Writer Beware: Paying to Play Author

In the course of doing my taxes this week, I ambled over to the folder where I store my past receipts for writing. Yes even a broke author has expenses, as I quickly learned while creating an Excel worksheet of my various expenditures on this habit I call writing.  After summing up the total for this year, my jaw hit the top of my desk. I spent a lot of money this past year. The most incredible fact was the realization that I was paying to play author.

Blatantly obvious metaphor in use

According to IRS pamphlets and my tax-preparer from last year, an author can deduct from several categories of costs like any small business. There are physical assets, like the new PC I bought when my laptop died. I bought a new wireless keyboard because the tiny one supplied with the new Acer all-in-one desktop gave my hand a cramp. I had to buy a new desk chair because the vinyl arms of my old chair actually split and cut into my forearms. (I’m one strong typist!)

I had marketing expenses last year. I was trying to promote The Last Empress in Kindle Scout’s forum of crowdsourcing new books to publish. So I bought Twitter ads to promote the book for votes. P.S. I will never buy Twitter ads again. Not only do they look moronic, I’m the guy usually muting this kind of adver-crap in my own Twitter feed. If you don’t agree with a marketing idea, don’t follow it.

Most importantly, last year I made a big push of my screeenplays. This proved to be the most costly of my fails. I learned, the hard way, that it’s very important to research all outlets before putting down your heard-earned cash. After subscribing to several forums and email newsletters, I got the impression that the only way to get your script read was to pitch it in some paid marketplace.

So here’s what I did. See if you can spot the mistakes.

  1. I paid money and subscribed to The Blacklist web site (not the TV show of the same name).
  2. I joined a website called Stage32 for free and paid money to have my script pitch read by experts.
  3. I paid money for script analysis from ScriptXpert (a partner with Screencraft and Celtx).
  4. I paid money to enter contests where my chances of actually winning were about the same as winning Powerball.

Did you catch any or all of my mistakes? The answer is all four. I paid money to outside parties on the pretense I was an author. This is a terrible error. You should not have to pay any money to get someone to judge and appraise your work. This doesn’t happen in the literary marketplace (although some people are drawn into “publishers” or “marketing experts” who ask for money upfront to market and package your book–this is an entirely different scam). I have never paid any money to send a manuscript to an agent or a publisher to review my novel. However, I was paying scores of cash to put my screenplay pitches (not even the actual screenplay) in front of the faces of an indifferent group of hustlers.

The Blacklist web site was the first I discovered. Do your research before giving them any money. The Blacklist is an industry insider web site that hosts scripts that score well among other industry insiders but have not yet been bought. Apparently the movie Passengers (which will come out this Xmas) was a script forever doomed to the Blacklist until it was finally optioned. Pay close attention to the reviews of this web site. This is a site for scripts put out by agents who want to advertise those scripts. If you’re a newbie without an agent or a reputation, like me, your work gets quickly sucked into oblivion and disappears. Money down the chute. Gone.

Pay close attention to number 2 above, because this is terribly important. Stage32 offers a great amount of free advice and networking. You can join for free. You put your name and your background out in their wide net of similar-minded industry professionals: actors, directors, musicians, and even writers. There are tons of writers out there. Lots of discussions on their forums. People want their ideas noticed. When networking fails, the evil, dark side of Stage32 (dubiously called Happy Writers) tempts you with a simple concept: toss us some money and your pitch will be read by an agent or producer representing some of the biggest names in the movies. We’re talking Disney, Lionsgate, Dreamworks, and agencies with a great amount of clout. It’s win-win, right? The road to fame and glory!

But it’s really they-win, you-lose. You agree to their terms, send them money and a pitch. You can pitch either by paper or in person over Skype. This is where the rubber meets the road–you are selling an idea to the big wigs. Not your screenplay, but an idea. A pitch is nothing more than a few minutes of their time. You have to go all “Glen-Gary-Glen-Ross” on these folks. They take your money and in most cases you get a polite “no”. (I did get a few yeses, and I will talk about that later.) There are millions of reasons why they say no (and there are people who will sell you seminars and books about why your script pitch sucks.) The fact of the matter is, you paid money for this. You should never have to pay money to get your idea in front of someone.

So after a few stabs at pitching, I paid more money to figure out why I wasn’t succeeding. Ah, the con continues. Now I’m handing over money to strangers who claim they have “inside experts” who will read, review and critique your pitch and your screenplay. They send back a handy sheet with numbers showing where my script/pitch is good and needs help in other areas. Warning. This is one person’s critique. As I was soon to discover, one person’s enthusiasm is another person’s mud pie. I received high marks in some categories in my critical analysis, but the agent reading my pitch wasn’t grading my pitch. They wanted to know if I had something they could sell to their bosses. Critical analysis does not equal box office nirvana. I was turned down, again and again.

So I turned to another venue: contests. There are several major script writing contests put out every year: There’s the PAGE, the Bluecat, and even Final Draft (the script writing software) has a contest. There are lots and lots of contests. There are lots of people taking money and promising a place among the industry gods if your script is good enough. The purpose of the contest entry fees are fairly upfront and honest–they have people reading and grading scripts. It takes time and effort. The PAGE entry fee is (for starters) $128.00. Enter closer to the cut off date and it’s $148.00. Want an analysis and critique of your script, too? That’s another forty to fifty bucks.

So did I have any successes? You may have watched my Facebook author page when I made announcements that I did well in contests or when someone asked to read my script from a pitch. In the end, I failed to make the finals of a single contest. Despite getting high grades in critiques and high marks in analysis, someone else did it better. As for the requests to actually read my script, I received four requests for ZAK CORBIN, two requests for THE LAST EMPRESS (I created a television script) and zero for a 1940s thriller comedy I wrote. None of the agents or agencies who requested my script have gotten in contact with me since then. So it’s safe to assume that my scripts are exactly where they would have been if I just sent it directly to the agents and agencies in question: the slush pile and/or the trash.

So I learned a valuable, but costly lesson. Research anything you want to get into. Give yourself realistic goals. Don’t pay unless you know there’s a return on your investment.

And keep the receipts. They make good tax deductions for next year.




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