A Culture of Crooks

I feel like everything I read about publishing lately is about someone feeling cheated or fearing a scam. Readers feel ripped off by book prices and limited availability. Publishers are furious about (and terrified by) book piracy, and worried that outside companies like Amazon and Google are making serious efforts to set publishing policy. Agents exist because so many publishers have tried to rip off writers. Preditors & Editors exists for the same reason, as well as because so many agents have also tried to rip off writers. And now writers are saying they’re willing to sign exceedingly dodgy contracts because they need money to pay off the educational institutions that have bilked them for thousands, which is like selling an arm to one loan shark so you can buy back your leg from another. It reminds me of growing up in 1980s Manhattan, when we all had sore necks from constantly looking over our shoulders.

The latest story is New York Magazine‘s exposé of James Frey’s new business venture. Three authors with big online platforms have taken Frey to task for soliciting MFA students and offering them what appears to be a really terrible contract in exchange for a shot at fame. All three also have some excellent (and unsurprisingly overlapping) advice for new writers who might think such a contract offers them anything resembling a good deal.

John Scalzi: “Write your story, get an agent, and sell your work with your own name on it and all your rights to the work intact. It may take more time, but it will be worth it.”

Maureen Johnson: “Don’t sign things you don’t understand…. Seek good counsel and listen to that counsel. Things that look too good to be true usually are, and uncredited projects with shady paperwork… well, those things don’t generally end well.”

Sarah Rees Brennan: “Write what you want. Inform yourself as fully as you can. Listen to criticism. Follow the three steps, unless you have a good reason not to. (Write book! Get agent! Get editor.)”

(All three posts are definitely worth reading in full.)

Scalzi and Johnson have some particularly harsh words about MFA programs that don’t educate their students in the business of writing. Johnson, who has an MFA from the same Columbia program that Frey is trolling for writers, says flatly, “If you don’t offer your students a class or seminar in the business of writing, you should be ashamed.” Scalzi dedicates an entire separate post to his open letter, half of which is aimed at MFA program administrators (“Now, perhaps you are saying, ‘We focus on the art of writing, not the business.’ My answer to that is, please, pull your head out.”) and half at students (“You know what, your belief in your intelligence and your cleverness and your writing ability as a proxy for knowing everything you need to know about the world is exactly what’s going to get you screwed.”).

It seems unlikely that Frey will ever read these posts, or that Columbia’s MFA program administrators are frantically searching their alumni directory for Maureen Johnson’s number so they can call her and apologize for not having business classes. Aspiring writers might see them and become a little more business-savvy and skeptical; that’s certainly no bad thing. But I feel this opens up a larger question: How can the system of publishing–which does include educational programs for writers, something that’s often overlooked–be improved so it’s less of a haven for the unscrupulous?

As I said, I grew up in famously grimy and scary 1980s Manhattan. Now I live in 2010s Manhattan, which is about as clean and safe as it’s ever been. If New York could bring down crime rates, maybe publishing–my other home, in some very real ways–can too. This community should be a pleasant place where people want to settle down (or at least visit for weekends and summers), not a gritty, dangerous industry where we all earn little more than pennies and clutch them constantly for fear of pickpockets.

I’ve seen tremendous collaboration and caring in publishing; I know it’s possible to be kind and honest without being a target or a failure, and to spread the word about good, responsible businesspeople without falling into the trap of cronyism. So what concrete steps can we take to get there? In addition to reactive measures like listing crooks on Preditors & Editors and sending DMCA takedowns to piracy sites, what proactive measures will help to build a culture of trust and trustworthiness? And what’s already being done on the preventive and educational side–like writers’ organizations keeping lists of publishers in good standing, and providing writers with boilerplate contracts–that can be better publicized?

Stories are so important. If they weren’t, there wouldn’t be so many people trying to steal them. As creators and promoters and consumers of stories, it’s our responsibility to keep them safe and treat them with at least a modicum of respect. We owe at least that much to ourselves, too. Let’s get this place cleaned up.

11 thoughts on “A Culture of Crooks

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  3. JMS

    New writers need to listen critically and ask themselves “Cui bono?” more frequently.

    I spend a lot of time at AbsoluteWrite.com saying things like “Guys, this startup publisher is offering a terrible contract, and there’s nothing that speaks well to their ability to sell your book.” So often, the response I get is “Ur a h8r” or similar, and then six months later the person comes back all “This startup publisher ripped me off! How was I to know?!?!”

    Well, “Cui bono” (“who benefits?” in English, not Chaz’s younger brother) is your friend in this case. I don’t benefit by pointing out predatory contracts, except perhaps in my overall karma or my if-I-could-only-invent-a-time-machine wish to give people the advice I wish I’d gotten 20 years ago. But Random Shiny New Publisher benefits tremendously by suggesting the people pointing out the flaws in their business model are just jealous or whatever.

    Not every opinion is equally objective. Not every opinion is founded on the same amount of experience and credibility.

