Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Writing for Profit revisited

Some time ago, I blogged about the advertisements that the mail-order writing course Writers Bureau place regularly in the national press. The general tone of the adverts was that their course could open the door for you to become a professional writer, earning lots of money. This was supported by testimonials from apparently successful clients. As I pointed out at the time, a prominent success story often featured in the ads was Jon Eagle and his novel Red. According to the ads, Jon received £25000 as an advance and sold the film rights. The ads said he's working on the script. The truth was that Jon Eagle did publish a book called Red- but he published it in 1996 with Minerva, a vanity house, and therefore very very unlikely to pay an author anything, still less anything like 25 grand. Another contentious claim was by Christina Jones who claimed that her first three novels were bestsellers. Only bestsellers, it appeared, in lists of romantic novels by people called Christina Jones. There were other problems which I won't go into again here.
What I can reveal now, however, is that after my post, I made a complaint about the ads to the Advertising Standards Authority. I'm happy (smugly so, actually) to be able to reveal now that my complaint was upheld. It took a long time - from early April to now, in fact, but I'm gratified by the result.
The ASA were very thorough, if a little slow, in their response, and approached Writers Bureau with my comments. Writers Bureau were obviously not prepared to give an inch. They maintained that Ms Jones was, if not a best seller, a fast seller, but the most egregious response was that relating to Mr Eagle. According to Writers Bureau, he stood by the £25000 claim, and his proof was a paying in slip. I had to point out gently to the ASA that you actually hand the paying in slip in with the money, and anyway, anyone could grab a slip and write whatever they wanted on it. A bank statement would have done the trick, but this was not forthcoming. It was also revealed that he had indeed sold the film rights - but for £1, and further, that no film had been or was going to be made.
The upshot is that if they continue to use Mr Eagle, they can't mention the 25 grand, and they've got to say that the book was published 11 years ago. They also can't claim that Ms Jones is a best seller any more. Interestingly, the complaints that the ASA added to my complaints were not upheld.
So, a small triumph, but nonetheless, a pleasing one. You can read the full judgement here.

35 comments:

Harriet said...

Brilliant! well done you.

Hannah Velten said...

Hi Rob...first time I've visited your blog - glad I did. I'm a fellow lover of pig/piglets (earlier picture posts) and I like to see a good defender of truth in action - well done you. Those blurdy ads are sooo misleading for newbie writers - worth all your efforts.

Rob Spence said...

Thanks Hannah, and welcome. The procedure was surprisingly straightforward- just lengthy.
Are you going to follow up your "Cow" book with "Pig"?

Rob Spence said...

Just tidying up here. Linda, who hosts http://www.freelancewritingtips.com/
posted a response to the Writers Bureau post on the "Cold Caller" post. So here are the nice things she said:

I am also a first time visitor to your blog - and would like to say "excellent" - with three es :)

It really troubles me that people who want to chase a dream of earning a living from writing should be confronted with such nonsense.

I have no axe to grind and know that individual tutors on the courses can be excellent but I really admire you for the action you have taken.
And I replied:

Hey, Linda - thanks so much for your comment, and for the further mention on your blog, which I've just had a good look at. I don't feel I did that much, really- the process is quite simple, but the ASA, it seems, do actually have some teeth.

Gary said...

*applause*

> I don't feel I did that much, really

Yeah, but you did *something*. Whereas people like me grumped and groaned about the ads but didn't actually report 'em.

Anonymous said...

Yes, well done indeed. Can't wait to see what success stories they use now to promote themselves...

Jennifer said...

Hello, another first time visitor here. I just wanted to say hurrah for you, taking the time to make the complaint, and hurrah for the ASA, which has dealt with it very thoroughly, and hurrah for the process we have, which seems to have really worked this time.

I also look forward to seeing Writers Bureau ads in the future and seeing what they say from now on.

Rob Spence said...

Thanks Jennifer, and welcome. Yes, I must say that I did get a bit annoyed at the continuing use of the contentious claims whilst the matter was sub judice as it were. I too await with interest the new ads - and there will be lots of them as WB seems to have a large advertising budget-which makes you wonder about how many people sign up for their wares.

Mister Roy said...

That's great - nice to see the ASA actually acting on something. Next to yours, my favourite ASA adjudication involved discussion of the nature of hobgoblins: http://www.asa.org.uk/asa/adjudications/non_broadcast/Adjudication+Details.htm?Adjudication_id=40872

Rob Spence said...

Thanks Roy- enjoyed very much the hobgoblin judgement, and intend to sup a pint of it in celebration.

Richard Havers said...

Great story, well done.

Rob Spence said...

Thanks for the comment Richard. I enjoyed looking at your various enterprises - love the way you can casually write ..."A chance conversation with my friend Bill Wyman led to us collaborating on his Blues Odyssey TV series which in turn led to writing the book that accompanied it..." If you have any other jobs like that going spare, do let me know!

Anonymous said...

