Thursday, March 30, 2006

'Tis the Season For Contest Scams

It's that season again. The time of the year when writers and wannabee writers start receiving invitations in the mail or online to submit stories and poems to contests. I was reminded of this today when a kind writer named Laura wrote a post to a group I belong to, warning newbie writers away from a potential scam.

Scam contests can look legitimate and take several different forms including (1) Entry fee contests and (2) Free contests. Of course, legitimate contests can also request a fee or be free, but I'll talk about those in a minute.

In the scams that request an entry fee, the writer generally does not hear from the contest again until the following year when the new contest begins. The entry fee was all that the scam artists were looking for.

The no-entry or free scam contests are the ones that really hurt my heart. Time and time again, I've seen newbie writers excitedly post to a writers' loop or walk into a critique group clutching a letter advising her/him that s/he won a contest. Invariably, the sponsor of the contest sends a contract together with a bill for an author's special copy of the book-to-be-published. The excited contest winner mails a check and eventually receives a poorly edited, badly bound, cheap-looking book in return. A book that will never be marketed or sold anywhere--except to the authors of the stories and poems contained within its covers. In this scam, the sponsors make their profit off the purchase price of the book.

Please understand that I am not anti-contest. I entered several myself last year. Legitimate contests can provide feedback and opportunities to get your work in front of agents and editors. However, it is imperative that you know who is behind any contest before entering. There are dozens of legitimate contests around the country. Every genre has their own: Mystery Writers of America, RWA, Sci-Fi In addition, universities and foundations sponsor writer contests every year.

How to tell the scams from the legitimate contests: check the name online. You can check the "publisher" on Preditors and Editors. Unfortunately, P&E is less helpful when it comes to contests. They do not recommend ANY contest that charges fees.

Ask on the writers' loops or in the critique groups to which you belong. I guarantee someone will be able to recognize the names of the legitimate contests.

Legitimate contests don't need to take out huge ads. Writers flock to enter every year. Writers' loops provide information on deadlines and rules. If the contest contacts you directly and you have never entered it before, beware. Again, legitimate contests don't need to go looking for entrants.

Just avoid any contest that promises hundreds of thousands of dollars on principle. It is almost always a scam of some kind. Remember the old adage that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably isn't real. Even contests that *appear* to be sponsored by a legitimate source are suspect if they are promising huge monetary prizes. Feel free to e-mail me if you have a question. If I recognize the contest, I'll be happy to tell you what I know.

DO enter the legitimate contests. They can be good learning experiences in preparing a submission. Look for the ones that provide a written feedback form. The minimum you should get for your entry fee is a critique. Make sure that the prize is worth the entry fee. In some cases, the prize is a conference fee or an opportunity to have your submission read by an editor or agent. For heaven's sake, don't enter a contest just to get a certificate saying that you won. You want some value for your dollar.

Good luck and have fun.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

So Who the Hell is Ben Domenech?

Unless you're active on the blogosphere, you've probably never heard of Ben Domenech. Why should you? He's a 24-year-old who never completed college and recently resigned (just ahead of being fired) after three days on the job at (

I first became aware of Domenech in February when he displayed the singularly bad taste and judgment to diss Coretta Scott King as she was being laid to her well-deserved rest. A co-founder of the ultra-conservative blog, Domenech questioned why President Bush was attending Mrs. King's funeral in a posting headed, "The President Visits the Funeral of a Communist."

After that bon mot, you can understand why the liberal sector was outraged a month later to find that had hired Domenech on a part-time basis to write a blog for them called "Red America."

In an article dated 3/24 in Salon magazine, Joe Conason speculated that the Post had hired Domenech to avoid being accused of a liberal bias and "to 'balance' Dan Froomkin, the popular White House Briefing blogger on whose skepticism and wit have provoked whining from the right."

Domenech started work at on Tuesday, March 21st. Left-leaning bloggers all over the country were already hard at work studying his record in an effort to discredit him. You wouldn't think they would be able to find much. After all, the guy is only 24 years old. However, what they did find was almost unbelievable.

Before I describe those revelations, let me give you a bit of background on Domenech. The following information came largely from two sources: Domenech's own bio on and Wikipedia. Domenech was born in Jackson, Mississippi--the son of a Puerto Rican father and a Dutch-Irish mother. His mother home-schooled him for his last three years of high school. Then he attended the College of William and Mary where he did not graduate. During his college years, he worked on the school paper as well as contributing to the National Review Online. He "claims to have been the 'youngest political appointee' of the George W. Bush administration, though it is unclear to which position this refers." (Wikipedia). He became known as a Republican activist through his blog, Although his reputation as a blogger was well-established by the time hired him, the online service was still criticized for hiring a non-journalist to write their blog.

The first crack in the Domenech veneer came from the blog, which posted an entry on 3/23 pointing out that Domenech had plagiarized P.J. O'Rourke's "Modern Manners." There were multiple instances of Domenech's lifting material verbatim.

Once the left wing bloggers got a whiff of where the bodies might be buried, they went on a rampage, turning up multiple examples of Domenech's "borrowing" of material, starting in his college days and continuing afterward. He was an equal opportunity plagiarist, stealing everything from movie and music reviews to the Washington Post's own story about the Branch Davidian compound.

Domenech tried to stem the tide. He claimed that the college paper's editor was at fault. He claimed he was young and stupid. He even posted an apology for his blog about Mrs. King: "Mrs. King participated in many different political causes, some of which involved associations with questionable people, but referring to her as a Communist was a mistake, hyperbole in the context of a larger debate about President Bush's political priorities. Mea Culpa."

What I found interesting was how quickly the conservatives turned on him. Domenech's full-time job was as an editor for the conservative publisher, Regnery. One of his own authors, Michelle Malkins, posted this on her blog the day after the Daily Kos story broke: "Painfully, Domenech's detractors are right. He should own up to it and step down." Malkins and Domenech had reportedly worked together on several of her books. I found it remarkable that she should be one of the first to call for his resignation.

At any rate, Domenech did resign from on Friday, March 24, three days after writing his first blog for them. He has also taken a leave of absence from The New York Times reported on 3/25 that Regnery Publishing is looking at the accusations in view of his position with that company.

When I was a small girl, my mother always said to me, "Don't do anything that you wouldn't be proud to see on the front page of the newspaper." Looking back, that's a pretty good way to judge the actions one takes.

Why Writers Need Empathy

Although I'd rather not have two blogs in a row referencing a television program, I want to post this while it's still fresh in my mind.

One of my guilty pleasures is Tuesday night. I'm not generally a big television person--with one exception: Tuesday night. On Tuesday night, I turn down invitations to go out and turn off the phones so that I can settle in for an evening of television. I start with "NCIS" at 7:00, move on to "House" at 8:00 and finish up with "Boston Legal" at 9:00. Tonight's "Boston Legal" prompted this posting.

During this evening's episode, one of the characters said to another, "I thought you were empathizing with me. But you were just sympathizing."

That sentence stopped me. I forgot about the rest of the program and just concentrated on that single line.

Those of you who have read the bio at my website (, know that I spent some years as a social worker. I also designed and trained the mobile crisis team for children for Dallas County. Part of the training I did focused on empathic listening.

Webster defines empathy as "the projection of one's own personality into the personality of another in order to understand him better; intellectual identification of oneself with another." Please note the word "intellectual."

Sympathy, on the other hand, is defined as "sameness of feeling; affinity between persons or of one person for another."

The distinction between the two is subtle, but specific. Sympathy requires a sharing of feeling while empathy requires only the understanding of that feeling.

For people in the caring professions (social workers, crisis workers, psychologists and others), it is imperative to develop the skill of empathic listening--the ability to reflect back the feelings you observe without actually experiencing the feelings as well. I used to tell my staff that they were mirrors--reflecting without being. If they dissolved into sympathy--actually feeling the sadness, hopelessness and desperation of their clients--they lost the ability to safely manage that client.

So, what does this have to do with writing?

Everything. Powerful writing includes powerful characterizations. And in order to develop a powerful character, the writer must understand that character and understand what makes him or her tick. But the writer must do this by showing, not telling.

This doesn't mean I have to be a prostitute to understand what a prostitute feels. Nor do I have to lose a child to understand how devastating that loss could be for a mother. As I'm writing this post, I think I would probably focus on both women's rage and try to accurately reflect their very different anger. In the case of the prostitute, her anger would likely be more covert, overlaid with cynicism and weariness. In the case of the bereaved mother, her anger will probably be more overt, disbelieving and overlaid with grief.

My job as a writer is to describe each woman without expressing judgment toward the prostitute nor pity toward the mother. If I do my job right, my characterizations will evoke feelings in my readers.

Whenever I create a character, I start by deciding what the person's overriding feeling will be at the point in time when I introduce him. From that feeling, I can develop his goals and motivations and begin to paint his portrait. I don't have to be a male to describe one, but I do have to understand what he is feeling in and about his world on the day I encounter him.

Try empathic writing on for size. See how it feels; see if it works for you. Happy writing.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Rainy Day Occupations

I didn't feel great yesterday morning and spent much of the day editing a thriller I'd stopped working on nearly a year ago. The 400-page manuscript was complete, but unedited. Working on it was the perfect task for a gloomy, about-to-rain day. I wrapped myself in a comforter and read. My working title had been "The Orpheus Race." My new title is "Perchance to Sleep." I'll probably change the title again before sending it to my agent.

I'm a firm believer in letting a manuscript "marinate." The process of writing just brings you too close to your work to be able to judge it dispassionately. My critique partners (both in-person and online) provide valuable guidance and criticism while I'm writing the first draft. My pantser style, however, requires that I put the manuscript down for a long enough period that I can get some distance from it--some sense of perspective. Usually that's about three months. For this novel, happenstance made it twelve.

