Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Cruelest Hoax

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

There's been some Internet buzz over the past few days about an apparent scam in which an unknown individual, posing as agent Jodi Reamer of uber-agency Writers House, targeted an unsuspecting author with a fake representation offer, followed by a fake high-advance contract offer from a major publishing house, all in the space of a few hours. As quickly as the hoax evolved, it collapsed--just one day after announcing what she believed was her good fortune, the author, self-published YA writer Aaronni Miller, revealed on her blog that she'd been punk'd.

A statement by Writers House appeared to confirm the hoaxer's existence.
Writers House has learned that a series of fake emails claiming to be from WH agent Jodi Reamer have been circulating to self-published authors this week. "These emails, which contain a number of false statements, have not in fact come from Jodi Reamer and should thus be disregarded." One easy "tell": they advise that any e-mail from a non-Writers House address "expressing interest in representation is counterfeit.
Still, some people were skeptical. Could the whole improbable story have been a lie, or some kind of spectacularly ill-advised publicity stunt, with Aaronni inventing the hoaxer as a way of saving face when an actual client of Ms. Reamer confirmed on Twitter that there'd been no representation offer?

Naturally, I was intrigued. So I contacted Aaronni, and she was kind enough to share with me all the emails she received from the hoaxer, as well as screenshots of the fake Twitter account the hoaxer created to "apologize" after Aaronni posted about the hoax on her blog. I'm satisfied that the hoaxer was real, and that Aaronni was the victim of an extraordinarily cruel prank.

There were certainly some major red flags, as you'll see in the emails reproduced below--the biggest of which is that no one gets a book deal within a few hours of receiving a representation offer, where the editors involved have never seen the book before. You probably won't be alone in feeling that Aaronni should have known better, or at least should have been more cautious. But she's very new to the publishing game, and like many new writers who get mixed up with sweet-talking scammers, ignored some of her own gut feelings in the excitement of what appeared to be a dream come true. Plus, the hoaxer was fairly convincing, at least to start. This is the second email Aaronni received, after the initial contact praising her writing and telling her she had a salable book:
From: Jodi Reamer [jodireamer@ymail.com]
To: Aaronni Miller [email address redacted]
Sent: Wed, July 20, 2011 12:30:32 PM
Subject: Re: Possible Representation-Aaronni Miller

Fantastic. I'm at meetings for the rest of today, and tomorrow I leave the office for the remainder of the week to go on vacation.
I'm having lunch with a few of my editor friends tomorrow (one at Razorbill, have you heard of them?) and I'd love to show her some of your work.
Would that be ok?

Jodi

JODI REAMER
LITERARY AGENT
WRITERS HOUSE
21 WEST 26th STREET
NEW YORK, NEW YORK 10010
http://writershouse.com/
OK? Why wouldn't it be OK? Aaronni said yes. Then, after just a few hours:
From: Jodi Reamer [jodireamer@ymail.com]
To: Aaronni Miller [email address redacted]
Sent: Wednesday, July 20, 2011 5:52 PM
Subject: Re: Possible Representation-Aaronni Miller

Great news: Razorbill loves your story. They want to buy it.

I want to send it to HarperTeen first, though, before we make any decisions. I really feel like your work is going to sell at auction!

Jodi
An actual publication offer! Aaronni must have been over the moon. And just imagine her feelings when, an hour later, this arrived:
From: Jodi Reamer [jodireamerr@yahoo.com]
To: Aaronni Miller [email address redacted]
Sent: Wednesday, July 20, 2011 7:12 PM
Subject: Offer from Razorbill and HarperTeen

Hi Aaronni,

Just heard back from HarperTeen. Okay, so here's the deal:

Ben Schrank at Razorbill can offer us a $120,000 advance, and Erica Sussman at HarperTeen can offer us $200,000.

I've decided that we're going to go with HarperTeen. Erica is going to get edits to you sometime in the fall, and that is also when HarperTeen will discuss release dates, covers, etc.

I'll send you your check in a few weeks! I generally take 75% commission, so you should be getting $50,000.

Jodi

JODI REAMER
LITERARY AGENT
WRITERS HOUSE
21 WEST 26th STREET
NEW YORK, NEW YORK 10010
http://writershouse.com
Now, the hoaxer was knowledgeable enough, or research-savvy enough, to get the names of editors and imprints right (an area where scammers frequently trip up--pairing the wrong name with the wrong imprint, or using the names of people who are no longer with the companies). But s/he also started to get careless. Note the suddenly different email address, the outlandish advance amounts, the unilateral "decision" to go with one publisher over another without asking the client's opinion, and the absurd commission percentage.