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  5. Paul Riddell

    There’s a very easy way to stop this situation dead, but nobody’s going to like it. Bad publishers and fake agents only thrive in a climate where the sole perceived reason for being published is To Become Famous. Over and over, I listen to writers who fall for bad publishing deals and blatant scams, and the underlying excuse to all of their rationalizations is “I figured that it wouldn’t happen to me, because I really want to be Famous.”

    Just look at the number of magazines and Web sites that promise payment “one of these days”: why should they ever pay for content? Every writer who gets tired of working for free and quits will be replaced by seven or eight who’ll do anything for exposure. In fact, that’s the argument used by shady operations to keep the writers under control: “We can’t pay, but you’ll get lots of exposure.” Never mind that the only thing exposure gets you is more scampigs who argue “But you already put out for him, so why should I have to pay?” Most of the time, the writers fall for it, because they don’t want to risk missing out on that one opportunity that leads to better things. Those who come to their senses and quit deluding themselves, and make a noise about it, are derided as “haters” by those who haven’t had their heads pulled out of their butts yet. Because, after all, the haters just might be wrong. One day. Any day now. Like all of the contributors to “The Huffington Post”.

    Now, this could all be stopped, but the method used simply won’t work. Writers could band together to subscribe to the magazines for which they submit stories and articles, instead of simply getting the submission guidelines from “Locus”. Publishers could decide, right there, that they aren’t going to start publishing magazines until they have enough money in reserve to pay for their content. Both could work to convince a new audience that being a published writer isn’t as important as being an informed reader. All of them could work to impress upon the Cat Piss Men who argue for book piracy that there’s something to be said about paying for stories and articles, and that it should be a point of pride to pay instead of getting it for free. Try these, and the attitude within publishing might change.

    Yeah, it might. I think I’ll put down my money instead on the Dallas Cowboys winning a shutout World Series next year.

  6. Kitti

    I don’t agree with the analogy at the heart of this article. Cleaning up criminal streets does not compare to the plight of these writers.

    To the best of my knowledge, artists have always struggled for legitimacy in a money-first world. Artists are internally compelled to create and will do so regardless of cash; workers are externally compelled to work by force of need and temptation of cash.

    Street crime affects both of these groups of people, and it adversely affected tourism too. There was a general push of opionion behind cleaning up crime. No such universal force behind protecting artists of any stripe from being scammed.

    My heart goes out to all those who are conned or scammed, especially at the cost of their dreams. What a terrible and crushing scenario.

  7. Theresa M. Moore

    Having dealt with self-publishing services of one stripe or another, I can only cite the situation I have had with Lulu.com, which had been my primary publisher until they proved that they did not have the slightest idea how to make the customer core base (their authors) happy. Some of us who spoke out in their community forum, which is essentially where they dump all their complaints, have been blocked from participating and adding to the discussion as to why their service has slid from very good to marginal at best. They used to be very good, and that is why I started with them. But since then, not only have pro authors been blocked, Lulu has dropped the “Inc.” from their name. I have since communicated with others who had been loyal customers until Lulu chose some very draconian measures to hide their foibles. It is not just the quality of performance which is lacking, it is the sheer audacity of deciding to take these steps without any prior notice at all. To date, I have seen some friends I made there pull out all their titles and publish elsewhere. I am about to do the same, as I no longer see any advantage to parking my titles on a catalog which is populated with my competition: the big 6. I suggested once to Lulu that it should make itself a competitor of Amazon by promoting the books its core base published. Instead, it chose to do the opposite by listing big 6 books. In this hostile atmosphere the mouse is in danger of being stepped on and squished altogether.

    1. Amy Edelman

      Fortunately, the three steps cited above (Write book! Get agent! Get editor!) are not the only ones available to writer’s today. Many authors are choosing to self publish because the turnaround is faster, they can make more money and, frankly, most of the traditional publisher’s no longer have a place for them (unless they’re former Presidents or the stars of sleazy reality shows).

      But here’s the thing about self-publishing…it ain’t easy either, and doing it via a company like LuLu or iUniverse may have its advantages, but you give away control and a lot of money in exchange for having someone else do the work for you. The answer is to do your homework–a lot of it. Create your own imprint, find a printer, barter with a book designer–to make sure that all your hard work writing will yield something that you’re proud of. As far as getting people to notice it, check out IndieReader (www.indiereader.com) and IR Selects (www.irselects.com).

      Good luck!

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  9. Chris

    “I feel like everything I read about publishing lately is about someone feeling cheated or fearing a scam.”

    It appears that Google does too, or at least represents your sentiment. It’s hard to keep the terms ‘scam’ or ‘complaint’ out of the autocomplete feature when entering search terms for pretty much anything.

    Unfortunately, the larger a company grows, the easier it is to find “negative” information about them on the Internet. An unhappy customer is several times more likely to post something negative than a satisfied customer is to post something positive. This is exasperated online by the fact that there is no vetting process for the accuracy of data to be posted (which differs from other sources of information like newspapers, radio, and television).

    Outskirts Press, Inc, CEO Brent Sampson, sheds insight into this on his blog. Worth checking out: http://brentsampson.com/category/outskirts-press-scam/

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