Sunday, May 28, 2006

The Barbara Wiki

I guess it's my turn to write about Barbara Bauer. Again.

Who? you ask. Julie knows, and probably a few others of you at least. No, I didn't write about here here, but on Wikipedia, of all places. However, what I wrote is gone now, I mean really gone, as if it never happened. It was all a dream, an imaginary story, a mere delusion. Except that it wasn't.

Let me tell you about it.

Barbara Bauer is a literary agent of sorts, which is to say the wrong sort. She charges her clients fees up front, a practice that is generally frowned upon. As I understand it, these are supposedly for expenses, but no expense seems to be incurred, certainly not to the extent of the fees. In return, Ms. Bauer is expected to help place her clients' books; but according to SFWA and other sources, she has no substantiated sales to anyone but vanity publishers. None. A vanity publisher, in case you don't know, is one that the author pays to get into print, rather than the other way around. Sometimes there's a good reason to do that, but it emphatically does not constitute a sale to a publisher. Bauer's web site lists numerous publishers who "worked with" her authors, but to date, no one has been able to find concrete evidence that one of her clients actually sold a book to a non-vanity publisher as the result of Dr. Bauer's efforts.

Since all this adds up to a barely-legal scam, Bauer has been the subject of numerous complaints over the years from clients who rightly feel they were ripped off. This landed her on Writer Beware's 20 Worst Agencies List, published by Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). Their description of the list is as follows:

Below is a list of the 20 literary agencies about which Writer Beware has received the greatest number of advisories/complaints over the past several years.

None of these agencies has a significant track record of sales to commercial (advance-paying) publishers, and most have virtually no documented and verified sales at all (book placements claimed by some of these agencies turn out to be "sales" to vanity publishers). All charge clients before a sale is made--whether directly, by levying fees such as reading or administrative fees, or indirectly, for editing or other adjunct services.

Writer Beware recommends that writers avoid questionable literary agencies, and instead query agencies that have verifiable track records of sales to commercial publishing houses.

Note that while the 20 agencies listed here account for the bulk of the complaints we receive, they're just the tip of the iceberg. Writer Beware has files on nearly 400 questionable agencies, and we learn about a new one every few weeks.

Evidently, Barbara Bauer didn't like being on that list, which was widely circulated, either as a whole (on Absolute Write and Making Light, for example), in part, or as a link. She set about trying to suppress it by sending out her own cease and desist emails. In a posted example, Bauer reportedly demanded the prompt removal of the list from someone's blog, on the grounds that it was "disparaging, and inappropriate as well as libelous and defamatory."

Disparging it may be, but it's not libelous or defamatory. For that, the claims made would have to be false, and the person posting them would either have to know they were false or have a "reckless disregard for the truth," according to what I learned in college the first time around. Bauer doesn't seem to have had much success with this tactic, so she tried a few other things:

1. She tried to get Teresa Nielsen Hayden fired from Tor Books for libeling her on a corporate web site. The charge was false on two counts: Making Light isn't part of Tor or its parent company at all, but a private blog belonging to Teresa and Patrick; and everything Teresa wrote was true, and therefore not libel.

2. She tried to get Absolute Write shut down, after someone on their Water Cooler message boards printed Bauer's email address in connection with one of the cease-and-desist emails. She reportedly told Absolute Write's ISP that "my e-mail address has been unlawfully published without my consent. I am receiving SPAM because of Absolute Write Water Cooler's illegal activities." In the phone call that followed this fax, she supposedly invoked the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which does not apply to the situation, according to a lawyer. Her claim was that printing her email address was copyright violation, which it's not, and that it makes Absolute Write a spammer, because it promotes her getting more spam. Even if this logic were defensible, which it's not, it would be undercut by the fact that Bauer has that same email address posted on her own web site.

Nevertheless, the email address was removed from the post, although the timing of this is a little unclear from my reading. This should have been the end of it. Instead, the proprietors of the ISP, JC-Hosting, James and Stephanie Cordray, gave Jenna, the proprietor of Absolute Write, one hour to recover and back up all the pages from his huge web site before pulling the plug on it. This was, of course, impossible. There seems to have been an existing issue about bandwidth, and an 11th-hour attempt by JC-Hosting to get more money from AW's Jenna in return for releasing the files. But it all looks kind of fishy, because Stephanie of JC-Hosting chose the same week to announce her launch of a competing web site for writers.

Volunteers from among AW's thousands of users have been trying to help rebuild the archive from private files and Google caches, to help get the site up and running with its new ISP. The main page is there now, but Jenna reported on Saturday that "What we were able to download of the forums before we were shut down is not usable. It's lacking vital components, and there's no way to fix that." Lawyers have been mentioned, and this whole thing look to be getting uglier as it goes along. Absolute Write is now seeking donations to help make up a little of the money lost in advertising and to pay the inevitable costs for legal fees and getting fully underway again. Merchandise is also available, all profits going for the same purpose.

Meanwhile, the alleged instigator of this takedown, Barbara Bauer, has aroused considerable anger in the online writing community. Lots and lots of people have blogged about her, and even more have Googlebombed her, by linking her name to the 20 Worst Agents List repeatedly, all over the web, so that the list is now the #2 result when you Google "Barbara Bauer." This is, of course, is the exact opposite of what Bauer tried to achieve with her letters and threats. Her infamy has spread like wildfire, even resulting in a Wikipedia entry.