Here, Aaronni told me, was where she really started to smell a rat. But, still in thrall to the dream, "I rationalized this by thinking that she (meaning Jodi) was busy and she made a mistake." Plus, when called on the commission percentage, the hoaxer quickly backtracked:
From: Jodi Reamer [jodireamerr@yahoo.com]
To: Aaronni Miller [email address redacted]
Sent: Wednesday, July 20, 2011 7:26 PM
Subject: Re: Offer from Razorbill and HarperTeen

Did I say 75%? Crap.
Forgive me, I meant 15%! You'll be getting a check of $170,000 in the mail. What's your mailing address?

Jodi
The hoaxer then went on to urge Aaronni to proclaim the good news.
From: Jodi Reamer [jodireamerr@yahoo.com]
To: Aaronni Miller [email address redacted]
Sent: Wednesday, July 20, 2011 7:29 PM
Subject: Re: Offer from Razorbill and HarperTeen

Since the deal already went through, you're free to announce this to your friends, Facebook followers, etc.
And again:
From: Jodi Reamer [jodireamerr@yahoo.com]
To: Aaronni Miller [email address redacted]
Sent: Wednesday, July 20, 2011 8:05 PM
Subject: Re: Offer from Razorbill and HarperTeen

I understand. :)
I'm excited to work with you in the future!

Now, go celebrate your book deal...

Jodi
Presumably, this was the aim of the hoax: to get Aaronni to humiliate herself by going public. Which she did, in an ecstatic blog post that same day. (The post has since been removed.) It wasn't long before she was dragged down to earth. "I finally realized (for good) this was a scam when people commented on my blog saying how strange it was that I had a book deal that I could announce and my agent cleared it. From there, I contacted Writer's House and I was told that Jodi was actually traveling on business; her assistant, also, had never heard of the two emails I gave to him when I called. I further knew this was a scam when the scammer made a fake Twitter account and apologized to me about everything."

The Twitter account appeared the same day Aaronni posted about the scam. Yet another nasty prank--but this time, Aaronni didn't bite. The Twitter account was soon deleted.

I'm reminded here of the Hill & Hill Literary Agency scam, in which writers were bamboozled by a possibly deranged scammer who fabricated elaborate "evidence" of submissions, publisher comments, and even publishing contracts in order to convince his clients he had sold, or was about to sell, their books. But though Writers House's response to Aaronni's experience suggests that multiple authors were targeted, I haven't been able to find anyone else who received the fake emails. It looks to me as if this prank was a one-time personal attack, rather than part of a wider scam.

Aaronni thinks she knows who did it--but not why. "The person who scammed me is someone who I follow on Twitter and he follows me; we've only talked a few times and none of those times involved an argument or ill-will."

So what's the moral of this tale? There's the obvious one, of course: If it looks too good to be true, it probably is. And the less obvious one: Pay attention to your gut; don't let hope and desire blind you to a nagging sense that something's wrong. And the practical one: Arm yourself with knowledge before embarking on your journey to publication; the more you know, the safer you'll be. And the paranoid one: Never trust strokes of extreme good fortune until they can be verified. But writers are already paranoid enough, thank you very much; and most of the time, things really are what they appear to be. What happened to Aaronni is extremely unusual. I don't think that any aspiring writer needs to lose sleep over the possibility that it could happen to them.

There you have it: the true story of one of the meanest tricks I've seen played in my thirteen years of following this kind of stuff. Aaronni has gotten a lot of support online. If anyone out there is still skeptical of her story, hopefully this blog post will put their doubts to rest.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Judge Chin Wants Action on Failed Google Book Settlement

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

If you thought that Judge Denny Chin's denial of the Google Book Settlement last March was the end of that story, you were wrong. In the absence of a settlement agreement, the 2005 lawsuit brought by the Authors Guild and various publishers against Google for copyright infringement, due to Google's scanning of in-copyright books, must proceed. Currently, the parties to the lawsuit are trying to craft a new settlement.

Judge Chin is getting impatient with the pace of the discussions, though, and at a status conference on Tuesday, he basically told the parties to get off the stick or else proceed with litigation. The next status conference is set for September 15.

