1. Filigree’s rule:
I’m updating this post over a year after I wrote it, with added information. I apologize in advance. It’s going to be a nasty, cynical read. It will make some people unhappy. However, if you are one of the millions of folks just now deciding you want to become a published writer, you should probably read this. Better yet, just skip this first section and just follow the links below – they’re the most important part.
I’ve agonized for almost a year about writing down Filigree’s Rule. It goes against my every fiber as a researcher, mentor, and former publishing newbie. So many people helped me over the past 20 years, that I feel as if I have a moral obligation to pass on that assistance.
I’ve been part of various internet conversations about writing and art since 1994. I have been Filigree on several writers’ sites for over a decade and a half. I would not be published today without the help of mentors who came before me, coaxed me over the depressing moments, put up with and diplomatically derailed my attacks of Golden Word Syndrome, and guided me through the mazes of the publishing industry. If I’d actually started listening to them earlier, I would probably have been published a decade sooner. Thank you, gentlefolk.
For over ten years I’ve been trying to pay forward that guidance, helping newer writers and artists over the same pitfalls that nearly swallowed me.
I’m selectively backing off that mandate as of now, regarding specific groups of writers, literary agents, and publishers. If I see writers, agents, and publishers revealing certain strategies, creeds, worldviews, and tendencies, I will step aside silently. I will offer no impediment to the three groups meeting up. To be blunt, I hope they drag each other down into acrimony and penury, and leave a more open playing field for the rest of us.
I am tired of reading writers’ forums and seeing variations on the phrase ‘researching agents and publishers is so HARD’. Of seeing writers complain that they resent having to take a week or so to research basic publishing strategies. That it’s so difficult, and so confusing, they’re thinking of self-publishing or giving up.
Fine. Self-publish without adequate preparation, and see what happens if your experience mirrors the 99% of other unprepared self-publishers. Or better yet, give up now, save yourself the time and money. Go start an Ebay or Etsy crafts or reselling business – the chances are good you’ll earn more from that than publishing.
Look at it another way. How long did it take you to write your book? To set up a new business? To buy a house? To adopt a child? To finish a Masters’ thesis? I know careful people who spent over a year researching agents and publishers to find the right fit, to increase their chances of getting an offer of representation or publication. Or to learn the strategies behind different ways of successful self-publishing.
Skilled professionals in many other fields have to do continual research and training to update their skills, and keep abreast of current developments in their business. It’s called ‘remaining employable’. Writers are in business for themselves; if they want to count it as more than a hobby, they have to behave more like business people.
Am I victim-shaming? Maybe. I genuinely feel for anyone jumping into the publishing pool right now, because it is big and confusing. There are a lot of sharks out there pretending to be helpful fishing guides.
The internet simplified a lot of things, too. There’s more information on publishing now, more places to find it, and more ways to rate its effectiveness and honesty. If a new writer can’t manage basic internet search skills and a modicum of skepticism, or if they are so caught up in their own apparent exceptionalism they can’t make objective decisions? Maybe they shouldn’t be writing with the intent to publish.
Maybe it’s not worth my time, or it’s not my place to try saving them from themselves. There is that saying, ‘You can lead a horse to water…’
I will pass on what assistance I can, to people I have deemed worth helping.
What are my parameters?
This is my private list of warning criteria against possibly iffy publishers. Just as this is my blog. Both of them are my opinion. Other people are going to have different benchmarks, obviously. But for now, here’s a link to the Filigree’s Rule splash page, which not only lists my criteria (and it’s grown into a very long list!) but some individual essays about aspects of publishing. I hope it helps some people. It will probably offend others; for that, I’m sorry, but…
I’m not important enough in any particular industry for my detailed opinion to matter. No one sane is going to think that one sentence or a hundred from me makes that much difference in the world; all I hope to do is coax people to engage their own brains and make their own decisions.
Being published used to be a lot harder than it is now. Most of us agree on that. Online access has become both boon and bane for writers. Email queries and online databases have opened up the formerly mysterious and laborious process of finding publishers and agents, querying them, and waiting for each answer through the postal system. With the click of a button, new writers can query a publisher or agent, submit a story, or even self-publish. In fact, there is so much stuff published, blogged about, or otherwise preserved online that we are awash in a sea of information.
Finding the ‘good stuff’ increasingly means relying on review services, social media gatekeepers, and other trusted sources. Easy access has possibly made us lazy. I am amazed that more people appear to spend more time researching prices and features on new automobiles, than on their potential publisher. The necessary research can be time-consuming, but less than writing the book in the first place.
Any writer intent on publishing for profit should learn and use research skills: tracking down primary and secondary sources, following information trails, judging past performances, analyzing online presences, and being objective. The information new writers need to protect themselves is already on the internet, across numerous sites.
