Like everything else, the schemes and scams that prey on writers have changed over time. Literary agent scams, for example–including fee-charging and kickback referral schemes–used to be the number one danger for authors, but these have become much less common in recent years, thanks to the growth of small presses and self-publishing options.
Another scheme that’s largely fallen out of favor is the vanity anthology. It worked like this: writers were recruited via a free contest to submit a poem, essay, or story, with winners promised prizes and finalists and semi-finalists eligible for publication in an anthology of supposedly carefully chosen entries. Publication was presented as a prestigious literary credit, a worthy addition to a writing resume.
It was all B.S., of course. There was no careful choosing; everyone who entered received a publication offer, with no fee or purchase requirement but heavy pressure to buy the anthology and persuade friends and family to do so. A closed loop, in other words: contributors doubling as customers, and the anthologies never seeing the inside of a bookstore or library or even a listing with an online retailer.
Years ago, there were dozens of these anthology schemes. Most are gone now, including the granddaddy of them all, the International Library of Poetry, a.k.a. Poetry.com. But some remain, such as Eber & Wein–which, maybe to get ahead of all the negative reviews at PissedConsumer, not to mention an F rating at the BBB, is now calling itself Poetry Nation (for anyone who remembers the old Poetry.com, this website will look very familiar).
And just recently, I discovered two new ventures that add twists of their own.
Appelley Publishing, which started up just last year, offers a free-to-enter Student Poetry Contest (or a National Student Poetry Contest, depending on whether you’re looking at its home page or one of its cheesy print-your-own certificates) for students in grades 3 through 12, with “over $4,000 in prizes” plus publication in an anthology of student work. The school with the “highest participation” wins a new computer.
According to the Appelley website, contest winners will be posted on April 6. But there are already multiple announcements of students who’ve been chosen for publication in the anthology. This is so that parents have plenty of time to come up with money, because, as Appelley’s publication authorization form makes clear, ordering at least one copy of the anthology ($34.99 plus $5 shipping and handling, an amazing discount from the supposed “publisher’s list” of $69.99) is strongly recommended. And what parent whose child has been honored by inclusion in a national anthology of student poetry wouldn’t want to buy?
So far, it’s a fairly standard vanity anthology scheme. But here’s the twist: teachers can earn cash prizes too!
Participating teachers who submit their students [sic] work are eligible for one of three “Teacher’s Bonus” awards worth $500.00 apiece! Ballots are earned by the number of submissions made, so the chances of winning keeps [sic] going up!
Each “ballot” represents 10 student entries, and teachers can submit up to 19 ballots. How to get lots of kids to enter your vanity anthology contest? Give adults an incentive to steer students your way.
Parents and teachers probably assume that Appelley has some kind of vetting process in place, and that being selected for publication is an indication of merit. But to make money, Appelley needs customers, and since its customers are the young poets and their parents, it needs as many poems as it can get. Which is not a great recipe for selectivity.
Usually people don’t discover this until they actually get the anthologies, which typically are cheaply produced books crammed with poor-quality poems in tiny print. This time, though, the internet got an advance peek when a student took to Twitter to describe how she dashed off a joke ditty in praise of Popeyes Chicken as part of a class project to enter Appelley’s contest (you can see those teacher-focused incentives working here). Next thing the student knew, she’d been selected for publication. “As much as we would like to,” Appelley wrote, “we simply can’t publish every student who writes to us, but in your case, we have decided that we would like to include your poem, ‘Popeyes’ in the Appelley Publishing 2017 Rising Stars Collection.”
Z Publishing (a.k.a. Z Publishing House) publishes a whole range of anthologies, with titles like California’s Best Emerging Poets and Wisconsin’s Best Emerging Poets and All At Once I Saw My Colors.
The company has submission calls on its website, but its primary mode of recruitment appears to be a heavy program of email solicitation, with writers’ names harvested from such sources as school and college literary magazines and personal blogs. There are no submission or publishing fees, and also no payment for contributors, as Z’s submission form makes clear. Z has pumped out 33 anthologies in the past year or so, with another six in the pipeline.
This is fairly standard vanity anthology fare: wide recruitment, no-fee submission, and books that probably will only be bought by the authors’ friends and family and the authors themselves (and they do have to buy if they want print copies; contributors only get a PDF). Z maximizes whatever profit can be wrung from this business model by using CreateSpace to publish the books for free.
But here’s the twist: an affiliate program that transforms authors not just into customers, but salespeople. From Z’s publishing agreement:
According to the Affiliate Program FAQ, affiliates earn “approximately 25% of each sale you make”(here’s one affiliate’s description of how that works). Z suggests posting affiliate links on social media, websites, etc. (you can see a bunch of these pitches on Z’s Facebook Community page), but it wants prospective affiliates to know that the best method is spam:
Other initiatives also appear to be fodder for affiliate marketing, such as the editing services Z sells.
Z Publishing’s domain is registered to a Zach Zimmerman in Wisconsin, but like the Author Solutions clones I highlighted in my previous post, a lot of its work appears to be outsourced overseas, with multiple “Author Research” and “Author Communications” staffers based in the Philippines.
Z has some grandiose plans–expanded hiring! A new headquarters! Exponential growth!–but my bet is that a year from now, a lot of the links in this post will have stopped working. As much as vanity anthologizing may seem like a lucrative scheme, with its built-in customer base and all the marketing on the front end, leveraging vanity into sales is not as easy as it appears–as scores of defunct vanity anthologizers and vanity publishers now know.
A final note: the grant of rights in Z’s publishing agreement is seriously greedy. Although it’s non-exclusive, which means you could publish your story elsewhere (though you will not be able to re-sell first rights), it claims perpetual, worldwide use and publishing rights in all mediums and all languages, without payment to or permission from you.
UPDATE 12/20/18: Z Publishing has posted a response to this blog post, devoting many paragraphs of exposition to protesting my criticism while making sure that readers know my post “was not an article we ever took seriously.” Bonus: a string of comments saying what a meanie I am.
They’ve also punished me on Twitter. Boo hoo.
UPDATE 11/17/19: Z Publishing is still pumping out its state-themed anthologies.
It’s also now apparently doing business as Absorbing Art, which claims to be an “online artist’s fair” but in fact seems to be just a vehicle for selling Z Publishing anthologies along with random state-related merchandise (hoodies and coffee mugs with states’ names on them). Like Z Publishing, Absorbing Art has multiple state-by-state Twitter accounts, and appears to be actively following writers.