Re-reading it yesterday, the errors just jumped out at me screaming, "Here I am! Correct me." I worked for quite a while (with Bob the kitten sleeping happily [!] on my lap). I also began talking online with potential second-round critique partners for this specific novel. It needs fresh eyes, not the same partners who read it originally. I think I've found a compatible person; time will tell. I'd like to find a second partner for it. Have a lead; we'll see.

Yesterday evening I skipped my in-person critique group, something I hate to do, but I just didn't feel up to it. I accidentally stumbled onto two television programs on PBS: one a documentary about Margo Jones, a pioneer of the regional theatre movement. I was drawn to the program because I knew that it was Jones who had saved the play "Inherit the Wind" from oblivion. "Inherit the Wind" is the dramatization of the Scopes Monkey Trial and one of my favorite plays. (My other two favorite plays are "Crimes of the Heart" and "The Lion in the Winter.")

The second PBS program was The American Experience's presentation on Eugene O'Neill. Such a tortured soul. And, yet, out of all that pain came a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1936 and four Pulitzer prizes for plays stretching from 1920 to 1957. Remarkable. I can still remember the night when I saw "A Long Day's Journey Into Night" performed on the stage for the first time. It was a devastating experience--especially for someone who came out of an alcoholic family. I was numb by the end.

If you can, look for both programs: "Sweet Tornado: Margo Jones and the American Theatre" and "American Experience: Eugene O'Neill." You won't regret it.

Monday, March 27, 2006

What a Successful Writer Needs

I'm a fan of J.A. Konrath. I own the three books he's written and regularly read his blog. There's a link to that blog among the links on the right side of this page.

Recently, Joe had a post that really struck home with me. He talked about what it takes for a writer to succeed, and he suggested four things: talent, craft, persistence and luck.

I've thought about what he said quite a bit over this weekend, and I agree with him.

For want of a better word, talent is what makes a writer, a writer. It's the storyteller's urge, the need to dream up characters and plots and worlds and then commit them to paper. When writers get together, you'll hear the same things again and again: "I've been a writer all my life," "All I've ever wanted to do was write," "I NEED to write."

But Joe is right. "Talent alone won't make you successful." How many people have you met who say, "I've always wanted to write a book." Wanting to and actually doing it are a chasm apart. As anyone who has ever tried to produce a 400-page manuscript can tell you.

Craft is your mastery of the professional trappings. It begins with writer's tools such as grammar, sentence structure, vocabulary and spelling. It continues with more advanced devices such as story hooks, character motivations and plot conflict.

However, even mastery of all those things is not enough. Your craft includes the fixtures of the publishing industry such as the proper formatting of a novel and how to write a query letter. And, finally, craft also encompasses knowledge of the industry itself. You must learn terms such as "remainder," "sell through percentage" and "trade paperback." You must learn how to find reputable agents and publishers, and the red flags to look for in a contract. And you need to learn to build a brand name and how to market both yourself and your work.

Knowledge of your craft is a moving target. Just when you think you've achieved one plateau (selling something, anything!!), you find that there's another milestone still waiting ahead of you. But talent and craft aren't enough.

Luck. It's been called Fate, Destiny and Chance. It's the one part of the equation over which you have no control. Even so, it can't be discounted. A writer becomes pregnant and gives up on her dream of penning a novel, another writer marries someone with connections in the industry and a third joins the military and begins a journal of the experience. There's an element of luck in every one of these scenarios.

And, finally, there's persistence or perseverance. How long is too long? When do you give up?

The answer is never. Joe has a motto on his website: "There's a word for a writer who never gives up -- published."

Perseverance is continuing to plug away, continuing to work every day at honing your craft, at submitting manuscripts, at writing. Persistence is never getting so cocky that you think you no longer need to be edited, or ignore suggestions about your work-in-progress. Perseverance is plodding on, sending out query after query despite rejection after rejection.

Joe said, "In my experience, writers place too much value on talent, not enough value on craft, give luck too little weight, and often use persistence as an excuse not to improve craft." I suspect he's probably right.

In looking at his list, I think I would add one more factor: Networking. Perhaps Joe would include that under craft. I wouldn't. I think networking deserves a heading of its own. Don't ever ignore an opportunity to network: with critique partners, with chapter members, with conference attendees, with agents, with other authors, with publishers. Network with suppliers, with reviewers, with bookstore employees. If you're not good at schmoozing, LEARN. Like anything else, it's a skill and one you'll need in this industry.

Keep writing. And never give up. Never give up. Never give up.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Potential Impact of The DaVinci Code Case

On March 16th, I blogged about "The DaVinci Code" legal battle being waged in a London courtroom.

The facts of the case are simple: in 1982, three writers collaborated on a non-fiction book called "Holy Blood, Holy Grail" (HBHG). Their premise was explosive. They claimed that Jesus Christ married Mary Magdalene and had a child and that his bloodline survives to the present day with the Catholic church conspiring to hide the truth.

Remember: this book was published by Random House as non-fiction.

In 2003, author Dan Brown published a novel entitled "The DaVinci Code" (TDVC), using many (but not all) of the same themes outlined in HBHG. The book, also published by Random House, became one of the best-selling novels of all time, selling more than forty million copies to date.

Earlier this year, two of the authors of HBHG, Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, sued Dan Brown in a London court claiming copyright infringement. Arguments are finished and the case now hinges on the judge's decision, which is expected in the next two weeks.

So, what does it all mean? This case is not the stuff of which copyright cases are usually made. Copyright infringement generally refers to someone who cuts and pastes verbatim material belonging to another writer. In this case, Leigh and Baigent claim that Brown stole their "ideas" and their "architecture." But can one steal another's ideas? That's the key to this case.

According to intellectual property attorney Edward Naughton, copyright infringement cases have "never been so abstract as this one." (USA Today)

Part of the plaintiff's problem stems from HBHG's claim to being a NON-FICTION book containing a series of historical facts. Tim Wu, writing for Slate magazine offered the following example to illustrate the uphill battle Baigent and Leigh face:

"Say you write the first article ever saying that John F. Kennedy had Addison's disease (a fact). If the law say that you now own that fact, almost anyone who wants to write about Kennedy's life or illnesses needs your permission. That's a broad right, one that's not just a damper on future scholarship and authorship but possibly a damper on that fact itself--you might, for example, be a Kennedy loyalist who wants to keep his disease secret forever."

Wu explains: "Leigh et al. had a choice: They could have decided to portray their work as fiction, not history...When you, as an author, make a claim to present the truth, you both gain something and lose something. You have a shot at changing what we think to be true, and you may gain reader interest. But you cannot own the truth the way you might own elements of a fictional story, like the character 'Rocky.' To claim the truth is fine, but to own it is not."

The majority of legal experts do not believe that the judge in this case is going to rule that copyright law covers people claiming to own facts. The implications of such a ruling would be devastating.

Lorna Brazell, a copyright lawyer speaking to The Christian Science Monitor, summed it up nicely: "They (Leigh and Baigent) have done this research for their book and are saying these are the facts...The problem is that a fact is information in the public domain and available to anyone who wants to use it for creative purposes."

Stay tuned for the judge's ruling expected in early April.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

A Smile for Saturday--Haiku for Cat Lovers

Right after I published the blog on my cat problems today, another writer posted a series of haikus about cats. Thanks to David Roth:

So you want to play.
Will I claw at dancing string?
Your ankle's closer.

I don't mind being
Teased, any more than you mind
A skin graft or two.

So you call this thing
Your "cat carrier." I call
These my "blades of death."

Your mouth is moving;
Up and down, emitting noise.
I've lost interest.

My brain: walnut-sized.
Yours: largest among primates.
Yet, who leaves for work?

Most problems can be
Ignored. The more difficult
Ones can be slept through.

Seeking solitude
I am locked in the closet.
For once I need you.

There's no dignity
In being sick - which is why
I don't tell you where.

My affection is conditional.
Don't stand up,
It's your lap I love.

Cats can't steal the breath
Of children. But if my tail's
Pulled again, I'll learn.

Toy mice, dancing yarn
Meowing sounds. I'm convinced:
You're an idiot.

Feline Fractiousness

Okay, let me begin by saying that I'm cranky. I'm nursing bloody ankles, tender forearms, an aching back and a sense of hopelessness--none of which are conducive to the Zen state required for a productive writer.

Regular readers of this blog know that I share my study with two cats--Tribble the Paperweight and Bobbin the Hunter. For the most part, we successfully manage the small piece of real estate where I spend most of my days working. Tribble, who is nearly nineteen, sleeps beside me while Bob sallies forth in search of adventure in our heavily wooded neighborhood. Periodically, they switch places. Bob jumps up on the window sill outside my study to let us know he's ready to come in. When I open the front door to admit him, Tribble wanders out onto the porch to sleep on her favorite cushion on the glider. Bobbin hops up beside my laptop and listens attentively while I read aloud what I've been working on while he was away.

This peaceful existence came to an abrupt end when I read a recent news announcement that the bird flu had claimed the lives of several German cats. Apparently the cats in question had eaten infected birds, fell ill and died.

Bob's fondness for afternoon snacks of sparrows and bluejays--which I have thus far been unable to break him of--suddenly took on ominous overtones. Thoroughly alarmed, I decided the time had come for Bob and Tribble to graduate to Indoor Cat Status. Therefore, about a week ago, instead of offering them their normal 7:00 AM access to the wider world, I walked past the front door to my study.

Tribble, who never likes to go out during chilly mornings anyway, followed me without comment. Bob immediately started yowling. He jumped up onto my desk and shoved his small black face over the top of the laptop to peer into my eyes with a quizzical expression. "Have you forgot something?" he whined. I ignored him, and thus began the open warfare.