What's really interesting is that it now appears that the parties are discussing an opt-in agreement--where Google would have to seek authors' permission before scanning in-copyright works and placing them in its vast book database--rather than the original opt-out agreement--where Google scanned without permission, and works were automatically included in the database unless authors directed Google to remove them. The opt-out provision drew much criticism, since it reverses a basic tenet of copyright law; it was one of Judge Chin's major reasons for rejecting the Settlement.

It's hard to see how a full-on opt-in agreement would be attractive to Google. Its vision is to create a universal digital library which will include all the books in the world; an opt-in agreement could sharply limit that, forcing it to invest enormous time and effort in contacting authors, and prevent it from including large numbers of works for which it couldn't locate copyright holders.

Will Google agree to an opt-in settlement? If the parties come up with one, will it really be opt-in (for instance, will Google be allowed to go on scanning books and databasing them, as long as it only displays snippets of text--which is the arrangement it has come to with some European countries, but exactly the issue that spurred the original lawsuit)? If there's no agreement, will Google decide to take its chances in court? Stay tuned.

The statement below was released by the Authors Guild on Wednesday. There's also a more detailed analysis from James Grimmelmann, one of the most informed and objective commentators on this long-drawn-out drama.

--------------------

July 20, 2011.

At a brief status conference yesterday morning before Judge Denny Chin, the parties to our copyright infringement lawsuit against Google requested additional time to explore a revised settlement. Judge Chin set the next status conference for September 15, but urged the parties to move quickly with their discussions, saying that he was inclined to put the litigation on a tight discovery deadline if a settlement isn't reached by then.

On March 22nd, Judge Chin rejected a proposed settlement of the litigation, saying that "many of the concerns raised in the objections would be ameliorated if the ASA [the Amended Settlement Agreement] were converted from an 'opt-out' settlement to an 'opt-in' settlement. I urge the parties to consider revising the ASA accordingly." (Judge Chin's March 22nd opinion is available here.)

Since that ruling, the parties have been in discussions about an opt-in settlement to the dispute.

Yesterday's status conference was the second since Judge Chin rejected the proposed settlement.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Farrah Gray Publishing

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

When publishing relationships go bad, the writing was often on the wall long before the author signed on the dotted line. Perhaps there were nonstandard business practices, such as a hidden fee or a book purchase requirement. Or there might have been a large body of author complaints, easily found by doing a basic websearch. Maybe there was an association with an unsavory parent company, or a name change to escape bad press. Or the publisher may simply may have been too new to have proven itself--a major risk for small-press writers, given the high attrition rate for new small publishers, especially if the owners don't have a professional writing or publishing background.

Other times, though, those obvious red flags aren't there, or, if they are, they're offset by apparent mitigating factors. Either way, the real problems don't become clear until after the contract has been signed, and it's too late for second thoughts.

That's what Rhonda Frost says happened to her and her daughter/co-author, Shanae Hall.

Frost and Hall found their publisher--Farrah Gray Publishing, an imprint of well-established Chicken Soup for the Soul publisher Health Communications Inc.--serendipitously, through a series of chance encounters. When "the call" came,
We listened and waited for the offer of a royalty advance, [but] there was none. We jumped for joy nonetheless, we were about to be published authors! This was a dream come true.
It wasn't long, though, before things started to go wrong. According to Frost, she and Hall never received a properly executed contract. Requests to the publisher to sign and send one went unanswered. Then, a few months before the publication date,
this Publisher would call and ask us for 100K to market and publish our book....We were taken aback. He told us, if we didn't, he wouldn't be able to get us "programs" or otherwise market our book.
This despite the fact that the contract--which I've seen, and which is nonstandard in several respects, including a life-of-copyright rights grant with no provision for reversion by the author--includes no specific mention of publicity or marketing fees due from the authors. (For regular readers of this blog, I hardly need to say that expecting writers to pay for their publisher's marketing efforts is not exactly typical practice in the trade publishing world.)

Frost and Hall couldn't pay the $100,000, and told FGP so. Nevertheless, publication proceeded, and their book, Why Do I Have to Think Like a Man? appeared in October 2010. Then came the first royalty statement--which, Frost told me, showed that $33,000 in royalties had been withheld to pay for publicity, and that she and Hall owed FGP an additional $66,000 in marketing expenses. When Frost and Hall challenged the charges, FGP sent them a bill for $93,230 (I've seen the bill; you can see it too, along with other supporting documents), listing such publicity strategies as Twitter tweets and Facebook updates, but failing to supply any details of the marketing campaigns or any breakdown of individual costs. A subsequent payment demand by FGP in June (which I've also seen) upped the amount due to $78,320, and threatened litigation if Frost and Hall didn't pay.

