Monday, March 31, 2014

Pamela Wray and WordWorks Publishing Consultants: The Amazing Case of the Serial Plagiarizer

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Every time I consider purging Writer Beware's files to get rid of documentation on agents and others we haven't heard anything about in years and years, I'm reminded of why I hold onto that old paper.

Last Friday, I received an email from successful independent editor Jodie Renner. Apparently, client testimonials from her website had been plagiarized by an outfit called WordWorks Publishing Consultants.

I hopped on over to WordWorks' website, expecting to discover something on the order of faux publicist Mike Albee, who decorated his site with fake testimonials from known authors.

What I found was way more bizarre: plagiarism, plagiarism, and yet more plagiarism, plus a blast from Writer Beware's past. (Bear with me; this is a long post with lots of images, but I wanted to capture them in case WordWorks attempts to hide the evidence.)

Based in Alabama, WordWorks is owned by Pamela Wray Biron, who provides "Expert and Innovative Content Solutions," including editing, ghostwriting, graphic design, illustration, marketing, and web services. A veritable Renaissance woman. And, gosh, just look at Pamela's clients! The US Justice Department! 20th Century Fox! The President of the United States! Check out the impressive names on Pamela's Testimonials page! Steve Jobs! Bill Gates! Michael Eisner! Editorial and marketing staff from all the Big Five publishers!

There's just one problem: most of the testimonials are plagiarized, and not just from Jodie Renner.

For instance, this testimonial from Jodie's client SJ Sellers:

Here's Pamela's version, with names changed to protect the guilty:

From Jodie's client A.M. Khalifa:

Pamela has made hay with this one, turning it into three testimonials:

Here's a testimonial from the website of Charlie Neville, graphic designer:

Pamela's version, slightly paraphrased (but oh dear--she forgot to change "his" to "her"):

A testimonial from Foster Covers, the website of book cover designer George Foster:

Pamela's got this one too:

From well-known PR firm FSB Associates:

Pamela, Pamela, Pamela:

These are just a few examples; I confirmed many more. And that's not all. See Pamela's Portfolio! (Its lousy reproduction values don't match the high-powered jobs she's claiming--if you're working for Paramount, surely you can spring for something better than a crappy Vistaprint website--but never mind). See Pamela's poster for the hugely successful horror movie Drag Me to Hell!

Oh wait. That poster was actually designed by ad agency Cold Open.

Pamela's writing samples don't exactly belong to her, either. For instance, "Excuses Alcoholics Make," which can be downloaded from the Social Sciences section of her Writing Portfolio page, has been lifted whole from this article by Floyd P. Garret, M.D. Perhaps, if asked, Pamela would claim she ghostwrote it--but I suspect that might surprise Dr. Garret (though he'd surely be no more startled to find his words on Pamela's website than would Michael Eisner or Bill Gates).

But wait--there's even more. Pamela's also the founder and Executive Director for the The Lighthouse for Recovery Ministries, which is dedicated to easing incarcerated persons' transition back into society. A worthy mission--but since WordWorks is so extensively plagiarized, inquiring minds can't help but wonder...could Lighthouse's website also include, well, borrowings?

Sure it could. Large portions of Lighthouse's Transitioning for Ex-Offenders have been copied, with adaptations, from Butler University's Returning Students resource. Barriers to Employment and Overcoming the Barriers have been taken in their entirety, without attribution, from Chapter 8 of a publication from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Pamela's blog posts for Lighthouse are also plagiarized. Even Lighthouse's mission is not its own; a big chunk of it has been borrowed from the nonprofit Fortune Society.

Believe it or not, I'm not done yet! As I was undertaking the research above, the name Pamela Wray kept ringing a bell. I went back through Writer Beware's records, and...bingo. We have a file.

Back around 2000, Pamela was running the Pamela Wray Literary Agency. She came to our attention initially because she was falsely claiming SFWA membership. A couple of cease-and-desists later, Pamela removed the claim--but over the next year or so we were contacted by a number of unhappy clients who reported that, in addition to never managing to sell their books, she'd told them various fibs, including presenting herself as John Grisham's agent (supposedly he was planning a new series featuring a Southern female detective, and wanted a Southern female agent), claiming to have secured bookstore orders for manuscripts that hadn't yet been placed with publishers, and claiming that publishers required authors to "match their out-of-pocket consumer promotion budgets".