Some sites may appear to be less friendly at first, and present harsh lessons that we might not like to hear. So we may gravitate to kinder communities where other newbies are there to hold our hands and feed our egos as long as we return the favor. There’s nothing wrong with that. Humans are social creatures. The friendships we make through social media can be just as fulfilling as face-to-face contacts.
But that level of trust and acceptance can contain danger, as well. New writers crave positive reinforcement, but all too often that comes with a sales pitch as a price tag.
Certain parts of the publishing world share startling similarities with multi-level marketing, for-profit colleges, and pyramid schemes. Many groups rely on a constant stream of new authors/members to make up their profits. Many show less real profit from their alleged businesses, than from recruiting and selling services to new members.
Many victims, no matter how victimized, can’t accept the truth because it would mean that they got taken in. They think it means they are losers and fools, and remain silent out of shame and anger. They sometimes even accept those predatory parameters as ‘the way publishing works’, publish with other dubious publishers hoping ‘this time it will be different’, or even go on to found dubious publishing companies or literary agencies of their own – while earnestly believing they are doing good, because that is all they know. Sometimes they know they’re in with a bad crowd, and recruit newer writers to become part of the essential Ponzi scheme.
Publishers don’t have to be actively villainous to be bad news for their authors. Lots of new businesses over-commit or use up their capital investments within a couple of years. If the market is bad, or the publisher suffers a personal or family problem that requires more attention, the business can suffer. Learning which publishers have gone this route before, or might be going through it currently, might save authors untold stress and financial losses of their own.
The smartest, savviest people can be duped by the right pitch. Social engineering works. I know too many stage magicians and information security professionals to deny it.
2. The Links.
Just because I am being selective about my online involvements and whistleblowing, doesn’t mean I would arbitrarily cut off every well-meaning new writer. These are some of the sites that I have found to be good places to start, for researching publishers and literary agencies. It took me a while to gather all of these, but at least listing them will save other folks that time.
First, you can always try some basic Google Fu: Google “(company name) publishing scam” and see what kind of hits you get.
On Alexa Internet (www.alexa.com) you can see any online company’s global and local ranks, plus numbers of sites linking to them, by inserting their web address into the search area. Sites with low ranking numbers get lots of traffic. Sites with high numbers get less traffic. What does that mean to a writer? If your prospective publisher claims to sell more books through their website than they do through other online sales portals (like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, etc.) and they have Alexa rankings in the high millions – they aren’t attracting many potential buyers to their site.
For Amazon sales specifically (print and Kindle), you can track books on Sales Rank Express. Simply plug in the title, ASIN, or ISBN of the book. Once activated, this service will track sales histories of books sold through Amazon.com. As with Alexa, very high number rankings (especially into the millions) indicate very low sales. No Amazon ranking for a book? That means there hasn’t been a single sale on Amazon, for that particular edition. Amazon isn’t the only online sales portal, of course, and Sales Rank Express isn’t perfectly representative for strong best-sellers. But for books selling less than 1000 copies a year, it has been shown to be relatively accurate, and a good predictor of other sales patterns. (http://www.salesrankexpress.com/)
If you are already working in publishing, book-selling, education, or the library fields, you may have access to Nielsen BookScan, or know somebody who does. With BookScan data, you can look up the sales history of most print publications. Like Sales Rank Express, BookScan may not cover all print sales of a specific book, but sales outlet participation is increasing rapidly. Why care about your publisher’s previous print sales? Why not believe their press releases and website advertising? You can see fairly accurate tracking of their books, which may give you an indication of your likely print sales. Believe me, all the major publishers and most small presses follow their competitors’ BookScan numbers. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nielsen_BookScan
One simple article for newbies wanting to learn where to submit work: http://helpingwriters.com/special-reports-articles/publishing-scams-and-schemes
Another overview of writing scams: http://www.aliciarasley.com/artscam.htm
A copywriter’s blog with many publishing-related topics: http://blog.emilysuess.com/ (soon to be moving, so follow links)
David Gaughran has a great write-up of the author exploitation business here. http://davidgaughran.wordpress.com/2013/05/04/the-author-exploitation-business/
‘Making Light’, the blog of Teresa and Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Avram Grumer, Jim MacDonald, and Abi Sutherland. A wide-ranging and informed discussion of many publishing topics, from professionals with many years in the field: http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/
Preditors & Editors maintains a large database of scam and problematic publishers, agencies, and related businesses targeting writers, artists, game designers, and composers: http://pred-ed.com/
Writer Beware is the SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America) public branch of their Committee on Writing Scams, which deals not only with ‘issues that affect professional authors, but with the problems and pitfalls that face aspiring writers.’ http://www.sfwa.org/for-authors/writer-beware/
AbsoluteWrite is an online writing industry site with 40,000+ members at varying professional levels, discussing topics across the publishing and creative industries: http://absolutewrite.com/
These are basic research tools, most of which are available for free to anyone with an internet connection and a working knowledge of English.