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Monday, December 04, 2006


I'll tell you a secret

Are you starting to see how this works? (Newbies, hello and welcome, I've been talking about publishing scams all week, see below.) Fake publishers keep an eye on warnings, and they adjust accordingly. I'm hoping people will cotton on to the author mill system - but if they do, some clever crook will think of a way to fleece people that lets them claim they're not an author mill either. So really, there are two basic principles. One, remember the fundamental rule of Yog's Law - in legitimate publishing, 'money always flows towards the writer', which includes not having to pay for copies of your books (unless you've already had lots for free), or supplies, or promotional costs, or editing services, or, well, anything. (Wikipedia definition here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yog's_Law, including the corollary 'The only place an author should sign a check is on the back, when they endorse it'. I should link to it, but blogger has once again changed how to do things and I can't find the command. Any technical suggestions gratefully received. Sorry.) You should invest nothing except the work you put into writing and editing the book. Believe me, that's no small contribution.

The other thing to do is get an ear for the tone of publishing scams. Genuine publishers look a bit forbidding from the outside; their submission guidelines are plain and factual, and in no way encouraging. They don't need to be, because they know that anyone who's serious will submit work anyway.

Scammers play on this. They sound much more friendly. They say things that make you feel that they understand you, that they have no more patience with the idiots who go around not publishing good work than you do, that they're open to approaches, that they treat you like an adult, that they expect you to be dynamic and proactive. The basic rule in reading merchandising is this:

Suspend your disbelief. Get into the spirit of what they're saying. Picture yourself the way they're describing you.

Do you feel good? Hopeful, proud of yourself, determined?

They're probably scamming you.

Do you feel like they're being cold and discouraging and expecting you to do a lot of work with no help from them?

They're probably legitimate.

As someone blogging* about my last post (see http://columbina.livejournal.com/50217.html) said the other day, '...a lot of times people assume I am soured on publishing mostly because of misinformation, but in fact I have a great deal of legitimate information. The problem is that it's the legitimate information which is depressing; sometimes believing the misinformation is cheerier.' She's absolutely right. That's why misinformation gets believed; on the surface, it sounds more agreeable.

Take, for instance, Random House. Their UK website says the following:

Q. How can I get published?
A. The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook contains addresses of all the UK literary agents. Research shows that less than 1 per cent of manuscripts sent unsolicited to publishers achieve publication. It is not easy to get a book published unless you have an agent, so the best thing is to start there. You may also find The Literary Consultancy or The Writers' Workshop useful for advice and manuscript assessment.

Basically, they're saying get an agent and do your own homework in finding one. Not friendly. Because they're being better than friendly, they're being honest. They're telling you what you need to know, pointing you in the right direction, and letting you get on with it. What they're saying isn't encouraging; it's helpful.

Consider, conversely, PublishAmerica (punctuation oddities preserved):

Welcome to PublishAmerica, the nation's number one book publisher!!
Glad you discovered us, on your road towards getting published. We are always happy when a new author has found the way to our door, because opportunity knocks on both sides of it. Maybe PublishAmerica will turn out to be the book publisher that you have been looking for while being determined to get published, and, who knows, maybe you are that one special author who is going to make our day.

It's happy and cheerful to the point of being lovey-dovey. But you have to remember that they're not actually addressing you personally. They're addressing every single person who fetches up on their website. Statistically, most of them (not you, of course) will be lousy writers. I've worked as a submissions editor: trust me on this.

Here's a secret about publishers: they sound discouraging for a reason. It's called self-defence. Many people are so desperate to get published that they behave in ways that, from the receiving end, feel like harassment. They'll tie you up on the phone to talk non-stop and at length about how important their book is to them, however carefully you try to explain that you really honestly don't have time to talk for hours. They'll bombard you with letters. They'll take a polite assurance that their work will be considered, along with everyone else's, for a promise that they're as good as accepted. They'll inflict painful emotional blackmail on you about how difficult their lives are, which doesn't make their work any better but makes you feel like a rat nonetheless. They'll get furious about rejections and demand you reconsider, or they'll get emotional and send you long letters about how bad you've made them feel. You wish these people all the best, but that doesn't mean you can give them what they want, because they want a lot. They want you to stake thousands of pounds and the company's reputation on their work, which you might just not like.

And desperate people seize upon anything resembling encouragement. I always held to the principle that you should be as civil and helpful as you could, but if you go beyond being dispassionately friendly, your life will not be your own.

Having the capacity to publish people and being encouraging is like having a small hamper of food and walking through a town where everyone is starving. You get mobbed. The only way to avoid being harried from all sides is to be discreet about it. Yes, you have food, but you keep it out of sight. Yes, you publish people, but you make it as clear as you possibly can that this is rare. It's the only way to avoid having every day taken up with people calling you and lamenting about how much they want what you can't give them.

Imagine if a legitimate publisher, which could only publish books they thought good enough that thousands of people would choose to read them over thousands of other books, gave the kind of promising encouragement PublishAmerica offers to every writer passing their way. They'd be unable to accept most of the manuscripts submitted, because they weren't good enough to gamble thousands of pounds on. What they would get would be enough phone calls and e-mails to crash the system, with people crying 'But you said you wanted to hear from new authors!'

Scammers, on the other hand, can harness that desperation. They'll tell you that they have the solution - spend more money, market yourself harder, buy their services. Emotionally speaking, they're rack-renting you.

This is why everyone says you should be heartened if you get a rejection letter praising your work. The first thing you learn as an editor is not to give false hopes, because false hopes create harassing callers. There's no way in a million years an experienced editor would praise something untruthfully: they'd be making a stick for their own back. It's also why you should look at how a supposed publisher is trying to make you feel with their publicity. If they're trying to make you feel welcome, then they're not going to judge your book on its merits, they're going to judge you on your willingness to put in money and effort that ought to come from them. Not every book will be equally welcome to a real publisher; that's inevitable. On the other hand, money is welcome whoever provides it.