Frost and Hall also have questions about their royalties, since, according to Frost, "we can't seem to get accurate statements from FGP. We have no idea how many ebooks we have sold, or what our numbers actually are."

As a result of all this, Frost and Hall are taking legal action. They've filed suit against FGP for fraud and breach of contract in Los Angeles County Superior Court, and have subpoenaed sales records from HCI. FGP, meanwhile, continues to publish. Its latest is a memoir from CNN anchor Don Lemon.

At the end of Frost's blog post, there's a series of red flags and suggestions for new authors, all offered in hindsight. Good advice--but was there anything Frost and Hall could have done differently, going in? There were warning signs--no advance, even though FGP is an imprint of a large commercial publisher; FGP's newness (Frost's and Hall's book was only the second FGP had signed); and a nonstandard contract, with language and clauses an experienced literary agent would certainly have questioned. But Frost and Hall were new to publishing, and had no real literary agent to advise them--and even if they had, there was no way for them to anticipate the gigantic marketing fee, since the contract made no mention of it. And then, of course, there was the HCI name. Surely, reason to trust that their book would be in good hands.

That's the hard truth of publishing: in the end, and with every possible precaution, what looks like a duck will sometimes turn out to be a turkey.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Publishing Beyond the Grave

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Fellow authors, do you have a loved one who was a writer too, but sadly passed over into the Great Beyond with their poems or prose unpublished? Does the cosmic injustice of that weigh heavy on your soul? Do you lie awake nights, grieving that your loved one never had the chance to see his or her words enshrined in print?

Well, now there's a way to set your troubled mind at rest, and give your loved one the recognition he or she deserved: Posthumous Vanity Publishing, a service run by one Dr. Edgar Scattergood.
Summer’s lease has far too short a date, but thousands of people of this World and the Next are published for Eternity with our Posthumous Vanity Publishing (PVP) services which you can access from your own home...Through our PVP services you can post your loved one’s prized creations to an all-accepting Universe, including poems, short stories, and novel excerpts. You’ll be amazed at the Reception.
Here's a sample Posthumously Vanity Published website, complete with an introduction from Dr. Scattergood: The Hayfield Forever. And posthumous publishing services aren't all Dr. Scattergood has to offer.
You may purchase an eGrave upon such eGrounds as the elite Whispering Dells or, in the medium price range, Harmony Glades. Funereal applications for iPhone and iPad are available. We also offer grexting (send text messages from your cell phone directly to your loved one’s eGrave), eUrns, eFlames, and all come with our trademarked eUlogies.
Right about now, you may be thinking something along the lines of Holy cow, the scams are getting weirder by the day! How do people get away with stuff like this? Or perhaps Could anyone really fall for such a scam? It reads like satire!

Bingo.

The PVP enterprise is actually a clever joke: an experimental fiction project created by real-life scam-buster Gary Rhoades, a Deputy City Attorney who works in the Santa Monica City Hall Consumer Protection Unit.

According to a 2009 article in the Santa Monica Daily Press,
The idea for the dark comedy came more than a year ago after Rhoades, who was curious from prosecuting a number of cases involving scam artists, decided to take on the mindset of such a criminal. An unpublished poet himself, Rhoades spent some time at a hay farm he owns in Missouri with [his brother] Alex to brainstorm a plot and figure out the best medium to tell the story.

They ended up creating four connected Web sites — www.foreverprized.com, www.thecartooncowgirlforever.com, www.seeminglyforever.com, and www.thehayfieldforever.com. The multiple Web sites are actually an attribute commonly found in scams, Rhoades said.

“Scam artists will create a cluster of Web sites that when people are going through them and clicking on the links, will go to another Web site and get this illusion of depth,” he said.
Also in on the joke is one of Rhoades's colleagues, fellow Deputy City Attorney Barbara Greenstein, who plays the part of fictional Deputy District Attorney Carla Found, who is prosecuting scammer Scattergood for fraud.

The project was supposed to conclude in the fall of 2009, but seems to have taken on a life of its own, becoming an ongoing "experimental literary mystery," with scammer Dr. Scattergood being just one story thread. There are now five interconnected websites--Forever Prized, Inc. (the PVP service itself), The Cartoon Cowgirl Forever (an "epic redemption poem"), Lucy Acre's eGrave (with grexting functionality--for an extra fee, of course), Seemingly Forever (a posthumous hardboiled spy thriller), and the original posthumous "breached haiku," The Hayfield Forever, complete with academic commentary--plus a Facebook page and Mr. Rhoades's blog.

