Ah, the internet. It’s such a big place, isn’t it? (Yes, I realize the internet isn’t actually a physical place. Just go with it.) So full of people from all walks of life, all levels of intelligence, all sorts of different opinions and thoughts and advice and knowledge and jobs and…well, all that stuff.
It’s funny how the internet has really become such a go-to place for information. I mean, it’s not funny ha-ha, but funny in that as little as fifteen years ago, nobody really even knew what an internet was. I remember my ex telling me about how somebody showed him this really cool site online called Ebay, where you could actually buy all sorts of stuff from all over the world, and you might get it really cheap!
Anyway. The things that make the internet so great–accessibility,* information, multiple viewpoints, etc. etc.–are the things that make it so dangerous. We all know the stories about women or young girls who’ve gone to meet an internet boyfriend and ended up murdered or raped. We all know about internet stalkers and all of that stuff.
But there’s another danger on the internet, one that’s a bit more…sly. And granted, it’s a lot less dangerous, in that you won’t be raped or murdered. You’ll be robbed, sure, but it’s kind of willingly, so there you go.
Here’s the problem. Anybody can be an expert online. Anybody. All you have to do is call yourself an expert, and people will believe that you’re an expert. This is how writers fall for PublishAmerica’s scam all the time; PA claims it’s a big publisher, look at our happy authors, we publish lots of books, we don’t want your money! So they submit their books (and PA will famously accept anything) and then discover that no, actually, PA does want their money very badly, and will do just about anything to get it (and treat the writers like shit along the way; they don’t even get a reach-around). Why do PA authors fall for it? Because PA has a big website, and pats themselves on the back, and because these writers don’t think to do the single most important thing they could do for research: Go to the bookstore and see if any of that publisher’s books are on the shelves.
This is something I see a lot. I’m sure it’s prevalent in all industries, but of course I see it in the writing community because that’s the one I’m part of and the one I pay attention to. I see all kinds of people shilling their “How to Get Published” guidebooks and classes, their conferences and workshops, their critiques and edits. All for a fee, of course. Often for a pretty high fee.
I saw one recently that surprised me a bit in its scope. I’m not going to name names or post links here, because I don’t really feel like dealing with angry sockpuppets at the moment, and this particular group of people is famous for both the number and the viciousness of their sockpuppets. Let’s call them Group A.
So group A is run by Joe B (his name isn’t really Joe & he may actually be female). Joe B started an online zine for stories in the genre he writes. He’s written a few shorts himself, and “sold” them to magazines which don’t actually pay money. He wrote a novel and “sold” it to a nonprofit publisher with no distribution (that means no books in bookstores) who requires writers to enter a fee-charging contest in order to submit. It’s a solid little press; I don’t mean to put it down. But the fact remains that Joe B has never made a commercial sale (that means selling to a commercial house, i.e. one of the Big Five in NY, or a successful epublisher).
So Joe B decides to run some conferences based on how to get published, and says he’ll teach new writers how to do that. He puts up ads and, more importantly, send out his sock-puppet army to start visiting writers’ sites and start blogs discussing his conference and how valuable and worthwhile it is, and how very well-connected Joe B is in the publishing industry.
Joe B himself has a website for his conference. The conference site links to several blogs with comments like “Writers On Top confirms we run the best conference in town!” That sounds great, until you look at the fine print on Writers On Top and realize that of its four or five authors, one of them is Joe B, and the others are people who work on his online zine as well. In fact, the more you look around, the more you realize that almost every website that talks up Joe B’s conference is written by someone connected to Joe B. You see posts in all kinds of writers’ forums about how great the con was, but all of those saying it seem to be sockpuppet drive-bys; a single post, and that’s it. You notice that when someone posts a negative experience or any questions, they get personally attacked by a little gang of sockpuppets defending Joe B.
All of which is fascinating, yes, and speaks volumes about the professionalism of Joe B and his little ship of fools. And I’m sure anyone reading this can see that Joe B isn’t someone to whose advice they should listen, because my blog readers are so clever and wonderful and smell like a meadow and all of that. But a random new aspiring writer? Not so much, because Joe B is very, very careful to list, for example, his webzine, the little group he’s set up to help run the webzine, and all of those non-paying magazines he’s given his work to, and his novel, and it sounds pretty impressive when you read it. And, really, it is. It’s perfectly fine. Obviously Joe B is passionate about writing, and what he does. Obviously it matters to him. Obviously he wants to help.
