Jenna: New writers are very tempting prey to a lot of unscrupulous people because we come in with stars in our eyes and we come in with these big hopes and dreams, and anybody who says to us, “I think that your writing is great and should be published,” boy, we don’t wanna believe that they’re scammers.
Ron Pramschufer: This is Ron Pramschufer and welcome to Publishing Basics Radio where weekly we try to help you navigate the self-publishing mine field. So, Jenna, in researching this interview today I’ve come to the conclusion that you’re like the real writer’s writer.
Jenna: Yes, I like to think of myself that way. Yes.
Ron Pramschufer: Now I’m just curious. How long did it take between when the light bulb went off in your head that you wanted to be a writer and you actually got paid for something that you had written?
Jenna: It was pretty quick. I got lucky because I did sell the first article that I started pitching, but after that I run into a pretty long dry spell where it took about two or three years before I was actually making a living at it.
Ron Pramschufer: All right. That was actually the next question. How long have you all been in the business?
Jenna: Eight years.
Ron Pramschufer: All right, and over that time you’ve written articles, you’ve got a couple of books you’ve written.
Jenna: Eighteen of them actually.
Ron Pramschufer: Eighteen?
Ron Pramschufer: And all kind of different publishers let’s say.
Ron Pramschufer: The reason it caught my eye. You’ve got this online magazine that’s kind of a writer’s magazine and you’re like a mentor. You wanna tell me a little bit about that?
Jenna: Sure. Absolutewrite.com is the magazine and it was originally meant to just be a showcase of my own work and instead I got visits from so many writers asking me how did I get my screenplays optioned, how did I sell articles, and before long I figured, “All right. Forget about my highlighting my own work, obviously there’s a need for this.” Aspiring writers have a lot of questions, so I decided to go ahead and make it a full-service writer’s site.
Ron Pramschufer: Well, that’s good. This comes out what every couple of weeks?
Jenna: Every week. Yeah. It’s weekly.
Ron Pramschufer: And how many readers do you have?
Ron Pramschufer: All right. Do you have time to like email them? Do they all ask you questions?
Jenna: They really do. I get about 300 emails a day, and do my best to answer as many as I can, but there’s no way for me to answer all of them, but yeah, they’re writers, so they write.
Ron Pramschufer: Now, you sent me a manuscript of a book that you’re about to have published called The Street Smart Writer. At first I was just gonna read the one chapter, then I couldn’t help it, you know, I read the whole book. I mean it’s great.
Jenna: Thank you.
Ron Pramschufer: The subtitle there is Self-defense against Sharks and the Scams in the Writing World. Tell us, when was the first time that you were exposed to a publishing scam.
Jenna: I was 10. (Laughter)
Ron Pramschufer: And what happened?
Jenna: Yeah. I have a long and distinguished career of being scammed. I was 10 years old and I was writing poetry, and I sent in a poem I saw in the back of a magazine somewhere. There was a big poetry contest advertised that promised something like $15,000 top prize and the chance of publication and so I sent off my poem and I got back a letter saying, “Congratulations! Based on your fine literary merit, you have been selected as a semi-finalist and your poem will be published.” I went bananas and I ran downstairs and said to my mom, “Mom, I’m going to be a published writer. I need $40.00.” Now there was where the little red flag should have gone up immediately, but I was 10 and I didn’t see any red flag there.
Ron Pramschufer: Did mom give you the 40 bucks?
Jenna: She did. Yes, she did.
Ron Pramschufer: All right.
Jenna: It was a requirement that if you were going to have your poem published in this book you had to buy the anthology, and little did I know that everybody got named as semifinalists. I really thought that they thought that my poem was terrific and they were choosing it based on its literary merit just like they said, and it wasn’t until many years later that I found out what a giant scam this was that everybody gets named as semifinalist. Everybody has the opportunity to have their poem published in this anthology which is not sold in book stores, not carried in libraries. It’s just sold to the people who are in the book, and that’s poetry.com, which is also known under a couple of different names. The International Library of Poetry, the National Library of Poetry. It’s gone through various different names through the years.
Ron Pramschufer: Now are they the only ones ’cause I seem to see when I look at these writer’s magazines, some of these contests seem like all over the place.
Jenna: Um-hum. It’s big business. It’s very big business. They’re not the only ones. There are a number of others. Iliad Crest and Cater Crest, I think is another one. See, new writers are very tempting prey to a lot of unscrupulous people because we come in with stars in our eyes and we come in with these big hopes and dreams and anybody that says to us, “I think that your writing is great and should be published.” Boy, we don’t wanna believe that they’re scammers. We don’t wanna believe that they could have anything bad in their heart because they’re the first people who are supporting us and telling us that we have talent, so it’s easy to fall for these types of things when you’re that excited and hopeful.
Ron Pramschufer: All right. And even someone like the better magazine, you know, like Writer’s Digest. I get that every month. I think every writer in the world gets it because cheap and has a lot of good stories, but there seems to be agents who advertise in there all the time. I mean, do agents advertise? I mean, where do they find you guys?