I had tried to prepare for Bob's incarceration by hanging tempting toys from doorknobs and placing cunning catnip treats in strategic locations. He was having none of this. He started by opening every cabinet in the house and knocking the bottles and aerosol cans out onto the floor. From there, he peed in my shower. He slipped into my walk-in closet and pulled down the blouses hung on the bottom rack of the double bars. And that was all the first day before 10:00 AM.

Like a miniature Machiavelli, Bob accurately assessed my weak spot: Tribble. He took to lying in wait and pouncing on her unannounced. The poor old girl is now so skittish, she refuses to leave a room without looking both ways like a child crossing a treacherous boulevard.

I instituted Time Out. Whenever Bob attacked Tribble, I locked him in the guest bedroom for three hours. His howling was so loud that I couldn't concentrate to work and ended up carrying my laptop into the yard to sit shivering in a wrought iron patio chair, forced into a Time Out of my own.

This week, Bobbin borrowed a page from that Chinese warlord Sun Tzu and changed tactics. Somehow, he correctly deduced that, while I would punish him for disturbing Tribble, I would be far more forgiving of his assaults on me. Instead of holding Tribble hostage, he decided to take the battle directly to the enemy. He developed an alternate strategy of pouncing on my feet and digging his claws into the exposed flesh. The minute I scream, like that great American Revolutionary hero, the Swamp Fox--Francis Marion--"he runs away to fight again."

Since I can never find or catch Bobbin to punish him after these assaults, my latest solution is simply to punt him across the room whenever he attacks my feet. I expect to hear from the SPCA any time now.

For the last few days, Bob's been killing me with kindness. He hops up onto my desk and drapes himself across my forearms. Trying to type with fourteen pounds of limp black cat covering you from wrist to elbow is akin to writing with a 2X4 across your arms. Plus it's killing my back.

Oh, well, at least I'm no longer bleeding.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Is It Vanity Press or Publishing? Part II

I talked yesterday about vanity presses such as Xlibris and PublishAmerica. That post had been prompted by a comment on a writers' loop where another writer praised Xlibris as a viable alternative for writers.

Let me be clear: If all you want is to hold a book printed with your name as the author and you're willing to pay dearly for that privilege, PublishAmerica and Xlibris are waiting to take your money. You could, of course, achieve the same experience a lot more cheaply by going through a print-on-demand operation, but, hey, it's your money.

Both PublishAmerica and Xlibris have slick pages on their websites promising to help you with marketing and promotion--for a fee, of course.

The real problem is that, because these vanity presses do not discriminate in the type of material they print, they have NO credibility in the legitimate publishing world. In fact, saying to an agent or editor that you're a published author with PublishAmerica, will mark you as a very green newbie without a clue. Not exactly the professional image you want to project.

If you don't believe what I'm saying about vanity presses accepting anything, go to Wikipedia and read the entry for "Atlanta Nights." It's both entertaining and very sad at the same time.

Another writer made the comment that--no matter which publisher---the marketing of a book will "almost entirely fall upon the author." That's true, especially for new authors. However, a legitimate publisher will never ask you to pay THEM for promoting, marketing or distributing your book. That's their expense, part of the risk they took on as your publisher.

New writers are always faced with the challenge of gaining name recognition. Joe Konrath says, now that he's published multiple books, his job is 80% marketing and 20% writing. Until you build your name recognition, that's true. The easiest and cheapest way to do this is via a website and blog. Some writers hire a publicist to work in conjunction with their publisher's Publicity Department. Other writers handle the onerous job of calling on bookstores to arrange signings themselves. Almost all writers attend endless conferences and conventions in order to build name recognition.

NOTE: Be sure you understand the differences between marketing, publicity and advertising as they relate to publishing. The Marketing Department of a publisher usually gets in on the act before the book is even contracted--by helping to decide whether there's a market for the book and how the book will fit into the publisher's budget (the size of print run, money for publicity, etc.) The Advertising Department usually handles advertising the publisher itself, meaning developing the catalog that their Sales Department will use to sell to bookstores, etc. The Publicity Department is the one that works with the author (within the budget set up by Marketing. Keep in mind, the budget for newbie authors is very, very slim).

I belong to and have been an officer for multiple writers' groups and chapters. It's almost a painful rite of passage when a new member presents himself, saying, "I'm a published writer." He hands around a copy of his new book, and each member surreptitiously opens the cover to check the title page or the copyright page for the imprint's logo. You can see the winces and the eyerolling when they discover a vanity press. Before the new member even opens his mouth, he has lost credibility.

Every genre has its own organizations and support groups. The advent of the Internet makes it possible for budding writers to find enormous amounts of information on publishing at their fingertips. Take advantage of those resources. One of the MOST valuable is Preditors and Editors ( originally developed by the sci-fi folks. Pay attention to that title. It is Preditors as in predators--people who will prey upon the unwary and the unsuspecting. Every writer worth her salt runs to that website whenever she comes across the name of a potential publisher or agent.

I was sorry to hurt the feelings of another writer yesterday with my comments. I did not make those comments for that purpose. I was very concerned that others would jump on the endorsements being made and make the same ugly mistakes.

I learned long ago in a succession of cheap apartments that, when you turn the light on, the bugs and other nasty creepy-crawlers scurry into hiding. As long as the writing community continues to turn the light on the creepy-crawlers, inexperienced writers will not fall victim to them.

Added Note: I apologized to the writer whose feelings I had inadvertently bruised. She was very gracious and shared her story with the group, telling how she'd been enticed by another writer to sign with PublishAmerica.

We all start out green and inexperienced. Fortunately, today there are lots of resources to help new writers guard against the multitude of scams out there.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Is it Vanity Press or Publishing?

I inadvertently stepped on some toes in a writers' loop I belong to today. Someone posted an article praising Xlibris as a publishing house and recommending it.

I am always alarmed at these type of "endorsements." First, I am suspicious that they are coming from the supposed "publishing house" itself or from someone paid to flack it. Second, I worry that the endorsement will entice inexperienced writers who don't have enough knowledge of the publishing world to understand that not all operations claiming to be "publishers" are legitimate.

Let's start with listing the three types of operations. There are vanity presses, POD operations and legitimate publishing houses. Hopefully this blog will contain enough information to help a newbie writer distinguish among the three.

The fastest way to tell a vanity press from a legitimate publishing house is to look at which way the money is flowing (the business model). Legitimate publishers make their money from the sales of books to the public via bookstores, libraries, etc. Vanity presses make their money from the fees paid to them by writers. Those fees may take various forms. Frequently, the vanity press claims the book just needs a little editing before publishing and socks the writer with a large editing fee. Other fees are for illustrations, the printing itself or the marketing and distribution after the book is produced.

Vanity presses prey on people who are desperate to see their books in a bound format or who are trying to shortcut the process to publication. Unfortunately, the vanity presses have no incentive to be selective in the work they "publish." They get paid even if the writer never sells one book. The result is that the biggest source of revenue for writers--the library market--is generally closed to writers publishing through a vanity press. Most libraries will not purchase or even accept a free copy of a book published through a vanity press. Hello? That's a big clue. If a library refuses a free copy when they hear the publisher's name, you have a problem. Some kind librarians will accept the book, but have the writer sign a form permitting the library to dispose of it in any way they see fit. As soon as the writer leaves the premises, the book goes into the "recyle bin" or the "sell at the next library sale bin."

There are times when writers have entirely legitimate reasons for paying to publish a book themselves. I'm thinking of a book which may be on a subject matter so arcane that there will be a very small audience for it, giving it limited commercial value. Or perhaps the book is intended as a keepsake for family members. In those cases, the writer can go to a POD (print-on-demand) operation.

POD is a technology which permits the printing of a limited number of books using a digital copying process. This allows a print run of as small as one book instead of the print runs of thousands that traditional publishers do. A POD operation makes no claims to edit or to market your book. They simply provide the printing and binding for a fee that is much less than a vanity press' fee. Most writers utilizing the services of a POD operation understand and accept at the outset that this printing is for other than commercial purposes. There are a few writers who believe so strongly in their books that they have paid the POD fees and then tried to market the product themselves. On very rare occasions they have succeeded.

Finally, we have the traditional and legitimate publishing houses. These operations make their revenue from sales, not fees. They are, therefore, forced to be selective in the material they accept for publication. Frequently, their decisions are not based entirely upon the QUALITY of the work; they are concerned with the likelihood that they can sell sufficient copies to make a profit. This means that a quality product is not enough; there must also be a MARKET. The Internet is filled with stories of excellent writers who struggled for years to get accepted by a traditional publisher. The key is that the publisher has an expectation that the manuscripts it accepts will make money.

My post on the writers' loop got an angry response from a writer saying that PublishAmerica does not expect a fee upfront--just for marketing--and that all writers today are expected to market. I'll talk about that tomorrow.



A Lady Confesses

Yesterday I went to one of my favorite places in the world--the Dallas Arboretum. A good friend and I spent hours wandering around the acres and acres of flowers, shrubs and trees. It was a wonderfully peaceful way to spend a day--and nourishment for the soul.

I confessed something to my friend that made him laugh and thought I would share the story here, too.

In recent years, local plant nurseries have begun to sell bags of ladybugs for people to scatter in their gardens. Ladybugs are extremely helpful little critters that eat lots of bad bugs.

I have especially fond memories of ladybugs. Living in New Jersey as a child, there were jillions of ladybugs in our yard--along with lightning bugs and Japanese beetles. They were a part of my good childhood memories.

The bags of ladybugs began appearing in nurseries the spring after my father died. I suspect my dad's death had a lot to do with what I did that year.