By 2001, Pamela was out of the faux agent game. But though she has moved on to other things, she still seems to be working from the same playbook.

And that's why I don't throw away my old files.

UPDATED 6/30/14 TO ADD: WordWorks Publishing Consultants is gone. But The Lighthouse for Recovery Ministries remains, complete with plagiarized content.

In an amusing twist on this story, I recently received an email from Pamela letting me know that THE WHOLE THING WAS A HOAX! That's right, folks--and not just any hoax, but one in furtherance of a noble goal. I'll let Pamela tell you about it. Link to her entire explanation is here.
Thank you for contacting me and letting me know that you finally realized that the submission for the website "WordWorks" was falsified....It was part of an experiment for a study and journalistic investigative reporting pieces on ACCURACY AND USE OF INFORMATION ON THE INTERNET. This is the resulting "blog" about the results.

Two years ago, we were part of a grant study under the Department of Education, to determine the (1) accuracy, integrity and validity of information that is dissimulated on the internet; and 2) if individuals do in-depth research on this information to determine whether the data is true or false or if the individuals take the information at face value without further research....

We created a “false” business website with a “kernel of truth” and expounded on its informational value with plagiarism, untruths and creativity on a weekly basis to see how long it would take at least one individual to question the information provided within the website. It took sixteen (16) months before someone “spoke up.” This was sixteen months of this website being used as resource for term papers, research papers, business reports, and case studies by individuals in the corporate world and in the academic world.

EDITED 7/23/14 TO ADD: An alert reader passed this on to me: Pamela Wray's profile at Crimestoppers of Metro Alabama. According to this, she's wanted for identity theft, and has previous convictions including theft, fraudulent use of credit card, and possession of a forged instrument.

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Short Life and Strange Death of Entranced Publishing

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

When Entranced Publishing (its website is now gone, but a recent archived version can be seen here) opened to submissions in 2012, it looked like a promising small press, with a number of imprints, a sizeable staff, and a commitment not to churn out books, author-mill style.

However promising-seeming, though, authors always need to be wary of brand-new small presses, because there's such a high attrition rate for such ventures. Even if the staff are very experienced (which often isn't the case in the small press world), it's wise to watch and wait until the press has been publishing books for at least a year. This demonstrates some stability; it also makes it possible to evaluate things like quality and marketing. And--just as important--it allows time for problems and complaints, if any, to surface.

In the case of Entranced, that caution would have served authors well.

Entranced planned to start publishing in 2013, and its first books came out around April of that year, with attractive covers and decent sales rankings. The company drew the interest of reputable agents, a number of whom placed authors with Entranced. From the outside, things looked pretty good.

But inside the company, trouble was brewing.* In the summer of 2013, editors began leaving, citing lack of payment and general unprofessionalism. Orphaned books were left to languish, with no new editors assigned. Authors didn't receive marketing support; books weren't getting contractually-promised ISBNs or making it into the promised distribution channels. Authors were discovering major mistakes and formatting errors in published books.

And then there were the money problems. Bounced echecks. Late and missing royalty statements. In many cases, no payments at all--either of author royalties or staff fees.

To authors' increasingly anxious questions about the missing money, Entranced's owner, Ashley Christman, offered various excuses. She was out of the country and having bank troubles. Vendors were late with their own payments. The contract's 45-day payment window actually meant 45 business days. She was sick and hadn't been able to tend to business affairs. According to authors, she always had an explanation...but the money never arrived.

Then, on March 10, 2014, authors were stunned by this announcement from Christman:
As many of you know, I’ve been dealing with a prolonged personal illness. This illness has not been easy and is not going to resolve anytime soon. These next few months will involve therapy for me and require me to devote my focus on getting better. I’ve known for a while that this is not an illness that one can overcome overnight and as such began the search to find a new publisher for Entranced.

As of 1030AM CST today, I am no longer the owner or publisher of Entranced Publishing.