Quoted in 2009, Rhoades said he hadn't heard from anyone who'd taken the websites seriously. “We hope that some of the over the top nature of some of the stuff clues them in...that this isn’t a real service.” But Rhoades's knowledge of the inner workings of scams lends the websites a crazy surface credibility--and one of the reasons that writing scams are so ubiquitous is that so many people are inexperienced and unprepared,and don't read carefully enough. I'd be willing to bet that by now, at least a few people have been fooled.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Why You Want to Hire a Competent PR Service

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

As some of you may know, I was at one time a SF/fantasy book reviewer--mostly for SF Site, but also for other publications. (Most of my reviews are posted at my website.) However, I got burned out on reviewing after doing it for many years, and took a temporary hiatus that turned into a permanent one. I haven't written any book reviews since 2007.

Nevertheless, I still occasionally get review requests--such as this one, received last week from an outfit called First Page Sage:
Dear Victoria Strauss,

My name is [name redacted]. My firm is helping to publicize [novel name redacted], a new political mystery book by [author name redacted] published this past March by [name of what looks like the author's own self-publishing venture]. I believe that you would be interested in this timely novel since you review literature, and I would like to request that you consider reviewing it for Writer Beware Blogs.

On its face, the writing is compelling, but the book is also a controversial allegory about current political events ripe for debate. As a New York Supreme Court Judge for many years, the author understands the system well and this book is guaranteed to hit home with people who follow politics, as many of your readers do. There is a more detailed description below for your reference.

[book synopsis redacted]

If you are interested in taking a look, please kindly provide me with your mailing address and I will be happy to send you a review copy.

Sincerely,

[name redacted]
PR Director
First Page Sage, LLC
Now, you'd think a competent PR Director would do his research better. I mean, you might not realize that I don't review any more, or assume that someone who reviews one kind of genre fiction might be interested in reviewing another--but it's kind of hard to miss the fact that the Writer Beware blog does not review "literature" (assuming, of course, that you actually bothered to visit the blog). Sending review requests to completely inappropriate people is not exactly the "premium book promotion" promised by First Page Sage's website (scroll down to the bottom), which touts itself as "one of the most effective vehicles for getting the word out about your book."

Still, rather than bite Mr. PR Director's head off, I consigned his email to my Junk file, and figured we were all done. But no. Today I received this (check out the salutation):
Dear Mr. Strauss,

I hope this email finds you well. On June 23, I sent you the below email. I know you are busy, and I hope that you will be able to take a few seconds to reply whether you would consider reviewing this book. We're excited to send you a copy, but we just want to make sure you'll at least consider reviewing it.

Thanks!

[name redacted]
So I took him up on his invitation to reply, though it did take me more than a few seconds:
Dear [name redacted],

I ignored your earlier email because I didn't really want to say what I'm going to say now.

Before approaching people to review a book, you really ought to a) make sure they're actively reviewing; b) determine that they review books in the genre you're pitching, and c) spend a little time researching the venue you're asking them to review in, to be sure it's appropriate (not to mention, that it really is book review venue).

On all three counts, you are batting zero.

Although I did write book reviews in the past, I haven't done any reviewing for at least four years, as a Google search would quickly show. When I was reviewing, I reviewed exclusively science fiction, fantasy, and horror--never mystery (a look at my list of book reviews, readily available on my personal website, would make this clear). Last but certainly not least, Writer Beware Blogs! is not and never has been a book review venue. Its focus is news and views on the publishing industry, with a particular emphasis on literary scams. Merely glancing the blog's masthead would make this clear. Of course, you would actually need to visit the blog to do this.

If this is an example of your PR skills, I can't help feeling that you aren't doing your author any favors.

- Victoria (not now, or planning to be in the future, a Mr.)
Think I'll hear back?

Seriously--this is yet another example of what I wrote about in my recent blog post on book marketing methods that don't work. If you pay for PR, hire a person or company that specializes in book promotion--not one that offers book promo as one of many unrelated services--and avoid bulk mail methods. And ask for references.

I do feel bad for the author, who is probably paying a premium for this inept service--but on the other hand, I suspect he may not have done his homework.