I winced to look at the three or four bags sitting on nursery counters because you could see the dying and dead bugs through the mesh. In a burst of insect sympathy that spring, I bought up all the bags in my local store so that I could release the bugs before the rest of them died, too.

Naturally, the nursery just hauled out new bags and, each time I visited, there were two or three more.

There's a limit to how many ladybugs one property can support. I released subsequent bags in my neighbors' yards. After I'd saturated my immediate neighborhood, I began my Ladybug Liberation Front. I conceived the notion of bringing the bags of bugs to the Dallas Arboretum to free them there. I figured the Arboretum gardens probably constituted bug paradise.

I am a long-time member of the Arboretum. Each visit, I would enter the park with more bugs inside my picnic basket and a blanket over my arm. I roped my boyfriend into my guerilla-style operation although he was not happy to be drafted. One of us would act as lookout while the other freed the prisoners. Over that one spring and summer, we released at least a dozen bags into the park.

The funny thing is--the following spring--the Arboretum began selling ladybugs in their own little "Arboretum Tubs of Bugs"--clearly a homemade gimmick to get rid of their excess insects.

I guess my inadvertent bug breeding program was a success--in more ways than one. I know it helped me at a difficult time in my life. And, I still smile today to see one of the descendents of that spring of liberation flying among the rose bushes at my home or at the Arboretum.

Thanks, J, for a lovely day yesterday.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

How An Agent Reads & Evaluates Your Partial

Writing about Kirsten Nelson's Pub Rant last night reminded me of an article I read some time back.

Have you ever had one of those "down" moments when you just can't muster the energy to write? I have. Fortunately, I don't have as many of those as I once did. For me, the challenge is to use that time constructively. Given my natural proclivity to veg, my first instinct is to play online games (Sudoku, anyone?) or to do a bunch of blog hopping. It takes a real effort for me to force myself to do one of two things: read articles on the craft of writing or edit my manuscript. And, even when I'm doing those two activities, I know my word count for the week still looms over me. Nothing eliminates it; I just have more to write later.

One of the places where I consistently find excellent articles on writing is Backspace ( Backspace bills itself as "The Writer's Place," and it's an appropriate title.

During one of my "off" moments last year, I read an excellent article by Kirsten Nelson. The title was too long, but--hey--you can't have everything: "From Post Box To Agency Inbox: An Insider Look At How An Agent Reads and Evaluates The Requested Sample Pages For Your Novel."

That article could serve as a companion piece to last night's blog. In it, Kirsten talks about the writing styles and subjects which force her to take a pass on partials. I'm going to summarize those here:

1. "Fresh storyline but the writing isn’t strong enough." This is a partial in which the author has a terrific plot line or story concept, but is simply not a strong enough writer to pull it off. This is purely a question of craft. Kirsten described these cases as "heartbreaking." However, as a businessperson, she doesn't have the time to train a newbie writer to write. So she passes on the project.

2. "Sharp writing with a tired storyline." This is the opposite of Problem #1. Here, the writer is strong, but her material has been done again and again and again. Either the writer lacks the imagination or the motivation to come up with a fresh and exciting story line.

3. "A beautifully written but boring work." This is a twist on #2. Again, the writer is strong, but the subject matter is deadly (at least to that agent). Remember: agents are people, too, with likes and dislikes.

One of the real public services that agent blogs such as Anna Genoese, Miss Snark and Pub Rants provide is that they help newbie writers to see agents as people. People who can dislike sci-fi (Miss Snark) or love romances (Kirsten).

This seems to me to be the most frustrating mistake of the group. It can so easily be avoided by the writer doing a bit of research to find out what genres the agent in question likes to represent.

4. "Poorly written material regardless of story." This is #1, only without the great concept. It is probably the easiest for an agent to pass on. Badly written material without even a good plot to recommend it isn't going to find a home with any agent. There's a reason they call writing a craft.

5. "Stories that clearly don’t fit in the market. I’ll get a cover letter that will say something like...'my story is a blend of science fiction and romantic comedy with elements of suspense. It can be called Chick Lit.' Huh? It is only the extraordinary writer who can outrageously defy genre boundaries and become a phenomenal success. It just doesn’t happen often. You need to know where your novel fits in the market."

This one is almost an exact duplicate of a comment that I quoted Kirsten making in my blog from last night. It is difficult to overestimate the importance of a writer knowing and understanding his market. You MUST be able to tell an agent or an editor where your novel will fit on the shelves of a bookstore. It's all about marketing.

6. "Partials with demanding or unprofessional cover letters." This problem is the only one of the six that is more about the personality of the writer than about her ability to write. Kirsten and Miss Snark are in agreement on this one. "Life is too short to deal with negative and demanding people." Kirsten made the point that she is not talking about assertive authors. While she doesn't say it, I'm guessing she is talking about aggressive authors, which is another kettle of fish altogether.

There is so much good information available to writers today. We need to be grateful for all the advice offered so graciously and willingly.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

How NOT to Query an Agent or Editor

Agent Kirsten Nelson published a blog the other day (March 16) over at Pub Rants ( She was talking about the top ten openings to "guarantee that I won't even read past your first line of your query."

She included a lot of truth in that top ten list. The things she said would be as true for an editor as for an agent.

Numbers 10, 9 and 8 on her list were authors who hadn't bothered to do their homework in order to determine the kind of manuscripts she represents. If you query Kirsten on a psychological thriller or a murder mystery or a screenplay, she'll trash the letter because she doesn't represent any of those genres. Lesson here: DO NOT SIMPLY MAIL DOZENS OF QUERIES IN A SCATTERSHOT MANNER. You're wasting postage, paper and time. Instead, take that energy and put it to good use by targeting your queries to agents/editors who will be interested in what you write.

Number 7 was an example of someone just shooting herself in the foot. "I really don’t know how to go about writing a query and since this is my first try…"

Kirsten responded that there is no excuse for someone doing this with all the information available to wannabee writers these days. She says bluntly, "I personally don’t want to take on any writer who isn’t savvy. Now, they can still have a lot of questions about publishing but they need to be professionally savvy." Lesson here: The sympathy ploy may work with your mother, but not in a business relationship. An agent or an editor is not looking to do social work. This is their livelihood. Act like a freaking professional.

Number 6 is clearly a sore spot with agents. Miss Snark has made reference to it numerous times. This is the query which assures the agent that the book will make a fabulous movie. If the person you are querying is a "literary" agent, it means he represents BOOKS. Lesson here: Don't run before you learn to walk. Stop thinking ahead four spaces on the gameboard and concentrate on selling your book. Alternatively, write a screenplay and look for someone who specializes in selling those.

Numbers 5 and 4 are variations of the same theme. The writer says he cannot describe his novel "because it defies description" or he claims it fits many categories or genres. Kirsten says, "if you can’t describe it, I’m pretty darn sure I can’t sell it. As a writer, you need to know your novel’s place in the market...Pick the dominant genre—where it would be shelved in a bookstore and leave it at that!" Lesson here: You need to spend some time learning the language of genres and how to classify your novel. I've said before that I thought my first novel was a romantic fantasy. After I took a workshop in genres, I learned it was a paranormal romance. This is important information when you are trying to sell a novel.

Number 3 was sending an attachment with an email. With all the viruses out there, no sane person is going to open an unknown attachment. Some agents DO have a separate computer on which they will open queries with attachments. Lesson here: Read the agent/publisher's guidelines. Otherwise, they will delete your email and you'll still be waiting for a response a year from now.

Number 2 astonished me: "I recently realized that I was scammed by my previous agent/agency." Again, Kirsten was blunt. "Don’t start you[r] query with how you had a moment of idiocy (which can happen to anyone). Would you begin a job interview with how much you screwed up the last one? No. Use some common sense." Lesson here: Oh, for heaven's sake, if I have to explain this one, you shouldn't be querying at all.

And finally..."the number one starter that will get an instant NO reply: 1. My novel will be the next DA VINCI CODE, HARRY POTTER, or WAITING TO EXHALE (or insert other title that fits your genre)".

Kirsten was kinder than I would have been on this one. She simply said this was unlikely and, besides, had already been done. She is looking for something new and terrific. Lesson here: Get over your grandiose self. The odds that you have written the next forty-million-copy bestseller are somewhere between slim and none. Don't embarrass yourself.

Monday, March 20, 2006

What To Do About Chapters?

One of Miss Snark's Snarklings posed a question over the weekend that resonated with me. Here, in part, is what he said:

"Is it necessary to have a novel broken down into chapters...? I don't write with specific chapters and chapter breaks in mind, is this something I should concentrate on doing?"

The question caught my attention because I also had a problem with chapter breaks early on in my writing career.

The first things I ever published were non-fiction articles. From there, I moved to selling short romantic stories. When I began to write novel-length fiction a few years ago, it was my first real experience with writing anything long enough to require chapter breaks.

It seemed intuitive to me to break the chapters off at a logical stopping place. Therefore, the first novel I wrote had chapters that ended with the protagonist going to bed at night. Made sense to me. I thought of a chapter as constituting a portion of a day with the break at a logical stopping place--like lunch or bedtime.

It wasn't until I got into critique groups and had the benefit of critiques by published writers that my problem with chapter breaks began to emerge. Another writer pointed out that I was stopping chapters on a "down" beat. She said that she tried to always break off her chapters and scenes at a moment when a reader would be so engrossed that s/he would have to turn the page to read on.

I was surprised by this assessment and began to study chapter breaks in published novels. To my complete and utter surprise, I found that the books I considered the most exciting used my friend's technique. I began to revise my expectation for my own chapters.

Today, I think of the chapters as mini-plays of their own with their own arc and denouement. For the record, the word "denouement" comes from the French and means "unknotting" or "unwinding." Dr. Kip Wheeler defines denouement as the outcome or result of a complex situation or sequence of events. I try to place the chapter break right before that denouement so that my reader is forced to turn the page to find out what happens next.