The new owner, Robert Oknik, comes from a background in contract law specializing in publishing. He has previously worked for Meredith Media in addition to a number of other companies. I have no doubt that he is what’s best for Entranced.
Christman supplied no other info about the new owner, and neither she nor Entranced staff would answer questions about his background or experience. Doing their own research, authors discovered that, apart from a skeleton profile on Google+, Oknik had no web presence whatsoever--quite surprising for someone who'd worked for a firm as prominent as Meredith. Putting this together with the continued problems and lack of communication, some authors began to wonder whether Oknik existed at all.** Had the supposed sale of the company been just another smokescreen?

On March 18, Entranced authors received an email from their new publisher:
Let me explain a little bit about how I'm prioritizing things: My initial goal is to go through author and staff accounts and make sure those are tied up and taken care of. After that, I want to look at other avenues of revenue, any reorganization, and re-branding, etc.

For now, releases will still be moving forward on their release dates. I will handle those temporarily while I learn the process from Ashley....Please bear with me and realize that none of these things will happen overnight. I'm still settling in and learning things.
Not surprisingly, authors' fears weren't much assuaged by this vague message. Some continued to ask questions; others requested reversion of their rights. By this point, also, I was looking into Entranced. I sent an inquiry to Oknik, requesting his comments on the reported problems and asking what he planned to do to fix them.

A company in disarray; unruly authors; curious watchdog. Apparently it all became too much. On March 24, authors received another bombshell, in the form of this terse message from Oknik***:
To our Authors,

Today, I regret to inform you that a decision has been made that Entranced Publishing will be exiting the publishing business.

We are not insolvent, we are not going bankrupt, we simply have decided that we no longer wish to be in the business and therefore we will be exiting this business in a professional, orderly fashion.

Over the next 30 days, we will remove all books for sale through all sales channels.

We will compile finalized statements for all titles and pay all royalties owed once all vendor payments have been collected. We anticipate that this could be as soon as June, but we do not completely control third party sales.

This means that your rights will automatically revert to you per your contracts and at the end of the thirty day period. If after this period you still find your title available, please email me and I will promptly have it removed. If your title has yet to be released, this reversion is immediate.

I wish to thank all of you who have been good partners with us and wish everyone nothing but the best.

Regards,
Bob
And just like that, Entranced was dead, less than a year after releasing its first books.

While I don't think authors should be holding their breath for the promised royalty payments, I'm glad to report that Entranced seems to be fulfilling its promise to issue reversion letters, and that, as of this writing, most Entranced books have been removed from retailers' websites. It sounds awful to say it, but in situations like this, that's about the best result that can be hoped for. Many small presses not only take their authors' money with them when they go, they fail to relinquish rights as well.

So what really happened here? Is the story of Entranced a sadly familiar tale of a well-intentioned but inexperienced publisher who got in over her head, began to lie to get authors and creditors off her back, and eventually decided to cut her losses and run?

Or, as many Entranced authors are convinced, was something more sinister going on? Authors tell me that Entranced's street address and phone number seem to have been fake, and point out that Christman seems to be trying to delete herself from the web: her Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook accounts are gone, and she is reportedly now calling herself Ashley Michele. Entranced also seems to be erasing itself, though for the moment, a Tumblr and a Pinterest page are still live.

I doubt we'll ever know for sure. In the meantime, Entranced is a useful object lesson on the risks of the small press market--and on the wisdom of letting a publisher mature before trusting it with one's intellectual property. No comfort, I know, to the authors who were exploited by this publisher, and then so callously kicked to the curb.

*************

* The information in this post comes from the reports of Entranced authors and staff who contacted me directly, and also from the Entranced discussion thread at the Absolute Write Water Cooler.

** Does Robert Oknik exist? Christman appears to have lied about a lot of things in order to get out from under her troubles at Entranced, so it's certainly plausible that she made him up too. Sleuthing by Entranced authors further suggests this. Here's Robert (Bob) Oknik's Google+ profile...


...but his picture is identical to one on Facebook for a man named Robert Mate...