This may all sound depressing, but there's actually a positive side to it. It explains a lot of things that writers find upsetting: the form rejections, the lack of feedback, the unwillingness of editors to talk on the phone, the general sense that they don't care about you. It's perfectly possible that they do, personally - I certainly felt very sorry for a lot of people I turned down - but professionally, they can't show it. They have to keep themselves out of the picture in case you start harassing them. If a publisher treats you coldly, it's more likely that it's because they've been stung once too often by pestering hopefuls than because they have anything against you. There's always the lurking fear that, if they act too warm and fluffy, they'll come into work the next day and find seven stalkers waiting for them in reception.

So, if you're a writer, what to do about it? Well, the first thing, as I've said, is be very careful of a publisher that issues an open welcome to all comers. If they're not worried about harassment, they're up to something worrying themselves. And do not give them any money whatsoever. (This does not include being a cheapskate about sending them a stamped envelope for return of your manuscript. That's buying something for yourself.)

But when approaching legitimate publishers, if you know this is how they'll be feeling, you can work with it. I've written a fairly jokey piece on what not to put in a covering letter (http://www.kitwhitfield.co.uk./publisherdating.html), which includes a sample letter in an appropriate style, and here are the things that will make a wary editor relax:

1. Sound calm. Present the facts without embellishment, pleading or other fanfares. Someone who gets worked up is more likely to be a problem.
2. Sound professional rather than personal. Unless it includes something that could be used to promote your book nationally or internationally, which will need to be incredibly interesting and unusual, your private life is not something they'll want to hear about. Telling a publisher about your life is asking them to feel emotionally involved with you, and editors only like their emotions being played upon by your fiction, not your correspondence.
3. Sound concise. Long-drawn-out exchanges are usually painful.
4. Sound friendly. A 'thank you for your time' or an 'I appreciate being considered' is very nice to hear.

Keep your chequebook chained in your pocket, a professional smile plastered on your face, and your fingers crossed behind your back. From there onwards, it's all up to you.

*I should probably say 'weblogging' as, in the same post, she objects to the word 'blog'. I don't have anything against it myself, but manners are manners and she said nice things about my site.

I don't know my way around the Blogger beta version, but you should be able to write a link 'by hand' like this:

This is <a href="http://www.website.com">a link to a website</a>, so there.

Although you might need to be working in the 'source' view rather than the 'preview' (or whatever equivalent terms they use).

(The 'a' stands for 'anchor' and 'href' is contraction of 'hypertext reference', or so I'm told. A link by any other name...)

Interesting post. The 'discouraging' (or rather, 'not dangerously encouraging') stance adopted by legitimate publishers makes perfect sense, and it certainly has an effect on the easily-discouraged - although I suppose the easily-discouraged aren't really the problem!
Thanks for the advice! I tried that, but now it seems to be linking to something called 'website.com'... Sigh. There used to be a toolbar with buttons to click for links and formatting, but it's vanished. The world of technology is a strange and puzzling place. Still, much appreciation for the suggestion.

There's a quote from James Gunn, apparently: 'Anyone who can be discouraged from becoming a writer should be discouraged.' (Though I've seen a similar remark attributed to Gene Wolfe.) Easily-discouraged people aren't the problem for editors unless they start blaming you for discouraging them, which can happen, but it's a good rule of thumb when it comes to quality control. If you're easily discouraged, you'll give up at criticism rather than work on improving.

Besides, discouraging things still happen after you're published. People say you need a thick skin, but writers very often don't. I don't think I do, really. What keeps you going is not that you don't feel discouraged, but that feeling discouraged isn't enough to stop you.
Sorry, I didn't make that clear. You need to substitute the 'website.com' bit for the real address of the website you want to link to. Here are a couple of examples:

Everyone should know about <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yog's_Law">Yog's Law</a>.

As <a href="http://columbina.livejournal.com/50217.html">someone blogging about my last post</a> said...

Do you see what I mean? The bits between the pointy brackets are the text that you want to turn into a link. The address between quotes after 'href=' should be the address you want the link to go to.

The old toolbar might have vanished because Blogger aren't supporting every kind of browser under the new system yet. Are you using Safari or Opera? Firefox might work better in the interim...?

Quite agree re: discouragement.
Alas, it's still not working! Oddly, I get the toolbar I usually use when I open it in Opera (previously I was using Internet Explorer), but when I try to use the link button, it publishes with no links saved. I think the site may be up to something. What's with this new system? I know I now automatically have to use the Beta Blogger instead of the old blogger, but ... oh, I don't know. Fiction is easier. My characters do what I tell them. Thank you for your help :-)
Hm, it looks to me like your hand-written links *are* working now - make sure you click Reload (or Refresh) after you've published the changes, to be sure you're not still seeing your browser's cached copy of the page.

I found this site, which talks about some of the unsolved problems in the new Blogger (although not in much detail).
Hmm, you're right. I did try reloading, but it's taking a while. Maybe once the new Blogger thing has been debugged life will get easier. Thanks for the link.
A friend sent me to a startup small press's site recently, and I cited all the reasons I thought they were dodgy--addressed authors rather than bookbuyers, talked vanity-press-ese, etc, and he goes, "Okay, I'll tell them, so they can change it." Umm, no, that wasn't the idea.

"I thought you wanted to help!" he said.

I didn't want to help them lure in authors, that's for sure. I thought I was helping my friend avoid them...
Yikes. Sounds like he had a basic faith in their good intentions despite their doubtful PR - which of course, is the faith that scammers depend on. It's funny how far a fake publisher has to go before some people will accept that they're up to no good.
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