I tend to write short chapters with very few scenes within each--no more than two or three. Rarely does one of my chapters exceed twenty manuscript pages. And I always try to end the chapter on an "upbeat" rather than a "downbeat."

I just looked at the first three chapters of my sequel to Witch Vampire. The first chapter ends with the heroine attacking her assailant. The denouement will be the result of that attack. The second chapter ends with the hero appearing unexpectedly outside the heroine's bedroom. The denouement will be whether she lets him in. The third chapter ends at a critical moment in an argument between the hero and heroine. The denouement will be who wins the argument.

Keep in mind that I am a pantser--as in writing by the seat of my pants. I start each chapter completing the denouement that my chapter break led up to. Then I start the story arc for the new chapter. I find that thinking of each chapter as its own little play provides structure and focus to my efforts. If I have a less than satisfactory chapter ending, I may tinker with it for a while or I may choose to go on, knowing that I will have to "repair" it later.

Invariably, my in-person critique partners demand that I read my chapter out loud first when we get together because they want to know what happened since I last read to the group. That tells me I'm on the right track. If they don't want to know what happened, it's back to the drawing board for me.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Is Chick Lit Dead?

The third weekend of the month is always a busy one for me. Both of my local writing chapters (RWA and Sisters in Crime) meet that weekend. Today was RWA's turn.

Our featured speaker was Shanna Swendson, a chick lit writer whose most recent books are Enchanted, Inc. and Once Upon Stilettos. Shanna was a delightful speaker who clearly knows her genre. I am not interested in chick lit and was surprised at how much she had to offer writers in general.

She started by talking about the three essential elements of chick lit. Quick: name what you think those elements would be.

My choices would have been: a 20-something heroine, a complicated dating life and a funny manuscript.

Shanna's choices were: An interesting, sympathetic heroine with a growth arc; female relationships; and a wry or sarcastic voice.

She spent some time differentiating between the typical romance and a chick lit:

**Central Conflict
Romance: Central conflict is between hero and heroine
Chick Lit: Central conflict is between the heroine and some aspect of her life (job, family or her own attitudes). The heroine's journey is the focus, not the romance

Romance: Hero is a main character with his own story and growth arc; makes immediate appearance in first chapter
Chick Lit: Hero may be a secondary character with no growth arc; may not appear until late in the book; heroine may have multiple romances with other men

Romance: A HEA--happily every after--is necessary (meaning hero and heroine get together)
Chick Lit: The happy ending may be the heroine learning to live without a man

Shanna was quite frank about the glut on the chick lit market. She said that the publishing houses that had been releasing four books a month had cut back to one or two. She said it was much harder to get a contract on a chick lit book today than it was a year ago.

One of the things I found most interesting was that she described the early chick lit books as "coming of age novels" in which the heroine learned survival skills and found her place in the world much as an aborigine would go on "walkabout." She said, as the books became popular and everyone jumped on the bandwagon, later writers copied the superficial elements of the books and turned those very obvious elements into cliches. As examples, she pointed to the following: lots of bad dates; shopping as an obsession; the gay best friend; the job in publishing or a low-level job in a glamorous field. Shanna's editor recently said that her publishing house would no longer touch a book with those elements because they had been so overdone.

So, is chick lit dead? Shanna doesn't think so. She believes that the genre is consolidating and exporting its voice to other genres. She pointed to Janet Evanovich (mystery) and MaryJanice Davidson (paranormal) as prime examples.

Shanna offered the following advice: If you want to write a mystery with a chick lit voice, write it in first person (or deep third person), with a real "attitude." However, it is VITAL that the mystery be the prime focus with the chick lit voice as the filter. A lot of voice and no mystery cannot sell in today's tighter market.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Google Wins in Court Fight

Yesterday, U.S. District Judge James Ware issued his formal ruling in the case of the Justice Department versus Google.

You will recall that, on Tuesday, Judge James Ware heard both sides in the government's attempt to force Google to comply with a subpoena to turn over data from its search engine (see my blogs on 3/10 and 3/15 for more information).

The Justice Department had served Google with a subpoena last summer, demanding a massive amount of data regarding both the websites it indexes as well as the search strings its users enter into the search engine. This information was supposed to help the Justice Department in its quest to fight child pornography.

While, on the surface, this seems like a worthwhile cause, in actuality, the Justice Department is seeking to shore up its case in another Federal court for a bad law. The Supreme Court has already sent numerous administrations back to the drawing board on this law (COPA--the Child Online Protection Act) since it was first enacted in October, 1998.

Instead of acknowledging that it is the law that needs to be changed, the Bush administration sought to force AOL, Yahoo, MSN and Google to provide data to support that law. AOL, Yahoo and MSN yielded to the Justice Department last year. Google refused and ended up in Judge Ware's court.

Keep in mind that the Justice Department has already acknowledged that it has the information it requires for the court case it is pursuing in Philadelphia to defend COPA. One suspects that it was Google's refusal to fall in line that prompted this case in California.

Judge Ware dealt the government a substantial blow in his written ruling yesterday. According to Yahoo News, the judge issued a 21-page ruling in which he told Google to give the Justice Department by April 3 the website addresses of 50,000 randomly selected Web sites. That's right. Just any old 50,000 URLs off the Internet.

Yahoo says: "Ware though decided Google won't have to disclose what people have been looking for on its widely used search engine, handing a significant victory to the company and privacy rights advocates."

Nicole Wong, Associate General Counsel for Google, posted a message on the official Google website ( In part, her message read:

"The government's original request demanded billions of URLs and two month's worth of users' search queries. Google resisted the subpoena, prompting the judge's order today. In addition to excluding search queries from the subpoena, Judge James Ware also required the government to limit its demand for URLs to 50,000. We will fully comply with the judge's order.

"This is a clear victory for our users and for our company, and Judge Ware's decision regarding search queries is especially important. This is a clear victory for our users...While privacy was not the most significant legal issue in this case, privacy was perhaps the most significant to our users.

"We will always be subject to government subpoenas, but the fact that the judge sent a clear message about privacy is reassuring. What his ruling means is that neither the government nor anyone else has carte blanche when demanding data from Internet companies. When a party resists an overbroad subpoena, our legal process can be an effective check on such demands and be a protector of our users."

Thumbs up to Judge Ware and especially to Google for resisting the U.S. Justice Department on this issue.

Friday, March 17, 2006

A Second Blog for Today--Writer Beware

I've seen this list posted in about a dozen places in the last week, but it never hurts to put the word out to even more. I think it originated on and

Writer Beware's 20 Worst Agents


Below is a list of the 20 agents about which Writer Beware has received the greatest number of advisories/complaints during the past several years.

None of these agents has a significant track record of sales to commercial (advance-paying) publishers, and most have virtually no documented and verified sales at all (many sales claimed by these agents turn out to be vanity publishers). All charge clients before a sale is made, whether directly, by charging fees such as reading or administrative fees, or indirectly, for "editing services."

Writer Beware suggests that writers searching for agents avoid questionable agents, and instead query agents who have actual track records of sales to commercial publishing houses.


*The Abacus Group Literary Agency
*Allred and Allred Literary Agents (refers clients to "book doctor" Victor West of Pacific Literary Services)
*Capital Literary Agency (formerly American Literary Agents of Washington, Inc.)
*Barbara Bauer Literary Agency
*Benedict & Associates (also d/b/a B.A. Literary Agency)
*Sherwood Broome, Inc.
*Desert Rose Literary Agency
*Arthur Fleming Associates
*Finesse Literary Agency (Karen Carr)
*Brock Gannon Literary Agency
*Harris Literary Agency
*The Literary Agency Group, which includes the following:
-Children's Literary Agency
-Christian Literary Agency
-New York Literary Agency
-Poets Literary Agency
-The Screenplay Agency
-Stylus Literary Agency (formerly ST Literary Agency)
-Writers Literary & Publishing Services Company (the editing arm of the above-mentioned agencies)
*Martin-McLean Literary Associates
*Mocknick Productions Literary Agency, Inc.
*B.K. Nelson, Inc.
*The Robins Agency (Cris Robins)
*Michelle Rooney Literary Agency (also d/b/a Creative Literary Agency and Simply Nonfiction)
*Southeast Literary Agency
*Mark Sullivan Associates
*West Coast Literary Associates (also d/b/a California Literary Services)

- Victoria Strauss
Two of Eight
Writer Beware:
Writer Beware Blog:

P.S. Consider Lee Shore Agency ah "honorable mention" No. 21.

How to "Do" a Booksigning

Joe Konrath remains both an author and an author's friend. I've learned a lot about publishing and about self-promotion from him in the last year. His blog is earmarked over to the right of this column if you want to sample him.

Today, he has an article on Backspace that should be a must-read for all writers. He talks about how to "do" an author signing.

This is one of those things that no one tells you about--probably because most writers do it "catch as catch can."

Joe offers some solid advice on things to do (bring donuts for the bookstore staff) and things not to do (don't sit behind your table). He provides a list of things to bring and a timetable of when to make calls.

Check it out at:

Thursday, March 16, 2006

The DaVinci Code Trial

Dan Brown, author of "The DaVinci Code," (TDVC) has now completed several days of testimony on the stand in London talking about his 2003 best-seller. I thought this might be a good time to check in on the trial.

Brown's publisher is being sued by two of the three authors of a non-fiction book, "Holy Blood, Holy Grail," (HBHG) published more than twenty years before TDVC. The authors, Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, claim that Brown stole the "architecture" of their book--their themes and ideas. In case you have not yet read TDVC, I don't want to spoil it for you. However, the novel presents an alternate history to that offered in the Bible, particularly as it relates to Jesus.