...who is currently a Senior Student Support Specialist at Purdue University (if you click on his name on this list you can see his photo, which matches both the photos above)...

...and while there's no trace of a connection between Robert Oknik and Meredith, the company where Ashley Christman said he worked, there is a connection between Meredith and Robert Mate...

...but that Robert Mate, who is currently CEO of a company called Tabbed Media, is not the same Robert Mate who works at Purdue and whose image appears in "Bob Oknik's" Google+ profile.

Confused yet?

*** I can't quite find the words to express how unprofessional--and cruel--I think this message is. First the bombshell: we're closing. Then the "screw you": we aren't in trouble, we're just bored with book publishing, so we're packing up our toys and going home. And finally, the brushoff: Thanks, losers! See ya! No apology for running the company into the ground; no acknowledgment of the devastating impact Entranced's death spiral has had on its authors. Disgusting.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Why Poets Should Not Seek Literary Agents

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware 

NOTE: One of the most frequent search phrases that brings people to Writer Beware's Literary Agents page is "literary agents for poets" or some variation thereof. I originally published this blog post in 2012, but given a recent rise in the number of writers who come to us with the question, I thought it would be worth running again.

*************

Writer Beware hears from a lot of poets.

Often, they're contacting us to ask about self-publishing, or to check the reputation of a journal or a contest. Sometimes, unfortunately, they've gotten mixed up with one of the vanity anthology companies, such as Eber and Wein.

More frequently, though, they want to know about literary agents. Is the brand-new agency with an interest in poets a good one to query? Is the agent who just asked for the entire manuscript of their poetry collection reputable? Can Writer Beware recommend good literary agents for poets?

I've never yet been able to answer yes--and not just because Writer Beware has a policy of not making agent (or publisher) recommendations.

Apart from celebrity projects, writers who are already well-known, or as a favor to established clients, successful literary agents rarely represent poets. Even in the best of circumstances, poetry collections are a tough sell, and the poetry market, which is dominated by small presses, simply isn’t lucrative enough to make it worth most agents’ while.

Poets generally get their start by selling individual poems to reputable markets. Entering reputable contests can also be helpful, if you win (for instance, there are a number of reputable first-book contests, such as the Walt Whitman Award). Once you've built up a track record, you can submit your collection to small publishers on your own.

Beware, therefore, of literary agents whose guidelines indicate that they are looking to represent poets, or who put out calls for poetry collections. Be especially wary if a literary agency claims to specialize in poets. Nearly always, they’re either unscrupulous operators looking to charge a fee, or amateurs who know nothing about the realities of publishing. Even if they don't want to drain your bank account, it's likely that they have no track record of sales to reputable trade publishers.

A few examples:
- WL Poetry Agency, a (now-defunct) division of the company that currently calls itself the Strategic Book Publishing & Rights Agency (SBPRA). SBPRA, which was sued by the Florida Attorney General for deceptive business practices, is the subject of an Alert at Writer Beware.

- Clark, Mendelson, and Scott, a fee-charging agency that's actually a revival of another long-running scam.

- Writers in the Sky Literary Agency. Not scammish but clueless, this agency never made any sales and went out of business just two years after starting up.

- Helping Hand Literary Agency was run by scammers who eventually went to jail for their crimes.
Here are some helpful links for poets looking to get their work into the hands of readers:
- A comprehensive FAQ from the UK's Poetry Society.

- Writing and Publishing FAQ from the Academy of American Poets.

- Commonsense advice on how to submit and publish poetry from published poet Neile Graham.

- Poet Beware is my own article detailing some of the schemes and pitfalls poets may encounter.

- Poets and Writers has an extensive Grants and Awards section, which includes chapbook contests.

