Victoria, your name has become synonymous with exposing the sharks in the publishing industry. How did it all start?
People often ask me if I got involved with Writer Beware because I was scammed. The answer is no–by and large, my publishing experiences have been positive. But I was fairly ignorant when I began to seek publication, and while scams weren’t anywhere near as common as they are now, it was luck more than anything else that prevented me from falling into questionable hands.
Around the time I first went online, in the mid 1990s, several major scams were just beginning to implode, in part through writers’ discussion of their experiences on the Internet: scam book doctor Edit Ink, fraudulent vanity publishers Northwest Publishing and Commonwealth Publications, and the notorious Deering Literary Agency with its satellite vanity publisher, Sovereign Publications.
I was at first fascinated, and then horrified, by this fraudulent shadow-industry, which I hadn’t known existed. In 1998, when I saw a call on the SFWA website for a volunteer to create an online resource on literary fraud, I jumped at the chance, and began to put together the website that would become Writer Beware.
At the same time, Ann Crispin, who at that time was SFWA’s Vice-President, was working on establishing a Committee on Writing Scams, with the goal of gathering information on literary fraud. Neither of us knew what the other was doing until a mutual acquaintance put us in touch. Our efforts dovetailed perfectly, and we decided to join forces, merging the Writer Beware website with the Committee.
Ann and I worked together on Writer Beware for fifteen years. In 2013, Ann passed away, but her tireless advocacy for writers stands as an enduring legacy.
You have an impressive database, which is regularly updated, containing all kinds of threats to the unwary writer, from overpriced services to fake competitions to downright fraud. That’s a lot of work. How are you funded?
Yes, it is a lot of work, but well worth it for the information and warnings we’re able to provide to writers.
Writer Beware is staffed entirely by volunteers. For expenses and insurance, we’re sponsored by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, with additional support from the Mystery Writers of America and the Horror Writers Association.
Can you give us a couple of examples of less-than-ethical practices you’ve uncovered?
Literary agents who charge reading or other upfront fees (literary agents, like real estate agents, work on commission), refer clients to paid services for which they receive kickbacks (one major referral scheme was Edit Ink, a fraudulent editing service that charged writers thousands of dollars for rudimentary critiques), refer clients to their own paid services (a conflict of interest; some questionable agencies are nothing more than fronts for editing services), or misrepresent their experience and expertise (an amateur agent, who doesn’t have the skills to do the job, can be as bad for a writer’s career as a scam agent).
Publishers (as distinct from self-publishing services) that charge fees or require purchases as a condition of publication, offer abusive and/or nonstandard contracts (such as life-of-copyright contracts with no provision for rights reversion), and fail to fulfill their contractual obligations (we hear all the time from writers who can’t get the payments due them, or whose books are published riddled with errors, or whose publication dates are repeatedly delayed…the list is endless). As with literary agents, amateurism is a problem: it’s so cheap and easy to set up a publisher these days that anyone can do it, whether or not they have the knowledge or the funding to do it right.
You’re a successful fantasy author and reviewer in addition to a writers’ champion – what’s your time management secret?
Panic! But seriously, I’ve had to cut back on some of my activities in the past few years, in order to concentrate on my own writing and Writer Beware. I no longer do book reviews, for instance, or moderate writers’ message boards.
I’m guessing the number of sharks has multiplied with the rise of self-publishing.
Yes, unfortunately. The rising number of small presses, and the growth of self-publishing options, has spurred an explosion of schemes and scams. Unqualified and less-than-qualified independent editors are a big problem. Fake awards are also a danger (such as high-entry-fee awards designed not to showcase writers but to make money for the awards sponsor), as are marketing schemes–paid book review schemes, unscrupulous blog tour operators, PR services that rely on spam-style methods such as email blasts. The list goes on.
Researching this article, I noticed you’ve attracted some vitriol, presumably from exposed schemers. Does that ever bother you?
When Ann and I were first getting involved with Writer Beware—yes, it did. But it’s an inevitable part of doing what we do, and I’ve learned to take it in our stride. Mostly, the vitriol comes from non-credible sources, and one thing I’ve learned over the years is that the trolls and the haters usually discredit themselves better than I ever could.
Writer Beware has been sued twice for defamation, by people whose bad practices we exposed. Both times, we prevailed. One suit was dismissed due to the plaintiff’s refusal to cooperate with the discovery and interrogatory process; the other was also dismissed, and we were able to get it declared frivolous and to win our court costs back.
To what extent do you work with other writers’ organisations such as Authors’ Guild, Society of Authors, The Alliance of Independent Authors, Association of Authors’ Agents, etc?
As noted above, we’re sponsored by three professional writers’ groups. I’m also one of ALLi’s Watchdogs, and we cooperate with the Authors Guild, AAA, AAR, etc. as needed.
What does the future of publishing look like to you? What makes you pessimistic / optimistic?
That’s a tough question. Clearly, the future is digital, and publishing is in the throes of a major paradigm shift, but I don’t think anyone can reliably say more than that at this point (though that doesn’t stop people from trying). Much of the prognostication I see looks more like wish fulfillment, based on whether the prognosticator wants traditional publishing to survive or self-publishing to prevail.
What makes me optimistic? From traditional publishing to small press publishing to self-publishing, there are more options for authors now than there have ever been, more ways of reaching and interacting with readers, more ways of networking and connecting for authors. People still love books–in whatever form–and want to read. All of that is very exciting.
What makes me pessimistic? The growing dominance of mega-corporations, such as Amazon. The rise in ebooks has transformed self-publishing, but the flip side of that is that the lion’s share of the transformation belongs to a single player, and what looks like author empowerment is in fact part of a corporate strategy to dominate the ebook market. Also depressing: the incredible polarization between advocates of self-publishing and traditional publishing. No one path is best for all authors–isn’t that the point of having options?–but you’d never know that from a lot of the discourse these days. Authors need to support and advocate for one another–not be at odds over publishing choices.