The publisher--Random House--actually published both books in question. Of course, before this trial, HBHG had sold only two million copies (only!!) while TDVC has sold more than forty million copies. You really get a sense of how enormous TDVC is when you speak condescendingly of a book that sold ONLY two million copies.

The big question looming over the proceedings in London is whether the planned debut of TDVC movie, starring Tom Hanks, scheduled to be released in mid-May, will be delayed by a ruling in favor of the plaintiffs.

Random House insists that Baigent and Leigh were not the first or the only writers to present the ideas Brown explored in TDVC. The publishing house also argues that "general ideas" cannot be covered by copyright.

According to The Guardian, Brown seemed completely at ease on the stand. He denied plagiarizing HBHG although he acknowledged that he had read the book as part of his research. He explained that his wife, Blythe, is his main researcher. "He said he had read almost 30 other books relevant to the subject and more than 300 documents." (The Guardian)

While the plaintiff's lawyers are busy pointing to all the similarities between TDVC and HBHG, Brown pointed to the numerous differences. He did acknowledge that "he named a character after the authors: Sir Leigh Teabing, an anagram of 'Baigent' and 'Leigh.' He said he inserted the names in his novels only of people whom he respected or cared for." (The Guardian)

The trial is being closely watched because of the copyright issues. It is believed that the authors chose to sue in Great Britain because that country's copyright laws might be more favorable to the plaintiff's point of view.

Stay tuned...

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The Google Hearing Yesterday

There was news yesterday regarding the federal court hearing in the case of the Justice Department versus Google.

The Justice Department is suing to force Google to turn over data related to searches demanded in a subpoena issued last summer. The search engine giant flatly refused to cooperate with the subpoena. You'll recall I mentioned on Friday that a hearing was scheduled for yesterday in Judge James Ware's U.S. District Court.

According to Yahoo News, Judge Ware said "he intends to order Google Inc. to turn over some of its Internet records to the U.S. Justice Department, but expressed reservations about requiring the company to divulge some of its most sensitive data--the actual requests that people enter into its popular search engine."

The Justice Department was demanding two things: (1) a million random URLs and (2) a million search strings (text only) requested by users during a one-week period without identifying the users. According to C/NET News, "During negotiations, the Justice Department narrowed its request to 50,000 URLs and said it would look at only 10,000. It also said it wanted 5,000 search queries and would look at 1,000."

The judge forced the Justice Department's attorney to admit that the government had already received sufficient data from Yahoo, MSN and AOL to complete its study. However, Judge Ware noted the results of the negotiation (which included the Justice Department's willingness to reimburse Google for its programmers' time) and said he was inclined to partially grant the government's request.

During the 90-minute hearing yesterday, Judge Ware indicated that he wasn't alarmed by the request for random websites indexed by Google. However, he didn't want "to create the perception that Internet search engines and other large online databases could become tools for government surveillance." This would appear to indicate that he is going to be less forthcoming on the Justice Department's request for the search strings.

The judge promised to issue a written ruling soon.

"T. Barton Carter, a communications and law professor at Boston University, said the concerns raised by Ware should be heartening to privacy rights advocates."

C/NET News is running an opinion poll on their website, asking whether the Justice Department should win its request. As of this morning, 900 people had voted and 93.8% of them believe the government should NOT win.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Building an Agent File

Someone on one of my writers' loops posted a message looking for information on the thirteen agents he was considering sending queries to. I was able to provide data on twelve out of the thirteen.

Shortly afterward, another member sent me an email off loop, asking where I'd found all that information.

I've blogged about this before, but don't mind talking about it again.

Some months ago, I purchased a small box with an alphabetical index and some 3X5 white cards. I also subscribed to the Publishers Marketplace free lunch ( which provides listings of deals made in the publishing industry. Every time I saw a deal or heard about an agent on a writers' loop in the genres in which I was writing, I created an index card with the agent's name on top. I filed them alphabetically by the agent's last name with a cross-reference card containing the agency's name.

Before long, I decided to start including editors and publishing houses to my index system. Soon, I needed a second index card box.

Just think of the number of times every day you see emails mentioning information about editors and agents and what they're looking for in manuscripts. Within 90 days, I had collated a surprising amount of information.

When I saw that request for information this week, I was able to tell the person that:

Meredith Bernstein prefers to hear from published writers
Stuart Krichevsky sells primarily non-fiction
Lucienne Diver likes quirky and represents P.N. Elrod and Susan Krinard
Rich Henshaw sells a lot of thrillers and mysteries and represents Dana Stabenow
Jennifer Jackson makes a lot of deals in the sci-fi/fantasy genre
Jonathan Lyons worked at Curtis Brown until he moved to McIntosh & Otis in 2005
Scott Andrew Mendel does not represent fantasy, sci-fi or paranormal
Kristen Nelson lives in Denver and has a blog at

I could go on, but you get the point. By just paying attention and keeping the information in a centralized location, you, too, can build your own agent/editor database. If you start BEFORE you're ready to find a agent, by the time you're ready to begin querying, you'll have all the information you need to target your efforts.

So, what are you waiting for? Get cracking.

Monday, March 13, 2006

The Need to Maintain Momentum

I love wandering around bookstores and libraries. One of my ambitions as a little girl was to figure out how to get locked in the public library overnight so I could be alone with all the books. Never did pull it off, although the fantasy lingered until I was twelve or thirteen. Then the discovery of boys changed my priorities. :)

My pleasure reading is primarily confined to mysteries, thrillers, horror, fantasy and erotic romance. On Saturday, I spent a lot of time in the mystery aisle of Half Price Books, which is what prompts this blog.

I ran across a book by Joseph R. Garber. I immediately recognized the name although I hadn't seen it in a long time.

In the summer of 1995, I bought a thriller by Garber entitled "Vertical Run." The story was irresistible. Corporate executive David Elliott comes to work one morning, only to find that everyone he encounters is trying to kill him. And he has no idea why. He eludes his first attackers. Before noon, whoever is masterminding his murder has brought in a professional hit team to finish the job. The title of the book comes from the fact that Elliott is trapped and running in a 50-story skyscraper in Manhattan.

The book was a thrill-a-minute. It became a featured Book-of-the-Month selection and was optioned by Warner Brothers (and Jon Peters) to become a movie. I was hooked on Garber and eagerly awaited his next book--which never came. After four or five years, I quit looking.

On Saturday, I found the next novel by Garber--a book entitled "Whirlwind," published in the summer of 2004--nine years after "Vertical Run."

This experience reminded me of the times this has happened before. I'll find an author whose work I admire and then -- NOTHING. The writer loses his momentum or something happens in his personal life, but he never follows through.

About the same time I read "Vertical Run," I read a first novel by a man named William S. Slusher. The book was "Shepherd of the Wolves," and told the story of Sheriff Lewis Cody, a man struggling to balance his personal and professional lives. The mass market paperback was published in 1995 to critical acclaim. It was followed the next year by the second book in the series, "Butcher of the Noble." The bio at the back of the sequel indicated that Slusher was hard at work on a third novel. Then -- NOTHING.

The experience Saturday started me thinking about writers and momentum. For most writers, it takes a number of years to find an agent and to get published. The smart ones keep writing with the result that, when they are finally published, they have two or three (or more) manuscripts to their names. Publishing companies seem to like an author to produce a book every nine to twelve months. If the writer has a backlog of material already in existence, all the better. However if he/she doesn't, then the pressure is on to produce the next work. Sometimes, that doesn't happen quickly.

I'm remembering another writer I admired: Mary Willis Walker. In 1991, Walker published the mystery, "Zero at the Bone." It was nominated for both an Agatha (best first cozy) and an Edgar (best first novel). It won the Agatha. In 1994, three years after "Zero at the Bone," Walker published "Red Scream." "Under the Beetle's Cellar" came out in 1995 and "All the Dead Lie Down" in 1998. Since then--NOTHING. Eight years and counting and no new book. This from an award-winning author.

As writers, we are all focused on producing that first novel, on getting published, on seeing our work in print. Rarely do we think ahead to what happens next.

This is a business. Like all businesses, we must keep our customers happy. That means generating new products to keep their attention and to keep our names at the forefront of the public's mind. Even before the first novel is published, your agent is asking for the second...and soon the third.

Be prepared. Plan ahead. Don't allow short-term gratification to distract you from your main goal. Stay focused and stay on track. Otherwise, some day, a reader will be saying, "I remember that author. Whatever happened to her?"

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Attention!! Citizen Alert

I am changing my plan for today's blog because I think this is important.

This is not intended as a political rant; it is intended as a citizen alert.

I have just finished one of the most disturbing hours of radio I have ever experienced. I listened to this week's episode of "This American Life" on NPR.

The summary of the show read: "The right of habeas corpus has been a part of this country's legal tradition longer than we've actually been a country. It means the government has to explain why it's holding a person in custody. But now, the war on terror has nixed many of the rules we used to think of as fundamental. At Guantanamo Bay, our government initially claimed that the prisoners should not be covered by habeas – or even by the Geneva Conventions – because they're the most fearsome terrorist enemies we have. But is that true? Is it a camp full of terrorists, or a camp full of our mistakes? Reporter Jack Hitt unveils everything we know about who these prisoners are."

The crazy thing was that--all the time I was listening--I was thinking of "Good Night and Good Luck," the Oscar-nominated movie about Edward R. Murrow. Some of the very same things that the U.S. military was saying at that time were being repeated by the military TODAY in this show about Guantanamo Bay.

I strongly urge you to listen to this show. If you have already missed it locally, or if you do not have access to NPR locally, go to "This American Life" is set up to make every show available seven days later via RealAudio (this is a free download--you DO NOT have to pay for RealAudio). That means that next weekend, you can listen to this weekend's show for free. Alternatively, you can pay $13 any time during the next seven days to download the program immediately.