- More poetry contests, from the Poetry Society of America.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Rights Concerns: Amtrak Residency Program

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

The Internet has been buzzing over the past week over the announcement of a writer-focused initiative from Amtrak: the Amtrak Residency Program.
#AmtrakResidency was designed to allow creative professionals who are passionate about train travel and writing to work on their craft in an inspiring environment. Round-trip train travel will be provided on an Amtrak long-distance route. Each resident will be given a private sleeper car, equipped with a desk, a bed and a window to watch the American countryside roll by for inspiration. Routes will be determined based on availability.
Now, I personally can't figure out why anyone would find this tempting. Then again, I'm a veteran of Amtrak's overcrowded Boston-to-Washington corridor, where late arrivals and yucky restrooms are always a possibility. I've also done long-distance train traveling, and am painfully familiar with what Amtrak means by a "bed." (Have any of you seen the Sex and the City episode where Carrie and Samantha, anticipating a romantic train trip, discover the reality of a sleeper car? Yeah. It was like that.) So consider me battle-scarred.

Nevertheless, the idea of writing on a train seems to have wide appeal. Announcement of the Residency Program was greeted with many happy tweets and glowing social media shares. Until, that is, writers started looking at the fine print, a.k.a. Amtrak's Official Terms.

The major concern is the Grant of Rights (bolding is mine):
6.   Grant of Rights: In submitting an Application, Applicant hereby grants Sponsor the absolute, worldwide, and irrevocable right to use, modify, publish, publicly display, distribute, and copy Applicant’s Application, in whole or in part, for any purpose, including, but not limited to, advertising and marketing, and to sublicense such rights to any third parties. In addition, Applicant hereby represents that he/she has obtained the necessary rights from any persons identified in the Application (if any persons are minors, then the written consent of and grant from the minor’s parent or legal guardian); and, Applicant grants Sponsor the absolute, worldwide, and irrevocable right to use, modify, publish, publicly display, distribute, and copy the name, image, and/or likeness of Applicant and the names of any such persons identified in the Application for any purpose, including, but not limited to, advertising and marketing. For the avoidance of doubt, one’s Application will NOT be kept confidential (and, for this reason, it is recommended that the writing sample and answers to questions not contain any personally identifiable information – e.g., name or e-mail address – of Applicant.) Upon Sponsor's request and without compensation, Applicant agrees to sign any additional documentation that Sponsor may require so as to effect, perfect or record the preceding grant of rights and/or to furnish Sponsor with written proof that he/she has secured any and all necessary third party consents relative to the Application.
I don't think anyone should be surprised that Amtrak wants to use the Residency Program for advertising and marketing. In this, it's little different from many other organizations. Even many publishing contracts require authors to grant the right to use their names, images, and excerpts from their work for publicity purposes. If you don't like that, don't apply.

However, the open-ended nature of the Grant of Rights is troubling. It includes all applicants--not just those who are accepted for Residencies. It extends indefinitely. And the whole application, which doesn't require applicants to provide a street address or phone number, but does require them to share their email address and Twitter handle, is non-confidential and can be copied and distributed at will.

What problems might this pose? Well, you might not want to grant a big corporation the power to share your email address.

You also might not want to grant it sweeping publishing rights (and, as I was reminded the other day, Amtrak is a publisher: it has its own magazine, Arrive). For most people, the writing sample they submit (just 10 pages) is going to be a partial; if it's unpublished and part of a much longer work, rights conflicts probably aren't an issue. A professional book publisher, for instance, isn't likely to care that you've encumbered rights to 10 pages of your 350-page novel. But what if the sample is part of a shorter work, of which 10 pages is a much larger proportion? A short fiction or freelance market might well have a problem with that. And if the sample is a complete story or article, forget it--you won't be able to place it anywhere else.

Also, if your sample is part of a published work, how might the rights you've already granted conflict with the rights Amtrak is demanding? And why should writers who submit and are not chosen for the Residency have to struggle with these questions at all?

There's been a fair bit of concern over all of this over the past few days. In a discussion on Reddit, Amtrak's Social Media Director, Julia Quinn, has said that negative feedback is being "forwarded on internally." Let's hope so. In the meantime, if Julia happens to be reading, here are my suggestions for improvement--and don't worry, they're pretty easy:

1. Terminate the Grant of Rights on rejection. If you're not chosen for a Residency, your rights automatically return to you, free and clear.

2. Make the Grant of Rights nonexclusive. If successful applicants decide to market the work of which their sample is a part, this would eliminate any question about whether someone else has the right to publish.