Jenna: That’s a great question. Legitimate agents do not need to pay for advertising. They don’t pay for advertising in the back of magazines. Writer’s Digest I know is trying to be better about the kinds of ads that they accept. There’s a fairly new editor-in-chief. I think she started a year and a half ago or so, and she’s trying her best to vet these ads a lot more closely than her predecessors did, but yeah, legitimate magazines, and because they’re legitimate magazines a lot of writers say like, “Well, if it was in one of these legitimate magazines then the agent must be legitimate,” but unfortunately there are a number of unscrupulous agents, unscrupulous publishers, unscrupulous book doctors, that do pay for advertising either in the back of magazines or in Google ad words. You’ll find a lot of them in the Google ad words and newspapers, even in the back of like the National Enquirer has different kinds poetry contests and things. Now, legitimate agents are inundated by submissions every day, and they have no need to pay for advertising. If there’s a fairly new agent who is legitimate, all he or she has to do is tell a couple of writers or a couple of editors, “Hey, I’m looking for some new clients.” They put out the word and the submissions come pouring in. There’s no need for them to ever have to pay for advertising saying, “Hey, new writer wanted.”
Ron Pramschufer: So where, if they don’t advertise, where would the average writer– you know I’ve finally worked on my manuscript and I think I’m ready to roll. I think I need an agent. Where would I go find one? If I don’t go to Writer’s Digest, where do I go?
Jenna: An excellent question, and there’s no one definitive source that doesn’t require any kind of cross-referencing, but there are several different books on the market. Jeff Herman has a writer’s guide to book editors, publishers, and literary agents. It’s a good guide, but it requires some cross-referencing because every one of these kinds of books, a couple of lousy agents sneak their way in.
Ron Pramschufer: How about Literary Market Place? Now is that a legitimate place? I mean, that’s like the guy I used to sell printing, I mean, that was like the Bible.
Jenna: Yes. Literary Market Place. Sure. That’s terrific. I think that’s usually a library book, though, right?
Ron Pramschufer: Yes. It’s about a $300.00 or $400.00 book, but they have a section on agents. Would they all be legit, or would you really just have to do your homework?
Jenna: You’d have to do your homework no matter where you look. There is also–I think Writer’s Digest puts out the 2005 Guide to Literary Agents. There’s a couple of online magazines that have guides to literary agents, and what you need to do is use these are your starting ground as a way of finding different places to start looking for agents. That’s fine. Another excellent way to find agents is in the acknowledgement section of books. If you look in your favorite books that are in the same genre that you’re writing in, look to see in that acknowledgement section does the author thank their agent. Often, often they do, and so you’ll know if you’ve picked up a book and it was published by Random House and Simon and Schuster, and the person lists their agent thank you so much to my agent for helping me with my career. Write that down. That’s a great name. Publisher’s Weekly is another great source to look in because whenever an agent from another agency breaks out on their own and starts their own agency, that’s a good time to try and contact that agent because that agent may be looking to expand their client list, or an editor from a publishing house crosses over and decides to become an agent. Publisher’s Weekly reports these sorts of things all the time, and those are the definitely good names to pick up on.
Ron Pramschufer: Okay. Now you mentioned actually Publisher’s Weekly is fairly expensive, so not that many writers get it. Is that a magazine that you can see in the library?
Jenna: Yes. Almost all libraries have it, and if not they can usually get it throughout an interlibrary loan. So let’s say you’ve got now a good list of agents that you think you would like to contact. There are so many now web sites that you can go to to research these different agents. One is called www.anotherrealm.com/prededitors or you could do just google it. (Laughter)
Ron Pramschufer: Okay.
Jenna: But that’s a fantastic source, and if I had found that before I ever started looking for an agent I would never have fallen in with a couple of these lousy agents that I did, and I never would have paid that $200 up-front fee because they’re all listed without–most of them don’t have long explanations, but they just say recommended or not recommended and they give a short reason sometimes why they’re not recommended, such as up-front fees or no legitimate sales, or whatever the reason may be, so that’s an excellent source to check. Another one is writerbeware.org, and it’s a volunteer organization that they run through the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. They will tell you what they know. If you write to them and say, “I’m interested in this particular agent; can you tell me if this agent is legit?” They will write back to you and tell you, “Yes, this agent has made legitimate sales,” or, “No, we have a number of reports from people who were not happy with them, and here are the reasons why.”
And then the third source to check is my own message boards at absoluteright. We have a bewares and background check and people can go there and type in the name of the agent or publisher, whatever they’re looking up, and there may very well be threads about it already on the message board if there has been any kind of doubt about them and if not, start up your own thread and just ask, “Can anybody tell me is this agency legitimate?” and people will jump in and tell you what they know.