The description of sealed evidence that defendants are not permitted to see in order to defend themselves and the complete lack of legal representation--I can hardly believe that anyone connected to the United States of America would condone such action.

And, lest you think this is old news, here's a news report from ABC dated March 8--that's right--four days ago:

"The Attorney-General of the United States has defended Guantanamo Bay, arguing the prison camp is lawful and consistent with the Geneva Convention.

In the past week, the British Prime Minister and the head of the Anglican Church, the Archbishop of Canterbury, have called for the US detention camp to close.

Both have described it as a legal anomaly.

Speaking on a visit to Britain, US Attorney-General Alberto Gonzales insists the camp is consistent with the Geneva Convention, but he questions the relevance of the Convention in today's world.

"I think it's always appropriate to look to see whether or not in this new kind of war against ... this new kind of enemy, are the conventions, are all the provisions of the conventions [relevant]," he said.

Mr Gonzales rejects allegations that prisoners have been mistreated and tortured at Guantanamo Bay.

Australian David Hicks has been held at Guantanamo Bay for more than four years."

I'll return to regular programming tomorrow.



Saturday, March 11, 2006

A Tale of Two Writers

One of the nice things about Texas is the bookchain Half Price Bookstores. HPB began in Dallas over thirty years ago and now has some 80 stores around the country.

HPB is having a big 20% off sale this weekend. A friend and I spent time this afternoon just wandering around the aisles, piling up stacks of books to purchase.

While I was looking around, I happened to notice a display of classic novels. Sitting side-by-side were "Gone With the Wind" and "To Kill a Mockingbird."

I amused myself for several minutes flipping through the books. It occurred to me that both were written by Southern women (Margaret Mitchell and Harper Lee) who, while they became famous for their novels, did not publish another book during their lifetimes (of course, Harper Lee is still alive and will be eighty next month).

I became sufficiently intrigued that I came home to do some research on these two one-book authors. The parallels are interesting:

*Both were born in the Deep South--Mitchell in 1900 in Atlanta, Georgia; and Lee in 1926 in Monroeville, Alabama.
*Both were daughters of lawyers, and both were tomboys as children.
*Both families experienced financial difficulties while their daughters were growing up.
*Both attended colleges that were primarily known as women's schools. Mitchell attended Smith College in Massachusetts, and Lee attended Huntingdon in Alabama.

*Margaret Mitchell was 34 when MacMillan publisher Howard Latham visited Atlanta. She impulsively handed him the incomplete and sloppy manuscript that would later become GWTW. Her husband was not happy that she had turned over an unfinished manuscript, and Mitchell telegraphed Latham asking for its return. Latham convinced her to let him read it. With his help, it was published the following year when Mitchell was 36.

Harper Lee was 31 when she submitted her first draft of TKAM as a collection of short stories to the J. B. Lippincott Company. It would take another two and a half years to turn those short stories into the novel that was published in 1960. Lee was then 34.

*Both books were first novels set in the South and both became immediate best sellers. Each women was overwhelmed by her book's success.
*Both books won the Pulitzer Prize the year after they were published.
*Both books were soon turned into movies. GWTW in 1939, three years after being published, and TKAM in 1962, two years after being published.
*Both films won Oscars: GWTW garnered best picture, best director, best actress, best supporting actress, best art direction and best editing. TKAM captured best actor and best art direction. Both films won for best original adapted screenplay.
*Both women avoided publicity and interviews, preferring their privacy.
*Neither woman published a second novel during her lifetime (again, as of this date, Lee is still living).

I collected these parallels in a couple of hours of reading on the Internet. I confess I'm curious as to how many more similarities exist between the two Southern women who each wrote the best-selling novel of her day.

Enjoy the rest of your weekend.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Google in the News

I haven't blogged about Google for a while so I thought today would be a good time to re-visit them.

Yesterday, federal prosecutors submitted a request in San Jose to U.S. District Judge James Ware. Judge Ware is scheduled to hear the Justice Department's case against Google next Tuesday, March 14.

This case is the result of Google's refusal to hand over documents demanded in a government subpoena regarding searches made on Google (If you want the background, read my blogs for January 20, 21 and 22).

In the new documents, the prosecutors asked Judge Ware to set a 21-day deadline from the point at which he makes his decision for Google to turn over the requested material (And, yes, they seem to be taking a very optimistic approach regarding the outcome of the judge's decision). The Justice Department explained that they were facing a May 3 deadline in a Philadelphia court where they need to defend COPA (the Child Online Protection Act), a law intended to fight Internet pornography.

Instead of doing their own sample searches on the Internet to see what kind of porn underage kids could access by trolling the worldwide web, last summer, the Justice Department subpoenaed Google, AOL, Yahoo and Microsoft for information on their users' habits. After the Internet providers protested, the Justice Department agreed to remove the parts of their request that would identify the users in question. Additionally, they backed off on the size of the sample they had originally requested.

While the other providers turned over their data, Google refused and is now facing this showdown next week in federal court.

In other, unrelated news, Google made an announcement of its own today. The company is introducing "what it is calling the first in a suite of tools that will help publishers generate revenue from titles that are part of Google Book Search." (Publishers Weekly).

Regular readers of this blog will recall that Google is facing two other lawsuits in another federal court--this time on the east coast. In those cases, they are being sued by coalitions of writers and publishers angry over Google's approach to copying existing books for the Google Book Search program.

This new initiative by Google appears to be an attempt to win approval from the publishing world. Publishers Marketplace ran a special story today (in addition to their regular daily post) just on this subject. About the new program, PM said: "Publishers have full control over the pricing of every book they choose to make available in this way, and prices and availability can be changed as often as publishers wish. This program provides only for selling access to the entire text of the book; different, more limited models may be offered at a later date. Google will take an unspecified portion of the revenues, and will report to and pay publishers in a similar manner to the current sharing of ad revenue (such as it is), with expanded reporting to facilitate publishers' royalty reports to authors."

Some of you may remember that, back on 11/3/05, both Amazon and Random House announced similar programs. described an initiative by which they would "unbundle" books "so that customers can simply and inexpensively purchase and read online just the pages they need." Random House, in a separate and unrelated press release (that just happened to occur on the same day), announced a plan to "offer the contents of its books to consumers for online viewing on a pay-per-page-view basis." (If you're interested in reading about those announcements, check my blog for 11/4/05).

Google appears to be announcing a similar program, although one that will start less ambitiously. Instead of unbundling or breaking up books, their initial efforts will be to sell the entire book online. Significantly, Google did not announce a startup date for the new program's launch.

Publishing houses' responses to the Google program could best be described as restrained. Of course, companies that are in the process of suing Google over copyright are probably not going to publicly laud Google now.

I was amused by a comment from Google's representative, Jim Gerber, as described in PM. He said the new program was just "'the first of many new digital business models that we hope to enable'" in order to provide options for publishers to 'monetize their book content' in 'incremental ways' online."

And isn't that the goal of every writer, too? To "monetize" our book content.

Don't you just love it?

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Websites for Writers

Today, I'm going to post a couple of websites for writers.

Recently, there's been a lot of talk about plagiarism. In probably the most famous case, Random House, publisher of "The DaVinci Code," has been sued for breach of copyright by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, a pair of writers. The two claim that Dan Brown, the author, used the ideas and themes they presented in their 1982 book, "Holy Blood and Holy Grail," to write his 2003 blockbuster.

Baigent and Leigh insist they originated the theory that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and had a child by her. The trial began February 28 in London.

Brown's publisher, Random House, claims that copyright laws do not protect "general ideas." Brown has never denied reading "Holy Blood and Holy Grail" and, in fact, mentioned the title in his "DaVinci Code."

The trial is being closely watched because of its potential for future copyright cases.

All of this become grist for discussion among writers. On one of my support loops, a fellow writer announced that some of her work had recently been plagiarized on the Internet. She found it through the first of the two websites I'm going to recommend for writers:

You can post a particular page on Copyscape and the site will scan to see if there are any copies of your material anywhere on the Internet. I posted this blog and was pleased to see the only copies were quotes with attribution.

The second website I'm going to mention today is more of an inspirational one for writers. The site is: A number of successful crime writers agreed to be interviewed about their personal life stories on the road to publication. The writers include Lee Child, Michael Connelly, Laura Lippman, Lawrence Block and Harley Jane Kozak.

Writers who seem to be collecting rejection letter after rejection letter can take heart from people like Joe Konrath who says, "I spent twelve years writing nine novels and dozens of short stories -- over a million words -- before I made my first sale with 'Whiskey Sour.' There's a word for a writer that never gives up...published. If you keep banging your head against the wall, eventually the wall will break."

Happy writing!!



Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Books We Hate to Love

Last Friday, Stephen Bayley, author of A Dictionary of Idiocy did an op-ed piece for the L.A. Times entitled "Books We Hate to Love." A fellow member of another writer's loop, Rhiannon, brought my attention to the article. Thanks!

Bayley talks about a specific category of books: the good bad book. The otherwise bad novel that is so engaging you can't put it down. In other words, the pulp read.

He describes the good bad book as "one that achieves a surprisingly exhilarating effect despite flaws of style and construction, which disqualify it as...'literature.' Significantly, good bad books translate very well into film, perhaps suggesting that cinema is an intellectually and artistically undemanding medium." Bayley gives the examples of "The Graduate" and "Jaws," both of which he describes as "feeble literature, but...magnificent movies."

The article quotes the Times of London review of "The DaVinci Code," describing it as "without a doubt the silliest, most inaccurate, ill-informed, stereotype-driven, cloth-eared, cardboard-cutout-populated piece of pulp fiction."