3. Limit the term of the Grant of Rights. To a period of 5 years, for instance.

4. Limit the application's non-confidentiality to writers' names, writing samples, and writing question responses. This would allow Amtrak plenty of material for marketing and publicity, while relieving writers of the worry that their contact info might be made public.

5. Make the changes retroactive. If the terms are improved, writers who've already applied should be included.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Rights Concerns: Simon451 Novel-Writing Contest for Students

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Recently, Big 5 publisher Simon & Schuster announced the launch of two adult trade speculative fiction imprints: Saga Press, which will do both print and digital, and Simon451, which will also do print and digital, but will concentrate on digital-firsts and ebook originals. Simon451 currently is accepting submissions from unagented authors.

Simon451 is also running a novel-writing contest for college students. Students submit a synopsis ad the first 50 pages of a novel. A panel of judges will select ten finalists, who will be asked to submit their entire manuscripts. The winner receives a publishing contract with Simon451, a $3,000 advance, and a trip to NY Comicon.

In the past weeks, I've heard from a number of writers who are wondering about an apparent rights-grab in the contest guidelines (you can download the guidelines here). The language that's the source of concern appears in two places. First, on page 2 of the guidelines, where it refers to the initial 50-page submission, a.k.a. the Initial Entry:
Submission of an Initial Entry grants Sponsor and their agents the unconditional, irrevocable, perpetual, worldwide right to excerpt in part or whole, use, adapt, edit and/or modify such Entry in any way, in any and all media, without limitation, and without consideration to the entrant, whether or not such Entry is selected as a winning Entry.
The writers who've contacted me worry that this is a rights grab enabling S&S to do anything it wants with their 50 pages, including steal their ideas and give them to others. I frankly think that's highly unlikely. As one of the USA's biggest trade publishers, S&S is drowning in submissions; I really doubt they need to pilfer ideas (which, in any case, aren't protected by copyright law).

A more realistic concern is that this language could empower S&S to produce an anthology of the best entries, without compensation to the entrants--though again, I don't know how likely that is. Overall, my feeling is that the intent is principally to enable S&S to display contest entries online, and also possibly to archive them once the contest is done. Entrants should think about whether they want their entries archived; but I don't think they need to fear theft.

What if you become a finalist, though, and are asked to submit your entire manuscript? Per pages 3 and 4 of the guidelines, you are subject to the exact same grant of rights, expressed in identical language. The only difference is the use of the term "Entry," rather than "Initial Entry," referring to the full manuscript:
Submission of an Entry grants Sponsor and its agents the unconditional, irrevocable, perpetual, worldwide right to excerpt in part or whole, use, adapt, edit and/or modify such Entry in any way, in any and all media, without limitation, and without consideration to the entrant, whether or not such Entry is selected as a winning Entry.
Now, as I said, I don't for a second think that S&S is in the business of theft-by-contest. But we're talking now about full manuscripts, which--unlike excerpts--aren't routinely posted online before they're actually published.

I don't see why, for this part of the contest, such sweeping language was necessary--or why it couldn't at least have been qualified by limiting the grant of rights to the contest itself (for instance, by adding "for the purposes of this contest" after "entrant")--even though I would still, in that case, wonder about archiving. In fact, we don't know what plans S&S may (or may not) have for those ten full manuscripts, or what they feel they need this language to empower them to do. All in all, I personally would be very hesitant to submit my entire manuscript to a contest where submission meant granting the contest sponsor such a vague and open-ended claim on my work.

I'd be interested in hearing from readers with legal expertise. What do you think? Please weigh in.

EDITED 7/16/14 TO ADD: In response to questions from several writers, Simon451 has confirmed that it does not intend to hold rights past the conclusion of the contest. Here's their exact response, shared with me by one of the writers who contacted them (Simon451's bolding):
Please note further that S&S has no intention of using any non-winning Submissions except for purposes of the contest.

The goal of the contest is to identify potential new talent and grant the Grand Prize winner a book contract to help [the] Grand Prize winner realize his/her talent. The intent is not to take or use non-winning Entries beyond the scope of the contest.
One wonders why the actual language of the guidelines couldn't have included this.