Ron Pramschufer: All right. Now you mentioned publishers. Now I go to the yellow pages–giant, full-page ad, books wanted, manuscripts wanted, offers wanted, you know, be published. Who are these guys?
Jenna: Usually vanity presses.
Ron Pramschufer: Okay, and I noticed vanity press happened to be a pet peeve of mine. I noticed you have a very, very clear concise definition in your book that I love. I mean, it just seems to be a lot of confusion over what, you know, ’cause they’ve changed their names so many different times. When do you know that you’re dealing with a vanity press?
Jenna: When you have to give them money.
Ron Pramschufer: That’s it?
Jenna: That’s it.
Ron Pramschufer: You have to pay to publish your book. That’s it. Now using that definition of if you have to pay to publish the book, you’re using a vanity publisher; there’s gotta be 50,000 books a year being published by these types of publishers.
Jenna: Yeah. I would think so.
Ron Pramschufer: Why do you think that there’s so many?
Jenna: I’m not gonna lie about this. It is hard to get a book published legitimately. There’s a lot of competition, and there’s a lot of work that goes into perfecting your craft, really getting a book that’s up to speed, and there’s a lot of lousy first manuscripts out there that people should have left them in their desk drawers, but there’s also people who just haven’t done the research to figure out which kind of publishers would be the best for their kind of work or who are just looking to rush into print without going through the steps of sending our query letters and trying to attract the conventional publisher. You know, people talk about the great American novel, and my guess is that there are more people now than ever who are trying to write novels and nonfiction books and screenplays. It seems like a very attractive career to have, so people finish their manuscript and the very next day they wanna see it in print. They figure they already put in the hard work of doing the writing, so now the publishers should be flocking to them, and when that doesn’t happen, they’re looking for a quick way to get an acceptance, and vanity presses offer a very easy acceptance.
Ron Pramschufer: Yeah. You’ve actually got a very nice quote that I’ll repeat here, in your book you say, “They would rather be placated with lies, even if it costs them dearly, than lose the fantasy that somebody believes in them.” You know, they want to believe.
Jenna: Um-hum. Often.
Ron Pramschufer: Now is there any difference– well, you’re a little younger than I am, but is there any difference between the vanity press of the day and the vanity press of yesteryear?
Jenna: The main difference is just the method of printing. Vanity presses of old were using off-set printing and vanity presses today are mostly using the print-on-demand publishing model, which could be great. There’s nothing inherently wrong with print on demand because the whole idea is that you’re printing one copy at a time instead of printing 500 or 1,000 copies at a time; however, it’s more expensive to print that way, so the cover prices of the book are going up because of that, and because it literally is so easy and so cheap it makes it even more of an impulse kind of a thing for people to do and so the quality, the overall quality of print-on-demand books is pretty lousy.
Ron Pramschufer: How about traditional self-publishing? You don’t seem to be like a real big fan of that either actually.
Jenna: It’s not that I’m not a big fan of that. I don’t have very strong feelings either way because I’ve seen people succeed with it and I’ve seen people fail with it, and that, however, does give you more of a legitimate chance if you do the leg work that you do have more of a legitimate chance of getting into bookstores and making real sales because you set the policy. It’s up to you whether you’re gonna accept ________. It’s up to you what distributor you’re going through. There’s not the same bias attached to the name of your publisher because you can name the publisher yourself. It can be the kind of situation where if you haven’t done enough research and you don’t fully understand this process and aren’t willing to put in–it’s basically a full-time job for several months. If you can’t do that, you may very well end up with 1,000 copies of your book sitting in your garage, but if you do educate yourself on the process and do conventionally self-publish and take on all these roles yourself, I do know at least a couple of authors who made a very good living self-publishing books.
Ron Pramschufer: Okay. Yeah. Because in your book you do list about a dozen different reasons why POD presses or vanity or self-publishing might be a good option, you know, so it’s all–
Jenna: Yeah. Oh, there are times certainly when it’s not–you know I sometimes feel like I’m coming off snobby about the whole thing and I don’t mean to because there are legitimate reasons to either self-publish or go with a vanity press even. If you have a niche book that is on a very specific small topic that’s not going to interest the publisher because they’re not gonna sell enough copies to make it worth it for them, however, you have a way to get to that audience. If you belong the a club, if you are a magazine editor, if you have any kind of a way to reach the audience directly and you wanna do that, then there’s no reason not to self-publish as long as you’re willing to put in the work. Same with things like it’s very, very difficult to get a book of poetry published. If you have just a family history that you wanna publish for your own family, things like that, it can be satisfying and completely fine to either self-publish or go with one of the POD presses.
Ron Pramschufer: All right. Well Jenna, thank you very much for being with me today.
Jenna: Thank you.
Ron Pramschufer: Okay. I hope you come back on again another day.
Jenna: I’d love to. Thanks so much for all that you’re doing to help educate writers.
Ron Pramschufer: From Publishing Basics Radio, this is Ron Pramschufer. See you next week.
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