This is where I come into the story.

No, I didn't create the Wikipedia entry. I wouldn't have done that, because it seems a little petty and un-Wiki. Wikipedia is supposed to be an encyclopedia. There is an effort not to allow "attack articles," but to observe neutrality with respect to every subject. For some controversies, this can be highly problematic.

When I looked at the Barbara Bauer article, it basically said she was an agent, based on NJ, and on the list, along with direct quotes from the SFWA article about the basis for agencies landing on the list. Links were proided to Bauer's own site, SFWA, and one of the older Making Light entries about her. The article was short and vague. It explained very little about who this woman is, why she's notable. If a person is not considered notable, he or she is not supposed to be featured in a Wikipedia article. This is a highly subjective judgment, but for example, Teresa Nielsen Hayden and John Scalzi are both notable enough to have entries. I am not. Writing one about yourself is verboten. If you're not important enough for some stranger to write about you, the reasoning goes, you're not notable.

But is Barbara Bauer notable? Probably. The article as written just didn't do a good job of explaining why. All a reader could tell from Wikipedia was that Barbara Bauer is on a list of the 20 Worst Agents. So where are the articles about the other 19? What makes her so noteworthy?

Making Light's most recent entry about Barbara Bauer

So I wrote a second paragraph to the article, explaining as factually and neutrally as I could about her attempts from suppress the list, and the result of this with respect to Absolute Write. I used words like "reportedly" and "allegedly," even though there seems to be little room for doubt that she did make repeated attempts to force people to remove the list from web sites and blogs, and was at least a precipitating factor in the AW takedown. I kept my explanation brief, and mentioned the online response even more briefly. I think I did all this on Friday, but it may have been Thursday night.

Somewhere in there, I think just before I made my contribution, some other person edited in a much more blatantly attacking version of the article, and someone else took it out again. Another person added the name of Bauer's town or city in New Jersey, and linked to the article about that municipality. Once my paragraph was posted, it was left alone, except for a one word edit, changing the word "exist" to "existed."

Until Sunday morning. Someone removed the entire paragraph, reverting the article to basically what it was before, a one paragraph explanation of what the list was and the fact that she is on it. Then, late Sunday morning, someone deleted the article entirely, using a process called "speedy deletion," on the ground that it appeared to be an attack article. Someone else reinstated it four minutes later, with something called a "hangon." A third party, noting this disagreement, entered a formal nomination for deletion, which is a review and consensus process. The discussion for this can be found here. So far, the consesnus seems to be "Keep and clean up."

Normally, the history of any Wikipedia page can be found using a History tab. You can look at the actual text as it appeared on an older version, and revert the article to that version if that seems like the best thing to do. This is done a lot, usually to remove online vandalism. I've seen rude things inserted into the Madeleine L'Engle entry, only to be removed quickly and painlessly by Wiki watchdogs. But in this case, the fact that the article was deleted truncated the history. Nothing older than 5/28 can now be seen on the history tab, which means that what I wrote is completely gone, even in hisotry. Google hadn't cached it yet, so that's that. (But see below.)

The Barbara Bauer Wikipedia entry as of 2:30 AM MST Monday

But wait! While I've been working on this entry, someone else has been trying to fix the Wikipedia article. This person must have had access to a copy of the older version somewhere, somehow, because some of my words are back! JulesH put in a couple of my sentences, supplemented with some of his own, clearly explaining the situation and citing his sources, including Making Light. It will be interesting to see whether someone else takes it out again, but for the moment it's much better than it was. And in the articles for deletion discussion, shortly before Jule H's restoration, someone just wrote,

"Keep and clean up, probably by undeleting the original, since it was better sourced and better written than the current incarnation at the time it was unceremoniously dumped. --Calton"

This makes me very happy.

Some WrinklesMeanwhile, another page I've worked on, for A Wrinkle in Time, has been chosen (at least tentatively) to be on a Wikipedia CD aimed at schools. I'm very pleased and proud about that, even though my own contribution to that page was very minor compared to the L'Engle one. I celebrated by adding character listings for the six members of the Murry family, plus Calvin O'Keefe. That was the only really glaring omission the article had. I missed a couple of titles, but someone later fixed them.

And now, once my screen grabs upload, I'm going to bed. Goodnight!

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julie said...

I hope Wikipedia keeps the article, but given Ms. Bauer's track record it's going to take a lot of work to keep the article scrupulously neutral.

Now if someone actually fed her e-mail address to a spammer, shame on them. But I can tell you from experience that you don't even have to have an address published anywhere for it to start getting spam. The address on her home page is via a large ISP; she's gonna get spam.

But I'm really bummed over what happened at AW, and I suspect that it will take lawyers to get it all straigtened out in the end.

Matt D. said...

Hey, another writer from Tucson!

I voted 'keep' on the Bauer wiki entry. It looks like it will remain. The problem is a few people who are new to wiki attempted to fix the article by rewriting it, and it looked like a mess.

Miranda Prather of PublishAmerica was editing the PA entry almost every day for a while until she made the mistake of emailing wiki and asking them to lock it in her favor. As long as a few people watch the BB entry, it should be pretty easy to keep unadulterated.