It appears that you're not the only one to raise an eyebrow at these claims from the Writer's Bureau. This very story has appeared in The Mirror today (thurs). Penman and Summerlad (p.37) are 'here to expose injustice' and have written a piece on this exact topic. Entitled 'Got 'Em Bang to Writes' they say:
"Minerva was run by 50-year-old Peter Hamblin...who threatened us with an injunction to try - unsuccessfully - to stop us exposing his company for fleecing aspiring authors. It has since been liquidated with debts of £2.6 million."
Yay. I'll watch the homepage of the WB with interest - yesterday Ms. Jones was still beaming on it, with a quote underneath her picture, saying how wonderful the company is and how her life has changed for the better now she is a successful writer, but there was no sign or mention of of Mr Eagle.... Hmm.

Richard Havers said...

Rob, I've always been a believer in Karma, so who knows....

Mister Roy said...

I had a look at the WB accounts - the parent company is called the National School of Salesmanship, which seems to be a purveyor of unaccredited correspondence courses. The whole thing has a kind of 1930s feel to it somehow.

Rob Spence said...

Very interesting, anon. The Mirror story is basically a rehash of what's on the ASA site, with a dash of Minerva thrown in - so to head it "Investigates" (and I think that's meant to be a noun) when they clearly have done a negligible amount of investigation shows, perhaps, to use Private Eye's phase "How Journalism Works."
Karma, eh, Richard? Wasn't he the midfield playmaker for Brazil in the 70s?

Richard Havers said...

If he was Rob, he played a blinder...

Mister Roy said...

'Tis the adverse publicity (like the Mirror story) that makes ASA rulings a concern to advertisers - except to companies that court such publicity. That's what they teach us in Marketing School, anyway.

Rob Spence said...

Why would you court adverse publicity Mr Roy? Oh, wait a minute - Amy Winehouse, Johnny Rotten, Pete Doherty... Yep, got it.
Richard- love the B&B - we're coming!

Juliet said...

Very well done. I saw some WB course material several years ago and felt rather sorry for the person who'd parted with good cash for it. An 'easy' route to untold riches? I think not.

New to your blog and love it!

Rob Spence said...

Hi Juliet - thanks for the comment. Loved the picture at the top of your blog, too.

Mister Roy said...

Rob - I thought the list of our Honorary Doctorate recipients was confidential!

Rob Spence said...

Roy - surely they are the candidates for chancellor?

Mister Roy said...

My mistake - Associate Deans.

hesitant scribe said...

Late to this post but still wanted to say well done! :)

I shall be passing this news on to the Novel Racers.

Clint said...

Just rec'd the Writers Bureau prospectus and the claims are still there, along with a few others.
So they have decided not to go along with the judgement.

onlyhannah said...

I recently was sent a load of information from this company. It looks like they got so many 'information packs' printed that they've decided not to make the changes which mislead - because I tend not to believe the hype, I looked it up online. Thanks for putting this information out there to be readily available.

Anonymous said...

Hi,

Thanks for putting this info out there. I live in Kenya & had planned to take up a course & considered WB. Glad I decided to do some more research & found this. Thanks again!

Personal Web Mate said...

I stumbled upon your blog when I was searching something related to Writers Bureau. The information you exposed here is shocking for aspiring writers who wish to join WB, but it is true! The company still did not remove the misleading ad from their homepage. Their order page has the word "county" instead of "country"! More worse, the emails that you get from their student services department has typos in them! Horrible! Do you think is it worth a try because of the guarantee they offer?

Anonymous said...

Just received some WB literature and guess what.......those claims are still there.

Jon Eagle still makes his claims and the smiley picture of Christina Jones still persists that she is a 'best-selling novelist'.

Hmmmmm, no change there then.

If WB was a good honest company, they certainly have shot themselves in the foot (with both barrels) as not only can they not be bothered to abide by the ASA ruling, but have set themselves to be above it. What arrogance!!

nda992 said...

Hi, I am from India and interested in doing this course notwithstanding the claims of success. I just want to improve as a writer. What would you recommend, should I do the course or not?

Rob Spence said...

Just picking up on these comments. The WB haven't made the claims in their advertising since the judgement, but I'm concerned that they are still apparently making them in their literature. I'll investigate.

Rob Spence said...

Hi nda992
I didn't expect a response to something I blogged two years ago - but that's the internet for you. It seems to me that WB can help some people, but clearly they have in the past exaggerated their claims. You might be better off with a local provider.

Andrew Oldham said...

Very late to this post and your blog, Rob. Good that someone stopped this. I remember Minerva, they used to advertise in the back of The Guardian Guide. When I was student 20 years ago I approached them, I was green, naive and rather stupid (but that is the role of the teenager) and they loved my poetry. I heard warning bells straightaway when they asked for money. I've gone onto be published but I framed that Minerva letter to remind me, that there are always companies and people out there who will promise the earth and deliver nothing. Writing, like any job, is hard work and takes grafting, so many people get suckered into the quick fix mentality. Isn't it more about them wanting to be rich, to be famous than it is about the writing?

John Harris Abraham said...

I was not impressed with the WB course,I complained about the attitudeof the tutor I was allocated..I withdrew from the Novel Writing/Journalism back in 2007....I found the study material lame..and outdated . There are a myriad of free online course now.