Man, just makes you want to run out and buy the novel, doesn't it? Still, 40 million people have read it and are eagerly awaiting the film version, which is scheduled for release in the U.S. on May 19. In view of the stars (Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou) and the director (Ron Howard), I'm betting it will be another magnificent movie.

Of course, we all appreciate a good book. And we all avoid BAD good books. But, a GOOD bad book is different. Admit it, aren't there just times that you would rather sit down to a good bad book than almost anything else? One that entertains you, scares you, intrigues you. Okay, so maybe you finish it shaking your head at the half-baked philosophy or ridiculous theories. But for the hours that you spent--glued to the page--wasn't it a delicious read?

Every summer, newspapers all over the world announce the summer blockbuster novels with great fanfare. That's the time when we see the proliferation of good bad books. And, face it. When you're sitting poolside, sneaking looks at the cute guy in the water, you don't want to be reading something that demands your uninterrupted focus. You want some camouflage that will also serve to distract you when his wife joins him in the water.

Bayley concludes: "Bad, it turns out, can be better than good and is always better than bad good, but good bad is perhaps the best of all (certainly the most entertaining)."

I agree--as I eagerly await the next Michael Crichton blockbuster.

More on Library Thing

UPDATE: On Sunday, I recommended to readers of this blog.

Recognizing that I would get carried away by this new website that permits anyone to post their personal library online, I set myself a limit. I could only add ten books a day to my list.

Today is Wednesday. That means I should have a maximum of forty books listed on Library Thing.

I just checked. Not sure how it happened (yeah, right), but I now have 87 books listed there.

The thing is simply addictive.

Only 2,813 books to go......

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Wal-Mart Using Bloggers

The New York Times had a very interesting little story today about Wal-Mart.

It turns out that the giant retailer has been enlisting bloggers: "feeding them exclusive nuggets of news, suggesting topics for postings and even inviting them to visit its corporate headquarters."

Lots of companies have been taking advantage of the blogosphere to announce new products or build excitement about an existing product. With so many people cruising the Worldwide Web, blogging in order to market or influence opinion is a natural outgrowth. It's called viral marketing and Wikipedia defines it as "marketing techniques that seek to exploit pre-existing social networks to produce exponential increases in brand awareness, through viral processes similar to the spread of an epidemic. It is word-of-mouth delivered and enhanced online; it harnesses the network effect of the Internet and can be very useful in reaching a large number of people rapidly."

According to the Times, what's different about Wal-Mart's approach "is that rather than promoting a product--something it does quite well, given its $300 billion in annual sales--it is trying to improve its battered image." Additionally, some of the bloggers assisting Wal-Mart have not been divulging where their information came from.

One of the pro-Wal-Mart bloggers, Bob Beller, provided the Times with emails received from a Wal-Mart "consultant." It appears that some of Beller's fellow bloggers have been copying the messages word-for-word without disclosing the source.

As the Times conducted interviews for this story, bloggers revealed that they'd been contacted "after they wrote postings that either endorsed the retailer or challenged its critics." The company reps offered to provide "exclusive news" that might attract visitors to the websites.

As readers of this blog know, I have posted four blogs on Wal-Mart in the past month. No one claiming to represent the company contacted me. I guess I wasn't sufficiently pro-Wal-Mart.

The Times interviewed Glenn Reynolds of, one of the Internet's oldest blogs. He said that "'even in the blogosphere, which is renowned for its lack of rules, a basic tenet applies: 'If I reprint something, I say where it came from. A blog is about your voice, it seems to me, not somebody else's.'"

The really interesting thing to me in this story is not what Wal-Mart is doing. Frankly, I have no doubt that other retailers and groups are doing exactly the same thing. This is probably a sign of things to come. As more and more companies realize the potential offered by the blogosphere, there will be a natural evolution from the free spirited, grafitti-style postings to targeted, for-pay scribblings.

Readers of MSM (mainstream media) are somewhat protected by the journalists' code of ethics. When a reporter accepts compensation for a story, that code demands that he reveal the conflict of interest. There was a recent dustup in Washington when it was disclosed that the Bush Administration had been paying for favorable stories.

The problem with the Internet is that the "rules" are informal. We are going to hear about more and more stories like this as those informal rules are tested.

In the meantime, it truly is a "buyer beware" world. Readers of blogs need to educate themselves on issues and not simply parrot something they've read online. Without knowing the source, they risk becoming "germs" spreading the viral marketing bug.

Monday, March 06, 2006

"Bad Girl" Contest Results

On February 22, I announced a contest.

I submitted a novella entitled You've Been a Bad Girl to my agent. Jacky loved the story, and asked me to think about writing a couple of more stories using the "bad girl" theme.

I explained that I was finding it difficult to develop plot ideas for bad girls who would ALSO be sympathetic to readers. I offered a $25 Amazon gift certificate for the person who could come up with the best idea for a bad girl heroine. The contest ran from 2/22 to 3/3.

Frankly, I was floored by the variety and ingenuity of the plot ideas I received. As you might expect, there were a number of duplicate ideas. The most common theme was the "stripper with a good heart." I received quite a few entries that put different spins on that idea.

The second most common theme centered around a bad girl who was a thief of some kind--either an accidental or an impulsive thief.

I really had a hard time choosing. What it finally came down to were the themes that I thought were most viable for a fresh and unusual erotic romance.

I ended up picking, not just one, but three story ideas: gold, silver and bronze, if you will.

Here are the winners:

First Prize goes to Ellen W. for an ingenious gender-bending plot. Ellen wins a $25 gift certificate to

Second Prize goes to McKenna O. for a clever twist on the bad girl thief plot. McKenna wins a $15 gift certificate to e-Bay.

Third Prize goes to Grace W. for an idea involving an extra-marital affair and a double-cross. Grace wins a $10 gift certificate to Barnes & Noble.

All three winners will have the option to name the heroes and heroines in "their" stories.

Thanks to everyone who entered. I had great fun reading the entries. There are people in the blogosphere with very twisted, devious minds. :)

I will contact each of the winners in the next 24 hours.

Thanks and regards,


Sunday, March 05, 2006

My New Favorite Thing

Every once in a while, I encounter something (or someone) and know instantly, "I'm hooked." Whether it's a man, a novel or a website, I know.

When that happens, I make a decision right away: Take it slow! Otherwise, being the undisciplined soul that I am, I'll swallow it whole, wallow in it, and generally make an idiot of myself.

Fortunately, this doesn't happen often. The last time with a novel was when I discovered John Connolly, an Irish author of thrillers--mystery/horror thrillers. Starting with "Black Angel," I read four of his novels in a week. The last time with a website was when I discovered I was so preoccupied solving a puzzle that I nearly burned my house down when I left an untended pot of water on the stove to boil. The last time with a man, well, that's my own business.

This morning, my alarms went off when I discovered a new website: LibraryThing ( It's a system for online cataloging of your personal library. I was immediately hooked. So hooked that I've already imposed a limit on myself. I can ONLY add ten new books a day. Otherwise, like a crack addict stumbling onto a cache of drugs, I'll be lost in a virtual library forever.

I joined as "MayaReynolds." I entered the books I've recently read plus one favorite series. Each day I'll add another ten books.

Go visit LibraryThing. If you're a reader or a writer, I promise you'll be hooked, too.

Oh, yeah. Thanks to The Slush God for the blog that directed me to my new addiction.

Addendum: I waited until 11:00 PM CST Sunday night (when it was officially 3/7 EST) to go back in and add ten more books. I told you I had no control.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

AOL Announces a Change in Plans

On February 8, I blogged about AOL and Yahoo's plans to charge companies the electronic equivalent of a postage stamp to deliver their email.

The New York Times reported that both companies are "about to start using a system that gives preferential treatment to messages from companies that pay from 1/4 of a cent to a penny each to have them delivered."

I explained that there would be no charge for ordinary email traffic. The proposed change would create another class of email by which businesses that send massive numbers of emails can pay to "raise" their profile so that their messages go directly to your in-box and bypass the spam filter.

AOL and Yahoo have both signed agreements with Goodmail Systems, an email certification specialist. According to Internet News, "[e]very message that is sent through the Goodmail Certified Email service is embedded with a cryptographically secure token. These tokens must be detected by participating service providers before the message can be delivered to a recipient's inbox identified as a Certified Email message."

The Associated Press (AP) reported that a consortium of non-profit groups got together to complain that the proposed plan would "stifle communication from organizations that couldn't afford to pay." The diverse consortium of 70 non-profits included the Humane Society, the Democratic National Committee, Gun Owners of America, and the AFL-CIO. They created a website called and, on February 28, posted an open letter to AOL.

In part, the letter said, "AOL's 'email tax' is the first step down a slippery slope that will harm the Internet itself...the new two-tiered system AOL proposes would actually reward AOL financially for failing to maintain its email service...The moment AOL switches to a two-tiered Internet where giant emailers pay for preferential service, AOL will face a simple business choice: spend money to keep regular spam filters up-to-date, or make money by neglecting their spam filters and pushing more senders to pay for guaranteed delivery. Poor delivery of mail turns from being a problem that AOL has every incentive to fix to something that could actually make them money if the company ignores it."

It took less than three days for AOL to respond. The AP reported on Friday that "America Online Inc. said nonprofit organizations will not have to pay to send mass messages to their members after all."

AOL will offer non-profit groups a bulk email service comparable to the fee-for-service offered to commercial groups. AOL will pay the fees associated with this special non-profit service.

This was a great case of non-profits doing what they do best: advocacy. Only this time the cause they were advocating was their own. I was absolutely thrilled to see groups with differing agendas and diverse political opinions joining together to correct a problem. That's the true American spirit.

Thumbs up to both the non-profits and to AOL for being so quick to recognize a PR fiasco in the making.