anything.
There's a difference between publicity and marketing. A lot of writers don’t realize how much marketing goes on beyond the scenes, with sales reps and advanced reading copies, all that stuff that happens months before a book is published.
It's likely that your publisher won't send you on a book tour and will expect you to set up your own interviews and signings. But the behind-the-scenes marketing, and the editing and the cover design and the interior book design, add a tremendous amount of value. There are good reasons to choose to self-publish, but "a publisher doesn't do anything" isn't one of them.
Q: The cons aside, what are some of the benefits of self- publishing for writers?
A: It's a fantastic option for writers like me with out-of-print books that can be brought back into circulation via the Kindle and other e-publishing options. It opens a whole world of new opportunities. And some writers who weren't able to get an agent or a traditional publisher have found tremendous success with electronic publishing, especially in certain niches and genres.
There’s no way to really know where it's going or what it will happen. For now, it's a very dangerous area, but it's also very exciting and potentially very beneficial.

Randy Dotinga is a regular contributor to the Monitor’s books section.

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