But what help can Joe B really provide? That’s where the problem comes in, because, see, for all of the experience he’s gathered in self-publishing and hanging out with the lower tiers of the magazine world, Joe B has not a single minute of commercial publishing experience. Joe B has never written a novel which was represented by an agent or bought by an editor at a commercial publisher. Joe B has never sold a short story to a professional market. Joe B may be a great writer, sure. Joe B may be very talented. Joe B may enjoy doing his own thing and not be interested in moving to the commercial publishing world, and that’s fine.
Or at least, it would be fine, if Joe B didn’t insist on charging money–a not inconsiderable sum of money–to “teach” new writers how to write a book that will sell to a commercial publisher, how to create a marketable idea, how to query, all of that. (Notice that actual writing isn’t part of Joe B’s syllabus. Note also that without good writing, none of that other stuff is worth a doohicky damn; not that it really is anyway, very much, but still.)
Why do people pay all this money to take Joe’s class or attend his conference? Well, because Joe B calls himself an expert. And it’s easy to look at him and think that must be the case. He sounds impressive, after all. It’s only when you start really looking and thinking about it that you realize Joe B is claiming to be an expert in doing something he himself has been unable to do. Joe B is going to tell you how to create a concept/plot that will sell to a commercial house, when Joe B has not himself ever accomplished that himself. Joe B is going to tell you how to get an agent when he himself has never been successful in securing his own representation.
Likewise, there are tons of “experts”–often they call themselves “marketing experts,” and as a kicker they add “Bestselling Author,” which means they had ten friends buy their book off Amazon at the same time so they could shoot to the top of the bestseller list in their niche category–who claim that everybody’s publishing career started with vanity presses, or that they know the Inside Secrets or can do some special service for you by getting you an agent or publisher or whatever. (Oh, and we do all know how useless the Amazon bestseller thing in a niche is, right? My Strumpet series is almost always in the top ten for its particular little categories: romance writing guides, authorship, etc. It’s nice to see it there, and it’s nice to see it has reviews, but believe me, it’s not selling at levels we think of when we think bestseller.)
These “experts” rely on the fact that new writers–they’re almost always looking for new writers, unpublished writers, first-time writers–don’t understand how the industry actually works and won’t know how to check up on them. A lot of them are “Marketing” experts in that they’ve created dozens of websites celebrating themselves and have them aggregated all over the web, so when you Google them you get thousands upon thousands of hit referring to them as “Bestselling authors,” and you start to believe it must be true.
Anybody can call themselves a bestselling author. I could call myself a bestselling author in, let’s see…I’m the best-selling author in my house. I’m the best-selling author of books about junkie witches. I was the best-selling author at my local B&N when two of my friends bought my books one after the other. It’s all bullshit, and quite frankly, when I see someone calling themselves “Bestselling Author,” unless it says “USA Today,” “New York Times,” or “Nationally” before it, I ignore it (“Nationally Bestselling” usually means the author hit one of the aforementioned lists, but the long list. Like if you write a book that ends up on the NYT “extended,” let’s say at #33, you can’t call yourself a NYT bestseller but you can call yourself a bestseller. See?). I know it sounds cruel, but “Bestselling Author” on the website of someone who’s never been near one of those lists says to me that the writer doesn’t understand how “Bestselling” actually works; it’s puffery, and it’s silly. I’ve been a bestseller at several places online; while it’s nice, it doesn’t mean anything at all.
I’m rambling a bit now, but here’s my point: Before you pay an “expert” a dime, make sure they actually have some experience in what they’re talking about.
If Joe B were doing conventions where he taught about starting webzines I’d say go for it! I’d totally believe he’s an expert in that, or pretty darn close to it. If he stayed to what he actually knows I wouldn’t give him another thought. But he’s not. Lots of these self-proclaimed experts don’t. They’re clever, and they’re sly, and they want your money. Don’t give it to them. Remember to research anyone you see who’s claiming to be an expert, and remember to be skeptical until proven otherwise.
It’s the internet, and anyone can claim to be something they’re not. People lie. Credentials don’t. Make sure you check them well, and check them from multiple sources.
* Accessibility for most people, anyway; some people can’t afford it, and that bothers me n several levels.